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Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is one of the leading British literary figures of the first half of the twentieth century and one of the founding figures of the modernist movement in fiction. She is mostly remembered for her advocacy of feminist ideals as well as for developing the narratorial technique that is often referred to as “stream of consciousness” which consists in following the character’s inner thoughts as they flow naturally without any attempt to arrange ideas, interrupt them, order them or try to make them decipherable to the reader.
Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 to quite a wealthy family. Both of her parents were widowed before they remarry and raise all their eight children in the same household. Woolf’s family was very well connected both socially and artistically. Indeed, the father was a published historian and the mother was a very beautiful woman who worked as a model for a number of famous painters. Furthermore, Henry James and William Makepeace Thackeray, to name but two of the most renowned writers of the time, were among the family’s friends and visitors.
Woolf’s childhood was not always bright, though. Two bad incidents marked her early existence among her large family which, according to some of her biographers, may have developed into actual traumas. The incident that was less serious than the other was when her father decided to send only the boys to follow a formal education while the girls, including Virginia herself, had to be tutored at home by their parents. She never succeeded in forgetting this early bitter sense of injustice which would later haunt her most important writings. However, the incident that must have seriously traumatized Woolf was when she was sexually harassed by her two half-brothers while she was only six years old.
Apart from this, Virginia Woolf was raised in an environment that encouraged the work of the intellect. At home, she and her sister Vanessa had access to the huge family library. Her father, though he wanted her to stay at home, still encouraged her to read and write and discussed serious intellectual matters with her. Virginia stated in her autobiographical writings that the family used to move from their home in London to Saint Ives in Cornwall for summer holidays. The beauty of the place had a great impact on the imagination of young Virginia and later found its way to her fiction.
Woolf went through very hard times when she first lost her mother in 1895, then her half-sister Stella in 1897 and finally her father in 1904. Such consecutive tragedies made the young woman suffer from depression and other serious psychological troubles so that she was put under psychiatric care on more than one occasion. It was also during these years that Virginia attended classes at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London and met notorious feminist leaders and intellectuals to be clearly influenced by them.
By that time too, Virginia Woolf started writing her first essays and stories. She first resorted to self-publication before she achieved considerable success and became one of the leading literary figures of the early twentieth century. Actually, her career was boosted after her brother Adrian and sister Vanessa decided to sell the London house and take the family to Bloomsbury where they bought a new home. In the new neighborhood, Virginia made important acquaintances and became a member of what was later known as the “Bloomsbury Group.” The latter was an influential circle of English intellectuals, writers and thinkers who shared a number of ideals and had a significant impact on literary criticism, aesthetics and economics. In addition to Virginia Woolf, the group included such celebrated figures as the famous economist John Maynard Keyes as well as Lytton Strachey and E. M. Forester. Another important member of the group was Virginia Woolf’s would-be husband, Leonard Woolf, who was equally a writer and a political theorist.
A curious incident happened in 1910 when the group wanted to come to light and become famous by tricking the Royal Navy. The incident was named the “Dreadnought hoax” after the British military ship that the Bloomsbury Group succeeded in boarding by disguising themselves as a group of Ethiopian diplomats (Virginia Woolf was herself dressed up like a bearded young black man in Arabian clothes). The joke soon found its way to media and the government vainly attempted to punish the group for mocking the Royal Navy. What the Bloomsbury Group gained from such a foolish adventure, though, was the phenomenal publicity that it brought to them.
Virginia and Leonard Woolf were attracted to each other and decided to marry in 1912. They remained deeply in love for years and their life was marked by extraordinary mutual understanding and encouragement. However, Leonard’s love and devotion did not succeed in rescuing Virginia from her seemingly chronic psychological troubles which would later become fatal.
In the 1900s, some of Virginia Woolf’s writings were published in the Times Literary Supplement and in 1915 her first novel, entitled The Voyage Out, was published to mark her first success. It was in 1922 that she met another female member of the Bloomsbury Group, named Vita Sackville-West, to start a romantic and sexual relationship with her. Their lesbian experience was described in Woolf’s biographical novel Orlando published in 1928. By that time, Woolf has established herself as a leading novelist of the modernist movement along with famous names such as James Joyce and Ezra Pound.
Orlando was sandwiched by two important publications that were of fundamental importance in Virginia Woolf’s career. They are To the Lighthouse (1927) and A Room of One’s Own (1929). While the second is a non-fictional essay, the first is a novel whose very simple events happen in the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The narrative tells about the dream of the Ramsay family’s children to get to the lighthouse. While the story’s plot has an extremely elementary character, the novel’s depths are mainly philosophical, psychological and artistic. Among the themes dealt with in this novel one can mainly mention the difference between childhood fantasies and adult occupations as well as the flying of time. Like most of Woolf’s other writings, the novel also deals with feminist issues, mainly how women are considered by patriarchal norms as incapable of creating true art.
A Room of One’s Own started as a number of lectures that Woolf delivered at two women’s colleges at Cambridge University before taking the form of a published essay in 1929. The book mainly expresses a virulent defense of equality between women and men and of women’s rights to education and to literary creativity. Woolf particularly argues that women are often deprived of money and of a room of their own in their household, which seriously hampers their intellectual activity. She presents financial independence as an indispensible condition for creativity and excellence and incites women to demand their rights and to rebel and fight for their dignity.
For Woolf, if men have historically been much more active and creative than women in various fields, including the field of literary production, it is only because of this injustice within society and within the family. She strives to prove that women are as capable as men by surveying the lives of a number of successful women writers such as Jane Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot. One of the most dramatic and pleasant moments of Woolf’s argumentative essay is when she invents a fictional woman writer who is supposed to be William Shakespeare’s own sister. The latter is named Judith Shakespeare and is believed to share the same talent and genius of her brother. The only obstacle facing the female Shakespeare is that she is a female, which naturally means that she is not allowed to have a formal education and that she has to be confined to house chores. While William Shakespeare becomes what he is today, the greatest writer of the English tongue, his sister who shares the same intellectual faculties goes through depression and then commits suicide to fade into complete oblivion.
The publication of Woolf’s book is today considered as a milestone in the development of feminist critical theories. Indeed, it has had a great influence on numerous feminist thinkers and literary women of the second half of the twentieth century. For some critics, however, Virginia Woolf’s feminist ideals concern but a small minority of women belonging rather to the Bourgeois class. They claim that her defense of the financial independence of female intellectuals and writers is too elitist since common women have more basic and more vital preoccupations related to their quotidian existence.
Nevertheless, Woolf’s success encouraged her to write and publish more books. In 1931, she published a poetical and philosophical novel with a very complicated narrative style that she entitled The Waves. This was followed in 1933 by the publication of Flush: A Biography which tells the story of a dog that belonged to a friend of hers. Woolf’s last book was written in 1941. Being entitled Between the Acts, it came as a sort of recapitulation of all the ideas developed by Woolf in her oeuvre that included numerous other fictional and non-fictional writings. The book poetically deals with questions related to the passing of time, to art, to love and to lesbianism.
1941 was equally the year of Virginia Woolf’s tragic end as she went through depression again and ended up committing suicide. In addition to her usual melancholies, Woolf was mainly affected by the horrors of the Second World War and the amount of destruction that befell the English capital. Before she filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in a nearby river, she wrote a very emotional farewell letter to her husband, explaining that her decision had nothing to do with their mutual and exceptional love.