Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111201626-Woolf.jpg(Courtesy D.C. Public Library) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.)

Virginia Woolf Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London on January 25, 1882, the third of four children of Julia Duckworth and Sir Leslie...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

Virginia Woolf Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Virginia Woolf was born as Adeline Virginia Stephen and grew up in the household of her father, Leslie Stephen, a Victorian and Edwardian literary lion who was visited by many prominent writers of the time. The importance of books in her life is reflected in many of the short stories, such as “Memoirs of a Novelist,” “The Evening Party,” and “A Haunted House”; her father’s extensive personal library provided much of her education, along with some private tutoring (especially in Greek). Despite Katherine Stephen, niece of Leslie Stephen, being the principal of Newnham College at the University of Cambridge (reflected in the story “A Woman’s College from Outside”), Virginia was denied a formal college education because of persistent ill health (emotional and physical), as well as her father’s male bias in this matter, all of which is echoed with mild irony in “Phyllis and Rosamond” (about two sisters who resemble Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, lacking a college education) and “A Society” (in which the character Poll, lacking a college education, receives her father’s inheritance on condition that she read all the books in the London Library).

The early death of Woolf’s mother, Julia, in 1895, the repeated sexual molestation by her half brother George Duckworth, her father’s transformation of Virginia’s sisters Stella and Vanessa into surrogate mothers after Julia’s death, and her own attachments to women such as Violet Dickinson and, later, Vita Sackville-West culminated in Virginia’s cool and ambivalent sexuality, reflected by the general absence of sexual...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Virginia Woolf Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Daughter of the eminent editor and critic Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Jackson Duckworth, both of whom had been previously widowed, Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 into a solidly late Victorian intellectual and social milieu. Her father’s first wife had been William Makepeace Thackeray’s daughter, James Russell Lowell was her godfather, and visitors to the Stephens’ London household included Henry James, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy. From childhood on, she had access to her father’s superb library, and she benefited from her father’s guidance and commentary on her rigorous, precocious reading. Nevertheless, unlike her brothers, she did not receive a formal university education, a lack she always regretted and that partly explains the anger in Three Guineas, in which she proposes a “university of outsiders.” (Throughout her life she declined all academic honors.)

In 1895, when Woolf was thirteen, her mother, just past fifty, suddenly died. Altruistic, self-sacrificing, totally devoted to her demanding husband and large family, the beautiful Julia Stephen fulfilled the Victorian ideal of womanhood and exhausted herself doing so; her daughter would movingly eulogize her as Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. The loss devastated Woolf, who experienced at that time the first of four major mental breakdowns in her life, the last of which would end in death.

Leslie Stephen, twenty years his wife’s senior and thus sanguinely expecting her to pilot him comfortably through old age, was devastated in another way. Retreating histrionically into self-pitying but deeply felt grief, like that of his fictional counterpart, Mr. Ramsay, he transferred his intense demands for sympathetic attention to a succession of what could only seem to him achingly inadequate substitutes for his dead wife: first, his stepdaughter Stella Duckworth, who herself died suddenly in 1897, then, Virginia’s older sister Vanessa. The traditional feminine role would eventually have befallen Virginia had Leslie Stephen not died in 1904. Writing in her 1928 diary on what would have been her father’s ninety-sixth birthday, Woolf reflects that, had he lived, “his life would have entirely ended mine.No writing, no books;—inconceivable.”

On her father’s death, Woolf sustained her second incapacitating breakdown, but she also gained, as her diary suggests, something crucial: freedom. That freedom took an immediate and, to her parents’ staid friends and relatives, shocking form. Virginia, Vanessa, and their brothers Thoby and Adrian abandoned the Stephen house in respectable Kensington to set up a home in the seedy bohemian district of London known as Bloomsbury. There, on Thursday evenings, a coterie of Thoby Stephen’s Cambridge University friends regularly gathered to talk in an atmosphere of free thought, avant-garde art, and sexual tolerance, forming the nucleus of what came to be called the Bloomsbury Group. At various stages in its evolution over the next decade, the group included such luminaries as biographer Lytton Strachey, novelist E. M. Forster, art critic Roger Fry, and economist John Maynard Keynes. In 1911, they were joined by another of Thoby’s Cambridge friends, a colonial official just...

(The entire section is 1336 words.)

Virginia Woolf Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201626-Woolf.jpgVirginia Woolf Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Born into a family in which literary concerns and artistic pursuits were enthusiastically encouraged, Virginia Woolf was predisposed as a child for a writing career. She was born in London, England, on January 25, 1882. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, achieved academic fame as the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography between 1882 and his retirement in 1891. Her mother, Julia Duckworth, who died when Virginia was thirteen, came from a family with aristocratic connections and artistic sensibilities that sometimes inclined toward the frivolous. Woolf’s parents brought to their union (March 26, 1878) children from previous marriages, besides producing four of their own, of whom Virginia was the third. Vanessa, the...

(The entire section is 923 words.)

Virginia Woolf Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Respecting the literary tradition that she inherited, Virginia Woolf nevertheless felt compelled to forsake its influence by inventing fictional techniques to explore even more deeply the minds and hearts of people. Like many modern painters and musicians who were her contemporaries, she sought new ways to render the realities of thought and feeling in her novels. By holding up her mirror of fiction at a different angle, she attempted to help readers see themselves in a more revealing light. Readers, troubled by the reflected images, feel moved to contemplate the meaning of their lives.

(The entire section is 94 words.)

Virginia Woolf Biography (Novels for Students)

Virginia Woolf Published by Gale Cengage

One of the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century Virginia Woolf was born in London in 1882....

(The entire section is 348 words.)

Virginia Woolf Biography

Virginia Woolf


Who was afraid of Virginia Woolf? In the end, maybe only Virginia herself. The troubled writer is as famous for her mental illness as for her writing. Though some critics have dismissed Woolf’s oeuvre as narrow and elitist (an accusation leveled at Modernist authors in general), many others have heralded her books for expanding the ideas of time and place in traditional narrative. Perhaps even more importantly, Woolf has been recognized for her philosophical musings on literature, sex, and gender. Her seminal nonfiction work, A Room of One’s Own, notes the difficulties faced by women writers and places them in historical context. Although the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s helped return Woolf to prominence, her own unique talents have sustained her respected position in 20th-century literature.

Essential Facts

  1. Woolf’s family was full of historical and cultural connections. Her father’s first wife was the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, and her mother was a descendant of one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies in waiting.
  2. Woolf was a member of the famous Bloomsbury Group. Its constituents included such literary luminaries as E. M. Forester and Lytton Strachey. The writer and critic Leonard Woolf, who eventually became her husband, was a member too.
  3. Woolf was a devoted diarist. The collected edition of her diary spans five volumes.
  4. Woolf’s mental illness has inspired many posthumous diagnoses, most commonly bipolar disorder or manic depression. Her struggles ended with her suicide in 1941.
  5. Woolf’s life was fictionalized in Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel The Hours, which was adapted into a film in 2002. Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her role as Woolf.

Virginia Woolf Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Virginia Woolf is one of the most admired authors of the twentieth century. She was born on January 25, 1882, to Julie and Leslie Stephens in...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Virginia Woolf Biography (Novels for Students)

Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 in London, England. She was the daughter of Leslie Stephen, an eminent man of letters, and Julia Prinsep...

(The entire section is 369 words.)

Virginia Woolf Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201626-Woolf.jpgVirginia Woolf Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The preeminent literary figure of the Bloomsbury circle, Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf is an important modern experimental writer. The second daughter of Leslie Stephen (knighted in 1902) and his second wife, Julia Prinsep Duckworth Stephen, she was born in Kensington, London, on January 25, 1882. Even as a child she exhibited the two traits that would characterize her life: a highly creative imagination and keen intelligence, coupled with extreme nervousness that resulted in breakdowns under stress. Because of this nervousness she did not attend school, but her father, one of London’s leading literati, gave her free rein to use his library at Hyde Park Gate. The family spent its summers at Tallant House, St. Ives, on the...

(The entire section is 896 words.)

Virginia Woolf Biography (Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Adeline Virginia Woolf was born January 25, 1882, into a large family, in London, England. She grew up in an atmosphere conducive to her...

(The entire section is 326 words.)