Besides authoring short stories, Virginia Woolf was an acute and detailed diarist (her diary entries occupy five volumes in the authoritative collected edition); a prolific letter writer (six volumes in the authoritative collected edition); a biographer; a perceptive, original, and argumentative essayist and reviewer (her collected essays fill six volumes in the authoritative edition); and a pioneer of the modern novel in her ten works of long prose fiction, which include the acknowledged classics Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931).
A distinguished and distinctive prose stylist, Virginia Woolf excelled in fiction, nonfiction, and her own unique hybrid of these genres in her two whimsical books Orlando: A Biography (1928) and Flush: A Biography (1933), which are variously categorized as fiction, nonfiction, or “other” by critics of her work. In nonfiction, essays such as “The Death of the Moth,” “How Should One Read a Book?” and “Shakespeare’s Sister” have been widely anthologized, and in their vividness, imagery, and keen analysis of daily life, literature, society, and women’s concerns assure Woolf a place in the history of the essay.
In fiction, Woolf’s classic novels, sharing much in style and theme with the nonfiction, have overshadowed the short stories. Reacting against the realistic and naturalistic fiction of her time, Woolf often emphasized lyricism, stream of consciousness, and the irresolute slice of life in both her novels and her stories, though she wrote more conventional fiction as well. Whether the conventional “well-made” or the experimental stream-of-consciousness variety, many of her approximately fifty short stories are accomplished works of art. Because of their precise and musical prose style, irony, ingenious spiral form (with narrative refrains), reversal or revelatory structure, and exploration of human nature and social life, they deserve to be better known and to be studied for themselves and not just for what they may reveal about the novels.
To say that Virginia Woolf lived to write is no exaggeration. Her output was both prodigious and varied; counting her posthumously published works, it fills more than forty volumes. Beyond her novels, her fiction encompasses several short-story collections. As a writer of nonfiction, Woolf was similarly prolific, her book-length works including Roger Fry: A Biography (1940) and two influential feminist statements, A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). Throughout her life, Woolf also produced criticism and reviews; the best-known collections are The Common Reader: First Series (1925) and The Common Reader: Second Series (1932). In 1966 and 1967, the four volumes of Collected Essays were published. Additional books of essays, reviews, and sketches continue to appear, most notably the illuminating selection of autobiographical materials, Moments of Being (1976). Her letters—3,800 of them survive—are available in six volumes; when publication was completed, her diaries stood at five. Another collection, of Woolf’s essays, also proved a massive, multivolume undertaking.
From the appearance of her first novel in 1915, Virginia Woolf’s work was received with respect—an important point, since she was extremely sensitive to criticism. Descendant of a distinguished literary family, member of the avant-garde Bloomsbury Group, herself an experienced critic and reviewer, she was taken seriously as an artist. Nevertheless, her early works were not financially successful; she was forty before she earned a living from her writing. From the start, the rather narrow territory of her novels precluded broad popularity, peopled as they were with...
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- Critical Essays