Virginia Woolf

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search
Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf
Born 25 January 1882
London, England
Died 28 March 1941
near Lewes, England

Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882March 28, 1941) was a British author and feminist, who is considered to be one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century. Between the world wars, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous novels include Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Jacob's Room.



Born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London, Woolf was brought up and educated in a classically Victorian household at 22 Hyde Park Gate. In 1895, following the death of her mother, she had the first of several nervous breakdowns. She later indicated in an autobiographical account, "Moments of Being", that she and her sister Vanessa Bell had been sexually abused by their half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth. She is now also generally regarded as having suffered from bipolar disorder, an illness which was to colour her work and life, and eventually lead to her death.

Following the death of her father (Sir Leslie Stephen, a well-known editor and literary critic) in 1904, she and her sister, Vanessa, moved to a home in Bloomsbury, forming the initial kernel for the intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury group. While nowhere near a simple recapitulation of the coterie's ideals, Woolf's work can be understood as consistently in dialogue with Bloomsbury, particularly its tendency (informed by G.E. Moore, among others) towards doctrinaire rationalism.

She began writing professionally in 1905, initially for the Times Literary Supplement. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf, a civil servant and political theorist. Her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915. This novel was originally titled "Melymbrosia," but due to criticism Virginia Woolf received about the political nature of the book, she changed the novel and its title. This older version of The Voyage Out has been compiled and is now available to the public under the intended title. She went on to publish novels and essays as a public intellectual to both critical and popular success. Much of her work was self-published through the Hogarth Press. She is hailed as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century and one of the foremost Modernists, though she disdained some artists in this category.

On March 28, 1941, at the age of 59, Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse, near her home in Rodmell. She left a suicide note for her 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 can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness... I can't fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work" (The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. VI, p. 481).

Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf provides an authoritative examination of Woolf's life, updating the earlier biography by Woolf's own nephew, Quentin Bell.


Woolf is considered one of the greatest innovators in the English language. In her works she experimented with stream-of-consciousness, the underlying psychological as well as emotional motives of characters, and the various possibilities of fractured narrative and chronology. In the words of E.M. Forster, she pushed the English language "a little further against the dark," and her literary achievements and creativity are influential even today.

Woolf's reputation declined sharply after World War Two, but her eminence was re-established with the surge of Feminist criticism in the 1970s. After a few more ideologically based altercations, it seems that a critical consenus has been reached regarding her stature as a novelist: Virginia Woolf is among the greatest of 20th century writers.

Reaction against her work has had much to do with the change of sensibility and literary modes dominant in the postwar era—Woolf's novels, in this view, epitomized the narrow world of the upper-middle class English intelligentsia peopled with delicate, but ultimately trivial and self-centred, introspection-obsessed individuals. Her work was judged to be lacking in universality and depth, without the power to communicate anything of emotional or ethical relevance to the disillusioned common reader, weary of the 1920s aesthetes who seemed to belong to an era definitely closed and buried.

Virginia Woolf's peculiarities as a fiction writer have tended to obscure her central strength: Woolf is arguably the major lyrical novelist in the English language. Her novels are highly experimental: a narrative, frequently uneventful and commonplace is refracted—and sometimes almost dissolved—in the characters's receptive consciousnesses. Intense lyricism and stylistic virtuosity fuse to create a world overabundant with auditory and visual impressions.

The intensity of Virginia Woolf's poetic vision of life elevates the ordinary, sometimes banal settings of most of her novels (with the exception of Orlando and Between the Acts), even as they are often set in an environment of war. For example, Mrs. Dalloway centers around Clarissa Dalloway, a middle aged society woman's efforts to organize a party, even as her life is equated with Septimus Warren Smith, a soldier who has returned from the First World War bearing psychological scars. To the Lighthouse is a story on the Ramsay family holiday and the family members' interlocking tensions resolved in a visit to the lighthouse; also, one of the themes is the struggle in the creative process that beset painter Lily Briscoe. And yet the novel also meditates on the lives of a nation's inhabitants in the midst of war, of the people left behind. The Waves present a group of six friends whose reflections (closer to recitatives than to the interior monologues proper) create a wave-like atmosphere that is more akin to a prose poem than to a plot-centered novel.

Her last and most ambitious work, "Between the Acts," sums up and magnifies Woolf's chief preoccupations: the transformation of life through the art, sexual ambivalence, and meditation on the themes of flux of time and life, presented simultaneously as corrosion and rejuvenation - all set in a highly imaginative and symbolic narrative encompassing almost all of English history.

Modern scholarship

Recently, studies of Virginia Woolf have focused on feminist and lesbian themes in her work, such as in the 1997 collection of critical essays, Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, edited by Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer. Louise A. DeSalvo offers treatment of the incestuous sexual abuse Woolf suffered as a young woman in her book Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and World. Her fiction is also studied for its insight into shell shock, war, class and modern British society. Her best-known nonfiction work, A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, discusses the largely failed role of women in the literary canon and the future of women in education and society. She also wrote "A Window to Tomorrow".

In 2002, The Hours, a film loosely based on Woolf's life and her novel Mrs. Dalloway, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. It did not win, but Nicole Kidman was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Woolf in the movie. The film was adapted from Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel of the same name. The Hours was Woolf's working title for Mrs. Dalloway. Many Virginia Woolf scholars are highly critical of the portrayal of Woolf and her works in the film.

Theodore Dalrymple's essay, The Rage of Virginia Woolf [1], provides an alternate, and rather negative, assessment of Virginia Woolf. It can be found in his book, Our Culture: What's Left of It (c) 2005. Publisher: Ivan R. Dee. ISBN: 1-56663-643-4.

Irene Coates' book Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf: A Case for the Sanity of Virginia Woolf takes the position that Leonard Woolf's treatment of his wife encouraged her ill health and ultimately was responsible for her death. The position, which is not accepted by Leonard's family, is extensively researched and fills in some of the gaps in the traditional account of Virginia Woolf's life.

See also



Fiction/Non-Fiction cross-over


  • The Common Reader (1925)
  • A Room of One's Own (1929)
  • The Second Common Reader (1933)
  • Three Guineas (1938)
  • Roger Fry: A Biography (1940)
  • The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942)
  • The Moment and Other Essays (1948)
  • Moments of Being
  • Modern Fiction (1919)

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Personal tools