Virginia Woolf's Biography

WOOLF, (ADELINE) VIRGINIA (STEPHEN) (January 25, 1882-March 28, 1941),
English novelist and critic, was born in London. Virginia Stephen was a member of
an upper middle-class family, with interesting antecedents and connections. Her
father was Sir Leslie Stephen, critic and first editor of the Dictionary of National
Biography; her mother, Julia, widow of Herbert Duckworth and niece of the pioneer
photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, was his second wife. Virginia, known
affectionately to her siblings as "the Goat," was the third of four children, preceded
by Vanessa, later a painter and wife of the art critic Clive Bell, and Thoby, who died
of typhoid fever in 1906, soon after taking his degree at Cambridge. Thoby's
university friends formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury group, which included the
philosopher G. E. Moore, E. M. Forster, and many other notables. The youngest child
was Adrian, who eventually became a physician. At one time or another the Stephen
household also numbered Sir Leslie's daughter by his first wife, and the three
Duckworth children, George, Stella, and Gerald (later the founder of Duckworth and
Company Publishers)--who played key roles in Virginia Stephen's early life.

The two Stephen daughters were educated for the most part by their parents, at
home, and in her adolescence Virginia was given the run of her father's library. Her
hours of reading there were her real education, to some extent a substitute for the
university courses she was denied because of her sex. Virginia Stephen's writing
career may be said to have begun when she was nine years old and started a
weekly paper, The Hyde Park Gate News, chronicling family doings in their
Kensington home and at Talland House in St. Ives, Cornwall, where they spent their
summers from 1882 to 1894. Guests there included, besides family members in
great numbers, her father's friends George Meredith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James
Russell Lowell, and Henry James. In one of her news pieces she reports about a trip
to the nearby lighthouse, since "there was a prefect tide and wind for going there."
As Quentin Bell, in his biography of his aunt, states: "St. Ives provided a treasury of
reminiscent gold from which she drew again and again.. . .Cornwall was the Eden of
her youth, an unforgettable paradise." It was the setting for Jacob's Room, The
Waves, and--above all--To the Lighthouse, though in the latter the summer home of
the Ramsays becomes the Isle of Skye. In Mrs. Ramsay, the woman who holds them
all, family and friends, together, the novelist portrayed her mother. In 1895, when
Virginia was thirteen, Julia Stephen died. It was at this time that she first suffered
symptoms of the recurrent mental illness which was to plague her life.

Woolf suffered from "mixed states " of depression and elation. Sometimes in these
troubled years Virginia was disturbed further by the sexual advances of her
half-brother George Duckworth. (He remained a tolerated but persistently
troublesome presence in her life until she was in her twenties). The extent of his
intrusion into her life has, however, been exaggerated by some critics. In the novel
Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf gives a graphic account of the experience of insanity, through
the ramblings of Septimus Warren Smith, whose descent into madness weaves
through the events of a summer day in London.

After Stella's death, Virginia was well enough later that year to start the serious study
of Greek and Latin, first at King's College, London, and later at home. The death of
her father in 1904, however, set off another breakdown and a suicide attempt. "All
that summer she was mad," is Quentin Bell's laconic comment.

But that year was, in other respects a watershed one; Vanessa, Virginia, and Adrian
Stephen moved into their own home on Gordon Square, in Bloomsbury--the house to
which their brother Thoby, in 1905, brought his Cambridge friends to visit. These first
"Bloomsbury" gatherings included Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, and the mysterious
"wild man" Leonard Woolf. (The art critic Roger Fry and the novelist E. M. Forster,
who became Virginia's particular friends, were drawn into the circle about 1910-11).
Also in 1904, thanks to an introduction from her friend Violet Dickinson, Virginia
Stephen began to do regular articles and reviews for the Guardian. Her first review,
of William Dean Howells's The Son of Royal Langbrigh, appeared on December 14;
an article on the Bronte parsonage appeared the following week. From about the
age of fifteen she had been training herself to write professionally, keeping journal
notebooks in which she described her round of activities and acquaintances. Seven
of these journals (kept up until 1909) have been published under the title A
Passionate Apprentice. In one of the later entries she declares that she intends in
her writing to "achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords, showing all the
traces of the mind's sick passage through the world.. . ." In 1905 she began to write
reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, and did so for the rest of her life. Toward
the end of that year, also, she was invited to teach at Morley College, an institute for
working class men and women; until 1907 she lectured informally on English
literature and history.

Then once again, in 1906, disaster struck: the death of Thoby (after they had all been
on a trip to Greece) and, within days, the announcement of Vanessa's engagement
to Clive Bell. Coping successfully with this, she and Adrian took a house on Fitzroy

Leonard Woolf returned from his civil service post in Ceylon, fell deeply in love with
Virginia and proposed to her in January 1912; by May--despite doubts about her
readiness for marriage, and to "a penniless Jew" (as she described him to Violet
Dickinson)--she accepted him. "It was the wisest decision of her life," her nephew

This was the start of a singular relationship that owed much to Leonard Woolf's
understanding and devotion. In the spring of 1913 The Voyage Out was finished and
accepted by Gerald Duckworth's firm. It is a novel of self-discovery, a voyage within.
For all its ultimate sadness--sudden death ending Rachell Vinrace's growth of
awareness--it has touches of sly humor that became characteristic of Woolf's
style--such as a description of Rachel's fellow passengers on the ship bound for
South America, as they might look from afar: "lumps on the rigging. Mr. Pepper with
all his learning had been mistaken for a cormorant, and then. . .transformed into a
cow." Among these passengers is Clarissa Dalloway, the complacent, seemingly
assured society wife who becomes the eponymous heroine of one of Woolf's
greatest novels. Publication of the book made her excited and ill. After her slow
recovery at Asheham, the country home she had bought in Sussex, the Woolfs came
back to London and settled at Hogarth House in Richmond (safely distant from
"rackety" parties in Bloomsbury), where they lived from 1915 to 1924. Intelligent
reviews in the English press (especially by Forster) helped rally her, and by 1918 she
was at work on Night and Day, and beginning to keep the diary in which she wrote
fairly regularly until a few days before her death. These spontaneous jottings,
generally penned after teatime, sketch doings and people, and comment on the
progress of her writing.

In 1917 Leonard Woolf set up a small hand press at Hogarth House. They both
learned how to set type, and in time presided over the growth of a small but
distinguished publishing firm, the Hogarth Press, of which Woolf remained a director
until his death.

Night and Day is dedicated to Vanessa Bell; and the heroine, a young woman born
into a family of writers but whose secret passion is mathematics, is in part based on
her. It was published about the time the Woolfs took another country home, Monks
House, near Rodmell, Sussex--the farmhouse where Vanessa Bell, her children, and
her lover the painter Duncan Grant, had been living since 1916. Katherine Mansfield
(whose own collection of short stories, Prelude, was the second work published by
the Hogarth Press) found Night and Day "cultivated, distinguished and brilliant" but
too deliberate (Athenaeum). Forster, whose opinion Woolf always especially valued,
was also unsympathetic. With Jacob's Room, the first full-length book published by
the Hogarth Press, Woolf's later style begins. Plot is nonexistent, metaphor and
symbol are substitutes for action, and character is revealed by the flow of interior
monologue. Interior reality transcends external events, though Woolf's aim was
always to unite them. The impressionistic portrait of Jacob Flanders (a young man
with obvious references to Thoby Stephen), from boyhood to death in the war, is built
of random reflections: of his room, of character-revealing incidents, of comments by
his friends. Many reviewers were left asking what the book was about. John
Middleton Murry (Woolf noted in her diary) was sure its writing was a dead end for
her. The book was on the whole a popular success. When Arnold Bennett objected
that she could not create living, memorable characters, she replied in a famously
angry lecture, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," read at Cambridge in 1924 and
published in the essay collection The Captain's Death Bed. Here she speculates on
how the Edwardian writers Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy might
describe a hypothetical "Mrs. Brown." None of them, she thought, would get beyond
the externals and capture Mrs. Brown's sense of herself. This was to be the mission
of Forster, Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Woolf herself.

In June 1924 she began Mrs. Dalloway; it was finished later that year. A "radial" not
"linear" narrative, as the author described it, it spins off in many directions to explore
the sources of Clarissa Dalloway's being. The exploration is confined to the events of
one day in her life, as she prepares for an evening party, the hours marked by the
strokes of Big Ben: the "leaden circles" that "dissolved in the air."

By March 1926 Woolf was at work on To the Lighthouse. She found it came more
easily than any of her other novels. She told her friend Roger Fry: "I meant nothing by
it. One has to have a central line drawn down the middle of the book to hold the
design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to
think them out.. . .I can't manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalised way."
The novel, "made from the passions and tragedies of her youth" (Quentin Bell), is a
mix of pathos and absurdity, just bordering on satire of some of the Ramsays's
famous guests.

Clive Bell gave a dinner party in 1922, at which he introduced Virginia Woolf to Vita
Sackville-West. The friendship grew, and somewhere between 1925 and 1929
developed into a love affair. Virginia's letters to Vita are included in volume three of
the complete edition of Woolf's letters. Another form of "love letter" (as Nigel
Nicolson, Vita's son called it) is Orlando, the jeu d'esprit, part masque, part pageant,
written for and dedicated to her friend. It is, as Nicolson describes it, an
"experimental novel that follows its central character through several centuries and
identities"; Vita, as Orlando, plays her part in Sackville family history, an Elizabethan
courtier at the start, a modern-day young man at its close. On another level, the book
is certainly a spoof of conventional biographies. In any case, it was a commercial
success, accepted as a "highbrow" novel that was actually funny and easy to read.
The fiction that followed was very different. For some time Woolf struggled with the
writing of a book to be called The Moths, finally completed as The Waves. It is her
most difficult book (and in the opinion of Leonard Woolf her greatest), composed of
the soliloquies of six friends that reveal their lives over the years. The Times Literary
Supplement felt it was an admirable technical experiment, but left a sense of void;
other critics have been more explicitly negative. Just before this, Woolf had finished
the work that is now closely associated with her in the minds of some feminist critics.
A Room of One's Own began as lectures read at Newnham and Girton colleges,
Cambridge, in October 1928. Prefacing it with a story of how, as a woman, she had
been turned away from one of the university libraries, she goes on to describe the
barriers put in the way of women writers, concluding that to achieve intellectual
freedom a woman must have a source of income and a room of her own. Three
Guineas, published on the eve of World War II, is an outspoken, more general
protest on women's place in contemporary English political and social life.

The Years, the last novel published during her lifetime, is the story of the Pargiter
family, taking them from 1880 to the present. Although plot and character are
eschewed (time itself is the chief character), its straightforward narration, mainly in
the form of dialogue, appeared to be a regression from the style she had been
forging. Her husband, as always her final critic, was disappointed; again, however, it
proved popular with readers. As originally drafted, The Pargiters alternated narrative
with didactic essays on the predicament of women. These are now available in an
edition published by the scholar Mitchell A. Leaska, titled The Pargiters: The
Novel-Essay Portion of "The Years". Two quite different works followed. Flush, a
"biography" of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel, is in fact a description of
Wimpole Street and Italy--and of the poet--from a pet's point of view. Flush,
according to David Garnett, was "the first animal to become an Eminent Victorian"
(New Statesman and Nation). Roger Fry, a life of the critic who introduced Cezanne
and modern art to English viewers, was undertaken at his family's request after his
death in 1934. Despite her difficulties with writing about art and about his love
affairs, the work turned out to be firm, direct, understanding, and--in view of their long
and intimate friendship--surprisingly objective (Herbert Read, Spectator). Vanessa
Bell is reported to have said of the book: "Now you have given him back to me."

Family and time are again, as always, the center of Virginia Woolf's last novel,
Between the Acts, completed a month before her death, and to have been titled
Pointz Hall. Here, in the course of a summer day, an English family and their guests
gather at the great house to attend the villagers' historical pageant. Scene and
"action" are made manifest by the interior monologues carried on by members of the

On March 28, in a fit of depression, Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse, leaving
a note for her husband in which she assured him that "I owe all the happiness of my
life to you," and "I don't think two people could have been happier than we have
been." Through his devoted efforts, much of her previously unpublished work was
issued thereafter, as well as collections of her essays and stories, and her
correspondence with Lytton Strachey. Since his death in 1969, an enormous Virginia
Woolf bibliography has accumulated; of these at least A Writer's Diary and Quentin
Bell's detailed biography remain essential. There are now complete editions of her
letters and the diaries. The Bloomsbury group and her relations with it continue to

By the 1930s some critics had begun to dismiss Woolf as irrelevant, too distanced
from contemporary concerns, overlooking her long commitment to liberal-leftist
social causes: women's suffrage, the Women's Co-Operative Guild, pacifism and
antifascism. Feminist critics have suggested that anger at male dominance is at the
core of her writing. Both she and her husband Leonard refused a Companion of
Honor in 1935. She turned down many academic awards, but did accept the
Femina-Vie Heureuse Prize in 1938. In his memorial address, given as the Rede
Lecture at Cambridge in 1941, E. M. Forster spoke of Woolf's singleness of
aesthetic purpose and the joy in her work.

The major collection of Virginia Woolf's manuscripts, drafts, and correspondence is
housed in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library; there are collections of
her papers at Monks House and the British Museum.

Adapted from data developed by the H.W. Wilson Company, Inc.
Copyright © 1996-99 Chadwyck-Healey Ltd and Chadwyck-Healey Inc

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