Study Guide

Virginia Woolf Bloomsbury

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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.

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