I must confess, I did not read anything by Virginia Woolf when I was young. I’d not even heard her name until I was in my teen years and even then I hadn’t read anything. I had, however, watched movies based on her books. I found myself startled and yet impressed by the movie ‘The Hours’. I loved that it told the story through different generations and showed you the difference of how women were represented through time.
Today, is her day. She was born on 25th January and although her ending was immensely sad, I hope I have done her justice by noting down her most important works and milestones in her life to give you a little insight into a woman who was ahead of her time and who battled what a lot of authors do – crippling self-doubt.
Virginia was born 25 January 1882 in London, England with the name Adeline Virginia Stephen. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was an eminent literary figure and the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother, Julia Jackson, was a great beauty and had a reputation of saintly self-sacrifice.
Julia and Leslie married in 1878 and had four children, Vanessa (born 1879), Thoby (born 1880), Virginia, and Adrian (born 1883). It is said Virginia was jealous that Adrian appeared to be her mother’s favourite.
The family made summer vacations annually from their town house in London, near Kensington Gardens, to Talland House on the rugged Cornwall coast. This structured Virginia’s childhood world in terms of opposites: city and country, winter and summer, repression and freedom and so on.
When her mother died in 1895 at a young age, Virginia was just 13, and her already booming creativity took a dive. She delved into a depression that took over her. In 1904, her father died, and it was then that Virginia had a nervous breakdown.
While she was recovering, it was her sister that moved the Stephen children to the bohemian Bloomsbury section of London. It was here that the children could live independently, free to pursue studies, to paint or write and to entertain. Virginia would first meet her husband in November 1904, Leonard Woolf. He dined with the Stephen’s just before sailing to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to become a colonial administrator.
It was in 1906, after a family trip to Greece, that Virginia’s brother Thoby died of typhoid fever at just 26 years old. Virginia was said to have grieved but did not fall into depression. She turned to the written word to grieve and to also recover from the “loss” of her sister to her new husband, Clive Bell.
It was while viewing art in the summer of 1908, Virginia was committed to creating “some kind of whole made of shivering fragments” to capturing “the flight of mind”. She was determined to ‘reform’ the novel by creating a holistic form embracing aspects of life that were different from the Victorian novel. She experimented with a novel which she called Melymbrosia.
In 1911, Leonard Woolf returned from the East after resigning from the colonial service. He and Virginia married in August 1912. She continued to work on her novel while he wrote an anti-colonialist novel called The Village in the Jungle and The Wise Virgins, which was a Bloosmbury exposé. Leonard became a political writer and an advocate for peace and justice.
Between 1910 and 1915, Virginia’s mental health was precarious.
Virginia based many of her novel’s characters on real-life people ranging from her father, her siblings and sometimes even herself.
Woolf’s manic-depressive worries (that she was a failure as a writer and a woman, that she was despised by her sister and unloved by Leonard) provoked a suicide attempt in September 1913. Late in 1915, she overcame the “vile imaginations” that had threatened her sanity. She kept the demons of mania and depression mostly at bay for the rest of her life.
In 1917, the Woolfs bought a printing press and founded the Hogarth Press. They published their own Two Stories in 1917. It consisted of works from both Leonard and Virginia.
In 1919 they bought a cottage in Rodmell village called Monk’s House, which looked out over the Sussex Downs and the meadows where the River Ouse wound down to the English Channel. Virginia could walk or bicycle to visit her sister in Charleston and then retreat to Monk’s House to write. She envisioned a new book that would apply the theories of ‘Modern Novels’ and the achievements of her short stories to the novel form.
In her novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), she achieved such emotion, transforming personal grief over the death of Thoby Stephen into a “spiritual shape”.
At the beginning of 1924, the Woolfs moved their city residence from the suburbs back to Bloomsbury, where they were less isolated from London society. It was here that the aristocratic Vita Sackville-West began to court Virginia, a relationship that would blossom into a lesbian affair. Having already written a story about a Mrs Dalloway, Woolf thought of a foiling device that would pair that highly sensitive woman with a shell-shocked war victim, a Mr Smith, so that “the sane and the insane” would exist “side by side”.
In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf blamed women’s absence from history not on their lack of brains and talent but on their poverty. For her 1931 talk “Professions for Women” , Woolf studied the history of women’s education and employment and argued that unequal opportunities for women negatively affect all of society. She urged women to destroy the “angel in the house”, a reference to Coventry Patmore’s poem of that title, the quintessential Victorian paean to women who sacrifice themselves to men.
Woolf began a novel called The Pargiter’s but she feared she would never finish. Putting it away, she wrote a mock biographic of Flush, the dog of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She went back to her novel and renamed it The Years. She narrated 50 years of family history through the decline of class and patriarchal systems, the rise of feminism and the threat of another war. She was desperate to finish the book, so she lightened the book with poetic echoes of gestures, objects and colours cutting epiphanies for Eleanor Pargiter and explicit references to women’s bodies. The novel illustrates the damage done to women and society over the years by sexual repression, ignorance and discrimination. Published in 1937, The Years became a best seller.
The Beginning of the End
Woolf’s only saving grace against Adolf Hitler, World War II and her own despair was her writing. During the bombing in 1940 and 1941, she worked on her memoir. In her novel Between the Acts, war threatens art and humanity itself. Facing such horrors as the threat of invasion, Virginia found she was unable to write. The demons of self-doubt that she had kept at bay for so long returned to haunt her. On March 28, 1941, fearing that she now lacked the resilience to battle them, she walked behind Monk’s House and down to the River Ouse, put stones in her pockets, and drowned herself.
It would take three weeks for her body to be discovered in the river. In her suicide note to her husband, she tried to offer him comfort.
“I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.”
Woolf’s haunting language, her prescient insights into wide-ranging historical, political, feminist, and artistic issues, and her revisionist experiments with novelistic form during a remarkably productive career altered the course of Modernist and postmodernist letters.
Her Popular Books
The Voyage Out (1915)
The Mark on the Wall (1917)
Night and Day (1919)
Jacob’s Room (1922)
Mrs Dalloway (1925)
Orlando: A Biography (1928)
To the Lighthouse (1927)
A Room of One’s Own (1929)
The Lady in the Looking Glass (1929)
The Waves (1931)
The Years (1937)
Between the Acts (1941)