The end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th were times of great social upheaval. Virginia Woolf lived her life during those times, and her writing helped bring the modern world into existence. Sufficiently privileged to almost always have the ‘money and a room of her own’ to write, Virginia Woolf is often credited with conceiving the modern novel, with its emphasis on interior processes, rather than narrative. Since the 1970s she has been embraced as a founder of feminism, and she has been taken as a role model by many. Widely admired, but also condemned as a snob and elitist, she remains influential far beyond her literary output.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Issue #13 of the Anglotopia Print Magazine in 2019. Support great long-form writing about British History, Culture, and travel by subscribing to the Anglotopia Magazine. Every subscription helps keep Anglotopia running and provides us to the opportunity to produce articles like this. You can subscribe here.
- Born 1882 – died 1941
- Early writer of ‘stream of consciousness’ novels
- Founded the Hogarth Press
- Supporter of feminism and female authors
Adeline Virginia Woolf was born in the 25th of January 1882, into the upper echelons of British intellectual society. While country lords had held sway in earlier times, as the Victorian era drew to a close, a wealthy class, connected to, but not part of, the aristocracy had developed. Funded by industry and the colonies, many members of this elite were of a literary persuasion. Virginia’s family was certainly so. Her mother, Julia’s family, were Anglo-Indian – British expatriates who lived and built their fortunes in colonial India – but she had numerous relatives connected with the art world, including a great-aunt who modeled for the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burns-Jones. Others were early photographers or held fashionable salons for artists and writers. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was also an intellectual and had married the daughter of the writer William Makepeace Thackeray.
Julia’s barrister husband died after just three years of marriage, leaving her with three children. Before his death, they had been friends with the Stephen’s family, and Julia was present when Leslie Stephen’s wife Minnie died in childbirth. Julia invited Leslie to live next door to her so that his baby daughter could have the companionship of her own children. They were united in a shared agnosticism, a relatively rare lack of belief for the times, born from the bitterness of loss. After several years of close friendship, they married in 1879, and had four children, including Virginia. The family lived in Julia’s house, 22 Hyde Park Gate, a quiet street a short distance from the recently-built Royal Albert Hall.
Virginia’s childhood was occupied with the usual trappings of the Victorian middle-class, with frequent walks in nearby Hyde Park, and summer trips to Cornwall, including visits to the Godrevy Lighthouse. Those trips would form the basis for novels such as To the Lighthouse, written in 1927. The production of an ‘in-house’ journal called Hyde Park Gate News also occupied the time for young Virginia and her sister Vanessa. With literary parents, and her father’s connections to the Thackeray family, visits by notable writers of the time were common, and all the children were exposed to an intense literary and intellectual upbringing. Both parents disapproved of formal education for girls, so they educated their daughters in a dedicated space at the back of the drawing-room.
In 1895 Julia Stephen died of influenza, and on the Isle of Wight, where the family went for the summer to avoid the memories of Cornwall, Virginia suffered her first nervous breakdown. After her mother’s death Virginia and Vanessa were enrolled in the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London, learning Greek, Latin, German and history. Several of the teachers were politically active, and she was exposed to ideas of women’s suffrage and the movement for higher education for women. In 1902 her father became ill, spending two years as an invalid before passing away, leaving Virginia bereft again. University was barred to her, as a woman, but the attendance at Cambridge by her half-brother Thoby would become life-changing for Virginia. At Trinity College, he befriended a group of young intellectuals, who formed a reading group. Virginia was introduced to his circle at the Trinity May Ball in 1900.
After the death of their father, the children wanted to escape the oppressive atmosphere of Hyde Park Gate, filled with relatives and the memories of their parents. They traveled first to Wales, and then to France and Italy. It was during this time that Virginia began to see her destiny as a writer, but in May 1904 she suffered another nervous breakdown and attempted suicide.
22 Hyde Park Gate was sold, as it was the principal family asset at this time, and Stephen’s children, now in their early 20s, moved to 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, a bohemian neighborhood a considerable social distance from bourgeois South Kensington. They immediately began to entertain Thoby’s Cambridge circle, which had expanded to include numerous artists and writers of the period, as well as the economist John Maynard Keynes. At Gordon Square, they were called the ‘Thursday Club,’ but as the circle grew, it became the Bloomsbury Group, an influential network of the Edwardian avant-garde. Members included Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Rupert Brooke, E. M. Forster, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, David Garnett, and Roger Fry, A roll call of British art and literature greats of the early 20th century.
Virginia began to teach at Morley College, an adult-education and theatre school for working people, but tragedy was waiting in the wings again. Thoby died, just 26, of typhoid fever. Her sister Vanessa married Clive Bell, and Virginia and her brother Adrian moved to a new house, in the adjacent neighborhood of Fitzrovia. The house, 29 Fitzroy Square, had been occupied previously by George Bernard Shaw. The Thursday Club moved with them. Virginia began writing her first novel, called ‘Melymbrosia’ but published as The Voyage Out (1915). Rivalry with Vanessa emerged, and her flirtation with Clive Bell, reciprocated by him, led to the breakdown of the marriage.
In 1911 Virginia and Adrian, with John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant and Leonard Woolf, took a house together at 38 Brunswick Square, back in Bloomsbury. The next year Leonard Woolf and Virginia married, and since Woolf was basically ‘a penniless Jew,’ in Virginia’s words, they moved into a small flat. Several moves followed over the years; first to Richmond, then back to Bloomsbury, settling for a time at 52 Tavistock Square. Looking for a source of income, and with an interest in bookbinding that had begun when she was 19, Virginia and Leonard founded ‘Hogarth Press,’ starting with the printing press in their dining room. They used the company to publish Virginia’s novels, as well as other new and unconventional authors such as T. S. Eliot and Laurens van der Post, and contemporary artists, including Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell. Virginia dreamt of the Press becoming a community of women writers. She and Leonard had an international outlook and introduced Maxim Gorky to British readers. Politically they were pacifists and Fabian socialists.
Virginia met the gardener and successful writer Vita Sackville-West in 1922. Vita built a still-famous garden at Sissinghurst. They became very close, with Vita, more successful at the time, encouraging Virginia in her work, and trying to build her self-confidence. Vita was well-known for her female lovers, although she only rarely bedded Virginia, who, in turn, boasted of relationships with other women over the years. None of this took away Leonard’s boundless support, which continued long after her death, with him defending her as her fame grew.
More practically, Vita gave her books to Hogarth Press for publication, and their success took the company into the black and provided financial stability. Even before she married, Virginia had rented a cottage in Sussex as a retreat, and she and Leonard used it, and another rented house, Asham House, to escape London, and for Virginia to write. With more financial stability they bought the Round House in Lewes but soon sold it to buy Monk’s House in the village of Rodmell. In 1940, after their London house was bombed in the Blitz, they moved permanently to Sussex.
Throughout her life, Vita suffered breakdowns and depressions of varying intensities. It has been suggested that these were the result of sexual abuse by her half-brothers, and she may have been bipolar. Sometimes she was institutionalized, and one doctor diagnosed ‘excessive education’ as the cause of her illness. In 1941, after completing her last novel, Between the Acts, she fell into a deep depression. When Leonard joined the Home Guard, she felt he was betraying their pacifist principles. On the morning of the 28th of March 1941, she filled her coat pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse, which ran near their home. Her body was not recovered for three weeks, and Leonard buried her ashes beneath a tree in the garden.
Sites to Visit
- There are Blue Plaques marking houses at:
- 22 Hyde Park Gate, South Kensington, London
- 29 Fitzroy Square, Fitzrovia, London
- Hogarth House, 34 Paradise Road, Richmond, London
- Round House, Pipe Passage, Lewes, East Sussex
- Monk’s House, Rodmell. East Sussex
- There is a bust of Virginia Woolf in Tavistock Square, London
- There is a plaque on the Virginia Woolf Building, King’s College, Queensway, London
- The Voyage out (1915)
- Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
- To the Lighthouse (1927)
- Orlando (1928)
- The Waves (1931)
- Between the Acts (1941)
- A Room of One’s Own (1933) – feminist literary criticism
- Three Guineas (1938) – an indictment of fascism
- A Writer’s Diary (1953, ed. Leonard Woolf)
- Collections of Virginia Woolf’s diaries and letters are also available.
- Virginia Woolf: A Biography, by Quentin Bell, 1974
- Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee 1999
- Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, by Julia Briggs, 2005
- Virginia Woolf, by Alexandra Harris, 2011