“I am rooted, but I flow.”
Considered to be the most important modernist writer of the 20th-century, Virginia Woolf is continuing to inspire feminism long after her death. Born in an era when women were fighting to be seen as equals to men, Woolf was influenced by women’s rights movements whose ideals are reflected in many of her novels. Known for the phrase “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” from her essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), the author has been honoured by statues, societies and a building at the University of London in her name.
Whilst her popular novels and ongoing feminist movements keep her memory alive, her struggle with mental health problems and death by suicide, no longer the taboo subject it once was, is gradually being understood and accepted. Yet what is repeatedly overlooked is the woman herself. Who was Virginia Woolf? Everyone has heard of her regardless as to whether they have read her books, but who was the woman behind the pen?
Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on 25th January 1882 in South Kensington, London. Her mother Julia (née Jackson) (1846–1895), originally from Calcutta, British India, had once been a model for the Pre-Raphaelites and had three children from a previous marriage: George (1868-1934), Stella (1869-97) and Gerald (1870-1937). An exhibition last year (2018) at the National Portrait Gallery, featured a photograph of Julia taken by her aunt and celebrated photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79).
Virginia’s father had also married prior to meeting her mother. Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), a writer, historian and mountaineer, married Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray (1840–1875), the youngest daughter of the famous novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63). Unfortunately, Minny died in childbirth leaving Leslie to care for their only child Laura (1870–1945) who, due to developmental handicaps, was eventually institutionalised.
Julia and Leslie were married on 26th March 1878 and welcomed their first child, Vanessa (1879-1961), the following year. The next four years saw the arrival of three more children: Thoby (1880-1906), Adrian (1883-1948) and the second youngest, Adeline Virginia in 1882. Fortunately, the family was wealthy enough to cope with eight children and, whilst the boys were sent off to schools and universities, the girls were homeschooled in subjects such as English classics and Victorian literature.
Most of the details about Virginia Woolf’s childhood can be found in her own writings. These include essays, such as A Sketch of the Past (1940), but she also alluded to some of her childhood memories in her fictional novels. Woolf also kept a diary for twelve years beginning in 1897, “the first really lived year of my life”.
Due to the nature of their father’s career, Virginia and her siblings were brought up in a household often frequented by well-known members of Victorian literature society. Amongst these were writers Henry James (1843-1916) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), the poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-92), and the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), Virginia’s honorary godfather. As a result, the Stephen children were keen readers and writers, making their own magazine in 1891 called Hyde Park Gate News to record the events that occurred within their family. Their mother was recorded saying the magazine was “Rather clever I think”.
Naturally, Virginia Woolf showed an early proclivity for writing and was later encouraged by her father to pursue a career as an author despite his disapproval of educated women. From the age of five, Woolf was penning letters and making up stories that she often recited to her father, which, along with her love of books, created a strong bond between them.
Every year from 1882 until 1894, Leslie Stephen rented Talland House in St. Ives, Cornwall from mid-July to mid-September. He referred to it as “a pocket-paradise” and stated that his happiest memories were passed there. This was also the same for Virginia who, when writing about her childhood, mentioned fond memories of Talland House more than years spent in London. For Virginia and her brothers and sisters, it was the highlight of the year. It was also a setting that inspired a handful of Virginia’s novels, including To the Lighthouse (1927).
“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 Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume Two 1920–1924
Virginia Woolf’s childhood ended in 1895 with the death of her mother after a three-month battle with influenza. Having felt her life had fallen apart, this moment sparked the beginning of Woolf’s mental health issues that would plague her future. To make matters worse, her pregnant step-sister Stella, who took charge of the younger siblings died two years later. Suffering from nervous breakdowns, Woolf became dependant on her older sister, Vanessa.
In 1902, Leslie Stephen underwent an operation but never recovered, leaving his children as orphans in 1904. This sparked another breakdown for poor Virginia who later described the feeling of grief as being a “broken chrysalis”.
The family home was now a dark, gloomy place of mourning and the siblings were desperate to escape, which they did by travelling to the village of Manorbier on the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales. A couple of months later they decided to holiday in France and Italy, spending time with their friend Clive Bell (1881-1964), who would later become Vanessa Stephen’s husband. Unfortunately, Virginia’s mental health was still fragile and she suffered another nervous breakdown resulting in her first suicide attempt on 10th May 1904.
On returning to England, the Stephen children decided to sell their South Kensington property and look for accommodation elsewhere. Vanessa found a house in the leafy, bohemian district of Bloomsbury and she and Virginia moved into 46 Gordon Square before the end of the year. By now, Virginia had recovered from her most recent mental health ordeal.
Life began to feel more positive for Virginia, helped with the Thursday Club that her brother Thoby began hosting in the girls’ house from March 1905. This was initially made up of a group of Thoby’s intellectual friends from university, including writers such as Saxon Sydney-Turner (1880-1962) and Lytton Strachey (1880-1932). Together, they discussed various matters from literature and the importance of arts, to feminism and sexuality. The Thursday Club later became the famed Bloomsbury Circle, which included well-known members, for instance, the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), whose English Heritage blue plaque can be seen in Gordon Square, the painter Ducan Grant (1885-1978), the novelist E. M. Forster (1879-1970), and the political theorist Leonard Woolf (1880-1969).
Later that year, Virginia began teaching at Morley College of adult education whilst Vanessa started up another group, the Friday Club, which met at their house to discuss the fine arts. Although things were beginning to look up for Virginia, she was soon to receive another blow. In 1906, Virginia lost her brother Thoby to typhoid fever, which he had caught on their recent holiday in Greece.
Whilst trying to come to terms with Thoby’s death, Virginia had to deal with the news that Vanessa had accepted Clive Bell’s proposal of marriage (his third attempt). The couple were married in 1907 and Virginia needed to find a new place to live. In April 1907, Virginia moved to the Fitzrovia district in central London, where she lived in a house once owned by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) – 29 Fitzroy Square.
In her new home, Virginia and her brother Adrian resumed the Thursday Club, which began to explore more progressive ideas than before. More importantly, however, Virginia began working on her first novel. With the intended title of Melymbrosia but the eventual publication title of The Voyage Out (1915), it was “… a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by boat which would not float on any sea, an America whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis.” (E.M Forster, 1926)
Although living separately from her sister, Virginia continued to go on trips abroad with Vanessa, for instance, to the French capital and other areas of France and Italy. Unfortunately, there began to be a little rivalry between the sisters, perhaps spurned from jealousy, not helped by Virginia’s flirting with Clive. This may have contributed to the breakdown of Vanessa and Clive’s marriage, however, Vanessa’s affairs would have had a greater impact on the situation.
On 17th February 1909, Virginia was proposed to by Lytton Strachey but, although she accepted, he quickly withdrew the offer. This blow along with the stresses of daily life prompted her close family and friends to suggest that Virginia needed a quiet country retreat. Accompanied by her brother Adrian, Virginia had a brief stay in Lewes, Surrey, where she set about looking for a place to buy that would be easy to reach from London whenever she needed to retreat from the city. She eventually settled on a house in Firle, which she named Little Talland House.
Back in London, however, the lease was coming to an end of Virginia and Adrian’s house and they needed to move once again. Rather than buying a home just for the two of them, the brother and sister moved into a four-storey house in Bloomsbury, which they shared with Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant. Their new home, 38 Brunswick Square, was adjacently opposite the Foundling Hospital, which Virginia found oddly amusing, however, the three-acre public garden provided the house with a beautiful view from the front facing windows.
In June 1911, Leonard Woolf, a friend of Thoby who Virginia had met in 1904 before he took up a position in the civil army in Ceylon, returned to London on a one-year leave. Yet, he was never to go back to the army. After renewing old friendships, Leonard met Virginia once again at Vanessa’s house along with many other members of the future Bloomsbury group. In fact, Leonard, when asked the date the Bloomsbury group formed, responded with the date of that very meeting – 3rd July 1911.
Leonard once described Virginia and Vanessa as “formidable and alarming”, recalling their “white dresses and large hats, with parasols in their hands, their beauty literally took one’s breath away”. Therefore, it did not take much persuasion to convince him to join Virginia at Little Talland House for a long weekend. By the end of the year, Leonard had moved into the Brunswick Square household and in less than a month had decided he was in love with Virginia.
On 11th January 1912, Leonard Woolf bared his heart to Virginia and asked her to marry him. With the failed engagement to Lytton Strachey still on her mind, Virginia told him she would think about it, however, time was running out for Leonard. The one-year period of leave from the civil army was coming to an end and despite continuing to pursue Virginia, she had not yet made up her mind. Leonard’s application to extend his period of leave was refused, so he sent in his letter of resignation instead.
Eventually, Virginia agreed to marry Leonard and their wedding took place on 10th August 1912 at the St Pancras Register Office. They continued living at Brunswick Square, however, Leonard was gradually becoming aware of Virginia’s mental health problems, which he had previously not known about. Within the next few months, Virginia’s mental ill health had increased rapidly and in 1913 she made another suicide attempt.
After these events, the couple decided to move away from Brunswick square, first in October 1914 to Richmond in the suburbs of London, and then, in early March 1915, to Hogarth House, Paradise Road also in Richmond.
Since the age of 19, Virginia had enjoyed bookbinding as a pastime. Knowing of his wife’s passion, Leonard suggested setting up a publishing company as well as publishing Virginia’s own works, thus The Voyage Out was published in 1915 – unfortunately followed by another suicide attempt. Hogarth Press, as it began to be called, was not fully set up until 1917, although, at this stage, it was merely a printing press on their dining room table.
The first publication under the name Hogarth Press was Two Stories which consisted of two short stories, one by Virginia, The Mark on the Wall, and one by Leonard, Three Jews. Although only 32 pages, the publication process took over two months, each of the 150 copies being hand bound and sewn. The stories were accompanied by woodcut illustrations designed by Dora Carrington (1893-1932), which helped to make the publication a great success. Other short stories quickly followed, such as Kew Gardens written by Virginia and illustrated by her sister Vanessa.
To begin with, Hogarth Press only concentrated on small publications, often works that commercial publishers would reject or overlook, however, the Press eventually moved on to bigger things. In 1924, the Woolfs took out a lease at 52 Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury where they used the basement space to run Hogarth Press in a more efficient manner. Virginia also had a personal room where she could concentrate on her writing, which was published by the Press. Subsequently, other notable authors began to approach Hogarth Press with their own work, particularly the poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965).
A large number of publications by Hogarth Press were, of course, written by Virginia. Her second novel, Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925, which describes a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged high-society woman in post–War England. The story, which is arguably Virginia’s best-known novel, alternates between Clarissa’s preparation for a party in the evening and the psychiatric problems of Septimus Warren Smith, a war veteran with severe PTSD.
Her third novel, To the Lighthouse (1927), was published the following year and rates at 15th place on the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century selected in 1998. The story focuses on the Ramsay family and their visits to the Isle of Skye, however, it contains very little dialogue or action. Instead, the novel is formed of a series of thoughts and observations that recall childhood memories and adult relationships. To the Lighthouse has many similarities with Virginia’s own childhood and it is believed she began writing it in order to deal with unresolved issues concerning both her late parents.
Just as To the Lighthouse was inspired by her own life, her third novel Orlando (1928) was sparked after learning about the turbulent family history of her close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962). Virginia and Vita’s relationship was recently studied at the Barbican Centre in an exhibition called Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde. Despite being married, Virginia began an intimate relationship with the poetess Vita after meeting her through Bloomsbury Group connections in December 1922.
Virginia and Vita’s relationship was strongest between 1925 and 1928 but by the 1930s they had evolved into good friends rather than intimate lovers. During this time, Vita attempted to raise Virginia’s self-esteem and, regardless as to whether she was successful, Virginia’s work began to flourish. As well as To the Lighthouse and Orlando, Virginia also completed The Waves (1931) and wrote a number of essays.
Orlando is an eponymous novel that describes the centuries-long adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman. Despite being a work of fiction, the reference to Vita was obvious, causing her son to comment “The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”
Around the same time as her relationship with Vita, Virginia lectured Women & Fiction at Cambridge University. As well as exploring her own sexuality, Virginia was concerned about the rights of women and the importance of independence. From these lectures, Virginia penned the essay A Room of One’s Own.
The 172-page essay published by the Hogarth Press in 1929, argues both literally and figuratively for a space for women writers in a world predominately dominated by men. At the time of publication, women had only just been given the freedom to vote in Britain and were still a long way off the rights that women in the western world have today. Thus, A Room of One’s Own quickly became an important feminist text.
Before the essay was published, Virginia was worried that she would be “attacked for a feminist & hinted at for a sapphist [lesbian]”, however, the theme of lesbianism was discussed in such a discreet way that it avoided complaints of obscenity.
Despite her lesbian tendencies – or, perhaps, bisexuality – Virginia remained married to Leonard for the remainder of her life. Unfortunately, these years were marred by her mental health, often suffering a nervous breakdown after the publication of each novel. After finishing the draft for her final book Between the Acts (published posthumously, 1941), Virginia fell into another bout of depression. Along with all the blows she had encountered in life, the war years had taken its toll of Virginia’s fragile mind. To make matters worse, the beginning of the Blitz saw the destruction of her London home, which, along with the death of a close friend, worsened her condition until she could no longer work.
During her final years, Virginia’s diaries were full of ramblings about death and in March 1941, she wrote a final letter to her devoted husband.
I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight it any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. 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. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.
On 28th March 1941, Virginia Woolf walked into the River Ouse near her home in Sussex with her pockets full of stones. Her body, which was eventually found on 18th April was cremated and interred under an elm tree in the garden at Monk’s House, the Woolfs’ final home together in Rodmell, Sussex.
Since her death, Virginia’s mental health has received a lot of attention from professionals – the sort of attention that would have been more beneficial during her lifetime. Most psychiatrists agree that Virginia was suffering from Bipolar Disorder, also known as manic depression, which would account for her extreme mood swings and psychotic episodes.
Despite her untimely end, Virginia Woolf is known throughout the world for her contributions to twentieth-century literature, as well as the influence she has had on feminism. Many authors state Virginia as one of their greatest inspirations, including Margaret Atwood (b.1939) and Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014).
Virginia’s works have been adapted for the screen and her name has appeared in many other areas of popular culture. The play by Edward Albee (1928-2016) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a prime example. Also, in 2014, an exhibition about Virginia Woolf was held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and it is believed her portrait on a postcard has been the most sold than any other person in their gift shop.
In 2013, King’s College London honoured the writer with the opening of the Virginia Woolf Building on Kingsway. A plaque commemorating her work and contributions to the college is in pride of place on the building bearing her name. Sculptures of Virginia’s head and shoulders have also been errected near two places she once lived: Rodmell and Tavistock Square.
Virginia Woolf’s name and ideas will live on through her books, essays and organisations such as the Virginia Woolf Society and The Virginia Woolf Society of Japan. It is important, however, to remember Virginia as a human being and not just one of the greatest 20th-century writers. Everyone has struggles of one form or another but Virginia had more than her fair share. Nevertheless, this only goes to emphasise her talents; despite being very unwell, Virginia Woolf wrote and did things that people will respect forever.
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