Happy Birthday

virginia woolf
Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Virginia Woolf, Novelist and Essayist

January 25, 2010
by Isabel Cowles
Virginia Woolf was a major figure in establishing the modernist literary tradition. She and her husband Leonard Woolf lived and worked with some of the most important artistic and intellectual minds of the early 20th century, including E.M. Forster  and John Maynard Keynes. Woolf struggled throughout her life with bipolar disorder, which eventually claimed her life.

Early Days

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London on January 25, 1882. Her father, literary critic Sir Leslie Stephen, educated Virginia himself with the help of an extensive personal library.

When Woolf was a child, the family spent summers on the English coast: the trips had an enduring influence on her writing and imagination. When Virginia was 13, her mother died, putting an end to the family’s seaside vacations.

As a young woman, Woolf began experiencing depression, exacerbated by her mother’s death. She was also sexually abused by a half-brother, which likely worsened her psychological issues.

Her father died in 1904, and Woolf moved in with her older sister Vanessa and two brothers to a home in Bloomsbury, a neighborhood in central London. The house became the center of the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of young artists and writers who mostly embraced a modernist style, a departure from the traditions of the Victorian Age.  In 1912, Virginia married a member of the collective, political theorist Leonard Woolf.

Notable Accomplishments

Woolf began publishing novels in 1915, often writing from the couple’s country home outside of London. The Woolfs established Hogarth Press in 1917, and by 1921, all of Virginia Woolf’s work was published by the Press. Her 1921 short story collection, “Monday or Tuesday,” was more experimental than her first two novels and set the precedent for her later books. Her third book, “Jacob's Room” (1922) was a departure from traditional prose, employing a stream of consciousness style instead.
Two years later the Woolfs permanently returned to London, where Virginia Woolf wrote prolifically. Her three following novels, “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925), “To the Lighthouse” (1927) and “The Waves” (1931) are often considered Woolf’s most canonical works in the modernist style.

During this period, Woolf had a lesbian affair with writer Vita Sackville-West, which inspired the semi-biographical “Orlando” (1928), a story about Sackville-West and her family.  Director Sally Potter loosely adapted the novel into a 1992 film.

Woolf was invited several times to give talks at the women’s colleges at Cambridge University. The lectures allowed the author to express her feminist beliefs and led to the creation of the feminist essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” published in 1929. The work offered a look into the struggles of female writers within the masculine literary tradition, and is still popular on college campuses today. 

The 1930s were a more difficult period for the Woolfs, as Virginia struggled regularly with bouts of depression. She continued to publish novels and biographies, including “Flush” (1933), the autobiography of a dog, and “The Years” (1937), a family drama.

The Rest of the Story

In 1941, Virginia Woolf went missing. Her husband correctly surmised that she had drowned herself in the River Ouse near their country home. Articles of her clothing were found on the riverbank, and her body was discovered a few days later.

Virginia Woolf’s condition would probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder today. Her bouts of severe depression often prevented her from working or interacting with others and left her longing for death.

In a diary, Woolf once described writing as “The only way I keep afloat.” She added, “Directly I stop working I feel that I am sinking down, down. And as usual, I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth.”

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