Born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London, 1882 into an upper class family, the seventh child in a blended family of eight. The family resided within the two parallel streets of number 22, Hyde Park Gate, one of Kensington’s prestigious and expensive suburbs of London, also known for many of its other famous past and future residents that would include Sir Winston Churchill (who resided and died at No.28 during 1945-1965).
Interestingly, although she was named Adeline at birth, in memory of her mother’s eldest sister, Adeline Marie Jackson (18371881) her family never used her given name because of the tragic circumstances her aunt’s death the previous year.
Virginia’s mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen (nee Jackson) was a much celebrated woman, notably for her Pre- Raphaelite modelling and philanthropy work. She married Herbert Duckworth, a barrister, but within a few short years she found herself widowed with their three children following his death by an undiagnosed internal abscess in 1870 at aged 37. Devastated by his loss, she turned to nursing, philanthropy and agnosticism and was soon introduced to her new love, Sir Leslie Stephen, an author, critic and historian. After his first wife had died in childbirth in 1875, leaving him with their handicapped daughter, Laura. Though each were in mourning they formed a bond and friendship, eventually marrying in 1878.
As English society in the late 1800’s was built on a rigid social class system and the Stephen family household were firmly etched in the upper class intellectual elite, it was not considered proper to send female children to school, regardless of the family’s intellectual leanings. Virginia and her sister, Vanessa were educated at home by tutors in English classics and Victorian literature, while their brothers and half- brothers received college educations across the country from Eton, Cambridge and Oxford. However, the family had the privilege of having an expansive library and even the home schooling the girls received was better than the education available to most children in England. This had an important effect on Virginia who never forgot, had she been born a boy would have been educated at either Cambridge or Oxford and the knowledge of that lost opportunity inspired her later feminist writings. Sadly, this was not the only reason the Stephen family had for keeping Virginia at home. The family had frequently been troubled by tragedy beginning with the death of their mother, Julia in 1895 from rheumatic fever when Virginia was thirteen. In the absence of their mother’s passing, the eldest daughter, Stella Duckworth stepped in to run the household but died two years later at the age of twenty-eight. These losses were traumatic for Virginia who had begun her writing career in 1900. This put strain on her already fragile mental state but the worst was yet to come when their father, Leslie succumbed to a long battle with stomach cancer in 1904. A devastating blow for the whole family but especially Virginia as her father was her role model, encouraging her intellectual curiosity, writing and independent thinking. This loss prompted her first mental breakdown and first suicide attempt.
She was briefly hospitalised after she attempted to jump out a window and her mental illness was considered to be bi polar to which there was no effective intervention or treatment during her lifetime. She eventually recovered but was just the beginning of her mood swings and inner demons she would grapple with for the rest of her life.
After their father’s death the Stephen children sold the house at 22 Hyde Park Gate and purchased a house together in Bloomsbury, living independently away from their half -brothers. Here, they were free to pursue studies, painting, writing and entertaining and as a hip, bohemian London neighbourhood, Bloomsbury was and is still favoured by artists and writers. Soon after, Virginia resumed her professional writing career becoming part of the Bloomsbury Group - a group of associated English writers, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century. She began contributing to The Times Literary Supplement- a leading paper in the world for literary culture and taught at a nearby college alongside other jobs available to women at that time, including reading aloud to the elderly.
In 1906, she travelled to Greece with her siblings only for tragedy to strike again when her brother, Thoby fell ill on the trip with typhoid fever and died. Although she grieved Virginia did not slip back into depression and overcame the loss. Her 1922 novel, ‘Jacob’s room’ was inspired by his death. The following year she experienced another loss of a different kind when her sister, Vanessa married an art critic, Clive Bell. This was a happy time in Virginia’s life as she continued to maintain her close relationship with her sister and her involvement with her Bloomsbury group. This informal group of friends and family with their encouragement of creativity and innovation inspired ground breaking work from several of its members including George Orwell and heavily influenced Virginia’s unique voice in her writing and introduced her to her next chapter in life.
Leonard Woolf was a friend of Virginia’s brother, Thoby having become friends through their education at Trinity College in Cambridge. By chance, Virginia crossed paths with her future husband while visiting her brother in Cambridge in 1900. Taken by her attire of a white dress and parasol, Leonard, himself a Journalist and writer was instantly drawn to her, although because of her intellect and beauty it came as no surprise that she had many admirers and suitors, both male and female and wasn’t interested in pursuing a relationship with anyone. It wasn’t until 1911 that their paths crossed again.
His first proposal to her, by wire, was while he was still stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the Ceylon Civil Service. Seen as nothing more than a joke, Virginia rejected his proposal and nothing more was said until Leonard returned to England at the end of 1911, making the first of many, in person proposals to her in January 1912. Her reluctance to marry stemmed from her fear of emotional involvement and repulsion of sex from her childhood trauma where she was molested by her two older half-brothers.
Coupled by the fact she found Leonard unattractive and he was Jewish. But, above all she had resentment of the marriage role prescribed for women in British society at the time. Eventually his persistence wore her down and the two married, August 10th 1912 with Leonard proving to be a most nurturing figure for Virginia’s instability. She took on her husband’s name officially becoming, Virginia Woolf.
Shortly after their marriage, Virginia fell in and out of depressive episodes for many years that included another suicide attempt and more sedatives. Doctors strongly discouraged her from having children due to her struggles with mental illness which was heart breaking for her, although she continued working intermittently on her first novel, The Voyage Out published in 1915. The novel not only tells the physical journey of a young woman’s voyage to sea from the confines of a sheltered Victorian era life, but the story of her transformation and freedom. Feminism and constraints faced by women during this time are echoed throughout.
In 1917, from what started as a hobby and an initial distraction for Virginia when writing became stressful, the Woolf’s purchased a hand press for £19 setting it up in the dining of room of their home and taught themselves how to use it. Hogarth Press, named after their house, Hogarth House, was a revolutionary advancement that allowed the Woolf’s freedom to self -publish without enduring the judgement of mainstream publishers or editors. It was during this period of her life Virginia began to experiment with a new kind of fiction, ‘the stream of consciousness’ trying to capture ‘moments of being’ These styles are apparent in her novels, ‘Jacobs room’ and ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ (the latter published 1925) where she sought to highlight ‘something real behind appearances’ and making it real by turning it into words.
Her Mrs. Dalloway novel followed a London socialite, Clarissa Dalloway as she prepared for a party although the action of the book took place in a single day, the internal thoughts of each character, much like real life leapt forwards and backwards across time and place, perfectly capturing how people think, not just what they do.
However, her continued experimentation was not always a success and some friends worried she had gone too far with her narrative, unable to create characters or form plots, while some critics were baffled by her work, finding it unreadable. Regardless, Virginia stood her ground, refusing to conform to realism in her characters and eventually readers started to catch on following the release of her 1927 novel, ‘To the Lighthouse’ regarded as some of her best work by both critics and her husband, outselling her previous books. While language was a constant experimentation, so too was Virginia’s ideals about sexuality, gender and relationships. Like many others of her Bloomsbury group, the Woolf’s had an open marriage, giving each other permission to pursue other relationships. Virginia’s relationship with a poet, Vita SackvilleWest, who in turn also had an open marriage was no secret and has been well documented since the pair met in 1922. For several years they had a romantic relationship, even after the affair ended they remained close friends and it helped Virginia further explore the ideas of masculinity and feminism in her 1928 novel, Orlando.
Even with her success, the darkness that had plagued her throughout her life would settle in her final years. The increasing threat of the Second World War unnerved her deeply as the Woolf’s, like much of their friends were pacifists. When Great Britain finally declared war on Germany in 1939, Virginia and Leonard made plans to kill themselves should the Germans successfully invade Britain, fearing how Nazi’s would treat Leonard, a Jewish intellectual and his wife. To escape the German bombs on London, they moved out to their weekend country home in Sussex. It was a wise choice as the Blitz destroyed their London home and Hogarth Press offices.
At 59, Virginia would soon begin work on what would become her final novel but with the combined stress of the war and her writing; writing novels had always been mentally taxing for her, she fell into another deep depression that saw the return of her hallucinations and voices in her head. This time she was certain she was not able to win the battle. On Friday March 28th 1941, Virginia was in a restless state. Wanting to keep an eye on her, Leonard visited her in her writing lodge in the backyard shortly after 11am. After a short conversation he left to go work in his study. It would be the last time he would see his wife alive.
Returning to the house she put on her fur coat and wellingtons boots leaving two suicide notes, one for her husband, the other to her sister, Vanessa. She walked to the River Ouse near their home, filled her pocket with a heavy rock and drowned herself. It would be three weeks until her body was found by children, washed up near a bridge in Southease, East Sussex. She was cremated and her ashes scattered under an elm tree in their garden. Her last novel, Between the Acts was published posthumously, 17th July 1941.