Article abstract: Woolf contributed significantly to prose fiction through her experiments with stream of consciousness and characterization; she also influenced critical thought through her analytical essays and reviews.
Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882, into a Victorian world and family. The third child and second daughter of Leslie and Julia Stephen, she was reared in an environment of many people and many privileges. Both her parents had been married before and widowed; therefore, the household consisted not only of Virginia and her two full brothers and sister but also of Leslie’s daughter, Laura, who was retarded, and Julia’s children, George, Stella, and Gerald Duckworth.
Leslie and Julia Stephen, though not rich, were nevertheless financially comfortable and well connected. Leslie, who had been a don at Cambridge, moved to London in his mid-thirties and became editor of a significant literary journal and eventually wrote an important work on the history of English thought. Additionally, he edited and contributed to the Dictionary of National Biography, a project that established him as one of the leading intellectuals of England. Julia was known for her remarkable physical beauty as well as her attractive and nurturing character. Together, Leslie and Julia created what Virginia later described as a happy childhood for their large family. When Julia died, however, that existence ended for Virginia, and her father’s domineering personality shaped the household and molded Virginia’s character, in a mostly painful fashion.
Following Julia’s death, Virginia suffered her first bout with mental illness. Approximately ten years later, following her father’s death and sexual attention from her half brother George, she suffered her second nervous breakdown and also attempted to kill herself by jumping from a window. Her pattern of mental imbalance was thus established by the time she and her full brothers and sister moved to a house in the Bloomsbury section of London.
Photographs of Virginia Woolf during this time and later reveal an elegant woman, graceful, tall, and fragile, a reflection of her mother’s intense physical beauty. Despite this attractiveness, which included deep-set eyes and an ethereal presence, Woolf never saw herself in that light, believing instead that she was unattractive. Uncomfortable with herself in that respect, she was nevertheless unself-conscious about her ability to converse with people, and she became one of the most famous conversationalists of London, entertaining people with her wit, provocative questions, and fantastic stories.
Because of these qualities, Woolf was an integral part of what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group, which included Lytton Strachey, the biographer; John Maynard Keynes, the economist; Roger Fry, the art critic; and novelist E. M. Forster, who once called Woolf the Invalid Lady of Bloomsbury. Both admired and condemned by their contemporaries, this group of gifted individuals earned the reputation for being bohemian intellectuals who, in the words of their friend Stephen Spender, nourished themselves “on a diet of the arts, learning, amusement, travel, and good living.” Their relationships with one another and with Woolf became a significant part of her life and her literature.
The year 1917 was an important one for Woolf, ushering in her time of literary activity. After several painful years, during which Woolf suffered from extreme depression and found herself unable to write in the way she was coming to expect from herself, she resumed contributing reviews to the Times Literary Supplement and began to write a diary which is now considered one of her major works. In 1917, Woolf and her husband, Leonard, whom she had married in 1912, also founded The Hogarth Press, which published Virginia Woolf’s novels and the works of other significant contemporaries, including T. S. Eliot. The...
(The entire section is 1651 words.)