One of the most famous writers in history, Virginia Woolf was a pioneering novelist and critic whose work is known for non-linear narratives and its bold exploration of contemporary themes. Her masterpiece Mrs Dalloway (1925) is often regarded as a landmark of 20th-century fiction for its innovative narrative techniques. She is also known as one of the founders of the influential literary set the Bloomsbury Group, and for her love affair with Vita Sackville-West. Her complex personal life and sometimes controversial viewpoints have led her to become both an influential and divisive figure. Read on for a brief guide to Woolf’s life and work…
Virginia Woolf: biographical facts
Born: Adeline Virginia Stephen, 25 January 1882, Kensington, London
Died: 28 March 1941, River Ouse, Sussex
Family: Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and her mother, Julia, was renowned for her beauty and was a favourite of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Virginia had three siblings – Vanessa, Thoby and Adrian – and four half-siblings from both her parents’ previous marriages, called Laura, George, Stella and Gerald.
Remembered for: Being a prominent writer of the 20th century and a member of the illustrious Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous novels include Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928).
From a young age, Virginia revelled in having access to her father’s impressive library, and she expressed a desire to become a writer. At just nine years old, she created the Hyde Park Gate News, a family newspaper in which she recorded the goings-on and anecdotes of her large family.
While Virginia never attended school (she was instead home-schooled), her brothers Thoby and Adrian attended public schools and went on to study at Cambridge. There, Thoby became friends with Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes, who became the core of what would later become the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of writers, artists and intellectuals in the early 20th century.
Following the death of her father in 1904, Virginia suffered a breakdown. During her recovery her sister organised for them to move with their siblings from Hyde Park to Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. The family began hosting weekly gatherings for Thoby’s intellectual and artistic friends, and it was here that Virginia first became acquainted with the members of the Bloomsbury Group.
After beginning her writing career by reviewing in the Guardian, Virginia began reviewing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1905.
The Bloomsbury Group became famous in 1910 when it staged the Dreadnought hoax: the group dressed up as members of the Abyssinian royal family and convinced the Royal Navy to show them around the warship HMS Dreadnought. Woolf disguised herself as a bearded man.
The British newspapers ran stories about the practical joke, and the Royal Navy was mocked for its indiscretion.
It was during her involvement with the Bloomsbury Group that Virginia met Leonard Woolf, who had been a member of the Ceylon Civil Service. The pair married in 1912.
Virginia Woolf’s novels and other work
In 1913, Virginia finished writing her first novel, The Voyage Out, but the book was not published until 1915, as the writer suffered another mental breakdown. After moving to Richmond, Virginia and Leonard purchased a hand printing press for Virginia to use both for her work and as a form of therapy in 1917.
It was here, in Richmond, that Virginia published some short stories, including The Mark on the Wall (1917) and Kew Gardens (1919). In 1919 Virginia published her second novel, Night and Day, and she and her husband founded the Hogarth Press, which published the work of other prolific writers including TS Eliot, Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington.
After moving back to London in 1924, Virginia’s most famous works of her career were published. Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925 and received rave reviews; To the Lighthouse was published in 1927, and The Waves in 1931. Alongside becoming a prolific writer, Virginia also regularly gave talks at colleges and universities. As a result of her lectures, in 1929 she published an essay, A Room of One’s Own, which became recognised as one of her best pieces of non-fiction.
Relationship with Vita Sackville-West
During the 1920s, Virginia had an affair with author Vita Sackville-West, the wife of politician and writer Harold Nicolson, who she met through the Bloomsbury Group. Sackville-West became the inspiration for Virginia’s novel Orlando (1928). Their relationship ended in the late 1920s, but they remained friends until Virginia’s death in 1941.
Virginia suffered from depression and mood swings throughout her life. After her home was destroyed during the Blitz, and after completing what would become her last manuscript, Between the Acts, Virginia’s condition worsened.
How did Virginia Woolf die?
On 28 March 1941, at the age of 59, Virginia filled her coat pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse in Sussex, near to her home, where she drowned. It was not until nearly three weeks later that her body was found.
Virginia left a suicide note for her husband, Leonard, which read: “Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate.
“So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read.
“What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”
Listen: Francesca Wade talks to us about her book Square Haunting, which tells the stories of five remarkable women – among them Virginia Woolf and Dorothy L Sayers – who all lived on the same London square in the interwar years, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
This article was first written for HistoryExtra in 2016