Last reviewed: June 2017
January 25, 1882
March 28, 1941
The River Ouse, near Rodmell, Sussex, England
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)
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)
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.