Virginia Woolf

"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 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. "

Virginia's Woolf, letter to Leonard Woolf (28th March, 1941)

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. One of her news notes reports 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 Skye. In Mrs. Ramsey, 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 her manic-depressive (or bi-polar) illness, which was to plague her life.

Woolf’s illness, though diagnosable, was as individual as the most manifestations of manic-depression. She 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 such a state, 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, then at home, that occupied her for many years. 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 her 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 Bront? 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 minds sic 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.

Woolf was active in the campaign for women’s suffrage and was a member of the People’s Suffrage Federation. However, her main political involvement was as a member of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, a radical organisation led by Margaret Llewelyn Davies.

Virginia married the writer, Leonard Woolf in 1912. The following year she had a severe mental breakdown. Leonard nursed her back to recovery and in 1915 her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published. The couple shared a strong interest in literature and in 1917 founded the Hogarth Press.

Night and Day, a novel that deals with the subject of women’s suffrage appeared in 1919. This was followed by Jacob’s Room (1922), a novel that tells the story of Jacob Flanders, a soldier killed in the First World War.

Virginia wrote about literature for The Nation and in an article published in December, 1923, attacked the realism of Arnold Bennett and advocated a more “internal approach” to literature. This article was an important step in the development of what became known as Modernism. Woolf rejected the traditional framework of narrative, description and rational exposition in prose and made considerable use of the stream of consciousness technique (recording the flow of thoughts and feelings as they pass through the character’s mind). This approach was explored in Virginia’s novels: Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931).

In the 1920s Woolf became romantically involved with the writer, Vita Sackville-West. Virginia celebrated this love affair in her novel, Orlando, published in 1928. Dedicated to Sackville-West, the book traces the history of the youthful, beautiful, and aristocratic Orlando, and explores the themes of sexual ambiguity.

A highly respected journalist and literary critic, Virginia published a series of important non-fiction books including A Room of One’s Own that appeared in 1929. An important book in the history of feminism, it argues the need for the economic independence of women and explores the consequences of a male-dominated society. Woolf returned to the theme of women’s liberation in her book Three Guineas (1938).

Virginia Woolf had recurring bouts of depression. The outbreak of the Second World War increased her mental turmoil and on 28th March, 1941, she committed suicide by drowning herself in the Ouse, near her home in Rodmell, Sussex.