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Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), English author, feminist, essayist, publisher, and critic wrote A Room of One’s Own (1929);
All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.-Ch. 1
Now regarded as a classic feminist work, Woolf based her extended essay A Room on lectures she had given at women’s colleges at Cambridge University. Using such female authors as Jane Austen and Emily and Charlotte Bronte, she examines women and their struggles as artists, their position in literary history and need for independence. She also invents a female counterpart of William Shakespeare, a sister named Judith to at times sarcastically get her point across. Woolf proved to be an innovative and influential 20th Century author. In some of her novels she moves away from the use of plot and structure to employ stream-of-consciousness to emphasise the psychological aspects of her characters. Themes in her works include gender relations, class hierarchy and the consequences of war. Woolf was among the founders of the Modernist movement which also includes T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.
The effects of bi-polar disorder at times caused Woolf protracted periods of convalescence, withdrawing from her busy social life, distressed that she could not focus long enough to read or write. She spent times in nursing homes for ‘rest cures’; frankly referred to herself as ‘mad’; said she heard voices and had visions. “My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What’s this passion for?” (from a letter dated 28 Dec. 1932). The subject of suicide enters her stories and essays at times and she disagreed with the perception that it is an act of cowardice and sin. When Virginia was not depressed she worked intensely for long hours at a time. She was vivacious, witty and ebullient company and a member of the Bloomsbury Group or ‘Bloomsbury’ which had been started by her brother Thoby and his friends from Cambridge. It quickly grew to encompass many of London’s literary circle, who gathered to discuss art, literature, and politics. During her life and since her death she has been the subject of much debate and discussion surrounding the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her half-brother, her mental health issues and sexual orientation. Also, her pacifist political views in line with Bloomsbury caused controversy. From Three Guineas (1931);
Therefore if you insist upon fighting to protect me, or “our” country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself or my country. “For,” the outsider will say, “in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”-Ch. 3
Regardless of the polemic, or because of it, even into the 21st Century Woolf’s prodigious output of diaries, letters, critical reviews, essays, short stories, and novels continue to be the source of much scholarly study. Adeline Virginia Stephen was born in London, England on 25 January 1882, daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), literary critic and first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. His first wife, daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, Harriet Marion (b.1840) died in 1875. Virginia’s mother was his second wife, Julia Prinsep Jackson Duckworth (1846-1895) who inspired the character Mrs. Ramsay in To The Lighthouse (1927).
Virginia had two brothers, Thoby (1880-1906) and Adrian (1883-1948) who became a psychoanalyst. She was very close to her older sister Vanessa ‘Nessa’ (1876-1961) who would become a painter and marry art critic Clive Bell. She also had four half-siblings; Laura Makepeace Stephen (1870-1945), and George (1868-1934), Gerald (1870-1937) [who would found Duckworth and Co. Publishing] and Stella (1869-1897) Duckworth.
A number of the Stephen relatives were friends of Scottish historian and author Thomas Carlyle. Many other successful Victorian authors of the time were regular visitors to their bustling home in Hyde Park including Henry James and George Eliot; Virginia would write an article about her for the Times Literary Supplement in 1919. “Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people.” (“George Eliot”). Their works and many others’ including Charles Dickens’s and Thackeray’s were part of her home education. Her father had a massive library so she and her sister were not without material although Virginia would soon reject the values and morals of their generation.
The Stephens summered at ‘Talland House’ in St. Ives, County Cornwall in the southwest of England along the rocky shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Virginia had vivid and fond memories of these times which often had an influence on her writing including visits to a nearby lighthouse. However they ended when her mother died; she was just thirteen years old and suffered the first major breakdown of many that would plague her off and on the rest of her life. The death of Stella, who had become like a mother to Virginia and the death of her father caused another period of profound depression. “The beauty of the world ... has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” (A Room of One’s Own). Vanessa then moved her sister and brothers to another neighborhood in London, Bloomsbury. Virginia was feeling better and by 1905 was writing in earnest articles and essays, and became a book reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. She also taught teaching English and History at Morley College in London.
In 1906 Virginia, Vanessa and their brothers traveled to Europe, where Thoby contracted typhoid fever and died from in 1906. Back in England the Bloomsbury Group was flourishing, their home a meeting place for writers, scholars and artists including Clive Bell, artist and art critic, who Vanessa married 1907. They would not stay together for long. After his third proposal, Virginia finally married left-wing political journalist, author and editor Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) on 10 August 1912. They would have no children. In 1914 when World War I broke out they were living in Richmond and Woolf was working on her first novel The Voyage Out (1915) a satirical coming-of-age story;
As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are very narrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm. If you persist, lawyers’ clerks will have to make flying leaps into the mud; young lady typists will have to fidget behind you. In the streets of London where beauty goes unregarded, eccentricity must pay the penalty, and it is better not to be very tall, to wear a long blue cloak, or to beat the air with your left hand.-Ch. 1
Leonard and Virginia would themselves get into the publishing business, together founding the Hogarth Press in 1917. Works by T. S. Eliot and Katherine Mansfield would be among their many publications including Virginia’s. Night and Day (1919) was followed by her short story collection Monday or Tuesday (1921) and essays in The Common Reader (1925). Jacob’s Room (1922) was followed by Mrs. Dalloway (1925) which inspired a film “The Hours” in 2002. To The Lighthouse (1927) was followed by Orlando: A Biography (1928);
Different though the sexes are, they inter-mix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is very opposite of what it is above…..Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.-Ch. 4
One of her more popular novels, it was adapted to the screen in 1993. A roman à clef, Orlando’s character is modeled after Vita Sackville West (1892-1962), friend and possible lover of Woolf; Princess Sasha based on her friend Violet Trefusis. Vita’s husband Harold Nicolson also plays a part as Marmaduke. Their son Nigel referred to it as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” “I was in a queer mood, thinking myself very old: but now I am a woman again—as I always am when I write.” (The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 31 May 1929.) The Waves (1931) is said to be Woolf’s most experimental work. Flush: A Biography (1933) is told through the eyes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel. The Second Common Reader (1933) her next collection of critical essays, was followed by The Years (1937) and Roger Fry: A Biography (1940).
With the outbreak of WWII the Woolfs were living at their country retreat, ‘Monk’s House’ near the village of Rodmell in Lewes, Sussex, which is now preserved by the National Trust. In 1940 they received word that their London home had been destroyed. Fear of a German invasion loomed and Leonard’s Jewish heritage provoked the couple to make a suicide pact if the possibility of falling into German hands arose. Leonard as usual was ever vigilant to the onset of the next major depressive episode in his wife; she would get migraine headaches and lay sleepless at night. However, he and her doctor, who had seen her the day before, would never intuit that her next one was to be her last. Her letters to friends had been written in shaky handwriting and though she was actively working on her manuscript for what was to be the last publication before her death, Between the Acts (1941) she did express much disdain for its worth and wanted to ‘scrap’ it.
The scullery maid....was cooling her cheeks by the lily pond. There had always been lilies there, self-sown from wind-dropped seed, floating red and white on the green plates of their leaves. Water, for hundreds of years, had silted down into the hollow, and lay there four or five feet deep over a black cushion of mud....fish swam—gold, splashed with white....poised in the blue patch made by the sky....It was in that deep centre, in that black heart, that the lady had drowned herself.
Virginia Woolf died on 28 March 1941 when she drowned herself in the River Ouse near their home in Sussex, by putting rocks in her coat pockets. Her body was found later in April and she was then cremated, her ashes spread under two elms at Monks’ House. She had left two similar suicide notes, one possibly written a few days earlier before an unsuccessful attempt. The one addressed to Leonard read in part;
Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again....And I shan’t recover this time.....I am doing what seems the best thing to do....I can’t fight any longer....Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer....I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.
After her death, Leonard set to the task of editing her vast collection of correspondence, journals, and unpublished works and also wrote an autobiography. He died in 1960. Posthumous publications include; The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942), A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944), and The Moment and Other Essays (1948). Virginia’s nephew, the late Professor Quentin Bell (1910-1996) wrote the award winning Virginia Woolf: A biography (2 vols, London: Hogarth Press, 1972).
Every season is likeable, and wet days and fine, red wine and white, company and solitude. Even sleep, that deplorable curtailment of the joy of life, can be full of dreams; and the most common actions—a walk, a talk, solitude in one’s own orchard—can be enhanced and lit up by the association of the mind. Beauty is everywhere, and beauty is only two finger’s-breadth from goodness. So, in the name of health and sanity, let us not dwell on the end of the journey. The Common Reader “Montaigne”-Ch. 6
Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2007. All Rights Reserved.
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