Biography of Virginia Woolf

In 1878, Leslie Stephen and Julia Jackson Duckworth married, a second marriage for both. They gave birth to Adeline Virginia Stephen four years later, on the 25th of January at 22 Hyde Park Gate, London. Virginia was the third of their four children. Leslie Stephen began his career as a clergyman but soon became agnostic and took up journalism. He and Julia provided their children with a home of wealth and comfort.

Though denied the formal education allowed to males, Virginia was able to take advantage of her father's abundant library and observe his writing talent, and she was surrounded by intellectual conversation. The same year Virginia was born, for instance, her father began editing the huge Dictionary of National Biography. Virginia's mother, more delicate than her husband, helped to bring out the more emotional sides of her children. Both parents were very strong personalities; Virginia would feel overshadowed by them for years.

Virginia would suffer through three major mental breakdowns during her lifetime, and she would die during a fourth. In all likelihood, the compulsive drive to work that she acquired from her parents, combined with her naturally fragile state, primarily contributed to these breakdowns. Yet other factors were important as well. Her first breakdown occurred shortly following the death of her mother in 1895, which Virginia later described as "the greatest disaster that could have happened." Some have suggested that Virginia felt guilt over choosing her father as her favorite parent. In any case, her father's excessive mourning period probably affected her adversely.

Two years later, Virginia's stepsister Stella Duckworth died. Stella had assumed charge of the household duties after their mother's death, causing a rift between her and Virginia. Virginia fell sick soon after Stella's death. The same year, Virginia began her first diary.

Over the next seven years, Virginia's decision to write took hold and her admiration for women grew. She educated herself and greatly admired women such as Madge Vaughan, daughter of John Addington Symonds, who wrote novels and would later be illustrated as Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway.

Her admiration for strong women was coupled with a growing dislike for male domination in society. Virginia's feelings were likely affected by her relationship to her stepbrother, George Duckworth, who was fourteen when Virginia was born. In the last year of her life, Virginia wrote to a friend regarding the shame she felt when, at the age of six, she was fondled by George. Similar incidents recurred throughout her childhood until Virginia was in her early twenties. In 1904 her father died, shortly after finishing the Dictionary and receiving a knighthood. Though freed from his shadow, Virginia was overcome by the event and suffered her second mental breakdown, combined with scarlet fever and an attempted suicide.

When she recovered, Virginia left Kensington with her three siblings and moved to Bloomsbury, where she began to consider herself a serious artist. She immersed herself in the intellectual company of her brother Thoby and his Cambridge friends. This group, including E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, later formed what was known as the Bloomsbury Group, under the Cambridge don G.E. Moore. They were dedicated to the liberal discussion of politics and art. In 1906, Thoby died of typhoid fever and Virginia's sister married one of Thoby's college friends, Clive Bell. Virginia was on her own.

Over the next four years, Virginia would begin work on her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915). In 1909, she accepted a marriage proposal from Strachey, who later broke off the engagement. She received a legacy of 2,500 pounds the same year, which would allow her to live independently. In 1911, Leonard Woolf, another of the Bloomsbury Group, returned from Ceylon, and they were married in 1912. Woolf was the stable presence Virginia needed to control her moods and steady her talent. He gave their home a musical atmosphere. Virginia trusted his literary judgment. Their marriage was a partnership, though some suggest their sexual relationship was nonexistent.

Virginia fell ill more frequently as she grew older, often taking respite in rest homes and in the care of her husband. In 1917, Leonard founded the Hogarth Press to publish their own books, hoping that Virginia could bestow the care on the press that she would have bestowed on children. (She had been advised by doctors not to become pregnant after her third serious breakdown in 1913. Virginia was fond of children, however, and spent much time with her brother's and sister's children.) Through the press, she had an early look at Joyce's Ulysses and aided authors such as Forster, Freud, Isherwood, Mansfield, Tolstoy, and Chekov. She sold her half interest in 1938.

Before her death, Virginia published an extraordinary amount of groundbreaking material. She was a renowned member of the Bloomsbury Group and a leading writer of the modernist movement with her use of innovative literary techniques. In contrast to the majority of literature written before the early 1900s, which emphasized plot and detailed descriptions of characters and settings, Woolf's writing thoroughly explores the concepts of time, memory, and consciousness. The plot is generated by the characters' inner lives, not by the external world.

In March 1941, Woolf left suicide notes for her husband and sister and drowned herself in a nearby river. She feared her madness was returning and that she would not be able to continue writing, and she wished to spare her loved ones.

Over the course of her many illnesses, however, Woolf had remained productive. Her intense powers of concentration had allowed her to work ten to twelve hours writing. Her most notable publications include Night and Day, The Mark on the Wall, Jacob's Room, Monday or Tuesday, Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One's Own, The Waves, The Years, and Between the Acts. In total, her work comprises five volumes of collected essays and reviews, two biographies (Flush and Roger Fry), two libertarian books, a volume of selections from her diary, nine novels, and a volume of short stories.


Study Guides on Works by Virginia Woolf

In Jacob's Room, the novel preceding Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf works with many of the same themes she later expands upon in Mrs. Dalloway. To Mrs. Dalloway, she added the theme of insanity. As Woolf stated, "I adumbrate here a study of...

Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando stands as one of those works of literature that could not be fully appreciated in its time because it appears to be written specifically for a future zeitgeist. Issues explored in the novel on the subject of gender...

In late October, 1928, Virginia Woolf delivered a lecture on "Women and Fiction" at Newnham and Girton, the two women's college at Cambridge, England. Woolf had written the lecture in May; in 1929, she expanded it into what is now "A Room of One's...

To the Lighthouse (1927) is widely considered one of the most important works of the twentieth century. With this ambitious novel, Woolf established herself as one of the leading writers of modernism. The novel develops innovative literary...