Special Commissioned Essay on Virginia Woolf, Philip Tew


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11460 words.)

Woolf At Work

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 11520 words.)

Woolf's Era

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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....

(The entire section is 12077 words.)

Woolf's Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 10379 words.)

Woolf On Woolf

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 8723 words.)

Woolf As Studied

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 8266 words.)