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Virginia Woolf
(January 25, 1882 - March 28, 1941) U.K.

Virginia Woolf

Writer

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Virginia Adeline Woolf (née: Stephen) was born in London, England. Her father was the eminent Victorian writer and critic Sir Leslie Stephen, and a moving portrait of both her parents may be found in the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey in Woolf's masterpiece To the Lighthouse. The death of Woolf's mother in 1895 shattered the thirteen year old, and she suffered a mental breakdown. She was thereafter educated at home by her father, and given "the free run of a large and unexpurgated library." Unlike her brothers, she did not attend university.

When her father died in 1904, Woolf moved with her older sister Vanessa and brothers Adrian and Thoby from the fashionable Kensington district where they had grown up to a house in Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, a Bohemian section of London, which also included other homosexuals like painter Duncan Grant and economist John Maynard Keynes. By 1905, Woolf was doing regular review work for the Times Literary Supplement. The death of her brother Thoby in 1906 came as a devastating blow, and would later provide the wound at the center of her novel The Waves.

In 1907, after Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell, Woolf and Adrian moved to Fitzroy Square, also in Bloomsbury. It was here that the so-called Bloomsbury Group began meeting. A loose collection of like-minded individuals, most of whom were homosexual, the Group had originally begun with friendships Thoby had started at Cambridge. Influenced by the philosopher G. E. Moore, they held that the ideals of friendship, love and affection were paramount, and that these could only flourish where frankness and freedom from prudery prevailed.

Virginia WoolfSocial convention was to be replaced by the rigors of personal morality and responsibility. The Group regarded communication as the supreme goal--in the words of the novelist E. M. Forster, "Only connect." In addition to Forster, the Group included economist Maynard Keynes, biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey, painter Duncan Grant, and art critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell.

After having warned him that she found the idea of sex with a man distasteful, on August 10, 1912, though she sexually preferred women to men, she married Leonard Woolf, a Cambridge graduate recently returned from a judgeship in Ceylon. Theirs was a marriage of mutual respect and emotional support in which sexual relations were minimal. Together they established the Hogarth Press, which in addition to publishing Virginia Woolf's novels, also published important writers such as Forster, T.S. Eliot and Katherine Mansfield.

Work on her first novel, The Voyage Out, led Woolf to another serious nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt in 1915. She recovered, however, and in 1919 published a second novel, Day and Night. Both of these were fairly conventional works, but with her next novel, Jacob's Room, she began to experiment with narrative in radical ways. This fertile experimentation continued in her three masterpieces: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves. Highly innovative in their deployment of temporal subjectivity, interiorized landscape and multiple consciousness, they are among the greatest works in the canon of literary high modernism.

Virginia Woolf's strongest emotional ties had always been with women: first, her sister Vanessa (whom she loved to the point of "thought-incest"), later Madge Vaughn (the daughter of J. A. Symonds, and inspiration for the character of Mrs. Dalloway), Violet Dickinson, and the ever-troublesome Ethel Smyth. In 1922, Woolf met and fell in love with Vita Sackville-West, a gardener. After a tentative start, they began an affair that lasted through most of the 1920's. In 1928, Woolf presented Vita with Orlando, a fantastical romp of a biography in which the eponymous hero's life spans three centuries and both genders. It has been called by Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West's son, "the longest and most charming love letter in literature."

Woolf was a tireless writer, producing in addition to her novels several books of criticism including The Common Reader, The Common Reader: Second Series, and The Death of the Moth, as well as thousands of letters and some 500,000 words of diaries. Her ambitious novel The Years, which like all her novels cost her much in psychic terms, is generally considered a valiant failure, though her last work, Between the Acts, shows her embarking on bold new paths.

After their home was destroyed by German bombs in the London blitz, Virginia and Leonard Woolf moved to Rodmell in Sussex. Severely depressed by the war and exhausted by the composition of Between the Acts, Woolf again began to hear the birds singing in Greek that had presaged her 1915 breakdown. Wishing to spare Leonard the pain of another bout with madness, she drowned herself in the River Ouse.

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Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf's great influence is twofold. First, her gorgeously innovative novels dramatically changed the landscape of modern fiction. As one of this century's pre-eminent fiction writers she has been a role model for countless women struggling to find their own voice and talent in the face of a patriarchy that, like Charles Tansley in To the Lighthouse, is constantly reminding them "Women can't write." Second, her essays A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas have become the cornerstones of much contemporary feminist thought. Perhaps thinking of her own failure to attend university, Woolf asks the great question in A Room of One's Own, "What would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister?" The answer is haunting.

She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. ... Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was betrothed to the son of a neighboring wool-stapler.

She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. ... The force of her gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer's night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen . The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother's, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face ... at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so - who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?

Time will only, I think, serve to enhance Virginia Woolf's stature as a germinal figure in the evolution of the modern lesbian. Through the questions she asked, the visions she had, the stories she told, she helped create an intellectual space in which women could begin to imagine those rooms of their own which they would require in order to fully explore the myriad possibilities so long denied them. Although Gertrude Stein is more present as a lesbian in the common imagination, Woolf's work - at once gossamer and fierce as a steel trap - is likely, in the long run, to prove the more durable of the two in its contribution to lesbian identity.

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Books


  • The Voyage (1915)
  • Two Stories (1917)
  • Night and Day (1919)
  • Monday or Tuesday (1921)
  • Jacob's Room (1922)
  • Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
  • The Common Reader (1925)
  • To the Lighthouse (1927)
  • Orlando, a Biography (1928)
  • A Room for One's Own (1929)

  • The Waves (1931)
  • The Common Reader: Second Series (1932)
  • Flush, a Biography (1933)
  • Freshwater (1935)
  • The Years (1937)
  • Three Guineas (1938)
  • Roger Fry, a Biography (1940)
  • Between the Acts (1941)
  • The Death of the Moth (1942)
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