Virginia Woolf Day

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.”

Her Legacy

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)


National Jane Austen Day

Jane Austen is, without a doubt, one of the most prolific writers of the early 19th century. Whether you read her work or not, you know who she is, and for a woman who was unable to publish her work with her name during her lifetime, that’s quite a feat.

Jane writes about strong female leads and broody, difficult men. Can we say we don’t like the broody characters? Don’t we all write about them in our own work? Or can you say you don’t fall in love with them in the books you read?

Her story is quite remarkable. Upon learning about it, when I was in my early twenties, I felt a connection to her as a creative mind. She was a woman beyond the era she was born to. A woman who was intelligent, never wanted to stop learning and for some of her works, I believe she was well beyond her time. I won’t go into my theories about some of her themes because we’ll be here all day but I wanted to celebrate her national day with a little bit about her.

What made me fall in love with her?

I’m not sure. I don’t remember when I first picked up a Jane Austen novel. I happened to ask my mother, but she couldn’t remember either, but she did tell me I was reading a lot around 14-16 so it must have been a library borrow or even an assignment in school perhaps. The first book I remember reading was Emma, followed closely by Pride and Prejudice. Two of my favourites.

Her characters are strong, her prose undeniably eloquent, and her storytelling legendary. I could get lost in her world, time and time again.

What is my fave of her works?

Pride and Prejudice is my favourite novel, and I don’t really have a reason why, but it is one I can find myself falling back in love with, every time. Is it due to Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet’s love, who knows? But I do know this story is one I suggest to young girls who want to read one of her works.  

Who is my favourite character?

I find this a difficult question to answer. However, I put up the question in my reader group to ask anyone who loved Austen’s work to see who they said. To my surprise, the ones who did answer had the same ones as I did.

My favourite male lead was always Mr. Darcy but in the last few years he’s been tied with Mr. Kingsley from Emma. Both strong men in each their own way, but I think if it came down to it, Mr Darcy would win. He struggled with his feelings, trying to remain appropriate and yet despite Elizabeth Bennet’s misfortune, he chose her above many other prospects he could have attained. I know, you’re looking at me and thinking “well love conquers all” but in that time, love rarely came into it. I believe this is because of Jane’s firm belief that you shouldn’t marry without affection (as she had written to her niece).

My favourite female lead would be Emma, she’s headstrong (as most of the females are, possibly due to Jane’s affliction of being herself at any cost) and knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to try and find happiness for her friends, even if she does miss the obvious flirtation toward her.

Which adaptation is my favourite?

I’m going to be controversial here. My favourite adaptation for Emma was the most recent one, with Anya Taylor-Joy. I feel the themes really felt genuine to the story here. I loved the character development by the actors and was able to watch it several times.

Pride and Prejudice is a tie between the ABC limited series with Jennifer Eales and Colin Firth and the movie with Keira Knightley. They are different, yes, but they stick to the story, and both are easy to watch. I feel like the movie was a little more modern and easier to digest, but if you are new to the genre.

Without even realizing it, I watched an adaptation of Emma in Clueless when I was a teenager in high school.

So, with that said, let me introduce you to Jane.

Who was Jane Austen?

Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in Hampshire, England to George and Cassandra. George was a rector of the parishes Steventon and Deane, and he came from an old and wealthy family of wool merchants however, George’s family fell into poverty through wealth being divided by eldest sons.

Jane had multiple siblings, James, born 1765, George, born 1766, Edward, born 1767, Henry, born 1771, Cassandra, born 1773 and Francis, born 1774.

The home was considered to have an atmosphere as “open, amused, easy intellectual” where ideas of those with whom the Austen’s might disagree politically or socially were considered and discussed. Jane was known to attend church regularly, socialize with friends and neighbors and read novels – often her own – aloud to family in the evenings. Socializing meant dancing, either impromptu in someone’s home after supper or at the balls held regularly in assembly rooms. Her brother Henry had said that “Jane was fond of dancing and excelled in it”. Perhaps, this is why balls are such a common theme in her novels.

Jane was educated, in 1783, she and her sister were sent to Oxford to be schooled by a Mrs Ann Cawley who took them to Southampton when she moved there a year later. In the autumn, both girls were sent home when they caught typhus and Austen almost died. The schoolwork possibly included French, spelling, needlework, dancing and music. She returned to school afterward to continue her studies.

Her father was tolerant of Jane’s sometimes risqué experiments in writing and provided both sisters with expensive paper and material for writing and drawing. Jane had written three short plays during her teenage years. She was just eleven when she began to write poems and stories to amuse herself and her family. Between the ages of 12 and 18, she had compiled twenty-nine works into three bound notebooks, which is now referred to as Juvenilia.

When Jane was twenty, Tom Lefroy, a neighbor, visiting Steventon two months. He’d just finished a university degree and was training to be a barrister. It is said the two met while at a dance and spent significant time together. In a letter to her sister, she states she expected an offer from her “friend” and that she would “refuse him unless he promises to give away his white coat”. The next letter, Jane wrote, “The day will come on which I flirt my last with Tom Lefroy and when you receive this it will be all over. My tears flow as I write at this melancholy idea”. This shows just how much she loved him but they both knew their marriage wouldn’t be a good idea. Neither had anything to give to each other, and they would live a life of poverty.

It was in 1796 that she penned a novel called First Impressions which would later be called, Pride and Prejudice. She was just 21. This was an established favorite of her family’s. It was at this time, her father had tried to publish her novels, however, it had been declined. It’s not known if Jane knew of her father’s efforts. After First Impressions, Jane returned to writing a novel she had abandoned years earlier called Elinor and Marianne, now known as Sense and Sensibility, which took roughly seven months to complete.

In 1800, Jane’s father retired from the ministry and moved the family to 4 Sydney Place, Bath in Somerset. It is claimed Jane was unhappy in Bath which wasn’t conducive to her creative spirit and was unable to write but there have been some who claim it was her social life in Bath which prevented her from writing. It was in December 1802 that Jane received her only known proposal of marriage. When she and her sister visited Alethea and Catherine Bigg, old friends who lived near Basingstoke, she happened to meet their younger brother Harris who was home from studying from Oxford. He proposed to Jane, and she accepted. It was a marriage of convenience rather than love as he was heir to a vast estate, and she knew she could provide for her family. Harris was said to be a plain man who stuttered slightly and aggressively spoke without tact. It didn’t last long, the next morning Jane knew she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. She would never marry.

Jane’s father died suddenly in 1805, leaving her mother, sister and herself in a precarious situation. The brothers pitched in to assist with renting a room for them, but it was not until 1809 when they moved to Chawton in a large cottage which was part of the estate of the brother Edward’s, that they were in better lodgings and happier than they had been.

When Jane did publish her works, they were published anonymously like many women authors at the time. Sense and Sensibility appeared in October 1811 and was described as being written “by a lady”. Austen made £140 (equiv. to £10,800 in 2021) from Sense and Sensibility, which provided her with some financial and psychological independence. After the success of her book, all her other works were billed as written “by the author of Sense and Sensibility”. Her name never appeared on her books during her lifetime. This hit home hard for me when I learned this tidbit. The feeling of seeing my own book, my own paperback in my hands and my name on the cover felt amazing. There was no other feeling to describe it.

Even back then, piracy was rife. Without her knowledge of approval, her novels were translated into French and published cheaply, and pirated editions landed in France.

Austen was feeling unwell by early 1816 but ignored the warning signs. By the middle of the year, her decline was unmistakable, and she began a slow, irregular deterioration. Zachary Cope’s 1964 retrospective diagnosis of what she suffered with was Addison’s disease, however, it’s also stated she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She did continue to write, focusing on The Brothers (later Sanditon) completing twelve chapters before stopping, possibly due to illness. She wrote of herself that she was turning “every wrong color” and living “chiefly on the sofa”. She put down her pen on 18 March 1817, making a note of it.

She was known to make light of her condition, describing it as “bile” and rheumatism. She experienced difficulty walking and lacked energy. By mid-April she was confined to bed. In May, her brother and sister took her to Winchester for help but by that point she was in agony and had asked for “death to take her”.

Austen died in Winchester on 18 July 1817 at the young age of 41.

List of her Works

NovelsUnfinished works
Sense and Sensibility (1811) Pride and Prejudice (1813) Mansfield Park (1814) Emma (1815) Northanger Abbey (1818) Persuasion (1818) Lady Susan (1871)The Watsons (1804) Sanditon (1817)  
Other works Volumes
Sir Charles Grandison (1793, 1800) Plan of a Novel (1815) Poems (1796-1817) Prayers (1796-1817) Letters (1796-1817)  Juvenilia – First Volume (1787-1793) Frederic & Elfrida, Jack & Alice, Edgar & Emma, Henry and Eliza, The Adventures of Mr. Harley, Sir William Mountague, Memoirs of Mr. Clifford, The Beautifull Cassandra, Amelia Webster, The Visit, The Mystery, The Three Sisters, A Fragment, A beautiful description, The generous Curate, Ode to Pity Juvenilia – Second Volume (1787-1793) Love and Friendship, Lesley Castle, The History of England, A Collection of Letters, The female philosopher, The first Act of a Comedy, A Letter from a Young Lady, A Tour through Wales, A Tale Juvenilia – Third Volume (1787-1793) Evelyn, Catharine or The Bower