Adeline Virginia Woolf (/wʊlf/; née Stephen; 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English writer, who is considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device.
Virginia Stephen was born into an affluent household in South Kensington, London. She was the seventh child in a blended family of eight. Her mother, Julia Stephen, celebrated as a Pre-Raphaelite artist's model, had three children from her first marriage, her father Leslie Stephen, a notable man of letters, had one previous daughter, and four children were born in her parents' second marriage, of whom the most well known was the modernist painter Vanessa Stephen (later Vanessa Bell). While the boys in the family were educated at university, the girls were home-schooled in English classics and Victorian literature. An important influence in Virginia's early life was the summer home the family used in St Ives, Cornwall, where she first saw the Godrevy Lighthouse, which was to become iconic in her novel To the Lighthouse (1927). Virginia's childhood came to an abrupt end in 1895 with the death of her mother and her first mental breakdown. This was soon followed by the death of her stepsister and surrogate mother, Stella Duckworth, two years later. The Stephen sisters were then able to attend the Ladies' Department of King's College, where they studied classics and history (1897–1901) and came into contact with early reformers of women's higher education and the women's rights movement. Other important influences were their Cambridge-educated brothers and unfettered access to their father's vast library. Virginia's father encouraged her to become a writer and she began writing professionally in 1900. Their father's death in 1905 was a major turning point in their lives and the cause of another breakdown, following which the Stephens moved from Kensington to the more bohemian Bloomsbury, where they adopted a free-spirited lifestyle. It was there, that in conjunction with their brothers' intellectual friends, they formed the artistic and literary Bloomsbury Group. With Vanessa's marriage in 1907, Virginia became more independent, marrying Leonard Woolf in 1912. With Leonard she founded the Hogarth Press in 1917, which published much of her work. In 1910, Virginia started to feel the need to have a retreat away from London, in Sussex, and following the destruction of their London home during the war, in 1940, the Woolfs moved there permanently. Throughout her life Virginia Woolf was troubled by bouts of mental illness, including being institutionalised and attempting suicide. Her illness is considered to be bipolar disorder, for which there was no effective intervention in her lifetime. Eventually in 1941 she drowned herself in a river at age 59.
During the interwar period, Virginia Woolf was an important part of London's literary and artistic society. She published her first novel, titled The Voyage Out, in 1915, through her half-brother's publishing house, Gerald Duckworth and Company. Her best-known works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse and Orlando (1928). She is also known for her essays, including A Room of One's Own (1929), where she wrote the much-quoted dictum, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
Woolf became one of the central subjects of the 1970s movement of feminist criticism, and her works have since garnered much attention and widespread commentary for "inspiring feminism", an aspect of her writing that was unheralded earlier. Her works are widely read all over the world and have been translated into more than 50 languages. A large body of literature is dedicated to her life and work, and she has been the subject of many plays, novels, and films. Some of her writing has been considered offensive and has been criticised for a number of complex and controversial views, including anti-semitism and elitism. Virginia Woolf is commemorated today by statues, societies dedicated to her work and a building at the University of London.