A critically acclaimed novelist and essayist, Woolf was a founding member of the intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), and the essay A Room of One's Own (1929).
Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, in London. Her parents were Leslie Stephen, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and Julia Prinsep Jackson Duckworth Stephen. Both parents had been married before and had children from those unions. Together, the Stephens had three other children in addition to Virginia: Vanessa, born in 1879; Thoby, born in 1880; and Adrian, born in 1883. Woolf was educated at home where she had free access to her father's extensive library. In 1895 her mother died, and Woolf experienced the first of many psychological breakdowns that would plague her throughout her life. Her half sister Stella, thirteen years Woolf's senior, assumed management of the household, a position she relinquished to Vanessa two years later. In 1904 Leslie Stephen died, and Woolf attempted suicide after suffering a second psychological crisis. During her recuperation, her sister Vanessa moved the family to the bohemian Bloomsbury section of London, where Woolf began her writing career and where the Thursday evening gatherings with Thoby's Cambridge friends constituted the beginning of the Bloomsbury Group. During this time the four Stephen siblings traveled, in 1904 to Paris and Italy, and two years later to Greece, where Woolf and Thoby both contracted typhoid fever; the illness proved fatal for Thoby.
In 1912 Woolf married Leonard Woolf—one of the original Bloomsbury members recently returned from a seven-year period of civil service in Ceylon. Soon afterwards suffered a serious mental breakdown involving another suicide attempt; she remained in severe mental distress for the next three years. During this period, Woolf completed her first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915. Two years later, the Woolfs established their own publishing company in the basement of their home; the Hogarth Press published not only Woolf's work, but those of T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, and Sigmund Freud, among others. In 1920, through a series of letters to the editor of the New Statesman, Woolf engaged in a dispute over women's intellectual abilities with Desmond MacCarthy, a member of the Bloomsbury Group who wrote under the name "Affable Hawk." She pursued the subject in greater depth at the end of the decade with her feminist essay A Room of One's Own. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Woolf continued writing and publishing, producing several more novels and a number of essays. In 1941, fearing the onset of another psychological breakdown, Woolf committed suicide by filling her pockets with rocks and drowning herself in the River Ouse.
Although Woolf wrote a number of short stories, her best-known fiction has always been her novels, particularly Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and to a lesser extent, Orlando (1928) and The Waves (1931). Mrs. Dalloway, frequently compared to James Joyce's 1922 work Ulysses, is an expansion of "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street," a short story Woolf produced for Dial magazine in 1923. The events of the plot occur over a period of twenty-four hours in the life of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and culminate in a large, elaborate party. The work is not only a critique of the social system, but deals as well with issues of madness and suicide through Woolf's characterization of Septimus Smith, a psychological casualty of the war. To the Lighthouse, a family novel with obvious connections to Woolf's own early life, involves Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, thinly disguised versions of her parents. Notwithstanding the subtitle's claim that Orlando is a biography, it is, in fact, a novel featuring an androgynous main character said to be modeled after Woolf's friend and reputed lover, Vita Sackville-West. The Waves, a complicated exploration of the inevitable mutability of human life, is perhaps Woolf's most complex work, considered by some, including her husband, to be her masterpiece.
Woolf explored issues of sex, gender, and feminism to some degree in her novels, particularly Orlando, and in her short stories, particularly "A Society." However, she most thoroughly articulated her ideas on the equality of women in her essays, especially A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas (1938). Both books explore male power and the injustices associated with it; Woolf especially criticizes the lack of legal rights, educational opportunities, and financial independence for women. Unlike some of her contemporaries, however, Woolf did not believe that women should strive to be like men. She believed, rather, that men should take on some of the characteristics associated with women.
Woolf's works were well received during her lifetime, and recent interest in specific Woolf texts has been revived by feminist scholars who claim Woolf as one of their own. Most current feminist scholarship centers on her A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. Harold Bloom has claimed "puzzled" when these essays are considered "political theory, the genre invoked by literary feminists for whom Woolf's polemics have indeed assumed scriptural status." For Bloom, Woolf's "religion (no lesser word would be apt) was Paterian estheticism: the worship of art," rather than feminism. Herbert Marder cautions that the two texts should not be considered merely tracts and that they have a great deal in common with Woolf's novels. For Marder, "the tracts fade into fiction, the fiction echoes the tracts; and the continuity is so pronounced that it seems necessary to read every book by Virginia Woolf in the context of her work as a whole" in order to fully appreciate her as a feminist. Thus Marder traces the development of her feminist theories from her earliest novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day (1919). Similarly, Toril Moi situates the early articulation of Woolf's concept of androgyny in the novel To the Lighthouse, in which the author "illustrates the destructive nature of a metaphysical belief in strong, immutably fixed gender identities—as represented by Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay." It was clear to Woolf, Moi asserts, "that the goal of the feminist struggle must precisely be to deconstruct the death-dealing binary oppositions of masculinity and femininity." Rachel Bowlby (see Further Reading) contends that Woolf's work is both embraced and derided by critics in general and by feminist critics in particular. According to Bowlby, feminist scholars who celebrate her work consider her "exemplary both in the sense of exceptional … and as an example," while Woolf's detractors claim that her work fits in "all too well with patriarchal norms, literary or social, to which authentic women's writing should by definition be opposed." Bowlby herself characterizes Woolf as a feminist writer who questioned masculinity and patriarchy in all aspects of her work.