Often considered one of the foremost modernist authors of the 20th century and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device, the Author Virginia Woolf was born 25 January 1882 at 22 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington, London. Woolf was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household. Her parents had each been married previously and been widowed, and, consequently, the household contained the children of three marriages. Julia had three children from her first marriage to Herbert Duckworth: George, Stella, and Gerald Duckworth. Leslie had previously been married to Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray (1840–1875), the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, and they had one daughter: Laura Makepeace Stephen, who was diagnosed as being developementally disabled and lived with the family until she was institutionalised in 1891 Julia and Leslie had four children together: Vanessa Stephen (later known as Vanessa Bell) (1879), Thoby Stephen (1880), Virginia (1882), and Adrian Stephen (1883).
Sir Leslie Stephen’s eminence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray, meant that his children were raised in an environment filled with the influences of Victorian literary society. Henry James, George Henry Lewes, and Virginia’s honorary godfather, James Russell Lowell, were among the visitors to the house. Julia Stephen was equally well connected. Her aunt was a pioneering early photographer Julia Margaret Cameron who was also a visitor to the Stephen household. Supplementing these influences was the large library at the Stephens’ house, from which Virginia and Vanessa were taught the classics and English literature. As was common at that time, their brothers Adrian and Julian (Thoby) were formally educated and attended the University of Cambridge, a disparity that Virginia noted and condemned in her writing. The sisters did, however, benefit indirectly from their brothers’ University contacts, as they brought their new intellectual friends home to the Stephens’ drawing room. Although Virginia would not attend university, she was tutored in Greek by two women, Clara Pater and Janet Case), whose instruction would influence her later work, especially her 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek.
According to Woolf’s memoirs, her most vivid childhood memories were not of London but of St Ives, Cornwall, where the family spent every summer until 1895. The Stephens’ summer home, Talland House, looked out over Porthminster Bay, and is still standing, though somewhat altered. Memories of these family holidays and impressions of the landscape, especially the Godrevy Lighthouse, informed the fiction Woolf wrote in later years, most notably To the Lighthouse. She describes why she felt so connected to Talland House in a diary entry dated 22 March 1921. “Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One’s past, I suppose; I see children running in the garden … The sound of the sea at night … almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain.”
The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her half-sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia’s several nervous breakdowns. After her mother and half-sister, she quickly lost her surrogate mother, Stella Duckworth, as well as her cherished brother Thoby, when he was in his mid-20s. Sadly Her Father also died in 1904 and she was so distraught she was briefly institutionalised. She spent time recovering at her friend Violet Dickinson’s house, and at her aunt Caroline’s house in Cambridge. Modern scholars, including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell, have suggested her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods were also influenced by the sexual abuse to which she and her sister Vanessa were subjected by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate).
She studied Ancient Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London between 1897 and 1901. This brought her into contact with some of the early reformers of women’s higher education such as the principal of the Ladies’ Department, Lilian Faithfull (one of the so-called Steamboat ladies), Clara Pater and George Warren Her sister Vanessa also studied Latin, Italian, art and architecture at King’s Ladies’ Department. In 2013 Woolf was honoured by her alma mater with the opening of a building named after her on Kingsway.
Throughout her life, Woolf continued to suffer alarming mood swings and associated illnesses. She spent three short periods in 1910, 1912 and 1913 at Burley House, 15 Cambridge Park, Twickenham, described as “a private nursing home for women with nervous disorder” Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks throughout her life. Following the death of their father and Virginia’s second nervous breakdown, Vanessa and Adrian sold 22 Hyde Park Gate and bought a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury.
In Bloomsbury Woolf met Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Rupert Brooke, E. M. Forster, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, David Garnett, and Roger Fry, who together formed the nucleus of the intellectual circle of writers and artists known as the Bloomsbury Group. Several members of the group attained notoriety in 1910 with the Dreadnought hoax, which Virginia participated in disguised as a male Abyssinian royal. In 1907 Vanessa married Clive Bell, and the couple’s interest in avant garde art was an important influence on Woolf’s development as an author.
Virginia married the writer Leonard Woolf in 1912 and in 1937, Woolf wrote in her diary: “Love-making—after 25 years can’t bear to be separate … you see it is enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete.” The two also collaborated professionally, in 1917 founding the Hogarth Press, which subsequently published Virginia’s novels along with works by T. S. Eliot, Laurens van der Post, and others. The Press also commissioned works by contemporary artists, including Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell.
Woolf believed that to break free of a patriarchal society that women writers needed a “room of their own” to develop and often fantasised about an “Outsider’s Society” where women writers would create a virtual private space for themselves via their writings to develop a feminist critique of society. AlThough Woolf never created the “Outsider’s society”, the Hogarth Press was the closest approximation as the Woolfs chose to publish books by writers that took unconventional points of view to form a reading community. Until 1930, Woolf often helped her husband print the Hogarth books. Both the Woolfs were internationalists and pacifists who believed that promoting understanding between peoples was the best way to avoid another world war and chose quite consciously to publish works by foreign authors of whom the British reading public were unaware The first non-British author to be published was the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, the book Reminiscences of Leo Nikolaiovich Tolstoy in 1920, dealing with his friendship with Count Leo Tolstoy.
From 1914, Leonard and Virginia Woolf lived at 17 The Green, Richmond; before moving to nearby Hogarth House, Paradise Road in 1915. In 1919, the Woolfs purchased the Round House in Pipe Passage, Lewes. Then bought Monk’s House in nearby Rodmell, which both she and Leonard favoured because of its orchard and garden and sold the Round House. The ethos of the Bloomsbury group encouraged a liberal approach to sexuality, and in 1922 she met the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson. After a tentative start, they began a sexual relationship, which, according to Sackville-West in a letter to her husband dated 17 August 1926, was only twice consummated. However, Virginia’s intimacy with Vita seems to have continued into the early 1930s. Sackville-West worked tirelessly to lift up Woolf’s self-esteem, encouraging her not to view herself as a quasi-reclusive inclined to sickness who should hide herself away from the world, but rather offered praise for her liveliness and sense of wit, her health, her intelligence and achievements as a write Sackville-West encouraged Woolf to have a more positive self-image, and pointed out that her writings were the products of her strengths rather than her weakness.
Woolf had originally believed the diagnosis by her father and his doctor that reading and writing would exacerbate her nervous condition and that a regime of physical labour such as gardening would prevent a total nervous collapse. However Sackville West was the first to argue to Woolf that it was far better to engage in reading and writing to calm her nerves. Under the influence of Sackville-West, Woolf learned to deal with her nervous ailments by switching between various forms of intellectual activities such as reading, writing and book reviews, instead of spending her time in physical activities that sapped her strength and worsened her nerves. Sackville-West chose the financially struggling Hogarth Press as her publisher in order to assist the Woolfs financially. Hogarth published the novel Seducers in Ecuador, followed by the novel The Edwardians. Sackville-West’s novels, though not typical of the Hogarth Press, saved Hogarth, taking them from the red into the black. The financial security allowed by the good sales of Sackville-West’s novels in turn allowed Woolf to engage in more experimental work, such as The Waves, as Woolf had to be cautious when she depended upon Hogarth entirely for her income.
In 1928, Woolf presented Sackville-West with Orlando, a fantastical biography in which the eponymous hero’s life spans three centuries and both sexes. After their affair ended, the two women remained friends until Woolf’s death in 1941. Virginia Woolf also remained close to her surviving siblings, Adrian and Vanessa; Thoby had died of typhoid fever at the age of 26.
After completing the manuscript of her last novel Between the Acts (which was posthumously published), Woolf fell into a depression similar to that which she had earlier experienced. The onset of World War II, the destruction of her London home during the Blitz, all worsened her condition until she was unable to work. When Leonard enlisted in the Home Guard, Virginia disapproved. She held fast to her pacifism and criticized her husband for wearing what she considered to be the silly uniform of the Home Guard. After World War II began, Woolf’s diary indicates that she was obsessed with death, until On 28 March 1941, Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home. Her body was not found until 18 April. Her husband buried her cremated remains beneath an elm tree in the garden of Monk’s House, their home in Rodmell, Sussex.