The Life and Works of Virginia Woolf
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on January 25th, 1882 in London. She was one of 8 children in a blended household. Her mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen was a renowned beauty and her Father, Leslie Stephen was a well known editor. Both her mother and father had each been married previously and were widowed. As a consequence of their previous marriages, each brought children of their own into their marriage. Julia and Leslie produced four more children together, Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia, and Adrian Stephen.
Woolf, who was educated at home by her father, grew up at the family home at Hyde Park Gate. Her youth was full of emotional, psychological and physical trauma. She suffered loss after loss and sexual abuse at the hands of her half brother. Gerald Duckworth, her half-brother, sexually abused her. In 'Sketch of the Past' (1939) she wrote: "I can remember the feel of his hands going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower, I remember how I hoped that he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts. But he did not stop." Julia Jackson Duckworth died when Virginia was in her early teens. Stella Duckworth, her half sister, took her mother's place, but died a short two years later. Leslie Stephen suffered a slow death from stomach cancer, he died in 1904. Following the death of her father, and a brief stay in a nursing home due to the mental breakdown, Woolf moved with her sister and two brothers to the house in Bloomsbury. Not too long after living in Bloomsbury, Virginia inherited a substantial amount of money from an aunt who had passed away.
Her brother Thoby passed away in 1906 from Typhoid. Upon his death, his sisters continued his customary 'Thursday Evening' gatherings of his friends at their Bloomsbury home. It was at this gathering that Virginia met her husband, Leonard Woolf. In 1912 she married the political theorist Leonard (Sidney) Woolf (1880-1969), who had returned from serving as an administrator in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Leonard Woolf was of Jewish descent, the son of a barrister. Woolf had anti-Jewish attitudes, but she loved her husband. Leonard Woolf had studied at Cambridge and from 1923 to 1930 he was a literary editor on the Nation. During WW I he was not called for military service, most likely due to his constantly trembling hands; and most of the Bloomsburies were conscientious objectors. In 1917 he set up a small hand press at Hogarth House, and worked as its director until his death. Leonard Woolf's works include novels, non-fiction, and his five volume memoirs Sowing (1960), Growing (1961), Beginning Again (1964), Downhill All the Way (1967), and The Journey Not the Arrival Matters (1969).
Virginia as a Writer
Woolf began writing professionally in 1900, initially for the Times Literary Supplement with a journalistic piece about the Haworth, home of the Bronte family. Her first novel, The Voyage Out was published in 1915 by her half-brother's imprint, Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd. This novel was originally entitled Melymbrosia, but Woolf repeatedly changed the draft. An earlier version of The Voyage Out has been reconstructed by Woolf scholar Louise Desalvo and is now available to the public under the intended title. DeSalvo argues that many of the changes Woolf made in the text were in response to changes in her own life.
Woolf went on to publish novels and essays as a public intellectual to both critical and popular success. Much of her work was self-published through the Hogarth Press. She has been hailed as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century and one of the foremost modernists. She is considered one of the greatest innovators in the English language. In her works she experimented with stream-of-consciousness and the underlying psychological as well as emotional motives of characters. Woolf's reputation declined sharply after World War II, but her eminence was re-established with the surge of feminist criticism in the 1970s.
Her work was criticized for epitomizing the narrow world of the upper-middle class English intelligentsia. Some critics judged it to be lacking in universality and depth, without the power to communicate anything of emotional or ethical relevance to the disillusioned common reader. She was also criticized by some as an anti-Semite, despite her being happily married to a Jewish man. This anti-Semitism is drawn from the fact that she often wrote of Jewish characters in stereotypical archetypes and generalizations, including describing some of her Jewish characters as physically repulsive and dirty. The overwhelming and rising 1920s and 30s anti-semitism possibly influenced Virginia Woolf. She wrote in her diary, "I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh." However, in a 1930 letter to the composer, Ethel Smyth, quoted in Nigel Nicolson's biography, Virginia Woolf, she recollects her boasts of Leonard's Jewishness confirming her snobbish tendencies, "How I hated marrying a Jew- What a snob I was, for they have immense vitality." In another letter to her dear friend Ethel Smyth, Virginia gives a scathing denunciation of Christianity, seeing it as self-righteous "egotism" and stating "my Jew has more religion in one toe nail—more human love, in one hair." Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf actually hated and feared 1930s fascism with its anti-Semitism knowing they were on Hitler’s blacklist. Her 1938 book Three Guineas was an indictment of fascism.
Virginia Woolf's peculiarities as a fiction writer have tended to obscure her central strength: Woolf is arguably the major lyrical novelist in the English language. Her novels are highly experimental: a narrative, frequently uneventful and commonplace, is refracted—and sometimes almost dissolved—in the characters' receptive consciousness. Intense lyricism and stylistic virtuosity fuse to create a world overabundant with auditory and visual impressions.
The intensity of Virginia Woolf's poetic vision elevates the ordinary, sometimes banal settings – often wartime environments – of most of her novels. For example, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) centers on the efforts of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged society woman, to organize a party, even as her life is paralleled with that of Septimus Warren Smith, a working-class veteran who has returned from the First World War bearing deep psychological scars.
To the Lighthouse (1927) is set on two days ten years apart. The plot centers around the Ramsay family's anticipation of and reflection upon a visit to a lighthouse and the connected familial tensions. One of the primary themes of the novel is the struggle in the creative process that beset painter Lily Briscoe while she struggles to paint in the midst of the family drama. The novel is also a meditation upon the lives of a nation's inhabitants in the midst of war, and of the people left behind. It also explores the passage of time, and how women are forced by society to allow men to take emotional strength from them.
Orlando (1928) has a different quality from all Virginia Woolf's other novels suggested by its subtitle, "A Biography", as it attempts to represent the character of a real person and is dedicated to Vita-Sackville West. It was meant to console Vita for being a girl and for the loss of her ancestral home, though it is also a satirical treatment of Vita and her work. In Orlando the techniques of historical biographers are being ridiculed; the character of a pompous biographer is being assumed in order for it to be mocked.
The Waves (1931) presents a group of six friends whose reflections, which are closer to recitatives than to interior monologues proper, create a wave-like atmosphere that is more akin to a prose poem than to a plot-centered novel.
Her last work, Between the Acts (1941) sums up and magnifies Woolf's chief preoccupations: the transformation of life through art, sexual ambivalence, and meditation on the themes of flux of time and life, presented simultaneously as corrosion and rejuvenation—all set in a highly imaginative and symbolic narrative encompassing almost all of English history. This book is the most lyrical of all her works, not only in feeling but in style, being chiefly written in verse. While Woolf's work can be understood as consistently in dialogue with Bloomsbury, particularly its tendency (informed by G.E. Moore among others) towards doctrinaire rationalism, it is not a simple recapitulation of the coterie's ideals.