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.

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