Study Guide

Virginia Woolf Biography

  • Biography

    "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," In her unbending determination to be only herself, Virginia Woolf paved the way for other artists to do the same.

  • Childhood

    Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on 25 January 1882 into a house full of books and children. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a renowned author and literary critic who in his spare time liked to climb Alpine peaks. Her mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen, was a famously beautiful woman who had modeled for painters like Edward Burne-Jones. The Stephen household was a full one. Both of Virginia's parents had been married and widowed once before, her father to the daughter of Vanity Fair author William Thackeray. Their combined household included eight children: Leslie's daughter from his first marriage, Julia's two sons and one daughter from her first marriage, and the four children (including Virginia) that they produced together. Leslie's daughter Laura, Virginia's half-sister, was mentally disabled and lived with the family until she was placed in an institution as a teenager. In 1939, after her half-brothers Gerald and George Duckworth had passed away, Virginia revealed in a memoir that both had sexually molested her and her sister Vanessa in their childhood. Virginia was extremely close to her three full siblings, particularly Vanessa.

    English society in the late 1800s was built on a rigid social class system, and the Stephen household belonged firmly to the upper-class intellectual elite. Her father was a graduate of Eton and Cambridge and was a respected literary critic and biographer. Famous friends dropped by the London house frequently, including the writer Henry James and the poet James Russell Lowe, who was Virginia's godfather. Despite the family's intellectual leanings, it was still not considered proper to send female children to school. Virginia and Vanessa Stephen were educated at home by tutors while their brothers and half-brothers went off to the best schools in England. The family had an expansive library and even the home schooling the girls received was better than the education available to most children in England. However, Virginia Woolf never forgot that if she had been born a boy, she would have gone to Oxford or Cambridge. The knowledge of that lost opportunity drove her later feminist writings.

    Another reason the family had for keeping Virginia at home was her frail mental state. The Stephen family had been frequently racked by tragedy, and it took a toll on young Virginia's psychology. Julia Stephen died in 1895 when Virginia was only 13. In the absence of her mother, Virginia's half-sister Stella Duckworth stepped in to run the household, but then she too died just two years later at the age of 28. Virginia took both of these losses hard. Then, in 1904, her father died after a long battle with stomach cancer. This prompted Virginia's first suicide attempt; she was briefly hospitalized for mental illness after trying to jump out of a window. She eventually recovered, but it was a preview of the dramatic mood swings and internal demons she would grapple with later in life.

  • Bloomsbury

    After their father's death, the Stephen children sold their childhood home and bought a house together in Bloomsbury, a hip, bohemian London neighborhood favored by writers and artists. Soon after, Virginia Stephen began her professional writing career as a contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. She also taught at a nearby college and worked at some of the other jobs available to young women at the time, like reading aloud to old ladies. She traveled to Greece with her siblings in 1906, only for tragedy to strike yet again—her older brother Thoby fell ill on the trip and died. Her 1922 novel, Jacob's Room, was inspired by Thoby's death.

    In 1907 Vanessa Stephen married an art critic named Clive Bell. Virginia and her brother Adrian lived together near the couple's home in Bloomsbury and often spent time at their sister's house. Other friends of the Bells stopped by frequently as well—the writer Lytton Strachey, the painter Duncan Grant, the novelist E.M. Forster and the economist John Maynard Keynes. This informal collection of friends and family came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. They were among the wave of twentieth-century thinkers and artists known collectively as the modernists: people dissatisfied with the ability of existing modes of expression to serve their needs, and who sought out new forms of art, literature and thought. In their work and in their personal lives, the members of the Bloomsbury Group experimented with new concepts of art, writing, gender and philosophy. They were much better at ideas than action—even anti-imperialist George Orwell remarked after reading Forster's Passage to India that the British colony would have lasted about a week if it had been run as Forster envisioned. But the group's encouragement of creativity and innovation inspired groundbreaking work from several members, and certainly influenced the unique voice of Virginia's writing.

    Through the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Stephen was introduced to Leonard Woolf, a friend of her brother's. Woolf had been educated at Cambridge and served as a member of the British foreign service. He was also Jewish and poor, facts that caused the status-conscious Virginia Stephen to refer to him dismissively in writing as a "penniless Jew." Eventually, though, they fell in love, and the couple married on 10 August 1912. Virginia Stephen took her husband's last name. Though their marriage was in many ways unconventional (most of their friends' marriages were), by all accounts it was a happy one, with both Virginia and Leonard encouraging each other's work and collaborating professionally.

    Shortly after their marriage, Virginia Woolf fell into another episode of depression that lasted for a few years. During this time she worked intermittently on a novel. The Voyage Out, Woolf's first novel, was finally published in 1915 after delays caused by her illness and the onset of World War I. The novel contained biting bits of satire and thoughtful musings on the relationship between the genders. In structure and voice, however, it was rather conventional. She didn't really start pushing boundaries until later.

  • Hogarth & Independence

    In 1917, Leonard and Virginia Woolf purchased a used printing press and set it up in the basement of their home. The couple had figured out what millions of bloggers would learn more than a century later—if you don't want a publisher controlling what you say, publish yourself. They named their imprint Hogarth Press, after Hogarth House, their suburban London home. Over the years the press grew from a simple basement operation to a well-respected publishing house with offices in London. They published the works of writers like Katharine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, and Sigmund Freud. Perhaps most notably, they published Virginia Woolf. The press gave Woolf the freedom to write the fiction she wanted to write without enduring the judgment of mainstream publishers or editors.

    Shortly after the Woolfs established Hogarth, an aunt of Virginia Woolf's died and left her niece an inheritance of £500 per year for life. At the time, this was a good chunk of money. Though Woolf had grown up in a comfortable household, having a personal income as an adult was enormously gratifying to her. Woolf reveled in the freedom of financial independence, knowing that it was a valuable tool that few other women possessed. Money was liberation. "No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds," Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own. "Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me."blank">To the Lighthouse, which she and Leonard both regarded as her best work to date, outsold all her previous books. She used the money to replace the outhouse at their country home with a flush toilet.

  • Women & Gender

    At the same time that she was experimenting with language, Woolf was also experimenting with ideas about gender and relationships between the sexes. Like many members of the Bloomsbury Group, the Woolfs had an open marriage, in which they gave each other permission to pursue outside relationships. In 1922, Virginia met Vita Sackville-West, a poet who also had an open marriage with her husband Harold Nicolson. The two women had a romantic relationship for several years, and even after the affair ended they remained friends for the rest of Woolf's life.

    Woolf was interested in bisexuality—not in the modern definition of wanting to make out with girls as well as boys, but in the more intellectual possibility of fusing both male and female identity in a single person. Woolf was a feminist. She argued not that women were better than men but that they were equally necessary. To her, a mind that was able to reconcile both its masculine and feminine parts was the most creative. "The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two [genders] live in harmony together, spiritually co—operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her," Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own. "It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine." She didn't mean it in a nice way.

  • Suicide

    Darkness settled over Virginia Woolf's life in her final years. The increasing threat of a Second World War unnerved her. The Woolfs, like most of their friends, were pacifists, and Three Guineas was as much an antiwar tract as a feminist one. When Great Britain finally declared war on Germany in 1939, Virginia and Leonard Woolf made plans to kill themselves if the Germans successfully invaded England, fearing how the Nazis would treat a Jewish intellectual and his wife. To escape the German bombs dropping on London, the couple moved out to Monk's House, the country home in the village of Rodmell that they had maintained since 1919. It was a wise choice—the Blitz destroyed their London home and Hogarth's offices.

    Woolf began work on what turned out to be a final novel. Writing novels was always mentally taxing for her, and the combined stress of her writing and the war began to overtake her. She fell into a very deep depression. Virginia Woolf was certain that she was not going to win this battle. On 28 March 1941, she put on her overcoat, left the house, filled the pockets with heavy stones and walked into the Ouse River to drown. Her body was found three weeks later. "I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shant recover this time. … So I am doing what seems the best thing to do," she wrote in the suicide note Leonard Woolf found later in their home. "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 dont think two people could have been happier than we have been. V."

    Virginia Woolf's final novel, Between the Acts, was published posthumously in 1941. In the years since her death, scholars have pored over every aspect of her personal life and career, fascinated by the Bloomsbury Group and the unique woman who was its most famous member. Virginia Woolf's goal was not to be famous, or wealthy, or even a great writer. Her goal was only to be herself. And on that, her fans and critics can surely agree, she succeeded.

  • Family

    Father: Leslie Stephen (1832-1904)
    Mother: Julie Prinsep Jackson Stephen (1846-1895)

    Sister: Vanessa Stephen Bell (1879-1961)
    Brother in Law: Clive Bell (1881-1964)
    Nephew: Julian Bell (1908-1937)
    Nephew: Quentin Bell (1910-1996)
    Niece: Angelica Bell Garnett (b. 1918)

    Brother: Thoby Stephen (1880-1906)

    Brother: Adrian Stephen (1883-1948)
    Sister in Law: Karin Costelloe (1889-1953)

    Half-sister, father's side: Laura Makepeace Stephen (1870-1945)
    Half-brother, mother's side: George Duckworth (1868-1934)
    Half-sister, mother's side: Stella Duckworth (1869-1897)
    Half-brother, mother's side: Gerald Duckworth (1870-1937)

    Husband: Leonard Woolf (1880-1969)

  • Education

    Home schooling (c. 1890-1895)
    History and classics studies, King's College London (1897)

  • Work Experience

    Contributor, Times Literary Supplement (1905)
    Teacher, Morley College (c. 1905)
    Founding member, Bloomsbury Group (1910)
    Co-Founder, Hogarth Press (1917)

  • Novels

    The Voyage Out (1915)
    Night and Day (1919)
    Jacob's Room (1922)
    Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
    To the Lighthouse (1927)
    Orlando (1928)
    The Waves (1931)
    The Years (1937)
    Between the Acts (1941)

  • Nonfiction

    Modern Fiction (1919)
    The Common Reader (1925)
    A Room of One's Own (1929)
    On Being III (1930)
    The London Scene (1931)
    The Common Reader: Second Series (1932)
    Flush: A Biography (1933)
    Three Guineas (1938)
    Roger Fry: A Biography (1940)

  • Stories

    Monday or Tuesday (1921)
    A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944)