Thinker, modernist and major twentieth-century writer. Virginia is probably best known for her novels, especially Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), but she also wrote essays on artistic theory, literary history, women’s writing, and the politics of power. A fine craftswoman, she experimented with narrative forms and biography, composed painterly short fictions, and wrote a life-full of entertaining letters to her family and friends.
She said “There are no insignificant lives, only inadequate ways of looking at them”.
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born into a large literary family in 1882 “the descendent of a century of quill pens and ink pots.”(Henry James). Her parents, both widowers with children from their first marriage, bought four children with them and had four more together (Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian). Virginia grew up in a rambling London household (at Kensington Gardens) with her father Leslie Stephen, an eminent literary figure (critic, essayist, biographer, historian— a quintessential late-Victorian man of letters) and the first editor (1882–91) of the Dictionary of National Biography and her mother, Julia Jackson. Her great aunt was Julia Margaret Cameron, the lauded portrait photographer. Her elder sister, Vanessa, became known for her colourful artistic works and interior design.
Virginia was schooled at home (she felt this keenly, especially the lack of an academic education) and was an avid reader (with access to a huge range of books). At the age nine Virginia’s interest in writing began – she started a newspaper, the Hyde Park Gate News, reporting on family stories and events. She went on to write essays for the TLS, — for which she took great care to write in a lively way for her audience. The result were gemlike pieces; allusive, informal, fluent, that revealed an astonishing knowledge go literary and historical subjects (from the ancient Greeks to the literature of the English Enlightenment).
Virginia has become known as a writer of great empathy and sensitivity. Her upbringing no doubt had a lot to do with this. Every summer the Stephens would uproot to Talland House in Cornwall. Without domestic rules and societal regulations life here was in direct contrast to London; Virginia felt the city – country, summer – winter, restriction-freedom, distinctions keenly. Then a series of tragic family deaths, her mother when she was just 13 in 1895, her eldest stepsister, Stella Duckworth in 1897 and then her father in 1904, unbalanced her already fragile sensibility. She fell into a deep depressions at each event. For the rest of her life she suffered ‘fits’ of darkness, today we’d call them nervous breakdowns. These episodes were, however, hugely influential on her creative development. In 1908 she committed herself to creating in language “some kind of whole made of shivering fragments,” to capturing “the flight of the mind.”
“Between 1913-15 Virginia made several suicide attempts, including trying to jump from a window and overdosing on Veronal, a powerful sedative. As the ‘madness’ took hold, she would stop eating or sleeping and at times she hallucinated – Bell records that she once heard “the birds singing in Greek and [imagined] that King Edward VII lurked in the azaleas using the foulest possible language”. (Emma Woolf)
Funny Friend – Vanessa is often depicted as morose – all those forlorn-looking photos (she hated having her picture taken). More recent research suggests that she was far from dull or mopey. She loved to tease her many siblings and often wrote funny sketches depicting them. After her father’s death the children moved to Bloomsbury – here life was much more relaxed, they were free to pursue their interests, to paint and write and entertain. Her sister married Clive Bell (the art critic) and their social circle expanded to include Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes. Nicknamed the Bloomsbury Group, they all became lifelong friends, known for their intellectual repartee and liberalism. Virginia was integral to the group, the organiser of picnics, excursions and jaunts. Indeed she was very much socially in demand at this time, known for her clever wit she enjoyed many a party and soiree.
Smart and beautiful Virginia had many suitors and admirers, both male and female. Virginia was uncertain about marrying though – she was not sure what kind of wife she would make, and not keen on sexual relations (allegedly she had been assaulted by one of her step-brothers in her teens). But it was to Leonard Woolf that she finally agreed to marriage in 1912.
They enjoyed a long marriage, albeit adulterous. Sex was an issue On advise from her doctors, the couple never had children (they feared it would cause more mental anguish) and Virginia had a 10 year lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West. Leonard knew, but didn’t object.
Flaneuse – During the first world war The Woolfs lived at Hogarth House in Richmond (running a small publishing company, The Hogarth Press) but then moved back to Bloomsbury in 1924. It was here Virginia found great pleasure in walking the streets of London (like a flaneur —the term coined by Charles Baudelaire, for strolling and passionate wanderering of city streets), what she called ‘street hauntings’, when she watched people interacting with the city and perhaps more importantly felt a freedom (from society). “Woolf responded to the city at many levels, and she noticed that it seemed to effect a dissolution of the self, a sense that the boundaries between herself and the environment had been erased.” Her essay “Street Haunting”, published in 1927, was an attempt to discover how the pavement could shape the self. It was during this time she wrote her most well-known novels, Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse.
Feminist – Unlike many of her literary predecessors, Woolf aimed to give credence to the unspoken emotions and interpretations of women’s experience. She did this in two ways – by placing women and feminine themes at the forefront of her stories, and then, even more revelatory, by revealing the inner workings of their minds. She didn’t write about the rich and famous, she wrote about the unknown women and the detail of their daily lives. This was ground-breaking, no-one had quite managed to show the world from other’s eyes with such emotional clarity and empathy before.
Again out of her time, Woolf understood the importance of economic freedom for women. She championed the opportunity for them to earn their own money, understanding how fulfilling that could be. She wrote about the problems caused by the discrepancies in women’s salaries long before moves were made to change the law. In A Room of One’s Own, she famously espoused that without financial freedom, women cannot ever possess full creative or intellectual freedom.
In the essay, Three Guineas, she wrote, “behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.” Through her work with the contemporary women’s movement (suffragism and the pacifist, working-class Women’s Co-operative Guild) she came to directly link the role of education — which was withheld from many women of her time — to the betterment of women’s lives, schooling was the way to income and self-sufficiency.
Failing – Virginia’s writing ducked and weaved through her continued bouts of mental crises. Each time the edges of sanity revealed to her what appeared to be the true workings of the mind. With each book she became more obsessed with language and how when we speak we often fall short of or else exceed what we intended to express. Talking as a betrayal: saying too much, or not enough. Woolf and her Bloomsbury friends understood that social norms and accepted forms of behaviour were often there to veil the truth, not reveal it. Woolf was well aware that all is not as it appears; that close observation of uncensored thought and speech, the ways in which we reveal and interrupt ourselves, can cause deeply buried truths to arise. She was also aware of the dangers of discovery. It was undoubtedly this uniquely keen sense of vision that led to her writing some of the most luminous fiction of the twentieth century.
Virginia took thinking and writing very seriously, she worked herself hard. By 1941 and after the many bouts of mental illness she was worn down. War destroyed her London home and she could no longer travel. Worst of all she feared another bout of depression was coming. This time she couldn’t bear it. She wrote 2 loving notes, one to Leonard, one to Vanessa, placed a large stone in her coat pocket and walked into the River Ouse. Her body was found three weeks later.
“Wherever they put the light (and James could not sleep without a light) there was always a shadow somewhere.” To the Lighthouse.