“I think I shall prepare to be the Grand Old Woman of English letters,” a young Virginia Stephen commented, and she has achieved that status. Though neglected at mid-century, she has become, according to a 1995 study by the Modern Language Association, the female author most written about and the only woman among the top ten subjects of literary scholarship. Her works have been translated into more than fifty languages; three journals are devoted to her; virtually every surviving scrap of her writing, even the reading notes she took for her book reviews, has been published.
Virginia Woolf became a writer by inheritance and inclination. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a leading man of letters in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and his first wife was the daughter of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Like most women of the late Victorian period, Woolf had little formal education, but she enjoyed free range of her father’s extensive library, and she took classes in Greek and history at King’s College, London. As Octavia Wilberforce, the doctor who saw Woolf the day before the writer killed herself, observed, Woolf was “nurtured on books. She never gets away from them.”
James King demonstrates that writing came to Woolf early and easily, and she may have used her talent as a means of gaining her father’s attention. Her mother had little time for her: Despite the family’s many servants, Julia Stephen had to deal with a large number of children from her first and second marriages and with the archetypically demanding paterfamilias Leslie. Hence, the young Virginia turned for affection to her older sister, Vanessa, and to her writer father. By the time she was five, she was making up stories to tell him, and she later recalled “scribbling a story in the manner of Hawthorne on the green plush sofa at [the family’s summer vacation home in] St. Ives while the grown ups dined.” Her father recognized her talents, writing to his wife that Virginia “takes in a great deal and will really be an author in time; though I cannot make up my mind in what line.”
Shortly after her ninth birthday, Virginia encouraged her siblings to produce the Hyde Park Gate News (named for the family residence), describing the activities of the Stephen children but also including fiction. Even the usually preoccupied Julia was amused. When she sent one of Virginia’s stories to a relative, along with the comment that the piece was “imaginative,” Virginia felt “like being a violin . . . being played upon.” Virginia herself felt confident enough to send a story to Tit-Bits, a magazine for children. This story, now lost, was rejected, but apparently it contained the germ of The Voyage Out (1915), her first novel, and it illustrates her determination to write and to be read.
This resolution is evident in the way she later structured her days. Leonard Woolf wrote in his autobiography,
We should have felt it to be not merely wrong but unpleasant not to work every morning for seven days a week and for about eleven months a year. Every morning, therefore, at about 9:30 after breakfast each of us . . . went off and “worked” until lunch at 1.
Afterwards Virginia read for or wrote reviews, sent letters, pondered works in progress or planned future projects, and, after 1917, helped with the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press. Virginia thus probably worked ten to twelve hours of every twenty-four.
Virginia Woolf’s ability as well as her inclination manifested itself early. King quotes a passage from her diary for August 13, 1899, when she was seventeen: “By the faint glow we could see the huge moth—his wings open, as though in ecstasy, so that the splendid vision of the underwing could be seen—his eyes burning red, his proboscis plunged into a flowing stream of treacle.” Woolf was not a faithful diarist until 1915, but her early jottings emphasize her determination to pursue a writer’s life. In 1903 she began the Hyde Park Gate diary, which contains 157 entries, including thirty unpublished essays including “A Garden Dance,” “Stonehenge,” and “The Beginning of the Storm.” This resolution to write also appears in her letter of September 30, 1904, to her close friend Violet Dickinson: “I am longing to begin work. I know I can write, and one of these days I mean to produce a good book. . . . Life interests me intensely, and writing is I know my natural means of expression.”
Soon Woolf was reviewing for Mary Kathleen Lyttleton, editor of the Women’s Supplement of the Guardian, a weekly published for the clergy. Woolf’s first published works reflect lifelong concerns. Her first review for the Guardian, of William Dean Howells’ The Son of Royal Langbrith (1904), commended the American novelist’s focus on thought rather than action. A decade later, in the Times Literary Supplement for February 22, 1917, she praised Fyodor Dostoevski for probing his characters’ psyches. In...
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