Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford, 1902 (Wikimedia Commons) British author Virginia Woolf was a prominent member of the avant-garde, intellectual Bloomsbury Circle in northern London from the years directly preceding World War I until her suicide in 1941. Woolf is best known for her novels, which represent the peak of British modernist “stream-of-consciousness” style, characterized by the representation of characters’ inner thoughts, a focus on everyday action, and the pervasive instability or unreliability of narration. In her own time, Woolf was also well-known for her writings promoting liberal politics, particularly the nascent feminist movement. Her non-fiction, including A Room of One’s Own (1925) and the anti-fascist tract Three Guineas (1938), is central to the “first wave” feminist canon.
Although Woolf’s adult writing often criticized the stern and pompous Victorian generation of her parents, her future career was undoubtedly helped by her birth, in 1882, into a prominent upper-middle-class London literary family. Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, was the well-known editor of the first National Dictionary of Biography, an avowed atheist and authoritarian patriarch. After the death of his first wife (the daughter of famed novelist W. M. Thackeray) and the institutionalization of his schizophrenic daughter, Stephen married Woolf’s mother, Julia Prinsep Jackson, who brought with her three children from her previous marriage. Woolf later alleged that her two older children, George and Gerald Duckworth, had sexually abused her during their teens, but she looked up to her sister, Stella, as a role model and mother figure. Julia and Leslie Stephen had four children together: Vanessa, Thoby, Adeline (called by her middle name Virginia), and Adrian. Since childhood, Vanessa and Virginia have been close, competitive, and rebellious; They soon decided that Vanessa would become a painter and Virginia a writer. Although the early years of Woolf’s life included much happiness, her adolescence was marked by traumatic loss, first of her mother when she was 13, then of Stella two years later, then of her father and her idolized brother Thoby at the next decade. Woolf’s mother’s death precipitated a major mental breakdown, the first of several for her throughout her life, leaving her debilitated for months, confined to bed and receiving barbiturates to curb suicidal impulses. According to the psychiatry of his day, Woolf’s depression and hallucinations were diagnosed as “neurasthenic,” so doctors prescribed copious amounts of rest and forbade exercise or mental exertion such as reading and writing. There is no consensus as to Woolf’s actual mental illness, but many now believe it was some form of bipolar disorder.
certainly, a major source of stress for the fluffy young woman was her overbearing and dependent father. Immediately after her death, she and her siblings “escaped” across London, from her childhood in Kensington to the artsy and slightly seedy Bloomsbury district. here, they and her acquaintances (many of them cambridge friends of her brother thoby), took up residence in apartments in and around russell square. The pre-war years of what became the “Bloomsbury group” were characterized by sexual, artistic and political exploration. Members and acquaintances included economist John Maynard Keynes, biographer Lytton Strachey, artists Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, Roger Fry and Wyndham Lewis, novelist E.M. Forster, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the poet T.S. eliot one of the group’s most notorious exploits was the “battleship hoax” of 1910, in which Bloomsbury residents disguised themselves as a contingent of “Abyssinian ambassadors” and tricked the royal navy into giving them an official tour of a major warship. Woolf plays a bearded, black-faced, Swahili-speaking Abyssinian. other ventures included the creation of the omega workshop artist collective and a “memory club”.
Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry, 1917. (Wikimedia Commons) Along with Clive Bell, the artist and critic Roger Fry’s aesthetic ideas influenced Woolf’s works. Among Woolf’s acquaintances in Bloomsbury was the Jewish writer Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912. Beginning with Woolf’s suicidal breakdown in 1914, while editing her first novel, Leonard became her main lifeline, supporting her through illness and freely accepting her later attraction to women and affairs with them. With Leonard’s help, Woolf tooka keen interest in publication and the establishment of the Hogarth Press, which put out small-run first editions of many major modernist works, including Eliot’s The Waste Land and Freud’s translated writings. Printing provided a distraction from Woolf’s incipient literary career, which took flight with several short story collections and the novels The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919). Her breakthrough came in 1922 with Jacob’s Room, which displays the beginnings of her characteristic stream-of-consciousness style, a mode which is then refined and mastered in her great novels of the 1920s, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). All three works play upon the boundaries of time, ranging from Mrs. Dalloway’s focus on single day to To the Lighthouse’s punctuation of two days by a bracketed ten-year interval. Though To the Lighthouse places World War I at its background (exploding forward through the death of Andrew Ramsay), both Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway explore the effects of the war more comprehensively, representing both its immediate destruction and its long-term repercussions.
Woolf’s latest novels reconceptualize the style of her early pieces in new themes and formats. Orlando: A Biography (1928) takes up the biographical mode of Leslie Stephen in its depiction of Orlando, a writer living from Elizabethan times to the present, meeting various famous figures and, in a notorious twist, transforming himself from a man to a woman halfway. through the novel. Woolf dedicated Orlando to Vita Sackville-West, her close friend, lover, and Orlando’s character model. Woolf’s financial success with Orlando allowed her to experiment more in her later novels: The Waves (1931), Blushing: A Biography (1933, the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet spaniel), The Years (a bestseller international law of 1937) and between the acts (published posthumously in 1941). Though they all take on Woolf’s perennial themes that address the challenges of human connection, they range from the solemn (The Waves) to the playful (The Shock). The last, among the acts, evidences Woolf’s growing concern at the threat of a second world war through his depiction of the dead ends within the stream of consciousness and interpersonal connection. Ultimately, the stress of publishing this novel, the destruction and disruption of the bombing raid, the loss of several close friends, and the threatening onset of mental illness led Woolf to drown in the River Ouse on March 28, 1941. At the time, she was a well-known public figure, best-selling author, and widely translated, and was much lamented around the world.
written by emily cersonsky, department of english and comparative literature, columbia university
hermione lee, virginia woolf, new york: vintage, 1996.