The great modernist writer Virginia Woolf - novelist, essayist, critic, and principal obsession for the Bloomsbury industry - was born in 1882. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, already 50 at Virginia's birth, had been previously married to Minnie, a daughter of William Thackeray; they had one child, Laura. Stephen's second wife Julia, Virginia's mother, had three children - George, Gerald, and Stella - from a previous marriage, and four - Virginia, Vanessa, Thoby, and Adrian - from her marriage to Stephen. All these children lived with Leslie and Julia in Kensington.

On her mother's side were many women much like her mother: eccentric, atheist, active in social works. On her father's side, generations of men not unlike him: intelligent, distinguished men of letters given to bouts of gloomy depression. On both sides were writers, and both her parents had published; her mother wrote a book on sick room management and her father was the founder and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother was the model for Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia's novel To the Lighthouse, which book also found her father portrayed, fittingly, as Mr. Ramsay. Virginia had a complex love/hate relationship with her father, and both father and daughter recognized that she was very like him in her temperament.

Young Virginia's life was filled with the famous literary figures who were colleagues of her father and who visited the home regularly. Virginia was not allowed to go to school, instead being educated at home by her father and given free access to his extensive library. But this happy life of the mind also held dark shadows of the body, for Virginia and her sisters - including the mentally challenged Laura - were molested by George and Gerald, and George kept it up for a very long time. All the family knew of these malefactions, which Virginia later said had robbed her of any pleasure in her body. Equally damaging to her emotional development was the long illness of her father, who died in 1904 after having grown ever more querulous and difficult with his daughters. He was especially demanding with Virginia, who later said that if he hadn't died, she would never have been able to write.

In spite of these family horrors, Virginia did have suitors: she was engaged to Lytton Strachey for a time, though he broke off the engagement, and in 1912 married the political theorist, critic and writer Leonard Woolf, who was recently returned from Ceylon. It appears that the two at first had a sexual relationship, which Virginia took no pleasure in, but eventually the carnal side of the marriage faded, leaving a lasting and great affection between the two. Virginia also had a series of passionate and flirtatious attachments to women, perhaps most famously to Vita Sackville-West; scholars, in the way of such things, debate whether any of these relationships were ever consummated, and many doubt it, though Vita claimed they had made love twice.

From an early age Virginia was often unwell. Throughout her adult life she suffered from migraines, flu-like symptoms, and menstrual "irregularities". She, along with several of her siblings, had bouts of mental illness which the family called "the fidgets".

She had her first breakdown in 1895, at age 13, after her mother died, becoming morbidly self-critical and blaming herself for perceived personal faults. The pattern was to repeat itself throughout her life. She would have severe manic depressive attacks which began with wild elation; she would talk incessantly for several days, at first quite lucidly, but increasingly incoherently, until, in her husband's words, the stream of verbiage became a "mere jumble of dissociated words". Then she would descend into crippling depression, believing that she wasn't unwell, that her condition was her own fault, that she was flawed and foolish. She would hallucinate voices urging her to do foolhardy things, believed that friends became fiends who could not be trusted, and attempted suicide at least twice before she succeeded in killing herself.

Virginia had very severe and often prolonged attacks throughout her life - sometimes, but not always, brought on by the death of a family member, a common occurence in a large family in those unhealthy times - but there were no treatments for a disorder such as hers. Her husband and doctors managed her attacks by severe - some would say overzealous - curtailment of her life, keeping her in bed and not allowing her any social contact. The terrifying attacks of madness culminated in her suicide in 1941 at age 59, when she filled her pockets full of rocks and deliberately drowned herself. Her suicide note to her husband expresses better than my words can her feelings of despair at the time:

Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that - everybody knows it. 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 don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.


After their father's death Virginia, Vanessa, Thoby, and Adrian moved into the house in Bloomsbury with which Virginia has become so closely associated. It was Thoby's university friends who became the core members of the Bloomsbury Group: Virginia, Vanessa, Thoby, Leonard, along with critic Clive Bell, biographer Lytton Strachey, economist John Maynard Keynes, novelist E.M. Forster, and others. Thoby instituted Thursday evening meetings when the friends would gather together to share ideas, women participating equally with men. In 1906 Thoby died of typhoid, precipitating another of Virginia's breakdowns, but Vanessa, and then Virginia, kept the Thursday meetings going. In 1907 Vanessa married Clive Bell; their son, Quentin Bell, would later write a two volume biography of his favourite aunt, Virginia. Finally, when both Virginia and Vanessa were married and had moved away from Bloomsbury, they took the group with them for an association that lasted well into the thirties. And all the time, Virginia was writing, less during illness, more when well.

Virginia was shy with strangers, and in the manner of such people could appear rude and snobbish to those who didn't know her. Amongst friends she bloomed, however; she was known as a brilliant conversationalist who loved to joke and laugh uproariously. She could be rather cruel, indulging in flights of fancy which were almost malicious at times as she made fun of her friends. She was interested personally and professionally in others' experiences, and would interrogate people searchingly and at length about their thoughts and feelings. Her friends did not see her mania firsthand, for Leonard and her doctors sequestered her from view as soon as she began to get ill, so the Virginia they knew was a lively and intelligent woman, beloved by children, fond of fun, dedicated to her writing.

The Woolfs had determined that they would make a living by the pen, and in 1917 bought a small hand printing press, in part as therapy for Virginia. The printing grew into publishing, and they named their new business Hogarth Press after the house they were living in. The Press published almost all of Virginia's books, as well as T.S. Eliot's Waste Land and fiction by Maksim Gorky, E.M. Forster, and Katherine Mansfield, and a complete translation of the works of Sigmund Freud.

In 1905 Virginia began a long association with The Times Literary Supplement, for which she wrote reviews. But she wanted more from her authorial life. She was an experimental writer, interested in finding a new way of expressing herself. She wanted a feminine style which pushed beneath the surface of events in its striving for a more realistic representation of life as it is truly lived. Like fellow modernists James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, Virginia was less interested in logical plot than in the disorganized stream of consciousness that captured how people really thought and felt. Her most famous novels - To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves - present her innovative writing techniques perfectly, painting her characters through an associative melange of memory, daydreams, conversation, and interior monologues. Always women are at the centre of Virginia's novels, essential and interesting in their own right, and not merely adjuncts to men. Her critical essays like A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas argue passionately in favour of women's personal and economic independence from men, which would allow women to find their own self-fulfillment in life. Happily, Virginia was able to find fulfillment and fame in her lifetime as a writer, and today she is revered as a true paragon of modernist literature, while her husband is largely remembered as just that: Virginia Woolf's husband.

Virginia Woolf was a prolific writer, and this is far from a complete list of her writings. I offer it humbly, as a short list of works for which she is most famous:

In addition to these and many other books published in her lifetime and posthumously, multi-volume editions of her letters and her diaries have appeared. Leonard wrote a long autobiography which gives insight into his life with his brilliant wife, and Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia is a classic. Every few years a new biography of Virginia comes out, and I don't pretend to be up on the latest "definitive" interpretation of this great writer's life and genius, but if you want to know more, the Virginia Woolf Web site ( is an excellent place to start.

See also: (exhaustive psychological overview of her life, and my source for the suicide note quoted above)

And of course don't forget to read the excellent write-up on Virginia's life and work, noded under her epitaph by jandradt: Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!