Authors: Virginia Woolf

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

British author

January 25, 1882

London, England

March 28, 1941

The River Ouse, near Rodmell, Sussex, England

Biography

The preeminent literary figure of the Bloomsbury circle, Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf is an important modern experimental writer. The second daughter of Leslie Stephen (knighted in 1902) and his second wife, Julia Prinsep Duckworth Stephen, she was born in Kensington, London, on January 25, 1882. Even as a child she exhibited the two traits that would characterize her life: a highly creative imagination and keen intelligence, coupled with extreme nervousness that resulted in breakdowns under stress. Because of this nervousness she did not attend school, but her father, one of London’s leading literati, gave her free rein to use his library at Hyde Park Gate. The family spent its summers at Tallant House, St. Ives, on the Cornish coast, the setting for To the Lighthouse. At the suggestion of Violet Dickinson, Woolf began sending samples of her writing to Margaret Lyttleton, editor of the women’s pages for the weekly The Guardian; her first article, a review of William Dean Howells’s The Son of Royal Langbrith (1904), appeared in that periodical on December 14, 1904. Even after she became an established writer she continued to review, especially for The Times Literary Supplement; some of these pieces developed into essays such as those collected in The Common Reader.

The year 1904 not only marked the launching of Woolf’s literary career but also witnessed the beginning of the Bloomsbury circle. Following the death of their father in February of that year, Virginia, her sister Vanessa, and her brother Adrian set up house in Gordon Square. Their home became a gathering place for many of their brother Thoby Stephen’s Cambridge University friends, among them Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, whom Vanessa would marry, and Leonard Sidney Woolf, who married Virginia in 1912. Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, appeared in 1915; it and Night and Day, published four years later, are conventional. With Jacob’s Room, however, she began to experiment; she was free to try out new techniques because in 1917 she and her husband had established the Hogarth Press. Intended initially as a hobby, it became an important conduit for modern writers, including T. S. Eliot and Katherine Mansfield (whom the Woolfs met because of the press), Sigmund Freud, Harold Laski, Robert Graves, and E. M. Forster.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)

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George Charles Beresford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)

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George Charles Beresford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Over the next two decades, a steady stream of work flowed from Woolf’s pen: six more novels; biographies of Roger Fry and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, Flush; two volumes of The Common Reader; and numerous short stories, essays, and letters. Writing was a relief, but it was also a struggle, against both the blank page and mental breakdown. Overwhelmed by the Blitz and fears for her Jewish husband’s life in the event of a Nazi conquest of England, Woolf committed suicide on March 28, 1941. As this event so tragically demonstrates, Woolf was not oblivious to the great world events of her time. War intrudes into Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and Between the Acts, and feminism into The Years, but Woolf’s concern is largely with the intimate and the interior. As early as 1919, in her essay “Modern Fiction,” she attacked the Edwardians as “materialists” for their emphasis on external reality. As much as Ezra Pound and the Imagists in poetry, she adhered to the creed, “Make it new!” She urged writers to “look within,” to focus on the psychological state of their characters.

Hence, in the tradition of Samuel Richardson and Jane Austen, she concentrates on the small but revealing action—or inaction. A look can charge the air and make everyone in the room twitch. Like the Victorians, she is a realist, but for her reality is, as she states in A Room of One’s Own, “now . . . in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodil in the sun.” In Woolf’s fiction, children, artists, women, and those who reject outworn beliefs and conventions can perceive that reality. Even for them, though, the luminous moment cannot last, for evil and stupidity can easily overwhelm goodness and intelligence. Thus, in Between the Acts, the child George enjoys a perfect moment of happiness as he holds a flower. Then he is bowled over by his grandfather and an Afghan hound.

Woolf treats a small world of artists, scholars, intellectuals—the people she knew from Bloomsbury—but within that world she confronts all the important issues: love and hate, freedom and bondage, solitude and society. Her novels, like her criticism, focus on the small detail, the seemingly insignificant element that can illuminate a character and, indeed, the world. Dismissed or ignored by many critics during the mid-twentieth century, Woolf has since that time gained recognition as one of the principal innovators in modern literature. Her experimental fiction helped to liberate the novel from the tyranny of plot, encouraging other writers to follow her in the exploration of consciousness. Woolf’s works have been translated into more than fifty languages; three journals are devoted to analyzing her life and works; and virtually every available scrap of her writing, even the reading notes she made for her book reviews, has been published. Woolf commented that her father gave her only one piece of advice about writing—to say clearly, in the fewest words possible, precisely what she meant. Among scholars and lay readers alike, the consensus is that she mastered this lesson well.

Author Works Long Fiction: Melymbrosia, wr. 1912, pb. 1982, revised 2002 (early version of The Voyage Out; Louise DeSalvo, editor) The Voyage Out, 1915 Night and Day, 1919 Jacob’s Room, 1922 Mrs. Dalloway, 1925 To the Lighthouse, 1927 Orlando: A Biography, 1928 The Waves, 1931 Flush: A Biography, 1933 The Years, 1937 Between the Acts, 1941 Short Fiction: Two Stories, 1917 (one by Leonard Woolf) Kew Gardens, 1919 The Mark on the Wall, 1921 Monday or Tuesday, 1921 A Haunted House, and Other Short Stories, 1943 Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, 1973 (Stella McNichol, editor) The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, 1985 Nonfiction: The Common Reader: First Series, 1925 A Room of One’s Own, 1929 The Common Reader: Second Series, 1932 Three Guineas, 1938 Roger Fry: A Biography, 1940 The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays, 1942 The Moment, and Other Essays, 1947 The Captain’s Death Bed, and Other Essays, 1950 A Writer’s Diary, 1953 Letters: Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, 1956 Granite and Rainbow, 1958 Contemporary Writers, 1965 Collected Essays, Volumes 1-2, 1966 Collected Essays, Volumes 3-4, 1967 The London Scene: Five Essays, 1975 The Flight of the Mind: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. I, 1888-1912, 1975 (pb. in U.S. as The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. I: 1888-1912, 1975; Nigel Nicolson, editor) The Question of Things Happening: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. II, 1912-1922, 1976 (pb. in U.S. as The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. II: 1912-1922, 1976; Nicolson, editor) Moments of Being, 1976 (Jeanne Schulkind, editor) Books and Portraits, 1977 The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 1977-1984 (5 volumes; Anne Olivier Bell, editor) A Change of Perspective: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. III, 1923-1928, 1977 (pb. in U.S. as The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. III: 1923-1928, 1978; Nicolson, editor) A Reflection of the Other Person: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. IV, 1929-1931, 1978 (pb. in U.S. as The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. IV: 1929-1931, 1979; Nicolson, editor) The Sickle Side of the Moon: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V, 1932-1935, 1979 (pb. in U.S. as The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V: 1932-1935, 1979; Nicolson, editor) Leave the Letters Til We’re Dead: The Letters of Virginia Woolf,Vol. VI, 1936-1941, 1980 (Nicolson, editor) The Essays of Virginia Woolf, 1987-1994 (4 volumes) Bibliography Abel, Elizabeth. Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. With a focus upon symbolism and stylistic devices, this book comprehensively delineates the psychoanalytic connections between Woolf’s fiction and Sigmund Freud’s and Melanie Klein’s theories. Sometimes difficult to follow, however, given Abel’s reliance on excellent but extensive endnotes. Baldwin, Dean R. Virginia Woolf: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Baldwin’s lucid parallels between Woolf’s life experiences and her innovative short-story techniques contribute significantly to an understanding of both the author and her creative process. The book also presents the opportunity for a comparative critical study by furnishing a collection of additional points of view in the final section. A chronology, a bibliography, and an index supplement the work. Banks, Joanne Trautmann. “Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.” In The English Short Story, 1880-1945: A Critical History, edited by Joseph M. Flora. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1985. In about twelve pages, the philosophical themes of several stories (imagination, perception) are briefly explored, plus the affinities of the two writers, deriving from feminist concerns and admiration of Anton Chekhov’s short fiction. Barrett, Eileen, and Patricia Cramer, eds. Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings. New York: New York University Press, 1997. This collection of conference papers features two essays on Woolf’s stories: one on Katherine Mansfield’s presence in Woolf’s story “Moments of Being,” and one that compares lesbian modernism in the stories of Woolf with lesbian modernism in the stories of Gertrude Stein. Beja, Morris, ed. Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1985. This collection is divided into two sections: reviews of Woolf’s major works and essays on Woolf’s art and artistic vision. The various interpretations reflect the editor’s premise that Virginia Woolf, though claimed by several ages and schools of criticism, was unique and thus cannot be pigeonholed in any specific way. Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. 2 vols. London: The Hogarth Press, 1972. Written by Virginia Woolf’s nephew, this biography is based upon Woolf’s memoirs, journals, and correspondence. While it is invaluable for its storehouse of information, it says little about Woolf’s fiction and the ways in which her life and work were interrelated. Bennett, Joan. Virginia Woolf: Her Art as a Novelist. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1945. Reprint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964. Though a slim volume, this book offers a useful overview of Woolf’s innovations and her continuity with tradition. Chapters on Woolf’s fictional techniques are followed by chapters on her contributions to nonfiction through A Writer’s Diary (1953) and her many critical essays. Bleishman, Avrom. “Forms of the Woolfian Short Story.” In Virginia Woolf: Revaluation and Continuity, edited by Ralph Freedman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. In twenty-six pages, abstract theoretical issues concerning genre are discussed; then several stories are divided into the two categories of linear (for example, “The New Dress” and “Kew Gardens”) and circular (for example, “The Duchess” and “Lappin and Lapinova”) in form. Bloom, Harold, ed. Virginia Woolf. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. This volume is a collection of essays and excerpts ranging from 1951 to the time of the book’s publication. Arranged chronologically, the volume offers various interpretations of Woolf’s work, including the editor’s introduction, with its discussion of Woolf’s aesthetic ideas and several essays which offer feminist interpretations of Woolf’s novels. Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 2005. A thorough biography of Woolf, shedding light on her creative process as well as her own perceptions of her work. Daiches, David. Virginia Woolf. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1942. Brief comments are offered on “A Haunted House,” “The Mark on the Wall,” “Monday or Tuesday,” “A Society,” “The String Quartet,” and “An Unwritten Novel.” Dalsimer, Katherine. Virginia Woolf: Becoming a Writer. New York: Yale University Press, 2002. Woolf has long been associated with psychoanalysis as the first English-language publisher of Sigmund Freud. Dalsimer, a psychoanalyst herself, analyzes Woolf’s writings in all genres to uncover the psychology that underlies her literary persona. DeSalvo, Louise. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. Dick, Susan, ed. Introduction to The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. 2d ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. Along with classification of stories into traditional ones and fictional reveries, with affinities in works of nineteenth century writers such as Thomas De Quincey and Anton Chekhov, invaluable notes are given on historical, literary, and cultural allusions, as well as textual problems, for every story. Dowling, David. Mrs. Dalloway: Mapping Streams of Consciousness. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Divided into sections on literary and historical context and interpretations of the novel. Dowling explores the world of Bloomsbury, war, and modernism; the critical reception of the novel and how it was composed; Woolf’s style, theory of fiction, handling of stream of consciousness, structure, characters, and themes. Includes a chronology and concordance to the novel. Ginsberg, Elaine K., and L. M. Gottlieb, eds. Virginia Woolf: Centennial Essays. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1983. Sixteen papers cover, among other topics, Woolf’s style, gender consciousness, and feminist inclinations. Style, approach, and interpretation vary widely by presenter, and the text as a whole requires some familiarity with Woolf’s writings. Notes on contributors, endnotes following each paper, and an index are provided. Goldman, Jane. The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism, and the Politics of the Visual. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A feminist reading of Woolf’s works that focuses on the influence of literary and artistic modernism and places her in her historical and cultural context. Gordon, Lyndall. Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1985. In this biography, Gordon looks not only at Woolf’s life in Bloomsbury but also at her works, including the unfinished memoirs, the drafts of novels, and some lesser-known and unpublished pieces. Divides Woolf’s life into three phases: her childhood, her time of literary apprenticeship and recurring illness, and her mature period of artistic achievement. Guiget, Jean. Virginia Woolf and Her Works. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965. This book begins with a study of Woolf’s world, the cultural milieu which shaped her and within which she wrote. It then focuses on specific works, beginning with the nonfiction and working through the novels, stories and sketches, and biographies. The final section considers basic problems Woolf faced in her search for a new literary form. Head, Dominic. “Experiments in Genre.” In The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Head discusses Woolf’s search for a narrative texture that would adequately portray her notion of life as amorphous. Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Women’s Lives: The View from the Threshold. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. This volume discusses George Eliot, Woolf, Willa Cather, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Focuses on the female view and feminism in literature. King, James. Virginia Woolf. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. A literary biography that relates Woolf’s life to her work. Shows how the chief sources of her writing were her life, her family, and her friends. Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. A detailed biography of Woolf, her complex family relationships, her lifelong battle with mental illness, and her relationship to the Bloomsbury group. Marder, Herbert. The Measure of Life: Virginia Woolf’s Last Years. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the life and work of Woolf during her final, suicide haunted decade. Marcus, Jane, ed. Virginia Woolf: A Feminist Slant. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. In this second volume of feminist essays (the first, New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, was published in 1981 and was also edited by Marcus), the diversity within the discipline of feminist scholarship is apparent. The editor writes about Woolf’s aunt, Caroline Emelia Stephen; Louise De Salvo explores Virginia Stephen at fifteen; Emily Jensen examines the lesbian content of Mrs. Dalloway; and other essays consider still more diverse aspects of Woolf’s life and works. Meyerowitz, Selma. “What Is to Console Us? The Politics of Deception in Woolf’s Short Stories.” In New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, edited by Jane Marcus. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. In fourteen pages, in contrast to formal aspects or general philosophical themes such as the quest for reality, the political and social content of several stories is stressed, particularly feminist issues of subordination and powerlessness, alienation, negative male traits, class conflict, and oppressive social institutions. Reid, Panthea. Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Drawing on the wealth of material available about Woolf and her circle, Reid reexamines the writer’s personal relationships and literary theories. Roe, Sue, and Susan Sellers, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A landmark collection of essays by leading scholars that addresses the full range of Woolf’s intellectual perspectives—literary, artistic, philosophical and political. Rose, Phyllis. Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. In this biography, Rose assumes a feminist perspective, asserting that Woolf’s feminism was the crux of her life and literature. Explores in great detail Woolf’s recurrent bouts with madness. Warner, Eric, ed. Virginia Woolf: A Centenary Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. With a nonpartisan approach, this text offers seven papers and two panel discussions from Fitzwilliam College’s Virginia Woolf Centenary Conference in Cambridge, England. Notes at the end of each presentation, notes on the contributors, and an index are provided. Woolf, Virginia, and Sackville-West, Vita. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska. 2001. 500 letters. Photos.

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