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 Woolfs and Virginia herself were assuming a leadership role in the London literary world.
The first novel published by The Hogarth Press was Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, in 1922. While that book suggested some of the technical virtuosity that was to be her hallmark and contribution to modern literature, it was her subsequent work, particularly that written in the second half of the 1920’s, that most critics consider to be her greatest. The novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) reveal Woolf’s concern with literary experimentation and characterization, and her critical essays collected in the first series of The Common Reader (1925) demonstrate her interest in not only writing literature but also writing about it. Still another dimension of her remarkable literary output during this time was A Room of One’s Own (1929), a series of lectures Woolf had delivered during which she made the famous comment that, to be a writer, a woman must have five hundred pounds and a room of her own.
During the 1930’s, Woolf was extremely well-known, enjoyed great prestige, and was offered many honors for her contributions to the world of letters. She continued to write novels, despite her persistent bouts with mental illness, publishing The Waves (1931), Flush: A Biography (1933), and The Years (1937), and she also produced an important feminist long essay, Three Guineas (1938). Following each publication, she was besieged by severe depression, and after writing her last book, Between the Acts (1941), she committed suicide, on March 28, by drowning herself in the River Ouse.
Virginia Woolf’s relationship to the Victorian and modern eras is dramatized by her chronology: She was born in 1882, and she died in 1941. Her literary life was spent in reacting against the nineteenth century, into which she was born, and in ushering in the twentieth century, during which she lived most of her life. In one of her most famous statements, she said that on or about December, 1910, human nature had changed, and she spent her literary career exploring and depicting that change.
In her essays she attacked what she called the “materialism” of novelists such as Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy, who, in her view, adhered to the traditional form of the novel and emphasized externals instead of the inner life of the self. She called for a new kind of literature that explored the consciousness through new techniques which recognized the complexities and aberrations of the psyche.
Woolf’s best novels demonstrate the ways in which she translated this theory into practice through her use of the “stream of consciousness” technique. Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts rely upon interior monologues and a prose style that re-creates the mental processes of the characters, usually with rhythms and images of lyric poetry. The books thus emphasize the disjointed, illogical quality of the mental-emotional life, and replicate, rather than describe, that quality.
Concerned with questions of identity, relationships, time, change, and human personality, Virginia Woolf helped shape literary history by writing about, for, and of the modern mind in the modern world.
Beja, Morris, ed. Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1985. This collection is divided into two sections: reviews of Woolf’s major works and essays on Woolf’s art and artistic vision. The various interpretations reflect the editor’s premise that Virginia Woolf, though claimed by several ages and schools of criticism, was unique and thus cannot be pigeonholed in any specific way.
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. 2 vols. London: The Hogarth Press, 1972. Written by Virginia Woolf’s nephew, this definitive biography is based upon Woolf’s memoirs, journals, and correspondence. While it is invaluable for its storehouse of information, it says little about Woolf’s fiction and the ways in which her life and work were interrelated.
Bennett, Joan. Virginia Woolf: Her Art as a Novelist. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1945. Reprint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964. Though a slim volume, this book offers a useful overview of Woolf’s innovations and her continuity with tradition. Chapters on Woolf’s fictional techniques are followed by chapters on her contributions to nonfiction through A Writer’s Diary (1953) and her many critical essays.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Virginia Woolf. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. This volume is a collection of essays and excerpts ranging from 1951 to the time of the book’s publication. Arranged chronologically, the volume offers various interpretations of Woolf’s work, including the editor’s introduction, with its discussion of Woolf’s aesthetic ideas and several essays which offer feminist interpretations of Woolf’s novels.
Gordon, Lyndall. Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1985. In this biography, Gordon looks not only at Woolf’s life in Bloomsbury but also at her works, including the unfinished memoirs, the drafts of novels, and some lesser-known and unpublished pieces. Divides Woolf’s life into three phases: her childhood, her time of literary apprenticeship and recurring illness, and her mature period of artistic achievement.
Guiget, Jean. Virginia Woolf and Her Works. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965. This book begins with a study of Woolf’s world, the cultural milieu which shaped her and within which she wrote. It then focuses on specific works, beginning with the nonfiction and working through the novels, stories and sketches, and biographies. The final section considers basic problems Woolf faced in her search for a new literary form.
Marcus, Jane, ed. Virginia Woolf: A Feminist Slant. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. In this second volume of feminist essays (the first, New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, was published in 1981 and was also edited by Marcus), the diversity within the discipline of feminist scholarship is apparent. The editor writes about Woolf’s aunt, Caroline Emelia Stephen; Louise De Salvo explores Virginia Stephen at fifteen; Emily Jensen examines the lesbian content of Mrs. Dalloway; and other essays consider still more diverse aspects of Woolf’s life and works.
Rose, Phyllis. Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. In this biography, Rose assumes a feminist perspective, asserting that Woolf’s feminism was the crux of her life and literature. Explores in great detail Woolf’s recurrent bouts with madness.