Virginia Wolf

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Biographie of Virginia Woolf, English writer considered among the most important in the 20th century, is a benchmark in modern literature and feminism.

Virginia Woolf, extraordinary writer and novelist

With eight written novels and more than thirty books of other genres, Virginia Woolf continues to be one of the most influential writers in literature.

She is the author who most revolutionized narrative in the 20th century. She was also the one who most defended women’s rights through her texts.

Virginia Woolf’s childhood and family

Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882, in London. She was the third of four siblings.

In the family home there were children from three marriages.

Her parents came from previous marriages and had provided their respective offspring.

Virginia had three stepbrothers, children from her mother’s first marriage

Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a prominent literary critic, historian, and famous mountaineer.

Virginia’s mother, Julia Jackson, was descended from a waitress to Queen Marie Antoinette.

Julia Jackson was a member of a family of important characters and famous for the beauty of their women

She had been born in India, and had moved to England with her mother.

In London, she worked as a model for pre-Raphaelite painters like Edward Burne-Jones.

She was Leslie Stephen’s second wife.

The education Virginia Woolf received

All the children of the Stephen Jackson couple received their homeschooling, taught by tutors and by their father.

They grew up in an environment frequented by artists, writers and publishers.

The Stephen had an immense library that was considered the great treasure of the home.

Due to this library, Virginia and her sister Vanessa had many facilities to get to know the works of the classics and English writers.

When she was nine years old, little Virginia created a kind of family newspaper called “The Hyde Park Gate News“.

This mentioned the address of the house: number 22 at Hyde Park Gate, in the Kensington neighborhood.

However, according to Virginia’s memoirs, her most vivid childhood memories were not of London, but of St. Ives in Cornwall.

In Cornwall the family spent their summer vacations between 1882 and 1894, until Virginia was 12 years old.

The beautiful beach at Porthminster in Cornwall. Credit: web

In that summer house, overlooking Porthminster Beach, Virginia Woolf treasured her earliest literary memories.

Those landscapes and characters, especially the Godrevy lighthouse, inspired her years later, when she wrote her work “To the lighthouse“.

Virginia Woolf’s Teen Years

On May 5, 1895, her mother died suddenly, from rheumatic fevers.

Two years later, her stepsister Stella, who had taken over the family home after Julia Stephen’s death, died of peritonitis.

At the time, 13-year-old Virginia and her sister Vanessa were repeatedly sexually abused by two of her stepbrothers George and Gerald Duckworth.

Virginia could never overcome mistrust and a certain disgust towards men.

Virginia Woolf began to suffer from depressive moods that became chronic and often made her change her mood.

Today it is diagnosed as bipolar personality disorder. This disease was aggravated with the death of her stepsister Stella.

Virginia Woolf’s Young Years

In 1905, her father died of cancer. Virginia was 23 years old.

Virginia, her sister Vanessa and her brother Adrian sold the house at number 22 in Hyde Park Gate.

They immediately bought a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, West London, in the West End.

Gordon Square
Gordon Square in Bloomsbury is owned by the University of London. Credit: web

Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group

This 46 Gordon Square home became a meeting place for former college buddies for Adrian, Virginia’s older brother.

Writers such as Forster, the economist Keynes, the painter Grant, and the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein attended these meetings.

Very soon, the brothers decided to form a group, which they called “Bloomsbury“.

They were a small intellectual elite, whose objectives were the search for knowledge and aesthetic pleasure.

All of them felt a political and moral nonconformity towards the upper class, to which they belonged.

Within this group there were intense intellectual relationships, but also numerous romantic friendships.

Virginia Woolf’s first steps as a writer

Virginia Woolf began writing articles in the newspaper “The Guardian” and for the literary supplement of “The Times“.

She also accepted the invitation to teach at Morley College.

This was a school for working class men and women. At Morley College she taught English literature and history sporadically.

Leonard Woolf
Leonard Woolf was a brilliant British public servant. Credit: web

Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf

In 1912, at the age of thirty, Virginia married Leonard Woolf, a Jewish writer, economist, and also a member of the Bloomsbury group.

The two also collaborated professionally. Five years later, in 1917, they founded the famous publishing house Hogarth Press.

There they published the work of Virginia herself and that of other relevant writers.

Virginia Woolf Leonard
Leonard belonged to a low-ranking social and economic class, but he was a brilliant intellectual. Credit: web

In 1922 Virginia met the writer Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had a love relationship, even though she was also married.

Virginia found in Vita a literary muse who was her inspiration.

Although the relationship ended without their respective marriages being dissolved, the friendship continued for the rest of their lives.

Vita Sackvilewest
Writer Vita Sackvile-West was ten years younger than Virginia Woolf. Credit: web

In 1928, Virginia Woolf dedicated the work “Orlando” to Vita Sackville-West.

This is a fantastic biography in which Orlando’s life spans three centuries and the relationships between the sexes.

Vita Sackville-West’s son said it was “the longest and most charming love letter in the history of literature“.

Virginia Woolf and her literary Works

Woolf began writing professionally in 1905.

At first she did it for the “Times Literary Supplement“, with a journalism piece about the house called Haworth, the name of the Brontë family home.

In 1908, after publishing articles and reviews for various London newspapers, Virginia carried out her first literary work: the play Melymbrosia.

This work was the basis for her first novel, published in 1915 (when she was already 37 years old) under the title “End of Travel“.

It took Virginia eight years to publish this novel, which is like the book about her life. It was published by the publishing house of her stepbrother Gerard Duckworth.

End of Travel” reflects the concerns that Virginia had, and those of the social moment that she had to live in the early 20th century. Her literary style stands out notably.

In 1919 Virginia published “Night and Day“. It is a romantic novel in a realistic style, and it is developed through four characters that make up a very particular love quartet, with crossed relationships.

The work analyzes the society in which she lived, where modernity was in conflict with the traditional, and the role of women began to have transformations in England.

Virginia Woolf has already revealed her intention to break the narrative molds inherited from the previous English novel.

In particular, she dispenses with descriptions of traditional settings and characters.

The plot of the story subtly questions whether there needs to be love within a marriage.

She wonders if love can still be talked about, in a time when romanticism has already been left behind.

In 1922, the publisher Hogarth Press, owned by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, published their first great novel: “Jacob’s Room“.

Virginia Woolf began to experience her own literary style, which is full of metaphors and symbolisms and in which the characters take center stage through their interior monologues.

Virginia Woolf’s great novel

Three years later, in 1925, Virginia Woolf achieved great success with her novel “Mrs. Dalloway“, which is possibly her best-known work.

The plot of the novel covers only 12 hours in which the author explores the personality of the protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway.

The literary critics praised with enthusiasm and admiration her literary originality, the technical mastery and the experimental desire of the author, who introduced in the novel some images hitherto more typical of poetry.

The novel served as inspiration, in 2002, for the dramatic film “The Hours“, directed by Stephen Daldry.

Nicole Kidman gave life to the famous author. With this performance, Nicole Kidman won an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Nicole Kidman
Nicole Kidman as the writer Virginia Woolf, in the movie Las Horas. Credit: web

The script of the film is an adaptation of the novel “The Hours“. The author, Michael Cunningham, was a 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner.

The whole story takes place over the course of the same day. It is about three women at different times and generations.

The lives of these women are connected through Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway“.

In the film, Nicole Kidman plays a Virginia Woolf in 1923.

Julianne Moore plays an unhappy wife who reads the book in 1951.

Meryl Streep plays the role of a bisexual editor from New York.

She is a modern Mrs. Dalloway, who takes care of a writer friend (Ed Harris).

This former lover is in advanced stages of AIDS and Mrs. Dalloway has decided to prepare a party for him.

Other novels written by Virginia Woolf

In 1927 Virginia Woolf published a novel titled “To the Lighthouse“. It tells a family discussion about whether or not to go on an excursion to a lighthouse.

The novel addresses the situation of women in England, and their power struggle with men.

Following this publication, critics abounded in praise of Virginia Woolf’s literary originality.

Indeed, in this work Virginia Woolf’s technical mastery as a writer draws attention.

In 1928 Virginia Woolf published a haunting and mysterious free fantasy.

It is based on some passages from the life of her lover Vita Sackville-West. She called it “Orlando: a biography“.

The protagonist lives five centuries of English history.

The differences between the masculine and feminine condition embodied in the protagonist are blurred.

This is an aristocrat endowed with the power to transform into a woman.

Orlando” is distinguished from the rest of the novels, because in it Virginia Woolf tried to represent a real person; she wanted to do “a biography”.

In 1929 Virginia Woolf wrote a very significant short essay: “A Room of Your Own“.

The play deals with the difficulties that intellectual women and writers suffer.

This is because men have a disproportionate legal and economic power over them.

Her intention was to show that this arrogance is unfair and harms the education and comprehensive development of women.

One of her clarifying sentences is “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is going to write fiction“.

Virginia Woolf was a pioneering feminist, advocate for women’s rights. She was also a brilliant intellectual and a great innovator in literature.

In the 1930’s Virginia Woolf published:

  • The waves” (1931), where she creates an atmosphere of prose poem.
  • The years” (1937).
  • Three Guineas” (1938), an essay in which she continued with feminist themes. She also turned her gaze to fascism and war. Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf really hated and feared fascism in the 1930s. They knew they were on Hitler’s blacklist.

Between the Acts” (published posthumously in 1941) was the last novel to end. However, she was unable to correct it before her death.

It is her most bitter narrative; summarizes and magnifies her main concerns: the transformation of life through art, sexual ambivalence and reflection on the flow of time and life. It concludes on the uselessness of existence.

It is the most lyrical of her books, written mainly in verse.

Virginia Woolf is arguably the greatest lyrical novelist in the English language.

Virginia Woolf’s last years of life

In 1940, at the outbreak of World War II, the house of Virgilia and Leonard was destroyed during a German bombardment.

Both thought that if England were invaded by Germany, the life of Leonard, who was Jewish, would be in real danger.

So they decided that in such a case, the two of them would commit suicide.

Leonard Woolf not only supported his wife widely, but helped her all that time.

He provided her with the life and atmosphere she needed to live and write.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf
Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. Credit: Wikipedia

As Virginia worked on the novel “Between the Acts“, Leonard sensed that she was sinking into deepening despair.

The devastating effects of the warfare plunged her into serious depression.

The cold reception her biography had about her friend Roger Fry worsened her condition.

Her depression became so severe that she was unable to work.

These events left Virginia Woolf’s emotional turmoil without a way back.

At 59, she was unable to cope with her despair. On March 28, 1941, she put on her coat, and filled the pockets with stones.

She then entered the River Ouse to end her life.

Before her tragic decision, she left two letters, one for her sister Vanessa Bell; and another, for her husband Leonard Woolf, the two most important people in her life.

Her husband’s said the following:
I feel like I’m going to go crazy again.
I don’t think we can go through one of those terrible times again. And I can’t recover this time.

I start hearing voices, and I can’t focus. So I do what I think is the best I can do. You have given me the maximum happiness possible. You have been in every way everything anyone could be.

I think two people cannot be happier until this terrible illness came. I can’t fight anymore.

I know that I am ruining your life, that without me you will be able to work. You will, I know. You see I can’t even write this properly.

I can not read. What I mean is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been totally patient with me and incredibly good.

I mean – everyone knows. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. I have lost everything except the certainty of your goodness.

I can not continue ruining your life any longer. I don’t think two people could be happier than you and I have been. V.”.

Her body was found three weeks later.

Leonard Woolf cremated her remains and scattered the ashes under a tree in the garden of Monk’s House.

They lived in that house since 1919, in Rodmell, Sussex.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It was an American play (1962) by Edward Albee. In 1966 Mike Nichols directed a film of the same name Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?, adapted from the play.

In both plays, Virginia Woolf does not appear as a character. The play is about a married, college, alcoholic, and dysfunctional woman. It could be interpreted as “Who is afraid to face life as it is, without living from dreams?“.

The narrative technique of the interior monologue and the poetic style of Virginia Woolf stand out as the most important contributions to the modern novel.

The publication of her letters, essays, and diaries after her death, despite her husband’s efforts to avoid it, have meant a very valuable legacy, both for future writers and for readers looking for works that go beyond the conventional.

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