Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882, Kensington, Middlesex, England – March 28, 1941, Lewes, Sussex, England) was a British writer and literary critic. A leading figure in modernist literature of the first half of the twentieth century.
In the interwar period Wolfe was a significant figure in London literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury group. In 1915 she published her first novel, By the Sea Away, through her half-brother”s publisher, Duckworth Books. Among her best known works are her novels, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Into the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928).
She is also known as an essayist, her most notable work in this field being her essay “Her Own Room” (1929), which contains the famous aphorism: “Every woman, if she is going to write, must have means and her own room. Her novels are considered classic works of “stream of consciousness.
Virginia Woolf became one of the central figures of feminism in the 1970s, her works attracted much attention and received wide coverage in feminist circles. Wolfe”s works are widely known throughout the world and have been translated into more than fifty languages. A large volume of literature is devoted to her life and work, she has also become the subject of plays, novels and films. Virginia Woolf suffered from severe episodes of mental illness throughout her life and committed suicide by drowning herself in a river on March 28, 1941, at the age of 59.
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Virginia Wolfe (Adeline Virginia Stephen) was born January 25, 1882, at 22 Hyde Park Gate, the daughter of Julia Stephen (née Jackson) (1846-1895) and Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), a writer, historian, essayist, biographer, and mountaineer. The mother, Julia Jackson, was born in 1846 in Calcutta, Bengal, British India, to John Jackson and Maria Theodosia Pattle. John Jackson was the third son of George Jackson and Mary Howard. While John Jackson was of little importance to his kin, the girls of the Pattle family were famous beauties and revolved in the highest circles of Bengali society. The writer”s great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron was a famous photographer, while her sister Virginia married the Earl of Somerset and their daughter, Julia Jackson”s cousin, was Lady Henry Somerset. Julia moved to England with her mother at the age of two and spent much of her early life with her mother”s other sister, Sarah Monckton Pattle. Sarah and her husband Henry Toby Prinsep ran an art and literary salon at Little Holland House, where she met a number of Pre-Raphaelite artists, such as Edward Burne-Jones, for whom she worked as a model.
Julia was the youngest of three sisters. She named her daughter, the future writer, Adeline Virginia, after her older sister Adeline Maria Jackson (1837-1881) and her aunt Virginia Pattle. Because of the tragic death of Adelina”s aunt, the family never called Virginia the first of the names. The Jacksons were a well-educated, literary and artistic middle-class family. In 1867 Julia Jackson married attorney Herbert Duckworth, but three years later she was left a widow with three young children in her arms. She was devastated, long observed mourning, lost faith in religion, but became interested in philanthropy and nursing. Julia and Herbert”s children were:
Leslie Stephen was born in 1832 in South Kensington, the son of Sir James Stephen and Lady Jane Catherine Stephen (née Venn), daughter of John Venn, rector of Clapham. The Venn family was the center of Clapham”s evangelical sect. Sir James Stephen was undersecretary in the Ministry of the Colonies and, with another member of Clapham, William Wilberforce, was responsible for the abolition of slavery in 1833. In 1849 he was appointed professor of modern history at Cambridge University. As a family of educators, lawyers, and writers, the Stevens represented an elite, intellectual aristocracy. As a graduate and member of Cambridge University, Leslie gave up his former faith and position to move to London, where he succeeded in becoming a noted writer. He also had a passion for hiking and mountaineering. Here is his description: “A lean, red-bearded … stout man, with an impossibly high forehead, steely blue eyes and a long, sharp nose.” The same year Julia Jackson first married, Leslie married Harriet Marian (Minnie) Thackeray (1840-1875), the youngest daughter of William Meikpis Thackeray, who bore him a daughter, Laura (1870-1945). Laura turned out to be mentally retarded and was eventually institutionalized. Like Julia, Leslie was early widowed: Minnie died in childbirth in 1875.
Julia Duckworth was friends with Minnie Ann”s older sister Isabella Thackeray-Ritchie, through whom the future spouses met. Julia became interested in Mr. Stephen”s agnostic writings. She was there the night Minnie died, taking care of the widowed Leslie Stephen and helping him move into the house next door to her on Hyde Park Gate so little Laura could play with her children. Both were immersed in mourning, and although a close friendship and intense correspondence developed between them, they agreed that their relationship would not go beyond friendship. Nevertheless, in 1877 Leslie Stephen proposed to Julia, which she at first declined. But a little later that year, Ann married, and Julia gave her consent to Leslie. They were married on March 26, 1878. She was 32 years old at the time, he was 46. The newlyweds moved into the house next door, where they spent the rest of their lives.
Their first child, Vanessa, was born on May 30, 1879. Now Julia had to take care of five children, and she decided to limit herself to that. However, despite “precautions” (contraception was very imperfect in the nineteenth century), their relationship led to the birth of three more children over the next four years.
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Early years: 1882-1904
Virginia Woolf”s early life can be seen in her autobiographical essays, including Reminiscences (1908) and A Sketch of the Past (1940). References to Virginia”s childhood can also be found in her fiction. In the novel Toward the Lighthouse (1927), the life story of the Ramsey family is only a thinly disguised account of the Stevens in Cornwall. Godrevy Lighthouse is where she and her family went as children. Between 1907 and 1940, however, Wolfe became increasingly aware of her mother and the family as a whole; at this time the rather conventional, though revered, figure of the mother becomes increasingly detailed and three-dimensional.
In February 1891 Wolfe, along with her sister Vanessa, began publishing Hyde Park Gate News magazine (modeled after the popular Tit-Bits magazine. Initially Vanessa and Toby were the main contributors, but very soon Virginia became the lead author, Vanessa the editor. Their mother”s reaction to the release of the first issue was, “I guess that”s pretty clever.” The following year, the Stephen sisters began illustrating their thoughts with photographs, as Stella Duckworth had done. One of the family”s favorite photographs was Vanessa Bell”s portrait of her sister and other family members in the library of the Talland home; Leslie Stephen lovingly describes this portrait in her memoir . In 1897 Virginia began keeping her first diary and continued to do so for the next twelve years.
Virginia was, in her own words, “born into a large family, not wealthy but prosperous parents, of a very sociable, educated, letter-writing, visiting, and articulate late nineteenth-century world. There were six children in this close-knit family, besides Virginia: two half-brothers and a half-sister (the Duckworths, from the mother”s first marriage), a half-sister, Laura (another brother, Adrian, soon appeared. Laura Stephen lived with her family until she was institutionalized in 1891 . Julia and Leslie had four children in common:
Virginia Wolfe was born January 25, 1882, at 22 Hyde Park Gate and lived there until her father”s death in 1904. Their house was on the southeast side of the street, in a narrow cul-de-sac south of Kensington Road and west of Albert Hall. Nearby were Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, where the family took regular walks. This house was built in 1846 by Henry Payne, one of a series of upper middle-class single-family townhouses. It soon became too small for the growing family. It consisted of a basement, two stories, and an attic at the time of the parents” wedding. In July 1886, Leslie Stephen commissioned architect John Penfold to expand the living space with an addition and superstructure. After a major renovation to the house, the attic became a living space, and there was another floor with three bedrooms and a study, as well as a bathroom. It was a tall but narrow house with no plumbing at the time. Virginia would later confess that she feared the tower might tip over in a gust of wind.
The servants worked in the basement. On the first floor was the living room, separated by a curtain from the maid”s kitchen, and the library. On the second floor were the bedrooms of Julia and Leslie. On the next floor were the Duckworths” children”s rooms. The rest of the Stephens children occupied two more floors. In the attic, under the scaffolding, were the servants” bedrooms, which were accessed by a back staircase. As Virginia wrote: “The separation in our lives was curious. At the bottom reigned pure concord, at the top pure intellect. But there was no connection between the two.” They were two worlds, George Duckworth and Leslie Stephen, and mother served as the only bridge between them. The house was poorly lit and cluttered with furniture and paintings. The young Stevens were a tight-knit group within the family, which did not keep them safe from mutual resentment. Virginia was jealous of her mother”s favorite, Adrian, and she and Vanessa had an occasional creative rivalry. Life in London was different from their summer vacations in Cornwall, their outdoor activities consisting mainly of walks in the nearby Kensington Gardens, where they played hide-and-seek and boated on the Round Pond.
Leslie Stephen”s prominence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his association with William Thackeray, meant that his children grew up in an environment filled with the influence of Victorian literary society. Henry James, George Henry Lewis, Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Edward Burne-Jones, and Virginia”s godfather, James Russell Lowell, were frequent visitors to their home. Julia Stephen was also well connected. Her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, who was among those who pioneered photography, was also a guest at the Stephens home. Vanessa was nearly three years older than Virginia. Virginia dubbed her sister a “saint” and was much more inclined to show off her intelligence than her more reserved sister. She was much more resentful than Vanessa of the Victorian housekeeping traditions imposed on them. In addition, the sisters competed for Toby”s affections. Later, in 1917, Virginia confessed to Duncan Grant her ambivalence about this rivalry: “Doubtless one of the worms eating at me from within was sisterly jealousy – I mean, jealousy of my sister; and to feed it, I have invented so many myths about her that I can hardly tell the truth from the fiction.
Virginia showed an early aptitude for writing. Although both parents disapproved of formal female education, literary work was considered a worthy occupation for a woman, and her father supported her in this regard. Virginia later wrote, “From a young age I scribbled stories in the manner of Hawthorne, sitting on the green plush couch in St. Ives”s parlor while the adults ate dinner. By the time she was five, she was writing letters and could tell her father stories every night. Afterward, she and Vanessa and Adrian had a tradition of sitting in the nursery in the evenings, making up stories with sequels about her immediate neighbors and, at St. Ives, about the spirits who lived in the garden. Her love of books was the basis of their trusting relationship with her father. For her tenth birthday, Virginia received an inkwell, a blotter, a sketchbook, and a box of writing implements.
Leslie Stephen was in the habit of hiking in Cornwall. In the spring of 1881, he stumbled upon a large white house in St. Ives and rented it. Despite its limited amenities, the house had an important advantage: a view of Portminster Bay toward Godrevy Lighthouse, which the young Virginia could see from the upstairs windows and which featured prominently in the plot of her novel To the Lighthouse (1927). It was a large square house with a terraced garden divided by a hedge and running down to the sea. Each year between 1882 and 1894, the Stephen family rented the Talland House from mid-July to mid-September as a summer residence. Leslie Stephen, who called the place “pocket paradise,” described it this way, “The fondest of my memories…our summer vacations that took place in Cornwall, especially the thirteen summer vacations (1882-1894) at St. Ives. There we rented Talland House, a small but spacious house, with a garden of one or two acres up and down the hill, with pretty little terraces divided by an escallonia hedge, a vineyard, a vegetable garden, and what is called a ”levada” behind it.” It was a place of “incredible family happiness,” according to Leslie.
Both in London and in Cornwall Julia amused herself constantly and gained notoriety among her guests by manipulating their lives, constantly procuring, because she was convinced that everyone should be married (her philanthropy at home was manifest). As her husband remarked, “My Julia-though of course with all due restraint-was a matchmaker. Among their guests in 1893 was the Brooke family, whose children, including Rupert Brooke, played with the Stephens children. Rupert and his group of Cambridge Neo-Pagans would play an important role in their lives on the eve of World War I. Cornwall was to be their summer retreat, but Julia Stephen soon immersed herself in the work of caring for the sick and poor here as well as in London. Both at Hyde Park Gate House and at Talland House, the family revolved in local literary and artistic circles. Such literary figures as Henry James and George Meredith and James Russell Lowell were their frequent guests, so the Stephens children heard much more intellectual conversation here than at their mother”s Dutch House. After Julia Stephen passed away in May 1895, the family no longer traveled to Cornwall.
For children, these summer trips were the most important events of the year, and Virginia”s most vivid childhood memories are not of London, but of Cornwall. In a diary entry dated March 22, 1921, recalling a summer day in August 1890, she explained why she felt such a connection with Talland House: “Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? It”s about the past, I suppose; I see children running through the garden… I hear the sound of the sea at night… Almost forty years of my life, and everything is built on it, all permeated by it. There”s a lot I”ll never be able to explain.” Cornwall influenced her writing, particularly the St. Ives Trilogy, which included the novels Jacob”s Room (1922) and The Waves (1931).
Julia Stephen fell ill with the flu in February 1895 and never fully recovered; she died on May 5, when Virginia was only 13 years old. It was a turning point in her life and the beginning of her struggle with mental illness. Essentially, her life split in two. At the time of her mother”s death, the Duckworths went abroad and Stella returned immediately to take over the children”s upbringing. That summer, instead of going to St. Ives, the Stevens went to Freshwater Village, where several members of Julia”s family lived. It was there that Virginia had the first of her many nervous breakdowns and Vanessa was forced to take over Virginia”s care. The following year Stella became engaged to Jack Hills and they were married on April 10, 1897, which made Virginia even more dependent on her older sister.
George Duckworth also took over part of the children”s care, his task being to bring them out into society. First Vanessa, and then Virginia, suffered setbacks in going out, society attracting Virginia”s scathing criticism of the usual expectations of young upper-class women: “Society in those days was a totally incompetent, self-righteous, ruthless machine. A girl had no chance of standing up to its fangs. No other desires-say, to paint or write-could be taken seriously.” Her priority was to get away from the Victorian conventions of the first-floor living room, into her room, to pursue her writing aspirations. She reiterated this criticism in her novel To the Lighthouse (1927), describing Mrs. Ramsey: “An unmarried woman missing out on the best things in life.
The death of Stella Duckworth on July 19, 1897, after a long illness, was another blow to Virginia”s well-being. Wolfe described the period following the deaths of her mother and Stella as “1897-1904, seven unhappy years,” referring to “the lash of fate that senselessly and cruelly killed two people who should have made those years happy, normal, and natural.” In April 1902, their father fell ill; although he underwent surgery later that year, he never fully recovered and died on February 22, 1904. The death of Virginia”s father provoked another nervous breakdown. Virginia would later describe this incident as one in which she was struck consecutively as a “broken doll,” with her wings still crumpled. The doll occurs many times in Wolfe”s work, but the “broken doll” was an image that has become a metaphor for those who explore the relationship between Wolfe and unhappiness. At the time of her death, Leslie Stephen”s capital was £15,715.
After high school all the boys in the family attended Cambridge University. The girls benefited somewhat indirectly from this because the boys introduced them to their friends. Another source of knowledge was the conversations of their father”s friends. Leslie Stephen described his social circle as follows: “Most of them liked literature, smart young writers and lawyers, mostly of the radical persuasion. We met on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, smoking and drinking, discussing the universe and the reform movement.”
Later, between the ages of 15 and 19, she was able to pursue higher education. She took courses in Ancient Greek, Latin and German as well as Continental and English history at the women”s department of King”s College London, near nearby Kensington Square, between 1897 and 1901. She studied Greek under the eminent scholar George Charles Winter Warr, professor of classical literature. She also took private classes in German, Greek, and Latin. One of her mentors was Clara Pater. Another was Janet Keyes, who got her involved in the women”s rights movement and whose obituary Virginia later wrote in 1937. The learning experience led to her 1925 essay about her ignorance of the Greek language. Her time in college allowed her to make contact with some of the early reformers of women”s higher education, such as Lillian Faithfull. Her sister Vanessa also went to that college. Although the Stephens girls could not attend Cambridge, they were profoundly influenced by their brothers” experiences there. When Toby arrived at Trinity in 1899, he befriended a circle of young men, including Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Wolfe, and Saxon Sidney-Turner, whom he soon introduced to his sisters at the Trinity May Ball in 1900. These men formed a reading group they called the Midnight Society.
Although Virginia expressed that her father was her beloved parent, and although she was only thirteen when her mother died, she was deeply influenced by her mother throughout her life. Virginia stated that “we think through our mothers if we are women,” an image of her mother repeatedly described in her diaries and in a number of autobiographical essays, including: “Reminiscences” (1908) and “A Sketch of the Past” (1940), artist Lily Briscoe attempts to paint Mrs. Ramsey, a complex character based on the image of Julia Stephen.
Virginia Woolf also drew a clear distinction between her mother”s work and “the mischievous philanthropy that other women practice so complacently and often with disastrous results. She described her degree of empathy, engagement, judgment and determination, as well as her sense of irony and absurdity. Julia Stephen dealt with her husband”s depression and his need for attention, which angered her children, she built his confidence, cared for her parents during their final illness, and had many responsibilities outside the home that eventually wore her down. Her frequent absences and her husband”s demands instilled in her children a sense of insecurity that had a lasting effect on her daughters. In reviewing the demands from her mother, Wolfe described her father as “fifteen years older than her, complicated, demanding, dependent on her.” She felt that her attention should have been focused on the children, saying that she rarely got to spend time alone with her mother because “someone was always in their way.” Wolfe was ambivalent about all this, but still sought to separate herself from this model of absolute unselfishness. At the same time, she admired the strength of her mother”s feminine ideals. Given Julia”s frequent absences, the Stephens children became increasingly dependent on Stella Duckworth, who imitated her mother”s unselfishness, as Wolfe wrote: “Stella was always a wonderful hostess… it was the main thing in her life.
Julia Stephen admired her husband”s mind; she knew perfectly well what was on his mind, but thought little of her own. As Wolfe observed, “She never belittled her own works, considering them, if properly executed, equal, though different, in importance to those of her husband. She believed in her role as the “center of the family” and the person who held everyone together, with a firm sense that the most important and valuable quality was loyalty. Of Wolfe”s two parents, Julia was “nervous, energetic, and dominant in the family.” While Virginia identified most closely with her father, Vanessa claimed that her mother was her favorite parent recalled Virginia asking Vanessa “which parent she liked better,” a question Vanessa found to be one “that no one should ask,” but she unequivocally answered, “Mother.” However, Virginia expressed her mother”s role as, “Of course she was there, in the heart of this great gathering, the space that was childhood, she was there from the beginning.” Virginia noticed that her half-sister, Stella, lived with complete submission to her mother, embodying her ideals of love and service to family. Virginia quickly realized that, like her father, illness was the only reliable way to get her mother”s attention, who took pride in her nursing.
Other problems the children had to deal with were Leslie Stephen”s character, Wolfe describing him as a “tyrant father. Eventually she became deeply ambivalent about her attitude toward her father. He gave her his ring on her eighteenth birthday and she was deeply, emotionally attached to him as a literary figure, writing of her “great devotion to him.” And yet, like Vanessa, she saw him as a rapist and a tyrant. All her life she had ambivalent feelings toward him. As a teenager he had been to her “a distinguished Victorian and a tyrant,” but as she grew older, she began to realize how much she had been attached to him: “I was digging through old letters, remembering my father … so outspoken, intelligent and transparent, educated, possessed of an unpretentious and subtle mind.” She was fascinated by her father, but also judged Leslie Stephen: “She (her mother) left me, but when that old rascal my father did the same … I think I was more like him than her and so I am more critical, but he was a delightful and terrific man.”
Virginia Woolf has repeatedly stated that she was continually sexually abused during the time she lived in Hyde Park Gate, abuse may have been a possible cause of her mental health problems, although there are probably a number of other factors. She claimed that Gerald Duckworth first molested her when she was six years old. It has been suggested that this led to her lifelong sexual fear and resistance from men. Contemporaries speculate that the Stephens” daughters were sexually abused by their older Duckworth half-brothers and their cousin James Kenneth Stephens (1859-1892), at least Stella Duckworth. Laura is also believed to have been abused. The most vivid account of this is by Louise Desalvo, but other contemporaries and biographers are more cautious on the subject. Hermione Lee argues that “the evidence is strong enough and yet ambiguous enough to open the way for conflicting psychobiographical interpretations that create very different forms of Virginia Woolf”s inner life.
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After her father”s death, the Stephens” first impulse was to flee the gloomy home of even greater mourning, and they immediately did so, accompanied by George, who went to Manorbier, on the coast of Pembrokeshire, on February 27. There they spent a month, and it was there that Virginia first realized that her destiny was to become a writer, as she recalls in her journal of September 3, 1922. They then continued their search for their newfound freedom, spending April in Italy and France, where they met again with Clive Bell. Virginia then suffered her second nervous breakdown and her first suicide attempt on May 10. She recovered over the next three months.
Before his father”s death, the Stevens discussed the need to leave South Kensington in the West End with its tragic memories and his parents” family ties. George Duckworth was 35 years old, his brother Gerald 33. The other Stephens children were between 20 and 24 years old. Virginia was 22 years old. Vanessa and Adrian decided to sell the house in Hyde Park Gate in respectable South Kensington and move to Bloomsbury. Bohemian Bloomsbury, with its distinctive, verdant squares, seemed far enough away, geographically and socially, and was a much cheaper neighborhood to rent. They didn”t inherit much and weren”t sure of their finances. Also, Bloomsbury was close to Slade High School, where Vanessa was a student at the time. While Gerald was quite happy to move on and find a bachelor pad, George, who always took on the role of parent, decided to accompany them and it led to their great disappointment. It was then that Lady Margaret Herbert came into their lives, whom George proposed to and married in September, leaving the Stephens to their own devices.
Vanessa found a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury and they moved there in November to be joined by Virginia, already sufficiently recovered. It was at Gordon Square that the Stevens began to receive Toby”s intellectual friends on a regular basis in March 1905. Their social circle, which came largely from Cambridge, included writers Saxon Sidney-Turner, Lytton Strachey, and critics Clive Bell and Desmond McCarthy, with whom they met on Thursdays, later called the Thursday Club. These men became the nucleus of an intellectual circle of writers and artists known as the Bloomsbury Group. Later it included John Maynard Keynes (1907), Duncan Grant (1908), Edward Morgan Forster (1910), Roger Frye (1910), Leonard Wolfe (1911), and David Garnett (1914).
In 1905 Virginia and Adrian visited Portugal and Spain. Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa, but she turned him down, while Virginia began teaching evening classes at Morley College and Vanessa added another event to her calendar with the Thursday Club to discuss and later exhibit their paintings. This event introduced several new people to their club, including Vanessa”s friends such as Henry Lamb and Gwen Darwin and eighteen-year-old Catherine Laird Cox. Although Virginia did not actually meet Catherine, much later she played an important role in her life. Catherine and other new members brought the Bloomsbury group into contact with another, slightly younger, group of Cambridge intellectuals, to which the Stephen sisters gave the name “Neo-Pagan.” “The Thursday Club lasted until 1913.
The following year, 1906, Virginia suffered two more losses. Her beloved brother Toby, who was only 26 years old, died of typhoid fever after a trip to Greece, which they had taken as a family, and immediately after Vanessa accepted Clive”s third proposal. Vanessa and Clive married in February 1907, their shared interest in avant-garde art would have an important influence on Wolfe”s later development as a writer. With Vanessa”s marriage, Virginia and Adrian needed to find a new home.
Virginia moved into 29 Fitzroy Square in April 1907, a house on the west side of the street formerly occupied by George Bernard Shaw. The two sisters continued to travel together, visiting Paris in March. Adrian was now to play a much larger role in Virginia”s life and they resumed Thursdays Club in October at their new home, while Gordon Square became the site of the Reading Society play in December. During this period the group began to explore progressive ideas more and more, first in speech and then in behavior, Vanessa proclaimed in 1910 a libertarian society with sexual freedom for all.
Meanwhile, Virginia began work on her first novel, Melimbrosia, which was eventually titled By the Sea Away (1915). Vanessa”s first child, Julian, was born in February 1908, and in September Virginia traveled with Clive to Italy and France. It was at this time that Virginia and Vanessa”s rivalry resurfaced, a flirtation with Clive to which he reciprocated and which continued from 1908 to 1914, when her sister”s marriage was already collapsing. On February 17, 1909, Lytton Strachey proposed to Virginia and she accepted, but then he withdrew his proposal.
It was while she was in Fitzroy Square that the question arose that Virginia needed a quiet country retreat, she needed six weeks of rest and healing, so she sought to get as far away from London as possible. In December, she and Adrian stopped in Lewes and began exploring the Sussex area around the city. She began dreaming of a house of her own, like St. Ives, but closer to London. She soon found property in nearby Firle, maintaining a relationship with the area for the rest of her life.
Several members of the Bloomsbury group gained notoriety in 1910 for the Dreadnought hoax, in which Virginia participated by disguising herself as a man of Abyssinian, royal blood. Her full 1940 account of the hoax was discovered and published in a memoir collected in an expanded edition of The Platform of Time (2008).
In October 1911, the lease on Fitzroy Square was ending and Virginia and Adrian decided to give up their Fitzroy Square house for another residential structure, moving to a four-story house at 38 Brunswick Square, in Bloomsbury itself, in November. Virginia saw it as a new opportunity: “We”re going to try all kinds of experiments,” she told Ottoline Morrell. Adrian occupied the second floor, and Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant shared the first floor for two. This arrangement for a single woman was considered scandalous and George Duckworth came to be horrified. The house was located next to Foundling Hospital, much to Virginia”s amusement as a single woman without a companion. Catherine Cox was originally supposed to be involved in the arrangements, but opposition came from Rupert Brooke, who was related to her and forced her to abandon the idea. At Duncan”s house, Grant decorated Adrian Stephen”s rooms.
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Marriage to Leonard Wolfe: 1912-1941
Leonard Wolfe was one of Toby Stephen”s friends; he met the Stephen sisters at Toby”s house, during their visits to the May Ball in 1900 and 1901. He recalled them in “white dresses and big hats, with umbrellas in their hands, their beauty literally breathtaking.” To him they were “silent, menacing and alarming.
Wolfe did not formally meet Virginia until November 17, 1904, when he dined at Stephen”s in Gordon Square to say good-bye before leaving for government service in Ceylon, although she knew of him from Toby”s stories. During this visit he noticed that she was completely silent at meals and looked ill. In 1909, Lytton Strachey proposed to Wolfe that he propose marriage to her. He did so, but received no answer. In June 1911 he returned to London on a year”s leave, but he did not go back to Ceylon. In England, Leonard resumed his contact with family and friends. Three weeks after his arrival, he dined with Vanessa and Clive Bell in Gordon Square on July 3, where they were later joined by Virginia and other members of what would later be called the Bloomsbury Group. Leonard dates the group”s formation that night. In September, Virginia asked Leonard to visit her at Little Talland House in Firle, Sussex, for the weekend. After that weekend, they began to see each other more often.
On December 4, 1911, Leonard moved into the Menage in Brunswick Square, occupying a bedroom and living room on the fourth floor, and began seeing Virginia constantly, and by the end of the month decided he was in love with her. On January 11, 1912, he proposed to her; she asked for time to consider, so he asked for an extension of his leave and, having been refused, resigned May 20. He continued to pursue Virginia; in a letter dated May 1, 1912, she explained why she did not approve of the marriage. On May 29, however, Virginia told Leonard that she wanted to marry him; they were married on August 10 at the St. Pancras registry office. It was at this time that Leonard first learned of Virginia”s unstable mental condition. The Wolfs continued to live in Brunswick Square until October 1912, they moved to a small apartment, 13 Clifford Inn, further east (later demolished). Despite his low material status (Wolfe referred to Leonard at the time of their engagement as a “beggar Jew”), the couple had a close bond. In 1937, Wolfe recorded in her diary, “Making love after 25 years of separation is unbearable … we see that it is a great pleasure to be wanted, to be a wife. And our marriage is so fulfilling.” In 1913, however, Virginia attempted suicide.
In October 1914, Leonard and Virginia Woolf moved from Bloomsbury and central London to Richmond, living at 17 The Green, which Leonard discussed in his autobiography Beginning Again (1964). In early March 1915, the couple moved again to nearby Hogarth House, Paradise Road, after which they named their publishing house. Virginia”s first novel, By the Sea Away, was published in 1915, followed by another suicide attempt. Despite the introduction of the draft in 1916, Leonard was medically cleared.
Between 1924 and 1940, the Wolffs returned to Bloomsbury, leasing 52 Tavistock Square for ten years, from where they operated the Hogarth Press from the basement, where Virginia also had a writing room. In May 1925, the novel Mrs. Dalloway was published. Her next novel, On the Lighthouse, was published in 1927, and the following year she gave a lecture on women and fiction at Cambridge University and published a novel, Orlando, in October. Her two Cambridge lectures then became the basis for her essay “A Room of One”s Own.” Virginia also wrote a play, Freshwater, based on the life of her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron and set in her sister”s Fitzroy Street studio. 1936 was marked by another collapse in her health after the completion of her novel The Years.
The Wolfes” last residence in London was 37 Mecklenburg Square (1939-1940), destroyed during the Blitz in September 1940, a month later their previous home in Tavistock Square was also destroyed. After that they made Sussex their permanent home.
Virginia took up bookbinding as a pastime in October 1901, at the age of 19, the Wolves had been discussing setting up a publishing house for some time, and in late 1916 they began making plans. After consulting with the Excelsior Printing Company, they began purchasing supplies and dealing with delivery on Farringdon Road in March 1917, later they had a printing press set up on the dining room table in the Hogarth House, soon the Hogarth Press was up and running.
Their first publication was Two Stories in July 1917, which included stories, The Mark on the Wall (by Virginia Woolf) and Three Jews (by Leonard Woolf). The book consisted of 32 pages, bound and hand-stitched, and illustrated with woodcuts designed by Dora Carrington. The illustrations were successful, leading Virginia to remark that the publisher was “particularly good at printing pictures.” The process took two and a half months with a print run of 150 copies. Other short stories followed, including Kew Gardens (1919). Bell later added additional illustrations adorning each page of text.
Hogarth Press went on to publish Virginia novels along with works by Thomas Stearns Eliot, Lawrence Van der Post, and others. The publisher also commissioned works by contemporary artists, including Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell. Wolfe believed that to free herself from patriarchal society, women writers needed “their own room” to develop and often fantasized about an “outsider society” in which they would create a virtual personal space for themselves through their work to develop a feminist critique of society. Although Wolfe never created an “outsider society,” Hogarth Press was as close to one as possible, as the Wolfes decided to publish books by writers who embraced unconventional viewpoints in order to build a community of readers. Initially the publishing house concentrated on small, experimental titles of little interest to large commercial publishers. Until 1930, Wolfe often helped her husband print books for the publisher, since they had no money for employees. Virginia gave up her interests in 1938, after a third suicide attempt. After the building was bombed in September 1940, the publishing house was moved to Letchuert for the remainder of the war. Both spouses were internationalists and pacifists, and believed that promoting understanding between peoples was the best way to avoid another world war. They quite deliberately chose to publish works by foreign authors that the British reading public did not know about. The first non-British author they published was the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky.
The year 1920 marked the postwar reconstitution of a Bloomsbury group called the “Memoir Club,” which, as the name implies, focused on self-writing memoirs in the manner of Marcel Proust and inspired some of the most influential books of the twentieth century. The group, which had been dispersed by the war, was reconvened by Mary McCarthy, who operated under rules derived from the Cambridge Apostles, an elite university discussion club of which many were members. These rules emphasized candor and openness. Among the 125 memoirs submitted, Virginia contributed three, which were published posthumously in 1976, in the autobiographical anthology Moments of Being. They were entitled 22 Hyde Park Gate (1921), Old Bloomsbury (1922), and Am I a Snob? (1936).
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Relationship with Vita Sackville-West
The ethos of the Bloomsbury group encouraged a liberal approach to sexuality. On December 14, 1922, Wolfe met writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson, while dining with Clive Bell. Writing in her diary the next day, she mentioned meeting “a beautifully gifted aristocrat, Vita Sackville-West.” At the time, Sackville-West was a more commercially and critically successful writer, and only after Wolfe”s death did she come to be considered a better writer. Soon after they met, they engaged in a sexual relationship, which according to Sackville-West in a letter to her husband dated August 17, 1926, was only consummated twice. This relationship peaked between 1925 and 1928 and eventually evolved into a friendship in the 1930s, although Wolfe also tended to brag about her affairs with other women in her inner circle, such as Sybilla Colefax. This period of intimacy proved fruitful for both authors, with Wolfe writing three novels, To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931), as well as a number of essays, including Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (1924) and A Letter to a Young Poet (1932).
Sackville-West worked tirelessly to boost Wolfe”s self-esteem, encouraging her not to view herself as a reclusive, disease-prone woman who must hide from the world, but rather to praise Virginia for her liveliness, wit, health, intellect, and achievements as a writer. Sackville-West made Wolfe reevaluate herself, developing a more positive self-image and a sense that her work was a product of her strengths, not her weaknesses. Beginning at the age of fifteen, Wolfe believed her father”s and doctor”s recommendations that reading and writing were bad for her nervous state, a regimen of physical work, such as gardening, was required of her to prevent complete nervous collapse. This led to Wolfe spending a great deal of time obsessively engaged in such physical labor.
Sackville-West was the first to argue to Wolfe that she had been misdiagnosed and that it was much better to engage in reading and writing to calm her nerves; her advice was accepted. Under Sackville-West”s influence, Wolfe learned to cope with her nervous ailments by switching between various forms of intellectual activity, such as reading, writing, and book reviews, rather than wasting her time on physical exercise, which was draining her strength and worsening her nerves. Sackville-West chose the financially unstable Hogarth Press to publish her work to help the Wolfes financially. “Seducers in Ecuador,” Sackville-West”s first novel published by that publisher, was not a success, selling only 1,500 copies the first year, but her next novel they published, “The Edwardians,” became a bestseller, selling 30,000 copies in the first six months. Sackville-West”s novels, though not typical of Hogarth Press, saved the Wolfes from financial trouble. However, the Wolfes did not always appreciate the fact that it was the Sackville-West books that kept their publishing house profitable. The financial prosperity provided by the good sales of the Sackville-West novels, in turn, allowed Wolfe to pursue more experimental work, such as the novel Waves.
In 1928 Wolfe introduced the image of Vita Sackville-West in her novel Orlando, a fantastic biography in which the life of the eponymous hero spans three centuries and both sexes. It was published in October, shortly after the two women spent a week together in France, in September of that year, Vita Sackville-West”s son, wrote: “Vita”s influence on Virginia is fully contained in ”Orlando,” the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her into different ages, flips her from one sex to another, plays with her, dresses her in furs and lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, wraps her in a shroud of mist.” After their affair ended, the two women remained friends until Wolfe”s death in 1941. Virginia Woolf also remained on close terms with her surviving relatives, Adrian and Vanessa.
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Virginia needed a country retreat to rest, and on December 24, 1910, she found a house to rent in Firle, Sussex, near Lewes. She got the lease and took possession of the house the next month, calling it Little Talland House, in memory of her childhood home in Cornwall, though it was actually a new villa with a red pointed roof on the main street opposite the town hall. The lease was short-lived, and in October she and Leonard Wolfe found Asham House in Asham, a few miles to the west. The house, which stood at the end of a tree-lined road, was a strangely beautiful, Gothic Regency-era house in a secluded setting. She described it as “flat, pale, serene, yellow and white, without electricity or water and supposedly haunted.” She rented the apartment for five years with Vanessa in the new year, and they moved in in February 1912 with a housewarming party.
It was in Ascham that the Wolfs spent their first wedding night later that year. In Ascham she recorded the events of the weekends and holidays they spent there in her diary, part of which was later published in 1953. In terms of creative writing, the novel By the Sea Away was completed there, and much of the novel Day and Night. Ascham provided Wolfe with a much-needed relief from the pace of London life and became the place where she found happiness, which she described in her diary of May 5, 1919: “Oh, but how happy we were in Ascham! It was a most melodious time. Everything went so freely – but I cannot analyze all the sources of my joy.” Eschem was also the inspiration for the story “A Haunted House” (1921-1944). It was during this time in Asham that Catherine Cox began to devote herself to Virginia and became very useful to her.
In 1916, Leonard and Virginia found a farmhouse for rent in Asham, about four miles from their home, which they thought would be perfect for her sister. Eventually Vanessa decided to look it over and moved there in October of that year, using it as a summer home for her family. The farm in Charleston was to be the summer gathering place for the Bloomsbury group.
After the war ended, in 1918, the Wolfs received a year”s notice from a landlord who needed a house. In mid-1919, they bought a small house for £300, a roundhouse in Pipe Passage, Lewes, converted into a windmill. But they did not settle in it as the Monk House in nearby Rodmell went up for auction. The Woolfs favored it because of its garden and vegetable garden, and sold the roundhouse to buy the Monk House for £700. The Monk House also had no water or electricity, but it had a garden and a view of the South Downs hills. From 1940 it became their permanent home after their London home was bombed and Virginia continued to live there until her death. Meanwhile, Vanessa also made Charleston her permanent home in 1936. At the Monk House, she completed her last novel, Between Acts, in early 1941, with a subsequent breakdown directly leading to her suicide on March 28, 1941. The novel was published posthumously later that year.
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During her time in Firle, Virginia became better acquainted with Rupert Brooke and his Neo-Pagan group, who espoused socialism, vegetarianism, outdoor activities, and alternative lifestyles, including social nudity. The women wore sandals, socks, open-collar shirts and headscarves like Virginia”s. Although she had some doubts, Wolfe was involved with them for a time, fascinated by their bucolic appearance, their innocence contrasted with Bloomsbury”s skeptical intellectualism. She enjoyed spending most of her weekends with Brook in Grantchester, including swimming in the pool there. They also shared a psychiatrist named Maurice Craig. Through “Neo-Pagan,” she met Catherine Cox, who was part of the Thursday Club, on a weekend in Oxford in January 1911. That one became her friend, and was instrumental in her struggles with her illnesses. Virginia gave her the nickname “Bruin.” At the same time she found herself embroiled in a three-way relationship involving Cox, Jacques Ravera. She became resentful of Jacques and Gwen, who married later, in 1911, which was not the outcome of their relationship that Virginia had predicted or desired. They would later be mentioned in the novels On the Lighthouse and The Years. The exception she felt triggered memories of Stella Duckworth”s marriage and her three-way relationship with Vanessa and Clive.
The two groups eventually broke up. Brook pressured Cox not to join the Virginia Menage in Brunswick Square in late 1911, calling it a “brothel,” and by late 1912 he had vehemently turned his back on Bloomsbury. She later wrote about Brook, whose untimely death led to his idealization and regretted the “neo-paganism at that stage of her life.” Virginia was deeply disappointed when Cox married William Arnold-Forster in 1918 and became increasingly critical of her.
Much research has been done on Wolfe”s mental health. From the age of 13, after her mother”s death, Wolfe suffered periodic mood swings from severe depression to manic agitation, including psychotic episodes, which Virginia”s family called “her insanity” believes that she “was not insane, she was simply a woman who suffered from and struggled with illness for most of her relatively short life, a woman of exceptional courage, intelligence and stoicism. Psychiatrists consider her illness to be bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive psychosis). Her mother”s death in 1895, “the greatest disaster that could ever have occurred,” precipitated a crisis of alternating agitation and depression, accompanied by irrational fears for which their family physician, Dr. Seton, prescribed rest, discontinuation of lessons and regular supervised walks, eventually causing her to stop writing. However, just two years later, Stella”s death, triggered the next crisis in 1897, at which time she first expressed her wish to die at age 15, writing in her diary in October of that year that “death would be short and less painful.” She then stopped keeping her diary for a time.
Her father”s death in 1904 triggered her most disturbing collapse on May 10, when she threw herself from a window and was briefly admitted to a hospital, under the care of her father”s friend, the eminent psychiatrist George Savage. Savage blamed her education, which many at the time considered inappropriate for women. She recovered for some time at the home of Stella”s friend Violet Dickinson and at her aunt Caroline”s home in Cambridge, and by January 1905 Dr. Savage considered her recovered. Violet, who was seventeen years older than Virginia, became one of her closest friends and one of her most effective nurses. Virginia described their relationship as a “romantic friendship.” The death of her brother Toby in 1906 marked the “decade of deaths” that ended her childhood and adolescence. Since then her life has been interrupted by insistent voices from the grave, which at times seemed more real than her visual reality.
On Dr. Savage”s recommendation, Virginia spent three short periods in 1910, 1912, and 1913 at the Burleigh House at 15 Cambridge Park, Tuikenham, described as a “private nursing home for women with nervous disorders,” run by Miss Jean Thomas. By late February 1910, she became more restless and Dr. Savage suggested that she leave London. Vanessa rented the Moot House near Canterbury in June, but there was no improvement, so Dr. Savage sent her to Burleigh House for “treatment and rest.” This included partial isolation, deprivation of literature, and force-feeding, and six weeks later, in the fall, she was able to recover in Cornwall and Dorset. She hated the experience, writing to her sister on July 28 that she found the fake religious atmosphere stifling and the institution ugly and informed Vanessa that to escape “she would soon have to jump out of a window.” The threat of being sent back later would lead her to thoughts of suicide. Despite her protests, Savage sent her back in 1912 because of insomnia and in 1913 because of depression. On leaving Burleigh House in September 1913, she sought further help from two other physicians, Maurice Wright and Henry Head, who was Henry James” doctor. Both recommended that she return to Burleigh House. Upset, she returned home and attempted suicide by taking a large dose of barbitol, found half-dead by Catherine Cox, who called for help. After her recovery, she went to Daylingridge Hall, George Duckworth”s home in East Grinstead, Sussex, to rest on September 30, accompanied by Catherine Cox and a nurse; she later returned to Asham on November 18, along with Janet Case and Catherine Cox. She remained unstable for the next two years, with another incident of barbiturate, which she claimed was an “accident,” and consulted another psychiatrist in April 1914, Maurice Craig, who explained that she was not sick enough to be admitted to the hospital. The rest of the summer of 1914 went better for her and they moved to Richmond, but in February 1915, just as the novel By the Sea Away was to be published, she fell ill again and remained in poor health for most of that year, then, despite Miss Thomas” grim prognosis, she began to recover after 20 years of illness. Nevertheless, there was a sense among those around her that she was now changed forever, and not for the better.
For the rest of her life she suffered from recurrent bouts of depression. In 1940 a number of factors came crashing down on her. Her biography of Roger Fry was published in July, and she was disappointed by critical reviews. The horrors of war oppressed her, their London homes destroyed during the Blitz in September and October. She finished the novel Between Acts in November, the completion of the novel accompanied by exhaustion. Her health became increasingly a matter of concern, culminating in her decision to end her life on March 28, 1941.
Although this instability often had an impact on her social life, she was able to continue her literary activities with few interruptions throughout her life. Wolfe herself gave not only a vivid picture of her symptoms in her diaries and letters, but also her reactions to the demons that haunted her and at times made her wish she were dead. Psychiatry had little to offer her in her life, but she admitted that writing was one of the activities that allowed her to cope with her illness: “The only way I find to work…. once I stop working, I feel like I”m falling down. And as usual, I feel that if I sink further, I will reach the truth.” Diving under water was Wolfe”s metaphor for both the effects of depression and psychosis, but also for her search for truth, and eventually became her method of suicide. Throughout her life Wolfe tried unsuccessfully to find meaning in her illness, on the one hand it was an obstacle, on the other what she imagined to be a central part of her being and a necessary condition for her creativity. When she was able to cope with her illness, she was informed by her work, such as the character of Septimus Warren Smith in his novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925), who, like Wolfe, was possessed by dead people and eventually committed suicide to avoid going to a mental institution.
Leonard Wolfe recounted that during the 30 years they were married, they consulted many doctors in the Harley Street area, and although Virginia had been diagnosed with neurasthenia, he felt they had little understanding of the cause or nature of her illness. The solution was simple, as long as she lived a quiet life without any physical or mental effort, she was fine. On the other hand, any mental, emotional, or physical strain caused her symptoms to reappear. They began with headaches, followed by insomnia and suicidal thoughts. Her remedy was simple, she went to bed in a dark room, ate and drank a lot of milk, after which the symptoms gradually disappeared.
Contemporary scholars, including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell, suggest that her breakdowns and subsequent recurrent periods of depression were also triggered by the sexual abuse she and her sister Vanessa suffered at the hands of their brothers George and Gerald Duckworth. Biographers note that when Stella died in 1897, there was no counterbalance to control George”s behavior. Virginia described him as her first lover: “The old ladies of Kensington and Belgravia never knew that George Duckworth was not only father and mother, brother and sister to these poor Stephen girls, he was also their lover.
It is likely that other factors also played a role. It has been suggested that they include a genetic predisposition. Virginia”s father, Leslie Stephen, suffered from depression, and her half-sister Laura was mentally retarded. Many of Virginia”s symptoms, including constant headaches, insomnia, irritability, and anxiety, resemble those of her father. Another factor is the pressure she put on herself in her work, for example, her breakdown in 1913 was at least in part due to the need to finish her novel, By the Sea Away. Virginia hinted that her illness was related to the way she saw the downtrodden position of women in society.
Thomas Caramagno, in discussing her illness, speaks out against the “neurotic-genius” view of mental illness, which rationalizes the theory that creativity is somehow born of mental illness. Stephen Trombley describes Wolfe as having a confrontational relationship with her doctors and perhaps as a woman who was “a victim of male medicine,” referring to the contemporary relative lack of understanding of her mental illness.
After completing the manuscript of her last novel (published posthumously), Between Acts (1941), Wolfe fell into a depression similar to the one she had previously experienced. The outbreak of World War II, the destruction of her London home during the Blitz, and the cold reception given to her biography by her late friend Roger Fry all worsened her condition; eventually she could no longer work. When Leonard enlisted in the militia, Virginia disapproved. She clung tightly to her pacifism and criticized her husband for wearing what she considered “a silly form of the Home Guard.”
After the outbreak of World War II, Wolfe”s diary indicates that she was obsessed with death, which increasingly figured in her life, her mood gradually darkening. On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf, wearing an overcoat and stuffing her pockets with stones, drowned herself in the Uz River. Her body was not found until April 18. Her husband buried her cremated remains under the elm tree in the garden of the Monk House, their home in Rodmell.
In her suicide note to her husband, she wrote:
Virginia Woolf is one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century. As a modernist, she was one of the first authors to use “stream of consciousness” as a narrative element, along with such contemporaries as Marcel Proust, Dorothy Richardson, and James Joyce. Wolfe”s recognition was widest in the 1930s, but declined considerably after World War II. The rise of feminist criticism in the 1970s helped restore her popularity .
Virginia submitted her first article, which was rejected, in an 1890 contest in Tit-Bits magazine. She went from adolescence to professional journalism in 1904, at age 22. Violet Dickinson introduced her to Kathleen Littleton, editor of the women”s magazine The Guardian. Invited to submit a 1,500-word article, Virginia sent Littelton a review of William Dean Howells”s The Son of King Langbourn and an essay about her visit to Hort, in November 1904. The review was published on December 4, and the essay on December 21. In 1905 Wolfe began writing articles for The Times Literary Supplement.
Wolfe continued to publish novels and essays that were highly regarded by critics and readers alike. Most of her work was self-published by Hogarth Press. Virginia Woolf”s artistic style is so unconventional that it obscures her creative uniqueness, for she is a major lyrical writer who has composed in English. Her novels are highly experimental; the narrative is often monotonous and banal, and it refracts and sometimes almost dissolves into the susceptible minds of the characters. Intense lyricism and stylistic virtuosity merge to create a world teeming with auditory and visual impressions. The intensity of Virginia Woolf”s poetic vision elevates the ordinary, sometimes banal setting, often wartime, in most of her novels.
Her first novel, By the Sea Away, was published in 1915, when she was 33, through her half-brother”s publisher, Duckworth Books. This novel was originally titled Melimbrosia, but Wolfe changed the title several times. Louise Desalvo claims that many of the changes Wolfe made to the text were due to changes in her own life. The novel is set on a ship bound for South America. The novel hints at themes that will appear in her later works, including the gap between preceding thought and following spoken word, and the lack of coherence between expression and underlying intention, as well as the way they reveal aspects of the nature of love to us.
The novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) focuses on the efforts of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged woman, to organize a party, and parallels her life with that of Septimus Warren Smith, a working-class veteran who returned from World War I carrying deep psychological scars. The plot of the novel Into the Lighthouse (1927) centers on the anticipation and reflection of the Ramsey family”s visit to the lighthouse and the family friction associated with it. One of the main themes of the novel is the struggle in the creative process that besets artist Lily Briscoe as she struggles to paint in the midst of family drama. The novel is a reflection on the lives of residents in the midst of war and the people left behind. It explores the passage of time and how society forces women to allow men to take their emotional energy from them.
“Orlando” (1928) is one of Virginia Woolf”s lightest novels. A parodic biography of a young nobleman who lives for three centuries without aging, but who suddenly turns into a woman. The book is partly a portrait of Wolfe”s mistress, Vita Sackville-West. It is meant to comfort Vita after the loss of her ancestral home, Knowle House, though it is also satirical of Vita and her work. “Orlando” mocks the methods of historical biographers, the character of the pompous biographer is taken to be mocked.
The novel “Waves” (1931), is a story about a group of six friends whose reflections, which are closer to recitatives than to internal monologues proper, create a wave-like atmosphere that feels more like a prose poem than a novel-oriented plot. The novel, “Flush” (1933), is part fiction, part biography of a cocker spaniel belonging to the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The book is written from the dog”s point of view. Wolfe was inspired to write this book by the success of Rudolph Bezier”s play.”
Her last novel, Between Acts (1941), summarizes and magnifies Wolfe”s main goals, the transformation of life through art, sexual ambivalence and meditation on the themes of the flow of time and life, presented simultaneously as corrosion and rejuvenation, all set in a highly imaginative and symbolic narrative covering almost all of English history. This book is the most lyrical of all her works, not only in feeling but also in style, written mostly in verse.
Wolfe”s fiction has been studied, her understanding of many themes including war, concupiscence, witchcraft, and the role of social class in contemporary British society. In her postwar book Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Wolfe addressed the moral dilemma of war and its consequences, and gave an authentic voice to soldiers returning from World War I suffering from concussion in Septimus Smith. Throughout her life, Wolfe struggled to appreciate the extent to which her privileged past framed the lens through which she viewed society. She viewed her own position as someone who would be considered an elitist snob but attacked Britain”s class structure. In her 1936 essay, “Am I a Snob?” she examined her values and those of the privileged circle in which she lived.
Despite considerable conceptual difficulties, given Wolfe”s peculiar use of language, her works have been translated into more than 50 languages. Some writers, such as the Belgian Marguerite Yourcenar, have had rather intense encounters with her, while others, such as the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, have produced versions that have been highly controversial.
Virginia Woolf researched the life of her great-aunt, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, publishing her findings in an essay entitled Pattledom (1925). She soon began work on a play based on an episode from Cameron”s life in 1923. It was staged on January 18, 1935, at the studio of her sister, Vanessa Bell, in Fitzroy Square. Wolfe directed the production herself; the cast was mostly members of the Bloomsbury group. “Freshwater” is a short three-act comedy mocking the Victorian era that was staged only once during Wolfe”s lifetime. Beneath the comedic elements is an exploration of both generational change and artistic freedom. Both Cameron and Wolfe struggled against the class and gender dynamics of Victorianism.
During her relatively short life Virginia Woolf wrote a number of autobiographical works and more than five hundred essays and reviews, some of which, like Her Room (1929), were book-length. Not all of them were published during her lifetime. Shortly after her death, Leonard Wolfe produced an edited edition of unpublished essays entitled The Moment and other Essays, published by Hogarth Press in 1947. Many of these were originally lectures she gave, and several more volumes of essays followed, such as The Captain”s death bed: and other essays (1950).
Among Wolfe”s nonfiction works, one of the best known is the essay “A Room of One”s Own” (1929). Considered a key work of feminist literary criticism, it was written following two lectures on “Women and Fiction,” which she gave at Cambridge University, in 1928. In it she addressed the historical problems faced by women in many fields, including social, educational, and financial. One of her most famous quotes is contained in this essay, “Every woman, if she is going to write, must have means and her own room.” Much of her argument, develops through the unresolved problems of women and fiction.
Since 1912, Russian literature has been a major influence on Wolfe, as Wolfe adopted many of its aesthetic conventions. F. M. Dostoevsky”s style, with its depiction of the current mind in action, influenced Wolfe”s essay on the “intermittent process of writing,” although Wolfe objected to Dostoevsky”s obsession with “psychological extremity and the violent flow of emotion” in his characters, with monarchist politics, as Dostoevsky was an ardent supporter of the autocracy of the Russian Empire. Wolfe found much to admire in the works of AP Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy. She admired Chekhov for his stories about ordinary people living their lives, committing banal acts and plots that had no neat endings. From Tolstoy, Wolfe learned lessons about how a novelist should portray the psychological state of a character and the inner tension within him. From Ivan S. Turgenev she learned that there are “multiple selves” when writing a novel, and the novelist must balance these multiple versions of him or herself in order to balance the “worldly facts” of the story against the writer”s excessive vision that demanded a “total passion” for art.
Another influence on Wolfe was the American writer Henry Thoreau. Virginia praised Thoreau for his “simplicity in finding a way to free the subtle and complex mechanism of the soul. Like Thoreau, Wolfe believed that it was silence that freed the mind from the need to really contemplate and understand the world. Both authors believed in a kind of transcendental, mystical approach to life and writing, where even trivial things could evoke deep emotions if one had enough stillness and presence of mind to appreciate them. Wolfe and Thoreau were concerned with the complexity of human relationships in the modern age. Other notable influences on Virginia were William Shakespeare, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Emily Bronte, Daniel Defoe, James Joyce, and Edward Morgan Forster.
In her lifetime, Wolfe spoke out openly on many issues that were considered controversial, some of which are now considered progressive, others regressive. She was an ardent feminist at a time when women”s rights were barely recognized, as well as an anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and pacifist. On the other hand, she was criticized for her views on social classes and race in her private writings and published works. Like many of her contemporaries, some of her writings are now considered offensive. As a result, she is considered a polarizing, revolutionary feminist and socialist hero, and a hate-speaking writer.
Writer”s works such as A Room of One”s Own (1929) are often presented as icons of feminist literature in institutions that have been highly critical of some of her views expressed in her other works. She has also been the subject of considerable homophobic and misogynistic criticism.
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Virginia Woolf was born into a non-religious family and is believed to have been a humanist along with her colleagues, Edward Morgan Forster and George Edward Moore. Both of her parents were prominent agnostics and atheists. Her father, Leslie Stephen, became famous in secular society for his writings expressing, and making public, reasons for doubting the truth of religion. Wolfe”s mother, Julia Stephen, wrote a book, Agnostic Women (1880), which argued that agnosticism could be a highly moral approach to life.
Wolfe was critical of Christianity. In a letter to Ethel Smith she made a scathing condemnation of religion, seeing it as “smug selfishness,” declaring, “My Jew (Leonard) has more religion in one nail and more human love in one hair. In her private letters Wolfe also claimed that she considered herself an atheist.
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Hermione Lee, citing a number of excerpts from Wolfe”s writings, has found many to be offensive to the rebukes to her from Percy Wyndham Lewis and Queenie Leavis. Other historians give a more subtle contextual interpretation, Wolfe”s stresses, the complexity of her character, and the apparent internal contradictions in the analysis of her apparent shortcomings. She certainly could have been cavalier, rude and even cruel in her dealings with other writers, translators and biographers such as Ruth Gruber. Some writers, particularly postcolonial feminists, view her and modernist writers in general as privileged, elitist, classist, racist, and anti-Semitic.
Wolfe”s tendentious remarks, including his prejudice against people with disabilities, have often been the subject of academic criticism:
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Although Wolfe has been accused of anti-Semitism, her attitude toward Judaism and Jews was complex and ambiguous. She was happily married to a Jew and often wrote about Jewish characters using stereotypical archetypes and generalizations. For example, she described some Jewish characters in her work in terms that suggested they were physically repulsive or dirty. On the other hand, she could criticize her own views: “How I didn”t want to marry a Jew–how I hated their nasal voices and their oriental decorations, their noses and beards–what a snob I was, they have a great vitality, and I think that quality is what I like best.” These views were interpreted as reflecting not so much anti-Semitism as tribalism, she had married outside her social group, and Leonard Wolfe also expressed misgivings about marrying a non-Jew. Leonard missed the material situation of the Stevens and their entourage.
On a cruise to Portugal, she protested when she found on board “a great many Portuguese Jews and other disgusting objects from which they stayed away. Furthermore, she wrote in her diary, “I don”t like the Jewish voice, I don”t like the Jewish laughter.” Her 1938 story, “The Duchess and the Jewess” (originally titled “The Duchess and the Jew”), is considered anti-Semitic.
Yet Virginia and her husband Leonard came to despise and fear fascism and anti-Semitism in the 1930s. Her 1938 essay “Three Guineas” was an indictment of fascism and what Wolfe described as the recurring tendency of patriarchal societies to impose repressive social mores by violence.
Although at least one biography of Virginia Woolf appeared during her lifetime, the first authoritative study of her life was published in 1972 by her nephew Quentin Bell. Hermione Lee”s biography of Virginia Woolf, is a thorough and authoritative study of Woolf”s life and work, which she discussed in an interview in 1997. In 2001, Louise Desalvo and Mitchell Leaska edited letters from Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. The book, Virginia Woolf by Julia Briggs: The Inner Life (2005), focuses on Woolf”s writing, including her novels and commentary on the creative process, to illuminate her life. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also uses Wolfe”s literature to understand and analyze gender domination.
A close examination of Virginia Woolf”s literary works inevitably led to speculation about her mother”s influence, including psychoanalytic studies of mother and daughter. Wolfe states that “her first memory, in fact, is the most important of all her memories relating to her mother. Her memories of her mother are those of an obsession, beginning with her first serious breakdown after her mother”s death in 1895, the loss of which had a profound lifelong effect. In many ways her mother”s profound influence on Virginia Woolf is conveyed in the latter”s reminiscences: “There she was, beautiful, expressive… closer than any living person, lighting our casual lives as if by a burning torch, infinitely noble and delightful to her children.”
Wolfe described her mother as “an invisible presence in her life,” Ellen Rosenman argues that the mother-daughter relationship is a constant in Wolfe”s work. She believes that Wolfe”s modernism must be seen in relation to her ambivalence toward her Victorian mother, the center of the former”s female identity, and her journey toward her own sense of autonomy. For Wolfe, “Saint Julia” was both a martyr whose perfectionism was frightening and a source of deprivation because of her lack of real and virtual premature death. Julia”s influence and memory pervades Wolfe”s life and work. “She haunted me,” Virginia wrote.
Virginia Woolf”s recent research has focused on feminist and lesbian themes in her work, such as the 1997 collection of critical essays, Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, edited by Eileen Barrett and Patricia Kramer. In 1928 Virginia Woolf took a grassroots approach to informing and inspiring feminism. She addressed student women in the ODTAA Society at Gerton College, Cambridge and the Art Society at Newnham College with two talks that eventually evolved into the essay “A Room of One”s Own” (1929). Wolfe”s best known scholarly work, A Room of One”s Own (1929), explores the difficulties faced by women writers and intellectuals as men wield disproportionate legal and economic power, and the future of women in education and society as the social consequences of industrialization and birth control have not yet been fully realized. In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir considers that of all the women who have ever lived, only three women writers–Emilie Brontë, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield–have written about the problem.
A number of Virginia Woolf”s works have been adapted for film, her play “Freshwater” (1935) being the basis for Andy Vores” 1994 chamber opera. The final segment of the 2018 anthology, “London Unplugged,” is adapted from her short story “Kew Gardens.” “Septimus and Clarissa,” a stage adaptation of the novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” was created and produced by the Ripe Time Ensemble of New York, in 2011 at the Baruch Center for the Performing Arts. It was adapted by Ellen McLaughlin and Rachel Dickstein. It has been nominated for Drama League, Drama Desk and Joe A. Calloway Award.”
Virginia Woolf is known for her contributions to twentieth-century literature and essays, and for the influence she had on literary, particularly feminist, criticism. A number of authors have stated that their work was influenced by Virginia Woolf, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison. Her iconic image is instantly recognizable from Beresford”s portrait of her in her twenties, to Beck and McGregor”s portrait in her mother”s dress at forty-four. The National Portrait Gallery of London sells more postcards of Wolfe than any other person. Her image can be found on tea towels, T-shirts, etc.
Virginia Woolf is studied around the world by organizations such as the Virginia Woolf Society and the Virginia Woolf Society of Japan. In addition, trusts-such as the Ashama Trust-encourage writers to honor her. Although she had no descendants, some of her extended family are notable.
In 2013, Wolfe was immortalized by her “alma mater” from King”s College London with the opening of the Virginia Woolf House on Kingsway, her image accompanied by the quote, “London itself constantly draws me in, stimulates me, gives me opportunities to write stories and poems,” from her 1926 diary. Busts of Virginia Woolf have been installed at her home in Rodmell, Sussex and in Tavistock Square, London, where she lived between 1924 and 1939.
In 2014, Wolfe was one of the first recipients of the Rainbow Honor Walk, San Francisco, she was recognized among “members of the LGBT community who have made significant contributions to world culture.”
Woolf Works, a women”s co-working center in Singapore that opened in 2014, is named after Woolf”s essay “A Room of One”s Own” (1929).
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