Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) is recognised as one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. Perhaps best known as the author of Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), she was also a prolific writer of essays, diaries, letters and biographies. Both in style and subject matter, Woolf’s work captures the fast-changing world in which she was working, from transformations in gender roles, sexuality and class to technologies such as cars, airplanes and cinema. Influenced by seminal writers and artists of the period such as Marcel Proust, Igor Stravinsky and the Post-Impressionists, Woolf’s work explores the key motifs of modernism, including the subconscious, time, perception, the city and the impact of war. Her ‘stream of consciousness’ technique enabled her to portray the interior lives of her characters and to depict the montage-like imprint of memory.
Woolf’s work often explored her fascination with the marginal and overlooked: of ‘an ordinary mind on an ordinary day’, as she put in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919/25). In ‘The Art of Biography’ (1939), she argued that
The question now inevitably asks itself, whether the lives of great men only should be recorded. Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography – the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious
She refused patriarchal honours like the Companion of Honour (1935) and honorary degrees from Manchester and Liverpool (1933 and 1939), and wrote polemical works about the position of women in society, such as A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). In Flush (1933) she wrote of the life of the spaniel owned by the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in Orlando (1928), she fictionalised the life of her friend Vita Sackville-West into that of a man-woman, born in the Renaissance but surviving till the present day.
Besides her writing, Woolf had a considerable impact on the cultural life around her. The publishing house she ran with her husband Leonard Woolf, the Hogarth Press, was originally established in Richmond and then in London’s Bloomsbury, an area after which the ‘Bloomsbury Set’ of artists, writers and intellectuals is named. Woolf’s house was a hub for some of the most interesting cultural activity of the time, and Hogarth Press publications included books by writers such as T S Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Katherine Mansfield, E M Forster, and the Woolfs themselves.
Born Virginia Adeline Stephen in 1882, her parents were Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), the founder of the Oxford Dictionary of Biography, and his second wife, Julia Duckworth (1846–1895). Woolf’s father – who was later knighted for services to literature – gave her the run of his substantial library. Her mother, father and brother died in quick succession, and she suffered from poor mental health for much of her life, committing suicide in 1941.
Further information about the life of Virginia Woolf can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- Randall Stevenson
- Capturing and creating the modern, Literature 1900–1950, Power and conflict
Randall Stevenson describes how the violence and loss of the First World War affected modernist writers’ attitudes towards nature and time, as well as shaping their experiments with language, literary form and the representation of consciousness.
- Article by:
- Katherine Mullin
- Capturing and creating the modern
The alienated modernist self is a product of the big city rather than the countryside or small town. Katherine Mullin describes how an interest in the sensibility associated with the city – often London, but for James Joyce, Dublin – developed from the mid-19th century to the modernist period.
- Article by:
- Rachel Bowlby
- Exploring identity, Gender and sexuality
Professor Rachel Bowlby examines A Room of One’s Own as a key work of feminist criticism, revealing how Virginia Woolf ranges beyond the essay’s official topic of women and fiction to question issues around education, sexuality, and gendered values.
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