Study Guide

Virginia Woolf Introduction

Virginia Woolf Introduction

If we asked you to write down what you were thinking right now, you might scribble out a paragraph or two about a stressful homework assignment, or what you had for lunch, or the very exciting text message that just appeared on your phone. Most likely you'd offer your version of this interior monologue in complete sentences, arranged in a somewhat logical sequence. It would, therefore, be totally inaccurate. In reality, your mind is processing all three of those things at once—plus the brightness of your computer screen, the pinch of your shoes on your feet, and a bunch of stuff that happened when you were a kid that you don't even know that you know. In short, if you could really and truly represent in words what your mind looks like right now, it would probably look something like a Virginia Woolf novel.

Virginia Woolf, an English novelist, essayist and critic, believed that the life of the mind was always more fascinating than a person's external behaviors. In her life and in her art, she sought to push beyond existing boundaries in search of a deeper truth that lay beneath the surface. Woolf, along with her husband and their circle of intellectual friends known as the Bloomsbury Group, helped to shape twentieth-century ideas about art, literature, gender, and sex. By demanding her own intellectual freedom, Virginia Woolf opened the door for other artists to do the same.

Virginia Woolf Trivia

Virginia Woolf could be famously mean and snobby. Her first reaction upon meeting the writer Katherine Mansfield—a gifted writer whom admired Woolf tremendously—was "that she stinks like a—well civet cat that had taken to street walking. In truth, I'm a little shocked by her commonness at first sight; lines so hard & cheap." D---.

In a personal essay in the 1930s, Virginia Woolf posed the question, "Am I snob?" She concluded: "Yes."

Open marriages were accepted among members of the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia Woolf had a well-known relationship with the writer Vita Sackville-West. Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell had a child with her lover, the painter Duncan Grant. Her husband Clive Bell encouraged the affair and raised the resulting daughter, Angelica, as his own. In a twist that would have given Freud a heart attack, Angelica later married her biological father's former male lover, David Garnett, in 1942. The marriage did not last.

Leonard Woolf owned a monkey as a pet, a marmoset named Mitz. The unpleasant creature had few fans beyond its owner. Mitz "seemed to be in a perpetual state of vicious fury … It was deeply in love with Leonard and would spit out its jealousy upon the rest of humanity," wrote Woolf's nephew Quentin Bell in his memoir. "Perhaps it was showing its affection when it crouched upon his arm and defecated upon him; this was so much its favorite occupation that Leonard had to have waterproofing upon the sleeves of his jacket."

In 1910, Virginia Woolf and five male friends dressed up in blackface and exotic robes and presented themselves to the British Royal Navy as the Prince of Abyssinia (then a British colony, now Ethiopia) and his entourage. They requested—and received—a personal tour of the warship H.M.S. Dreadnought. For forty minutes they toured the ship with its Commander, babbling amongst each other in a made-up language. The gleeful pranksters alerted the press as soon as they were off the ship. The navy was horrified to learn that it had been duped.

The writer Toni Morrison wrote her Cornell University master's thesis on themes of suicide in the novels of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.

Virginia Woolf Resources

Books

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)
Woolf's passionately argued, eloquently written manifesto in support of women artists should be required reading for anyone who cares about art, women or women artists. In it she imagines the life of Shakespeare's fictional sister, who possesses her brother's talent but not the set of—um—equipment that allows him to move ahead with a career. It's funny, poignant and definitely worth a read.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
This novel traces a single day in the life of British socialite Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party. The character has been thrashed as the embodiment of a vapid and superficial social class, but Clarissa's particulars are less important than what Woolf does here with language and time. Though the action happens over a single day, the characters' interior lives—always Woolf's focus—jump across decades.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
Inspired by the memories of her family's summer trips, this novel focuses on a family vacationing in Scotland. What Woolf attempts in Mrs. Dalloway she nails here. Set across two days, this book snatches moments in the life of the Ramsay family and puts them on display like the pieces of a mosaic.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1933)
This is Woolf's most experimental novel, and by most accounts the most difficult to read. The novel (Woolf preferred to call it a "play-poem," so much did it depart from typical novelistic conventions) weaves the voices of six different characters together. The effect is more like reading a prose poem than a novel.

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (1997)
There is a glut of scholarly material on Virginia Woolf, but Hermione Lee's book has been praised as one of the strongest biographies of the writer. In 900 pages, Lee tries to cut through the myths and speculation that have sprung up around Virginia Woolf to get to the truth of the writer's life. What emerges is a portrait of a flawed but still fascinating woman.

Quentin Bell, Bloomsbury Recalled (1997)
In 1972 Woolf's nephew Quentin Bell published a highly regarded biography of his aunt. This book, a personal memoir, also includes his recollections on other members of the Bloomsbury Group. This includes his parents, Vanessa and Clive Bell, his two siblings, and their unconventional family that included his mother's lover. Bell was a great writer (and a serious scholar), and his accounts are entertaining to read.

Victoria Glendinning, Leonard Woolf: A Biography (2007)
Leonard Woolf has taken a beating in Virginia Woolf biographies, with some feminist critics accusing him of either causing her mental illness or hampering her talent. Family members and serious Woolf scholars have refuted that portrayal, and Victoria Glendinning's book offers a serious and sympathetic look at Leonard Woolf. Though he is mostly remembered for the woman he married, Woolf was a creative and interesting person in his own right.

Music

Ethel Smyth
Ethel Smyth was a composer of opera and chamber music and a close friend of Virginia Woolf (some believe the two women were more than just friends, but whatever). She was also a leader of the women's suffrage movement in Britain. She composed the tune "The March of the Women," a song that became the anthem for women demanding the right to vote.

Music from the Diary of Virginia Woolf
Dominick Argento Though she wasn't musically inclined herself, Virginia Woolf said that she thought of her books like pieces of music. Others have thought of her words that way as well. Inspired by her posthumously published diaries, American composer Dominick Argento set excerpts of the journal to choral music. He received the Pulitzer Prize for the song cycle in 1975.

Amy Beach
Amy Beach was an American composer and contemporary of Virginia Woolf's who created the first symphony written by an American woman. Like Woolf, she was entirely self-taught. Her career was hampered by her era's strict gender roles—her husband forebade her to play more than one performance per year, and it was only after his death that she was able to travel the world as a musician. Beach and Ethel Smyth collaborated at times. Woolf would almost certainly have been familiar with her music.

Bloomsbury
Princeton We love literary rockers. This album from the L.A.-based trio Princeton pays homage to the members of Bloomsbury, with four songs inspired by different members ("Viriginia Woolf" has lyrics like "And she missed her mark, the ink is dry now./ What's on the wall, will never be known, to her alone/ And I find, that in my lifetime, no words will stay or haunt in that way.") Possibly the only band in history to record a single inspired by economist John Maynard Keynes. Check out their website, which profiles the members of Bloomsbury along with the band.

"Virginia Woolf"
Indigo GirlsVirginia Woolf continues to inspire artists of many genres. The folk-rock duo Indigo Girls recorded a song in homage to Virginia Woolf for their 1992 album "Rites of Passage." The lyrics are lovely; have a listen.

"Shakespeare's Sister"
The SmithsIn A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf imagines Shakespeare's (fictional) sister, a woman of equal literary ability as her brother who is unable to realize her talent because of the restrictions placed on her gender. The 1980s English rock band The Smiths wrote a song in homage to this fictional frustrated writer. Oi!

Images

Virginia Woolf
A portrait of the writer as a young woman.

Virginia Woolf
A portrait of the writer in later life.

Leonard and Virginia Woolf
A photograph of the newly married couple.

Vita Sackville-West
A photograph of Woolf's lover.

Monk's House
Leonard and Virginia Woolf's country home

Kew Gardens
The setting of one of Woolf's most famous short stories.

Passport
Virginia Woolf's passport.

Grave
The marker where Virginia Woolf's ashes were scattered at Monk's House.

The Waves
Dust jacket, first edition.

The Voyage Out
Dust jacket, first edition.

Movies & TV

The Hours (2002)
Everyone talked about Nicole Kidman's prosthetic nose, but her performance as Virginia Woolf is what makes this film worth watching (after you have read the exquisite novel by Michael Cunningham on which the movie is based, of course). The film weaves together three stories: Virginia Woolf as she is writing Mrs. Dalloway, a 1950s housewife reading the novel, and a modern Mrs. Dalloway going through her day as she plans a party.

Orlando (1992)
There haven't been many attempts to translate Woolf's stream-of-consciousness literary style into film, and even fewer successful ones. That said, director Sally Potter's gorgeously filmed adaptation of Orlando is great. Tilda Swinton's strong performance and striking androgynous looks make her the perfect person to play the gender-bending title character.

The War Within: A Portrait of Virginia Woolf (1995)
This acclaimed documentary of Woolf's life delves into her biography and inner life. The movie was filmed on location in the places important to Woolf's life and features interviews with Woolf's niece, nephew, and Bloomsbury Group cohorts.

Mrs. Dalloway (1997)
Some have called this film adaptation disappointing, but it's hard to live up to Woolf's novel about a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. The movie stars the lovely Vanessa Redgrave as the title character. The movie is worth a watch.

Portrait of a Marriage (1990)
This made-for-TV movie about Woolf's close friend and sometime-lover Vita Sackville-West earned strong reviews. The marriage of the title is the one between Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson, who by all accounts were very much in love despite her numerous (and well-known to Nicholson) affairs with women. The movie is an interesting portrayal of the unconventional relationships and marriages that Bloomsbury-era modernists experimented with.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Despite the name, this is not a movie about Virginia Woolf (who, as far as we know, was not all that frightening). This film is a chilling portrayal of two unraveling couples. The title of this film—an adaptation of the Edward Albee play by the same name—comes from a song the characters sing in the play. He wanted it to be "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" from the Three Little Pigs cartoon, but Disney wouldn't budge on the film rights. Leonard Woolf consented to have his wife's name used instead. Anyway, it's a great movie.

Websites

The Virginia Woolf Society
Are you obsessed with Virginia Woolf? Do you live in the greater London area? If you can't answer yes to both of these questions, then membership in the Virginia Woolf Society is probably not for you. Its website has a useful page of links, though you have to click through many broken ones to find the good stuff.

Tate Archive Journeys
The Tate Modern gallery in London staged a wildly successful exhibit of Bloomsbury painters a few years back. The exhibit is gone, but this online archive provides a user-friendly introduction to the art of the Bloomsbury Group.

Yale University Modernism Lab
Using this website is kind of like reading one of Virginia Woolf's novels—there's stuff scattered everywhere, but the overall effect is fascinating. This is a good place to look for quirky articles on the writer and her associates.

Virginia Woolf's Bookweb on The Ledge
The Ledge is a cool online project that builds a web of all books Woolf-related—the ones she read, the ones she wrote, and the ones you might like to read after you finish her books.

Virginia Woolf Web
This site contains an enormous amount of Woolf-related information; it is also ugly, confusing and a pain in the butt to navigate. The turquoise background is blinding. You've been warned.

The International Virginia Woolf Society
Should you decide to devote your life to the study of Virginia Woolf, this site is the place for you. This site caters primarily to Woolf academics, though it has a page of useful links to primary documents and research.

Video & Audio

Night and Day
Audio book of the novel.

BBC broadcast
Recording of Virginia Woolf speaking on radio, 29 April 1937

Craftsmanship
Woolf reads from her work.

Virginia Woolf Documentary
Mini-documentary of Virginia Woolf's early life (first of 14 parts, all available on YouTube)

Patti Smith—A reading of Virginia Woolf
Rocker Patti Smith performs a musical interpretation of Woolf's work.

The Bloomsbury Group - North Carolina Public Radio
Bloomsbury scholars discuss the group.

"The Land"
Vita Sackville-West reading from her poem.

Primary Sources

A Room of One's Own
E-text of the 1929 book.

Jacob's Room
E-text of the 1922 novel.

The Voyage Out
E-text of the 1915 novel.

Three Guineas
E-text of the 1938 book.

Mrs. Dalloway
E-text of the 1925 novel.

The Papers of Leonard Woolf
Online archive of Leonard Woolf's writings.

Hogarth Press
Online exhibit of artifacts related to the Woolf's publishing imprint.

"Virginia Woolf Explores an English Country Home"
1925 New York Times review of To the Lighthouse.