Virginia Woolf

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1596

Special Commissioned Essay on Virginia Woolf, Philip Tew

The following chronology provides an overview of the key events in Woolf's life and career. These topics are discussed in detail in the “Criticism” section of this entry.

1882: Adeline Virginia Stephen is born on 25 January at 22 Hyde Park Gate, London, to Leslie Stephen and Julia Duckworth Stephen. Earlier children born to the couple are Vanessa (1879) and Thoby (1880). Leslie Stephen has a daughter, Laura (1870), from his previous marriage to Harriet Thackeray Stephen. Julia Stephen has three children from her previous marriage to Herbert Duckworth: George (1868), Stella (1869), and Gerald (1870).

1883: The Stephens' last child, Adrian, is born on 27 October.

1888: Around this time Virginia is sexually molested (according to her own account) by her half brother Gerald.

1895: Julia Stephen dies; her husband withdraws into a state of depressive, obsessive mourning. Virginia suffers her first mental breakdown. Stella runs the household and becomes the first of Virginia's substitute mother figures.

1896: Stella announces her engagement to Jack Hills but subsequently postpones her marriage plans until Vanessa is felt to be sufficiently mature to take over the management of the Stephen household.

1897: Stella marries Hills on 10 April. She returns from their honeymoon ill (and, possibly, pregnant) and dies on 19 July.

1899: Thoby begins his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge University. Virginia receives private lessons in Greek from Janet Case, who later encourages her to become involved in the suffragist movement.

1902: Leslie Stephen is knighted for his contributions to English letters as an editor and author.

1904: Sir Leslie Stephen dies in February of cancer after a protracted and painful illness, during which he was nursed by his daughters. Virginia decides that she will become a writer, but she is uncertain of which path to take. She suffers another mental breakdown in May and attempts suicide by jumping from a window. In October, while Virginia recuperates in Cambridge, Vanessa moves the Stephen household to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, a more bohemian area of London. Virginia publishes her first reviews and essays. The Stephens travel with Gerald Duckworth to Paris and Italy, meeting Violet Dickinson in Florence. Dickinson becomes a close friend of Virginia.

1905: Virginia teaches part-time at Morley College, an evening college in London for working men and women. In February, Thoby begins to invite his Cambridge friends over on Thursday evenings; these gatherings mark the beginnings of the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia writes for The Times Literary Supplement. She travels to Spain and Portugal with Adrian.

1906: In September all four Stephens travel with Dickinson to Greece, where Vanessa and Thoby contract an illness, diagnosed on their return to England as typhoid fever. Thoby dies on 20 November. Vanessa agrees to marry one of Thoby's friends from Cambridge, Clive Bell, an artist and art critic.

1907: In February, Vanessa marries Bell. Virginia, stricken with a sense of loss and jealousy, moves with Adrian into a house on nearby Fitzroy Square. In April she and Adrian resume the Thursday evening meetings. In October, Virginia begins work on her first novel, at this point tentatively titled “Melymbrosia” but published in 1915 as The Voyage Out.

1908: A first child, Julian, is born to Vanessa and Clive Bell on 4 February.

1909: A substantial legacy of £2,500 is left to Virginia by her aunt Caroline Stephen, known by Virginia as “the Nun” because of her Quaker leanings and religiosity. Lytton Strachey, another of Thoby's friends from Cambridge, makes a hastily withdrawn proposal of marriage. In August, Virginia makes a trip to the Wagner Festival in Bavaria and visits Italy.

1910: In February, Virginia, Adrian, and friends pull off the “Dreadnought Hoax.” Dressed in oriental costume, they visit the Royal Navy battleship Dreadnought, present themselves as emissaries from Abyssinia, and are given a tour of the ship. Virginia suffers another mental breakdown in the summer. The first of two exhibitions of Postimpressionist art, organized by the art historian and critic Roger Fry, opens at the Grafton Galleries in London on 8 November and runs through 15 January 1911. This exhibition inspires Virginia's later comment that “in or about December, 1910, human character changed” (Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in Collected Essays, volume 1 [London: Hogarth Press, 1966], p. 320). As a result of the exhibition the Bloomsbury Group comes to be recognized as an artistic force. The group includes Vanessa Bell, Fry, Strachey, E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant, John Maynard Keynes, Desmond MacCarthy, and, later, Leonard Woolf, Virginia's future husband. Virginia works for a suffrage organization with the encouragement of Case.

1911: Leonard Woolf returns from Ceylon, where he has served for seven years with the Colonial Civil Service. Virginia and Adrian move to 38 Brunswick Square, sharing their residence with Grant, Keynes, and Woolf. Woolf travels to Turkey.

1912: Virginia marries Woolf on 10 August.

1913: Soon after her marriage, Virginia Woolf suffers a third breakdown, leading to serious mental illness that lasts for three years. She attempts suicide in September. In this period she finishes The Voyage Out, but Leonard intervenes to delay the publication of the novel in order to relieve her from any pressure or anxiety.

1914: World War I begins with the German declaration of war against Russia on 1 August and France on 3 August. England declares war on Germany on 4 August.

1915: The Voyage Out is published by Duckworth and Company, the publishing house owned and managed by Woolf's half brother Gerald. She begins a diary, which she keeps for the rest of her life.

1917: In March the Woolfs purchase a second-hand printing press, initially to be used as therapy for Virginia. They establish the Hogarth Press in the basement of Hogarth House, their residence in Richmond. The press goes on to publish works by T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Sigmund Freud, and Woolf herself.

1918: World War I ends on 11 November.

1919: Woolf's second novel, Night and Day, is published by Duckworth. It is her last “outside” initial publication of any of her major works, the rest of which are published by the Hogarth Press. Several short stories are published by Hogarth, including Woolf's Kew Gardens. The Woolfs buy Monk's House in Rodmell, Sussex, as a country home.

1920: Woolf undertakes a public dispute in the press with MacCarthy (known as the “Affable Hawk”) over the intellectual status of women. The dispute inspires her to write the feminist essay A Room of One's Own (1929).

1921: A collection of Woolf's short stories, Monday or Tuesday, is published by the Hogarth Press. Almost all of her subsequent books are published by the press.

1922: Woolf's third novel, Jacob's Room, arguably her first fully experimental and “modernist” novel, is published. In December she meets Vita Sackville-West.

1923: Mansfield dies. The Woolfs travel to France and Spain.

1925: Woolf's fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Common Reader, a collection of critical essays, are published. The Woolfs move from Richmond to 52 Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury.

1927: Woolf's fifth novel, To the Lighthouse, is published.

1928: Orlando: A Biography, Woolf's fictional homage to her friend and purported lover Sackville-West, is published. In October, Woolf reads two essays at the women's colleges of Cambridge; the essays are revised and published the following year as A Room of One's Own.

1929: The Woolfs visit Germany.

1930: Woolf meets Ethel Smyth, establishing another intense female relationship.

1931: Woolf's The Waves is published, arguably the most experimental of her novels.

1932: Strachey dies in January. The Common Reader: Second Series is published in October.

1933: In May the Woolfs vacation in France. Virginia's Flush: A Biography, an ironic portrait of the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel, is published in October.

1934: Fry dies in September. The Woolfs visit Ireland.

1935: Woolf's Freshwater: A Comedy in Three Acts is performed for her friends at Vanessa Bell's art studio. Forster tells Woolf that the London Library Committee has been discussing the issue of whether to admit women as members, which she at first interprets to mean she will be asked to join, but he goes on to tell her the committee has decided to continue the policy of excluding females. The Woolfs travel by car through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, and France. In Bonn they find themselves caught up in a procession honoring Hermann Goering, at this time serving as air minister of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.

1937: Woolf's novel The Years is published. Vanessa Bell's son Julian is killed while serving as a medical orderly in the Spanish Civil War.

1938: Woolf's Three Guineas is published. This feminist essay, in which she argues for pacifism and asserts that war results from patriarchal values, proves extremely controversial.

1939: The Woolfs move to 37 Mecklenburgh Square in London but live chiefly at Monk's House in Rodmell. England and France declare war against Germany on 3 September, following the German invasion of Poland two days earlier. The Woolfs, who assume that they are on a Nazi hit list of radical intellectuals and Jews, plan to commit suicide if England is invaded. Rodmell is a possible invasion area because of its proximity to the English Channel. The Woolfs travel to France.

1940: Woolf's Roger Fry: A Biography is published. She completes a draft of her final novel, Between the Acts, which is published posthumously in July 1941. During the Battle of Britain the Woolfs' London home in Mecklenburgh Square is destroyed in the bombing.

1941: Woolf begins hearing voices. She senses the onset of another major mental breakdown, one she fears may prove to be permanent. After a previous failed suicide attempt, she fills her pockets with heavy stones and drowns herself in the flooded River Ouse on 28 March. She leaves suicide notes for her husband and Vanessa. In the coming years Leonard publishes selections of Woolf's essays, short stories, letters, and diaries, as well as several autobiographical volumes chronicling their shared life. Between the Acts is published posthumously.

1961: Vanessa Bell dies.

1969: Leonard Woolf dies.

About Virginia Woolf

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11460

Philip Tew

SOURCE: Tew, Philip. “An Overview of the Life and Career of Virginia Woolf.” In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 128, edited by Scott Darga and Linda Pavlovski. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.

[In the following original essay, Tew discusses Woolf's life, career, awards and recognition, and overall body of work, while also examining the era in which Woolf wrote and the critical reception of her works.]


Since her death in 1941 Virginia Woolf has become one of the most celebrated of English novelists. She is now one of the most widely read of twentieth-century writers in the English language; initially considered a minor modern novelist, she is now viewed as a major figure in the modernist movement. This shift in opinion has occurred partly because of recent recognition of Woolf's significance in the move toward a broader and more creative feminism with a politicized edge, as can be seen in her analysis in Three Guineas (1938) and other polemical works. On one level, she is considered an archetypal modernist alongside T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. On another, her work has offered many ideas and examples for women drawn to exploration of their gender and the cultural contexts of feminism. Increasingly, critics have drawn upon the contexts of both Woolf's life and her times.

There were several phases to Woolf's artistic development. She is perhaps best known for the period characterized by a trio of experimental novels, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931), and her first feminist tract, A Room of One's Own (1929). There is, however, far more to Woolf, both textually and culturally, than her works of this period suggest. Most commentators agree that what might be called either plurality or complexity permeates every level of both her life and work. Certainly, both in a biographical and a literary sense, she remains a figure with myriad dimensions that can attract but are also capable of diverting the unwary reader or critic. Woolf was variously and often simultaneously a working journalist, a novelist with strong experimental tendencies, and a feminist polemicist who upset the sensibilities of many of her contemporaries with A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. She was a modernist, a vulnerable obsessive (like her father before her, with his unfounded fears concerning money), a depressive who suffered many severe attacks of mental illness (a state whose recurrence she feared constantly), and a wife with lesbian tendencies in an asexual marriage. As a member of the upper-middle-class intellectual set, Woolf suffered from an irrepressible snobbery, but her connections allowed her to become a leading member of the now fabled Bloomsbury Group (named for the district of London in which several members of the group lived). Following these themes in her life and works is an intricate affair.

Woolf's work has made her a significant historical figure, but it may help readers to understand the woman behind the roles she played and to put aside momentarily the fame she achieved later in life. Until the age of thirty she was the unmarried Virginia Stephen, a spinster who was known only for being the daughter of a famous Victorian editor and writer, Sir Leslie Stephen. Not until the age of forty did she publish a work of fiction that was considered even by her friends as truly significant. Woolf was involved with the Bloomsbury Group, but during its first phase, before public recognition of the group came in the 1920s, she was chiefly a respected book reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, an occasional journalist, and an extremely minor novelist. Before 1919 she had published only one novel, The Voyage Out (1915). She completed it before suffering a major nervous breakdown in 1913 that lasted two years and almost led to her permanent hospitalization. Publication of the novel was delayed until she recovered, but the book made little impression on readers. For many years Woolf suspected she might remain an abject failure. This self-doubt is difficult for the present-day reader or critic to absorb fully since her works are studied at universities across the world to illustrate aspects of the novel, feminism, and modernism as a cultural and aesthetic phase. Certainly, writing her fiction and having it taken seriously presented an uphill struggle for Woolf.

Even accounting for the fact that her important works did not begin to appear until she was forty, Woolf cannot be understood simply through her texts. One must also consider other major aspects of her life, including its social contexts. Although many critics remain uncomfortable with her narrow understanding of class and breeding, Woolf's upbringing was typical for a member of the upper-middle-class elite. She clearly thought that people could be judged according to their background, with most talent and creativity residing in the middle and aristocratic classes. As Rosamond Lehmann comments in Recollections of Virginia Woolf (1972), “She [Woolf] had a romantic view of charwomen and prostitutes; and her conception of the ruling classes, of rank, fashion, titles, society—all that—was perhaps a shade glamorous and reverential.”1

Thus, the most germane approach to Woolf's life, even though it might appear the most traditional, is to explore the territory of her family background. The critical consensus seems to be that her upbringing was central to all phases of her writing. In Feminism and Art: A Study of Virginia Woolf (1968) Herbert Marder comments that “The prewar and postwar stages of her [Woolf's] life correspond, roughly speaking, to two stages of family life described in her work. In the first stage the family still seems part of a stable social order, though signs of strain are beginning to appear. In the second stage, the traditional institutions are crumbling, and we see people living amidst ‘scraps, orts and fragments’ of that old order. Virginia Woolf's pictures of family life contain an implicit evaluation of that order. …”2

Who, then, was Woolf before the Bloomsbury Group became established and prior to her becoming journalist? This period mattered to her on personal level, as is confirmed in the way she almost obsessively recorded the effects of her childhood in her diaries throughout most of her adult life. In the process of questioning the conventional Victorian world in a manner characteristic of the Bloomsbury Group, Woolf sifted through the meaning of her past. Her later fiction reflects this process of review. One example is To the Lighthouse, in which she originally intended to center the narrative on a character based on her father. Although she revised this plan, Sir Leslie Stephen remained a major feature in the characterization of Mr. Ramsay in the novel. Woolf also drew on memories of her mother, as well as her own experiences as a female. She created a strong portrait of her mother in Mrs. Ramsay and projected parts of her writing self (as well as the artistic self of her sister, Vanessa Stephen Bell) in the painter Lily Briscoe. Like Woolf trying to portray her father, Lily struggles to find the right medium through which to memorialize Mrs. Ramsay's power and presence. The synthesis in the novel of different elements of Woolf's personal history provides an example of her key themes and her method of work. She responded to the lived reality of a young woman struggling against various restrictive forces and circumstances. Without an understanding of this biographical background, readers can be overwhelmed by the Woolf myth and the critical industry that has grown up around her.

Like Woolf herself, nearly all critics of her work return constantly to the immensely complex coordinates of her upbringing. The events of her life are a guide to the forces behind her emotional and intellectual development. She was born into a late-Victorian world beginning to doubt traditional certainties. For all its loss of faith, England had been strengthening its world empire, cultivating several generations of young men ready to administer the imperial framework and bureaucracy as if it were a huge family. Women, as well as the indigenous peoples of the English colonies, were infantilized. Woolf was instructed in the ways of a society that stressed a family model with the father as the dominant figure. Growing up in such a patriarchal society could be stultifying, but in an essay on her father, “Leslie Stephen” (1932), Woolf takes pains not to condemn him outright: “The relation between parents and children today have a freedom that would have been impossible with my father. He expected a certain standard of behaviour, even of ceremony, in family life. Yet if freedom means the right to think one's own thoughts and to follow one's own pursuits, then no one respected and indeed insisted upon freedom more completely than he did.”3 This patriarchal model was not universal in Victorian society, but it exerted a powerful influence, especially on the legal framework and the economy of England. There were other important social undercurrents: increasingly, women fought for their right to individual expression and made more-organized political demands. These tensions can be charted in Woolf's own experience and that of her contemporaries, much as they can be charted in her fiction. As John Mepham summarizes the aim of the Bloomsbury Group, “They set out to demolish the Victorian family and the Victorian culture of muscular, imperial certainty and superstition.”4 This culture was the world of Woolf's father (apart from the superstition, since Leslie Stephen was a celebrated sceptic). For much of her adult life she recorded her response to these issues in various ways, often in her diaries and journals.5 One should keep in mind, however, that Woolf had reservations about the overall balance of her own record of her life and upbringing. In a February 1939 diary entry (made with her habitual lack of accurate or conventional punctuation), she notes that “It is unfortunate for truths sake, that I never write here except when jangled with talk. I only record the dumps & the dismals, & them very barely.”6


Because Woolf's Victorian upbringing was so overwhelmingly important to her self-image, it is worthwhile to explore the dynamics of her early life in the Stephen household. She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on 25 January 1882 to Leslie and Julia Stephen. According to her own account, she was conceived as a result of contraceptive failure. Woolf grew up among an extended family joined by the second marriages of both her parents. The Stephens had already had two children together: Vanessa, born in 1879, and Thoby, born the following year. A final child, Adrian, was born to the couple in 1883. Leslie Stephen also had a daughter, Laura (born 1870), from his previous marriage to Harriet “Minny” Thackeray Stephen. Julia had three children with Herbert Duckworth, her first husband: George (born 1868), Stella (born 1869), and Gerald (born 1870). Woolf grew up mainly under the care of servants; her parents were at times quite distant figures. The family lived in a gloomy, upper-middle-class Victorian mansion at 22 Hyde Park Gate, in a setting similar in many respects to those found in Woolf's novels Night and Day (1919) and The Years (1937).7 Her childhood environment, both in London and in summers spent in Cornwall, was to prove one of several factors central to her experience and her imagination. This experience initiated Woolf's resistance to the Victorian world in which she, her siblings, and her half siblings grew up.

The members of Woolf's extended family provided a fertile ground for characterization, but since she was not always precise in her fictional analogies, making too many close biographical assumptions in terms of the text can lead readers and critics astray. The work is not precisely the life. For instance, Woolf was essentially of a far higher social class than the middle-class Katharine Hilbery, the protagonist of Night and Day. Some aspects of Woolf's life can, however, be useful in understanding the major themes in her fiction. Many of the families portrayed in her major novels are extended ones, like her own. This family structure emerged from the Victorian realities of illness, death, and remarriage, which led to intricate sets of half siblings, cousins, and uncles and aunts without blood ties. Hence, although the world of Woolf's childhood was more formalized than that of the twentieth century and far more patriarchal in character, it was perhaps as emotionally confusing as contemporary society, in which divorce and illegitimacy are commonplace. As a response to these traumas, Woolf was to suffer from “the dumps & the dismals” for much of her life, leading to bouts of insanity and several attempts at taking her own life. These were the major characteristics of her personality, but, from childhood on, she could also be entertaining, garrulous, and severe in her questioning.

Woolf did not accept the Victorian world into which she had been born, despite the apparent success of her father and the social acceptance that came with it. Her father had undergone his own personal rebellion in his youth. After experiencing an unhappy and disturbed childhood, Leslie Stephen did not intend to have a family. As a young man he had taken holy orders, as was required of those who lectured at Cambridge University. Later he suffered a crisis of faith, partly as a result of the profound influence of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution as set forth in his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). Woolf shared her father's unease with religiosity and developed a similar bias against professed Christianity. She had a curious sense of spirituality she was unable to define precisely, a belief in some transcendent spirit, but, like her father, she was cold to organized religion. Years later, despite her own moments of mysticism and spiritual desire of an unspecified kind, she was unhappy with her friend T. S. Eliot's conversion to the Anglican faith. (She was especially critical of Eliot's decision to live in a religious establishment.) Yet, in other ways, Woolf was quite different from her father, with his certainties about character-building and his focus on the practical and pragmatic. As Noël Annan notes in his Leslie Stephen: His Thought and Character in Relation to His Time (1951), Stephen had been one of the original group of Victorians involved in promoting “muscular Christianity,” an approach to moral education in which a sound body and a strong sense of Christian ethics were key elements.8 As Annan observes,

Like many of his contemporaries, Stephen worshipped “character” as a Kantian Thing-in-itself, and failed to understand that character, uninstructed by the intelligence or informed by the emotions, is liable to be exerted on the side of injustice and intolerance. Guts and open-heartedness without some knowledge of the world are not enough, and to believe that “manly and affectionate fellows” could “fight a good battle in the world” was to glorify willpower as an end, not a means, and to forget that education means opening, as well as training, the mind.9

Such concepts as “muscular Christianity” became anathema to Woolf, and she took issue with her father's suspicion of German philosophy and the Romantic movement in the arts. In her opposition to his dogmatism Woolf began to develop her concept of a more disordered and fluctuating world of chaotic emotions and sensations, ill-fitted to maintaining traditional concepts such as character. Unlike his daughter, Stephen believed that the quality of someone's personality could become fixed into a system and viewed as an objective fact. He thought one could judge people morally and, from an emotional center, instruct them in ways of believing and behaving. Critics agree that Woolf questioned this certitude, and in her writing she balances any notion of character with a concept of the elusiveness of experience, often expressed through her commitment to recording intelligence and emotional depth. She saw the world as variable and in flux. Her work exhibits the ideas of selfhood propounded by the American psychologist William James, a friend of her father. As Judith Ryan explains in The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism (1991), “James adopted what he was later to call a ‘pragmatist’ position: the self is a convenient, practical label which we attach to our ever-changing sense impressions.”10 Such constantly altering impressions recur in Woolf's writing. In one essay, “The Death of the Moth” (1942), she reflects on the puzzle of even the simplest expression of life, as if creating a counterbalance to the overarching ideas of human society:

[B]ecause he [the moth] was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in at the open window and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it. One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity. Again, the thought of all that life might have been had he been born in any other shape caused one to view his simple activities with a kind of pity.11

Outwardly, like so many Victorians, Leslie Stephen often presented “the greatest circumspection and dignity” in his behavior, which Woolf parodied in various father figures in her fiction, from Mr. Hilbery in Night and Day to Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. Yet, much like Mr. Ramsay, Woolf's father suffered his own doubts as to his achievements; thus, he came to be uncertain about his treasured concept of “character.” In spite of his prominent status, Stephen's beliefs were defied or contradicted by the paradoxes of his own life. He had wished to be known as a philosopher and thinker. His work in the field of biography was monumental but, in a middle-class sphere, ultimately populist. Stephen's behavior was often disordered and confrontational. In the posthumously published Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings (1976), Woolf recalls hearing of her father's childhood fury from her “aunt” Anny Thackeray Ritchie (the sister of Stephen's first wife, Minny). Woolf comments on “[t]his temper that he could not control, and that, considering his worship of reason, his hatred of gush, of exaggeration, of all superlatives, seems inconsistent.”12

Stephen excused his violent temper on account of the Victorian concept of the genius, which he manipulated in domestic circles, but he often doubted whether he possessed this quality. He was physically healthy, but since, according to Woolf's account of her parents, her father was “Too much obsessed with his health, with his pleasures, she [Woolf's mother] was too willing, as I think now, to sacrifice us to him. It was thus that she left us the legacy of his dependence, which after her death became so harsh an imposition.”13 Thus, from childhood Woolf was confronted with a father who was never, after his Cambridge years, to recover his intellectual or personal composure. He was tied to an idealization of his and Julia's curious, embattled marriage, an idealization that drew all of the extended family into a closed world of uncertainty, emotional longing, and formal social constraint. In her father's self-doubts lies perhaps the origin of Woolf's challenge to Victorian reason and order. Perhaps she even learned from his example that dependency brought on by mental and physical stress drew the care and empathy of others. Woolf attempted to analyze and unpick these key relationships in both her diaries and her fiction.

Woolf appears to have realized from childhood that her father was uncertain of his achievements as a writer, critic, journalist, and editor. From 1882 to 1891 he edited the first twenty-six volumes of an important reference work, The Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1901), and wrote 378 biographical entries for it. He was also esteemed for his books, including History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876) and several full-length biographies. Stephen's feelings of uncertainty about his achievements were exacerbated because he came from a socially significant family with ties to the liberal tradition in English political thought, which advocated policies favoring the rising middle class, such as voting reform and free trade. As Annan explains, the Stephens, and therefore Woolf, emerged from an intellectual aristocracy centered around four families that were interconnected through marriage and friendship: the Trevelyans, the Macaulays, the Huxleys, and the Arnolds. Both the Macaulay and Stephen families had ties to the “Clapham Sect,” an early-nineteenth-century group of wealthy Anglican evangelicals who advocated social reform, including the abolition of slavery, and missionary work. Stephen's grandfather James Stephens had married a sister of William Wilberforce, a key member of the Clapham Sect, and was a friend of Spencer Perceval, the English prime minister from 1809 to 1812. (While still in office, Perceval was assassinated in the House of Commons and died in James Stephen's arms.)14

Woolf's family and its traditions remained a matter of importance and pride for her. In a diary entry of 12 July 1936 she mentions going to Stoke Newington, where her great-grandfather lived. She comments approvingly on his friendship with Wilberforce.15 Of her father's childhood Woolf writes in Moments of Being that “He was a little early Victorian boy, brought up in the intense narrow, evangelical yet political, highly intellectual yet completely unaesthetic, Stephen family, that had one foot in Clapham, the other in Downing Street.”16 Her response was to add her own aesthetic view to this intellectual background in a way that was quite different from her father's negation of the liberal tradition.

The very range of literary and cultural influences represented by the generation that preceded Woolf may explain her need to create a different model of intellectual and artistic practice. She synthesized a new manner of writing derived from her need for an aesthetic that could challenge comprehensively that of her Victorian forbears. Through her “aunt” Anny, a daughter of the famous novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, Woolf had access to firsthand information about many luminaries of Victorian culture. These included Charlotte Brontë, Frédéric Chopin, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, Algernon Charles Swinburne, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James. Similarly, through her father Woolf could cite William James, Hardy, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Coventry Patmore, and George Meredith as family connections.17 Her models in later life were often people with similar connections to her family. When, as an adolescent, Woolf tried to write in the manner of Hawthorne, she was aspiring to emulate a writer with whom her father had become acquainted on a visit to America in 1868, where he also met Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. As Woolf observes in Moments of Being, her mother had known Tennyson and the painters William Holman Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones; she had also danced with the Prince of Wales.

Even in merely literary terms, this web of family acquaintances offered remarkable examples of achievement and styles to copy or adapt. For Woolf it seems to have represented a kind of cultural oppression. Such oppression could prove stifling for members of the next generation, or it could inspire them to resistance and cultural revolution. Woolf drew on these tensions for themes and subject matter in her early, more conventional writing. At the beginning of Night and Day Katharine Hilbery shows a visitor, Ralph Denham, a room preserved as an artistic shrine to her grandfather, a famous poet. Denham's family lives in Highgate, north of London, as did the family of Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury Group and the author of Eminent Victorians (1918). Strachey's book, a series of biographical portraits of famous Victorians such as Florence Nightingale, constituted an attack on Victorian self-aggrandizement, and in that same tradition of cultural skepticism Denham wonders about the burden of this Victorian heritage for the Hilberys. There are parallels to Woolf's own upbringing and the public celebrity of her family in Katharine's position in Night and Day:

“Isn't it difficult to live up to your ancestors?” he [Denham] proceeded.

“I dare say I shouldn't try to write poetry,” Katharine replied.

“No. And that's what I should hate. I couldn't bear my grandfather to cut me out. And, after all,” Denham went on, glancing round him satirically, as Katharine thought, “it's not your grandfather only. You're cut out all the way round. I suppose you come of one of the most distinguished families in England. There are the Warburtons and the Mannings—and you're related to the Otways, aren't you? I read it all in some magazine,” he added.18

The influence of the past and the challenge of living in the present unburdened by the weight of this past are major themes in the Night and Day. Woolf's own family connections were so extensive they might have appeared exaggerated if rendered faithfully in her novels, so these factors are pared down in her fiction. Yet, these Victorian stabilities were created, much like the Hilbery legend, which, as Woolf demonstrates, is a conscious fabrication.

Victorianism and its emergent “traditions” were partly fixed by Leslie Stephen in his biographical work, itself a series that represented an extension of his intellectual circle. If Woolf fought this practice, in his own way her father had felt eclipsed by his own forebears, who had been both well-connected and reform-minded, something that Woolf appeared to register in contesting her father's worldview. Dissent and debate were ingrained traditions in this broader “clan,” which Stephen resisted in his early years. Perhaps Woolf inherited this trait from her “aunt” Anny, who had followed in the novelistic footsteps of her famous father, Thackeray. Stephen felt Anny's writing talent was exaggerated. At the same time, he felt himself to be secondary among the luminaries with whom he was acquainted and never achieved the creative or intellectual prominence that his daughter attained.

After a brief courtship and romance Stephen had married Thackeray's other daughter, Minny, in 1867. The novelist Elizabeth Gaskell had predicted such a union with either one of the sisters after seeing him together with them. The thought of her parents in their different worlds at this point remained a strong image for Woolf. In Moments of Being she describes her mother, widowed after the death of Herbert Duckworth in 1870, paying a visit to the Stephens (Julia lived next door in Hyde Park): “One evening she called on the Leslie Stephens, [and] found them sitting over the fire together; a happily married pair, with one child in the nursery, and another to be born soon. She sat talking; and then went home, envying them their happiness and comparing it with her own loneliness. Next day Minny died suddenly. And about two years later she married the gaunt bearded widower.”19 Hence, Woolf's mother was neither Leslie Stephen's father's first wife nor his first love. Likewise, in terms of both marriage and passion, her father had not been her mother's first emotional commitment.

One legacy of Woolf's father's trips to the United States in 1863 and 1868 was that her godfather was the strongly puritanical James Russell Lowell. In Moments of Being she recalls the silver bracelets her mother wore, gifts from Lowell. Woolf also recalls her first narratives as a child, such as one set at Talland House, a vacation retreat in St. Ives, Cornwall, that her father had bought in 1882, the year she was born: “the Talland House garden story about Beccage and Hollywinks; spirits of evil who lived on the rubbish heap; and disappeared through a hole in the escollonia hedge—as I remember telling my mother and Mr Lowell.”20

Clearly, the point one can draw from all of these coordinates that formed her upbringing is that Woolf's early life was no ordinary one, even in a middle-class sense. She lived in an aristocratically well-connected, politically active and intellectually informed household that maintained a mixture of reserve and creative or intellectual ambition. It was not a harmonious environment. Like her sister, Vanessa, Woolf remembers a mixture of tension, intellectual challenge, austerity, and control. Even her mother was austere at times, some argue even more so than her father. Woolf tried hard to please her elders. She was garrulous and drawn to entertaining them with tales. Her life was dominated both by her father's formality of thought and his struggle to compete intellectually with his peers, who were often his creative or intellectual superiors. This is the underlying scenario for To the Lighthouse. Given this context, it is worth repeating that Woolf's reputation was not firmly established at the level of her own expectations until she was past forty, for up until that point she had written mainly reviews and only one novel of any real significance, the first two being conventional and unspectacular in their effect upon both critics and public. Both father and daughter were overly sensitive to notions of failure. Both suffered from a fear of obscurity, and many of Vanessa's comments reflect Woolf's closeness with their father. Generally, in family circles Stephen attacked anyone who opposed the concepts and notions he expressed. He was as generally insensitive, egotistical, and tyrannical as Woolf indicates in Moments of Being. Like so many people who browbeat their children, a great deal of this behavior stemmed from the insecurities of character that Woolf was to explore in her fiction. Her upbringing and her memories mattered to her as a passionate evocation of her being.

Woolf was very much the product of her complicated and often conflictual family background. Leslie Stephen's first wife, Minny, had given birth to a daughter, Laura, in December 1870. She turned out to be what was labeled in Victorian terms an “imbecile.” Whatever the real cause, clearly Laura suffered extreme learning difficulties and bouts of violent behavior. This was simply one of many disruptive and significant factors in Woolf's childhood. In 1875, after Minny's death, the distraught Stephen became increasingly dependent upon both of his next-door neighbors, the widowed Julia Duckworth and his sister-in-law, Anny. In this same year Anny, as Miss Thackeray, published her historical novel Miss Angel. It is the story of a female painter whose fate can be compared to the central narrative strand of To the Lighthouse, which concerns the efforts of artist Lily Briscoe. Anny's book was dedicated to Woolf's mother. Once he was married to Julia, the jobbing journalist Stephen was likely to find her praise of Anny's novel to be irritating. He and Julia seemed an unlikely match. She had been a renowned beauty since her youth and served as the model for Mary in Burne-Jones's painting The Annunciation (1879). In fact, her preoccupation was caring for the sick and disadvantaged. This inclination was so pronounced that she neglected her own children, wearing out her own energy and health in the process.

As Julia's relationship with her future husband deepened, she became involved in Laura's care. She advised Stephen during their protracted courtship. Despite his later irritation at Julia's philanthropy, involving her in Laura's affliction may have been part of his strategy to woo the widow. He knew how to exploit Julia's passion for caring for the unfortunate and sick, parading in letters his own physical and mental anguish, especially concerning his daughter. In summer 1877 he wrote from Coniston in the Lake District, “The chief sufferer is my poor little Laura. She seems indeed to be unconscious of her misfortunes and is very happy and (sometimes) very naughty—just now, for example, over her letters (Lord! How I hate those letters!) but she amuses herself with ‘benting’ as she calls it, meaning painting. … I have no doubt that Laura will be a worry to me as long as she and I both live.”21

The second marriage for both of Woolf's parents was a troubled one in terms of childcare; there were also arguments regarding Anny, and Stephen was jealous of the time spent by Julia on good deeds. Laura's presence above all is significant in locating Woolf's fear concerning her own madness, her behavior, and its possible outcomes. After the marriage, periodic disturbances erupted from Laura. She exhibited extremely disturbed behavior that must have been an intermittent feature of Woolf's early childhood. Finally, the decision was made to institutionalize the nineteen-year-old Laura in the summer of 1889, which was to be a permanent arrangement. As an exceptionally bright seven-year-old, Woolf must have been aware of the emotional turmoil and social trauma of this chain of events. Neglected by her family, and hardly alluded to in Woolf's writing, Laura outlived Woolf. She died in 1945 in an asylum.

Even before Julia's premature death in 1895, Stephen wrote of himself in a letter to his American friend Charles Eliot Norton that “I am becoming an old fogey.”22 Somehow, one is drawn irresistibly to the conclusion that this indicates part of the atmosphere that permeated Woolf's early life. As Jane Marcus says,

Leslie Stephen was thin-skinned and highly sensitive about masculinity. Insecure himself, he pushed his body to the limits of its endurance in mountaineering expeditions and then collapsed with real and fancied illness into the arms of a series of women to be nursed back to physical and mental health. He was obsessed with the idea of chastity in women; the names of his daughters are testimony to his dependence on male literary images of virginity from Dante to Swift to Lowell. His objections to Hardy's sexual women are well known, as is his formation of the taste of an age of readers of the Cornhill by the choice and direction of the writing of lady novelists whom he championed as fit for female readers and despised at his ease among men.23

Clearly, the events of Woolf's early life were at the forefront of her mind with the effort of completing The Years, a novel charting a family progressing beyond the Victorian period. On 4 May 1937 she wrote in her diary recollecting that the day coincided with her mother's death in 1895, an event she was able to recall in great detail:

The day my mother died in 1895—that['s] … 42 years ago: & I remember it—at the moment, watching Dr Seton walk away up Hyde Park Gate in the early morning with his head bowed, his hands behind his back. Also the doves swooping. We had been sent up to the day nursery after she died; & were crying. And I went to the open window & looked out. It must have been very soon after she died, as Seton was then leaving the house. How that early morning picture has stayed with me! What happened immediately afterwards I cant remember.24

Her mother's death had been a traumatic event. Woolf had problems in responding appropriately, drawn to laughter by her perception that one of the servants was insincere in her grief. She found the deathbed display of the deceased woman troubling. The sudden death of Mrs. Ramsay and her husband's anguish in To the Lighthouse are modeled on these events in Woolf's early teens, reflecting her shock at her mother's death. The setting of the novel is based closely on the Stephen holiday home that she loved so much in her childhood, Talland House, close to the Godrevy lighthouse. Her mother's death was followed by Woolf's first nervous breakdown, and subsequently she suffered bouts of depression and psychosis throughout her life. These experiences permeate her fiction, such as the graphic descriptions of Septimus Smith's psychoses in Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf feared her own mental condition intensely because of both Laura and the family propensity toward insanity.

Woolf's relationship with her father was not entirely a negative one. We know that he allowed her the run of his library without censure or prohibition, including the explicit works of the eighteenth-century novelists. Woolf recalls this liberality with affection in an essay published in The Captain's Death Bed and Other Essays (1950):

Even today there may be parents who would doubt the wisdom of allowing a girl of fifteen the free run of a large and quite unexpurgated library. But my father allowed it. There were certain facts—very briefly, very shyly he referred to them. Yet “Read what you like,” he said, and all his books, “mangy and worthless” as he called them, but certainly they were many and various, were to be had without asking. To read what one liked because one liked it, never to pretend to admire what one did not—that was his only lesson in the art of reading. To write in the fewest possible words, as clearly as possible, exactly what one meant—that was his only lesson in the art of writing. All the rest must be learnt for oneself.25

Given this context of free access and personal choice for his daughter, one letter from Stephen to Norton in 1897 may be instructive, given that Woolf was by this time helping her father in his writing and research: “Of other books, I have got on my table William James' new essays [The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)]. He is the one really lively philosopher; but I'm afraid that he is trying the old dodge of twisting ‘faith’ out of moonshine. Well, I always like him, though I have not had time to read him.”26 The Stephen family's attention might well have been drawn to James's text. James, citing Stephen's 1895 biography of his brother Fitzjames Stephen, repeats Stephen's recollection of an incident in which a tutor demanded of Fitzjames that he should prove God's omnipotence. In a prosaic review of James's work in The Agnostic Annual (1898), Stephen responded by refuting James's attack on objective certitude. In contrast to Stephen's skepticism about both God and James's work, there is much of James's challenge of simplistic realities in Woolf's notion of the world. In her writing is found elements of James's observation that “[t]he negative, the alogical, is never wholly banished” and his notion of life as change where “[t]he transitions are abrupt, absolute, truly shot out of a pistol; for while many possibilities are called, the few that are chosen are chosen in all their sudden completeness.”27 Perhaps Woolf shared and integrated much more of this indeterminacy, “‘faith’ out of moonshine,” than her father could ever comprehend or accept. Not only is Stephen mentioned in James's book, but in a far more damning way he features in his daughter's work. His philosophical ambitions and severe limitations are inscribed as those of Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, reminding the whole world of his failure in comparison to the very contemporaries, such as James, that he was inclined to dismiss. More than this, Woolf's use of all of these elements in her fiction shows how acutely she observed her family and her father in particular.

Death, family, and intimacy were not merely fictional themes in Woolf. These issues were drawn from significant events in her own life. A series of traumas, including her mother's death, affected her state of mind and the emotional vocabulary upon which she drew in her writing. In 1892, Woolf's cousin and a former tutor to the royal prince, James Kenneth Stephen, died during his incarceration in a mental asylum. As a child she had seen his manic behavior played out at Hyde Park Gate, his condition becoming so dangerous that he was barred from visiting. In childhood Woolf accompanied her mother on charitable and philanthropic visits to working-class families, encountering some extreme examples of the poverty, deprivation, and suffering of late-Victorian culture. Later, in 1936, her sister, Vanessa, lost her son Julian when he was killed while driving an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War. The bereavement over Julian evoked in Woolf an image of her father in his old age and the memory of her brother Thoby, who died in 1907 of typhoid fever caught during a holiday in Greece with his brother and sisters. In her diary, Woolf noted of Vanessa,

[N]ow & then she looks an old woman. She reminds me of father taking Thoby's arm: so she asks Q. [Quentin, Vanessa's other son] to help her. How can she ever right herself though? Julian had some queer power over her—the lover as well as the son. He told her he could never love another woman as he loved her. He was like her; yet had a vigour, a roughness, & then as a child, how much she cared for him. I mean, he needed comfort & sympathy more I think than the others, was less adapted to get on in the world—had a kind of clumsiness, of Cambridge awkwardness, together with his natural gaiety. And thats all lost for the sake of 10 minutes in an ambulance.28

Death had different effects upon the family members, as in Woolf's novels. At times Leslie Stephen, especially after the deaths of his first and second wives, demonstrated a reclusive tendency and distinct signs of depressive disorders. Woolf was increasingly to suffer from the latter characteristic as her friends died in the 1930s. Despite his articulation of his own pain, Stephen offered little empathy for the suffering or needs of others. He remained utterly conventional in a Victorian sense. He neglected his daughters' formal education, although some critics insist that this was primarily in response to their mother's objections. In this context it is significant that Julia Stephen also strongly opposed women's suffrage. He disapproved violently of Anny's marriage in 1877 to Richmond Ritchie (later Lord Ritchie), a distant cousin seventeen years her junior. Stephen could be urbane, flirtatious, and almost charismatic among his friends; as Woolf notes in Moments of Being, “There was a Leslie Stephen who played his part normally, without any oddity or outburst, in drawing rooms and dining rooms and committees.”29 Yet, toward the end of his life, in his second bereavement, “it was the tyrant father—the exacting, the violent, the histrionic, the demonstrative, the self-centred, the self pitying, the deaf, the appealing, the alternatively loved and hated father—that dominated me then. It was like being shut up in a cage with a wild beast.”30

After losing his second wife in 1895, Stephen threw a tantrum when Stella Duckworth, his stepdaughter, who acted as the family housekeeper, announced her plans to marry Jack Hills. Woolf watched helplessly as Stella died shortly after her marriage to Hills in 1897. Woolf and Vanessa had been forced to chaperone the couple on a seaside visit shortly before the marriage; later in life Woolf was disturbed by thoughts that Stella might have conceived during the trip and died from complications of pregnancy. Shirley Panken speculates that this experience confirmed in Woolf “a morbid connection of marriage and sexuality with injury, suffering and death.”31 Subsequently, Vanessa had an affair with Stella's widowed husband, Jack. Led by George Duckworth, most of the family disapproved, even Woolf. Her closeness to her sister was strained. Woolf's reaction was as much due to jealousy and a fear of losing her crucial intimacy with Vanessa as it was motivated by any moral view. Later, at the time of Jack's death in January 1939, Woolf noted in her diary that her father, faced with situations like this illicit romance, could become almost detached and aloof after his initial anger: “Then the long interviews with Nessa; her love; the row with George. ‘Are you going to get married?’—how he burst in on me & rather brutally told me his suspicion; asked me to speak to her—to warn her. I remember her dignified reproach—‘You too?’. And father's sense. ‘If she wants to I wont interfere.’”32

Beneath the surface of order and regularity of the Stephen household lay a story of human tragedies and abuse. Years later, Woolf was to recall incestuous advances from both her half brothers, what she called their “malefactions.” In Moments of Being she recounts,

There was a slab outside the dining room for standing dishes upon. Once when I was very small Gerald Duckworth lifted me onto this, and as I sat began to explore my body. I can remember the feel of his hand going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower. I remember how I hoped that he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts too. I remember resenting, disliking it—what is the word for so dumb and mixed a feeling.33

Gerald's brother, George, even perverted the family's time of bereavement. Twenty-seven at the time of his mother's death, George began abusing the thirteen-year-old Woolf at night in secret, a practice continued for many years. Throughout her life, Woolf both resented and felt disoriented by these experiences. She referred to them repeatedly. Her later sexual libido appears to have been repressed, and she was left with a general timidity toward or even repugnance at the idea of penetrative sex. Many commentators regard these traumas as key factors in her suspicion of sexuality of any kind during adulthood and perceive in these experiences likely contributory causes for the depressive illnesses that continued to plague her.

Against the backdrop of her father's playing out what Mepham describes as Victorian melodrama and control, this sexual abuse created a subtext to Woolf's strangely divided and maladjusted life:

Upstairs, George was a sexual hog, wallowing in his emotional excess (“Kiss me, kiss me, you beloved,” he would cry), while downstairs he was the very model of social decorum, pursuing his lazy career as a courtier and snob. Up in the study Leslie was a cool, radical sceptic, reasoning his way through the intricacies of utilitarian theory and quietly supporting Virginia's efforts to educate herself among his books. But down stairs, when Julia died, he would act out his melodramatically inflated grief. He would outrage his daughters by his displays of anger over the weekly accounts. Yet at other times, at tea with visitors, he would be charming and liked to flirt with women. Virginia was forced to play many parts—a hostess, a debutante, a nurse, a student.34

Woolf stresses that during the period after her mother's death, she and Vanessa were “exposed” to their father as a “strange character.” Until her forties and the writing of To the Lighthouse, Woolf's mother obsessed her. She heard her mother's voice daily, as if she were being literally addressed.

It is against this oppressive scenario of family obsessions that the Bloomsbury Group emerged. Soon afterward, Woolf created her own distinctive modernist style. Both revoked the everyday and ideological aspects of the past in cultural and creative terms. Leslie Stephen's death from cancer in February 1904 precipitated the breakup of the extended family. Woolf attempted suicide, throwing herself from a second-story window. Nevertheless, she believed his death allowed the real beginning of her own existence, permitting a move toward independence. His legacy (£15,000) meant Woolf needed neither employment nor marriage (the chief option for women of her age) in any pressing manner. Initially, she found herself recuperating in Burnham Wood with a friend, Violet Dickinson. Dickinson nursed Woolf through the major breakdown she suffered. She heard obscenities from mad King George III skulking in the shrubbery and birds communicating to her in Greek (experiences she drew upon in sketching out Septimus Smith's madness in Mrs. Dalloway). Yet, according to S. P. Rosenbaum, the change was positive: “During those early Bloomsbury years, Woolf derived as much from this friendship [with Dickinson] as from those daring Thursday evening conversations, finding still in their ‘league together’ sources of her feelings about herself and her ambitions. It was in the heat of this affection that Woolf kindled so many of her ideas about people, art and politics.”35 This female influence and emancipation was essential to Woolf's artistic identity. In her novels she moved from a period when “tea-table training”36 was the norm, from a social scene where women were expected to say and contribute little, to a more fluid and constructive social patter. Increasingly, gender came to matter for Woolf.

After this initial recovery, Woolf harbored an irrational and violent hostility toward Vanessa. Thus, Woolf stayed in Cambridge with her father's sister, Caroline Stephen, who was unmarried and an influential Quaker writer. She was the basis for the character Eleanor Pargiter in The Years. Here Woolf seems to have mediated her skepticism and found a spirituality of an undefinable kind that led her to believe in some sense of a transcendent spirit. This was something she kept private even from her husband. While with her aunt, Woolf wrote a memoir of her father for his biographer, F. W. Maitland. This was her first published writing. In preparation, she reviewed the correspondence between her parents during their courtship, unraveling the complex interactions that lay beneath the middle-class surface of their lives.

Meanwhile, the Stephen household moved away from Hyde Park Gate to 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, then a run-down district. This transition initiated the Thursday evening meetings that inscribed a new literary and intellectual set into the cultural history of the period. Bloomsbury refers simply to the triangular area of London roughly situated between the major northern stations of Marylebone, Euston, and King's Cross and, to the south of them, the British Museum (and the former British Library). Here, a group of young graduates and intellectuals—based initially around the young Cambridge graduates who were friends of Thoby Stephen—met regularly on Thursday evenings. Together with the Stephen sisters, Virginia and Vanessa, they discussed matters of aesthetics, beauty, and sexuality. Woolf has become linked inextricably with the development of this so-called Bloomsbury Group (sometimes referred to as the Bloomsbury Set), which is considered an avant-garde artistic movement or coterie. The first great events that drew public attention to the group were a Postimpressionist art exhibition organized by Roger Fry in the Grafton Galleries and the publication in 1918 of Strachey's Eminent Victorians. The first challenged artistic conservatism. The second debunks the cult of personality and moral genius that underpinned the previous age.

Woolf became more confident and animated during this time. She could be caustic both with her wit and comments, a characteristic that she retained throughout her life. She loved indulging in gossip. Woolf reveled in the bohemian area of Bloomsbury and the freedom their new living arrangements offered, experimenting with different, more fluid meal times, less-formal furnishings, and a reduced focus on such conventions as dressing for dinner. Already, Bloomsbury was an area with a number of artistic connections. There was the Slade School of Art. The painter Walter Sickert had rooms and a studio in Fitzroy Square. The novelist Dorothy Richardson lived in rooms in Woburn Place across from those of William Butler Yeats. Certainly, this milieu appears to have influenced Woolf in her determination to write. It supplied sources for many of her characters, settings, and ideas. However, as some critics point out, despite their creative energies and support, many members of the Bloomsbury Group were capable of exhibiting a rampant antifeminism. The other members of this circle seem less important to present-day readers. After describing Woolf's fiction as a type of forerunner to the later chiefly French nouveau roman—an experimental phase of the novel challenging conventional character and structures—Bernard Bergonzi concludes that “Virginia Woolf is the one Bloomsbury figure who now looks like a major modern writer. …”37

The move of the Stephens did not represent any complete severance with their upbringing and their past, however traumatic they may have been. In their new home they marked the occasion with a lavish dress party for family and friends, serving lobster and champagne. Nonetheless, they were young people pursuing their own new lifestyles. At Thoby's “at home” Thursday evenings the debates over beauty, art, meaning, and a more open sexuality would have shocked their upper middle-class parents. The effect and brilliance of this conversation can be exaggerated, for, as Woolf herself comments in Walter Sickert: A Conversation (1934), “Though talk is a common habit and much enjoyed, those who try to record it are aware that it runs hither and thither, seldom sticks to the point, abounds in exaggeration and inaccuracy, and has frequent stretches of extreme dullness.”38 By all accounts, Bloomsbury did have its scintillating moments. It helped shape opinion in the arts and beyond. Significantly, it was after this initial period and before her marriage that Woolf read Principa Ethica (1903), a philosophical work by G. E. Moore, who taught some of the Bloomsbury men at Cambridge. Woolf was not impressed, finding the book unpalatable. Recently, many critics have said that Leonard Woolf was simply inaccurate in citing Moore's book as a major influence on his wife or her writing and in fact was voicing his own perceptions of Bloomsbury.

In early 1905 Virginia Woof was offered the chance to review books for The Times Literary Supplement, a journal owned by a family friend, Leo Maxse. She also worked occasionally as a part-time teacher at Morley College, an adult evening institute where she was to meet the types characterized in the character Septimus Smith. In this period Woolf traveled to most of the locations of her future work, in summer 1905 spending two months with her siblings in the Cornwall areas remembered from childhood. Vanessa launched a Friday Club in October of that year to discuss fine art, and that same month the Stephens journeyed through the Continent to Greece and Turkey. Just like one of his fictional counterparts, the protagonist of Woolf's third novel, Jacob's Room (1922), Thoby died after this trip, on 20 November 1906. He suffered from initially undiagnosed typhoid, like their traveling companion Dickinson, who recovered.

Vanessa agreed to marry Clive Bell, which was a shock to Woolf and the cause of the rivalry described in The Voyage Out. After Vanessa's wedding in February 1907, Woolf moved with her surviving brother, Adrian, the model for James Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, to Fitzroy Square, near the Regent's Park setting of Mrs. Dalloway. The Bloomsbury gatherings continued intermittently.

After this period of independent living, early Bloomsbury, traveling, and journalism, Virginia married Leonard Woolf in 1912. He had attended Cambridge with Thoby and had been part of the Stephens' set before taking up a post as a colonial administrator in Ceylon. Almost immediately, Virginia suffered a massive and violent breakdown. She had to be nursed and guarded constantly during a period that lasted several years. She was obscene, delusional, dangerously aggressive, and estranged from all those around her. It was feared at several points that she might be incarcerated permanently. The experience of these years, the prior example of Laura, and the depressive nature of so many in her family conspired to leave Virginia Woolf ever after fearful of any such episodes. Together with Leonard, she monitored her stresses, headaches, tensions, and moods with the sense of someone aware that she might experience an uncontrollable episode from which she might never recover. Her diaries are full of such reflections and fears.

Despite the breakdown that followed her marriage to Leonard and the traumatic completion of her first novel, published in 1915 as The Voyage Out, eventually the making of the shared household gave Woolf a level of stability of sorts. The couple decided not to have children because of her mental condition and the medical advice they received (although some critics claim that Leonard manipulated this situation to his own ends). This decision caused Virginia Woolf a great deal of anguish. She remained jealous of Vanessa's relationship with her children, offsetting this by calculating her relatively more-successful financial rewards, and pondering in her diary in poignant fashion the children she might have had. Certainly, Leonard shepherded his wife's writing and her health. He became notorious for fussing over her. Certain friends regarded Leonard as overly controlling in this supervision, but he was seen by others as his wife's savior. This reflects roughly the division of critical response to this notable and yet curious relationship. Certainly Woolf appears to have derived a sense of an emotional safety net from her husband's interventions. She seems rarely to have resented his schedules, restraints, or reminders. Whatever the truth, which remains difficult to recover, Leonard was a pivotal figure in her life, and she was dependent on him. Virginia Woolf had a tendency to create relationships that were almost infantile (a characteristic she shared with Katherine Mansfield). In this she was indulged by those closest to her. This may have resulted from a combination of the early loss of her mother and the sexual abuse that stunted the growth of her adult desires and libido.

On her recovery, Woolf survived the bombings of World War I chronicled in The Years and continued to write with greater confidence (not something she felt consistently). Gradually influenced by her reading of numerous writers from Dickens to Joyce and by the example of other women writers, such as Dorothy Richardson (about whose work she was ambivalent), she responded to the challenge of modernist ideas. In so doing she gradually found her own influential voice. An essential part of Leonard's help and influence was his part in jointly establishing the Hogarth Press in Richmond. In 1917 the couple bought a small press, tools, and type, initially as a therapeutic task for Virginia. Within a year, after printing copies of individual stories, they produced 170 copies of Kew Gardens, Woolf's first fully modernist piece, with its impressionistic switch of narrative viewpoints. They next published Mansfield's Prelude, also in 1918. By 1919 the Woolfs had published Eliot's Poems and a story by E. M. Forster. As the press developed, so did Virginia's writing. Owning her own publishing house enabled her to forge closer friendships with a range of modernist writers, including Mansfield and Eliot. However, she had no room for those merely wishing to write without either vision or talent. Woolf was always harsh in her view of other writers, admitting in her diaries her jealousy of some. This applied to Mansfield in particular. In Night and Day the portrayal of Mr. Rodney's aspirations to write demonstrate that Woolf rejected aesthetic and social aspirations based on a quasi-Victorian view of the arts as precious and divine. Rodney is described in the narrative as he reads his paper:

By profession a clerk in a Government office, he was one of those martyred spirits to whom literature is at once a source of divine joy and of almost intolerable irritation. Not content to rest in their love of it, they must attempt to practise it themselves, and they are generally endowed with very little facility in composition. They condemn whatever they produce. Moreover, the violence of their feelings is such that they seldom meet with adequate sympathy, and being rendered very sensitive by their cultivated perceptions, suffer constant slights both to their own persons and to the thing they worship.39

The sale of Woolf's books increased. Bloomsbury became a cultural reference point and was covered by the press throughout the world. By the middle of the 1920s Woolf was a public figure in her own right. She became wealthy. The Woolfs traveled extensively through the Continent, England, and Ireland over the years until World War II. During this period Virginia maintained a high level of privacy and resisted the award of nearly all honors. She developed several close relationships with women later in life. She had a physical passion for the aristocratic lesbian writer Vita Sackville-West, whom she met through the Hogarth Press. Typically, Woolf was periodically jealous because of Vita's far greater success. Later, Woolf had an intense friendship with the composer and former suffragette Ethel Sands. This relationship proved stormy and at times even debilitating. Woolf appears to have found it difficult to balance the demands of friendship and to keep such intimacies at an agreed-upon level. She wrote almost daily, apart from times of illness, and spent most of her adult life committed to writing journalism, reviews, and fiction. Her diaries chart her existence by recording creative ideas and social engagements, as well as a few public events, such as her lecture to the women scholars of Cambridge. Woolf described in detail the various processes of the writing and publishing of her books.

Later in life, the apparently apolitical Woolf often attended Labour Party conferences because of her husband's political affiliations and activities. She argued with him over the General Strike of 1926, not being as enthusiastic as he for the cause of the trade unions. However, from 1931 she showed a greater awareness in her diary entries of the deteriorating international situation. Often she was disturbed and bemused by developments. Throughout 1934 she was perturbed by the German influence in Austria, and she reflected on the growing political involvement of members of the younger generation, including her nephew Julian Bell. Woolf was beginning to feel out of touch, doubting her idea of an art form that could resolve issues by heightening aesthetic perception and debate. Bloomsbury came under increasing attack for elitism or simply for being out of touch.

In April 1935 the Woolfs were visited by an official from the Foreign Office, who advised them on their intended trip to Germany. Somewhat improbably, during a drive through Bonn the Woolfs were caught up in front of a procession for Hermann Goering. They were cheered by the crowds as Virginia raised a mock Nazi salute. They encountered banners bearing sentiments such as “The Jew is our enemy.” In her diary Virginia described how she and Leonard, himself a Jew, became angry at the docility and stupidity of the masses. This bafflement and frustration returned to Woolf in her remaining years as she watched the deteriorating world situation. With horror, having seen London bombed twenty years earlier, she knew that England was headed for war. She had inside information from such influential friends as John Maynard Keynes and was aware of the aggression of Adolf Hitler from friends who had observed him on diplomatic visits to Berlin. When war broke out, she knew that both she and Leonard would be on any Nazi list of subversives if invasion came. This seemed increasingly likely with the military action around Rodmell, Sussex, the site of Monk's House, a country retreat the Woolfs had bought in 1919.

Trying to place her emotions in a creative context, Woolf wrote a draft of Between the Acts, which was to be her final novel, published posthumously in 1941. But she felt it inadequate to the general situation with the continuation of the war. Despite this retreat to writing, a practice that had sustained her through earlier attacks, Woolf felt depression and breakdown coming on. This episode felt worse than any she had previously suffered and indicated the likelihood of permanent hospitalization. Laura was still incarcerated and Woolf may have been unconsciously reminded of her half sister's fate. On 28 March 1941 Woolf drowned herself, after a failed attempt at suicide the previous week, by filling her raincoat pockets with heavy stones and immersing herself in a flooded river close to her home. Her body was found days later.

Leonard was left alone. His role has come under greater scrutiny and caused controversy. Yet, despite her love affair with Sackville-West, Virginia exhibited both a curious joy and dependency in her relationship with her husband. Developing the Hogarth Press did not hamper her work; since they used their country as well as city home as a retreat, Leonard was able to monitor her levels of stress and activity closely. Together they managed to create an environment that was suited to writing and its demands. Writing and her Bloomsbury friends formed the greater part of Virginia Woolf's life. On an emotional level, she stayed close to Vanessa and was thoroughly satisfied with Leonard as an apparently asexual partner. In October 1937, twenty-five years after their marriage, she made the following remarks in her diary, during the period when she was attempting to console Vanessa over the loss of Julian: “Waking at 3 I decided I would spend the weekend in Paris. Got so far as looking up trains, consulting Nessa about hotel. Then L. [Leonard] said he wd. rather not. Then I was overcome with happiness. Then we walked round the square love making—after 25 years cant bear to be separate. Then I walked round the Lake in Regents Park. Then … you see it is an enormous pleasure, being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete.”40 For some biographers and critics, Leonard has become the villain of the piece, but clearly, despite the disagreements Virginia recorded in her diaries, she found her own kind of love and contentment in their relationship.


Woolf was considered a significant author by other writers of her period, if a little difficult to place. Internationally, her works were recognized as significant during her lifetime by literary critics, with studies published by academics and enthusiasts in the United States, France, Argentina, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere long before her death. In France in 1928, Woolf was awarded the only public or literary honor that she accepted, the Vie Hereuse Prize for To the Lighthouse. In part, her blanket rejection of other awards arose from the fact that she avoided public recognition, particularly from universities and official institutions. In February 1932 Woolf wrote in her diary of receiving an offer by letter from the master of Trinity College, Cambridge University, to deliver the six Clark Lectures, which had been given for the very first time by her father in 1883. She declined the offer. In a March 1939 diary entry she recorded having earlier turned down a doctorate from Liverpool University and awards from Manchester University.41


  1. Rosamond Lehmann, in Recollections of Virginia Woolf, edited by Joan Russell Noble (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1975), p. 81.

  2. Herbert Marder, Feminism & Art: A Study of Virginia Woolf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 31.

  3. Virginia Woolf, “Leslie Stephen” (1932), in Collected Essays, volume 4 (London: Hogarth Press, 1967), p. 79.

  4. John Mepham, Virginia Woolf: A Literary Life (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), p. 39.

  5. Louise A. DeSalvo, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work (New York: Ballantine, 1989), pp. 239, 347. DeSalvo argues cogently that Woolf's life and her fiction were shaped by the experiences of her childhood. DeSalvo maintains, for instance, that Leslie Stephen's great influence on the people he knew constituted a sort of challenge for Woolf, who felt she needed to be equally influential as a woman.

  6. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, volume 5 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1985), p. 205.

  7. DeSalvo, Virginia Woolf, pp. 116, 117. As DeSalvo points out, much of Woolf's social interactions as a child would have been with the household servants.

  8. Noël Annan, Leslie Stephen: His Thought and Character in Relation to His Time (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1951), pp. 29ff.

  9. Ibid., p. 39.

  10. Judith Ryan, The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 13-14.

  11. Woolf, “The Death of the Moth” (1942), in Collected Essays, volume 1 (London: Hogarth Press, 1966), p. 360.

  12. Woolf, Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, edited by Jeanne Schulkind, second edition (London: Hogarth Press, 1985), p. 109.

  13. Ibid., p. 133.

  14. Annan, Leslie Stephen, pp. 3-5.

  15. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 102.

  16. Woolf, Moments of Being, p. 108.

  17. Many other Victorian notables can be added to these lists, including John Ruskin, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Thomas Henry Huxley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edmund Gosse. The significance for Woolf is that she either encountered or heard firsthand accounts of such great writers and thinkers throughout her life. These connections sometimes intimidated her as a writer but were also useful since they helped her to be taken seriously once her works began to be published.

  18. Woolf, Night and Day, edited by Julia Briggs (New York & London: Penguin, 1992), p. 10.

  19. Woolf, Moments of Being, p. 91.

  20. Ibid., pp. 76-77.

  21. Sir Leslie Stephen, quoted in Mitchell Leaska, Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf (London: Picador, 2000), p. 30.

  22. Stephen to Charles Eliot Norton, 19 March 1894, in F. W. Maitland, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (London: Duckworth, 1906), p. 418.

  23. Jane Marcus, introduction to New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, edited by Marcus (London: Macmillan, 1981), p. xviii.

  24. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 85.

  25. Woolf, The Captain's Death Bed and Other Essays (London: Hogarth Press, 1950), pp. 74-75.

  26. Stephen to Norton, 9 April 1897, in Maitland, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen, p. 445.

  27. William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (London: Longmans, Green, 1897), pp. viii, 269.

  28. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 108.

  29. Woolf, Moments of Being, p. 114.

  30. Ibid., p. 116.

  31. Shirley Panken, Virginia Woolf and the “Lust of Creation”: A Psychoanalytic Exploration (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), p. 40.

  32. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 198.

  33. Woolf, Moments of Being, p. 69.

  34. Mepham, Virginia Woolf, p. 4.

  35. S. P. Rosenbaum, Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press (Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center/University of Texas at Austin, 1995), p. 40.

  36. Ibid., p. 4.

  37. Bernard Bergonzi, The Myth of Modernism and Twentieth Century Literature (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), p. 8.

  38. Woolf, Walter Sickert: A Conversation (London: The Hogarth Press, 1934), p. 5.

  39. Woolf, Night and Day, p. 44.

  40. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 115.

  41. Ibid., p. 206.

Woolf At Work

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11520


Woolf left myriad reflections about her life. They are found in her fiction and in the numerous expressions of her fears about the reception of her work expressed in the diaries she kept from 1915 until her death. From the diaries it is possible to reconstruct the development of her mature career, but there remains much less material on her earlier years, when she started first writing. Woolf took a long time to become established as a novelist. She started the surviving diary when she was thirty-three years old and unpublished. Yet, long before the time of her first novel, something in Woolf seems to have marked her with the desire to become a writer. She possessed an early natural propensity for telling stories in childhood. Certainly, she aspired to please others with her precocious writing and storytelling. Woolf described in the diaries the impulse for her experiments with various kinds of writing, including memories of her avid storytelling as a child. She invented a nightly tale for her father and produced fictional and journalistic writing for the weekly family newspaper, The Hyde Park Gate News, produced by the Stephen children for their parents. Woolf took the lead and encouraged the other children to contribute intermittently from 1891 to 1895. Leslie Stephen's first biographer was certain that he perceived Virginia as his heir in the literary field. Certainly, her father supported her desire to read unchecked, but it appears that his interest waned when he descended into his prolonged, melodramatic, and self-obsessed bereavement after Julia Stephen's death in 1895. Woolf's sister, Vanessa, recalled, “I cannot remember a time when Virginia did not mean to be a writer and I a painter.”1

Woolf was educated in a haphazard fashion at home, initially by her mother and later by her father. She desired the more structured and classical education given to her brothers and denied most young women by the Victorian patriarchy. From 1897 Woolf pursued her own studies of Greek in lessons from both Clara Pater (Walter Pater's sister) and Janet Case. This was the first major phase of Woolf's intellectual and stylistic development. Concurrently, she began writing essays, few of which remain, in a self-conscious literary apprenticeship. Despite recent critical hostility toward Woolf's father for his role in her education, it still seems generally acknowledged that he encouraged his daughter and at times depended on her as an audience for his own projects. Even in her later development, Woolf saw her father and his social class as a force not only to negate but also to acknowledge as a great influence. As Gillian Beer writes, “Woolf cannot quite shake free of the allure of privilege nor leave behind the paternal. Her work needs them and resists them—needs to resist.2 This reactive quality of Woolf's work is very strong, with an aesthetic and social polemic and a resistance to conventions lying just beneath the surface. She rejected patriarchy and its mundane bourgeois qualities, marking it out as tasteless. As Neville reflects in The Waves, trying to read the significance of the lives of horse dealers and plumbers, “‘Let me denounce this piffling, trifling, self-satisfied world; these horse-hair seats; those coloured photographs of piers and parades. I could shriek aloud at the smug self-satisfaction, at the mediocrity of this world, which breeds horse-dealers with coral ornaments hanging from their watch-chains.’”3

A crucial factor in Woolf's development as a novelist came after her father's death in 1904. She was introduced to the world of book reviewing and journalism, where she honed her writing skills. In reviewing fiction she further developed her own views and understanding of the creative process (although these critical interventions were not always consistent). Woolf began to think about what she should write, describing in her diary an insight she had during a family trip the Pembrokeshire coast: “I was for knowing all that was to be known, & for writing a book—a book—But what book? That vision came to me more clearly at Manorbier aged 21 [sic], walking the down on the edge of the sea.”4 She was inspired to write fiction, but this had to wait. Violet Dickinson, who nursed her through the breakdown she suffered after her father's death, introduced Woolf to the editor of the women's supplement of The Manchester Guardian. Her journalism was published anonymously in the supplement in 1905 and 1906. As Virginia Stephen, she published an article in 1905 on London street music in The National Review. Her reflections on London traders and musicians prefigure their recurrence as a motif in her fiction, such as the descriptions of barrel-organ music and an elderly street singer in The Years. Other work appeared in The Academy and Literature, The Speaker, The Cornhill Magazine (of which her father had been editor from 1871 to 1882), and The Times Literary Supplement, for which she continued to write for most of her life. Woolf responded positively to criticism from the Times Literary Supplement editor, Bruce Richmond, a family connection through her half brother George Duckworth. Late in May 1938 she referred in her diary to the value of this experience as she reflected on her decision to cease reviewing and Richmond's response: “A letter, grateful, from Bruce Richmond, ending my 30 year connection with him & the Lit Sup. How pleased I used to be when L. [Leonard Woolf] called me ‘You're wanted by the Major Journal!’ & I ran down to the telephone to take my almost weekly orders at Hogarth House! I learnt a lot of my craft writing for him: how to compress; how to enliven; & also was made to read with a pen & notebook, seriously.”5

Woolf's manner of making notes in the process of reading seems remarkably like the method adopted by her father, as recorded in a photograph of her parents at Talland House. They are both reading, and the young Virginia is peering over a chair at their studious activities. John Mepham summarizes Woolf's learning curve in the journalistic field, remarking her awareness of the need to accept cuts and take criticism as factors in the development of her own voice. She created in her journalism “her own distinctly elegant, impressionistic and witty style.”6 As Mepham indicates, Woolf's journalism was a serious and ongoing commitment both in terms of time consumed and earnings. The sheer volume of her journalistic output meant that her few early attempts at fiction were modest and consisted mainly of humorous sketches of her friends. These are alluded to in letters and diaries, but few of them survive. There remain autobiographical sketches, including “Reminiscences” (posthumously published in 1976), a memoir of her mother, and another on her half sister, Stella Duckworth, and Vanessa. In these sketches Woolf's language is still essentially Victorian and reveals little promise of the skill of her later writing. Perhaps significantly, the portrait of her mother is far more negative than later ones, as if she were working out her anguish at this point. Woolf's past was not the basis for her fiction. She drew a distinction between her fictional and other writing: “It is a good idea I think to write biographies; to make them use my powers of representation [of] reality [and] accuracy; & use my novels simply to express the general, the poetic.”7

In 1908, during what was for Woolf the traumatic period following her sister's marriage to Clive Bell, she began her first serious attempt at a novel. Originally to be called “Melymbrosia,” it reflected the love triangle that she created in her jealous attempt to become close to Clive. She showed him manuscript versions of her drafts and accepted his commentary and judgment. This was the sole time in her life that she revealed substantial information about any text in progress. After this, she never again opened her creativity in process to the scrutiny of others. A further essential in Woolf's progress as a writer came in 1909 when her aunt, Caroline Stephen, died and left her a £2,500 legacy, a considerable sum at that time. This meant Woolf could reduce her journalistic work and focus more wholeheartedly on her novel, eventually published in 1915 as The Voyage Out. Caroline's generosity came after the time Woolf spent in Cambridge with her aunt, indicating her influence and their closeness. During this time Woolf finished a reminiscence of her father, “Impressions of Sir Leslie Stephen,” which was included in F. W. Maitland's biography of Stephen. As Mepham comments, “Although this was not published until 1906, it was her first piece of writing successfully written for publication. Her writing career thus opened as it was to go on, with a very intimate relation between her writing and deep and difficult feelings, as if through writing she attempted to put her feelings in order.”8

As a result of both her aunt's and her father's legacy, together with money bequeathed by Stella, Woolf was financially independent for most of her life. The only real threat to this stability were the periodic high costs for medical supervision and care during her bouts of insanity. Additionally, the Hogarth Press, which Virginia and her husband, Leonard Woolf, started in 1917 as a mixture of therapy and hobby, became financially rewarding and alleviated any such worries in a practical sense. Initially, the Woolfs printed and bound the books by hand. As they became more sophisticated, Leonard managed the day-to-day aspects of the enterprise. What it meant was that from 1917 and the first phase of printing, Virginia gradually acquired intimate and hands-on knowledge of both the creative and production processes of literature.

The Hogarth Press project came about after the period of major breakdown that Woolf experienced following her marriage, during which she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of veronal, a sleeping medicine. The press later became a relatively valuable commercial enterprise that helped Woolf to maintain financial independence. Late in April 1938, Woolf made note of this in her diary: “Rain & dark. A lost dog in the Square; political lull. Income Tax up to 5/6. Our earnings prodigious. Income tax last year about £6,000. … Press worth £10,000. & all this sprung from that type on the drawing room table at Hogarth House 20 years ago.”9 In certain moods the survival of the Hogarth Press surprised Woolf. As it grew, she cultivated the professional relationships that shaped the press and much of literary modernism in England. She undertook many of the mundane operating tasks. Gradually, and with hard work, the business flourished through a shrewd selection of authors, such as Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, Vita Sackville-West. The friendships and literary fellowship with such a disparate range of writers helped Woolf to decide which features of her own work she wished to develop. She recognized other aspects she found less palatable. It was during this period that Woolf produced an account of contemporary fiction, “Modern Novels” (1919), revised and republished as “Modern Fiction” in 1925.

Apart from Woolf's first two novels, which were published by her half brother Gerald Duckworth's firm, all of her subsequent major works were published by the Hogarth Press. This gave her creative independence and freedom. Once freed from having to submit her work to the scrutiny of publishing-house readers, Woolf abandoned the restrictions of her first two novels. She began to experiment with first-person stream-of-consciousness narrative in the story The Mark on the Wall, published by the Hogarth Press in 1917, and she continued to adapt. In October 1937, when the Woolfs decided against their plan to sell the press to Leonard's assistant and later partner, John Lehmann, Virginia reviewed the significance of the venture. She knew it had created a space for furthering her literary experiments: “We have decided, gradually, completely, not to sell the Press; but to let it die off, saving for our own books. This is a good conclusion I think. It keeps the right to adventure; cuts off some money. We c[oul]d not face writing for publishers. Thus I carry out my own theories anyhow. And we get fresh scope for experiment & freedom.”10

Woolf's editorial responsibilities did not restrain the virtuosity and changing nature of her books. Publishing her own books meant that she and Leonard could both assess her work critically and catch the kind of problems of inconsistent detail that appeared in The Voyage Out. Perhaps another factor in the development of Woolf's writing style was her interaction with the group of young people who became the Bloomsbury Group. This involvement helped her to write in ways reflecting the issues of creativity, metaphysics, and new ideas in modern painting and sculpture, which were all at the forefront of Bloomsbury interests. Such factors had a crucial part to play in shaping how Woolf approached the writing process. They militated against any acceptance of traditional methods and helped her to establish her reputation as a well-regarded literary novelist of influence.


Woolf's technical ambitions and challenges were drawn from her experience of life as a woman and a human individual: “These were two of the adventures of my professional life. The first—killing the Angel in the House—I think I solved. She died. But the second, telling the truth about my experiences as a body, I do not think I solved.”11 Woolf's technique can be investigated by examining her writing and considering her opinions about the process of writing. She expressed the latter in different contexts. Also suggestive are the kinds of writing and techniques that influenced Woolf. Her own technique involved not only questions of how a text should finally appear but also the personal and psychological process of creation.

Woolf inscribed scenes in her writing that both draw upon her earlier authorial ambitions and show readers something of how she understood the writing process to work in practice. One such episode is found in The Waves, when Bernard reflects on and anticipates the writer's craft and method:

When I am grown up I shall carry a notebook—a fat book with many pages, methodically lettered. I shall enter my phrases. Under B shall come “Butterfly powder.” If, in my novel, I describe the sun on the window-sill, I shall look under B and find butterfly powder. That will be useful. The trees “shades the window with green fingers.” That will be useful. But alas! I am so soon distracted—by a hair twisted like candy, by Celia's Prayer Book, ivory covered. Louis can contemplate nature, unwinking by the hour.12

The passage conveys an outline and synthesis of the impressionistic elements and methods found in Woolf's more-advanced works. It also shows her both parodying and yet recognizing the need for collection of material and note-taking. Underpinning Bernard's words is the underlying difficulty of the writing process. There is the synthesis of a response to nature but also a sense of being drawn back into the familiar and domestic mystery of objects. That words cannot ever be objects is both obvious and profound.

Of course, Woolf's exact relationship to Bernard's method is uncertain. She might have partially identified with the technique described, rejected it, or intended the passage entirely as a parody. She might have been intentionally uncertain, since she was ambivalent about her own work. Woolf was capable of vacillating between great pride (almost arrogance) about her craft and abject fear of its insignificance. One is aware of a quality of self-consciousness, with the writer reflecting within the text on writerly questions, aesthetic considerations, and the elusiveness of any stance. In different kinds of writing by Woolf, clusters of possible readings of her texts as being about art itself are suggested. The reader senses this in the parody of different literary styles in Orlando (1928) and the reference to textual struggles in Jacob's Room, when Jacob edits his letters to his mother: “Jacob had nothing to hide from his mother. It was only that he could make no sense himself of his extraordinary excitement, and as for writing it down—”13 Throughout To the Lighthouse Lily Briscoe makes similar reflections about creativity in her thoughts on painting and life. For Woolf and her characters, creativity is never simple, although simplicity might be its goal.

Woolf's vision of women and of female writers in particular is very focused. She often expressed her views outside of her fiction, but these comments reveal something about how she saw herself in a tradition of women's writing. In “The Duchess of Newcastle,” one of the essays in The Common Reader (1925), she writes approvingly of one female kind of creativity in her reflections on the seventeenth-century thinker and playwright Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle: “She could even achieve the miracle of getting her plays acted in London and her philosophies humbly perused by men of learning. There they stand, in the British Museum, volume after volume, swarming with a diffused, uneasy, contorted vitality. Order, continuity, the logical development of her argument are all unknown to her. No fears impede her.”14 Apart from the last comment about fearlessness, Woolf might be summarizing her approach in much of her own work. Inevitably, there have been a great many studies on her, but if there remains any consensus, it is that ultimately she is both a very complicated person and a complex writer. She defies easy or immediate summary.

Woolf's method of writing changed over time, becoming less overtly concerned with social issues and apparently more personal. Nevertheless, a challenge to the conventional became its primary characteristic. By varying her narrative viewpoint, adapting free indirect discourse, and reworking the concepts of biography, Woolf indicated subtly that a traditional worldview was unacceptable. E. M. Forster commented that something over and above art for art's sake may have underpinned her refusal to be specifically political or socially improving in what she chose to write: “Improving the world she would not consider, on the ground that the world is man-made, and that she, a woman, had no responsibility for the mess.”15

While revising or writing, Woolf often read classic English literature. She knew the worth of her chosen books, but the relationship was often a little more complex in her case. To soothe her nerves in the process of rewriting The Years she chose to read The Trumpet-Major (1880), by Thomas Hardy, a friend and former colleague of her father. In February 1936 Woolf read Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (1850) as a break from working on The Years, a task she described succinctly in March: “Never have I worked so hard at any book.”16 She often used such writers as a model to encourage herself in her writing, seeing in them examples of good style, even if her own approach was not directly imitative. Indirectly, part of Woolf's technique was derived from such models of past literature. Still another part may have derived initially from the example of the female members of her family, suggesting a gendered and domestic manner of writing. Her “aunt” Anny Thackeray Ritchie (Leslie Stephen's sister-in-law from his first marriage) prepared a preface for a new edition of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford (1853), published when Woolf was a precocious nine-year-old. Anny indicated an understanding of fictional methods that went beyond the simple Victorian concept of novel-writing as mimesis—the idea that descriptive fiction is a mere copying of the actual world:

The writer is writing of what she has lived, not only of what she has read or even looked at as she passed her way. It is true she read Adam Smith and studied Social Politics, but with that admirable blending of the imaginative and the practical qualities which was her gift, she knows how to stir the dry skeleton to life and reach her readers' hearts. … This power of living in the lives of others and calling others to share the emotion, does not mean, as people sometimes imagine, that a writer copies textually from the world before her.17

This synthesis of intellect, emotion and lived experience suggests the kind of narrative employed by Anny's good friend, Henry James. Anny added a female viewpoint to her own fiction, which was admired by George Eliot. This female perspective may have had a subliminal, suggestive effect on Woolf, despite her father's scorn of Anny's work. In a practical sense of family tensions, Anny was an ally with the young Woolf against her father. Anny was the basis for Mrs. Hilbery in Woolf's second novel, Night and Day. Moreover, as Carol Hanbery MacKay points out, both Anny and Woolf may have drawn on the improvisatory writing method of Anny's father, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, a method that Leslie Stephen resisted.18 Anny knew this style of writing well, having acted as her father's amanuensis and researcher. As MacKay notes, Woolf admired Anny's impressionistic style in conveying a sense of childhood, especially in her novels The Village on the Cliff (1867) and Old Kensington (1873). When the publishing firm Jonathan Cape expressed an interest in republishing these books (although later the proposal was abandoned), Woolf was enthusiastic about writing full introductions to them. What also excited her was Anny's resistance, in both life and art, to Victorian gloom. Clearly, at least in this last sense, Woolf's “aunt” was an inspiration to her.

In her journalism Woolf explored the potential of words in both their ordinary contexts and the literary scene. She worked out an ongoing (and sometimes contradictory) series of critical notions about literature of the past and present, from which her own techniques developed. These essays should not necessarily be interpreted as constituting any kind of manifesto, program, or strict methodology. However, they are useful in understanding what Woolf saw as effective writing. They also indicate exactly what she abhorred. Many of the more effective essays she revised and gathered in 1925 for The Common Reader, her first nonfiction collection, published only weeks before Mrs. Dalloway. The essay “Modern Fiction” is clearly relevant and is often cited, but Woolf's reviews of Montaigne, Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, and Greek literature are equally revealing about her views on the fictional process. Significantly, she alludes to her father's literary presence negatively, and to Anny's more sympathetically.

It was in such essays as those collected in The Common Reader that Woolf's reversal of Victorianism and avowal of a gendered reading began. However, this must be interpreted with textual care, as Mepham makes clear, pointing out why many studies of Woolf's writing should be read with caution:

Open any a book on Woolf and you will find a discussion of her “method” and of her views about the aims of the modern novel, that relies heavily upon a series of quotations from her article “Modern Fiction.” The very same passages are always quoted. They are often taken to be Woolf's clearest definition of what she was attempting to do in her work. They tell us that on any ordinary day a myriad of impressions falls upon the ordinary mind and that the task of fiction is to record these impressions as they fall, in the order in which they fall. We are also told that life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged, but a luminous halo. After seventy years of repetition, these passages have become apparently immovably fixed as the main reference points for the exposition for Woolf's work.19

As Mepham points out, nothing about “Modern Fiction” indicates that in Woolf's view her critical points should or even might be applied to her own work. First published in The Times Literary Supplement in 1919 as “Modern Novels” just after the completion of Night and Day, the essay came years before the main body of Woolf's work, well before she reflected, in “How It Strikes a Contemporary,” also in The Common Reader, that James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) “was a memorable catastrophe—immense in daring, terrific in disaster.”20 In “Modern Fiction” her opinion is that “[i]t is doubtful whether in the course of the centuries, though we have learnt much about making machines, we have learnt anything about making literature.”21

In “The Russian Point of View,” also from The Common Reader, Woolf is more instructive. She explores Anton Chekhov's narrative of the soul and its human relations as “emphatic points” that confound traditional fictional expectations: “Once the eye is used to these shades, half the ‘conclusions’ of fiction fade into thin air; they show like transparencies with a light behind them—gaudy, glaring, superficial. The general tidying up of the last chapter, the marriage, the death, the statement of values so sonorously trumpeted forth, so heavily underlined, become of the most rudimentary kind. Nothing is solved, we feel; nothing is rightly held together.”22 Such artificial traditions of fiction are arguably central to Woolf's own first two novels. They begin to be challenged in the third, Jacob's Room. In Woolf's journalism there are observations that indicate the kind of writing that she not only admired but also felt was exemplary for the writer. In “Jane Austen” she finds in Austen's writing complexities that make her “a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears on the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet it is composed of something that expands in the reader's mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial.”23 Woolf argues of Defoe that “his chief virtue … is that he deals with the important and lasting side of things and not with the passing and trivial” and that “he achieves a truth of insight which is far rarer and more enduring than the truth of fact which he professed to make his aim.”24 In the essay “Montaigne” Woolf outlines the limitations of writing and the written tradition, relating Montaigne's success to the knowledge of oneself and “soul,” her term for the variability, complexity, and self-awareness of the individual. Her description of vital individuality has an almost Emersonian quality: “Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul. She becomes all outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous, and indifferent.”25

Woolf's famous reservation about the works of Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy (as representative of the Edwardian Age and its conventional writing) in “Modern Fiction” is “that they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and enduring.”26 In contrast, Austen contrived to draw from triviality and the commonplace a universality that “gently subsides again to become part of the ebb and flow of ordinary existence.”27 This is the key element to understanding Woolf's major criticism of “materialists” such as Bennett, Wells, and Galsworthy in “Modern Fiction.” There is some sense of the bizarre quality of existential being that she thinks eludes the best of these writers in their works: “Is it worth while? What is the point of it all? Can it be that, owing to one of those little deviations which the human spirit seems to make from time to time, Mr. Bennett has come down with his magnificent apparatus for catching life just an inch or two the wrong side? Life escapes; and perhaps without life nothing else is worth while.” Woolf is really insisting that life is more than a catalogue of material elements. Her own fictional method involved a search for a frame and sense of vision that could convey some of this greater possibility through narrative: “Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this the essential thing. …”28

Certainly, this more-generous portrayal of life is not found in Woolf's earliest novels. Published in 1915, only four years before her attack on Bennett and other writers of uninspired detail, her first novel, The Voyage Out, opens with a combination of convention and fanciful humor:

As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are very narrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm. If you persist, lawyers' clerks will have to make flying leaps into the mud; young lady typists will have to fidget behind you. In the streets of London where beauty goes unregarded, eccentricity must pay the penalty, and it is better not to be very tall, to wear a long blue cloak, or to beat the air with your left hand.29

Experimentation occurs only at the thematic level in The Voyage Out. At this point Woolf was simply incapable of developing the formal qualities and possibilities of narrative that she sought in her subsequent work: “Many books had been tried and then let fall, and now Terence was reading Milton aloud, because he said the words of Milton had substance and shape, so that one could merely listen to his words; one could almost handle them.”30 The tentativeness of Woolf's initial fiction is perhaps confirmed by her identifying the character Mrs. Thornbury as seventy-two years old at one point and, at another, supplying her implausibly with an undergraduate son at Cambridge. Woolf also gives Mrs. Thornbury parents of her own, who are energetic enough to “spoil their grandchildren.”31

Such discrepancies may have been the result of numerous drafts; Mepham points out that in “the final version of the novel, she censored material which she felt brought into the light too openly her most private thoughts and feelings.”32 This revision for self-protection was repeated in Woolf's subsequent novels. Even in The Voyage Out, an attempt at satire on the upper-middle classes, there is a hint of the metaphysical indeterminacy and the challenge to conventional order that informs her later texts. In chapter 11 Arthur is about to declare his passion to Susan:

“Odd things happen to one,” said Arthur. “One goes along smoothly enough, one thing following another, and it's all very jolly and plain sailing, and you think you know all about it, and suddenly one doesn't know where one is a bit, and everything seems different from what it used to seem. Now to-day, coming up that path, riding behind you, I seemed to see everything as if—” he paused and plucked a piece of grass up by the roots. He scattered the little lumps of earth which were sticking to the roots—“As if it had a kind of meaning. You've made the difference to me,” he jerked out, “I don't see why I shouldn't tell you. I've felt it ever since I knew you. … It's because I love you.”33

These observations remain far less important than the satire on romance and the portrayal of young women's social entrapment within conventional expectations to marry. The latter reflects a phase Woolf endured when she rejected a string of what she considered to be unsuitable suitors. This scene is unsubtle compared to her later work. Woolf employed techniques in The Voyage Out that she was later to improve upon.

Woolf's aesthetic perspectives became the center of her texts. Increasingly, she brought together a combination of narrative and theories of art and being. Her family relationships offer some clue as to why she reacted so radically to the stultifying traditions of literary realism, the assumption that writing could be transparent. She did not agree that literature could in any way “report” on a stable and concrete world of easily understandable objects. Her urge to undermine this kind of narrative was a determined one. What Woolf did as an alternative was a matter of juggling elusive narrative qualities. Jane Goldman reflects on the earlier critical reaction to Woolf's apparent fictional worldview: “The elusive qualities of Virginia Woolf's ‘moment’ have exercised critics for some time, yet her phrase ‘menacing with meaning’ has not survived into the common lexis of debate: rather, the Woolfian moment is considered a moment of pure being, a mystical experience, beyond the everyday, beyond history, and beyond meaning.” Goldman maintains that it is important to “place the Woolfian moment in the context of ‘the real world,’ that is in the material and historical realm beyond merely the personal and subjective; to understand some of the feminist implications of Woolf's aesthetics.”34

In Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage (1970) Harvena Richter sees Woolf as having combined and extended the perceptual coordinates of reality, drawing on G. E. Moore's view of perceptual experience as “diaphanous” and William James's concept of a “halo” or “penumbra” surrounding consciousness:35

The moment of being becomes the emotional unit out of which the larger complex of [Woolf's] fiction is spun. That complex depends on an intricate relationship of emotions: a web of personal feelings radiating from each person and at times forming a tangling or intersecting of strands. This criss-crossing forms the conflicts or tensions which affect each character. The patterns of these inner tensions as they shift from changing moment to moment make up the form of her novels.36

In her novels Woolf refuses to prepare the reader for the convoluted turns of the plot, so the unfolding of events evokes a sense of the unfamiliar and unexpected. She exaggerates the surprising qualities of even mundane things. This means that the kind of consent manufactured by traditional realist novels is almost entirely absent, and the outcome can be shocking and disturbing. The casual reference to Mrs. Ramsay's and all the other deaths in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse retains an emotional power. Unprepared, the reader experiences a shock at the disturbance of the relationships built up in the preceding portion of the novel. The lack of a center of narrative viewpoint conveys an almost metaphysical poignancy. This is even more intense than the stream-of-consciousness technique employed by many other modernist writers.

According to Richter, Woolf used “psychological techniques which help place the reader in the mind of the character: the discontinuity of thought and its patterns, the simultaneity of perceptual experience, the ‘scrambled’ data of consciousness, the moment of present time.”37 In expanding the use of the parenthetical remark, Woolf was not entirely original since the device was employed by both Laurence Sterne and Lewis Carroll. Overall, her technique involved various strategies. In arranging her material Woolf used the logic of unconscious elements. She depended upon leaps of intuition, symbolism, emotional connections, and a general reference to the common mood of feelings between otherwise unconnected physical elements. She combined surface links with underlying ones, such as the bells in Mrs. Dalloway that relate to the memory of a clock striking.

Not long after Woolf's suicide, in the 1941 Rede Lecture at Cambridge University, Forster made some astute critical points. He perceived in Woolf an intensity achieved by few writers, describing her creative and narrative process: “She liked receiving sensations—sights, sounds, tastes—passing them through her mind, where they encountered theories and memories, and then bringing them out again, through a pen, on to a bit of paper. … They had to be combined, arranged, emphasised here, eliminated there, new relationships had to be generated, new pen-marks born, until out of the interactions, something, one thing, one, arose … analogous to a sensation.”38 This combination was stretched to embrace the full range of human sensation, challenging any singular or narrow sense of the normative. Forster is correct that rather than being simply impressionistic—although an impressionistic sense is one aim of certain sections of her work—Woolf's narratives arrange the sensations of life in symbolic, repetitive, aural, and aesthetic patterns. Certainly, repetition (especially the doubling of effects or references) remained a key technique, which the reader must recognize as essentially important to all levels of aesthetic meaning in Woolf.

The challenge in Woolf's mature work to normative thinking and rationality is achieved by what Richter describes as an “[o]blique angle of vision.”39 This means that Woolf's narratives present things from unexpected angles, from positions adjacent (almost as if looking over the shoulder) to the characters. This creates unusual angles of vision, either physically (as if describing from a basement) or from the perspective of a character one might not expect to be authorized as the narrative center. Richter explains how this “angle of vision” functions in a section of Mrs. Dalloway presented from the perspective of the mentally troubled character Septimus Smith:

As the reader becomes accustomed to the angle of Septimus' vision, he realizes that it is one of a dissociated world: objects and events are dislocated; normal spatial relationships change, with corresponding shifts in meaning; scenes are fragmented and reassembled in bizarre ways. This is the schizophrenic's landscape, in which internal and external reality are confused and private meanings (externalizing inward anxieties) are projected onto the perceptual world.40

Woolf's oblique angle of vision and shifting voice replace the static implications found in traditional point of view or characterization. In Forster's view, “She has all the aesthete's characteristics: selects and manipulates her impressions; is not a great creator of character; enforces patterns on her books; has no great cause at heart.”41 For Forster, Woolf's fiction is redeemed by its sense of humor, energy and complex centeredness:

It is not the spoken voice of the character or the conventional narrator; it is the inner voice whose exact nature resists definition yet attempts, through language and rhythm, to articulate feeling. It is the tone of the internal monologue, but it represents more than mere verbalized consciousness. It is verbalized being; giving voice to the total moment, transcending self and time, its vibrations strike the inner ear of the reader as a familiar voice. Since it is at once conscious and unconscious, personal and impersonal, individual and collective, it is the voice of everyman, and, conversely, of no man.42

Forster saw that the different modes of voice offered a variety of narrative methods. These include a narrative from within the character, resembling an interior monologue. There is another voice of an overriding intelligence (a point of view that can be mistaken for a narrator), which almost hovers above characters with access to obscure areas of personality. The third major type of voice reveals by reaching into past hidden truths. Woolf had a virtuosity in achieving in rapid sequence transitions between such voices or perspectives, accomplished through technical and metaphorical sophistication. From Jacob's Room onward, her choice of words is revealing and indicates to the reader an idea of perception that is personally derived and makes few objective claims. She uses verbs of perception or understanding that offer a sense of provisionality, such as appeared, imagined, felt, thought, looked, seemed, and so forth.

Forster's main objection to Woolf's writing, despite his praise, holds perhaps a valid point: “Now there seem to be two sorts of life in fiction, life on the page, and life eternal. Life on the page she could give; her characters never seem unreal, however slight or fantastic their lineaments, and they can be trusted to behave appropriately. Life eternal she could seldom give; she could seldom portray a character that was remembered afterwards on its own account. …” According to Forster, this is because of the poetic urge, an aspect of Woolf's writing almost universally noted by critics of all kinds: “Belonging to the world of poetry, but fascinated by another world, she is always stretching out from her enchanted tree and snatching bits from the flux of daily life as they float past, and out of these bits she builds novels.”43

Woolf's writing was often controlled by the general regime imposed on her in an attempt to stabilize her physical and emotional health. When considered well enough by her husband and her doctors, she spent from two to three hours in the morning at her creative work, often revising later in the day. She appears to have had a favored method of writing. She wrote with a board on her lap rather than at a desk. Leonard guided his wife after each manuscript. He read through each first draft, suggesting revisions or expressing general approval. His concern for her health meant that he limited his interventions. Virginia appears to have benefited from Leonard's restraint since it allowed her free reign for new ideas and experimental forms. Moving consciously from one context to another, she was dissatisfied at reworking approaches or material that simply repeated previous successes.

Using the diaries, as some scholars have done, it is possible to chart some of the stages Woolf recorded in her conception and development of her work. The diary entries for early 1931 are instructive in providing a view of how her projects overlapped. The original plan for one book, which was eventually split into the nonfiction work Three Guineas (1938) and The Waves, was that it should concern the sexual and professional life of women. Woolf's inspiration came from delivering a lecture to the London branch of the National Society for Women's Service in January 1931, at the invitation of one of Lytton Strachey's sisters, Pippa, who was secretary to the society. The lecture drew Woolf's attention away from The Waves, for the “didactive demonstrative style conflicts with the dramatic: I find it hard to get back inside Bernard again.”44 Much later than planned, she rewrote The Waves, correcting toward the end of June the retyped version: “This work I began on May 5th, & no one can say that I have been hasty or careless this time; though I doubt not the lapses & slovenliness are innumerable.”45 In July she recorded in her diary the laborious effort in three versions of The Waves in the form of a table, calculating the months involved. She charted her progress from the first serious beginning, on about 10 September 1929, through various revisions of two versions and on to the typescript version, which was at that point unfinished. She added, “Then remain only the proofs.” This was a process she disliked intensely. “I am in rather a flutter—proof reading. I can only read a few pages at a time.”46 In fact, often Woolf's many final revisions were marked heavily on the printer's proof copies, but this was not to be the case with The Waves.

Leonard's caution, Virginia's own instinct, and her obsessive concern for critical responses to be positive combined differently. Sometimes she was capable of cutting radically and savagely, and on other occasions she pruned more judiciously. Leonard wrote,

She always got into a terrible state about a book when she had finished it. In fact, it was always one of those dangerous times for her health because the strain was terrific. When she finished The Years, which was one of the most popular of her novels, she thought it was hopelessly bad and got into such a state about it, and we went away and she put it out of her mind. Then she came back and started on it again and she cut out an enormous chunk in the middle. That is the only time in which she ever scrapped anything entirely.47

Woolf never anticipated her husband's agreement. After earlier recording that he was reading the manuscript of Three Guineas, in February 1938 she wrote with relief of his overall approval: “One cant expect emotion, for as he says, its not on a par with the novels. Yet I think it may have more practical value. But I'm much more indifferent, thats true: feel it a good piece of donkeywork, & dont think it affects me either way as the novels do.”48 As ever, for Woolf the subsequent practicalities of proofs and checking the text were inordinately stressful. These processes raised the very issue of a book's quality and their completion meant the end of her ability to engage in further revisions. A book's fate always became for Woolf an emotional issue. With each publication it seemed as if she felt the text became an extension of her own psychological vulnerability. In April 1938, still working on Three Guineas, she attempted to alleviate the combination of boredom and stress by inviting the younger writer Elizabeth Bowen to tea.

Clearly, although there were many biographical and family derivations for Woolf's raw material, rarely were they left unmeditated. She changed the characterization as necessary. Formal education was not a part of Woolf's life, but it is a theme in The Waves. Susan, who is modeled on Vanessa, has entirely different experiences from those of Woolf's sister. Susan's life typifies the Stephen daughters' class and upbringing but strongly reflects the Swiss alpine environment so beloved of Leslie Stephen: “I cannot be divided, or kept apart. I was sent to school; I was sent to Switzerland to finish my education. I hate linoleum. I hate fir trees and mountains.”49 Parental coercion and rebellion is a strong theme in the novel. This makes the curious structure of monologues and assertions particularly appropriate, since it mixes the qualities of expiation, revelation, and polemic with those of the consciously pictorial and poetic.

In The Waves the figure of Bernard as an aspirant writer allows a window upon Woolf's approach to narrative. He prides himself on his “double capacity to feel, to reason,”50 but worries after trying to provide details about a fellow railway traveler (just as Woolf earlier used fictitious train passengers as the starting point for a discussion of character in fiction in the 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”): “The fact is that I have little aptitude for reflection. I require the concrete in everything. It is so only that I lay hands upon the world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent existence. Yet I think it is likely that the best are made in solitude. They require some final refrigeration which I cannot give them dabbling in warm soluble words.”51 The minutiae of life in all its factuality, such as the man's searching for his railway ticket, intrudes on Bernard's quest for the perfect phrase. This failure is commented upon by Neville, who reflects that however effective Bernard's description of people appears, he fails to capture their feelings. At the end of The Waves Bernard addresses his reader, explaining that to explain oneself requires stories, but their expression leaves reality and becomes extravagant and flamboyant. He is unable to convey what he sees in the “helter-skelter” quality of clouds, with “the confusion, the height, the indifference and the fury.”52 Such notions inspired Woolf's narrative innovations. Certainly, in her own relationship with real things and events, what might be called an aesthetics of deferral is involved: she puts off what the nature of a thing might be, circling it. The result is that the narrative approaches things askance, from different perspectives. As Bette London notes, “Woolf can never quite dismiss the possibility that the true reality yields itself to direct attack”:

Woolf's fictions are generated from a place of covered speech. Her practice repeatedly masks what it unveils, interrogates what it asserts, cancels what it inscribes. Refusing finally to endorse or reject the dominant literary modes, Woolf's art proliferates prohibitions without admitting the provenance of the censoring authority. It replicates the censoring practice without the underpinning belief—a kind of self-censorship without origin or end. Speaking through, between, and around the subjects it sets itself, Woolf's fiction fills its spaces with self-canceling effects. Rejecting silence as it does direct speech, it makes its resistance the site of verbal prolixity. In not speaking out, paradoxically, it finds its own distinctive speech.53

As Woolf's writing became more assured, the techniques within the novels themselves become more complex, indicating her wish to develop the novel form. She continually revised the effects of her work, aiming perhaps further to surprise her readers. Variously, she evoked the experience and formal characteristics of dreams, fantasies, and daydreams, all of which are used in such a manner that dream experiences or fantasies are interpenetrated by other realities. The dream device draws from other literary sources, such as Cervantes and Louis Carroll. Another recurrent technique in Woolf's work is the expression of viewpoint through behavior and attitudes, as in the appalling image of a squashed toad and snake in Between the Acts. Woolf often used such symbols and actions to express an intensity of emotion, as in Mrs. Dalloway, with Septimus Smith's drawing of stick insects, many of which are obscene and chaotic. These render his vision of his own mind and of the state of the external world that he inhabits in his illness. In a sense, this use of symbolic play, with its simplification of shapes and physical forms, is reminiscent of the modernist, antirealist painting that resisted Victorian visual conventions. But, unlike the Postimpressionist painters, Woolf maintained an insistence on an emotional perspective. Visuality is emotionally charged in her use of both technique and symbol, as in the vision of the world through the bereaved Betty Flanders's welling tears at the beginning of Jacob's Room. The reader engages in the suffering and its physical immediacy.

In both Jacob's Room and The Waves Woolf made a challenge to conventional narrative and a more decentered view of the social world by depicting the adult world through the eyes of a child. The use of ambiguity may have stemmed from her development of an effect on the reader that she regarded as one characteristic of great writers. In the essay “Charlotte Brontë” (1916) Woolf notes, “There is one peculiarity which real works of art possess in common. At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season.”54 Woolf sought such a release from the classificatory and rational nature of the conventional novel, exploring this quality of great art and believing it to be capable of capturing some of the essence of life.


Woolf was aware that her writing was undergoing a transition during her work on To the Lighthouse: “March 9th 1926—I observe today that I am writing exactly oppositely from my other books: very loosely at first; not tight at first; & shall have to tighten finally, instead of loosening as always before. Also at perhaps 3 times the speed.”55 Although she revised all of her novels, she produced fewer completely revised drafts as her career progressed. Writing “Melymbrosia” (the working title of The Voyage Out) as a response to Vanessa's perceived betrayal in marrying Clive Bell after their brother Thoby's death, Woolf integrated work on the novel into her flirtation with Bell. His encouragement may have been important, but the sisters' rivalry explains why it was to be the only manuscript Woolf revealed to anyone during the process of writing. It appears that she used the draft as a repository of feeling and desire. The final version was to be both personally and emotionally less revealing than earlier drafts. The rivalry of Helen Ambrose and her niece, Rachel Vinrace, for Terence Hewet's attention runs parallel to the real-life situation. Helen attacks Rachel, and in an excised section they tumble and fight with each other in the grass, where “they rolled indiscriminately in a bundle, imparting handfuls of grass together with gestures which under other conditions might have been described as kisses.”56 Rachel's difficulties in forming emotional relationships mirror Woolf's own predicament, despite a flurry of courtship activity that included several offers of marriage (including the homosexual Lytton Strachey's withdrawn proposal). Rachel's sudden death (and the illness of other hotel guests) reflects the experience of the family on their return from Greece with Thoby and Violet Dickinson suffering from typhoid. Woolf made the illness unaccountable and enigmatic in the novel. In her revisions she attempted to make the novel more visual. She reworked some passages, while in others she substituted new sections for deleted ones, altering the bias. In the transitions the changes are significant. As Louise A. DeSalvo notes, “All overt references to Rachel's homosexual love for Helen were eradicated; all overt links between Richard Dalloway and Willoughby Vinrace were expunged, so that although the draft discusses Rachel's frigidity and links it to her fear of men, the equation between Willoughby Vinrace and Richard Dalloway is missing. Helen's overt sadism was pushed underground—instead of overtly victimizing Rachel, she is largely unaware of her envy.”57

Woolf made further changes to The Voyage Out for the first American edition, published by George H. Doran, and a proposed second edition similar to the Doran version for Duckworth. Duckworth in fact published a second edition from the Doran sheets. Woolf altered dialogue in an attempt to make it more convincing, deleted detailed descriptions of Rachel's life in Richmond (the outer district of London where Woolf was living at the time of the revisions to the novel). In chapter 16 detailed histories of both Rachel and Terence were deleted. In the English edition Rachel describes a typical day for Terence in full detail (including visiting the poor with an aunt and taking tea); the American edition offers less detail, making Rachel's past more shadowy and indistinct and suggesting that the two are unwilling to be open with each other. Woolf excised references to Rachel's submission to her father's authority, making her articulation of her agony at being a woman much vaguer, far less authoritative, and more in keeping with someone in emotional turmoil. Rachel's delirium and death became far more personalized in progressive drafts, from a detached description to a more hallucinatory, symbolic and emotional one, with Rachel disassociated from her body and the world.58

In the view of many critics, all of Woolf's revisions are revealing. As she polished a text, the drafts tended to become less personal and revealing. According to Mepham, “The drafts display crucial emotions, for example, anger, feminist resentments against men, sexual desires, fears and confessions, which are then covered over again in the final rewriting.”59 In the original drafts of To the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay is far more verbally abusive and threatening toward his wife. He is more eccentric and more prone to fantasies, such as dying in military glory at Balaclava. His fluctuation between terrorizing and babyish behavior is far more explicit in the original drafts than in the published version. Similarly, the eight Ramsay children's characteristics are more pronounced in the original drafts. One daughter, Cam, is rejected because of her wildness, anger, and refusal to demean herself by subservient gestures to the men, all in a family where emotion is suppressed. There are underlying hints at injury to Cam from her bird-shooting, militaristic brothers. Cam's absentmindedness and crisis are far more central to the novel and its structure. Mrs. Ramsay is oblivious to the emotional depths and traumas of her children; her covering up a boar's head of which Cam is fearful merely buries the underlying causes of the girl's anguish, which may be thematically and symbolically interpreted as a reference to the incestuous abuse Woolf underwent. DeSalvo points out that in the final version of “Time Passes” Woolf excised an image of a boar's snout breaking the harmony like a mirror: “In one version, the snout in the mirror ‘thrusting itself up meant death, and starvation, pain, it was difficult to abolish its significance and continue.’”60 DeSalvo relates the images to the Duckworth brothers' abuse of the young Virginia. Thus, Mrs. Ramsay's covering of the boar's skull becomes far more significant and questionable, implying a silent complicity after the event.

Certainly as Herta Newman makes evident by drawing from the original plans for To the Lighthouse, Woolf intended to center the narrative on her father. It is possible that traumatic memories of her abuse brought the image of her mother to the forefront. Woolf's revisions diminished the tone of anger and revulsion. In the manuscript a page of penciled notes conveys strong emotions and the idea of their suppression in the Ramsay family far more openly than they are conveyed in the published version of the novel:

James hated him.
Felt the vibration in the air
Felt the emotion
A bad emotion?
All emotion is bad to chi
Felt his mothers emotion
What her emotion was
The fatal male sterility
Must have sympathy
Plunges his great beak in
She is pouring forth life
Radium from every [cch.?]
A prodigal waste of feeling.
J. does not feel any emotion to his father(61)

Woolf's final stylistic revisions were considerable, reaching for a clarity of expression. In the final version of To the Lighthouse Mr. Ramsay muses that philosophy is like a progression through the alphabet, and he knows “He would never reach R.”62 In the holograph version this image of insufficiency is followed by a telling section. It demonstrates how Woolf's specific changes often derived from a conscious attempt to reach for the right vocabulary and image:

But how many men in a thousand million men press on to /reach/ Z? One perhaps. And his fame lasts how long? Perhaps two thousand years? And what are two thousand years in the long in the roll of ages? And What indeed? The very stones one kicks with the tow of ones boot have /will/ outlasted Plato. Shakespeare. His little light would shine, not very brightly for a year or two, & then be seen no more, & merged in some bigger light, & that in a bigger still—
Roam on. The light is we sought is
Shining still. I wandered till I died.(63)
And after all, who could blame the leader of that
Forlorn party, if, before before death stiffened his
limbs l beyond all movement, he does, a little
Consciously take on /strike/ an attitude of her raise his numbed fingers
To his brow, st square his shoulders, so that when his
Rescuers come they shall perceive that he died at his post, the
Fine figure of a soldier?
I wandered till I died
Roam on. The light we sought is shining still,
Mr. Ramsay murmured between clenched teeth.(64)

The revisions offer a picture of how the overall shape of the conflict in Mr. Ramsay's mind is established from the start. In the final version there are considerable differences in the passage. Ramsay stands by a geranium urn, implying the classical thought and philosophy that overshadows him. Woolf introduced the image of Ramsay thinking of himself as the leader of a lost expedition, drawing on her father's commitment to a male intellectual identity expressed in outdoor pursuits. A parenthetical aside stands in humorous contrast to Ramsay's lofty seriousness: “And what are two thousand years? (asked Mr. Ramsay ironically, staring at the hedge.) What, indeed, if you look from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one's boot will outlast Shakespeare.”65


Despite her later successes, throughout her work Woolf battled against the accusation from others (and her own doubts) that her stories lacked sequential logic and that this undermined the other qualities of life she intended to portray, the transcendent feelings. Often she wondered whether she achieved her goals. This self-questioning emerges in a scene from The Waves in which Neville analyzes Bernard and his propensity for order. Neville feels that in spite of his own hope for a different way of seeing things, it is confronted with the logic of Bernard's wish for a sequential, conventional narration:

“And now,” said Neville, “let Bernard begin. Let him burble on, telling us stories, while we lie recumbent. Let him describe what we have all seen so that it becomes a sequence. Bernard says there is always a story. I am a story. Louis is a story. There is a story of the boot-boy, the story of the man with one eye, the story of the woman who sells winkles. Let him burble on with his story while I lie back and regard the stiff-legged figures of the padded batsmen through the trembling grasses. It seems as if the whole world were flowing and curving—on the earth, the trees, in the sky the clouds.”66

To tell of that moment rather than to experience it is to risk descending into Bernard's patter. This represents Woolf's fear of failure in trying to squeeze the magical and almost metaphysical quality of experience into her work. This tension plays out in the two characters' different views. The backdrop is nature mediated by the reality of the game of cricket, with its intricate rules. Nevertheless, for Bernard's stories briefly enchant the boys more than the formality of the cricket match. In a sense, Woolf makes her reader aware of the merely temporary ability of narrative to supersede concrete details, to which, of course, attention always returns.

An earlier change, almost an acceleration of experimentation, in Woolf's style occurred with her third novel, Jacob's Room. Her stylistic advance and discovery of further narrative possibilities came partly in response to the lack of any real critical acclaim for her first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day. The change in Woolf's writing was also perhaps a response to elements latent in her work, many of them prefigured by aspects of the works of Joyce, Mansfield, Marcel Proust, and Dorothy Richardson. The psychological and stream-of-consciousness techniques were major shifts, but in their subjectivism they drew upon new concepts of objective reality. The authorial voice became less important than the narrative structure in conveying to readers a need to identify with various characters and contexts. The viewpoint produced by the reading process had to adapt fluidly and rapidly. Woolf used and drew upon memory, free association, internal monologue, and cinematic devices because of the accusation that she was too conventional. She added a poetic refrain of repetitiveness and a feminized, ambivalent elusiveness. The abandonment and parody of plot was essential, but it can be overstated. In Woolf (and in most modernists) there remains more than a residual hint of authorial summary and control (however much they are diminished). The movement (and progression) in chronological time in The Waves, if reconstructed, conveys the sense of a social and understandable narrative sequence.

The physical and emotional trauma Woolf experienced in the process of writing her first novel indicated what was to become a pattern of suffering during the process or after completion. This would seem to indicate that writing was an intensely personal and physical process of emotional turmoil for her. Although the relationship between creating fiction and illness may not have been as simple as Leonard Woolf later thought, certainly the process of writing caused Virginia great anguish in various ways. She either agonized about a novel in the process of writing it (after The Voyage Out, always without any critical advice), sometimes becoming ill, mostly feeling a huge lack of confidence. She suffered acutely while Leonard read a manuscript and, later, while waiting for reviews. This was an intensely personal and somatic trial, clearly due in part to the intensity of emotions in her writing and her feeling that she was being judged. Woolf herself refused for most of her life to see any unconscious emotional disturbances in her illnesses, preferring to analyze physical symptoms and causes or to accept an idea of a hereditary failing. The curious and essentially unexplained death of the apparently healthy young Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out was a self-projection in this sense. Woolf's work, her identity, and the different phases of her writing were inextricable.

Woolf's writing was a constant reworking of earlier concepts and approaches; she responded to critical assaults by confronting the accusations. She answered the attack that she couldn't deal with character first by making it central—in Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando—and then by presenting it in a fragmented and almost provocative fashion, as in The Waves. In Orlando Woolf ponders teasingly whether the secrets of a writer's soul, the qualities of mind and life experiences, are not written large for the reader to see and require neither biography nor criticism. Despite this almost arrogant belittling of criticism, in private Woolf could be far less confident about the nature of her work and extremely vulnerable while waiting for its public reception, as is seen in a diary entry written while she was waiting for Three Guineas to be reviewed:

Am I right though in thinking that it has some importance—3 Gs [Three Guineas]—as a point of view: shows industry; fertility; & is, here & there as “well written” (considering the technical problems—quotations arguments &c) as any of my rather skimble skamble works? I think there's more to it than to A Room [A Room of One's Own]: which, on rereading, seems to me a little egotistic, flaunting, sketchy: but has its brilliance—its speed. I'm suspicious of the vulgarity of the notes: of a certain insistence.67

Interestingly, Woolf could not properly conceive of the full implications of a work until after it had been published. Many of her positive assessments of her work came only after the public response to a particular work was known. Despite her intense worries about critical reception, this fear did not cause her to limit her scope. Woolf risked unpopularity with the feminism of Three Guineas. She knew that the disorganization in terms of plot and characterization in The Waves would both antagonize and confuse many readers. To a great degree, despite all her wish for acclaim, Woolf remained a writer who ultimately satisfied herself.

Since the appearance of feminist criticism on the contemporary critical reception of Woolf, it has become increasingly impossible to extricate the dynamics of her writing from the facts of her life as a woman. Together, her writing and life help to form an idea of her gendered analysis of her world. Certainly, Woolf's books were drawn from her life experiences in a way that makes it difficult simply to retreat into the texts, ignoring the writer and her times. Critics have recognized this crucial shift in Woolf studies, and the autobiographical and feminist aspects are seen as part of a larger project rather than as discrete and separable elements.


  1. Vanessa Bell, Sketches in Pen and Ink, edited by Lia Giachero (London: Hogarth Press, 1997), p. 63.

  2. Gillian Beer, Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), p. 2.

  3. Virginia Woolf, The Waves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959), p. 70.

  4. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, volume 2 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1981), p. 197.

  5. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1985), pp. 144-145.

  6. John Mepham, Virginia Woolf: A Literary Life (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), p. 21.

  7. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 4 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1983), p. 40.

  8. Mepham, Virginia Woolf, p. 15.

  9. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 137.

  10. Ibid., p. 113.

  11. Woolf, Killing the Angel in the House: Seven Essays (London & New York: Penguin, 1995), p. 8.

  12. Woolf, The Waves, pp. 36-37.

  13. Woolf, Jacob's Room (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960), p. 131.

  14. Woolf, “The Duchess of Newcastle,” in The Common Reader: First Series, edited by Andrew McNeillie (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), p. 73.

  15. E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf: The Rede Lecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1942), p. 8.

  16. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 16.

  17. Anne Thackeray Ritchie, preface to Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (London & New York: Macmillan, 1891), p. xvii.

  18. Carol Hanbery MacKay, “The Thackeray Connection: Virginia Woolf's Aunt Anny,” in Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury: A Centenary Celebration, edited by Laura Marcus (London: Macmillan, 1987), p. 71.

  19. Mepham, Virginia Woolf, p. 67.

  20. Woolf, “How It Strikes a Contemporary,” in The Common Reader: First Series, p. 235.

  21. Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” in The Common Reader: First Series, p. 146.

  22. Woolf, “The Russian Point of View,” in The Common Reader: First Series, p. 177.

  23. Woolf, “Jane Austen,” in The Common Reader: First Series, pp. 138-139.

  24. Woolf, “Defoe,” in The Common Reader: First Series, pp. 92, 93.

  25. Woolf, “Montaigne,” in The Common Reader: First Series, p. 61.

  26. Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” p. 148.

  27. Woolf, “Jane Austen,” p. 142.

  28. Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” p. 149.

  29. Woolf, The Voyage Out (London & New York: Penguin, 1992), p. 3.

  30. Ibid., p. 308.

  31. Ibid., p. 301.

  32. Mepham, Virginia Woolf, p. 41.

  33. Woolf, The Voyage Out, p. 126.

  34. Jane Goldman, The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism, and the Politics of the Visual (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 1.

  35. Harvena Richter, Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 21.

  36. Ibid., pp. 30-31.

  37. Ibid., pp. viii-ix.

  38. Forster, Virginia Woolf: The Rede Lecture, p. 7.

  39. Richter, Virginia Woolf, p. 84.

  40. Ibid., pp. 88-89.

  41. Forster, Virginia Woolf: The Rede Lecture, p. 9.

  42. Ibid., p. 129.

  43. Ibid., pp. 16, 17.

  44. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 4, p. 6.

  45. Ibid., p. 30.

  46. Ibid., pp. 35, 38.

  47. Leonard Woolf, quoted in S. P. Rosenbaum, Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press (Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center/University of Texas at Austin, 1995), p. 239.

  48. Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 127.

  49. Woolf, The Waves, p. 97.

  50. Ibid., p. 77.

  51. Ibid., pp. 68-69.

  52. Ibid., p. 239.

  53. Bette London, The Appropriated Voice: Narrative Authority in Conrad, Forster, and Woolf (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), p. 117.

  54. Woolf, “Charlotte Brontë,” in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, edited by McNeillie, volume 2 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), p. 27.

  55. Woolf, To the Lighthouse: The Original Holograph Draft, transcribed and edited by Susan Dick (London: Hogarth Press, 1983), p. 17.

  56. Louise A. DeSalvo, Virginia Woolf's First Voyage: A Novel in the Making (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 87.

  57. Ibid., p. 102.

  58. Ibid., p. 148.

  59. Mepham, Virginia Woolf, p. 3.

  60. DeSalvo, Virginia Woolf's First Voyage, p. 177-178.

  61. Woolf, To the Lighthouse: The Original Holograph Draft, p. 69.

  62. Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), p. 35.

  63. A transposition of two lines from Matthew Arnold's poem “Thyrsis” (1867): “… I wander'd till I died. / Roam on! The light we sought is shining still”; they were not used in the final version of the novel.

  64. Woolf, To the Lighthouse: The Original Holograph Draft, pp. 68-69.

  65. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, p. 35.

  66. Woolf, The Waves, pp. 37-38.

  67. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 134.

Woolf's Era

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12077


Woolf's life covers a period stretching from the last twenty years of the Victorian era right up to World War II. At the time of her death, she felt great personal anguish and pessimism about England's uncertain future. She had earlier planned a joint suicide with her husband if Adolf Hitler's forces invaded. Woolf's work covers many of the social tensions and issues of these times of immense change and turmoil.

In her work Woolf describes the restrictive social values of her Victorian childhood and Edwardian youth. She shows through strong young female characters the partial breakdown of patriarchal families. In Mrs. Dalloway she explores through Clarissa Dalloway and her circle the post-World War I crisis of identity. In The Years Woolf analyzes the Victorian past and how, in terms of family experience, the past was a prologue to her contemporary world. In the autobiographical works published posthumously in 1976 as Moments of Being, she associates such tradition and authority with the figure of her half brother George Duckworth: “George accepted Victorian society so implicitly that to an archaeologist he would be a fascinating object. Like a fossil he had taken every crease and wrinkle of the conventions of upper middle class society between 1870 and 1900. …”1 Despite this conservatism, Woolf's era was typified by inner contradictions and outward change, a characteristic of all of her themes.

As Woolf's works indicate, her lifetime was a period of immense change, involving a transformation of both personal and public attitudes in England (and, more widely, the West). As her own life experience demonstrates, the world developed mass-communications systems and the means for mechanized and aerial warfare and moved from horse-drawn transport into motorized transportation. Woolf survived the great influenza epidemic that killed millions in 1918 (the same one that “weakens” Clarissa Dalloway's heart), noting its arrival in a neighboring house in Richmond but suffering from depression and mental illness for which medicine appeared helpless. In the same year, Woolf and her pregnant sister, Vanessa Bell, were taken by a horse-drawn carriage, booked by John Maynard Keynes, to a performance at the London Coliseum. Within ten years Woolf was traveling by motorized taxi to the cinema.

The artistic events and social attitudes of Woolf's time seemed as important as parliamentary politics and world events, because under such influences British society emerged from the Victorian patriarchy of her childhood. Art was more radical and exciting than Parliament. This helps to explain the momentum behind Bloomsbury. People like Woolf began to question not only conventional views of the family and the arts but also those of Empire and gender. These challenging forces helped to create the age of modernism. Clearly, traditional values were eroded by a range of factors other than the literary, such as increasing industrialization, the widespread loss of religious faith in European democracies, and the rise of the working classes (by which many bourgeois artists were both inspired and repulsed). There were also a series of financial crises, the scramble for colonial power, and World War I itself. Many of these appear in Woolf's texts. The social and emotional effects of the war are seen in Jacob's death in Jacob's Room; in the behavior of Septimus Smith, Mrs. Foxcroft, and Lady Bexborough in Mrs. Dalloway; and in the supper party interrupted dramatically by a bombing raid in the 1917 section of The Years.

In this age of flux and technological advancement, two issues affected Woolf's life more than any other: aesthetics and the role of women in the arts and society. Both were prominent concerns of her era. In a sense, modernism courted change, since, like its predecessor Romanticism, it had profoundly anti-establishment and radical tendencies. This undercurrent persisted from the late nineteenth century until the outbreak of the World War II, the period celebrated for modernist art. In a simple historical sense, much of the modernist urge is explained by what it rejected. Woolf and a wide range of different artists rebutted Victorian sentimentalism, with its populism and self-indulgent showiness of style, and also Victorian arrogance concerning social identity. This divided the modernists from the mainstream thinkers of the Edwardian and Victorian periods.

As even the most sympathetic critics concede, Woolf's social class was not fully representative of the majority British experience. She was part of an elite minority. Additionally, she did not choose entirely contemporaneous settings for her fiction. In fact, her relationship to her period is neither immediate nor direct. Her work is not primarily a chronicle of people's lives during the time that she was writing. Only two of her novels are set in the immediate period of their creation. These are Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts, with perhaps a third added if one includes The Voyage Out. The social commentary in that novel, however, with its focus on a lost post-Victorian phase, was dwarfed by the events of World War I, making the book seem almost anachronistic. Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts make important reference and appeal to past events as well as those of the immediate narrative time. Clarissa Dalloway's memories of her youth are essential, and through Miss LaTrobe's pageant in Between the Acts, Woolf evokes thematically in the face of potential conflict the historical nature of community and Britishness. The pageant enacts grand moments of community and the past.

All of Woolf's other novels focus on phases of life and values that have palpably been superseded. Night and Day and Jacob's Room depict the social, emotional, and gender limitations of the Edwardian period. To the Lighthouse centers on the late-Victorian world of family holidays and family tensions. The Waves fragmentarily pictures various Victorian and Edwardian rites of passage. Orlando presents a mythic history stretching broadly from the Elizabethan period to the present. The Years conveys much of the minutiae of Victorian and Edwardian family contexts. In her diaries Woolf conveyed more of how she understood her era, with details on her close personal relationships and reflections on the dynamics and structures of the society of her time, particularly gender roles.

Each of Woolf's novels offers a critical picture of many of the wider features and dynamics underlying the period in which she lived and its immediate past. She was perceptive about social nuances and key events and movements. She reworked this history through the prism of a gendered perspective, a woman's view of that world. In Night and Day Woolf parodies patriarchy as a domestic ideal; Mr. Hilbery tries to assuage the shock of his final confrontation with his daughter by reading Sir Walter Scott: “Civilization had been very profoundly and unpleasantly overthrown that evening; the extent of the ruin was still undetermined; he had lost his temper, a physical disaster not to be matched for the space of ten years or so; and his own condition urgently required soothing and renovating at the hands of the classics.”2

Although the Victorian sensibility seemed in some ways to persist in family structures, a reversal of the earlier social smugness and a new aesthetic radicalism came together in the avant-garde impulses of Woolf and her immediate Bloomsbury circle. Such social negations were part of her literary perspective. Critics agree that the mating rituals of the young and affluent are made ridiculous in The Voyage Out, conventional life becomes a source of alienation and madness in Mrs. Dalloway, and incest and infidelity are indicated as undercurrents in The Years. In each case these themes run counter to and undermine any authoritative appeal to stability as part of the family structure. Examined closely, Woolf's dynamics are countercultural, despite a textual surface of social interaction and the portrayal of crisis as a deeply personal matter. In The Years Woolf charts the social and personal transition of her era for the Pargiters, an upper-middle-class family modeled on her own extended family. The narrative describes scenes of shoppers, horse-drawn London traffic, and the lives of middle-class charitable women in the 1880s; and, later, brick-throwing suffragettes, World War I, and motorized trams. There is conflict over the British Empire on the question of Ireland, and some of the respectably middle-class family members descend into a shabby-genteel poverty. Through these developments Woolf reveals that the apparent certainties of rank, identity, and position were capable of collapse. From her own experience Woolf shows how the snobbery of England persisted. In Mrs. Dalloway she gently parodies the aristocracy as a privileged class buffeted by larger forces despite its complacency.

Certainly, not all thinkers regarded the trend of modernism and the transformation of social ideas as a purely positive development. The once-influential philosopher Rudolf Eucken wrote Main Currents of Modern Thought: A Study of the Spiritual and Intellectual Movements of the Present Day (1908) as a warning:

There is a widespread modern tendency to take sides with the child against the parent, with the pupil against the teacher, and in general with those in subordination against those in authority, as if all order and all discipline were a mere demonstration of selfishness and brutality. … In connection with this tendency we should mention also the feminism with which we are now threatened: this does not aim merely at assisting women to their due rights; it would like to shape education and the whole of civilisation, as far as possible, from the point of view of feminine interests alone.3

In Woolf's era many sought to extend social rights, particularly to affluent women. Her cousin Katherine Stephen served as the principal of Newnham, one of the first Cambridge colleges for women. Woolf herself gave a guest lecture at Newnham on women and fiction. She reiterated her concern with women's education and political rights from both a personal viewpoint as well as a social one. Woolf returned repeatedly to the issue in her writing. In The Years, Kitty Malone reads out loud at her mother's request an editorial from The Times. Like Woolf's own mother, Kitty's mother is enthusiastic about the article's condemnation of the effects of universal education, particularly regarding domestic duties such as cooking. This was of contemporaneous concern. When Woolf accepted the chance to speak at two societies at Cambridge's women's colleges in October 1928, women had only been able to graduate with full degrees from Cambridge since 1920. Even at the time of her lectures, the teachers at women's colleges still had only limited access to library facilities. Woolf's 1929 feminist tract A Room of One's Own both celebrates educational reform and chastises the system for the limits still imposed. She adopted a particular style for her text that Ellen Bayuk Rosenman calls “associative and suggestive rather than strictly logical” and that avoids confrontation by offering a polemical but personalized narrative.4 Significantly, Woolf refused in 1932 to deliver the prestigious Clark Lectures in English literature, inaugurated by her father, despite being the first woman to be asked. This was partly because she felt she could not do so “without becoming a functionary; without sealing my lips when it comes to tilting at Universities. …”5 Woolf recognized that even by this period the battle for women's rights had not been won completely, and she railed against many of the absurdities of the lingering patriarchal attitudes in her more polemical work, in which she voices resistance to any recurrence of that overt oppression.

Later Woolf felt obliged to reenter this ongoing debate with the publication of Three Guineas in 1938, some thirty years after Eucken stated his conservative and antifeminist fears. She knew the work would prove controversial because many men still shared Eucken's fears and were less liberal than he in proposing a solution. They held to tradition and constraint. Woolf herself suffered directly. In 1920 Desmond MacCarthy patronized her in his public attack on the ability of female novelists, a dispute stemming from her justifiable rebuttal to MacCarthy's glibly favorable review of Arnold Bennett's nonfiction work Our Women: Chapters on the Sex-Discord (1920). In 1935 E. M. Forster told Woolf that the London Library Committee had been discussing whether to admit women, which led her to think she was going to be asked to join. He went on, however, to explain that the committee had concluded by deciding against the idea. This controversy and Woolf's response in Three Guineas not only provide a glimpse of the ideological forces at work throughout this period but also stress the degree of the establishment's opposition to the feminist agenda. The struggle against British patriarchy was comparable in Woolf's view to the fight against fascism: “The whole iniquity of dictatorship, whether in Oxford or Cambridge, in Whitehall or Downing street, against Jews or against women, in England, or in Germany, in Italy or in Spain is now apparent to you.”6

In her writing Woolf acknowledges the development of cinematic photography, the spread of the telephone, the growth in secretarial work and typewriting, gradual changes in women's work, and, after World War I, an ongoing crisis in domestic service. All of these developments indicate a mobile social order with an irresistible dynamic of transformation. In Jacob's Room a London street procession creates a traffic jam near Whitehall: “The traffic was released; lurched on; spun to a smooth continuous uproar … sweeping past Government offices and equestrian statues down Whitehall to the prickly spires, the tethered grey fleet of masonry, and the large white clock of Westminster.”7 As if to stress the flux and reversal of certainties, toward the end of the novel, after the narrative of Jacob's childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, Woolf introduces other viewpoints. The narrative follows an unnamed parliamentary voice (inevitably a male one at this time) sketching the political and diplomatic descent into war and describes a procession descending into violence beneath the statues of the statesmen of the past. The transition into a more modern age is expressed not only thematically but also formally: with Jacob's Room Woolf moved from the more traditionally inclined narrative structure of her first two novels to the more challenging and experimental modes of modernism. She articulated a similar process of transition through her lifestyle and the discussions she took part in as a member of the Bloomsbury Group. However the group participants were not unique in confronting Victorian verities, nor perhaps did they represent the most progressive force. The painter Wyndham Lewis later looked back and concluded in an extended attack that Woolf and her acolytes represented no more than “a tyrannical inverted orthodoxy-in-the-making.”8

Whatever the motivation for and substance of Lewis's objections, Bloomsbury was nevertheless direct and irreverent in its attitudes and approaches, as is seen in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. In picturing the totality of Woolf's world, however, the effect of such intellectual and literary radicalism can easily be overstated, because many of the principles of a very male post-Victorian imperialism remained intact. This can be seen in the more-conventional characters surrounding Clarissa Dalloway, such as her husband and Hugh Whitbread, a politician and servant of the crown. With Richard Dalloway, Woolf reminds the reader that the modern period remained a world run by those who, like Dalloway, could recall Queen Victoria herself. Unimpressed by the memorial to her, he pictures the passing figure of the queen: “He liked being ruled by a descendant of Horsa; he liked continuity; and the sense of handing on the traditions of the past. It was a great age in which to have lived.”9 Woolf herself was far from totally rejecting the past and ignoring all traditional cultural values. In January 1936, while working on The Years, she recorded in her diary her reactions to the death of King George V. She and Leonard viewed the coffin at King's Cross Station, as if this were both a human duty and act of homage. Like Richard Dalloway, Woolf's impulses were not republican.

Woolf's aesthetic radicalism and feminism had their limits. This was common in her class. She was not immune to the assumptions underlying the snobbery and intolerance of an upper-middle-class background. She often wrote privately that servants were a problematic breed, describing them almost as coming from a different and lesser order of being. Servants feature only sketchily in her work. In 1918 Woolf predicted in her diary that social values would change in the postwar period, with an erosion in deference from the lower classes. However liberal she might appear to have been, her reaction to such a change was not entirely approving. On the days following the 11 November 1918 Armistice, she found herself appalled by the drunken celebrations, typified for her by a woman with bad teeth kissing several “stolid soldiers.”10 Woolf was also thankful that the threats of ordinary soldiers toward the officer class, which had characterized the end of war, had subsided. In April 1919, while visiting Katherine Mansfield, Woolf walked to a traditional fair on Hampstead Heath to the north of Bloomsbury. In her antipathy toward the mass of people, she found them detestable, smelly, brutish, and scarcely human. She commented, “I never for a moment felt myself one of ‘them.’ Yet the sight had its charm: I liked the bladders & the little penny sticks, & the sight of two slow elaborate dancers performing to a barrel organ in a space the size of a hearthrug.”11 These were not unusual sentiments among the educated and governing classes, even to the time of Woolf's death.

Despite some progressive views, in other senses Woolf remained a product of the worst prejudices of her age. Despite her marriage to a Jewish husband, she was capable of exhibiting a casual, unreflective anti-Semitism, as when she derided Jewish characteristics in her mother-in-law. Moreover, despite her own madness and that in her family, Woolf appears to have been influenced by the theory of eugenics in her earlier years, and in an infamous passage from her 9 January 1915 diary entry she recorded encountering some “imbeciles” near her home in Richmond: “On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look twice at, but no more; the second shuffled and looked aside; & then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling creature, with no forehead, or no chin, & an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.”12 In these remarks Woolf was expressing views in keeping with those of others of her time. The birth-control advocate Marie Stopes's eugenic bias influenced her in pioneering birth control among working-class women, and as a cabinet minister Winston Churchill advocated the sterilization of “the feeble-minded and insane classes.”

Woolf's era was a time of dramatic political, changes such as the decline of the Liberal Party and the rise of the Labour Party, in which Leonard Woolf was a leading figure. Virginia attended the party's annual conference a number of times, but political upheaval hardly features in her writing. Nor do many of the other social conflicts of her times, such as the shooting of militant trade unionists or the conflict in Ireland. Much more about these matters surfaces vividly in Woolf's diaries. It is evident from this record that Woolf was perhaps less politically engaged than many of her contemporaries with radical views but that she had her own agenda concerning feminism and women's rights. Early in May 1926, she sketched the effects of the General Strike of that year: “An exact diary of the Strike would be interesting. … Everyone is bicycling; motor cars are huddled up with extra people. There are no buses. No placards. No newspapers. … [W]ater, gas & electricity are allowed; but at 11 the light was turned off. I sat in the press in the brown fog, while L. [Leonard Woolf] wrote an article for the Herald. A very revolutionary young man on a cycle arrived with the British Gazette. L. is to answer an article in this.”13

Initially, Woolf made note in her diary of the raising of food prices and her dependence on radio news because of the absence of newspapers. Yet, within a day, she wrote of being taken shopping to buy dresses with the editor of Vogue, an event that appears to have excited her more than the political and social turbulence. Significantly, during this period of political commitment on Leonard's part, the couple argued intensely for two days. On 9 May she wrote, “There is no news of the strike. The broadcaster has just said that we are praying today. And L. & I quarreled last night. I dislike the tub thumper in him; he the irrational Xtian in me.”14 Toward the end of the strike, on 13 May, Woolf recorded the celebrations enjoyed in Bloomsbury style, despite the fact that the miners' dispute was still unresolved: “I suppose all pages devoted to the Strike will be skipped, when I read over this book. Oh that dull chapter, I shall say. Excitements about what are called real things are always unutterably transitory. … In short, the strain removed, we all fall out & bicker & backbite. Such is human nature—& really I don't like human nature unless all candied over with art. We dined with a strike party last night & went back to Clive's [Clive Bell].”15 Later, in August 1931, against the backdrop of world financial crisis when England withdrew from the gold standard and Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald split the Labour Party by forming a coalition government, Woolf wrote of her concerns about whether her literary efforts might be remembered as being rather like fiddling while Rome burned.16

By this time, as her diaries testify, Woolf felt acutely middle-aged, and by the 1930s she was perplexed both by the mood of politicization of a new literary generation and the descent into crisis and military conflict. As the decade progressed, a polarity between left and right extremism seemed to influence the younger generation. They were caught up in events such as the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and the Spanish Civil War. Julian Bell, Woolf's nephew, served in Spain with the ambulance corps of the International Brigade and died from shrapnel wounds. Increasingly, Woolf felt impelled to take part, although at times reluctantly because of the nature of the meetings, in fund-raising and consciousness-raising events. Gradually, her sense of crisis deepened as an intense personal feeling. She felt more isolated as the European situation degenerated. In 1938, with Hitler absorbing territory, Woolf responded with Three Guineas, yet she feared that older intellectuals like herself were being overtaken by events. Her response was a feminism that was not understood at the time. In her diary she described military maneuvers as masculine “games,” increasingly seeing international conflict as a problem of men and patriarchy. Critics remain divided on how appropriate a response this represented. Woolf was genuinely disturbed by the turn of world events, especially after her and Leonard's own visit to Nazi Germany. They encountered the crowds and their conformity firsthand. After the German annexation of Austria, Woolf, along with most of her contemporaries, found her life dominated by the threat of war and ongoing militarism. In September 1938 she reflected:

What would war mean? Darkness, strain: I suppose conceivably death. … All that lies over the water in the brain of that ridiculous little man. Why ridiculous? Because none of it fits. Encloses no reality. Death & war & darkness representing nothing that any human being from the Pork butcher to the Prime Minister cares one straw about. Not liberty, not life … merely a housemaid's dream. And we woke from that dream & have the Cenotaph to remind us of the fruits. … We may hear his [Hitler's] mad voice vociferating tonight. Nuremberg rally begun: but it goes on for another week.17

Woolf recorded the fall of Barcelona in January 1939. There were synchronized explosions in London attributed to the Irish Republican Army (IRA). After World War II began in September, Woolf listened with fascination to the news in December of the imminent departure of the German battleship Graf Spee from the harbor at Montevideo, Uruguay, where the ship had gone for refuge after an earlier engagement with British warships in the South Atlantic:

Oh the Graf Spee is going to steam out of Monte Video today into the jaws of death. And journalists & rich people are hiring aeroplanes from which to see the sight. This seems to me to bring war into a new angle; & our psychology. No time to work out. Anyhow the eyes of the whole world (BBC) are on the game; & several people will lie dead tonight, or in agony. And we shall have it served up for us as we sit over our logs this bitter winter night. And the British captain has been given a KCB [Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath].18

To Woolf it appeared that the mood of the world had changed with this descent once more into war. Here was the mass media hurrying to convey every detail of the destruction and despair. The literary and cultural revolt of modernism had once seemed to offset some of the despair of World War I. After 1939, it seemed to Woolf, as to many of her generation, that, like the Graf Spee itself, modernism was cornered and about to sink itself in desperation. This feeling had been building for some time. In September 1938 Woolf described the proceedings of the Memoir Club, which was a regular feature of later Bloomsbury. Keynes reviewed their earlier optimism and their belief in critical debate and its ability to sort out the problems of the world: “Maynard read a very packed profound & impressive paper so far as I could follow, about Cambridge youth; their philosophy; its consequences; Moore; what it lacked; what it gave. The beauty & unworldliness of it.”19 Like Bloomsbury itself, at times Woolf felt like an anachronism.


Almost without exception, Woolf is seen by critics as an essential figure in the modernist movement. Especially after her death, she came to be considered a key modernist writer. Modernism can be an elusive term, its exact definition a cause for great debate and disagreement. There is a consensus of opinion that this social and artistic movement involved a profound shift. It meant a revision of how people saw their world and included technological change. The revolution in the arts and aesthetic matters allowed progressive thinkers to challenge much of what had preceded them. In Mrs. Dalloway, Peter Walsh, returning to England from India, reflects on the changes that have occurred during his absence: “Those five years—1918 to 1923—had been, he suspected, somehow very important. People looked different. Newspapers seemed different.”20 Agreeing on modernism's general features is complex, since it is argued there are various modernisms rather than any unified vision or experience. Certainly, Woolf's texts offer a glimpse into aspects of a world already being reshaped by great forces and becoming far different from the environment into which she had been born. There were changes in values most especially among the intellectual and artistic class to which her family belonged. Social convention was anathema. Feminism revised the position of women.

Despite the acquisition of the vote by all men prior to her birth, Woolf's era was one of ongoing social division. Subtle nuances defined the various classes, and throughout there continued to be significant division in terms of different conditions and wealth. Night and Day charts the conflict between well-established intellectuals, who, like the Stephens, are sufficiently notable and wealthy to be part of a ruling elite, and the lower-middle classes, of which Leonard Woolf and his family were part. Leonard was conscious of this class factor himself, and it plays a large role in his relatively unsuccessful novel The Wise Virgins (1914). Vanessa and Virginia are recognizable as the two central characters in a portrait less than flattering to Virginia herself. Some aspects were drawn from life. Woolf scholars often find themselves uncomfortable with her narrow understanding of class and breeding; she clearly thought that a person's background was a correlative of how much talent and creativity they were likely to have. She felt that the middle classes and aristocrats were an elite on merit. Her diaries show clearly that she recognized physical types who demonstrated better breeding and beauty. These types are very much delineated on class lines. Woolf's obsession with Vita Sackville-West led her into a physical adoration. There may be an underlying theme of idealizing the marginal and the few. It was the mass psychology of her age that Woolf rejected. In Recollections of Virginia Woolf Rosamond Lehmann recalls, “She had a romantic view of charwomen and prostitutes; and her conception of the ruling classes, of rank, fashion, titles, society—all that—was perhaps a shade glamorous and reverential.”21

Perhaps if one phrase stands out among Woolf's many critical statements, the best known is her comment on her era and its shift in general consciousness. She said in retrospect that “in or about December, 1910, human character changed.”22 In terms of the artistic transformations of her era, this remains an astute remark. Peter Stansky's On or About December 1910: Early Bloomsbury and Its Intimate World (1996) is devoted to studying the events and concepts underlying Woolf's somewhat bold and thought-provoking assertion. Stansky demonstrates how the Edwardian world was one of changing relationships in which Bloomsbury challenged convention by its intimate form of address (first names instead of the Victorian convention of surnames used between men) and explicit conversational references to sexuality. Stansky illustrates the class decisions and class conflicts in which the working classes were subdued by violence and shows how the power of tradition was eroded with the challenge of the Liberal Party government to the House of Lords. An election was called on a program committed to limiting severely the powers of the Lords to veto legislation, a political struggle referred to obliquely in Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out. The character of Helen Ambrose was based in part on Vanessa, who had dined in her younger years with many political luminaries because of family social connections but seemed unaware of their significance. Stansky reports that she “was alleged to have sat next to Asquith [H. H. Asquith, the prime minister] at a dinner party and turned to him and asked him what he did.”23

Part of a new mood of openness was expressed through Bloomsbury's series of elaborate sexual relationships. This has been read as indicating a liberality toward sexuality. Many members of Bloomsbury carried on affairs or relationships with partners other than their spouses. Vanessa became renowned for her sexual proclivities, and part of the Bloomsbury daring was to mention sex openly. Famously, Strachey is reported to have inquired whether a stain on Vanessa's white dress might be semen. In terms of such openness Woolf seems contradictory. Certainly, in her conversational language she could be uninhibited for a woman of her class and generation. She typed up obscene material for Strachey and even swam naked with the poet Rupert Brooke. Woolf could write in an unabashed fashion to Vanessa about Leonard's wet dreams, but her own sex life seems to have been constrained and at times nonexistent. She was happy to gossip about the innumerable Bloomsbury affairs, both heterosexual and homosexual. There were plenty of intrigues. Vanessa had an ongoing relationship with Duncan Grant after 1914, despite the public continuation of her marriage to Clive Bell and Duncan's constant affairs. Grant had been the lover of Strachey, Keynes, and Virginia and Vanessa's brother Adrian. Grant fathered Angelica Bell, although in this matter Bloomsbury's ostentatious frankness was replaced by secrecy. Angelica did not learn of her parentage until she was seventeen and resented being deceived. Another lover of Grant's was David “Bunny” Garnett, whom Angelica went on to marry, against Woolf's advice, and despite his being her own father's former lover.

Woolf was far from puritanical in her outward life and gestures. When not oppressed by illness, she was remembered for her conversation and humor, even if at times it could prove cutting and sharp. There was what some might regard as an almost undergraduate fancifulness to Woolf's set. Trickery and disguises compelled Bloomsbury, especially with the Dreadnought Hoax in 1910. Woolf, Grant, Anthony Buxton, and Guy Ridley disguised themselves as a royal Abyssinian entourage, paying an official visit to the flagship of the Home Fleet, H.M.S. Dreadnought. This became a public scandal and caused a furor in the popular press. At a fancy-dress ball at Crosby Hall in Chelsea, Clive, Vanessa, Roger Fry, Grant, Adrian, and Virginia dressed in skimpy native African garb that was shocking for the time, with legs and arms “blacked up.” In contrast, Woolf's works are less than explicit about copulation and sexual desire. In her suppression of her eroticism and her artistic expression of sexuality, Woolf can be seen as a product of the more-repressive tensions of her age. Possibly, she was either unable to shake off her moral guilt or dismiss the results of her earlier sexual abuse. Woolf's love affair with Sackville-West involved at most two physical encounters; Vita reportedly suppressed her passion because of fears of inspiring further madness in Woolf.

Woolf recognized the effects of her childhood as a profound influence on both her writing and her individual identity. Certainly, in sexual matters, both public and private experiences indicated a period of upheaval and struggle. Childhood meant not just family issues in a restricted sense; part of their broader meaning can be seen to have had parallels in issues of social concern. As Woolf clearly saw, women were generally suppressed. Her early years passed in an era of culturally approved misogyny and acts of male violence, epitomized infamously by the example of the murders committed by Jack the Ripper. Her own cousin, J. K. “Jem” Stephen, wrote extremely misogynistic and distasteful verses about such acts that were published in Granta, the Cambridge literary magazine. These verses appear to have drawn little adverse comment from the older generation of the Stephen family, despite Jem's own violence and sexual obsessiveness concerning Woolf's half sister Stella Duckworth. Under modernist influences British society emerged from the period of Victorian patriarchy partly because people such as Woolf began to question not only these older attitudes but also those of empire and male power generally.

Woolf's initial rebellion had two strands. The first was a journalistic and broadly artistic response, and the second a matter of adopting risqué and avant-garde lifestyles and activities in which art was the focus of new ways of perceiving things. As her fiction makes clear, Woolf grew up at a time when the world was reshaping itself through commercial and industrial growth. There was accelerating urbanization in England, a world of public transport and advanced communications that shrank the distance between imperial outposts. The transition to motorized and crowded cities is evident in The Years, and worldwide communications are part of the world of Jacob's Room: “The wires of the Admiralty shivered with some far-away communication.”24 Although one might take The Voyage Out as a retreat from such elements, with its brooding, primeval jungle, it opens on a world of motorcars, seagoing commerce, and the Mediterranean fleet guarding British interests.

Woolf had firsthand experience in key aspects of the women's rights movement. In 1910 she wrote to her Greek tutor, Janet Case, to volunteer for the less-militant wing of the suffrage movement, the Adult Suffragists. Later Woolf did work for the Women's Co-Operative Guild. Changes for women seemed slow to come, particularly in the period leading up to World War I. Progress was delayed by official opposition to the movement for suffrage, which resulted in the celebrated imprisonment for some agitators. In “Memories of a Working Women's Guild” (1930) Woolf describes issues that acted upon the minds of women in 1913, such as the need for liberal divorce laws, a minimum wage, and maternity care, as well as the extension of adult suffrage. Such was the threat of suffrage to the male establishment that it continued to resist extending the vote to women even after World War I. Later, Woolf endured criticism from several males, both fellow writers and even other Bloomsbury figures. These men drew upon their sense of male identity and felt justified in attacking the intellectual and social role of women. Certainly, even apparently experimental writers and thinkers could suddenly appear as part of the establishment where gender was concerned, as Woolf was only too aware. Both in her own life and in her writing she resisted such attacks and took what was the difficult position of supporting feminist resistance and encouraging ongoing militancy among middle-class women readers. Even Woolf's reading notes for Shakespeare's works in the period from 1909 to 1911 demonstrate her intention to bring to one of the great symbols of culture a gendered reading.

In her own writing Woolf concentrated almost entirely on the female characters. This female perspective is a key aspect of her own literary and general interests. Her struggle against the paternalism and patriarchy of the ruling class were undertaken both as an insider, a member of the upper-middle class, and as an outsider in her cultural position as a woman. It was primarily the women's issues among the many cultural topics of her period that most consistently caught Woolf's attention. Such issues were capable of exciting her anger. In this she was ahead of the mood of the establishment. In Night and Day the revolt of Katharine Hilbery highlights the regressive tendency of British society. Mr. Hilbery consoles himself with the illusion of paternal certitude and control, of money and property, elements that Woolf mocks gently: “Considering that Mr. Hilbery lived in a house which was accurately numbered in order with its fellows, and that he filled up forms, paid rent, and had seven more years of tenancy to run, he had an excuse for laying down laws for the conduct of those who lived in his house, and this excuse, though profoundly inadequate, he found useful during the interregnum of civilization with which he now found himself faced.”25

In To the Lighthouse Mrs. Ramsay ponders the extremes of female experience in the various social classes. She thinks of her mythical Italian noble ancestors and pictures the extreme inequities of wealth that she has encountered on her dutiful and charitable visits to the poor with her “note-book and pencil, with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for the purpose wages and spendings, employment and unemployment, in the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half a relief to her own curiosity. …”26 She is denied her wish to represent in a public sense any such social investigation partly because of the restricted role of womanhood. Yet, she embraces the maternal and domestic. In this way Woolf conveys the contradictions facing women of her mother's generation. The men in the novel may be dissatisfied, but because of a relative lack of success rather than having been offered no opportunity to pursue any such success. Mrs. Ramsay emerges as the most talented and yet most repressed of all the characters in the novel. That Woolf engaged publicly in her own version of such success, often against opposition, conveys the changing role for women in both their public and private worlds. From the world of the constrictive Victorian dresses society moved on to the revealing clothing of the Jazz Age flappers and beyond. The young women in Between the Acts offer a glimpse of a new form of female identity, one for which Woolf had struggled.

Although Leonard Woolf claimed that his wife was essentially politically disinterested, in fact she was well-versed in the suffragette cause. Her espousal of feminism and the cause of modern art formed part of an ideological rejection of British philistinism and Victorian values, a kind of political rejection unfamiliar to Leonard. Concurrently, two episodes marked 1910 for Virginia Woolf. There was violence at demonstrations in Parliament Square between police and militant suffragettes angry at the government for dragging its feet on a limited legislative extension of the vote to propertied women, a kind of commitment that is less radically represented in Woolf's fiction. In the 1910 section of The Years, Kitty Pargiter complains to her cousin Eleanor about the pigheadedness they encountered at a meeting concerning tactics in women's political action. Kitty rejects the use of violence. Later in life, Woolf revitalized her connection with the suffrage movement and feminism through her close friendship with Ethel Sands and friendships with pioneering feminists such as Ray Strachey (sister-in-law of Lytton Strachey) and Margaret Lewellyn Davies. Woolf's fictional images of struggle against monolithic Victorian social ideas ran parallel to her general commitment throughout her life to women's education and development. In Night and Day, Hester Denham studies to pass examinations for entrance into Newnham, the first women's college of Cambridge. This is exactly the kind of education that Woolf was denied—partly from family attitudes and partly due to her health—and the next generation found more accessible.

The other key event of 1910 was the Postimpressionist art exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, staged by Roger Fry in November. The whole enterprise was not an entirely altruistic one since Fry was trying to raise income, and he was disappointed that his share came to no more than £460. The controversy at the cultural heart of London was undeniable. One of the sponsors of the Postimpressionist exhibition, the director of the National Gallery, asked for his name to be removed after inspecting the paintings, as did the Duchess of Rutland.

Not all of the work in the show was new or unknown, whatever the varied responses. The exhibition featured Edouard Manet's last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-1882), which had been shown at the Grafton Galleries in 1905. Other artists featured included Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh. Paintings of Cézanne had appeared in International Society exhibitions in London in 1898, 1906, 1908, and many of the younger artists in Fry's exhibition had their work displayed at Robert Dell's Brighton show in June 1910. Previously these paintings had evoked far less controversy and debate. Not all response was hostile, but the intensity of reactions demonstrates that the arts were a field of significant cultural conflict in a world in transition. Sir William Richmond, a prominent artist and member of the Royal Academy, called the work “atrocities” and “rubbish” and implied that they encouraged unmanliness. Philip Burne-Jones complained of “the cult of ugliness and the anarchy and degradation of art exemplified today by the ‘Post-Impressionists.’”27 On 3 December 1910 The Illustrated London News published cartoons of bemused and amused spectators with the caption “Gazers at Paintings Few Appreciate and Fewer Understand.”28 Arnold Bennett, whom Woolf was to attack over the conservatism of his fiction, responded favorably in several contributions to The New Age, a journal dedicated to thwarting “the smug, failed certainties of the bourgeois nineteenth century.”29

Clearly, from the reactions of both the supporters of the Postimpressionist exhibition and its detractors, aesthetic challenge and artistic experimentation were part of a central cultural debate in the early twentieth century. Yet, these Postimpressionist artists, so favored by Fry, were not necessarily at the forefront of experimentation. Bloomsbury, apart from Wyndham Lewis, was less than enthusiastic about Cubism and the Futurists. The Camden Town group of painters under Walter Sickert's leadership felt that Bloomsbury was celebrating something not thoroughly modern in its focus. Thus, perhaps too much is made of Woolf's progressive sensibilities in the visual arts.

Whatever the broad sense of excitement over the Postimpressionist exhibition, its cultural significance as a marker for change in the arts generally and its catalytic effect upon Woolf herself may be judged by her retrospective description of the event. In Roger Fry: A Biography (1940) she recalls the showing of the works to the press and invited guests prior to the exhibition:

There they stood upon chairs—the pictures that were to be shown at the Grafton Gallery—bold, bright, impudent almost, in contrast with the [George Frederick] Watts portrait of a beautiful Victorian lady that hung on the wall behind them. And there was Roger Fry, plunging his eyes into them as if he were a humming-bird hawkmoth hanging over a flower, quivering yet still. And then drawing a deep breath of satisfaction, he would turn to whoever it might be, eager for sympathy. Were you puzzled? But why? And he would explain that it was … quite easy to make the transition from Watts to Picasso; there was no break, only a continuation. They were only pushing things a little further.30

Critics now recognize that, whatever the bias of the group, one of Bloomsbury's skills, shared by Woolf, lay in its use of influence and connections to attract media and cultural interest in order to promote modernist aesthetic production and change the nature of public taste. In this sense Woolf played a part in changing her era, rather than simply reflecting its realities. The paintings of the artists represented in Fry's exhibition, which had influenced others such as Katherine Mansfield, had an even more profound effect on Woolf. One effect was the general adoption of the term Postimpressionist, which first entered the language through advertisements for the show. In reviewing a study of the Postimpressionists in 1911, Woolf declared herself as “an enlightened sympathizer of the ‘now historic exhibition,’” but she still considered the visual arts to be far less important than the literary.31 According to Panthea Reid, The Voyage Out was shaped by these cultural and visual experiences: “[Woolf] attempted further unconventionality by making the novel less ‘literary’ and more visual. Similes became metaphors, and language became shapes or ‘blocks.’ She even integrated some of Roger Fry's interest in Turkish art into her South American setting. At the level of word and image, her revisions reveal the influence of Fry and the Postimpressionists.”32

Like most progressive people of her time, Woolf did not entirely reject the older patriarchal institutions or dismiss their potential worth altogether. She criticized universities but believed in them as a potential means of transforming the lives of women. She wanted women included in government and in the professions. She continued to use the London Library and the British Museum Library to her advantage. Woolf's involvement in the Hogarth Press was more an “intrinsic” than an “instrumental” activity, in that the artistic benefits of the business were more important than the financial ones. (S. P. Rosenbaum cites these categories of G. E. Moore and their possible influence on Woolf.) The press offered an artistic concept of independence, a kind of freedom; at the same time it helped to develop a number of literary careers of importance, including Mansfield's and T. S. Eliot's. The autonomy helped Woolf feel that she could employ unusual, innovative methods in her own works, thanks to the lack of editorial intervention and alteration. When her half brother Gerald Duckworth founded his own publishing house (which published Henrik Ibsen, Maxim Gorky, and Anton Chekhov, as well as modernist writers such as Ford Madox Ford, D. H. Lawrence and Dorothy Richardson), he had both a financial partner and capital of £12,000. The Hogarth Press did without the luxuries of overhead and a large staff.33 Unlike another experiment in artistic self-sufficiency of this period, Fry's Omega Workshop, which folded, Leonard and Virginia made the Hogarth Press both financially and critically successful. Literary culture was still very strong, and they satisfied the desire for alternatives to tradition. With the relatively simple and plain design of Virginia's first editions, the Press epitomized the avant garde of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Like Fry, the Woolfs rejected the obsessions of the arts-and-crafts movement of William Morris and others. The Omega Workshop in Fitzroy Square was another experimental Bloomsbury focus point, funded by a legacy left to Fry. Practical difficulties burdened the participants, and the workshop was thwarted by the atmosphere of World War I. As Woolf says in her biography of Fry, “The war had killed, or was about to kill, his own private venture, the Omega.”34 Omega was wound up in 1919, a cultural memory, its failure representing in Woolf's view the persistent philistinism of England.

To think of Woolf's set as composed entirely of aesthetes and removed from the social and political center would be a mistake. One example can be glimpsed in Edward Hilton Young, a family friend of the Stephens and a friend of Forster, whom he accompanied on a walking tour in 1909. Young had proposed to Woolf in 1908, but they had drifted apart. He ran for parliament unsuccessfully at the age of thirty-one in 1910 but was later elected in 1915 while serving as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Voluntary reserve; in 1935 he was made 1st Baron Kennet of the Dene. There was limited support, particularly among the middle classes, for the striking miners in 1926. Generally the middle-class public, Woolf included, tended to regard the working classes as potentially violent and uncivilized. Her friend Vita Sackville-West was a convinced eugenicist. Like many intellectuals, especially from the 1890s onward, Sackville-West saw the working classes as a cultural threat.

Clarissa Dalloway is at one level a projection not only of women that Woolf knew but also the identity that she might have had to adopt had she taken a different course in life. In reality, throughout this period and even into the 1930s, conservative forces made up the familiar and comfortable territory of the imperial political and administrative class among whom Woolf mixed as a friend, relative, and acquaintance. She might have been radical in terms of her opinions about the role of middle-class women, but in most other senses she remained conservative. The Woolfs' lifestyle was unconventional in sexual terms, but other elements of their lives were less surprising. Like the majority of the upper-middle class, Virginia and Leonard bought and sold property, arranged and disposed of leases, and held and lived at times partly on investments. Woolf shared an interest in the fate of King Edward VIII when he gave up the throne in December 1936 in order to marry Wallis Simpson. Woolf knew the details of the affair long before the general public, commenting in her diary well in advance of the British press.


Women of Woolf's generation were expected to marry and play secondary roles to their husbands. Woolf resisted such a traditional relationship, describing in Moments of Being her anguish at Victorian and Edwardian social occasions like balls and dinners, where social and courtship games were played according to unspoken rules. She was one of a generation who resisted this and set a new agenda. Her stance became typical, at least for the intellectual women of her day. These women's lives ran counter to the prevailing orthodox, masculine culture. Woolf was typically modernist in that she was sympathetic to social and cultural skepticism about Victorian certainties, most particularly aesthetic or artistic matters. Modernist books are noted for their rejection of nineteenth-century literary realism and for their challenge to any automatic adherence to bourgeois moral codes and set ideas of characterization and sensibilities. In The Years this stance can be seen in Rose Pargiter's contempt for politicians and conventional institutions, which stand in the way of progress for women. In this sense, even Woolf's earliest works, with their gender-specific perspective, can be said to have modernist elements as more than undercurrents. To see Woolf's novels as apolitical or merely obsessed with women's struggles is mistaken. Such a reading implicitly gives priority to the political structures of thought and debate of her times, a conservative reading of aesthetic change. Even in her early work recording Edwardian society and the “new woman” emerging in the middle classes, Woolf showed an awareness of what came to be regarded as political and ideological tensions between the genders and generations. She saw George Duckworth as typical of the men of her background, failing to oppose convention, bullying because of his financial advantages, and part of the “great patriarchal machine” described in Moments of Being.35

Culture was beginning to be transformed through the agency of individual views and actions, particularly those of women. The younger generation in Night and Day appear either puzzled by or disinterested in conventional political issues or debates. Tentatively, the two central female characters, Katharine Hilbery and Mary Datchet, move toward at least a cursory and instinctive view of gender as the critical issue of their existence. This view stands in stark contrast to that of Mr. Hilbery. He represents the previous generation, with his recollection of switching his sympathies at a political meeting, swayed embarrassingly by the rhetoric of the other side. Despite their occasional puzzlement, there is a deeper quality in Mary's and Katharine's reaction to issues, representing as they do women of a new generation. At the end of one of the fortnightly informal discussions hosted by Mary, they find the men's discussion noisy and insistent. The two women sense that this represents men's ability to participate in and influence politics as something of great significance in itself:

“I wonder why men always talk about politics?” Mary speculated. “I suppose, if we had votes, we should, too.”

“I dare say we should. And you spend your life in getting us votes, don't you?”

“I do,” said Mary, stoutly. “From ten to six every day I'm at it.”

Katharine looked at Ralph Denham, who was now pounding his way through the metaphysics of metaphor with Rodney, and was reminded of his talk that Sunday afternoon. She connected him vaguely with Mary.

“I suppose you're one of the people who think we should all have professions,” she said, rather distantly, as if feeling her way among the phantoms of an unknown world.

“Oh dear no,” said Mary at once.

“Well, I think I do,” Katharine continued, with half a sigh. “You will always be able to say that you've done something, whereas, in a crowd like this, I feel rather melancholy.”

“In a crowd? Why in a crowd?” Mary asked, deepening the two lines between her eyes, and hoisting herself nearer to Katharine upon the window-sill.

“Don't you see how many different things these people care about? And I want to beat them down—I only mean,” she corrected herself, “that I want to assert myself, and it's difficult, if one hasn't a profession.”36

Clearly, there is a difference in the gendered reaction as to what exactly constitutes politics. This meant that Woolf's pragmatic political perceptions were as overlooked or diminished as those of the two girls in Night and Day. Woolf drew upon such issues explicitly in her feminist, political nonfiction.

There remains something conservative in the distinct way in which Woolf and Bloomsbury came to be at the forefront of creating a new middle-class and intellectual lifestyle and culture. As Malcolm Bradbury says, “Bloomsbury was an intellectual community, but also a social caste, an attitude to life and values, a complex web of friends, an intricacy of relatives, marriages, and liaisons. Any of those involved were the children of the Victorian upper-middle-class intelligentsia, against whom they began to revolt in what, thanks to the influence of Freud, was coming to be called an ‘Oedipal’ way.”37 This was typical of the social networking in England of this whole period, a pattern of life and influence that Woolf's novels reflect. This revolt was not complete, and the Bloomsbury members continued certain traditions. On their now-celebrated arrival in Gordon Square, Vanessa celebrated the past to the extent of hanging the Watts portrait of their father and family photographs of James Russell Lowell, George Meredith, Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson, all among the potentially great cultural icons of the Victorian age. In fact, Woolf had met Tennyson, and before her own fame, she became irritated with people's questions about the great Victorian poet. The Bloomsbury world remained a class defined by wealth, independent incomes in the main, and well-connected privilege, even if with a bohemian tinge. For instance, by 1916 Woolf's capital had increased, and she was by any assessment relatively wealthy, with a sum of £9,000.38 She was aware of the monetary distinctions and inequalities that persisted between the classes during her life, noting that as late as 1921 the annual income of a servant was a mere £45.39 Like many of her class, Woolf felt it a failing if any of her capital was ever needed for any expenditure; hence the need to work on a freelance, independent basis.

During the period preceding and throughout World War I, many of Woolf's friends shared a similar literary and journalistic lifestyle. They constituted a group made up mostly of either relatives or members of the post-Cambridge set of her brother Thoby's. Initially Bloomsbury was merely an extension of this world, primarily a male world, where, in Rosenman's words, “[w]e hear about her [Woolf's] new freedom in Bloomsbury, where she could banter with Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey and the other Cambridge friends of her brother Thoby. Actually she was still very shy and, somewhat defensively, did not find the conversation of these young men terribly appealing.”40 Woolf refers to these events in her early writing. Inspired by what she saw as forces for the transformation of her age, Woolf imagined cultural change to be expressed best by the activities of her own group, even if at times she appears to have conceded the possibility that such thoughts could tend toward the grandiose and vague. In The Voyage Out Evelyn Murgatroyd maps out her vision of social and cultural transformation, her aspirations parodying those of Bloomsbury. She describes her vision of

a club for doing things, really doing them. She became very animated, as she talked on and on, for she professed herself certain that if once twenty people—no, ten would be enough if they were keen—set about doing things instead of talking about doing them, they could abolish almost every evil that exists. It was brains that were needed. If only people with brains—of course they would want a room, a nice room, in Bloomsbury preferably, where they could meet once a week.41

Evelyn insists that even young women be allowed involvement in political discourse, influencing decisions and contributing to political issues. In The Years Eleanor Pargiter works in an office campaigning for the women's vote. Later, the more militant Rose Pargiter is imprisoned for her brick-throwing in support of the cause. Wolf presents such characters as part of a new intellectual class. She drew from the kinds of women she encountered and fictionalized their lives in such contexts as a political confirmation of a feminist stance.

Woolf's fiction drew its energies from her life. She depended on the Bloomsbury intellectuals, both their celebrated discussion evenings and their other clubs. These activities created a sphere in which she could take herself seriously. The members of the group patterned their lives around creativity and formed a new intelligentsia. Their influential art, journalism, and cultural products encouraged the modernist trajectory that saw people determined to separate themselves from their immediate past. For Bloomsbury and, later, the literary establishment in England, many of these personal links became a set of coordinates for literary and artistic developments of the period. Lytton Strachey was a friend of the poet Rupert Brooke, and Strachey wrote reviews for The Spectator. Strachey's sisters were active in the suffrage movement. In several of her works Woolf conveys the dynamics of this world, in which a new generation came to share new social structures, organizations, and expectations. The Voyage Out centers almost entirely around a moneyed class of younger people traveling abroad, obsessed with aesthetics, marriage, and their own identities. The novel traces many of the realities of the Edwardian prewar upper-middle class and aristocracy, aspiring toward new relationships and yet contained by the continuing presence of the parental generation.

Certain ongoing privileges helped to mold the horizons of the art and the lives of this new, upper-middle-class artistic set. Foreign travel, important also for the earlier generations of the Romantic period, extended the perspectives of youth beyond a constricting social code. Woolf took part enthusiastically in such intellectually motivated travel, and this cultural experience figures as a major theme in The Voyage Out. She visited Greece in 1906, Italy in 1908, Turkey in 1911, and, variously, France, Spain, and Italy in 1912. She later visited Spain in 1923 and traveled widely in France, Italy, and Germany in later years, until World War II intervened. One of her earlier influences was the similarly well-traveled Strachey. In a January 1918 diary entry, with the benefit of hindsight, Woolf reflected on Strachey as typifying a certain male aspect of her class, commenting on his lack of physical warmth and his assumption of privilege. She found his prose “metallic”; for her it depended on a “conventionally brilliant style, which prevents his writing from reaching, to my judgement, the first rate. It lacks originality, & substance; it is brilliant, superbly brilliant journalism, a supremely skilful rendering of the old tune. Written down these words are too emphatic & linear; one should see them tempered & combined with all those charming, subtle & brilliant qualities which compose his being in the flesh.”42 Woolf already seemed to perceive alternatives, sensing a more fundamental modernism as a possibility.

Despite her origins, successes, and relative wealth, Woolf seemed constrained by the prevailing orthodoxy in both the conventional world and that of Bloomsbury concerning women's public role. Personally, she agonized over whether she would marry and settle into family life, and she rejected a string of proposals in a version of the elaborate Edwardian game of courtship and engagement that she parodies as almost impenetrable in The Voyage Out. The protagonist, Rachel Vinrace, resists (as Woolf herself had done) the courtship rituals of Edwardian society. In the face of male mockery, Rachel attempts to provide herself with a literary education. This is very much in contrast to the Victorian traditions of the upper-middle class, which are epitomized in the novel by Ridley Ambrose. His very presence and ethics subdue a conversation between Rachel and Terence Hewet. Everything becomes “more formal and more polite,” and they find no appeal in Ridley's narrative personalities and art. He manages to silence the “informalities of the young.”43 Clearly, this effect on young people in general is even more profound on young women. Night and Day opens with Katharine Hilbery engaged in the social ceremony of administering tea. Dutifully, at her mother's suggestion, she shows Ralph Denham her grandfather's study, set out as a shrine to both his poetic genius and the family's colonial Indian connection. Woolf presents a symbolic interconnection of the masculine silencing of women, Victorian art, and the imperial narrative.

All of these themes of power relate to Woolf's own experience of her father and her family as dominating influences. They demonstrate the forces of respectful veneration that were still very strong in the British culture of her youth but were to change under the influence of the Bloomsbury generation. Ralph Denham, modeled on Leonard Woolf, is a figure of the new middle class. He articulates the conflict between the generations just after the war, a historical shift that dominates Woolf's fiction: “No, we haven't any great men. … I'm very glad that we haven't. I hate great men. The worship of greatness in the nineteenth century seems to me to explain the worthlessness of the generation.”44 Rather than gaze at the windows of Katharine's house in romantic adoration, Ralph decides to visit her friend Mary Datchet, who tells him of the government's evasions concerning a women's suffrage bill. She draws his respect for her convictions on public issues, an image of the emergent new woman. Woolf herself detested the Victorian image of woman as the “Angel in the House” (epitomized for her by her mother), objecting to the stereotype of sympathy, sacrifice, and purity, which she describes in “Professions for Women” (1931) as a shadow behind her while she wrote. Woolf believed that “[k]illing the Angel of the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”45

At a certain level Katharine Hilbery and Mary Datchet represent not only different aspects of Woolf but also the tensions in the lives of educated women of her era. For Katharine, as for the younger Woolf and her generation, convention rests in family contexts. Woolf conveys this using the metaphor of a “book of wisdom,” in which it is as if “The rules which should govern the behaviour of an unmarried woman are written in red ink, graved upon marble, if, by some freak of nature, it should fall out that the unmarried woman has not the same writing scored upon her heart.”46 Katharine finds herself divided between the financial stabilities of her class and the ill-defined alternatives. This split helped to dismantle, especially in terms of class and language, the apparent fixed virtues and certainties of the Victorian age. Nevertheless many resisted this change until World War II. Certainly, Woolf found the pretensions of her own class ludicrous and parodied them. In a 1915 diary entry she recorded seeing a news report of a speech by her cousin William Vaughan, later headmaster of Rugby School: “I see Will Vaughan quoted in the Times to the effect that teachers neglect the grammar of modern languages, & talk too much about style & literature; but nothing fortifies the character & mind so much as grammar. How like him!”47 Vaughan represented the very picture of the world Woolf attacked in Three Guineas.

One personal feature of Woolf's life that tends to draw much critical and biographical attention is her sexual life (or lack of one, according to where scholars stand upon this issue). Critics from the 1980s onward have made much of Woolf's attraction to women. She tended to have close relationships with “Sapphists,” the traditional term for lesbians. Despite her marriage, and with seemingly few objections from Leonard, Woolf had a passionate romance with Sackville-West. Woolf was drawn to Vita because of her aristocratic exoticism. Well before the affair, when she had lunch at the family seat at Knole House with Vita's father, Woolf was impressed by all of the house's historical associations. Lesbianism at this point did not have a full identity, nor was it always seen as a social problem if it did not disturb the relationship such women often maintained with men. Such female relationships were common in the wealthier classes at this time as secondary relationships. Few considered them as part of a political or social identity. Even many “Sapphists” did not consider their relationships with females as a valid alternative to marriage. Woolf wrote the fictional Orlando: A Biography (1928) as an elaborate joke and as a serious historical fantasy. It is also an homage to her relationship with Vita. In it Woolf explores the concepts of gender through a blurring of sexual roles and identities in the figure of the dashing aristocratic protagonist, modeled on her friend and lover. In the text she creates an ideological role for androgyny and lesbianism. Despite Woolf's initial sense that the book served as a break from writing more-serious works, Orlando was highly successful and created a turning point in the Hogarth Press's fortunes, as did the best-selling status of Sackville-West's own novel The Edwardians (1930). Orlando also offers a glimpse into the obsessions of the literary class of Woolf's period with aristocracy, romance, and the transformative power of relationships.

Even though wealthy “Sapphists” tended not to be persecuted, it is worth noting that despite the rise of experimentation in the arts in the early twentieth century, it was still a period of censorship and sexual repression. The erotic and emotional activities of the Bloomsbury “buggers,” or male homosexuals, were strictly illegal (as the prosecution of Oscar Wilde illustrates). Yet, such lifestyles were tolerated among the upper-middle classes as a primarily private masculine bonding. This social atmosphere and Woolf's own reticence about the significance of sexuality in her own life and marriage led her to downplay physical relations and eroticism in her fiction. Yet, these issues neither embarrassed nor intimidated her in any fashion except as part of her inner emotional life, as recollections of the sexual explicitness of Bloomsbury gatherings reveal. Vanessa Bell wrote quite explicitly to her sister, and Woolf accepted the intricate sexual entanglements of her group. Significantly Virginia and Leonard were willing to be publicly recognized as opponents of the censorship and potential prosecution that threatened both D. H. Lawrence and the lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall (although Woolf found the fiction of the latter tedious and uninspiring). The threat of censorship was one of the chief reasons that the Hogarth Press did not publish James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) when given the chance to do so.

Woolf seems to have perceived certain undesirable aspects of mass culture in the populist writing of her time, with its realist ambitions. William Butler Yeats wrote in 1916 that “[r]ealism is created for the common people and was their particular delight, and it is the delight today of all those whose minds, educated alone by schoolmasters and newspapers, are without the memory of beauty and emotional subtlety.”48 Woolf dismissed the central assumptions of a conservative, regressive literary traditionalism. Her position included some notion of a loss of faith in conformist identities as offering any real sense or providing any sort of acceptable social bedrock. For modernists, presenting a renewed concept of the world was important, but so too was their need for a literature, mediated by the less-rigid forms of colloquial speech, to describe a different, more fragmented world, where the old orthodoxies could be challenged. The result was a revolutionary new literary epoch, one that is now familiar but that was shocking and exciting at its inception. Woolf played a major role in shaping her times and continues to influence the intellectual debate of later generations.


  1. Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, edited by Jeanne Schulkind, second edition (London: Hogarth Press, 1985), p. 151.

  2. Woolf, Night and Day, edited by Julia Briggs (London & New York: Penguin, 1992), p. 406.

  3. Rudolf Eucken, Main Currents of Modern Thought: A Study of the Spiritual and Intellectual Movements of the Present Day, translated by Meyrick Booth (London & Leipzig: Unwin, 1908), pp. 359-360.

  4. Ellen Bayuk Rosenman. A Room of One's Own: Women Writers and the Politics of Creativity (New York: Twayne, 1995), p. 13.

  5. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, volume 4 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1983), p. 79.

  6. Woolf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), p. 103.

  7. Woolf, Jacob's Room (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960), p. 171.

  8. Wyndham Lewis, Men without Art (London: Cassell, 1934), p. 170.

  9. Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), p. 117.

  10. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 1 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1979), p. 216.

  11. Ibid., pp. 267-268.

  12. Ibid., p. 13.

  13. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 3 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1982), p. 77.

  14. Ibid., pp. 79-81.

  15. Ibid., p. 85.

  16. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 4, p. 39.

  17. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1985), p. 166.

  18. Ibid., p. 251.

  19. Ibid., pp. 168-169.

  20. Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, p. 71.

  21. Rosamond Lehmann, in Recollections of Virginia Woolf, edited by Joan Russell Noble (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1975), p. 81.

  22. Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in Collected Essays, volume 1 (London: Hogarth Press, 1966), p. 320.

  23. Peter Stansky, On or About December 1910: Early Bloomsbury and its Intimate World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 158.

  24. Woolf, Jacob's Room, p. 171.

  25. Woolf, Night and Day, p. 407.

  26. Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), p. 9.

  27. Quoted in Stansky, On or About December 1910, p. 220.

  28. Ibid., p. 223.

  29. Ibid., pp. 225-227.

  30. Woolf, Roger Fry: A Biography (London: Hogarth, 1940), p. 152.

  31. Woolf, quoted in Panthea Reid, Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 125, 116.

  32. Reid, Art and Affection, p. 121.

  33. S. P. Rosenbaum, Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press (Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center/University of Texas at Austin, 1995), p. 17.

  34. Woolf, Roger Fry, p. 213.

  35. Woolf, Moments of Being, p. 153.

  36. Woolf, Night and Day, pp. 45-46.

  37. Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern World: Ten Great Writers (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1989), p. 236.

  38. John Batchelor, Virginia Woolf: The Major Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 11.

  39. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 2 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1981), p. 92.

  40. Rosenman. A Room of One's Own, p. 40.

  41. Woolf, The Voyage Out (London & New York: Penguin, 1992), p. 304.

  42. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 1, p. 236.

  43. Woolf, The Voyage Out, p. 192.

  44. Woolf, Night and Day, p. 12.

  45. Woolf, “Professions for Women,” in Killing the Angel in the House: Seven Essays (London & New York: Penguin, 1995), p. 5.

  46. Woolf, Night and Day, p. 265.

  47. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 1, p. 13.

  48. William Butler Yeats, Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 227.

Woolf's Works

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10379


In The Voyage Out a number of middle-class English people set off on a sea voyage with various ultimate destinations. On board, Helen Ambrose encounters her niece, Rachel Vinrace, who is traveling with her father, the owner of the ship. The innocent, virginal Rachel suffers a kind of confused sexual trauma induced by a snatched and passionate kiss from a fellow passenger, Richard Dalloway, who has been picked up en route with his wife, Clarissa. (The Dalloways recur in Woolf's later, more famous novel, Mrs. Dalloway.) So shocked, troubled, and naive is Rachel that Helen persuades her to accompany her and her husband on their visit to South America. Helen appears liberal and open to a sense of shared discovery and adventure. Thus, Rachel is offered a chance to engage literally with wider vistas of experience, but she remains curiously repressed and more interested in intellectual than in emotional development.

In the somewhat unconvincingly established South American setting, Rachel reviews the restrictions of her upbringing in Richmond under the aegis of several traditional aunts. She embarks on a curiously unemotional courtship with and eventual engagement to Terence Hewet. After a trip to a village in the wilderness, Rachel dies suddenly of a feverish illness, in somewhat mysterious circumstances. The title draws attention to the incompleteness of her journey, but it also indicates the need for women to overcome their social conditioning and move beyond male restrictions. Rachel can do this only through death, and she becomes a symbol of the sacrifice of the potential of all young women in the Edwardian society depicted. It is these themes that have led to a reconsideration of the importance of The Voyage Out. Renewed attention has been directed at the novel's modernist aspects of gender and potential liberation from the constrictions of identity.


The main characters in Night and Day are two very different young women, Mary Datchet and Katharine Hilbery. Both resist convention in different ways, with the middle-class Mary becoming intellectually and politically active, while the upper-middle-class Katharine dreams of following her passion for the study of mathematics and astronomy, which she prefers to the literary tradition of her family and to the expectation of a socially acceptable marriage. Katharine hides her real passion much as Jane Austen hid her written work, and in a sense this refusal of conventional interests is both literal and symbolic of feminist and creative desire.

The events unfold in London, in various homes and in various episodes in provincial settings. Katharine is loved by Ralph Denham, but she becomes engaged to William Rodney. Like Leonard Woolf, Rodney proposes by letter. Denham's passion for Katharine is diverted toward Mary. In this comedy of social manners, new courtship rituals, and misunderstanding, the rebellion of the young “new woman” underwrites Katharine and Mary's actions. Finally, but enigmatically, Ralph and Katharine are drawn together. According to even sympathetic critics, this remains Woolf's most conventional narrative.


The narrative follows Jacob Flanders from a childhood holiday with his mother, Betty, through his university years and on to his rite of passage as a sexually active Edwardian young man. The story line is incomplete and merely conveys some intense episodes that do not conform to traditional plot development. This is neither a fully celebratory nor a condemnatory narrative, for underpinning all the events from Jacob's boating holiday to loves in London and Athens, a sense of impending doom and a feeling of portentousness builds in the novel's impressionistic scenes. The settings are various, from Cornwall, Scarborough, and Cambridge to the Scilly Isles, London, and Greece. This is Woolf's first modernist novel in themes and technique, based around vignettes or sketches that create a patchwork effect.

London provides Jacob's social and emotional education. He is seen through the eyes of various women, revealing his charisma and oddity, from the passing Mrs. Norman on a train, the prostitute Florinda, Sandra Wentworth Williams, besotted Fanny Elmer, sweetheart Clara Durrant, and his mother. Their viewpoints center the narrative differently, and their emotional responses become a shifting perspective on Jacob's presence. Like Woolf and her siblings, Jacob travels to Italy and Greece to absorb the fruits and relics of civilization on the eve of World War I. The final scene is the visit of his mother and a friend to Jacob's room after he has been killed in the war; the only traces of Jacob left are the disorganized fragments of his life, almost as if he never existed. His mother poignantly holds up an old pair of his shoes.


The novel covers the events on one day in London in 1923, representing the varied and interacting perceptions of many lives that cross the same geographic space of central London in Westminster and Bloomsbury. The striking of Big Ben as a motif indicates the imperial center and the irrevocable passing of time as different consciousnesses develop. There is a kind of stream-of-consciousness technique, mixing the perspectives of society hostess and politician's wife Clarissa Dalloway, returning Indian colonial administrator Peter Walsh, and other characters. A “tunneling” process leads to flashbacks from the period of Clarissa and Peter's youthful radicalism and romance at Bourton, the country house of Clarissa's family. Turning her back on Sally Seton, another rebellious friend, Clarissa had married the apparently dull Richard Dalloway. The plot concerns Clarissa's preparations for one of her grand parties, with a visit to a flower shop and an encounter with an old friend, Hugh Whitbread, a court official. The day of this social occasion is coincidentally that of Peter's unannounced visit and the final breakdown of Septimus Smith, a war veteran unknown to Clarissa's set.

Each episode of the novel follows the different perceptions of various onlookers and participants. A limousine passes in a West End street, and the narrative traces different characters' responses. The intersection of lives in Regent's Park, from new arrivals to the city to Peter and to Septimus Smith's insane visions of a dead colleague from the war, follows a similar pattern, with a central event or location linking these fragmentary perceptions. Sounds or images indicate a memory, and the characters shift into the past. There is still, however, a central narrative voice. As none of the situations develops fully as the single focus of the narrative, the reader senses the confusion and fragmentary nature of all of the characters' experiences and their very different understandings of the world. Septimus Smith's Italian wife, Lucrezia, has consulted a psychiatric expert, Sir William Bradshaw, who tells him that he must be hospitalized. At this Septimus becomes increasingly troubled; he believes he has transgressed by committing some unnamed crime against humanity. Clarissa is intensely jealous of the influence of the religious but poor Miss Kilman on her daughter, Elizabeth. Clarissa suffers from a sense of anger and hate that she feels might be unjustified. On a more mundane level, Peter feels resigned to mediocrity. Clarissa senses some worth in her life with the arrival of the prime minister at her party, but news from Bradshaw, another guest, of his patient Smith's suicide conveys a sense that this sort of despair might have been her fate.


To the Lighthouse covers the period of two visits by a family and friends to a vacation home in the Hebrides, supplemented by a linking middle section, “Time Passes,” charting the intervening years. In this section the narrative describes outside events in passing, but it concentrates upon the empty vacation house, which is threatened by decay. At the novel's beginning the Ramsays argue over their young son's intended visit by boat to the lighthouse of the title. Mr. Ramsay reduces everything to facts and dismisses the possibility of the trip. Mrs. Ramsay, who nurtures hope and emotional relationships, feels thwarted. Lily Briscoe is a young, struggling artist who sees the life and warmth Mrs. Ramsay seems to impart to real events as an artistic act. In the first section, which is by far the most substantial as it charts the emotional interactions of the characters and a sense of their different inner selves, Lily resists Mrs. Ramsay's plans to shift her gently toward marriage. The eventual change in Lily is demonstrated by her two attempts at very different kinds of painting in the first and last sections of the novel. Between these, in “Time Passes,” a series of tragedies—Mrs. Ramsay's death; World War I; the marriage and death of the Ramsays' daughter Prue; and Andrew Ramsay's death in battle—are all set against the raw power of nature, which is only reversed by the cleaning of Mrs. Bast and Mrs. McNab for the return of the remaining members of the family.

Lily is finally aware that Mrs. Ramsay's vision of life, which the artist adapts for her new modernist style of perception and painting after the war and after Mrs. Ramsay's death, seems to echo William James's idea that “What really exists is not things made but things in the making.”1 The underlying message is that any ongoing creative ambition or understanding is part of an ongoing life process. Finally, father and son reach the lighthouse, and Lily achieves some artistic sense of her world in a finished painting. Woolf prepared proofs and made revisions to the novel at the same time, and for some reason she did so differently for the British and American editions, which means that there are certain differences between the English and American editions to this day.


Orlando, Woolf's tribute to Vita Sackville-West, is ostensibly the true story of an aristocratic boy in Elizabethan England who, as the narrative progresses into subsequent ages, appears to have acquired both eternal youth and an androgynous character, apparently changing from male to female and engaging in a variety of relationships. The narrative echoes the writing of each period, the Elizabethan, the eighteenth century, the Victorian era, and beyond; with this shifting style Woolf pays homage to the literary culture of England through a variation on the historical romance. Orlando writes his version of Elizabethan poetry, briefly meets the great queen Elizabeth, romances three young women, experiences the 1604 Great Frost in London, attends the court of King James I, and falls in love with a Muscovite princess, Sasha, whom he hopes to marry despite her unfaithful tendencies.

Each period is presented as a different series of adventures. Orlando becomes interested in writing and receives instruction from the poet Nick Greene, but the pupil burns all but one of his works, “The Oak Tree.” Orlando is pursued by an archduchess and requests King Charles I to send him as an ambassador to Constantinople. Drawing on various contemporaneous accounts, Woolf establishes Orlando's presence as if it were historical, including a marriage to Rosina Pepita, a dancer. After a period of seven days' sleeping as if in a trance, Orlando is transformed into a woman. After adventures with a gypsy tribe, she sails back home to what is now eighteenth-century England, but external attitudes have shifted with her gender transformation. After a romance with an archduke, Orlando enters literary society. She dresses as a man for a while until the Victorian age dawns, and she becomes engaged to Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire, also sexually ambiguous, whom she finally marries. Finally, in 1928, Orlando returns to reclaim her family seat, recovering memories of the past and restoring a sense of historical continuity.


The Waves is an impressionistic, highly fragmented account of the growth of a group of children into adulthood. The manner of their inner lives and often exaggerated responses to the external world is the key to this highly modernist narrative. In the central idea of experience as repetitive but as ungraspable as the waves of the sea, the structure of the novel makes clear William James's concept of “perceptual flux”: “The essence of life is its continuously changing character; but our concepts are all discontinuous and fixed, and the only mode of making them coincide with life is by arbitrarily supposing positions of arrest … you can no more dip up the substance of reality with them than you can dip up water with a net, however finely meshed.”2 The novel takes six characters, Bernard, Neville, Susan, Rhoda, Jinny, and Louis, from childhood impressions through their lives to death. Each of them delivers a series of monologues on his or her own life and thoughts; in these speeches they reach inner feelings, most especially doubts and fears. A seventh character, Percival, never speaks but is important to all the others. None of them speaks to each other, but their unified experience and common reactions imply some sort of communication and sharing. The passages are descriptive, and the motifs of the waves and the sun indicate a metaphysical and universal presence beyond the specific human focus of each gathering of impressions. Each person has a different character and viewpoint. Bernard is drawn to explain the experiences of the others, turning them into words. From the impressionistic seaside experience of childhood, where each perceives something different, the children explore themselves and their environment. Neville imagines a globe. Susan sees the color of a loaf. Rhoda hears the wildness of startled birds. Louis hears the sound of a chained beast on the sand. A kind of mythic view is intermixed with the impressionistic, drawing out the grand symbolic sense of childhood confusion, meaning, and perception.

As they develop, the children squabble, attend school, and progress to the world of work and study. The contrast between the world of men and women becomes evident. As they meet to celebrate Percival's departure for India, the narrative explores their different emotional states and mature view of the world. A change comes after news of Percival's death, an adult development and a loss of innocence. Bernard struggles to write, sifting the ability of words to convey feelings or situations and wondering whether common things are the only accessible realities. The ambivalent and ambiguous nature of language and its relationship to experience is one of the major themes of the novel. The characters come together when they are much older; Bernard, feeling his failure, wonders what the others have achieved in their lives and how they might be valued. His only sense is that the beating of the waves is less a promise of life than an indicator of the universality of death.


The Years began as an essay-novel and developed into a modernist saga of the Pargiter family. The unconventional narrative presents random scenes and years of one generation's lives intersecting with those of other generations. In 1880 Colonel Abel Pargiter's wife is dying of cancer as he sits in his club and decides to visit his mistress, Mira. At the family's London home three of the Pargiter children, Milly, Delia, and young Rose, prepare for tea and for the return of their brother Martin and their father. These children represent the generation that is the novel's major focus, but they are bound to the past by blood ties and responsibilities. Colonel Pargiter inquires after another daughter, Eleanor, who has taken her mother's role in charitable works and the household. Delia resents sitting with her mother and imagines herself at a meeting beside Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish nationalist leader. After the return of Morris, another of the Pargiter children, the family gathers for their mother's death.

In Oxford, another Pargiter son, Edward, romantically pictures his cousin Kitty Malone. He argues with his friends while she reads history with a private tutor and dreams of a kiss from a farmhand. Kitty's mother decides on Lord Lasswade as her daughter's future husband. In 1891 progression is charted, with Kitty now Lady Lasswade in the north and Edward a don at Oxford. Morris, now a lawyer, remembers childhood. Colonel Pargiter dines with Sir Digby Pargiter, his brother, and Sir Digby's wife, Eugénie. Eleanor remains home after Delia's departure to tend her father. In 1907 Martin returns from India, and by the following year Sir Digby and Eugénie are both dead, while the Colonel is immobile after a stroke. Rose is involved in suffrage activity and meets her cousin Maggie, who lives with sister, Sara, in genteel poverty. After a brief coming together of family members, the next phase is Eleanor's trip to Greece after her father's death. In 1914 Martin has a chance encounter with Sara and discovers that Rose has been jailed for breaking windows. There is a family supper scene with Eleanor, Maggie, and Sara during a German air raid in 1917. In 1937 Eleanor returns from another trip, and the family gathers informally and yet ceremoniously, with Eleanor seeking some meaning or pattern from this curious assemblage. The image of the family acts throughout as a curious bond of affection and interest, as much for the characters as for the reader.


In Three Guineas Woolf uses a monologue style to respond to an imagined audience. She depicts herself considering applications by letter for contributions to three worthy causes. Her own text is footnoted, offering factual and academic credibility to her narrative. The first letter, from three years ago, is from a society for the prevention of war. The writer asks her opinion on how war can be averted. Woolf dramatizes and characterizes the situation, imagining the writer as a prosperous barrister of her own background, the educated class. Citing the Victorian travel writer Mary Kingsley's complaint of her family's investment in her brother's education rather than her own, Woolf describes this process of educating young men for power as “Arthur's Education Fund” and contrasts this with the limited possibilities for women. She invokes the difficult reality of men's patriotism that colors their worldview and describes women's different perceptions of England. Woolf tells of her hesitation to contribute to the cause espoused by the letter and says concerning women's situation, “Our class is the weakest of all classes in the state. We have no weapon with which to enforce our will.”3

The other two letters are from a fund to rebuild a women's college and a society to promote women's professional employment. Woolf conveys how dispossessed women have been and how crucial their participation is to social change. She writes that “if, checking imagination with prosaic good sense, you object that to depend upon a profession is only another form of slavery, you will admit from your own experience that to depend upon a profession is a less odious form of slavery than to depend upon a father” (16). In her response Woolf points out the dependence of universities on private financial sources, their exclusion of women, and their failures in preventing war. She sees education of a different kind as a prerequisite for peace. She anticipates a day when the daughters of educated men will join the professions, essential “because unless they are helped, first to educate the daughters of educated men, and then to earn their livings in the professions, those daughters cannot possess an independent or disinterested influence with which to help you prevent war. The causes it seems are connected” (84).

In the final section Woolf argues that the struggle against patriarchy is the same as resistance to fascism. She is suspicious of the organized society against war because of its masculine bias; she promotes the notion of women as part of an “Outsiders' Society” and calls for a wage for wives. Referring to horrific photographs issued from Spain by the government during the civil war, Woolf adds, “A common interest unites us; it is one world, one life. How essential it is that we should realise that unity the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove. For such will be our ruin if you in the immensity of your public abstractions forget the private figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world” (142-143).


Between the Acts focuses on rural life on a single day in June 1939, in and around Pointz Hall, a rural south England setting. Three generations of the Oliver family—including the aging grandfather Bartholomew Oliver, his son Giles and daughter-in-law Isa, and their children—represent an English way of life under the threat of war and invasion. The arrival of Mrs. Manresa and her young companion, William Dodge, introduce sexual tension into the Oliver household while the community prepares for an annual pageant, organized by Miss La Trobe, that traces English literary history. In this Woolf attempts to convey some timeless and relevant quality of British culture and history, some sort of continuity of the type sensed in Orlando. Miss La Trobe fears for the failure of the pageant. Isa both loves and hates her husband, and the narrative ends enigmatically for her, as if life had blurred with the pageant: “Love and hate—how they tore her asunder! Surely it was time someone invented a new plot, or that the author came out from the bushes. …”4


Examples of Woolf criticism are so numerous that any selection must be partial and ignore some very worthy contributions to the study of her work. The following survey introduces some interesting, varied, and yet typical examples of academic studies concerned with Woolf. Certainly, both early criticism and interest helped establish her reputation, but often this was done in terms of her interesting techniques and virtuosity of style. She comes across as a writer concerned with the structures and dynamics of the novel as a poetic form. Even in her lifetime critics began writing a range of such studies on her work, and they established some of the critical and biographical coordinates that are still recognized. In Virginia Woolf (1932) Winifred Holtby cited the credentials of the author's distinguished literary family as comparable to those of Katharine Hilbery in Night and Day. Holtby surmised that since Woolf's “own imagination seems to be visual rather than aural,” she was influenced by Vanessa as an artist.5 Citing the French critic Floris Delattre's Le Roman psychologique de Virginia Woolf (1932), Holtby compared Woolf's style to that of Marcel Proust and James Joyce, suggesting the general influence of Bergsonian concepts in helping Woolf to develop her literary devices. Such early studies as these concentrated on her style, narrative technique, and mixture of the trivial and the profound to create poetic effects. These critics focused less on gender, tending to see Woolf as a minor modernist writer. In the following years she tended to be discussed as a minor modernist novelist, less significant than her male counterparts. This critical position could be said to apply to some degree to the majority of studies of Woolf's work until the late 1960s.

A significant reappraisal of Woolf emerged in the late 1960s and accelerated under the momentum of a move toward a feminist revision of which texts and authors were important in literary study. Herbert Marder's Feminism & Art: A Study of Virginia Woolf (1968) was one of the first books to focus in an extended manner on Woolf and the issues of gender. As Marder says of criticism up to that time, “She is known, primarily, as an experimental novelist who perfected a form of interior monologue. Her name is frequently associated with some sort of esoteric cult: aestheticism, the Bloomsbury group. It is easy to see why many people assume, almost as a matter of course, that her novels must be devoid of social significance.”6 Taking his cue from E. M. Forster's comments, Marder seeks to alter that perception. He considers Woolf's work thematically, looking at her feminism and its relationship to art, the failings of her family, patriarchy, and androgyny, drawing on the novels to illustrate these concepts. Marder states that “her novels are very far from being ‘pure’ works of art; there is, implicitly, a great deal of social criticism in them—a kind of latent propaganda.”7 Marder's strength in a traditional account of these themes is that he recuperates novels such as The Voyage Out and Night and Day, formerly seen as unimportant, as crucial to Woolf's development. He sketches the social setting of suffrage and feminism, demonstrating how they were at the center of public attention from 1905 to 1914 and insisting on Woolf's perception that patriarchal society needed the civilizing influence of women. Marder demonstrates the masculine tyranny of Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse and the change brought about in the family by young female characters, such as Katharine Hilbery in Night and Day, with their horror of the domestic Victorian world. According to Marder, Woolf expresses the domestic symbolically through “concrete images.” He adds that “Woolf's feminism, it should be emphasized, implied the broadening, not the rejection, of the domestic wisdom traditionally cultivated by women. Her most poetic books are dotted with homely images drawn from the kitchen and nursery. Nor did she attempt, like some feminists, to minimize the difference between the sexes; all her writings stress the fact that men and women are different.”8 Marder centers his analysis on A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas as key texts in understanding Woolf. Overall, one might object that he charts Woolf's feminism as primarily a personal and polemical reaction to social events and restrictions as a means of developing an idea of creative and symbolic unity: “Art produced feelings of release and harmony, such as she associated with the androgynous mind. When she avoided that discipline, as in Three Guineas, her writing tended to be morbid.”9

In Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage (1970) Harvena Richter adopts a more advanced approach in terms of the strategies of Woolf's narrative, dealing with the complexity of the self and the “[d]iscontinuity of personality” to form a coherent description of Woolf's narrative method. According to Richter, Woolf uses “Abstraction, reflection, metamorphosis, discontinuity … not [as] artificial techniques” but to describe aspects of reality.10 Often vision in Woolf's writing is colored by emotion and event, such as passages on Rachel Vinrace's illness and the tears of Helen Ambrose in The Voyage Out. Richter's study was another advance in the critical reception of Woolf, drawing in detail the theoretical subtleties, density, and seriousness in her writing. Richter goes beyond earlier brief allusions to Henri Bergson as an influence to investigate change as awareness of time and being in the inner consciousness of Woolf's characters, who possess “[a]n aura of emotional awareness drawn from the entire being, [where] consciousness is more than a stream of associated ideas and feelings.”11 Point of view is part of a participatory narrative device, and Woolf's poetic vision is an enlargement of perception, creating an “[o]blique angle of vision” as a radical device. Previously neglected in Woolf are these multiple “modes of subjectivity,” a world of flux and discontinuity within which Woolf conveys a concept of the “multiplicity of the self.”12

Richter maps a kind of existential despair in Woolf's employment of the idea of destabilization as a kind of “terror” or epiphany:

This brief disintegration or fragmentation of the moment (which includes the temporary sense of loss of personality or self) may be termed a state of supraconsciousness. It is the “disembodied mood” which certain of Virginia Woolf's less stable characters, such as Rhoda, feel. Yet however related to the pathological it may be, its terrors are familiar; they are the fears felt in nightmares or anxiety dreams. Existing thus on the periphery of universal experience and rousing within the reader a flicker of subliminal response, these fears or terrors form yet another aspect of the complex of emotional reality which Mrs. Woolf attempts to convey.13

Suggesting William James's idea of the “transitive” as a useful distinction, Richter distinguishes Woolf's interior monologues and streams of consciousness from those used by Joyce, initiating the critical acknowledgment of Woolf as a major modernist writer using a gendered perspective, in which “the character's thoughts, or awarenesses, seem to be occurring on many levels at the same time—‘multiple moments within the moment.’ When Lily Briscoe feels her many thoughts dancing up and down like gnats in a net, she is experiencing the simultaneities of thought.”14

Richter perceives in Mrs. Dalloway a doubling of Septimus Smith and Clarissa Dalloway. Richter's complex exposition of Woolf's discontinuity as a subtle aspect of mental experience, with sensory and unconscious stimuli, allows her to recover the central importance for the Woolfian text of different ways of perceiving an object. Richter establishes the primary importance of the nonmasculine world as seen through characters such as Cam Ramsay (the female child), Lily Briscoe (the female artist and independent woman) and Mrs. Ramsay (the maternal, poetic, feminine, creative eye) in To the Lighthouse.

The 1980s saw a blossoming of a whole variety of Woolf criticism and the reinforcement of her growing reputation. Although not dealing exclusively with Woolf, Richard J. Quinones in Mapping Literary Modernism: Time and Development (1985) redefines the importance in modernism of the awareness of time as a central “indicator-theme.”15 Using the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse, Quinones shows how central to modernism Woolf can be regarded, highlighting as she does the conflict and ambiguity between the innovative and more-limiting aspects of a mechanistic idea of time progression, which can limit the world simply to notions of linearity and progress: “Knowledge itself, not being linear and progressive, cannot be handed down from generation to generation—the fruits of experience benefiting those who come after.”16 Quinones places Woolf firmly at the center of progressive modernism, demonstrating “the presentation of the rich and complex powers of inner reality,” and “the Modernist trait of achieving multiplicity by virtue of a seemingly passive hero, while at the same time working toward a sense of personal unity and affirmation.”17

Contrasting the sense of To the Lighthouse with the oceanic feeling of oneness found in Matthew Arnold's “Dover Beach” (1867), Quinones finds in Woolf's work a consciousness deepened by an almost Freudian awareness of the modernist sense of alienation, in which the sea fails to offer any answering image of human condition. In Woolf childhood has lost its Romantic implications and becomes a sphere of doubts and unhappiness. In “Time Passes” man is separated from nature and his past as well as from other men; thus, history in its dislocation challenges a masculine sense of continuity: “Virginia Woolf always sought to write from what she called a ‘central feeling’ in which the apparent disjunctive surface images have their roots. The painter, Lily Briscoe, in To the Lighthouse opens herself to the same kind of rhythm that was bearing her in its current. …”18 Quinones demonstrates Woolf's radical part in the modernist challenge to authority, using a complex critical account of her work.

The strength of Alex Zwerdling's Virginia Wolf and the Real World (1986) is that he recuperates Woolf's relationship with reality and literary realism in terms of a more complex understanding of the world rather than literary traditions. As Zwerdling comments, Woolf criticism up to his time ignored her interest in realism and often obscured her rendition of what can be described as a “social matrix” of events.19 Even though most critics recognize Woolf's precision in notation of detail, her expansion in poetic fashion of a particular image, it must be added that this use of the impressionistic and its focus on individual perceptions does not represent any simplistic rejection of externality. As Zwerdling notes of To the Lighthouse, “Woolf was trying to expand the theory and practice of realism. She wanted to bring the mimetic techniques of the genre to the recording of psychic process, and this has often been recognized. At the same time, she tried to show that psychic life was far more responsive to external forces than has generally been assumed.”20 It is important to recognize the subtext of social forces that contributed to the development of Woolf's themes. They can easily be missed if one focuses entirely upon the more obvious features of her writing, such as her overt experimentation and use of symbolism.

In Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject (1987) Makiko Minow-Pinkney takes Woolf to be best represented in the context of the female modernist agenda. She distinguishes Woolf from writers such as Joyce and Dorothy Richardson in rejecting their egoistic unified subject and draws a contrast between symbolist modernism and Woolf's incipient feminism. Minow-Pinkney's central position is that Woolf saw people as subjects on shifting, confusing territory and thus used androgyny to explore this blurring of boundaries. Minow-Pinkney promotes Orlando to the position of a central text rather than simply an elaborate joke. She questions Elaine Showalter's dismissal of Woolfian androgyny as itself relying on the need for a unified subject. According to Minow-Pinkney's post-structuralist reading, Woolf entered a world of networks and signs in which “the feminist text must call into question the very identities which support this pattern of binary opposition. The concept of androgyny then becomes radical, opening up the fixed unity into multiplicity, joy, play of heterogeneity, a fertile difference.”21

Clearly, Minow-Pinkney sees Woolf moving toward a gender-specific view. Minow-Pinkney assumes the fragmentation of the self described by French psychologist Jacques Lacan to be universal and sees in Woolf's modernism and feminism a recovery of the self's repressed unconscious imagery, which revitalizes a symbolic order suppressed by Victorianism. Minow-Pinkney also draws upon the work of theorist Julia Kristeva for the concept of the subject being always in process and applies this concept to Woolf. Minow-Pinkney positions Woolf as part of an avant garde that uses this realization to destroy the unified subject, like a series of explosions in the semiotic and social field. Absence plays its part, for “Jacob is a lacuna in the consciousness of the text, an absent center, a fissure in the novel around which the other characters gravitate.”22 In other words, as much is said by Jacob's absence as when he is directly characterized. Elaborate as the analysis may be, Minow-Pinkney never really explains why all of these characters revolve around Jacob. She argues convincingly, however, that Woolf focuses on a female language, as with Betty Flanders's writing and talk of the world in Jacob's Room. Nevertheless, Woolf's novels are about problems of writing and symbolism in which “[t]he quest for hidden meaning results only in the endless replacement of one signifier by another.”23 Woolf subverts both the unified subject and male rationality through themes and language. In Mrs. Dalloway “[s]ubjects of sentences are continually shifting, and writing is made ‘porous’ by the tunneling process. One is suddenly pitched into a ‘cave’ of the past.”24 Minow-Pinkney argues that a “transhistorical” (between and across different eras) idea of gender is more significant than any modernist context for Woolf's writing.

In the preface to her Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy (1987) Jane Marcus describes how her book emerged from her involvement in ten years of American feminist thinking and writing about Woolf. Marcus concludes that Woolf was committed to a “socialist feminist pacifism.”25 Although Marcus is acute in perceiving the importance of autobiographical contexts, there is more of her own ideological agenda in her study than Woolf's. Nevertheless, Marcus is at least correct in extending Woolf's social thought beyond being simply a matter of feminism. She views Night and Day as a subversion of Mozart's The Magic Flute (1791), “patriarchy's most glorious myth of itself as civilization.”26 According to Marcus, Woolf saw the single woman and spinster as positive identities and sought to create an alliance with blacks and the working class, a notion hardly sustainable by reference to the novels themselves, an objection made by various academics to Marcus's ideas. The most interesting aspect of Marcus's study is the analysis of the significance of the swallow and nightingale motifs in Between the Acts, an undercurrent of rape and violence drawn from classical mythology. Marcus is best with historical suggestions about the roots of Woolf's work: for example, Septimus Smith emerging from the postgraduate lectures of George Savage, her doctor; and the lighthouse motif appearing in her Aunt Caroline Stephen's Quaker writings, in which Woolf's own pacifism is prefigured. However one might object to Marcus's ideological stance being too remote from the texts, her historical research remains intriguing.

By the 1990s academics began to review the claims made about Woolf, as well as the theoretical models with which her work was being made to conform. Perhaps typical is John Mepham's Virginia Woolf: A Literary Life (1991). Mepham not only contextualizes Woolf's upbringing and mature experiences but also clearly and intelligently analyzes her novels, particularly those of the creatively fruitful period of the 1920s. His comments are succinct, but informative: “Of all her novels The Waves is the least mimetic, the least ‘realist.’ The voices do not correspond to any real possible form of speech, either inner or public. Their eloquent, poetic effusions are openly artificial.”27 Mepham adds such useful information as tables of Woolf's sales and her and Leonard's earnings, which make clear that for a literary novelist Woolf achieved high sales.

Mepham's biographically rooted study goes a long way toward counteracting some exaggerated or preposterous notions about Woolf herself. He argues eloquently that for too long her essay “Modern Fiction” has been taken for a literary manifesto. He is unconvinced that Woolf felt the essay applicable to her own writing, especially as “it was written years before she developed her own characteristic fictional methods.”28 Woolf's statements can be read equally as a rejection of much of the method of her own earlier novels, and may even be questioned. As Mepham says of her denial of materialism, by which she means a rejection of simplistic, commonsense realism, she may overstep herself since she uses a kind of objectivity herself: “She does not provide us with convincing reasons for accepting her implied value judgements, that the material aspects of life, the constraints of the social order, the requirements of work, cooperation with others on social projects, the disciplines of the reality principle, are trivial and transitory, whereas the spiritual, the contemplative, the world of secret, intimate, private meanings, are enduring and true.”29 Mepham's main contribution to Woolf studies is his healthy skepticism about unsubstantiated or unsupported claims, as well as a reminder that to read or interpret Woolf's texts, one does not have to be reverential.

John Batchelor's Virginia Woolf: The Major Novels (1991) analyzes Woolf's method of writing and what might be regarded as the modernist, experimental texts: Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, and Between the Acts. Batchelor attempts to confront the issue of the influence of both Leonard Woolf and Leslie Stephen: “One can see that Virginia Stephen is very much her father's daughter: the atheism, the pride, the self-will, the ambition and the industry are all his.”30 Primarily using textual analysis, Batchelor demonstrates that the style and approach of Woolf's writing present a challenge to conventional realism but not an abandonment of its mimetic ambitions. He is skeptical of Woolf's attitude toward organized feminism. He sees in her novels a Bergsonian notion of time, as in the initial seashore scene of Jacob's Room and in later examples, where a character's consciousness and that of the author seem in contention: “The two methods, the external and the internal impressionisms, are pulled together. …”31 Batchelor's critical approach to the novels is clear, consistent, and carefully researched. He explains in precise terms how particular passages convey different ways of regarding time, especially in Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves, with their Bergsonian sense of inner experience. Interestingly, Batchelor sees Between the Acts as a major achievement for all of its ambivalence; the failures of Miss La Trobe's pageant indicate a “‘reality’ … which involves closing the gap between clock time and mind time. …”32

Toward the end of the 1990s critics such as Jane Goldman returned to Woolf's relationship with the real and refused to see in her a total commitment to pure being or the artistic moment. In The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism, and the Politics of the Visual (1998), Goldman explores “the Woolfian moment in the context of ‘the real world,’ that is in the material and historical realm beyond merely the personal and subjective; to understand some of the feminist implications of Woof's aesthetics.”33 Goldman traces the influence of Woolf of the Postimpressionist exhibition of 1910 and the solar eclipse of 1927. She also questions the significance of the Bergsonian notion of nonlinear time in Woolf's writing, seeing more the influence of modernist art, with the traditional handling of chiaroscuro—light and shade—replaced by a mosaic of color, described as a “new feminist language of color.”34 This is the domestic sphere of Mrs. Ramsay absorbed into the art of Lily Briscoe, a world of family, emotion, and domestic realities: “Mrs. Ramsay emerges from these contradictory moments both as a shadow to the light of patriarchy and as a potential source of counter-illumination.”35 Combining close reading with historical references, Goldman creates an enticing, worthwhile, if complex reading of Woolf's texts.


There are innumerable examples in Woolf's fiction of art imitating life, for her creative work drew quite explicitly on the biographical contexts of her own life, family, and friends. This was not a simple matter of recording events, for Woolf transformed her own existence into a series of narratives that drew upon the issues of her age and reflected the new forms of art in the modernist movement. She also drew on the constrictions and peculiarities of her family and, more broadly, the social conditions of women, less than free or equal. Woolf's transformations of biography into fiction indicate that work and family life created conflicting obligations for women and could never be combined. Thus, a division exists in To the Lighthouse between the demands of a vocation and of domestic life that no one manages to balance. It appears as if Woolf in her fiction draws some stark conclusions about the failings of relationships in life.36

Rachel Vinrace exists within a closed and narrow world of Victorian childhood and adolescence, very much in the manner of Woolf, ignorant about sexual matters and naive in the ways of the world. Like Rachel, Woolf suffered from the elaborate courtship rituals and the search for meaningful affection, and she lost her mother at a young age. The Voyage Out centers on a love triangle, much as the one in Woolf's own life after Clive Bell's marriage to Vanessa evoked a jealous reaction in her. Critics have pointed out that there are parallels between Rachel's fiancé, Terence Hewet, and Bell; it may be significant that Rachel's love interest is based not on Woolf's husband but rather on her brother-in-law. The illness from which Rachel dies in an alien land suggests the suffering of Thoby Stephen, who died of the typhoid contracted while traveling in Greece with his sisters. The Voyage Out and scenes of Jacob Flanders abroad in Jacob's Room were drawn from the 1904 trip of the Stephens and Gerald Duckworth to Italy and Paris and Woolf's 1905 journey to Spain with her brother Adrian. Both were in part sea voyages and must surely have provided the background for Rachel's voyage. Louise A. DeSalvo indicates that Woolf was working on the episodes detailing the growing but nonsexual intimacy between Rachel and Terence a few months before she finally accepted Leonard Woolf's proposal, and that these episodes reflect the Woolfs' own courtship and the curious dynamics of their relationship.37 In fact, there is ambivalence in the courtship and the level of the woman's enthusiasm both in fact and fiction. In life Virginia and Leonard were married on 10 August 1912; in the novel Rachel dies. Yet, Woolf drew from the intimate physicality and sexual elements of the male-female relationship, especially after her wedding trip to the Continent, in writing the novel. Rachel's headaches and delirium might indicate sexual repression rather than any specific external illness; Woolf may well have drawn on certain concepts (and diagnoses) favored by her physician, George Savage, whom she later satirized in Mrs. Dalloway. In his major early work, Insanity and Allied Neuroses: Practical and Clinical (1884), Savage indicated that mania of this kind, particularly among women, invariably originated from sexual trouble.38

In Night and Day Katharine Hilbery's distinguished literary family reflects the Stephen family's ties (through Leslie Stephen's first wife) to William Makepeace Thackeray and the Stephen children's relationship to the legacy of their father and his literary work. The episode of Katharine's being scrutinized over the household accounts reflects Vanessa's recollections of Leslie Stephen's complaints to her (and, prior to her, Stella Duckworth) about domestic money matters.39 The scenes in Night and Day recounting feminist activity in a nonmilitant suffrage society were drawn directly from Woolf's own activities. Carol Hanbery MacKay identifies Anne Thackeray Ritchie (Woolf's “aunt” Anny) as the model for Mrs. Hilbery, reinforcing the Thackeray connection in the novel.40 Generally Night and Day expresses the struggle of women to work and their demands for other forms of social recognition different from those of their mothers, the social and domestic dimensions of which Woolf observed throughout her life. The feminine and the humorous combine in Mrs. Hilbery's pilgrimage to Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, and her theory that Anne Hathaway was the true author of Shakespeare's sonnets. This episode was based on an elaborate joke made by Anny.41

Much of Jacob's Room was drawn from the Stephen family's vacations in Cornwall, experiences Woolf was also to make central in To the Lighthouse. Jacob Flanders is seen in this kind of setting in childhood and, later, during the sailing trip taken with his Cambridge friend in and around the Scilly Isles. The opening scene of the childhood holiday of Jacob's Room is striking. The child-oriented perspective challenges the authoritative narrative viewpoint. It also seems uncannily to draw on a story, “The Monkey on the Moor,” written by Woolf's mother, Julia Stephen, and posthumously found in her notes, corrected as if for potential publication.42 Later scenes in Jacob's Room rework the life experience of Woolf's brother Thoby, with study at Cambridge and travel in Greece, like the trip that led to Thoby Stephen's death from typhoid fever. The death of Jacob in war represents not only his individual loss but also the tragic fate of his generation, mirroring Woolf's experience of the wartime sacrifice made by friends such as Rupert Brooke.

Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway represents the social class to which Woolf belonged, and it has been suggested that the character was based on Kitty Maxse, an acquaintance whom Woolf first met in 1898 and in fact disliked. Clarissa has a heart murmur, as Woolf herself did, and was originally intended to die in early plans for the novel. Many critics agree that Mrs. Dalloway is most autobiographical in regard to the details of Septimus Smith's madness, drawn from Woolf's own bouts of insanity. Much attention has been spent in various diagnoses of both Woolf and her characters. As John R. Maze says, for instance, “Smith is a textbook example of paranoid schizophrenia, with delusions of persecution and ideas of reference—that people were looking and pointing at him, that the car's stopping had some reference to him.”43 Maze cites Woolf's long-established identification with Smith, reinforcing the idea that on one level he is a double for or mirror of Clarissa's psychological state. Woolf's madness seems to have informed her particular narrative sense of identity and embodiment. From Rachel's illness in The Voyage Out to the curious disembodied consciousness in The Waves, critics have been absorbed in linking elements of Woolf's work to her own pathology, her physical and mental suffering. In All That Summer She Was Mad: Virginia Woolf, Female Victim of Male Medicine (1982) Stephen Trombley points out: “During all of Virginia's breakdowns, she had a peculiar relationship to her body. She felt that it was sordid; she found eating repulsive; she felt as if her body was not the center of her ‘self’—that she somehow existed at odds with it, or divorced from it. Not only is a problematical sense of embodiment a central factor in all of her breakdowns, but it is also one of the perennial themes of her novels and, indeed, of her essays, letters, and diary.”44 In To the Lighthouse Mrs. Ramsay's activities in visiting the sick and needy and her subsequent death reflect the death of Woolf's mother; Julia Stephen's tendency toward both sacrifice and self-asserted virtue verged on martyrdom.

This pattern is repeated with the death of the Pargiters' mother in The Years: the eldest daughter, Eleanor, has to assume her mother's domestic and charitable roles (much as Stella and, after her death, Vanessa did in the Stephen household after the loss of Julia). In To the Lighthouse Mr. Ramsay exhibits all of the same characteristics of self-assertion, correctness, and yet professional doubt that have been noted at length in Leslie Stephen. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay were such accurate portraits of Woolf's parents that they evoked deep emotion in Vanessa. Unquestionably, To the Lighthouse offers many biographical parallels beyond the parents. Batchelor finds much of Thoby in Andrew Ramsay and of Stella Duckworth in Prue Ramsay, who dies in childbirth. Originally, the novel developed from a planned story, “The Old Man,” which was explicitly based on Woolf's childhood experiences at Talland House in St. Ives. Clearly, the original focus was to have been on Leslie Stephen, but since other material was worked in for the novel, this suggests other, less obvious parallels. Many critics have claimed that Lily Briscoe's paintings are crucial to placing Woolf's vision. Daniel R. Schwarz notes that Lily's artistic work depends upon an inner vision by the second phase of her aesthetic experiment, her tree drawn from the mind's eye. Schwarz concludes that in a historical sense “Lily's second painting is Post-Impressionist,” perceiving the direct influence of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse in Woolf's use of spatial relations as a device for “imbuing everyday experience with the magic of meaning and form,” just as in modernist art.45

Lily may be considered to incorporate features of Woolf and Vanessa as a sort of composite figure. Another possible source of creative inspiration for Lily as a young woman painter who is criticized by male companions may have been Anny's Miss Angel (1875), a historical novel based on the life of the eighteenth-century English painter Angelica Kauffmann. In the novel Kauffman is at work in Venice copying the works of the great masters. Her fellow lodger and painter Antonio is scathing at her hope to reproduce any masterpiece, which he describes as like trying to paint the sun. Kauffman faces limitations similar to those that Lily faces, limitations that form a central concern in the first section of To the Lighthouse. Lily on one level is Kauffman's modernist counterpart. Panthea Reid identifies Lily's thinking and endeavors with Vanessa's ideas in favor of “the spontaneous and fresh embodiment of vision and emotion” over technical skill in painting, a lesson that Lily partly learns from Mrs. Ramsay.46 Reid argues that Lily develops and effectively becomes a proponent of Roger Fry's theories of art, and that the speed with which Woolf wrote the second section of the novel indicated her intention to employ the same method in writing prose. Ironically, Fry criticized the “Time Passes” section, with its exaggeration and the poeticizing of inanimate objects, so much that Woolf decided not to dedicate the book to him as originally intended. In this section—together with the concluding one, in which Lily thinks of Mrs. Ramsay's absence—there may be an echo of the thoughts on life and death of family friend William James: “The pathos of death is this, that when the days of one's life are ended, those days that were so crowded with business and felt so heavy in their passing, what remains of one in memory should usually be so slight a thing. The phantom of an attitude, the echo of a certain mode of thought. …”47

The mood of experiment in The Waves captures the feeling of change and transformation that imbued the period of Woolf's youth and early adulthood, recreating in its form and voice the social and artistic ferment and enthusiasm of those times for Bloomsbury in particular. The title was originally to be “The Moths,” which derived from a letter from Vanessa in France describing catching and chloroforming a huge moth. Parallels to Woolf's relationships later in life can be found in other works. It is well established that the title character of Orlando is modeled on Vita Sackville-West, as is indicated not only by the setting (based on Sackville-West's family home), but Wolf's use of her friend as a model for photographs in the first edition of the book, presenting her in the various phases of Orlando's life. In The Years the sexual abuse Woolf suffered when young resurfaces not only in undercurrents of incestuous desire but also in an episode in which young Rose Pargiter sneaks out alone to the shops only to be traumatized by an old man exposing himself to her.

In Between the Acts Miss La Trobe finds herself in a situation much like Woolf's own late in life. In the pageant she stages, Miss La Trobe explores the possibilities of celebrating England's past as a unifying possibility while resisting jingoism; her position is that of a strong, opinionated woman rejected by the younger generation of the village. In Bloomsbury Aesthetics and the Works of Forster and Woolf (1985) David Dowling points out that Woolf was apparently asked to arrange or script such a pageant at Rodmell (the site of the Woolfs' country retreat, Monk's House), which probably suggested the idea of including such a pageant in the novel. Woolf was much attracted by the idea of England, with its traditional and aristocratic lineage, despite remaining opposed to imperialism and patriarchy. As Suzanne Raitt notes, there was an underlying contradiction in Woolf's different attitudes: “Woolf's attraction to Sackville-West was also an attraction to aristocracy, Englishness, wealth: all the social privileges about which later, in Three Guineas, she was to express so much ambivalence.”48Between the Acts is an exploration of those elements, of the shifting unity and disunity of the culture and the self. In the course of her pageant Miss La Trobe considers and plays out all of the paradoxical themes that concerned Woolf herself. In the end, a sense of theatricality and the source material in the play of people's lives could at times appear indistinguishable to her.


Woolf became famous after a tentative beginning as a writer. In a sense, it is unsurprising that she adapted to the conditions of modernist change after her first two novels. If she had not, as she recognized, her work was likely to have been regarded as negligible, offering her the fate that so haunted her father. This sense of failure, recorded in the characterization of Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, equally applied to Woolf herself. It was something she feared until her major successes. It may be that fear of obscurity initiated and motivated her creative efforts. In terms of fame and recognition, Woolf became more celebrated and culturally significant in the years following her death than she was in her lifetime. Like her or loathe her, she has become firmly established as a literary and cultural icon. Her face is recognized the world over, she is studied in universities everywhere because of her feminism as much as her fiction, and innumerable websites are dedicated to her life and her work. The amount of literary criticism itself has become daunting for the average student.

Despite a rejection of modernism by many writers after 1945, Woolf's work came back into vogue in the 1980s. The very factors that make her later texts typically modernist are those features of her experimentation that also characterize later postmodern writing. Her stylistic relevance and her views of gender have maintained contemporary interest in Woolf, preventing her from becoming dated or unfashionable. In some ways, aspects of her work seem more in tune with contemporary thought than with many opinions of her own time. Her experimentation was part of Woolf's response to critics' reactions to the earlier works of many other writers, inspiring her to a new phase of creativity. She proved herself in keeping with contemporary thought and even took literature in new directions. Woolf's response to criticism was to take it as a provocation for new ides. Thus, her novels experiment with form, but more than that, her revisions of literary conventions have reflexive qualities. Through this reflexivity or self-awareness, Woolf's works demonstrate in explicit fashion the difficulty of representing anything without distortion (because words are neither things nor pictures in the physical sense). The attempt at representation without distortion makes the reader aware of the text as a fact and an intervening process (writing about objects in words), as part of the process and the potential problem. These qualities, as well as her prescient analysis of the “great patriarchal machine,” have contributed to the continuing growth of her readership and her fans.

The general fascination with Woolf has been reinforced by a prescient literary strategy on her part that has interested a new generation of readers: the reoccurrence of characters and scenes between different narratives, a process or technique now described as intertextuality, which became popular with writers many years after her death. Like many writers of genius, Woolf was perhaps well ahead of her time.


Orlando. Adventure Pictures, 1992. Directed and adapted by Sally Potter.

Mrs. Dalloway. First Look Pictures, 1997. Directed by Marleen Gorris; adapted by Eileen Atkins.


Long before she published fiction, Woolf was known among members of her social class for belonging to a famous family with literary and intellectual connections and forebears. She does so in Night and Day through parallels between her own situation and that of Katharine Hilbery, notable because of her famous poet grandfather. Katharine struggles against being publicly known because of her associations with the literati of Victorian society. Before her own early writing, Woolf's well-connectedness was a general feature of the intellectual London-based inner circle of which Bloomsbury was a part.

Outside of this upper-middle-class set, Woolf did not truly figure as part of the public consciousness until the publication of To the Lighthouse in 1927. At this time she became identified with the zeitgeist and the press's fashionable image of the postwar age. She appeared in Vogue, was photographed by Man Ray, and was invited by the New York Herald Tribune on a paid trip to write for the paper. T. S. Eliot praised her work in the Nouvelle Revue Française. When Woolf received the Vie Hereuse Prize in 1928, the award was reported in The Times.

From this time on, press attention, book sales, and public-speaking invitations all testified to a growing response to Woolf and her work. When The Years was published in 1937, more than 13,000 copies were sold in the United Kingdom and almost 31,000 copies in the United States in the first six months.49 Continuing academic interest, movie adaptations, the use of Woolf's image in popular culture, and ongoing sales of her major works all exemplify the persistent interest in Woolf and her writing. Although it fluctuated, her income from the Hogarth Press and writing after 1927 was considerable. The invitations she received to support appeals on behalf of victims of the Spanish Civil War indicate her public position as an intellectual and thinker in the 1930s. Since the shift in attention to her feminism in the late 1960s, Woolf has become more publicly acclaimed than ever before. She has acquired an almost mythic status.


  1. William James, A Pluralistic Universe: Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy (London: Longmans, Green, 1909), p. 263.

  2. Ibid., p. 253.

  3. Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), p. 13. Subsequent parenthetical references in the text are to this edition.

  4. Woolf, Between the Acts (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), p. 215.

  5. Winifred Holtby, Virginia Woolf (London: Wishart, 1932), p. 9.

  6. Herbert Marder, Feminism & Art: A Study of Virginia Woolf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 1.

  7. Ibid., p. 2.

  8. Ibid., p. 35.

  9. Ibid., p. 176.

  10. Harvena Richter, Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), pp. 115, x.

  11. Ibid., p. vii.

  12. Ibid., pp. ix, 41.

  13. Ibid., p. 41.

  14. Ibid., p. 43.

  15. Richard J. Quinones, Mapping Literary Modernism: Time and Development (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 4.

  16. Ibid., p. 153.

  17. Ibid., pp. 106, 108.

  18. Ibid., pp. 170-171.

  19. Alex Zwerdling, Virginia Woolf and the Real World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p. 15.

  20. Ibid., pp. 22, 24.

  21. Makiko Minow-Pinkney, Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1987), p. 12.

  22. Ibid., p. 28.

  23. Ibid., p. 32.

  24. Ibid., p. 56.

  25. Jane Marcus, Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. xii.

  26. Ibid., p. 21.

  27. John Mepham, Virginia Woolf: A Literary Life (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), p. 140.

  28. Ibid., p. 67.

  29. Ibid., p. 70.

  30. John Batchelor, Virginia Woolf: The Major Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 4.

  31. Ibid., p. 66.

  32. Ibid., p. 135.

  33. Jane Goldman, The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism, and the Politics of the Visual (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 1.

  34. Ibid., p. 168.

  35. Ibid., p. 174.

  36. Zwerdling, Virginia Woolf and the Real World, p. 191.

  37. Louise A. DeSalvo, Virginia Woolf's First Voyage: A Novel in the Making (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 3; T. E. Apter, Virginia Woolf: A Study of Her Novels (New York: New York University Press, 1979), p. 13.

  38. Savage, George H., Insanity and Allied Neuroses: Practical and Clinical (London: Cassell, 1884), pp. 133-134.

  39. Vanessa Bell, Sketches in Pen and Ink, edited by Lia Giachero (London: Hogarth Press, 1997), p. 67.

  40. Carol Hanbery MacKay, “The Thackeray Connection: Virginia Woolf's Aunt Anny,” in Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury: A Centenary Celebration, edited by Laura Marcus (London: Macmillan, 1987), p. 73.

  41. Marcus, Virginia Woolf, p. 29.

  42. Julia Duckworth Stephen, Julia Duckworth Stephen: Stories for Children, Essays for Adults, edited by Diane F. Gillespie and Elizabeth Steele (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987), p. 47.

  43. John R. Maze, Virginia Woolf: Feminism, Creativity, and the Unconscious (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997), pp. 65-66.

  44. Stephen Trombley, All That Summer She Was Mad: Virginia Woolf, Female Victim of Male Medicine (New York: Continuum, 1982), p. 10.

  45. Daniel R. Schwarz, Reconfiguring Modernism: Explorations in the Relationship between Modern Art and Modern Literature (London: Macmillan, 1997), pp. 39, 41.

  46. Panthea Reid, Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 285.

  47. James, “Address at the Emerson Centenary in Concord,” in Memories and Studies (London: Longmans, Green, 1911), p. 19.

  48. Suzanne Raitt, Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 160.

  49. Mepham, Virginia Woolf, p. 130.

Woolf On Woolf

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8723

According to Suzanne Nalbantian, “Woolf was closely exposed to biography writing by two dominant male figures in her life: her father and her husband.”1 One senses that Woolf reacted by becoming fascinated with recreating aspects of herself, and doing so critically, in many places within her texts. Even if Clarissa Dalloway is not a self-portrait, she represents Woolf's reflections on her own physical embodiment and her mental processes. Woolf could be cruel about her own image and pathology, as in this description of Clarissa: “She had a narrow pea-stick figure; a ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird's. That she held herself well was true; and had nice hands and feet; and dressed well, considering that she spent little. But often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing—nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen, unknown. …”2 Throughout her life, both in fiction and in other more personal writings, Woolf reflected a great deal on herself, her writing and her life experiences—not, however, because she was overly narcissistic. As Hermione Lee notes, “Egotism is often the subject of the diary. She is much concerned with how she writes it, and what it's for. And its uses vary: it is a ‘barometer’ of her feelings, a storehouse for memories, a record of events and encounters, a practice-ground for writing, a commentary on work in progress, and a sedative for agitation, anger, or apprehension.”3

The impulse in Woolf to write about herself owed something to a specific cluster of personal circumstances and feelings, but it was also influenced by the intensely reflexive and spiritual nature of her modernism. Modernism often incorporated the view that all art must include itself in the act of creation as part of the overall effect. Woolf generally seemed to require constant monitoring and reflection upon her mental state. Such introspection was also at times one of the major Bloomsbury activities, including the Memoir Club, to which she belonged. Her autobiographical piece “A Sketch of the Past,” published posthumously in Moments of Being, is one among many such contributions from a number of active members of the group. The alteration of biographical facts in the novels indicates that they were not intended simply as autobiography. As Nalbantian observes, “Woolf manipulated place for the purpose of art. The substitution of the Hebrides for Cornwall [in To the Lighthouse] was an artistic process which depersonalised what could be regarded as a transparent story, allowing it to acquire an ambiguity which no one could clarify but to which all could relate.”4

How Woolf perceived herself and her successes remains a matter of debate. The nuances of identity are intriguing. She contrasted herself with both her family and even Bloomsbury in an attempt to define herself. Lee says, “The model for this dual movement—between a struggle for self-definition and a need to belong—is family life. Bloomsbury was rooted in family, and much of its art (painting, decoration, biography, fiction) was about the family.”5 Both were ambivalent sources of inspiration for Woolf, who admitted candidly that “[o]ne has to follow ones bent—mine often to be moody, irritable, longing for solitude.”6 Nevertheless, she was never entirely solitary and never indifferent to other opinions and reactions. As Lyndall Gordon comments, “Virginia herself drew a distinction between a solitude that is potentially creative (‘slipping tranquilly off into the deep water of my own thoughts’) and a debilitating state of withdrawal following impulses of aversion.”7 In May 1925 Woolf reflected on the mixture of indifferent reviews and personal praise in the press and from her circle: “So from this I prognosticate a good deal of criticism on the ground that I'm obscure & odd; & some enthusiasm; a slow sale, & an increased reputation. Oh yes—my reputation increases.”8 She knew well the unusual qualities of both the work and her own personality. She could grasp her literary presence, with all of its potential quality and value. Nevertheless, as with the fiction itself, she was never narcissistic or self-absorbed. As T. E. Apter observes, “Virginia Woolf's emphasis on individual consciousness, and her attention to the world as something whose character is determined by individual perception, do not lead her to the conclusion that only one's consciousness is real.”9 Woolf understood that she existed in a community of intellectuals and, as is clear from her final novel, Between the Acts, within a tradition of Englishness that she saw under threat. During World War II she found that “[t]here's no standard to write for: no public to echo back: even the ‘tradition’ has become transparent.”10

In some ways Woolf's evaluation of these issues of fiction and life charts a psychic journey as much as a critical or aesthetic one. It is important to note that her work itself is not centered entirely on her self-image, for she is not the sole, nor even perhaps the central figure of most of her novels. In fact, when Woolf assessed herself and her work explicitly, it becomes clear that despite her acclaim, she saw her literary self as a source of vulnerability. Literary work engaged her in a peculiar bundle of ideas and fears. At times she was optimistic and committed. Even in 1928, after the publication of many of her major novels, she wrote in her diary that “[a]t 46 I am not callous; suffer considerably; make good resolutions—still as experimental & on the verge of getting at the truth as ever.”11 At other moments she wondered of her books, “How much part does ‘coming out’ play in the pleasure of writing then? Each one accumulates a little of the fictitious V. W. whom I carry like a mask about the world.”12 Nevertheless, Woolf was often capable of seeing herself and her writing as interrelated. Her diaries, with their intimacy and candor, remain one of the most revealing sources of her opinion concerning her work. In them is expressed a self-regard that typifies Woolf's view of her work. Her account fluctuated at times daily, most often articulating a lack of confidence and yet sometimes conveying a very arrogant opinion. This apparent paradox was partly owing to her mental condition, partly due to the way in which she viewed the world, for she was not convinced that people were solely or completely in control of their destinies. Woolf saw herself not as unique in this quality but representative. She illustrated this feeling from her own emotional experiences. In “A Sketch of the Past” she famously describes the influence of her mother as part of a way all people are made up and changed, often like invisible forces:

Until I was in the forties—I could settle the date by seeing when I wrote To the Lighthouse, but am too casual here to bother to do it—the presence of my mother obsessed me. I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day's doings. She was one of those invisible presences who after all play so important a part in every life. This influence, by which I mean the consciousness of other groups impinging upon ourselves; public opinion; what other people say and think; all those magnets which attract us this way to be like that, or repel us the other and make us different from that; has never been analysed in any of those Lives which I so much enjoy reading, or very superficially.13

More than being about her mother, this passage offers a self-image. Importantly for Woolf, both personality and action were subject to the “magnetic” effect of others. Neither was ultimately stable or monolithic. In this she did not imagine herself to be unique, suggesting that she believed the individual to be part of broader influences and communities, determined by the past as if it were still there in existence alongside the present. This belief might imply that Woolf's writing was like a response, or even part of a dialogue, with those influences, her family and friends.

All of these factors also affected the view Woolf expressed about herself, a figure at times either almost disassociated from the present or at the opposite extreme, so intensely engaged in its more threatening or worrying aspects that all the details of the present became a burden. Furthermore, Woolf saw her role as a writer as quite different from the public's understanding of what a writer represents, as a public figure and a name upon texts. She knew herself as a private individual and one emotionally involved in her expression of her personality and view of the world, before the public persona had much influence on her work.

In one biographical reflection Woolf sets out in detail a concrete picture of herself in terms of her origins: “Who was I then? Adeline Virginia Stephen, the second daughter of Leslie and Julia Prinsep Stephen, born on 25th January 1882, descended from a great many people, some famous, others obscure; born into a large connection, born not of rich parents, but of well-to-do parents, born into a very communicative, literate, letter writing, visiting, articulate, late nineteenth century world.”14 This conveys little of her individually. Woolf is more forthcoming elsewhere in the same essay. She recalls herself and her sister as tomboys and notes her habit of looking guiltily at herself in a hall mirror in the family home. She suspects a puritanical tinge from her ancestors and her father, a tendency toward self-denial in material things. This may explain the richness of the life of her imagination and creativity, and why the self of the fiction was separate and less constrained, a world where she was taken up by “such a violent impulsion & compulsion.”15 Of childhood and Talland House in Cornwall, Woolf made an idyll set against which her adult life was a pallid existence. As Lee writes, “Happiness is always measured for her against the memory of being a child in that house. The images she uses to describe that memory are pleasurable and consolatory, images of fullness, rhythm and light.”16

Any reading of Woolf's diaries or letters indicates clearly that as her mood shifted periodically (and often swiftly), her attitude toward her writing was transformed. In these swings Allie Glenny perceives the reactions of an anorexic female, a sense of disempowerment, a self-effacement.17 Whatever the source of this ambivalence, Woolf combined two contradictory extremes in her opinion of herself. She was capable of being convinced about the overwhelming possibilities of her talent; yet, in other moments, she was devoured by an undermining doubt about her writing and a fear of criticism. This was so severe that it often threatened both her physical and mental health. In this diary entry from the early 1920s, Woolf was planning a new kind of writing, a further development, but was also tinged with self-doubt:

Talks of arriving at “some idea of a new form for a new novel.” Suppose one thing should open out of another—as in An Unwritten Novel—only not for 10 pages but 200 or so—doesn't that give the looseness & lightness I want: doesn't that get closer & yet keep form & speed, & enclose everything, everything? My doubt is how far it will [include] enclose the human heart—Am I sufficiently mistress of my dialogue to net it there? For I figure that the approach will be entirely different this time: no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, the humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist. Then I'll find room for so much—a gaiety—an inconsequence—a light spirited stepping at my sweet will. Whether I'm sufficiently mistress of things—that's the doubt; but conceive mark on the wall, K. G. [Kew Gardens] & unwritten novel taking hands & dancing in unity. What the unity shall be I have yet to discover: the theme is a blank to me; but I see immense possibilities in the form I hit upon more or less by chance 2 weeks ago. I suppose the danger is the damned egotistical self; which ruins Joyce and [Dorothy] Richardson to my mind: is one pliant & rich enough to provide a wall for the book from oneself without its becoming, as in Joyce and Richardson, narrowing and restricting? My hope is that I've learnt my business sufficiently now to provide all sorts of entertainments.18

These reflections about her plans are both complex and revealing. For Woolf, writing was all about emotion and feeling. One key element is what it can say about inner truths, but as an experiential quality. This explains why the given, narrated detail of the lives of her characters are sketchy and partial, secondary to the narrative's enactment of inner consciousness and environment. Certainly, this new form of the modernist novel expressed the joy Woolf felt was within her when engaging in creative work. It created the possibility of some expression of naturalness, a sense of being, as opposed to something painstakingly constructed in the manner of the traditional novel.

Writing in this fashion and being recognized for doing so literally constituted part of Woolf's notion of her identity and adult personality. Compared to the Victorian fictional model of building up scenes and characterization, Woolf's writing offers evidence of a reinvigorated process and a kind of lightening of her own mood and spirits. There was a sense of expiation and therapeutic engagement that she sought and understood. By shaking off the past in this way Woolf made the transformation of the culture a personal challenge. Her words in the quoted passage describe a critical moment in her literary life when she was about to develop her writing more fully, become more experimental and much bolder with her narrative structures. Woolf questioned herself intensely, as she did over nearly all issues. Here, at a point before she had completed Jacob's Room, is a picture of a woman approaching forty without any real major success but reaching toward inner talents and ambitions. The image of the scaffolding that is to be removed offers a mental image not only of Woolf's realization that she did not need the traditional structures of the novel—the currency of realism and plot development—but also of the risk involved. Without the past tradition, she feared, the whole edifice might collapse, but she had to risk this possibility. Significantly, she reminded herself of the success of three of her modernist short stories—“The Mark on the Wall” (1917), “Kew Gardens” (1919), and “An Unwritten Novel” (1921)—rather than her first two novels. In order to see what was different about her own kind of writing, Woolf distinguished herself not from modernism generally but from two other specific writers, James Joyce and Dorothy Richardson, its major proponents at that point. Woolf wanted a unity that was less about the author and more balanced than previous modernist writing. This signifies the greatness of her ambitions, despite her many self-doubts.

Woolf's literary doubts were recurrent, and the record of them provides many insights into how she regarded her abilities as her writing career progressed. In June 1923, while working on a novel with the working title “The Hours” (later to become Mrs. Dalloway), her commitment to making language less artificial and more appropriate was at the forefront of her thoughts. She was concerned about whether she might be rather too fond of words for their own sake, drawn to their effects as formal and poetic things. Her love of wordplay, rhetoric, and argument, noted by various contemporaries, confirmed certain aspects of this self-image: “One must write from deep feeling, said Dostoevsky. And do I? Or do I fabricate words, loving them, as I do? No I think not. In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense—But here I may be posing.”19

Intense feeling was central to Woolf's creativity, but she saw a further purpose to her fiction, an aspect of social commentary, an underlying desire for change. Ideas and a sense of life were essential to her. She wondered about the accusation of Arnold Bennett and others that she could not deal with characterization and was unable to sustain a sense of a person as memorable. For Woolf, her search for a fuller reality and the reaching of a more powerful writing than the traditional was a thing with its own merits. It offered her personal benefits: “This is justification; for free use of the faculties means happiness. I'm better company, more of a human being.”20 The implication is that outside of her writing life she felt less involved and often very isolated. Beyond the issue of characterization, Woolf questioned even her ability with plotting. She worried that she was limited to thinking only at the level of a scene, rather than a protracted series of events. In October 1927 she expressed doubt about her talents: “I can make up situations, but I cannot make up plots. That is: if I pass the lame girl, I can without knowing I do it, instantly make up a scene: (Now I cant think of one). This is the germ of such fictitious gift as I have.”21

Woolf's overwhelming doubts about her writing tended to suppress the moments of harmony. Her creative anxieties were akin to the isolation to which she was prone, torturing herself with thoughts of her own childlessness. Woolf felt her mental state as a literal thing. She saw her own lack of discipline as a matter of regret. Typically, she reflected in her diary, “a little more self control on my part, & we might have had a boy of 12, a girl of 10: This always makes me wretched in the early hours.”22 Although aware of the practical difficulties of motherhood, Woolf saw something lacking in herself because of her childlessness. At times she felt an intense jealousy of her sister, Vanessa, with her three children.

Consciously, Woolf channeled these rivalries and regrets into her writing. It offered her a consolation. Her propensity for jealousy, as she knew, went beyond the personal and affected her relationships in the literary world. In a 1920 diary entry she recorded one of her early meetings with T. S. Eliot. The entry highlights Woolf's tendency toward both positive and negative comparisons regarding herself and her contemporaries. It demonstrates that her critical doubts toward her own work varied as her optimism ebbed and flowed. Her writing was affected by mood swings and by her fluctuating levels of energy:

I think I minded more than I let on; for somehow Jacob [Jacob's Room] has come to a stop, in the middle of that party too, which I enjoyed so much. Eliot coming on the heel of a long stretch of writing fiction (2 months without a break) made me listless; cast shade upon me; & the mind when engaged upon fiction wants all its boldness & self-confidence. He said nothing—but I reflected how what I'm doing is probably being better done by Mr Joyce. Then I began to wonder what it is that I am doing: to suspect, as is usual in such cases, that I have not thought my plan out plainly enough—so to dwindle, niggle, hesitate—which means that one's lost.23

Woolf had no single, ongoing view of her abilities and talents. Her mood was as variable concerning her work as it was about everything else in life, offering extremes of response to situations. The recurrence of these kinds of anxieties and her sense of being attacked is a persistent theme throughout the diaries. The entries reach periodic crescendos and show how all of her negative emotions overwhelmed her other sense of her work, but they also exhibit an intensity, such as the notion of the wave of life, which was so influential in her work, particularly The Waves: “Down—God, I wish I were dead. Pause. But why am I feeling this? Let me watch the wave rise. I watch. Vanessa. Children. Failure. Yes; I detect that. Failure. (The wave rises). Oh they laughed at my taste in green paint! Wave crashes. I wish I were dead! I've only a few years to live I hope. I cant face this horror any more—(this is the wave spreading out over me).”24 The intensity is of such depth and profundity that reading the diaries is often both moving and extremely disturbing, especially given the fractured and painful view one is provided of Woolf's self-image. Yet, elsewhere she knows “I am glad to be alive & sorry for the dead.”25

Woolf's envy and sense of competition proved to be productive, as one senses she recognized. This is suggested by the way she recorded the dynamics of herself and her artistic development as a kind of rivalry. By this self-imposed literary contest with the likes of Joyce and Richardson to further the modernist revolution, Woolf provided an idea of how she saw herself differently from such fellow modernist writers. Almost as if to justify this self-image she created an art form that sustained that sense of her abilities. She found an artistic sense upon which to base this uniqueness. She saw her writing as less personal and not as obsessed with her own experience. Woolf wanted to reintegrate elements of both the objective and spiritual. Yet, she was less than confident that she could sustain this kind of unity and vision for a major project. She worried that the very nature of a longer novel would crush the spontaneity of observation and the freshness of any situation rendered fictionally. In order to find her new ground, Woolf reflected on the past in a February 1920 diary entry, rereading her first novel, picturing her younger self both in terms of writing and her personality of almost a decade before:

The mornings from 12 to 1 I spend reading the Voyage Out. I've not read it since July 1913. And if you ask me what I think I must reply that I don't know—such a harlequinade as it is—such an assortment of patches—here simple & severe—here frivolous & shallow—here like God's truth—here strong & free flowing as I could wish. What to make of it, Heavens knows. The failures are ghastly enough to make my cheeks burn—& then a turn of a sentence, a direct look ahead of me, makes them burn in a different way. On the whole I like the young womans mind considerably. How gallantly she takes her fences—& my word, what a gift for pen and ink!26

Woolf captured the contradictions of her earlier self and her earlier writing. She perceived it as serious and straightforward, yet often unperceptive and irrelevant. The image of embarrassment is strong in this entry, yet she admired her own thought, her overall ability to write. One can conjecture that this was more than vanity or a dramatic pose, since, given the severity of the mental illness and breakdowns in the intervening period, it is almost as if Woolf had to retrieve and confront a prior self. Within the “failures” she could perceive the talent and potential.

Significantly, this process of self-criticism was effective for Woolf, leading to sharper, more concise and effective writing. The subject matter of Jacob's Room indicates that her relationship with Thoby was a key element in this confrontation with the past. In “A Sketch of the Past” Woolf describes her sexual naiveté in her teens and twenties, a feature she used in characterizing Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out. She recalls the sexual frankness of Stella Duckworth's fiancé, Jack Hills, who told Woolf about men's sexual explicitness and obsessions: “I was incredibly, but only partially, innocent. I knew nothing about ordinary men's lives, and thought all men, like my father, loved one woman only, and were ‘dishonourable’ if unchaste, as much as women; yet, at the same time I had known since I was sixteen or so, all about sodomy, through reading Plato.”27 Woolf was aware that her early writing expressed her restricted view, but in the later work, too, she opted not to depict sexuality explicitly and presented it indirectly. This in part might explain why, by 1931, she had decided that she disliked the younger generation, which was so much more direct.

Such reflections can be seen as typical of Woolf's opinion of herself. Whenever she thought of herself there were two intense strands. The first was an image of her artistic self, involving an assessment of her writing and her overriding doubts. The second was the image of her past life and its current significance at the point of reflection. This may be a response to the effects of her intensity in writing and adopting new forms. Referring to the completion of The Years in April 1937, Woolf promised herself that there would be some rest, but she drove herself onward: “After this one day's respite, I say, I must begin at the beginning & go through 600 pages of cold proof. Why oh why? Never again, never again. No sooner have I written that, than I make up the first two pages of Two [sic] Guineas & begin a congenial ramble about Roger [Fry]. But seriously I think this shall be my last ‘novel.’”28 One doubts her lasting sincerity in the final comment; much as the concept was seductive, Woolf knew of her own drive. A remark in a March 1936 diary entry demonstrates how close her greater achievements brought her to madness again: “And I am so absorbed in Two Guineas—thats what I'm going to call it. I must very nearly verge on insanity I think. I get so deep in this book I dont know what I'm doing.”29

Woolf knew herself as almost driven, for however threatening the creative tension, the void it replaced appeared far worse. She worked constantly on new projects, however debilitating the previous one. The work allowed her to offset the unavoidable aspects of grief presented by a world of conflict. In July 1936, when she heard of the death of her nephew Julian Bell in Spain, Woolf spent several weeks consoling the grief-stricken Vanessa. Julian had died on the evening of 18 July in a hospital after having been struck by a shell fragment while driving an ambulance. Woolf recorded going to Vanessa's studio in Fitzroy Street; against this sense of misery one can see the elements to which she contrasted her writing—the emptiness, meaninglessness, and doubts that often framed her life:

The only thing was a kind of comfort in being there with Nessa Duncan, Quentin & Angelica, & losing completely the isolation, the spectator's attitude in being wanted; & spontaneous. Then we came down here last Thursday; & the pressure being removed, one lived; but without much of a future. Thats one of the specific qualities of this death—how it brings close the immense vacancy, & our short little run into inanity. Now this is what I intend to combat. How? how make good what I protest, that I will not yield an inch or a fraction of an inch to nothingness, so long as something remains. Work of course. … Directly I am not working, or see the end in sight, then nothingness begins.30

In March 1937 Woolf described the power of the activity of writing and the disconcerting feeling that arose once she reflected upon a work's public and critical reception. She was dismayed at the criticism that she anticipated for Three Guineas. The writing was therapeutic in some senses but became a source of further tension. In such a cauldron, Woolf's views of herself were variable and intensely personalized. Rarely could she obtain any kind of objective opinion or evaluation that would last for long. The turmoil of her inner problems would resurface:

I'm going to be beaten. I'm going to be laughed at, I'm going to be held up to scorn and ridicule—I found myself saying these words just now. Yet, I've been absorbed all the morning in the Un[iversit]y part of 3 Gs. And the absorption is genuine; & my great defence against the cold madness that overcame me last night. Why did it suddenly point itself like a rain cloud & discharge all its cold water? Because I was switched off doing Pictures in the morning; & then at the play, I suddenly thought the Book Society had not even recommended The Years. That's true; but the B.S. is not an infallible guide. Anyhow these days of waiting must be a dull cold torture.31

As ever, a kind of public humiliation about her work and her social recognition haunted Woolf's thoughts, yet the notion of an indifferent public leaving her to obscurity remained an equally unacceptable scenario. Only the act of writing could prevent this neuroticism.

In June 1938, in response to reviews of Three Guineas, Woolf conjured up an idea that she might achieve some kind of release if she were to remain involved only in some sort of private activity, eschewing the public side of writing, with the external judgement of critics and a readership. To satisfy these people and her self-imposed requirement for continued innovation required a huge effort. Writing for Woolf was a complete process, drawing in her life, personality, emotions, and energies: “And thats the end of six years floundering, striving, much agony, some ecstasy: lumping the Years & 3 Gs together as one book—as indeed they are. And now I can be off again, as indeed I long to be. Oh to be private, alone, submerged.”32 Yet, her dependency on praise and recognition offset this desire for quiet. As she recorded in August 1938, she was quite sensitive to criticism of Three Guineas, especially from her own circle of close friends. Forewarned by John Maynard Keynes's wife, Lydia, Woolf becomes intensely nervous about “his heckling.” Her diary entry provides a glimpse of the contradictory qualities that she found in herself and her writing, a desire for confidence and an undermining sense of others' opinions:

Now the thing to remember is that I'm an independent & perfectly established human being: no one can bully me: & at the same time nothing shall make me shrivel into a martyr or a bitter persecution maniac. The one specific is to write a thorough good book—i.e. Roger [Roger Fry: A Biography]. I've not got the words right about the soul. I mean I stand on my own feet. Maynard and the rest can only puff: & the honesty of my intention in 3 Gs is bound to see me through.33

Confident as she might appear, Woolf's obsessive nervousness in other instances over reactions to her work show that as a person she was liable to “shrivel” and be bullied. She was often uncertain and knew her own suspicions. Yet, whatever her uncertainties, in terms of writing she persisted with her own judgment and project. She knew the source of her confidence was that as a writer she had fewer potential criticisms to handle and a far simpler creative and production process than that which most writers faced.

Whatever the book sales and the public acclaim, both of which she noted in her diaries with a certain pride, Woolf was a very private person. She had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, but all were drawn chiefly from the educated classes that she describes as part of the patriarchy in Three Guineas. Outside of these circles she knew that she was uneasy, and although she was eager for literary fame, she despised its other trappings. Once achieved, even aspects of fame were worrying, for the emergence of two academic books on her work (one French, one German) struck Woolf as a danger signal. She thought it signified her transition into a “figure” rather than someone appreciated as an active and living writer. She rejected academic honors and resented the incursions into her private life that accompanied celebrity. In March 1937 Woolf depicted herself as a victim, both evasive and angry, harassed by an American journalist. This occurred during one of her periods of depression and headaches, which made the situation even more intense for her:

Yesterday a reporter for the N. York Times rang up: was told he cd. look at the outside of 52 if he chose. At 4.30 as I was boiling the kettle a huge black Daimler drew up. Then a dapper little man in a tweed coat appeared in the garden. I reached the sitting room—saw him standing there looking round. L. ignored him. L. in the orchard with Percy [Batholomew, the gardener]. Then I guessed. He had a green note book & stood looking about jotting things down. I ducked my head—he almost caught me. At last L. turned & fronted him. No Mrs W. didnt want that kind of publicity. I raged. A bug walking over ones skin—cdn't crush him. The bug taking note. L. politely led him back to his Daimler & his wife. But they'd had a nice run from London—bugs, to come & steal in & take notes.34

In the whole affair there is a mixture of tension and vulnerability, emotional responses of which Woolf made much in her characterizations. She was very knowing of her own reactions, and if the depiction of the journalist is ironic, so too is her unconscious view of her own vitriol and indignation. The dramatic episode, starting with the domestic detail of preparing afternoon tea, shows how private she expected her life to be and how taken aback she was by both the intrusion and the interest generated by her work. She knew of the extremity of her responses. Her self-image in this episode is significant, because she saw her literary self almost as another identity, someone she could report on in the third person as “Mrs W.” There is a touch of snobbery in her response, the opposite of the veneration of her social superiors alluded to in one of the essays published posthumously in Moments of Being, “Am I A Snob?”

Late in 1938 Woolf lent the substantial amount of £150 to a friend, Helen Anrep, who was struggling financially and trying to make do without a servant. When Helen appeared to fritter away the money, Woolf became embittered. These conflicts made her aware of her tendency to dwell on issues. The repetition and the sheer effort of existence that permeated both her life and her work depressed her. Often she saw ordinary life outside of creativity as a treadmill, inane and pointless and relieved only by spurts of creativity. In November she wrote in her diary about confiding her frustrations with Helen to her sister; the act of describing these events brought much more to the surface:

Yes & when Nessa came back, whom I so much wanted to see, the old irritation about Helen bubbled up, & I walked all through Finsbury Park this afternoon, telling over & over the story of my loan. I wonder why. Why life suddenly seems empty & endless: & I seem for ever climbing the endless stair, forced; unhelped; unthanked; a mere slave to some harsh—shall I say destiny—or is the word too big for what is probably some superficial reaction; part the old jealousy of Nessa's children is it? And then oh bore of writing out a story to make money!35

Woolf detested writing for money to make up the losses. She saw in this yet another drudgery. Additionally, she feared losing her autonomy; at moments such as these, life seemed an entrapment in which she was subject to forces beyond herself.

As Woolf noted at the New Year in 1931, “Here are my resolutions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year. First, to have none. Not to be tied. … To make a good job of The Waves. To care nothing for making money.”36 This intense sense of herself became transposed to many of her characters in crisis. Rachel Vinrace, Clarissa Dalloway, Lily Briscoe, Septimus Smith, and many others incorporate this sense of Woolf's identity. This feeling was the most undermining of senses in her emotional vocabulary, as in the images of life as an endless stair and a form of slavery. In such periods of negativity, the world of books could seem insignificant and her world very narrow. Early in 1931 Woolf wrote of a meeting with Aldous Huxley and his wife, seasoned travelers and greatly active in many spheres. Woolf complained to herself about the life she and Leonard led:

And I feel us, compared with Aldous and Maria, unsuccessful. They're off today to do mines, factories … black country; did the docks when they were here; must see England. They are going to the Sex Congress at Moscow, have been in India, will go to America, speak French, visit celebrities,—while here I live like a weevil in a biscuit. The fog thickens. … Lord how little I've seen, done, lived, felt, thought compared with the Huxleys—compared with anyone. Here we toil, reading & writing, year in year out. No adventure, no travel; darker grows the fog.37

For later readers used to Woolf's international reputation and influence, the notion of viewing her work and her world as narrow and limited is difficult to accept. Yet, as for many writers, writing for her was the product of a closed and solitary series of months or even years of resisting other temptations and opportunities. The very combination of repetition and hard work necessary for her successes could seem not only burdensome in itself, but, in her worst moments, it caused her to see herself as innately unadventurous or even parochial. This sense malaise is found as a tinge that colors many of her characters, individuals profoundly uneasy with the patterns into which they have been drawn. When Clarissa Dalloway returns home after shopping, the tedium and routine displace all of the excitements of the day, her almost monastic and celibate existence becoming too confining.

There were consolations. Even abuse and hostility from the general public could lead Woolf to see her work in a positive light. In June 1938 she anticipated (and later received) outraged mail from traditional readers she hoped to antagonize with Three Guineas: “I foretell a great many letters on Tuesday night: some anonymous & abusive. But I have already gained my point: I'm taken seriously, not dismissed as a charming prattler as I feared.”38 Even if one is charitable toward Woolf, taking into account the era in which she lived and the facts of her mental illness, in truth she had a dim view of the mass of people. She was aware of this reaction and knew of its somewhat irrational features. In July 1938 she wrote of her negative mood, tinged with an underlying concern for the threat and imminence of war: “Yet how dumpish we were—starting off to the Movies, after dinner—L. asking me what I wanted to see, I not wanting to see anything—the crowds of deformed & stunted & vicious & sweating & ugly hooligans & harridans in the Tott. Ct. Road—the usual sticky heat—all this brooded, till I was saying, step out, on, on, in my usual desperate way.”39 Woolf's painful self-awareness was combined with a sense of often extreme social and public reserve. As Quentin Bell makes clear in his biography of his aunt, Woolf was sexually reserved, afraid of arousal, and curiously indifferent to clothing to such a degree that it became almost a fetish. Woolf commented upon this reserve frequently in her diaries and letters. As Bell says, this disposition led to a personal awkwardness quite at odds with her literary ambitions: “Virginia for her part really more than half wanted to be invisible. The whole business of clothes was a nightmare to her; and she was happiest when she could forget that anyone looked at her.”40

When World War II arrived, Woolf seemed concerned at times with what posterity would make of her. She was disillusioned with the changing intellectual and literary scene, where she was noticed less. Feeling older and reading the change in the mood of the times, she was inclined to assess Bloomsbury's worth retrospectively, seeing herself as aging and less relevant. In January 1940 the decline in her work's reputation moved her to wonder whether Keynes might eclipse her in the regard of future generations. A conversation with him that she cited in a diary entry nevertheless made it clear that they thought her work's reputation would survive, despite her competitive urge for greater posthumous fame than his: “Which of our friends will interest posterity most? Maynard? So that if I had any regard for the future I would use this hour to record what he said. About his parents. Lying extended on the sofa the other night with the two fog lamps burning, & Lydia a sort of fairy tale elf in her fur cap. We were talking of my legacy. …”41 Legacy and posterity were quite separate issues for Woolf than the successes and plaudits of the contemporary scene. Others, such as Vita Sackville-West, achieved a level of fame and fortune that Woolf thought to be unmerited. She was skeptical of the merits of Vita's award-winning poetry and best-selling novels, despite the benefits of these publications to the Hogarth Press and despite their passionate love affair. Woolf could not help but to see such issues comparatively, and in January 1940 she was appalled at Vita's earnings compared to her own. Evidently, although Woolf charted her own sales figures and financial returns closely, she could not believe that the market offered a true literary judgment. Rather, she respected a long-term view. Woolf provided another picture of her writing schedule, one she could not alter even for large journalistic commissions:

Vita is offered £1,850 for a 25,000 word story. My righteous backbone stiffens. Then what about my £200 dog story? Ah, but I wouldn't for any money write 25,000 words. I think I've proved that to be true in this way: the humiliation, that is obstinate refusal of the brain to comply & one's drubbings, & re-writings, & general despondency, even for 2,000 words, make it not so much morally, as physically, intellectually a torture.42

Although Woolf, who had been rejected by Vita after their close relationship, was known for her cutting comments and humor, much of this repartee was a defense mechanism to fend away intimacy and attacks. It became habitual, as Woolf half admitted when forced by one of Vita's friends to examine her critical attacks and her underlying assumptions.

In September 1926 Vita visited Woolf with an acquaintance, George Plank. It would appear by her own admission that Woolf attempted some of her caustic wit, so famed in Bloomsbury, and suffered a counterattack of Plank's caustic response. Rather more robust than many of Woolf's admirers, he made clear his disapproval of her attitude, and she saw the illusion of her persona crumble: “I saw myself, my brilliancy, genius, charm, beauty (&c. &c.—the attendants who float me through so many years) diminish & disappear. One is in truth rather an elderly dowdy fussy ugly incompetent woman vain, chattering & futile. I saw this vividly, impressively.”43 Woolf searched for the cause of her mood and her dismissive response to this visitor. She attributed her behavior in part to Plank's assumption that the Woolfs could afford to pay and house a full-time gardener. As ever, she felt marginalized with respect to the wealthy class in which she mixed socially. Even the reviews of her books made her feel less than brilliant an issue that became an ongoing theme, especially with The Times Literary Supplement, always responsive but staid and prosaic:

As for the Common Reader, the Lit. Sup. Had close on 2 columns sober & sensible praise—neither one thing nor the other—my fate in the Times. And Goldie [G. L. Dickinson] writes that he thinks “this is the best criticism in English—humorous, witty & profound.”—My fate is to be treated to all extremes & all mediocrities. But I never get an enthusiastic review in the Lit. Sup. And it will be the same for Dalloway, which now approaches.44

Woolf wanted a critical response to her writing that acknowledged the more-extreme aspects of her vision and character. To be merely worthy was insufficient; this judgment resonated too much with her father's ultimately bitter fate, captured in Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. Woolf was striving consciously to go beyond such mediocrity. She looked on her work as if it might touch upon something mystical or reach a metaphysical dimension, a territory she admitted that she found it hard either to envisage or describe. This is why she created worlds within her novels, a mental image of these possibilities. This exploration was the role of literature, the central reason she endured so many breakdowns and crises. Soon after being shaken by the encounter with Plank, Woolf tried to define this synthesis of elements:

I wished to add some remarks to this, on the mystical side of this solitude; how it is not oneself but something in the universe that one's left with. It is this that is frightening & exciting in the midst of my profound gloom, depression, boredom, whatever it is: One sees a fin passing far out. What image can I reach to convey what I mean? Really there is none I think. The interesting thing is that in all my feeling & thinking I have never come up with this before. Life is, soberly & accurately, the oddest affair; has in it the essence of reality. I used to feel this as a child—couldn't step across a puddle once I remember, for thinking, how strange—what am I? &c. But by writing I don't reach anything. All I mean to make is a note of a curious state of mind. I hazard the guess that it may be the impulse behind another book. At present my mind is totally blank & virgin of books.45

In Woolf's idea of an existential solitude, there is something left beyond the self, an essence. The limitations in writing itself are touched upon in her admission that she barely managed certain features of reality itself, but her “curious state of mind” was the driving force. Always in her writing Woolf perceived a struggle to express spontaneity and this curious quality and depth of objects.

In an August 1933 diary entry Woolf wondered whether another breakdown threatened because her creativity and everyday life could not be reconciled: “I long to write The Pargiters. No. I think the effort to live in 2 spheres: the novel; & life is a strain; … I only want walking & perfectly spontaneous childish life with L. & the accustomed when I'm writing at full tilt: to have to behave with circumspection & decision to strangers wrenches me into another region; hence the collapse.”46 Increasingly, the energy required must have seemed too great, especially as critical response to her work diminished throughout the 1930s. Toward the end of her life Woolf's enthusiasm for her writing waned, with war literally overhead in the shape of German planes flying over Monk's House, the Woolfs' country home. She was concerned about her physical decline, unable to draw a straight line with a steady hand, but her notion of her creative originality and independence continued and was reconfirmed. She came to feel less concern for what others said about her work and more interest in her writing as a living process: “[T]he idea came to me that why I dislike, & like, so many things idiosyncratically, now, is because of my growing detachment from the hierarchy, the patriarchy. When Desmond praises [T. S. Eliot's] East Coker, & I am jealous, I walk over the marsh saying, I am I; & must follow that furrow, not copy another. That is the only justification for my writing & living.47 Within three months of making this December 1940 diary entry, Woolf killed herself.

Quentin Bell sees a withdrawal and incongruity in Woolf's final phase as war accelerated:

As the battle approached, and it became more and more likely that we should be defeated, Virginia's existence seemed to become unreal or at least incongruous; the activities and sentiments of her daily life were completely at variance with the appalling struggle on which her fate depended. Thus when she sent off the proofs of the Life of Roger [Fry], she could speak of “peace and content” well knowing how grotesquely such a statement must read on the third day of the Battle of France.48

One might add that this incongruity and grotesqueness might have been felt by most of the civilian population in England. Woolf saw in the bombing of London an erasure of the concrete links with her past, an environment where a spiritual sense had once been possible and which was now literally in ruins. Drawing from this sense of threat and potential loss, Woolf projected her final self-image in the bossy, isolated, and embattled Miss La Trobe in Between the Acts. As Bell admits “Never had a novel of hers flowed so rapidly, so effortlessly from her pen; there were no checks, doubts, despairs, struggles or revisions.”49 Despising her audience, interruptions, and tradition, Miss La Trobe reworks the history of England in a pageant that owes much to Woolf's Orlando as a precursor. Miss La Trobe seems indifferent to plot or traditional notions of the self, as the novel makes explicit, and more interested in brewing emotion. At the end of the pageant, as the audience departs, she hopes she has unified their attention and their sense of themselves: “Now Miss La Trobe stepped from her hiding place. Flowing, and streaming, on the grass, on the gravel, still for one moment she had held them together—the dispersing company. Hadn't she … made them see? A vision imparted was relief from agony … for one moment … one moment.”50 Four months after finishing her draft, Wolf ended her own agony in a less visionary, aesthetic fashion.


  1. Suzanne Nalbantian, Aesthetic Autobiography: From Life to Art in Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Anaïs Nin (London: Macmillan, 1994), p. 135.

  2. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), pp. 10-11.

  3. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996), p. 5.

  4. Nalbantian, Aesthetic Autobiography, p. 150.

  5. Lee, Virginia Woolf, p. 269.

  6. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, volume 5 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1985), p. 304.

  7. Lyndall Gordon, Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life (Oxford: Oxford University Proof, 1984), p. 61.

  8. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 3 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1982), p. 16.

  9. T. E. Apter, Virginia Woolf: A Study of Her Novels (New York: New York University Press, 1979), p. 2.

  10. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 304.

  11. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 3, p. 180.

  12. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 307.

  13. Woolf, Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, edited by Jeanne Schulkind, second edition (London: Hogarth Press, 1985), p. 80.

  14. Ibid., p. 65.

  15. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 4 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1983), p. 133.

  16. Lee, Virginia Woolf, p. 22.

  17. Allie Glenny, Ravenous Identity: Eating and Eating Distress in the Life and Work of Virginia Woolf (London: Macmillan, 1999).

  18. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 2 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1981), pp. 13-14.

  19. Ibid., p. 248.

  20. Ibid., p. 249.

  21. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 3, p. 160.

  22. Ibid., p. 107.

  23. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 2, p. 69.

  24. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 3, p. 110.

  25. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 4, p. 85.

  26. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 2, p. 17.

  27. Woolf, Moments of Being, p. 104.

  28. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 22.

  29. Ibid., p. 20.

  30. Ibid., pp. 104-105.

  31. Ibid., p. 64.

  32. Ibid., p. 148.

  33. Ibid., p. 163.

  34. Ibid., pp. 72-73.

  35. Ibid., p. 189.

  36. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 4, p. 3.

  37. Ibid., p. 11.

  38. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 149.

  39. Ibid, p. 225.

  40. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography, volume 2 (London: Hogarth Press, 1972), p. 137.

  41. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 255.

  42. Ibid., p. 262.

  43. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 3, p. 111.

  44. Ibid., p. 17.

  45. Ibid., p. 113.

  46. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 4, p. 172.

  47. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 5, p. 347.

  48. Bell, Virginia Woolf, volume 2, p. 215.

  49. Ibid., p. 222.

  50. Woolf, Between the Acts (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), p. 98.

Woolf As Studied

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8266


Comparisons with the works of other writers can be productive in elucidating Woolf's major themes and techniques. Such comparisons are also a telling indicator of certain contexts the student needs to understand in order fully to understand her work, especially the importance of gender and modernism. These parallels are good indicators of how academics place the major elements of Woolf's writing, helping readers to understand her changing critical reception.

In recent years Woolf has been positioned as a striking example among the new modernist female novelists of the early twentieth century, and in this light her writing has been analyzed alongside the works of such contemporaries such as Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson, and May Sinclair. All had a narrative method or intention informed by issues of feminism. Further, Richardson, Sinclair, and Woolf can be regarded as involved in reforming or revolutionizing the novel genre itself. They were conscious of their role as women forging new identities as women writers and aware that they were working in a field of creativity being reshaped by modernism. Interestingly, in some of Woolf and Mansfield's conversations about writing, Richardson's work provided a source of debate. Both appreciated Richardson's writing as representing an advance in the technique of fiction,

Both Woolf and Richardson used stream-of-consciousness techniques in their novels. In the work of each there is a strong impression of a female consciousness, relating the thoughts and impressions of characters in flux and uncertainty. In To the Lighthouse Woolf does not present Lily Briscoe's consciousness as if she were omniscient but dramatizes her inner thoughts and experiences as if the reader shared these impressions experientially in a fragmented way. The reader can gain a sense of Lily's doubts about the Ramsay family relationships by filling in the thoughts that are implicitly present, at least in Lily's unconscious:

The Ramsays were not rich, and it was a wonder how they managed to contrive it at all. Eight children! To feed eight children on philosophy! Here was another of them, Jasper this time, strolling past, to have a shot at a bird, he said, nonchalantly, swinging Lily's hand like a pump-handle as he passed, which caused Mr. Bankes to say, bitterly, how she was a favourite. There was education to be considered (true, Mrs. Ramsay had something of her own perhaps) let alone the daily wear and tear of shoes and stockings which those “great fellows,” all well grown, angular, ruthless youngsters, must require. As for being sure which was which, or in what order they came, that was beyond him.1

Woolf switches the point of view between genders, contrasting Lily's and Bankes's responses to the children. Lily notices the maternal sacrifice; Bankes, the expense. Woolf conveys the conflictual patterns and rivalry in the Ramsay parents. There is also a gender conflict, with Lily a new woman drawn to expressing her own view and individuality. Given this impressionistic sense to the novel, the reader is unsurprised that the sexes disagree in such a society.

Gender is an important theme in Woolf and Richardson. Both used the figure of the new woman and from this viewpoint made clear the frustrations and desires of characters such as Lily Briscoe and Richardson's Miriam Henderson in the Pilgrimage novel sequence (1915-1938). This enabled them to highlight a sense of the retrogressive social forces remaining from patriarchal and Victorian structures. Both writers depict capable and yet often confused young women undergoing a change in behavior signaling the movement of women further toward independence. The human dimension is strong. In Backwater (1916), the second novel in the Pilgrimage sequence, Richardson presents the central dilemmas Miriam faces as she seeks some common ground with others. Like Lily, she finds it among women, as when she befriends a newly arrived young student teacher at her small private girls' school. The young Irish girl contrasts with the suburban commercial environment that Miriam detests. Miriam ponders this contrast at night in a North London garden: “Charlotte. Charlotte carried about a faint suggestion of relief. Miriam fled to her as she sat with the garden light on her hair, her protective responsible smile beaming out through the endless blue of her eyes. Behind her painstaking life at the school was a country home, a farm somewhere far away. Of course it was dreadful for her to be a farmer's daughter. She evidently knew it herself and said little about it.”2

In both Pilgrimage and To the Lighthouse the institution of the family seems capable of stabilizing life and identity as a source of personal rootedness, but it fails since the central characters become aware of its other dynamics that subvert women. Both Lily and Miriam are drawn to domestic strengths as a site of expressing female power but perceive the family's social demands and limitations: “Miriam wanted to put her [Charlotte] back into her farm, and sometimes her thoughts wearily brushed the idea of going with her.”3 Such uncertainty expressed through the young female characters is hardly surprising, especially since both Woolf and Richardson shared with Sinclair a strong sense of the vicissitudes of real life for women at the end of the Victorian period and the need to identify the dimensions of this gender-based oppression. Richardson and Sinclair responded to Victorian constraints well before Woolf commenced writing her major works.

Beyond her role as a new woman novelist, Woolf is seen critically and historically as part of Bloomsbury and an innovative modernist movement. These literary and social factors brought her into close contact with Mansfield, E. M. Forster, and T. S. Eliot; these connections have suggested to academics further contexts for examining critical similarities and contrasts. Within this Bloomsbury and aesthetic context, many critics have looked for parallels among the writers belonging to this social network in their responses to philosophy, particularly the work of G. E. Moore and Henri Bergson, and in their literary reactions to Postimpressionism, as seen in their responses to the famous 1910 art exhibition at the Grafton Galleries.

Richardson developed many aspects of the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique, a term actually coined by Sinclair (drawing on William James's psychological theories) in order to describe Richardson's writing style. Woolf was aware of the efforts and theoretical ideas of both of these writers, partly from reading and partly as a result of belonging to the Bloomsbury intellectual network. She acquired firsthand knowledge of the ideas of Mansfield, whose writing also employed the new stream-of-consciousness technique. From Jacob's Room onward, Woolf adapted this style of narration that was associated with modernism but also offered a markedly female form of expression, and she added a density of poetic and symbolic reference points. This combination allowed a heightened emotional sense well beyond the single consciousness that dominates Richardson's Pilgrimage sequence and Sinclair's Life and Death of Harriet Frean (1922). This can be seen at work in Mrs. Dalloway, in which the narrative mirrors Clarissa Dalloway's sense of her world and identity:

Like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower, she went upstairs, paused at the window, came to the bathroom. There was the green linoleum and tap dripping. There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room. Women must put off their rich apparel. At midday they must disrobe. She pierced the pincushion and laid her feathered yellow hat on the bed. The sheets were clean, tight stretched in a broad white band from side to side. Narrower and narrower would her bed be.4

The focus of attention moves rapidly in this brief passage. Woolf narrows the viewpoint and Clarissa's consciousness from the universalized experience of women to the specific conditions of her platonic marriage, the image of disrobing tellingly more spiritual than sexual and the chastity of the bed symbolized by the taut, white sheets.

In To the Lighthouse Woolf integrates moments of the consciousness of both Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay so as to give a glimpse of their inner selves:

He was a failure, he repeated. Well, look then, feel then. Flashing her needles, glancing round about her, out of the window, into the room, at James himself, she assured him, beyond a shadow of a doubt, by her laugh, her poise, her competence (as a nurse carrying a light across a dark room assures a fractious child), that it was real; the house was full; the garden blowing. If he put implicit faith in her, nothing should hurt him; however deep he buried himself or climbed high, not for a second should he find himself without her.5

In this burst of reported exchange the reader glimpses Mr. Ramsay's fractiousness, his dependency, the full nature of his demanding personality, and the maternal and caring role constructed by these dynamics for his wife. Her assurance is both motherly and somehow mediated by a sense that even for Mrs. Ramsay it is extravagant, almost parental. Yet, despite this interiority of emotion and feeling, the narrative reflects an impressionistic worldview of the external features of reality, but made multiple by the shifts in consciousness. This technique was central to Woolf's writing from Jacob's Room onward, often conveying a male perspective as a balance to merely presenting a woman's viewpoint through the focus of a single consciousness.

Woolf recognized that there were differences between her own writing and Richardson's: “I see immense possibilities in the form I hit upon more or less by chance 2 weeks ago. I suppose the danger is the damned egotistical self; which ruins Joyce and Richardson to my mind: is one pliant & rich enough to provide a wall for the book from oneself without its becoming, as in Joyce & Richardson, narrowing and restricting.”6 In addition, Richardson's themes are arguably more domestic and individual, while Woolf conveys a much more metaphysical sense of broader issues, as in Jacob's Room, in which Jacob Flanders is turned into an icon or symbol for the generation of young men lost in World War I. There is a strange quality of underdevelopment in his character and, finally, poignancy in the worn and abandoned slippers his mother holds up at the end of the novel. If, like Richardson, Woolf demonstrates resistance to Victorian constraints, she adds a narrative sense of parody and irony, turning them into tools of attack directed at tradition and patriarchy. Jacob's Room is wide-ranging, covering childhood, widowhood, university traditions, prostitution, and the commodity that women may become; travel, romance, the classical heritage, implied homoerotic bonding, war (implicitly), and bereavement. There is an objective and subjective sense of equilibrium, whereas in Richardson's fiction the narrative draws the reader far more comprehensively into the protagonist's particular experience, with certain qualities of realism.

Although there are limits to the stylistic similarities in Woolf and Richardson, clearer comparisons emerge in their choice of themes. In Backwater the semi-autobiographical young protagonist represents the aspirations of young, middle-class Englishwomen in the early twentieth century, still constrained by social and economic traditions. Miriam Henderson is forced by necessity to teach in a small private school in a world of lower-middle-class villas after working as a governess in Germany, a period chronicled in Pointed Roofs (1915), the first novel in Pilgrimage:

She and her mother had seemed quite modern, fussy, worldly people when they had first come into the room. From the moment the three ladies had come in and begun talking to her mother, the things in the room, and the view of the distant row of poplars had grown more and more peaceful, and now at the end of an hour she felt that she, and to some extent Mrs. Henderson too, belonged to the old-world room with its quiet green outlook shut in by poplars. Only the trams were disturbing. They came busily by, with their strange jingle-jingle, plock-plock, and made her inattentive. Why were there so many people coming by in trams?7

Miriam's reaction signifies an entry point into a world of problems, challenges, threats, and puzzlement for a young woman eager to make her own way and forge a sense of independence. This theme is also found in The Voyage Out and Night and Day. In Backwater the internal struggle is defined in a mixture of social and quasi-religious terms as Miriam finds herself at odds with the world of the school and her pupils: “They were quite happy. Her feelings and thoughts, her way of looking at things, her desire for space and beautiful things and music and quietude would never be their desire. Reverence for things—had she reverence? She felt she must have because she knew they had not; … North London would always be North London, hard, strong, sneering, money-making, noisy and trammy.”8 Reverence was one of the key Victorian values under attack from the forces of modernism.

Richardson focused on the urban culture of London as a major element of modernism. In Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway this urban movement and flurry is seen in the disturbance caused by a plane skywriting overhead, the mysterious sweep of a limousine containing an unspecified important personage, and the space of young Elizabeth Dalloway's imagination: “Suddenly Elizabeth stepped forward and most competently boarded the omnibus, in front of everybody. She took a seat on top. The impetuous creature—a pirate—started forward, sprang away; she had to hold the rail to steady herself, for pirate it was, reckless, unscrupulous, bearing down ruthlessly, circumventing dangerously, boldly snatching a passenger, or ignoring a passenger. …”9

In Backwater Richardson makes much of Miriam's difficulties in engaging in or empathizing with courtship and sexuality, a problem faced by some women in Woolf's fiction as well. In the works of both writers, aspirations toward careers and financial independence determine the lives of many female characters. In Woolf's Night and Day Mary Datchet works for suffrage as the central cause of her life, and in To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe resists marriage in order to discover an aesthetic response to life. For Miriam the struggle is more particular and prosaic. Finding the idea of marriage unpalatable, she aspires beyond teaching, which she finds restricting. Such characters are determined to through limitations and attempt some redefinition of themselves without following social role models or patterns. Yet, in general, Richardson depicts femininity in a positive light. More like Sinclair in her cutting portrayal of the title character of Life and Death of Harriet Frean, Woolf was capable of parody and reservation toward her female characters. As Susan C. Harris comments of Florinda in Jacob's Room, “It must be admitted at the outset that Florinda cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be said to be a misunderstood genius. Even in a novel where conversation is fragmentary and most dialogue is less than profound, Florinda's utterances stand out as phenomenally banal. …”10

In Life and Death of Harriet Frean Sinclair's narrative technique involves allowing and in fact insisting that the reader piece together the situation without expository detail. As Erich Auerbach has commented of To the Lighthouse, “The situation in which the characters find themselves can be almost completely deduced from the text itself. Nowhere in the novel is it set forth systematically, by way of introduction or exposition, or in any other way than as [in the textual world].”11 Sinclair's novel also features a character type familiar from Woolf's work, the famous Victorian father. The patriarch is portrayed as representing an established order of male middle-class success that has eclipsed the next generation, particularly the daughters. Like Woolf in Night and Day, Sinclair parodies this Victorian image since the patriarch, Hilton Frean, has merely been a minor writer, journalist, and businessman who loses most of his own money and badly advises his friends into ruin. Harriet evokes his presence like a talisman and myth to decreasing effect as the new generation emerges: “‘My father was Hilton Frean.’ She had noticed for the last fifteen years that people showed no interest when she told them that. They even stared as though she had said something that had no sense in it.”12 For many years Woolf herself tested whether academics and intellectuals had heard of her father, noting his declining reputation, much as Hilton Frean's declines.

In Life and Death of Harriet Frean, as in Woolf's Night and Day and The Years, the achievements of the Victorian era are shown as illusory, and the supposed moral superiority of the Victorians collapses when the fuller truths of the past emerge. Harriet resists the modern, chastised in her literary tastes by a friend: “‘It's silly,’ Lizzie said, ‘not to be able to look at a new thing because it's new. That way you grow old.’”13 As in The Years, the fate of spinsterhood is evoked as one of the consequences for daughters embedded in a structure requiring them to care for others or defer their own aspirations.

These themes are also central to Mansfield's short story “Daughters of the Late Colonel” (1922), in which they are treated symbolically. The mysteries of the dead father's room are depicted as threatening and undesirable, like the underbelly of empire and patriarchy with which the women of Mansfield's generation had lived for so long. As with Woolf, the bemusement of older women left without new perspectives and few skills for coping with domesticity is conveyed both sympathetically and yet satirically.

The Victorian ethos dies with the parental generation in all of these novelists, and its tenets become hollow and unconvincing. Harriet Frean cannot retrieve her mother's reading taste; a sense of aimlessness and the “horror of emptiness” overwhelm her as she “clung to the image of her mother; and always beside it, shadowy and pathetic, she discerned the image of her lost self.”14 Lily Briscoe abandons her initial portrait after Mrs. Ramsay's death and begins anew: “How aimless it was, how chaotic, how unreal it was, she thought, looking at her empty coffee cup. Mrs. Ramsay dead; Andrew killed; Prue dead too—repeat it as she might, it roused no feeling in her. And we all get together in a house like this on a morning like this, she said, looking out of the window. It was a beautiful still day.”15 This elegiac sense of death and continuation is strong in the works of many modernist writers.

The work of many modernist female writers reveals a clustering of images around dichotomies such as youth versus age, transition versus historical continuity, and the female force for social progress versus male conservatism. Woolf combines all of these elements in Between the Acts in both the normative world of the village and the pageant. The setting at a modest country seat and the characters' intrigues evoke Forster's Howards End (1910), and the disillusionment of age has much in common with the aging process described so poignantly by Sinclair in Life and Death of Harriet Frean. Harriet finds herself a spinster after the death of her parents and discovers that not only the world has changed, but she finds herself feeling anachronistic, out of touch with the young. This theme is central in Mansfield's stories “Daughters of the Late Colonel” and “Miss Brill” (1922), as well as in Woolf's chronicle of the Pargiter family, The Years. North Pargiter meets his aunt Eleanor after his return from Africa and hers from India: “Eleanor is just the same, he thought; more erratic perhaps. With a room full of people—her little room had been crowded—she had insisted upon showing him her new shower-bath. ‘You press that knob,’ she had said, ‘and look—’ Innumerable needles of water shot down. He laughed aloud. They had sat on the edge of the bath together.”16 Eleanor finds London transformed and alien, as does North himself; despite his aunt's warning, he cannot drive in a London full of traffic lights. In Life and Death of Harriet Frean this generational divide is set out in a far more melancholy fashion; Harriet's world changes into one in which neighbors no longer call formally, and she finds herself both proud and lonely.

In Woolf's works, small domestic exchanges are charged with wider significance. On the night of Minta Doyle's engagement to Paul Rayley in To the Lighthouse, her thoughts create an impression of the divide that exists between Mr. Ramsay and the everyday world around him created by his wife: “She was by way of being terrified of him—he was so fearfully clever, and the first night when she had sat by him, and he talked about George Eliot, she had been really frightened, for she had left the third volume of Middlemarch in the train and she never knew what happened in the end; but afterwards she got on perfectly, and made herself out even more ignorant than she was, because he liked telling her she was a fool.”17 Mrs. Ramsay perceives Minta to be one of the young women of whom her husband makes favorites, giving her an acute sense of aging: “But indeed she was not jealous, only, now and then, when she made herself look in her glass, a little resentful that she had grown old, perhaps, by her own fault. (The bill for the greenhouse and all the rest of it).”18 As in Life and Death of Harriet Frean, age and its effects are presented through domestic scenes rather than through metaphysical or spiritual statements. The latter are nevertheless seen in the interstices of the texts. Like many modernists, these writers attempted to create a density of themes from an often sparse and mundane surface. Harriet Frean's recognition of aging comes through her social need and the realities of isolation; for Mrs. Ramsay it comes with an undercurrent of sexual dynamics and rivalry. Both perceive the social consequences of traditional womanhood and the ways in which it divides older women in particular from the world of social interaction.

The frequent comparisons made between Forster and Woolf cannot always be sustained through close textual analysis or evidence. Where similarities exist, they are most commonly justified on a number of fronts: personal acquaintance, a shared Bloomsbury existence, a modernist sensibility, some closeness of worldview, the use of pictorial images, and some generally common themes. In The Free Spirit: A Study of Liberal Humanism in the Novels of George Eliot, Henry James, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Angus Wilson (1963) C. B. Cox sees the two writers as emerging from or representing a liberal tradition responding to war and crisis, the advances of the twentieth century, and the collapse of moral certainty. In Woolf's case this overview ignores a range of her writing and her intellectual imagination. Cox finds a mystery or mysticism in Forster that typifies the Bloomsbury Group, a “liberal humanism [which] is bolstered up by a romantic and irrational faith in some kind of supernatural reality,” which in Woolf is an uncertainty and deliberate inconclusiveness.19 The biographical reasons for looking at Woolf and Forster together are compelling, since for many years they had an extremely close relationship, Woolf as eager for Forster's reaction to her novels as for anyone, apart from her husband. Initially, she felt she had a great deal to learn from Forster; although he was only three years older, he was already a famous author by the time Woolf was struggling to write her first novel. Both moved in Bloomsbury circles and shared many of the same influences. For instance, Woolf and Forster attended Roger Fry's lectures on art and aesthetics, and it was Fry who pressed for more “art” in the novel. This apparent common ground shifted, and Woolf and Forster famously disagreed on the depth (or “rounded” quality) of characters required in the modernist novel. In 1927 Forster questioned Woolf's ability to refer to “life” and “humanity,” an objection she found vague.20 Forster found her too aesthetic. Their argument over characterization suggests the differences between their fictional representations of reality. Woolf veered toward the fragmentary and chaotic in The Waves, the comically satirical in Orlando; neither can be seen as part of Forster's ambition. He saw her work, for all its cleverness in conveying the surfaces of life, as flawed by the lack of rounded characters.21 Woolf's response was that Forster's works, such as Howards End, lacked sufficient coherence or fusion of its elements and was still too novelistic, or artificial, in its representation.

Other parallels have been drawn between the ways both Woolf and Forster were marginalized, she as a woman and he as a homosexual. In this sense, both inhabited the fringes of society. In many ways this is an oversimplification. Both writers lived in influential and well-to-do contexts. Forster was not significantly hindered in a public sense by his sexual preferences. Nevertheless, both felt their identities to be at odds with their world, as is reflected in the characters and the general themes of conflict with social norms found in their writing. Whatever their disputes, neither Woolf nor Forster presented a conventional ethic, and both had a sense of some unity or coherence that was not strictly that of the realist novel, however elusive the aesthetic center might be in Woolf's work. The straightforward and economical prose of Forster is not as poetic and lyrical as Woolf's, but both covered a similar social territory. They chronicled the changing lives of the upper-middle classes, with their rural and colonial connections and lives offsetting London life. Woolf and Forster tended toward elitism. According to John Batchelor, “Like Forster, [Woolf] is murderously hostile towards middle-class suburbs”;22 Batchelor sees the same social tensions in Between the Acts as in Howards End, conflicts of the town and the country upper-middle classes with their diverging views of life.

Forster's Howards End resembles Woolf's Night and Day, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Years in its periodization, family conflicts, and the intricacies of the characters' relationships, but Forster's novel is more specifically concerned with the territory of romance, where intrigue and morality are conventionally developed in structural terms. The family and situation of the two sisters is reminiscent of that of Woolf and her sister, Vanessa, as young women, when Forster knew of them through their brother, his friend and fellow scholar Thoby Stephen. The plot of Howards End is based on the interaction of two families, a common theme in many novels; houses become sites of emotional and social meaning, as in Woolf's fiction. In Forster's depiction of the upper-middle class, as in Woolf's, the reader is aware of the strong subtext of symbolic and literal wealth.

Woolf and Forster used painting as a point of reference in their fiction. Both responded, especially after the mid 1920s, to the work of French art critic Charles Mauron, who was a close friend of Fry and translated Forster's books into French. Woolf admired the force with which artists dealt with life, influenced by Fry to see a miracle in the work of Paul Cézanne. Another often-cited similarity between Woolf and Forster is the influence of Bergson: in both writers memory and the complexities of time are presented as constitutive of character. Memory is linked by concepts of time and space. The eponymous country house in Howards End is not only a repository of the past but also indicative of an emotional definition of culture and character. To the Lighthouse also develops this complex of courtship, family, and identity.

There were ideological differences between Woolf and Forster that affected characterization in their writing. In the final section of To the Lighthouse, “The Lighthouse,” the dominant but misinformed or misguided male persists in the figure of Mr. Ramsay in his grief and confusion:

But with Mr. Ramsay bearing down on her, [Lily] could do nothing. Every time he approached—he was walking up and down the terrace—ruin approached, chaos approached. She could not paint. She stooped, she turned; she took up this rag; she squeezed that tube. But all she did was to ward him off a moment. He made it impossible for her to do anything. For if she gave him the least chance, if he saw her disengaged a moment, looking his way a moment, he would be on her, saying, as he had said last night, “You find us much changed.”23

This male quality stifles Lily's creativity and makes of her art a repetitiously mechanistic act until Mr. Ramsay's influence has been diminished by distance.

Forster's view of women in A Passage to India (1924) does not challenge traditional assumptions about them. He was perhaps instinctively less empathic toward women and entered less into their world. His irony often plays off of womanly attitudes: “The Bridge Party was not a success—at least it was not what Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested were accustomed to consider a successful party. They arrived early, since it was given in their honour, but most of the Indian guests had arrived even earlier, and stood massed at the further side of the tennis lawns, doing nothing.”24 Jane Marcus claims that Forster was less than sympathetic to what he regarded as the extremes of Woolf's feminism; as Marcus points out, there is some evidence for traditional misogynist leanings among the homosexuals of Bloomsbury. In Howards End Forster parodies the new feminism with the character Margaret Schlegel. After her chauffeur strikes a cat with the car, Margaret insists on returning to the scene. When her demand is ignored, she leaps from the still-moving vehicle, injuring herself slightly, and walks back down the road, where a man from the second car in their traveling party tells her not to worry, as the animal was only a cat, and the servants are handling the situation with the pet's owner, a distraught little girl: “‘the chauffeurs are tackling the girl.’ But Margaret walked forward steadily. Why should the chauffeurs tackle the girl? Ladies sheltering behind men, men sheltering behind servants—the whole system's wrong, and she must change it.”25

The famous dispute between Woolf and Forster over her hoped-for election to the London Library committee exemplifies many of these tensions between them, both over their writing and their different views on gender. The incident demonstrates Forster's failure to recognize not only the importance of feminism for Woolf but also its central role in social change. Forster spent many years after Woolf's death praising her work but maintaining this central reservation over her feminism. In the final analysis, Forster's world was quite different from Woolf's, in both life and fiction.

Comparisons between Mansfield and Woolf are becoming increasingly important and influential in contributing to an understanding of the work of both writers and modernism. Woolf had few real doubts about Mansfield's abilities, even though at times their relationship had stormy patches. In a May 1918 letter to Duncan Grant, Woolf wrote, “I had a most satisfactory and fascinating renewal of my friendship with Katherine Mansfield. She is extremely ill, but is going to Cornwall with Estelle Rhys [Rice], a woman painter, whom I'm sure is the worst of woman painters. But all the same Katherine is the very best of women writers—always of course passing over one fine but very modest example.”26 Despite Woolf and Mansfield's friendship, there were clear differences between the two. As Angela Smith observes, “In 1906 the 18-year-old Mansfield seems uninhibited in her sexual experiments by the mores of her society, whereas the 24-year-old Woolf sounds cloyingly childish.”27 The women did not inhabit the same social set, as Woolf did with Forster, but Mansfield was known to Woolf's circle. Mansfield is not considered to have been a part of Bloomsbury itself as she was often literally separated from London and its aesthetic life by illness and travel for recuperation. Furthermore, in her lifetime and beyond there were profound differences between Bloomsbury Group members and her second husband, John Middleton Murry, whom Woolf appears almost to have despised. Nonetheless, Mansfield became a close friend and confidante of Woolf, both women regarding the relationship as one of intense friendship and rivalry. In an August 1920 letter to Fry Woolf mentioned an intended trip to London: “I'm coming up tomorrow to say goodbye to Katherine Murry. She goes away for 2 years. Have you at all come round to her stories? I suppose I'm too jealous to wish you to, yet I'm sure they have merit all the same. It's awful to be afflicted with jealousy. I think the only thing is to confess it. And it's really irrational for there's room for everyone, unlike love. (This is not clearly expressed).”28 At times Woolf thought Mansfield too common and casual. In her snobbery Woolf retained an attachment to a formality that only those of a certain class could transgress.

In their writing both Woolf and Mansfield blended a poetic style with issues of gender drawn from everyday occurrences. Woolf suffered from mental problems and Mansfield from great physical distress; the fragile well-being of both perhaps led to the prominence of the theme of illness in their work. In “The Escape” (1920) Mansfield evokes the apparently neurotic disturbance of a wife traveling with her husband. The two experience conflict in a ritualistic and understated sense, similar to the complex undercurrents seen in the relationship of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. The dynamics of such relationships might be hidden from plain sight, expressed through an almost subterranean set of motifs, but they are a powerful indicator of the emotional realities of the characters. In To the Lighthouse this emerges explicitly at points:

But what have I done with my life? thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it. “William, sit by me,” she said. “Lily,” she said wearily, “over there.” They had that—Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle—she, only this—an infinitely long table and plates and knives. At the far end was her husband, sitting down, all in a heap, frowning. What at? She did not know. She did not mind. She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him.29

In “The Escape” such marital antipathy emerges more comprehensively and openly. The unnamed wife

clutched the sides of the seat, she closed her eyes, and he knew she felt this was happening on purpose; this swinging and bumping, this was all done—and he was responsible for it, somehow—to spite her because she had asked if they couldn't go a little faster. But just as they reached the bottom of the valley there was one tremendous lurch. The carriage nearly overturned, and he saw her eyes blaze at him, and she positively hissed, “I suppose you are enjoying this?”30

In Mansfield's “Bliss” (1920), as in the world of the Ramsays, the power of the word in the intellectual and artistic spheres is in the hands of men, a recurrent theme of Woolf's writing, both fiction and nonfiction. Woolf parodies the great literary tradition of Victorian men, particularly in Night and Day. In “Bliss” Mansfield mocks young modernist aspirants and arrivistes.

In both Woolf and Mansfield the interiority of many of their characters is conveyed impressionistically. In this they were evidently influenced by Russian fiction. In “The Escape” the nature of the couple is revealed through a shifting narrative presented from the perspective of the husband, the wife, and an objective viewpoint. This technique is comparable to the one found in Woolf's experimental fiction, particularly Jacob's Room and Mrs. Dalloway. Both authors employed the stream-of-consciousness technique. Ronald Hayman pointed out as early as 1972 that if there is any question of imitation, Woolf followed Mansfield's example, making the latter a major catalyst in Woolf's development. They also shared a marked tendency to commence narratives in medias res, often in a markedly abrupt fashion. “Bliss” resembles Mrs. Dalloway both in this regard and in milieu and setting. Both writers developed similar aesthetic themes, and “Bliss” can even be read as a development of certain of Woolf's ideas in order to question them. As Kathleen Wheeler notes, Mansfield may have attempted to surpass or parody Woolf's artistic aspirations:

“Bliss” is a story of endless paradox, oxymoronic at nearly every moment. The “light in the heart” which Virginia Woolf described, the perception Woolf was reluctant to name but which she sought to bring close to her readers, is named bliss in this story. It is named, yet shown to be beyond the scope of its name, as problems of articulation and expression of feelings and perceptions (and consequently, of language and communication) become the overt subject matter of the story: how is Bertha [Young, the protagonist] to express or interpret the feeling she is having?31

Patricia Moran has outlined a number of significant similarities of focus, context, and theme between “Bliss” and Mrs. Dalloway. Both protagonists are preparing for a dinner party as the narrative opens, their actions edged by more than a hint of a hysterical mood; they wander around in London, and they experience a sensual delight in aspects of their preparation for their entertainments, with Bertha arranging fruit and Clarissa, flowers.32 In fact, the fruit bowl in “Bliss,” which symbolizes a yearning for something beyond the mundane and domestic, is echoed in a similar fruit bowl that engages Mrs. Ramsay's subdued aesthetic and spiritual longings in To the Lighthouse.

Bertha and Clarissa both belong to an upper-middle-class social set with vaguely aesthetic or intellectual aspirations. Both appear to be in problematic marriages. Bertha's apparent bliss is shattered by the revelation of her husband's infidelity. In Mrs. Dalloway Woolf creates an epiphany through the resolution of such fears. At the end of Clarissa's party she feels a harmony with her friends, her daughter, and her husband, a feeling that the news of Septimus Smith's suicide cannot fragment. In contrast, Bertha faces an abyss of confusion. Women in “Bliss” and Mrs. Dalloway are vulnerable to external forces, happenstance, male authority, and an expected but unpalatable conformity. The theme of attraction between women is evident in both texts, with Clarissa as a young woman attracted to Sally Seton and Bertha to Pearl, her husband's lover, whose presence is exotic and sensual, despite Bertha's underlying sense that her marriage has been undermined. Moran notes that the women's feelings are conflicted: “Both Bertha and Clarissa self-consciously acknowledge their attractions to women, their awareness that these ‘moments’ only occur in relation to women. … Both Bertha and Clarissa insist on the immateriality of these relationships, and yet both describe them in strikingly physical and sexual terms.”33 Yet, they appear less than forthright in their desire for passion and sensuousness within their marriages, suggesting to critics an echo of the marriages of both writers. Woolf and Mansfield both had lesbian affairs, and, as Hayman says, it seems possible that “[t]he failure of the two relationships on a man-woman level contributed to their success on a literary level and to the individual success of both women. Both had a great capacity for enjoyment, but both were very unhappy. Neither could live a normal married life, and marriage, even if it does not bring children, ought to be a protection against loneliness. They were both lonely, though for very different reasons.”34

The highlighting of a character's viewpoint through the narrative is found in Woolf and Mansfield. “The Escape” opens with a monologue in free direct discourse: “It was his fault, wholly and solely his fault, that they missed the train. What if the idiotic people had refused to produce the bill? Wasn't it simply because he hadn't impressed upon the waiter at lunch that they must have it by two o'clock? Any other man would have sat there and refused to move until they handed it over. But no!”35 The third-person narrative captures the consciousness of the wife and thereby creates an impression of the intense emotions associated with the situation. At the same time, the final phrase, with its rhetorical intensity, suggests that this view is partial. Woolf achieves the same effect in the opening of Jacob's Room. After several metaphorical images of Betty Flanders's tearfulness, Woolf emphasizes the sense of its separation from the concrete world by her use of the word illusion:

“So of course,” wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels rather deeper in the sand, “there was nothing for it but to leave.”

Slowly welling from the point of the golden nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop; for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them. The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr. Connor's little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun.36

The two passages emphasize the gender positions of these female characters without any explicit authorial intervention or explanations. In fact, traditional expository explanation is mostly negated in Woolf and Mansfield; a sense of place and identity is suggested by the ongoing development of the link between events and emotions. This often involves metaphors or physical images of a striking kind, such as Betty Flanders's tears, with the kind of focus and exaggeration found in modern art. Woolf and Mansfield essentially keep a tight focus around the characters, sketching and indicating the minutiae of their lives in colorful fashion, drawing upon all of the senses.

Woolf and Mansfield use an almost digressive and intuitive evocation of small details, which can be read as symbolically and emotionally charged. The choice of details is often telling. In To the Lighthouse Lily Briscoe thinks of the number of the Ramsay children almost as if combining admiration and horror at the reality of such childbirth. Mr. Bankes considers only the boisterousness and expense of such a large family. This gendered pattern can also be seen in the husband and wife in “The Escape.” The woman's presence is expressed through the parasol and the spilled contents of her handbag. The husband loses himself in the universalizing idea of nature, a tree in a garden. This imagery represents both emotions and gendered positions: “The little bag, with its shiny, silvery jaws, lay on her lap. He could see her powder-puff, her rouge stick, a bundle of letters, a phial of tiny black pills like seeds, a broken cigarette, a mirror, white ivory tablets with lists on them that had been heavily scored through. He thought: ‘In Egypt she would be buried with those things.’”37 This combination of closeness and antipathy is like that of the Ramsays in To the Lighthouse and, less dramatically, the Hilberys in Night and Day. In the fiction of both Woolf and Mansfield, marriage is a complex fictional terrain. There are hints in both of their lives for such ambivalence about marital relationships. They intermittently depended heavily on their husbands because of illness, but they periodically resented intervention in their lives.

The writing of Woolf and Mansfield exhibits an elegiac sense of loss, with death a constant threat that undermines any lyrical, romantic optimism. The source for this sense of loss was perhaps the death of young and beloved brothers. Woolf's brother Thoby died of typhoid fever, and Mansfield's only brother, Leslie, was killed in World War I. In Jacob's Room Jacob Flanders dies in the war and epitomizes the losses civilization risks in such conflicts. In “The Garden Party” (1922) the spirit of perfection entertained by the youthful middle-class protagonist, Laura, is broken when a young working-class neighbor is reported to have been thrown from a horse and killed. Against this tragic sense of premature death, both Woolf and Mansfield explore a sense of nostalgia for youth, adolescence, and childhood, not as a site of innocence in moral terms but as a time of fresh vision and aesthetic potential. A child's view of simple objects and events is unsullied by expectations and the narrowing influence of social discourse. Additionally, underlying the fiction of both Woolf and Mansfield is an elusive, almost undefined spiritual or metaphysical sense, seen in most of Woolf's work and particularly in three of Mansfield's stories: “The Escape,” “The Garden Party,” and “Bliss.” This spiritual element combines with the elegiac theme of lost childhood in works such as the early sections of Woolf's The Waves and Mansfield's “At the Bay” (1922).

Finally, though, in the writing of both Woolf and Mansfield childhood cannot be extended into the world of the adult without a curious distortion of identity and a lessening of independence, a territory also explored by Sinclair in Life and Death of Harriet Frean. The domestic world in Mansfield's “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” conveys the kind of containment Woolf depicts as a factor in the lives of older women, those who grew up in the Victorian period. In Mansfield's story the death of the father signifies the symbolic and literal end of all of those apparent certainties. This domestic sphere often has larger implications. Patriarchy and the British Empire are inextricable, part of an overwhelming social force reaching a crisis point. As Smith observes of “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” “As with Jacob's Room, there is an implicit link between domestic tyranny and the empire. …”38 Smith also notes that in both works, “Masculine domination of women and their roles is inscribed, often literally, on the landscape and architecture depicted by the text.”39 In Jacob's Room the mayor of Scarborough, where the Flanders family lives, is a symbol throughout the town; men are the coordinates of reference in the British Museum reading room; and underpinning all of this emphasis on male power is the classical university education that Jacob encounters in the monuments and statuary of Greece. In “The Garden Party” Laura's middle-class, youthful ebullience is contained by men beneath her in the social order: a workman setting up the tent for the party and, in a bizarre fashion, the young man who was killed when thrown from his horse, to whom she feels she must excuse herself for her family's party. For Woolf and Mansfield illness, suffering, and personal loss became paradigms for how their own lives were structured. As Smith observes,

The essence of the comparison between Woolf and Mansfield lies, not in their assertions of friendship or of similarity, but in the fact that the reader of the personal writings is repeatedly made aware of the “queer sense of their being ‘like’” in their casual use of the same metaphors and phrases, and in the unconscious echoes of one in the other's psychic and private experience. This is nowhere more evident than in their sense of imminent disintegration, through disease and death, and in their experience of the liminal as a place of habitation, rather than of transition, a place which they recognize as they re-enter it, and which is made tolerable only through memory.40


  1. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), p. 22.

  2. Dorothy Richardson, Backwater, in Pilgrimage, volume 1 (London: Virago, 1979), p. 233.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), p. 31.

  5. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, p. 38.

  6. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, volume 2 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1981), p. 14.

  7. Richardson, Backwater, p. 189.

  8. Ibid., p. 322.

  9. Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, p. 135.

  10. Susan C. Harris, “The Ethics of Indecency: Censorship, Sexuality, and the Voice of the Academy in the Narration of Jacob's Room,Twentieth Century Literature, 43 (Winter 1997): 423.

  11. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 528.

  12. May Sinclair, Life and Death of Harriet Frean (London: Virago, 1980), p. 160.

  13. Ibid., p. 115.

  14. Ibid., p. 110.

  15. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, p. 146.

  16. Woolf, The Years (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), p. 308.

  17. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, p. 98.

  18. Ibid., p. 99.

  19. The Free Spirit: A Study of Liberal Humanism in the Novels of George Eliot, Henry James, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Angus Wilson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 95, 109.

  20. David Dowling, Bloomsbury Aesthetics and the Works of Forster and Woolf (London: Macmillan, 1985), pp. 88-92.

  21. Ibid., p. 88.

  22. John Batchelor, Virginia Woolf: The Major Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 31.

  23. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, p. 148.

  24. E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1989), p. 58.

  25. Forster, Howards End (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1989), p. 213.

  26. Woolf to Duncan Grant, 15 May 1918, in The Letters of Virginia Woolf, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, volume 2: The Question of Things Happening, 1912-1922 (London: Hogarth Press, 1976), p. 241.

  27. Angela Smith, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 44.

  28. Woolf to Roger Fry, 1 August 1920, in The Letters of Virginia Woolf, volume 2, p. 438.

  29. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, pp. 82-83.

  30. Katherine Mansfield, “The Escape,” in The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1981), p. 200.

  31. Kathleen Wheeler, “Modernist” Women Writers and Narrative Art (London: Macmillan, 1994), p. 124.

  32. Patricia Moran, Word of Mouth: Body Language in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), p. 67.

  33. Ibid., p. 68.

  34. Ronald Hayman, Literature and Living: A Consideration of Katherine Mansfield & Virginia Woolf (London: Covent Garden Press, 1972), p. 7.

  35. Mansfield, “The Escape,” pp. 196-197.

  36. Woolf, Jacob's Room (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960), p. 7.

  37. Mansfield, “The Escape,” pp. 197-198.

  38. Smith, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, p. 220.

  39. Ibid., p. 211.

  40. Ibid., p. 69.

Additional coverage of Woolf's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; British Writers, Vol. 7; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1914-1945; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 130; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 64; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 36, 100, 162; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 10; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 8, 12; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 7; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 4, 12; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 5, 20, 43, 56, 101; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism.

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Virginia Woolf World Literature Analysis


Woolf, Virginia (Short Story Criticism)