Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf
Photograph of Virginia Woolf in 1902; photograph by George Charles Beresford
Virginia Woolf 1902
Photo: George Charles Beresford
Born Adeline Virginia Stephen
(1882-01-25)25 January 1882
South Kensington, London
Died 28 March 1941(1941-03-28) (aged 59)
Lewes, Sussex, England
Cause of death Suicide by drowning
Residence Monk's House, Rodmell, East Sussex
Nationality British
Alma mater King's College London [1]
Occupation Novelist, essayist, publisher, critic
Spouse(s) Leonard Woolf (m. 1912–1941)
Virginia Woolf signature.svg

Adeline Virginia Woolf ( f/; [3] née Stephen; 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English writer who is considered one of the most important modernist twentieth century authors and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device.

She was born in an affluent household in South Kensington, London, attended the Ladies' Department of King's College and was acquainted with the early reformers of women's higher education. Having been home-schooled for the most part of her childhood, mostly in English classics and Victorian literature, Woolf began writing professionally in 1900. During the interwar period, Virginia Woolf was an important part of London's literary society as well as a central figure in the group of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. She published her first novel titled The Voyage Out in 1915, through her half-brother’s publishing house, Gerald Duckworth and Company. Her best-known works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928). She is also known for her essay A Room of One's Own (1929), [4] where she wrote the much-quoted dictum, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."

Woolf became one of the central subjects of the 1970s movement of feminist criticism, and her works have since garnered much attention and widespread commentary for "inspiring feminism", an aspect of her writing that was unheralded earlier. Her works are widely read all over the world and have been translated into more than fifty languages. She suffered from severe bouts of mental illness throughout her life and took her own life by drowning in 1941 at the age of 59.


Family of origin

Childhood homes
Photograph of 22 Hyde Park Gate with commemorative plaques for the Stephen family
Photo of Talland House, St. Ives during period when the Stephen family leased it
Talland House, St. Ives, c. 1882–1895

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on 25 January 1882 at 22 Hyde Park Gate in South Kensington, London [6] to Julia (née Jackson) (1846–1895) and Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), writer, historian, essayist, biographer and mountaineer. [6] Julia Jackson was born in 1846 in Calcutta, Bengal, British India to Dr John and Maria (Mia) Pattle Jackson, from two Anglo-Indian families. [7] Dr Jackson FRCS was the third son of George Jackson and Mary Howard of Bengal, a physician who spent 25 years with the Bengal Medical Service and East India Company and a professor at the fledgling Calcutta Medical College. While Dr Jackson was an almost invisible presence, the Pattle family (see Pattle family tree) were famous beauties, and moved in the upper circles of Bengali society. [8] The seven Pattle sisters all married into important families. [9] Julia Margaret Cameron was a celebrated photographer while Virginia married Earl Somers, and their daughter, Julia Jackson's cousin, was Lady Henry Somerset, the temperance leader. Julia moved to England with her mother at the age of two and spent much of her early life with another of her mother's sister, Sarah. Sarah and her husband Henry Thoby Prinsep, conducted an artistic and literary salon at Little Holland House where she came into contact with a number of Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Edward Burne-Jones, who she modelled for. [10]

Julia was the youngest of three sisters and Adeline Virginia Stephen was named after her mother's oldest sister Adeline Maria (1837–1881) [11] and her mother's aunt Virginia (see Pattle family tree and Table of ancestors). Because of the tragedy of her Aunt Adeline’s death the previous year, the family never used Virginia’s first name. The Jacksons were a well educated, literary and artistic proconsular middle-class family. [12] [13] In 1867, Julia Jackson married Herbert Duckworth, a barrister, [14] but within three years was left a widow with three infant children. [15] She was devastated and entered a prolonged period of mourning, abandoning her faith and turning to nursing and philanthropy. Julia and Herbert Duckworth had three children; [16]

  • George (5 March 1868 – 1934), a senior civil servant, married Lady Margaret Herbert 1904
  • Stella (30 May 1869 – 1897), died aged 28 [b]
  • Gerald (29 October 1870 – 1937), founder of Duckworth Publishing, married Cecil Alice Scott-Chad 1921

Leslie Stephen was born in 1832 in South Kensington to Sir James and Lady Jane Catherine Stephen (née Venn), daughter of John Venn, rector of Clapham. The Venns were the centre of the evangelical Clapham sect. Sir James Stephen was the under secretary at the Colonial Office, and with another Clapham member, William Wilberforce, was responsible for the passage of the Slavery Abolition Bill in 1833. [6] [18] In 1849 he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. [19] As a family of educators, lawyers and writers the Stephens represented the elite intellectual aristocracy. While his family were distinguished and intellectual, they were less colourful and aristocratic than Julia Jackson's. A graduate and fellow of Cambridge University he renounced his faith and position to move to London where he became a notable man of letters. [20] In addition he was a rambler and mountaineer, described as a "gaunt figure with the ragged red brown beard...a formidable man, with an immensely high forehead, steely-blue eyes, and a long pointed nose". [c] [19] In the same year as Julia Jackson's marriage, he wed Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray (1840–1875), youngest daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, who bore him a daughter, Laura (1870–1945), [d] [22] but died in childbirth in 1875. Laura turned out to be developmentally handicapped. and was eventually institutionalised. [23] [24]

The widowed Julia Duckworth knew Leslie Stephen through her friendship with Minny's older sister Anne (Anny) Isabella Ritchie and had developed an interest in his agnostic writings. She was present the night Minny died [25] and added Lesley Stephen to her list of people needing care, and helped him move next door to her on Hyde Park Gate so Laura could have some companionship with her own children. [26] [27] [28] [5] Both were preoccupied with mourning and although they developed a close friendship and intense correspondence, agreed it would go no further. [e] [29] [30] Lesley Stephen proposed to her in 1877, an offer she declined, but when Anny married later that year she accepted him and they were married on March 26, 1878. He and Laura then moved next door into Julia's house, where they lived till his death in 1904. Julia was 32 and Leslie was 46. [24] [31]

Their first child, Vanessa, was born on May 30, 1879. Julia, having presented her husband with a child, and now having five children to care for, had decided to limit her family to this. [32] However, despite the fact that the couple took "precautions", [32] "contraception was a very imperfect art in the nineteenth century" [33] resulting in the birth of three more children over the next four years. [f] [34] [12] [35]

22 Hyde Park Gate (1882–1904)


 Photo of Julia Stephen with Virginia on her lap in 1884
Julia Stephen and Virginia 1884 [g]

Virginia provides insight into her early life in her autobiographical essays, including Reminiscences (1908), [37] 22 Hyde Park Gate (1921) [38] and A Sketch of the Past (1940). [39] She also alludes to her childhood in her fictional writing. In To The Lighthouse (1927) [40] Her depiction of the life of the Ramsays in the Hebrides is an only thinly disguised account of the Stephens in Cornwall and the Godrevy Lighthouse they would visit there. [41] [29] [42] However, Woolf's understanding of her mother and family evolved considerably between 1907 and 1940, in which the somewhat distant, yet revered figure of her mother becomes more nuanced and filled in. [43] In 1891, Vanessa and Virginia Stephen began the Hyde Park Gate News, [44] chronicling life and events within the Stephen family, [45] [35] while the following year the Stephen sisters also used photography to supplement their insights, as did Stella Duckworth. [46] Vanessa Bell's 1892 portrait of her sister and parents in the Library at Talland House (see image) was one of the family's favourites, and was written about lovingly in Leslie Stephen's memoir. [47]

Virginia was born into a literate and well-connected household of six children, with two half brothers and a half sister (the Duckworths, from her mother's first marriage), another half sister, Laura (from her father's first marriage, and an older sister, Vanessa and brother Thoby. The following year, another brother Adrian followed. The handicapped Laura Stephen lived with the family until she was institutionalised in 1891. [48] Julia and Leslie had four children together: [16]

Virginia was born at 22 Hyde Park Gate and lived there till her father's death in 1904. Number 22 Hyde Park Gate, South Kensington, lay at the south east end of Hyde Park Gate, a narrow cul-de-sac running south from Kensington Road, just west of the Royal Albert Hall, and opposite Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, [49] where the family regularly took their walks (see Map). Built in the early nineteenth century as one of a row of single family townhouses for the upper middle class, it soon became too small for their expanding family. At the time of their marriage, it consisted of a basement, two stories and an attic. In July 1886 Leslie Stephen obtained the services of J. W. Penfold, architect, to add additional living space above and behind the existing structure. The substantial renovations carried out by Grissell and Peto [h] added a new top floor, with three bedrooms and a study for himself, converted the original attic into rooms, and added the first bathroom. [50] [i] It was a tall but narrow townhouse, that at that time had no running water. Virginia would later describe it as "a very tall house on the left hand side near the bottom which begins by being stucco and ends by being red brick; which is so high and yet—as I can say now that we have sold it—so rickety that it seems as if a very high wind would topple it over" [52]. The servants worked "downstairs" in the basement. The ground floor had a drawing room, separated by a curtain from the servant's pantry and a library. Above this on the first floor were Julia and Leslie's bedrooms. On the next floor were the Duckworth children's rooms, and above them the day and night nurseries of the Stephen children occupied two further floors. [53] Finally in the attic, under the eaves, were the servant's bedrooms, accessed by a back staircase. [22] [39] [5] Life at 22 Hyde Park Gate was also divided symbolically, as Virginia put it "The division in our lives was curious. Downstairs there was pure convention: upstairs pure intellect. But there was no connection between them", the worlds typified by George Duckworth and Leslie Stephen. [54] Their mother, it seems was the only one who could span this divide. [55] [56] The house was described as dimly lit and crowded with furniture and paintings. [57] Within it the younger Stephens formed a close-knit group. Life in London differed sharply from that in Cornwall, their outdoor activities consisting mainly of walks in nearby Hyde Park, and their daily activities around their lessons. [6]

Leslie Stephen's eminence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray, meant that his children were raised in an environment filled with the influences of Victorian literary society. Henry James, George Henry Lewes, Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Edward Burne-Jones and Virginia's honorary godfather, James Russell Lowell, were among the visitors to the house. Julia Stephen was equally well connected. Her aunt was a pioneering early photographer Julia Margaret Cameron who was also a visitor to the Stephen household. The two Stephen sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, were almost three years apart in age, and exhibited some sibling rivalry. Virginia christened her older sister "the saint" and was far more inclined to exhibit her cleverness than her more reserved sister. Virginia resented the domesticity Victorian tradition forced on them, far more than her sister. They also competed for Thoby's affections. [58] Virginia would later confess her ambivalence over this rivalry to Duncan Grant in 1917. "indeed one of the concealed worms of my life has been a sister's jealousy — of a sister I mean; and to feed this I have invented such a myth about her that I scarce know one from t'other". [59]

Virginia showed an early affinity for writing. Although both parents disapproved of formal education for females, writing was considered a respectable profession for women, and her father encouraged her in this respect. Later she would describe this as "ever since I was a little creature, scribbling a story in the manner of Hawthorne on the green plush sofa in the drawing room at St. Ives while the grown-ups dined". By the age of five she was writing letters and could tell her father a story every night. Later she, Vanessa and Adrian would develop the tradition of inventing a serial about their next-door neighbours, every night in the nursery, or in the case of St. Ives, of spirits that resided in the garden. It was her fascination with books that formed the strongest bond between her and her father. [6]

Talland House (1882–1894)

Leslie Stephen was in the habit of hiking in Cornwall, and in the spring of 1881 he came across a large white house [60] in St. Ives, Cornwall, and took out a lease on it that September. [61] Although it had limited amenities, [j] its main attraction was the view overlooking Porthminster Bay towards

the Godrevy Lighthouse, [6] which the young Virginia could see from the upper windows and was to be the central figure in her To the Lighthouse (1927). [40] It was a large square house, with a terraced garden, divided by hedges, sloping down towards the sea. [6] Each year between 1882 and 1894 from mid-July to mid-September the Stephen's leased Talland House [6] [62] [k] as a summer residence. Leslie Stephen, who referred to it thus: "a pocket-paradise", [63] described it as "The pleasantest of my memories... refer to our summers, all of which were passed in Cornwall, especially to the thirteen summers (1882-1894) at St. Ives. There we bought the lease of Talland House: a small but roomy house, with a garden of an acre or two all up and down hill, with quaint little terraces divided by hedges of escallonia, a grape-house and kitchen-garden and a so-called ‘orchard’ beyond". [64] It was in Leslie's words, a place of "intense domestic happiness". [65] Virginia herself described the house in great detail:

"Our house was...outside the town; on the hill....a square house, like a child's drawing of a house; remarkable only for ts flat roof, and the railing with crossed bars of wood that ran around the roof. It had...a perfect view—right across the Bay to Godrevy Lighthouse. It had, running down the hill, little lawns, surrounded by thick escallonia had so many corners and lawns that each was was a large garden—two or three acres at most...You entered Talland House by a large wooden gate...up the carriage the Lookout place...From the Lookout place one had...a perfectly open view of the Bay....a large lap...flowing to the Lighthouse rocks...with the black and white Lighthouse tower"

Reminiscences 1908, pp. 111–112 [37]

Activities at Talland
Virginia and Adrian Stephen playing cricket at Talland House in 1886
Virginia and Adrian Stephen playing cricket 1886
Julia, Leslie and Virginia reading in the library at Talland House. Photography by Vanessa Bell
Julia, Leslie and Virginia, Library, Talland House 1892
Virginia playing cricket with Vanessa 1894
Virginia and Vanessa 1894 [66]

In both London and Cornwall, Julia was perpetually entertaining, and was notorious for her manipulation of her guests' lives, constantly matchmaking in the belief everyone should be married, the domestic equivalence of her philanthropy. [12] As her husband observed "My Julia was of course, though with all due reserve, a bit of a matchmaker". [67] While Cornwall was supposed to be a summer respite, Julia Stephen soon immersed herself in the work of caring for the sick and poor there, as well as in London. [62] [63] [l] Both at Hyde Park Gate and Talland House, the family mingled with much of the country's literary and artistic circles. [39] Frequent guests included literary figures such as Henry James and George Meredith, [67] as well as James Russell Lowell, and the children were exposed to much more intellectual conversations than their mother's at Little Holland House. [57] The family did not return, following Julia Stephen's death in May 1895. [63]

For the children it was the highlight of the year, and Virginia's most vivid childhood memories were not of London but of Cornwall. In a diary entry of 22 March 1921, [68] she described why she felt so connected to Talland House, looking back to a summer day in August 1890. "Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One’s past, I suppose; I see children running in the garden … The sound of the sea at night … almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain". [68] [6] [69] Cornwall inspired aspects of her work, in particular the "St Ives Trilogy" of Jacob's Room (1922), [70] To the Lighthouse (1927), [70] and The Waves (1931). [71] [72]


Portrait of Virginia Woolf with he rfather Leslie Stephen in 1902, by Beresford
Virginia and Leslie Stephen 1902

Julia Stephen fell ill with influenza in February 1895, and never properly recovered, dying on 5 May, [73] when Virginia was only 13. This was a pivotal moment in her life and the beginning of her struggles with mental illness. [6] Essentially, her life had fallen apart. [74] The Duckworths were travelling abroad at the time of their mother's death, and Stella returned immediately to take charge and assume her role. That summer, rather than return to the memories of St Ives, the Stephens went to Freshwater, Isle of Wight, where a number of their mother's family lived. It was there that Virginia had the first of her many nervous breakdowns, and Vanessa was forced to assume some of her mother's role in caring for Virginia's mental state. [73] Stella became engaged to Jack Hills the following year and they were married on 10 April 1897, making Virginia even more dependent on her older sister.

George Duckworth also assumed some of their mother's role, taking upon himself the task of bringing them out into society. [74] First Vanessa, then Virginia, in both cases an equal disaster, for it was not a rite of passage which resonated with either girl and attracted a scathing critique by Virgina regarding the conventional expectations of young upper class women "Society in those days was a perfectly competent, perfectly complacent, ruthless machine. A girl had no chance against its fangs. No other desires – say to paint, or to write – could be taken seriously". [m] [76] Rather her priorities were to escape from the Victorian conventionality of the downstairs drawing room to a "room of one's own" to pursue her writing aspirations. [74] She would revisit this criticism in her depiction of Mrs Ramsay stating the duties of a Victorian mother in To the Lighthouse "an unmarried woman has missed the best of life". [77]

The death of Stella Duckworth, her pregnant surrogate mother, on 19 July 1897, after a long illness, [78] was a further blow to Virginia's sense of self, and the family dynamics. [79] Woolf described the period following the death of both her mother and Stella as "1897–1904 — the seven unhappy years", referring to "the lash of a random unheeding flail that pointlessly and brutally killed the two people who should, normally and naturally, have made those years, not perhaps happy but normal and natural". [80] [74] In April 1902 their father became ill, and although he underwent surgery later that year he never fully recovered, dying on 22 February 1904. [81] Virginia's father's death precipitated a further breakdown. [82] Later, Virginia would describe this time as one in which she was dealt successive blows as a "broken chrysalis" with wings still creased. [6] Chrysalis occurs many times in Woolf's writing but the "broken chrysalis" was an image that became a metaphor for those exploring the relationship between Woolf and grief. [83] [84] At his death, Leslie Stephen's net worth was £15,715 6s. 6d. [n] ( probate 23 March 1904) [o] [87]


In the late nineteenth century, education was sharply divided along gender lines, a tradition that Virginia would note and condemn in her writing.. Boys were sent to school, and in upper-middle-class families such as the Stephens, this involved private boys schools, often boarding schools, and university. [88] [89] [90] [p] Girls, if they were afforded the luxury of education, received it from their parents, governesses and tutors. [96] Virginia was educated by her parents who shared the duty. There was a small classroom off the back of the drawing room, with its many windows, which they found perfect for quiet writing and painting. Julia taught the children Latin, French and History, while Leslie taught them mathematics. They also received piano lessons. [97] Supplementing their lessons was the children's unrestricted access to Leslie Stephen's vast library, exposing them to much of the literary canon, [13] resulting in a greater depth of reading than any of their Cambridge contemporaries, Virginia's reading being described as "greedy". [98] After Public School, the boys in the family all attended Cambridge University. The girls derived some indirect benefit from this, as the boys introduced them to their friends. [99] Another source was the conversation of their father's friends, to whom they were exposed. Leslie Stephen described his circle as "most of the literary people of mark...clever young writers and barristers, chiefly of the radical persuasion...we used to meet on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, to smoke and drink and discuss the universe and the reform movement". [19]

Julia Stephen at Talland House supervising Thoby, Vanessa, Virginia and Adrian doing their lessons, summer 1894
Virginia (3rd from left) with her mother and the Stephen children at their lessons, Talland House c. 1894
Photograph of 13 Kensington Square where Virginia attended classes of the Ladies' Department, King's College
13 Kensington Square, former home of the Ladies' Department, King's College

Later, between the ages of 15 and 19 she was able to pursue higher education. She took courses of study, some at degree level, in beginning and advanced Ancient Greek, intermediate Latin and German, together with continental and English history at the Ladies' Department of King's College London at nearby 13 Kensington Square between 1897 and 1901. [q] She studied Greek under the eminent scholar George Charles Winter Warr, professor of Classical Literature at King's. [101] In addition she had private tutoring in German, Greek and Latin. One of her Greek tutors was Clara Pater (1899–1900), who taught at King's. [1] [100] [102] Another was Janet Case, who involved her in the women's rights movement, and whose obituary Virginia would later write in 1937. Her experiences there led to her 1925 essay On Not Knowing Greek. [103] Her time at King's also brought her into contact with some of the early reformers of women's higher education such as the principal of the Ladies' Department, Lilian Faithfull (one of the so-called Steamboat ladies), in addition to Pater. [104] Her sister Vanessa also enrolled at the Ladies' Department (1899–1901). Although the Stephen girls could not attend Cambridge, they were to be profoundly influenced by their brothers' experiences there. When Thoby went up to Trinity in 1899 he became friends with a circle of young men, including Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Saxon Sydney-Turner, that he would soon introduce to his sisters at the Trinity May Ball in 1900. These men formed a reading group they named the Midnight Society. [105] [106]

Relationships with family

Although Virginia expressed the opinion that her father was her favourite parent, and although she had only just turned thirteen when her mother died, she was profoundly influenced by her mother throughout her life. It was Virginia who famously stated that "for we think back through our mothers if we are women", [107] and invoked the image of her mother repeatedly throughout her life in her diaries, [108] her letters [109] and a number of her autobiographical essays, including Reminiscences (1908), [37] 22 Hyde Park Gate (1921) [38] and A Sketch of the Past (1940), [39] frequently evoking her memories with the words "I see her ...". [110] She also alludes to her childhood in her fictional writing. In To The Lighthouse (1927) [40] the artist, Lily Briscoe, attempts to paint Mrs Ramsay, a complex character based on Julia Stephen, and repeatedly comments on the fact that she was "astonishingly beautiful". [111] Her depiction of the life of the Ramsays in the Hebrides is an only thinly disguised account of the Stephens in Cornwall and the Godrevy Lighthouse they would visit there. [41] [29] [42] However, Woolf's understanding of her mother and family evolved considerably between 1907 and 1940, in which the somewhat distant, yet revered figure becomes more nuanced and filled in. [43]

While her father painted Julia Stephen's work in in terms of reverence, Woolf drew a sharp distinction between her mother's work and "the mischievous philanthropy which other women practise so complacently and often with such disastrous results". She describes her degree of sympathy, engagement, judgement and decisiveness, and her sense of both irony and the absurd. She recalls trying to recapture "the clear round voice, or the sight of the beautiful figure, so upright and distinct, in its long shabby cloak, with the head held at a certain angle, so that the eye looked straight out at you". [39] Julia Stephen dealt with her husband's depressions and his need for attention, which created resentment in her children, boosted his self-confidence, nursed her parents in their final illness, and had many commitments outside the home that would eventually wear her down. Her frequent absences and the demands of her husband instilled a sense of insecurity in her children that had a lasting effect on her daughters. [112] In considering the demands on her mother, Woolf described her father as "fifteen years her elder, difficult, exacting, dependent on her" and reflected that this was at the expense of the amount of attention she could spare her young children, "a general presence rather than a particular person to a child", [113] [114] reflecting that she rarely ever spent a moment alone with her mother, "someone was always interrupting". [115] Woolf was ambivalent about all this, yet eager to separate herself from this model of utter selflessness. She describes it as "boasting of her capacity to surround and protect, there was scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by" [39] At the same time she admired the strengths of her mother's womanly ideals. Given Julia's frequent absences and commitments, the young Stephen children became increasingly dependent on Stella Duckworth, who emulated her mother's selflessness, as Woolf wrote "Stella was always the beautiful attendant handmaid ... making it the central duty of her life". [116]

Julia Stephen greatly admired her husband's intellect, and although she knew her own mind, thought little of her own. As Woolf observed "she never belittled her own works, thinking them, if properly discharged, of equal, though other, importance with her husband's". She believed with certainty in her role as the centre of her activities, and the person who held everything together, [12] with a firm sense of what was important and valuing devotion. Of the two parents, Julia's "nervous energy dominated the family". [117] While Virginia identified most closely with her father, Vanessa stated her mother was her favourite parent. [118] Angelica Garnett recalls how Virginia asked Vanessa which parent she preferred, although Vanessa considered it a question that "one ought not to ask", she was unequivocal in answering "Mother" [117] Virginia observed that her half-sister, Stella, the oldest daughter, led a life of total subservience to her mother, incorporating her ideals of love and service. [119] Virginia quickly learned, that like her father, being ill was the only reliable way of gaining the attention of her mother, who prided herself on her sickroom nursing. [112] [115] Other issues the children had to deal with was Leslie Stephen's temper, Woolf describing him as "the tyrant father". [120] [121] Eventually she became deeply ambivalent about her father. He had given her his ring on her eighteenth birthday and she had a deep emotional attachment as his literary heir, writing about her "great devotion for him". Yet, like Vanessa, she also saw him as victimiser and tyrant. [122]

Sexual abuse

Much has been made of Virginia's statements that she was continually sexually abused during the whole time that she lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate, as a possible cause of her mental health issues, [123] [124] though there are likely to be a number of contributing factors (see Mental health). Against a background of over committed and distant parents, suggestions that this was a dysfunctional family must be evaluated. These include evidence of sexual abuse of the Stephen girls by their older Duckworth stepbrothers, and by their cousin, James Kenneth Stephen (1859–1892), at least of Stella Duckworth. [r] Laura is also thought to have been abused. [125] The most graphic account is by Louise DeSalvo, [126] but other authors and reviewers have been more cautious. [127] [128] Lee states that "The evidence is strong enough, and yet ambiguous enough, to open the way for conflicting psychobiographical interpretations that draw quite different shapes of Virginia Woolf's interior life" [129]

Bloomsbury: life in squares (1904–1941)

Life in squares
Photograph of 46 Gordon Square, Virginia's home from 1904 to 1907
46 Gordon Square
Photo of 29 Fitzroy Square, Virginia's home from 1907 to 1910
29 Fitzroy Square

Gordon Square (1904–1907)

On their father's death, the Stephens first instinct was to escape from the dark house of yet more mourning, and this they did immediately, accompanied by George, travelling to Manorbier, on the coast of Pembrokeshire on 27 February. There they spent a month, and it was there that Virginia first came to realise her destiny was as a writer, as she recalls in her diary of 3 September 1922. [68] They then further pursued their new found freedom by spending April in Italy and France, where they met up with Clive Bell again. [130] Virginia then suffered her second nervous breakdown, and first suicidal attempt on 10 May, and convalesced over the next three months. [131]

Before their father died, the Stephens had discussed the need to leave South Kensington in the West End, with its tragic memories and their parents' relations. [132] George Duckworth was 35, his brother Gerald 33. The Stephen children were now between 24 and 20. Virginia was 22. Vanessa and Adrian decided to sell 22 Hyde Park Gate in respectable South Kensington and move to Bloomsbury. Bohemian Bloomsbury, with its characteristic leafy squares seemed sufficiently far away, geographically and socially, and was a much cheaper neighbourhood to rent in (see Map). They had not inherited much and they were unsure about their finances. [133] Also Bloomsbury was close to the Slade School which Vanessa was then attending. While Gerald was quite happy to move on and find himself a bachelor establishment, George who had always assumed the role of quasi-parent decided to accompany them, much to their dismay. [133] It was then that Lady Margaret Herbert [s]appeared on the scene, George proposed, was accepted and married in September, leaving the Stephens to their own devices. [134]

Vanessa found a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, and they moved in November, to be joined by Virginia now sufficiently recovered. It was at Gordon Square that the Stephens began to regularly entertain Thoby's intellectual friends in February 1905. The circle now included Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Rupert Brooke, E. M. Forster, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, David Garnett, and Roger Fry, with Thursday evening "At Homes" that became known as the Thursday Club. This circle formed the nucleus of the intellectual circle of writers and artists known as the Bloomsbury Group. [135] [106] [136] Also in 1905 Virginia and Adrian visited Portugal and Spain, Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa, but was declined, while Virginia began teaching evening classes at Morley College and Vanessa added another event to their calendar with the Friday Club, dedicated to the fine arts. [135] [137] The following year, 1906, Virginia suffered two further losses. Her cherished brother Thoby, who was only 26, died of typhoid, following a trip they had all taken to Greece, and immediately after Vanessa accepted Clive's third proposal. [138] [139] Vanessa and Clive were married in February 1907 and as a couple, their interest in avant garde art would have an important influence on Woolf's further development as an author. [140] With Vanessa's marriage, Virginia and Adrian needed to find a new home. [141]

Fitzroy Square (1907–1911) and Brunswick Square (1911–1912)

The Dreadnought hoaxers in Abyssinian regalia; Virginia Woolf is the bearded figure on the far left.

Virginia moved into 29 Fitzroy Square in April 1907, a house on the west side of the street, formerly occupied by George Bernard Shaw. It was in Fitzrovia, immediately to the west of Bloomsbury but still relatively close to her sister at Gordon Square. The two sisters continued to travel together, visiting Paris in March. Adrian was now to play a much larger part in Virginia's life, and they resumed the Thursday Club in October at their new home, while Gordon Square became the venue for the Play Reading Society in December. Meanwhile, Virginia began work on her first novel, Melymbrosia that eventually became The Voyage Out (1915). [142] [141] Vanessa's first child, Julian was born in February 1908, and in September Virginia accompanied the Bells to Italy and France. [143] It was during this time that Virginia's rivalry with her sister resurfaced, flirting with Clive, which he reciprocated, and which lasted on and off from 1908 to 1914, by which time her sister's marriage was breaking down. [144] On 17 February 2009, Lytton Strachey proposed to Virginia and she accepted, but he then withdrew the offer. [145]

Several members of the group attained notoriety in 1910 with the Dreadnought hoax, which Virginia participated in disguised as a male Abyssinian royal. Her complete 1940 talk on the hoax was discovered and is published in the memoirs collected in the expanded edition of The Platform of Time (2008). [146] It was while she was at Fitzroy Square that the question arose of Virginia needing a quiet country retreat, which she started looking for in December 2010 and soon found a property in Sussex (see below), maintaining a relationship with that area for the rest of her life. [147]

In 1911 Virginia and Adrian decided to give up their home on Fitzroy Square in favour of a different living arrangement, moving to 38 Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury proper [t] in November, with Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant, and in December they were joined by the writer, Leonard Woolf, an arrangement that continued till late 1912. The house was adjacent to the Foundling Hospital, much to Virginia's amusement since she was an unchaperoned single woman. [148] Duncan Grant decorated Adrian Stephen's rooms (see image). [151]

Marriage (1912–1941)

Virginia and Leonard Woolf on their wedding day, 1912

In May 1912 Virginia agreed to marry Woolf, and the marriage took place on 10 August. [152] The Woolfs continued to live at Brunswick Square till October 1912, when they moved to a small flat at 13 Clifford's Inn, further to the east. [149] Despite his low material status (Woolf referring to Leonard during their engagement as a "penniless Jew") the couple shared a close bond. Indeed, in 1937, Woolf wrote in her diary: "Love-making—after 25 years can't bear to be separate ... you see it is enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete." [153] However, Virginia made a suicide attempt in 1913. [145]

In October 1914, Leonard and Virginia Woolf moved away from Bloomsbury and central London to Richmond, living at 17 The Green, a home discussed by Leonard in his autobiography Beginning Again (1964). [154] In early March 1915, the couple moved again, to nearby Hogarth House, Paradise Road, [155] after which they named their publishing house. [149] Virginia's first novel, The Voyage Out [142] was published in 1915, followed by another suicide attempt. Despite the introduction of conscription in 1916, Leonard was exempted on medical grounds. [149]

Between 1924 and 1939 the Woolfs returned to Bloomsbury, living at 52 Tavistock Square, from where they ran the Hogarth Press from the basement, where Virginia also had her writing room, and is commemorated with a bust of her in the square (see illustration). [156] Their final residence in London was at 37 Mecklenburgh Square (1939–1940), destroyed during the Blitz in September 1940, a month later their previous home on Tavistock Square was also destroyed. After that they made Sussex their permanent home. [157] For descriptions and illustrations of all Virginia Woolf's London homes, see Wilson (1987).

Hogarth Press (1917–1938)

Woolf's in Richmond
The Woolf's home at 17 The Green
17 The Green
The Woolf's home at Hogarth House
Hogarth House
Shelf of Shakespeare plays hand-bound by Virginia Woolf in her bedroom at Monk's House [u]

Virginia had taken up book-binding as a pastime in October 1901, at the age of 19, [159] [160] and the Woolfs had been discussing setting up a publishing house for some time, and at the end of 1916 started making plans. Having discovered that they were not eligible to enroll in the St Bride School of Printing, they started purchasing supplies after seeking advice from the Excelsior Printing Supply Company on Farringdon Road in March 1917, and soon they had a printing press set up on their dining room table at Hogarth House, and the Hogarth Press was born. [160]

The press subsequently published Virginia's novels along with works by T. S. Eliot, Laurens van der Post, and others. [161] The Press also commissioned works by contemporary artists, including Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell. Woolf believed that to break free of a patriarchal society that women writers needed a "room of their own" to develop and often fantasised about an "Outsider's Society" where women writers would create a virtual private space for themselves via their writings to develop a feminist critique of society. [162] Though Woolf never created the "Outsider's society", the Hogarth Press was the closest approximation as the Woolfs chose to publish books by writers that took unconventional points of view to form a reading community. [162] Initially the press concentrated on small expermental publications, of little interwest to large commercial publishers. Until 1930, Woolf often helped her husband print the Hogarth books as the money for employees was not there. [162] Virginia relinquished her interest in 1938. After it was bombed in September 1940, the press was moved to Letchworth for the remainder of the war. [163] Both the Woolfs were internationalists and pacifists who believed that promoting understanding between peoples was the best way to avoid another world war and chose quite consciously to publish works by foreign authors of whom the British reading public were unaware. [162] The first non-British author to be published was the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, the book Reminiscences of Leo Nikolaiovich Tolstoy in 1920, dealing with his friendship with Count Leo Tolstoy. [160]

Vita Sackville-West

Photo of Vita Sackville-West in armchair at Virginia's home at Monk's House, smoking and with dog on her lap
Vita Sackville-West at Monk's House ca. 1934

The ethos of the Bloomsbury group encouraged a liberal approach to sexuality, and in 1922 she met the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson. At the time, Sackville-West was the more successful writer both commercially and critically, and it was not until after Woolf's death that she became considered the better writer. [164] After a tentative start, they began a sexual relationship, which, according to Sackville-West in a letter to her husband dated 17 August 1926, was only twice consummated. [165] However, Virginia's intimacy with Vita seems to have continued into the early 1930s. [166] Woolf was also inclined to brag of her affairs with other women within her intimate circle, such as Sibyl Colefax and Comtesse de Polignac. [167]

Sackville-West worked tirelessly to lift up Woolf's self-esteem, encouraging her not to view herself as a quasi-reclusive inclined to sickness who should hide herself away from the world, but rather offered praise for her liveliness and sense of wit, her health, her intelligence and achievements as a writer. [168] Sackville-West led Woolf to reappraise herself, developing a more positive self-image, and the feeling that her writings were the products of her strengths rather than her weakness. [168] Starting at the age of 15, Woolf had believed the diagnosis by her father and his doctor that reading and writing were deleterious to her nervous condition, requiring a regime of physical labour such as gardening to prevent a total nervous collapse. This led Woolf to spend much time obsessively engaging in such physical labour. [168] Sackville-West was the first to argue to Woolf she had been misdiagnosed, and that it was far better to engage in reading and writing to calm her nerves—advice that was taken. [168] Under the influence of Sackville-West, Woolf learned to deal with her nervous ailments by switching between various forms of intellectual activities such as reading, writing and book reviews, instead of spending her time in physical activities that sapped her strength and worsened her nerves. [168] Sackville-West chose the financially struggling Hogarth Press as her publisher in order to assist the Woolfs financially. Seducers in Ecuador, the first of the novels by Sackville-West published by Hogarth, was not a success, selling only 1500 copies in its first year, but the next Sackville-West novel they published, The Edwardians, was a bestseller that sold 30,000 copies in its first six months. [168] Sackville-West's novels, though not typical of the Hogarth Press, saved Hogarth, taking them from the red into the black. [168] However, Woolf was not always appreciative of the fact that it was Sackville-West's books that kept the Hogarth Press profitable, writing dismissively in 1933 of her "servant girl" novels. [168] The financial security allowed by the good sales of Sackville-West's novels in turn allowed Woolf to engage in more experimental work, such as The Waves, as Woolf had to be cautious when she depended upon Hogarth entirely for her income. [168]

In 1928, Woolf presented Sackville-West with Orlando, [169] a fantastical biography in which the eponymous hero's life spans three centuries and both sexes. Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West's son, wrote, "The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her." [170] After their affair ended, the two women remained friends until Woolf's death in 1941. Virginia Woolf also remained close to her surviving siblings, Adrian and Vanessa; Thoby had died of typhoid fever at the age of 26. [171]

Sussex (1911–1941)

Virginia was needing a country retreat to escape to, and on 24 December 1910 Virginia found a house for rent in Firle, Sussex, near Lewes (see Map). She obtained a lease and took possession of the house the following month, and named it Little Talland House, after their childhood home in Cornwall, although it was actually a new red gabled villa on the main street opposite the village hall. [v] [147] [172] The lease was a short one and in October she and Leonard Woolf found Asham House [w] at Asheham a few miles to the west, while walking along the Ouse from Firle. The house, at the end of tree-lined road was a strange beautiful Regency-Gothic house in a lonely location (see image). [157] She described it as "flat, pale, serene, yellow-washed", without electricity or water and allegedly haunted. [173] She planned to lease it jointly with Vanessa in the new year, and they moved in in February 1912. [174] [175] It was at Asham that the Woolfs spent their wedding night in 1912. At Asham, she recorded the events of the weekends and holidays they spent there in her Asham Diary, part of which was later published as A Writer’s Diary in 1953. [176] In terms of creative writing, The Voyage Out was completed there, and much of Night and Day. Asham provided Woolf with well needed relief from the pace of London life and was where she found a happiness that she expressed in her diary of May 5, 1919 "Oh, but how happy we’ve been at Asheham! It was a most melodious time. Everything went so freely; - but I can’t analyse all the sources of my joy". [177] Asham was the inspiration for A Haunted House (1921-1944), [178] [173] and was painted by members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry. [179]

Life in Sussex
Photo of Little Talland House, Firle, East Sussex. Leased by Virginia Woolf in 1911
Little Talland House, Firle
The Round House in Lewes
The Round House, Lewes
Monk's House in Rodmell
Monk's House, Rodmell

While at ‘’Asham’’ Leonard and Virginia found a farmhouse in 1916, that was to let, about four miles away, which they thought would be ideal for her sister. Eventually Vanessa came down to inspect it, and moved in in October of that year, taking it as a summer home for her family. The Charleston Farmhouse was to become the summer gathering place for the literary and artistic circle of the Bloomsbury Group. [180]

In 1919, the Woolf's were forced to relinquish the lease and purchased the Round House in Pipe Passage, Lewes, a converted windmill. [174] [175] That same year they discovered Monk's House in nearby Rodmell, which both she and Leonard favoured because of its orchard and garden, and sold the Round House, to purchase it. [181] Monk's House also lacked water and electricity, but came with an acre of garden, and had a view across the Ouse towards the hills of the South Downs. Leonard Woolf describes this view as being unchanged since the days of Chaucer. [182] From 1940 it became their permanent home after their London home was bombed, and Virginia continued to live there until her death in 1941. Meanwhile Vanessa had also made Charleston her permanent home in 1936. [180]

Mental health

Much examination has been made of Woolf's mental health (e.g. see Mental health bibliography). From the age of 13, Woolf suffered periodic mood swings from severe depression to manic excitement, including psychotic episodes, which the family referred to as her "madness". [183] [184] Psychiatrists today consider that her illness constitutes bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness). [185] She spent three short periods in 1910, 1912 and 1913 at Burley House, 15 Cambridge Park, Twickenham, described as "a private nursing home for women with nervous disorder". [186] The death of her father in 1904 provoked her most alarming collapse and she was briefly institutionalised [48] under the care of her father's friend, the eminent psychiatrist George Savage. Savage blamed her education, frowned on by many at the time as unsuitable for women, [96] for her illness. [82] [187] She spent time recovering at her friend Violet Dickinson's house, and at her aunt Caroline's house in Cambridge. [188] Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks throughout her life. Woolf herself provides not only a vivid picture of her symptoms in her diaries and letters, but also her response to the demons that haunted her and at times made her long for death [185] "But it is always a question whether I wish to avoid these glooms....These 9 weeks give one a plunge into deep waters....One goes down into the well & nothing protects one from the assault of truth". [189] Psychiatry had little to offer her in her lifetime, but she recognised that writing was one of the behaviours that enabled her to cope with her illness [185] The only way I keep by working....Directly I stop working I feel that I am sinking down, down. And as usual, I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth". [190] Sinking under water was Woolf's metaphor for both the effects of depression and psychosis— but also finding truth, and ultimately was her choice of death. [185] Throughout her life Woolf struggled, without success, to find meaning in her illness, on the one hand an impediment, on the other something she visualised as an essential part of who she was, and a necessary condition of her art. [185]

Modern scholars, including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell, [191] have suggested her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods were also influenced by the sexual abuse to which she and her sister Vanessa were subjected by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate) (see Sexual abuse). It is likely that other factors also played a part. It has been suggested that these include genetic predisposition, for both trauma and family history have been implicated in bipolar disorder. [192] Virginia's father, Leslie Stephen suffered from depression and her half-sister, Laura was institutionalised. Many of Virginia's symptoms, including persistent headache, insomnia, irritability, and anxiety resemble those of her father. [193]

Thomas Caramagno [194] and others, [195] in discussing her illness, warn against the "neurotic-genius" way of looking at mental illness, which rationalises the theory that creativity is somehow born of mental illness. [196] [194] Stephen Trombley describes Woolf as having a confrontational relationship with her doctors, and possibly being a woman who is a "victim of male medicine", referring to the contemporary relative lack of understanding about mental illness. [197] [198]


Virginia Woolf's suicide letter to her husband

After completing the manuscript of her last novel ( posthumously published), Between the Acts (1941), [199] Woolf fell into a depression similar to that which she had earlier experienced. The onset of World War II, the destruction of her London home during the Blitz, and the cool reception given to her biography [200] of her late friend Roger Fry all worsened her condition until she was unable to work. [201] When Leonard enlisted in the Home Guard, Virginia disapproved. She held fast to her pacifism and criticized her husband for wearing what she considered to be the silly uniform of the Home Guard. [202] After World War II began, Woolf's diary indicates that she was obsessed with death, which figured more and more as her mood darkened. [203] On 28 March 1941, Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home. [204] Her body was not found until 18 April. [205] Her husband buried her cremated remains beneath an elm tree in the garden of Monk's House, their home in Rodmell, Sussex. [206]

In her suicide note, addressed to her husband, she wrote:

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight it any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. 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. [207] [208]

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