Virginia Woolf

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The Voyage Out

Night and Day

Monday or Tuesday

Jacob's Room

Mrs. Dalloway

To the Lighthouse

"The Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection"

"Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"

"Joseph Conrad" (Virginia Woolf)

"The Russian Point of View"

Hogarth Press

Orlando

The Pargiters

The Years

Woolf's Reading of Joyce's Ulysses, 1918-1920

Woolf's Reading of Joyce's Ulysses, 1922-1941

Photos of Monk's House


Biography

Contents

by Jessica Svendsen and Pericles Lewis


Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an English novelist, essayist, biographer, and feminist. Woolf was a prolific writer, whose modernist style changed with each new novel.[1] Her letters and memoirs reveal glimpses of Woolf at the center of English literary culture during the Bloomsbury era. Woolf represents a historical moment when art was integrated into society, as T.S. Eliot describes in his obituary for Virginia. “Without Virginia Woolf at the center of it, it would have remained formless or marginal…With the death of Virginia Woolf, a whole pattern of culture is broken.”[2]


Virginia Adeline Stephen was the third child of Leslie Stephen, a Victorian man of letters, and Julia Duckworth. The Stephen family lived at Hyde Park Gate in Kensington, a respectable English middle class neighborhood. While her brothers Thoby and Adrian were sent to Cambridge, Virginia was educated by private tutors and copiously read from her father’s vast library of literary classics. She later resented the degradation of women in a patriarchal society, rebuking her own father for automatically sending her brothers to schools and university, while she was never offered a formal education.[3] Woolf’s Victorian upbringing would later influence her decision to participate in the Bloomsbury circle, noted for their original ideas and unorthodox relationships. As biographer Hermione Lee argues “Woolf was a ‘modern’. But she was also a late Victorian. The Victorian family past filled her fiction, shaped her political analyses of society and underlay the behaviour of her social group.”[4]


Mental Illness

In May 1895, Virginia’s mother died from rheumatic fever. Her unexpected and tragic death caused Virginia to have a mental breakdown at age 13. A second severe breakdown followed the death of her father, Leslie Stephen, in 1904. During this time, Virginia first attempted suicide and was institutionalized. According to nephew and biographer Quentin Bell, “All that summer she was mad.”[5] The death of her close brother Thoby Stephen, from typhoid fever in November 1906 had a similar effect on Woolf, to such a degree that he would later be re-imagined as Jacob in her first experimental novel Jacob’s Room and later as Percival in The Waves. These were the first of her many mental collapses that would sporadically occur throughout her life, until her suicide in March 1941.


Though Woolf’s mental illness was periodic and recurrent, as Lee explains, she “was a sane woman who had an illness.”[6] Her “madness” was provoked by life-altering events, notably family deaths, her marriage, or the publication of a novel. According to Lee, Woolf’s symptoms conform to the profile of a manic-depressive illness, or bipolar disorder. Leonard, her dedicated lifelong companion, documented her illness with scrupulousness. He categorized her breakdowns into two distinct stages:

“In the manic stage she was extremely excited; the mind race; she talked volubly and, at the height of the attach, incoherently; she had delusions and heard voices…she was violent with her nurses. In her third attack, which began in 1914, this stage lasted for several months and ended by her falling into a coma for two days. During the depressive stage all her thoughts and emotions were the exact opposite of what they had been in the manic stage. She was in the depths of melancholia and despair; she scarcely spoke; refused to eat; refused to believe that she was ill and insisted that her condition was due to her own guilt; at the height of this stage she tried to commit suicide.”[7]

During her life, Woolf consulted at least twelve doctors, and consequently experienced, from the Victorian era to the shell shock of World War I, the emerging medical trends for treating the insane. Woolf frequently heard the medical jargon used for a “nervous breakdown,” and incorporated the language of medicine, degeneracy, and eugenics into her novel Mrs. Dalloway. With the character Septimus Smith, Woolf combined her doctor’s terminology with her own unstable states of mind. When Woolf prepared to write Mrs. Dalloway, she envisioned the novel as a “study of insanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side.” When she was editing the manuscript, she changed her depiction of Septimus from what read like a record of her own experience as a “mental patient” into a more abstracted character and narrative. However, she kept the “exasperation,” which she noted, should be the “dominant theme” of Septimus’s encounters with doctors.[8]


Bloomsbury

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Virginia began to teach English literature and history at an adult-education college in London, in addition to writing articles and reviews for publications, including The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and The National Review. Woolf continued her journalistic endeavors throughout her life, reviewing contemporary and classical literature in modernist reviews like the Athenaeum, The Dial and The Criterion. It was also during this time that Woolf became close friends with young men who shared and stimulated her intellectual interests. The majority of these friends her brother Thoby met at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1899, including Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and Clive Bell. This group started meeting for ‘Thursday Evenings’ at Gordon Square, London in 1906, which was soon followed by Vanessa Bell’s ‘Friday Club,’ to discuss the arts. With the emergence of these two literary and artistic circles, the unofficial ‘Bloomsbury Group’ came into existence.[9]


In 1924, during the heyday of literary modernism, Virginia Woolf tried to account for what was new about “modern” fiction. She wrote that while all fiction tried to express human character, modern fiction had to describe character in a new way because “on or about December, 1910, human character changed.” Her main example of this change in human character was the “character of one’s cook.” Whereas the “Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths,” modern cooks were forever coming out of the kitchen to borrow the Daily Herald and ask “advice about a hat.”


Woolf’s choice of December, 1910 as a watershed referred above all to the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition, organized by her friend Roger Fry in collaboration with her brother-in-law Clive Bell. The exhibition ran from November 8, 1910 to January 15, 1911 and introduced the English public to developments in the visual arts that had already been taking place in France for a generation. More broadly, however, Woolf was alluding to social and political changes that overtook England soon after the death of Edward VII in May, 1910, symbolized by the changing patterns of deference and class and gender relations implicit in the transformation of the Victorian cook. Henry James considered that the death of Edward’s mother Victoria meant the end of one age; Edward’s reign was short (1901-1910), but to those who lived through it, it seemed to stand at the border between the old world and the new. This sense of the radical difference between the "modern" world and the "Edwardian" one, or more broadly the world before and after the First World War, became a major theme of Woolf's fiction.


In 1911, the year after human character changed, Virginia decided to live in a house in the Bloomsbury neighborhood near the British Museum with several men, none of whom was her husband. Some of her relatives were shocked, and her father’s old friend Henry James found her lifestyle rather too Bohemian. Her housemates were her brother Adrian, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, and Leonard Woolf, whom she married a year later. Grant and Keynes were lovers, and the heterosexual members of the group too were known for their unconventional relationships. Virginia’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, lived for much of her life with Grant, who was also her artistic collaborator, and the two had a daughter. Throughout all this, Vanessa remained married to Clive Bell, who early in marriage had a flirtatious relationship with Virginia, while Duncan had a series of homosexual love affairs. Most of the men in the Bloomsbury group had gone to Cambridge, and many had belonged to an intellectual club called the Apostles, which, under the influence of the philosopher G. E. Moore, emphasized the importance of friendship and aesthetic experience, a more earnest form of Oscar Wilde’s aestheticism.


A typical Bloomsbury figure, Lytton Strachey, wrote his best-known book, Eminent Victorians (1918), in a satirical vein, debunking the myths surrounding such revered figures as Florence Nightingale. Strachey was the most open homosexual of the group, and Woolf vividly recalled his destruction of all the Victorian proprieties when he noted a stain on Vanessa’s dress and remarked, “Semen”: “With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down."


Feminist Critiques

Woolf wrote extensively on the problem of women’s access to the learned professions, such as academia, the church, the law, and medicine, a problem that was exacerbated by women’s exclusion from Oxford and Cambridge. Woolf herself never went to university, and she resented the fact that her brothers and male friends had had an opportunity that was denied to her. Even in the realm of literature, Woolf found, women in literary families like her own were expected to write memoirs of their fathers or to edit their correspondence. Woolf did in fact write a memoir of her father, Leslie Stephen, after his death, but she later wrote that if he had not died when she was relatively young (22), she never would have become a writer.


Woolf also concerned herself with the question of women’s equality with men in marriage, and she brilliantly evoked the inequality of her parents’ marriage in her novel To the Lighthouse (1927). Woolf based the Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay on her parents. Vanessa Bell immediately decoded the novel, discovering that Mrs. Ramsay was based on their mother, Julia Duckworth Stephen. Vanessa felt that it was “almost painful to have her so raised from the dead.”[10] Woolf’s mother was always eager to fulfill the Victorian ideal that Woolf later described, in a figure borrowed from a pious Victorian poem, as that of the “Angel in the House.” Woolf spoke of her partly successful attempts to kill off the “Angel in the House,” and to describe the possibilities for emancipated women independently of her mother’s sense of the proprieties.


The disparity Woolf saw in her parents’ marriage made her determined that “the man she married would be as worthy of her as she of him. They were to be equal partners.”[11] Despite numerous marriage proposals throughout her young adulthood, including offers by Lytton Strachey and Sydney Waterlow, Virginia only hesitated with Leonard Woolf, a cadet in the Ceylon Civil Service. Virginia wavered, partly due to her fear of marriage and the emotional and sexual involvement the partnership requires. She wrote to Leonard: “As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no physical attraction in you. There are moments—when you kissed me the other day was one—when I feel no more than a rock. And yet your caring for me as you do almost overwhelms me. It is so real, and so strange.”[12] Virginia eventually accepted him, and at age 30, she married Leonard Woolf in August 1912. For two or three years, they shared a bed, and for several more a bedroom. However, with Virginia’s unstable mental condition, they followed medical advice and did not have children.


Related to the unequal status of marriage was the sexual double standard that treated lack of chastity in a woman as a serious social offense. Woolf herself was almost certainly the victim of some kind of sexual abuse at the hands of one of her half-brothers, as narrated in her memoir Moments of Being. More broadly, she was highly conscious of the ways that men had access to and knowledge of sex, whereas women of the middle and upper classes were expected to remain ignorant of it. She often puzzled about the possibility of a literature that would treat sexuality and especially the sexual life of women frankly, but her own works discuss sex rather indirectly.


If much of Woolf’s feminist writing concerns the problem of equality of access to goods that have traditionally been monopolized by men, her literary criticism prefigures two other concerns of later feminism: the reclaiming of a female tradition of writing and the deconstruction of gender difference. In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf imagines the fate of Shakespeare’s equally brilliant sister Judith (in fact, his sister’s name was Joan). Unable to gain access to the all-male stage of Elizabethan England, or to obtain any formal education, Judith would have been forced to marry and abandon her literary gifts or, if she had chosen to run away from home, would have been driven to prostitution. Woolf traces the rise of women writers, emphasizing in particular Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot, but alluding too to Sappho, one of the first lyric poets. Faced with the question of whether women’s writing is specifically feminine, she concludes that the great female authors “wrote as women write, not as men write.” She thus raises the possibility of a specifically feminine style, but at the same time she emphasizes (citing the authority of Coleridge) that the greatest writers, among whom she includes Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Marcel Proust, are androgynous, able to see the world equally from a man’s and a woman’s perspective.


The Effect of War

The theme of how to make sense of the changes wrought in English society by the war, specifically from the perspective of a woman who had not seen battle, became central to Woolf's work. In her short story “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” (1922), Woolf has her society hostess, Clarissa Dalloway, observe that since the war, “there are moments when it seems utterly futile…—simply one doesn’t believe, thought Clarissa, any more in God.” Although her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915) had tentatively embraced modernist techniques, her second, Night and Day (1919), returned to many Victorian conventions. The young modernist writer Katherine Mansfield thought that Night and Day contained “a lie in the soul” because it failed to refer to the war or recognize what it had meant for fiction. Mansfield, who had written a number of important early modernist stories, died at the age of 34 in 1923, and Woolf, who had published some of her work at the Hogarth Press, often measured herself against this friend and rival. Mansfield’s criticism of Night and Day as “Jane Austen up-to-date” stung Woolf, who, in three of her major modernist novels of the 1920s, grappled with the problem of how to represent the gap in historical experience presented by the war. The war is a central theme in her three major modernist novels of the 1920s: Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and To the Lighthouse (1927). Over the course of the decade, these novels trace the experience of incorporating the massive and incomprehensible experience of the war into a vision of recent history.


Hogarth Press

In 1915, Leonard and Virginia moved to Hogarth House, Richmond, and two years later, brought a printing press in order to establish a small, independent publishing house. Though the physical machining required by letterpress exhausted the Woolfs, the Hogarth Press flourished throughout their careers. Hogarth chiefly printed Bloomsbury authors who had little chance of being accepted at established publishing companies. The Woolfs were dedicated to publishing the most experimental prose and poetry and the emerging philosophical, political, and scientific ideas of the day. They published T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, Katherine Mansfield, Clive Bell, Vita Sackville-West, and John Middleton Murry, among numerous others. Though they rejected publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses, they printed T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and the first English translations of Sigmund Freud. Hogarth additionally published all of Woolf’s novels, providing her the editorial freedom to do as she wished as a woman writer, free from the criticism of a male editor. J.H. Willis explains that Woolf “could experiment boldly, remaking the form and herself each time she shaped a new fiction, responsible only to herself as writer-editor-publisher…She was, [Woolf] added triumphantly, ‘the only woman in England free to write what I like.’ The press, beyond doubt, had given Virginia a room of her own.”[13]


Female Relations

Woolf’s liberated writing parallels her relationships with women, who gave her warm companionship and literary stimulus. In her girlhood, there was Violet Dickinson; in her thirties, Katherine Mansfield; and in her fifties, there was Ethel Smyth. But none of these women emotionally aroused Virginia as did Vita Sackville-West. They met in 1922, and it developed into the deepest relationship that Virginia would ever have outside her family.[14] Virginia and Vita were more different than alike; but their differences in social class, sexual orientation, and politics, were all were part of the attraction. Vita was an outsider to Bloomsbury and disapproved of their literary gatherings. Though the two had different intellectual backgrounds, Virginia found Vita irresistible with her glamorous and aristocratic demeanor. Virginia felt that Vita was “a real woman. Then there is some voluptuousness about her; the grapes are ripe; & not reflective. No. In brain & insight she is not as highly organised as I am. But then she is aware of this, & so lavishes on me the maternal protection which, for some reason, is what I have always wished from everyone.”[15] Though Vita and Virginia shared intimate relations, they both avoided categorizing their relationship as lesbian. Vita rejected the lesbian political identity and even Woolf’s feminism. Instead, Vita was well-known in her social circles as a “Sapphist.” Virginia, on the other hand, did not define herself as a Sapphist. She avoided all categories, particular those that categorized her in a group defined by sexual behavior.[16]


Woolf’s relationship with Vita ultimately shaped the fictional biography Orlando, a narrative that spans from 1500 to the contemporary day. It follows the protagonist Orlando who is based on “Vita; only with a change about from one sex to another.”[17] For Virginia, Vita’s physical appearance embodied both the masculine and the feminine, and she wrote to Vita that Orlando is “all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind.” Though Virginia and Vita’s love affair only lasted intermittently for about three years, Woolf wrote Orlando as an “elaborate love-letter, rendering Vita androgynous and immortal, transforming her story into a myth.”[18] Indeed, Woolf’s ideal of the androgynous mind is extended in Orlando to an androgynous body.


When it was published in October 1928, Orlando immediately became a bestseller and the novel’s success made Woolf one of the best-known contemporary writers. In the same month, Woolf gave the two lectures at Cambridge, later published as A Room of One’s Own (1929), and actively participated in the legal battles that censored Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness. Despite this concentrated period of reflection on gender and sexual identities, Woolf would wait until 1938 to publish Three Guineas, a text that expands her feminist critique on the patriarchy and militarism.


Suicide

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The Bloomsbury Group gradually dispersed, beginning with the death of Lytton Strachey in 1932 and the suicide of his long-time partner Dora Carrington shortly thereafter. Virginia felt the loss of Lytton acutely in her life and her writing; years later she still thought as she wrote, ‘Oh but he won’t read this!” Roger Fry’s death in 1934 also affected Woolf, to such a degree that she would later write his biography (1940). As her friends died, she felt her own life begin to crumble. In January 1941, Woolf became severely depressed, partly due to the strain of completing her novel Between the Acts. She distrusted her publisher’s praise of the novel; she felt it was “too slight and sketchy.” She instead wanted to delay publication, deciding that it required extensive revision. Yet during this time, Woolf began feeling that she had lost her art; she felt if she could no longer write, she could no longer fully exist. It was “a conviction that her whole purpose in life had gone. What was the point in living if she was never again to understand the shape of the world around or, or be able to describe it?”[19]


Woolf clearly expressed her reasons for committing suicide in her last letter to her husband Leonard: “I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we cant go through another of those terrible times. And I shant recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and cant concentrate.”[20] On March 18, she may have attempted to drown herself. Over a week later on March 28, Virginia wrote the third of her suicide letters, and walked the half-mile to the River Ouse, filled her pockets with stones, and walked into the water.[21]


Virginia's body was found by some children, a short way down-stream, almost a month later on April 18. An inquest was held the next day and the verdict was "Suicide with the balance of her mind disturbed." Her body was cremated on April 21 with only Leonard present, and her ashes were buried under a great elm tree just outside the garden at Monk's House, with the concluding words of The Waves as her epitaph, "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!"[22]


The last words Virginia Woolf wrote were “Will you destroy all my papers.”[23] Written in the margin of her second suicide letter to Leonard, it is unclear what “papers” he was supposed to destroy—the typescript of her latest novel Between the Acts; the first chapter of Anon, a project on the history of English literature; or her prolific diaries and letters. If Woolf wished for all of these papers to be destroyed, Leonard disregarded her instructions. He published her novel, compiled significant diary entries into the volume The Writer’s Diary, and carefully kept all of her manuscripts, diaries, letters, thereby preserving Woolf’s unique voice and personality captured in each line.


  1. Spender, Stephen. “Virginia Woolf’s Obituary Notice.” Listener. 10 April 1941.
  2. Eliot, T.S. “Virginia Woolf’s Obituary.” Horizon. May 1941.
  3. Nicolson, Nigel. Introduction to The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume One: 1888-1912. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975.
  4. Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. New York: Vintage, 1990. 55
  5. Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1990.
  6. Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. New York: Vintage, 1990. 171.
  7. Ibid 174.
  8. Ibid 188.
  9. Nicolson, Nigel. The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume One: 1888-1912. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975. 183.
  10. Ibid 572.
  11. Nicolson, Nigel. Introduction to The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume One: 1888-1912. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975.
  12. Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume One: 1888-1912. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975. 1 May 1912.
  13. Willis, J. H. Leonard and Virginia Woolf As Publishers: The Hogarth Press, 1917-41. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1992. 400.
  14. Nicolson, Nigel. Introduction to The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Three: 1923-1928. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977.
  15. Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume 3: 1925-1930. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1980. 51.
  16. Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. New York: Vintage, 1990. 484.
  17. Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume 3: 1925-1930. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1980. 428.
  18. Nicolson, Nigel. Introduction to The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Three: 1923-1928. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977.
  19. Nicolson, Nigel. Introduction to The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Six: 1936-1941. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1980.
  20. Ibid 486.
  21. Ibid 481.
  22. Ibid 487.
  23. Ibid 487.
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