English Writer, Author, Publisher and Feminist, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882 - March 28, 1941)
Virginia's Early History
Virginia Woolf was born January 25, 1882 in London, England. Her birth name was Adeline Virginia Stephen. Her father, also an author, was Sir Leslie Stephen and her mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen, was from India working as a model once relocating to England. Virginia looked a lot like her mother. Noteworthy is the fact that both of her parents had previously been married, were widowed and upon deciding to marry, they both brought existing children into the household. After their marriage, they had four more children, so Virginia also had half-siblings. Her half-siblings were a product of the upper part of society (the polite side) and keep in mind they both had parents who transitioned from one era to the next. Virginia and her biological siblings sought out the part of society who explored philosophical points of view when they left their upper comfort setting and moved to Bloomsbury.
Virginia's father was very influential and would encourage writers who may not have been well-known at the time, not as much as we have come to know them now, i.e., Henry James and Thomas Hardy. The girls in the household were encouraged to improve upon their minds, but the boys received the better treatment from an educational standpoint. This annoyed Virginia despite the fact that she was later offered opportunities to attend British universities.
Virginia grew up in a household of influence from her parents' connections and appreciated English literature from an early age. She was forced to experience loss at a young age when her mother died in 1895. Then, two years later, her sister died and nine years later, she lost her father. These experiences affected her mental stability and in this time frame, she had a nervous breakdown and had been institutionalized for a short period of time for her problems with depression. While the breakdowns she had were written as related to being sexually abused by her half-brothers, experiences of which were unfolded in her memoir she wrote when she was much older, she would, however, continue to experience in her life a mental unstableness.
After Virginia's parents had died, she sold their house. When she was attending King's College in London, she made contact with the Victorian literary society's intellectual group. A member of the society and also a Jewish writer named Leonard Woolf (Nov. 25, 1880 - Aug. 14, 1969) would marry Virginia in 1912. Virginia believed that her marriage was probably the best thing that ever happened in her life.
Leonard and Virginia founded Hogarth Press and collaborated on writing books. Below is a list of some of Virginia's works with the most popular ones being highlighted:
- Night and Day (1919);
- Monday or Tuesday (1921; a collection of short stories);
- The Common Reader (1925; essays);
- Jacob’s Room (1922);
- Mrs. Dalloway (1925; later on film starring Nicole Kidman);
- To The Lighthouse (1927);
- Orlando: A Biography (1928);
- A Room of One's Own (1929).
Leonard was devoted to Virginia's care during her challenging periods with depression. Keep in mind that during the early 1900s, there was not a great understanding of what we term as mental illness. If, for example, Virginia was suffering from a bipolar disorder or manic-depression, there was not a lot medicine could do for her at that time, let alone have all the information at her disposal to understand what was going on in her mind. When she would recover from these episodes including the distraught times when she could hear voices in her head, she would be back to writing another promising book.
Virginia's Notable Career and The Bloomsbury Group
In 1905, Virginia worked for The Times Literary Supplement. Through the encouragement she received from the other members of the Bloomsbury Group, she was writing routinely and contributing regularly to London papers. This group consisted of writers and artists, intellectuals and philosophers and all holding discussions that were informal. They would meet throughout the 1900s and some of the members practiced open marriages. Other popular members included James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot.
In the early 1920s, Virginia developed a relationship with Vita Sackville-West which became the fuel for her book, Orlando: A Biography. Vita was also a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia and Vita, although both married to men, also shared a long term relationship. I recommend reading Orlando for the experience of its incredible and interesting writing style--the reader is definitely pulled in.
She received good reviews for her first novel, The Voyage Out (published 1915), and everything she was writing after that earned her the shoes of one of the most popular Modernist writers, including writers like T.S. Eliot. When Virginia participated with the Bloomsbury Group, she was in a more comfortable setting because she knew her ideas and thoughts would be heard regardless of the fact that she was a woman.
The era of modernism was a movement that traveled through a period of time offering feelings of hopelessness, especially with the effects of World War I. Writers and artists alike arrived at new ways to help relate to the human experience. Writing that employed stream of consciousness became a tool to form characters and embrace written thought, e.g., the writing of James Joyce. Virginia has been credited for having also pioneered modernism. Just as the realism period was a revolt against romanticism, so too was modernism against realism.
Depression and Death
Virginia's Between the Acts was published in 1941. She began having depression again which was fueled by the effects of World War II and her house being destroyed. Her writing was dramatically affected. As demonstrated in letters she had written, she was very much aware of her condition. She hoped to not cause anymore trouble or upsetness for her husband when she would have these spells and decided to drown herself (March 28, 1941). She had left two suicide notes for her husband. After placing heavy stones in her coat pockets, she entered the River Ouse, but her body wasn't discovered until the following month. Virginia did not want to be a burden to her husband and she was afraid that there would be that one time she would have that one mental episode and never return.
Her husband, Leonard, had her buried in the garden of their home in Sussex. Leonard completed her works. He died in 1960. Her biography was composed by her nephew, Professor Quentin Bell, entitled, Virginia Woolf: A Biography.
The news that was cabled to The New York Times in 1941 is available on that publication's website for a small cost to access the archived article.
In passing, for those who have not read or seen Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it is noteworthy to know that this novel written by Edward Albee is not a biography of Virginia's life. It is true it is about a dysfunctional relationship; the title is a play on the words, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf."
Virginia wanted to influence change for women writers who had an inferior role during the late 1800s to early 1920s in particular. She believed in equal opportunities for women and even though she didn't have the opportunity to have the education she would have wanted, she still is popular amongst her new and existing fans as a powerful writer.
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