Virginia Woolf was born in London, the daughter of the prominent literary critic Leslie Stephen. She never received a formal university education; her early education was obtained at home through her parents and governesses. After death of her father in 1904, her family moved to Bloomsbury, where they formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of philosophers, writers and artists. As a writer, Woolf was a great experimenter. She scorned the traditional narrative form and turned to expressionism as a means of telling her story. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To The Lighthouse (1927), her two generally acknowledged masterpieces, are stream-of-consciousness novels in which most of the action and conflict occur beneath a surface of social decorum. Mrs. Dalloway, set in London shortly after the end of World War I, takes place on a summer's day of no particular significance, except that intense emotion, insanity, and death intrude.To the Lighthouse's long first and third sections, each of which concerns one day 10 years apart, of the same family's summer holidays, are separated and connected by a lyrical short section during which the war occurs, several members of the family die, and decay and corruption run rampant. Orlando (1928) is the chronological life story of a person who begins as an Elizabethan gentleman and ends as a lady of the twentieth century; Woolf's friend, Victoria Sackville-West, served as the principal model for the multiple personalities. (The book was made into a movie in 1993.) Flush (1933) is a dog's soliloquy that, by indirection, recounts the love story of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and their elopement and life in Florence. Her last short novel, Between the Acts (1941), was left without her final revision, but it is, nonetheless, a major representation of a society on the verge of collapse. Having had periods of depression throughout her life and fearing a final mental breakdown from which she might not recover, Woolf drowned herself in 1941. Her husband published part of her farewell letter to deny that she had taken her life because she could not face the terrible times of war. Leonard Woolf also edited A Writer's Diary (1953), which provides valuable insights into his wife's private thoughts and literary development. Equally informative are his own autobiographies, particularly Beginning Again and Downhill All the Way (1967), and The Letters of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey . Virginia Woolf's Granite and Rainbow contains 27 essays on the art of fiction and biography. There are many sidelights on Woolf in the writings, letters, and biographies of other members of her Bloomsbury circle, such as Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes (see Vol. 3), and Lytton Strachey (see Vol. 3). Also casting much light on her life, thought, and creative processes are The Common Reader (1925), The Second Common Reader (1933), A Room of One's Own (1929), Three Guineas (1938), The Captain's Death Bed and Other Essays, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942), and various collections of her autobiographical writings, diaries, and letters. In addition, in recent years there has been a veritable industry of writers dealing with Woolf and her work.
In 1878, Leslie Stephen and Julia Jackson Duckworth married, which was the second marriage for both of them. 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 whom Virginia would later illustrate 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, George fondled her. 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 the press 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, rather than 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 spend ten to twelve hours at a time 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.