Virginia Woolf – The authoress amidst adversities

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Adeline Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882, in London. She was an English writer, a publisher, a novelist, a critic, and a humanist. She is considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors and also a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device. She was born into a non-religious family. The boys in the family received college educations, while the girls, including Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, who later became a famous Modernist painter, were home-schooled in English classics and Victorian literature, according to societal norms.

It’s said that every writer is born out of misery. Indeed, some are born with those talents, while others acquire them due to circumstances. Woolf’s life is one of those of those who suffered at the hands of fate and hence found solace in writing. In the early years of her life, Woolf lost her mother. Two years later, in 1897, she lost her half-sister, who was almost a mother figure for her. His death in 1905 caused another mental breakdown for Woolf. Her brother Thoby’s death in 1906 marked a “decade of deaths” that ended her childhood and adolescence. From then on, her life was punctuated by urgent voices from the grave that at times seemed more real than her visual reality. At the age of 6, she was sexually abused by her half  brother, and throughout her life, she couldn’t get over this dreadful fact. All this led to a mental breakdown, which later took the form of depression and her attempts at suicide.

From 1897 to 1901, she attended the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London, where she studied classics and history and came into contact with early reformers of women’s higher education and the women’s rights movement. Thus she was a feminist and became one of the central subjects of the 1970s movement of feminist criticism, and her works have since gathered much attention and widespread commentary for “inspiring feminism.” Woolf believed that in order to break free from a patriarchal society, women writers needed a “room of their own” to develop. She frequently fantasised about an “Outsider’s Society,” in which women writers would create a virtual private space for themselves through their writings in order to develop a feminist critique of society.

Encouraged by her father, Woolf began writing professionally in 1900. She came from a wealthy family and thus faced no opposition from her family in pursuing her writing career.However, after his death, the Stephen family moved from Kensington to Bloomsbury. It was here that they formed the artistic and literary Bloomsbury Group, including a few famous artists of the Modern Period. In 1912, she married Leonard Woolf, who himself was a part of the Bloomsbury group, and in 1917 the couple founded the Hogarth Press, which published much of her work. Throughout her life, Woolf was troubled by her mental illness and was institutionalized several times.

During the interwar period, Woolf was an important part of London’s literary and artistic society. In 1915, she published her first novel, The Voyage Out. Her best-known works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928). She is also known for her essays, including A Room of One’s Own (1929), in which she wrote the much-quoted dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”



In the late 19th century, education was sharply divided along gender lines, a tradition that Virginia has often noted and condemned in her writings. Boys were sent to school, and girls, if they were afforded the luxury of education, received it from their parents, governesses, and tutors. Virginia was taught Latin, French, history, and mathematics. Her liberty for education becomes clear from her statement, “Even today there may be parents who would doubt the wisdom of allowing a girl of fifteen the free run of a large and quite unexpurgated library.” But my father allowed it. “Read what you like,” he said, and all his books were to be had without asking.


Relationships with family

Virginia expressed the opinion that her father was her favourite parent, and although she had only just turned thirteen when her mother died, she had been profoundly influenced by her mother throughout her life. She invoked the image of her mother repeatedly throughout her life in her diaries, her letters, and a number of her autobiographical essays, including Reminiscences (1908), 22 Hyde Park Gate (1921), and A Sketch of the Past (1940), frequently evoking her memories with the words “I see her…” and admiring the strengths of her mother’s womanly ideals. Woolf described her mother as an “invisible presence” in her life.

Another issue the children had to deal with was Leslie Stephen’s temper, with Woolf describing him as “the tyrant father.” He had given her his ring on her eighteenth birthday, and she had a deep emotional attachment to it. However, she began to realise how much of him was in her. She was both fascinated and condemnatory of Leslie Stephen: “I was more like him than her, I think, and therefore more critical; but he was an adorable man and somehow tremendous.”


Sexual abuse (Wolf’s theory of shock)

Gerald Duckworth, her older half brother, sexually abused her when she was 5 or 6.In her teenage years, another older half-brother, George Duckworth, misused her repeatedly. As a result of these abuses, Woolf suffered the special signs and symptoms of long-standing childhood psychic trauma: sexual numbing, emotional distancing, self-hypnosis, and splitting. She also suffered some of the more ordinary signs and symptoms common to most childhood traumas—fears, perceptual repetitions, etc. Interestingly, Virginia Woolf’s fictional characters manifest the very same signs and symptoms Woolf manifested all of her life. It has been suggested that all this led to a lifetime of sexual fear and resistance to masculine authority.



Marriage was probably the only good thing that happened in her life. Leonard Woolf was a member of the Bloomsbury Group. He recalls Virginia in “white dresses and large hats, with parasols in her hands; her beauty literally took one’s breath away.” To him, she was silent,  formidable, and alarming. Woolf began persuading Virginia to marry him. But it wasn’t until 1912 that she explained how she wanted to get married but was afraid of intimacy and commitment. The couple shared a close bond. However, in 1913, Virginia made a suicide attempt. Both Woolfs were internationalists and pacifists who believed that promoting understanding between peoples was the best way to avoid another world war, and they chose to publish works by foreign authors whose names the British reading public had never heard of.

The couple moved to Asham because Woolf needed relief from the pace of London life, and she found happiness here. “Oh, but how happy we’ve been at Asheham!” she wrote in her diary on May 5, 1919.It was a most melodious time. “Everything went so freely, but I can’t analyse all the sources of my joy.” Asham was also the inspiration for “A Haunted House” and was painted by members of the Bloomsbury Group. It was during these times at Asham that Ka Cox started to devote herself to Virginia and became very useful.

During her time in Firle, Virginia became acquainted with Neo-Pagans who were pursuing socialism, vegetarianism, exercising outdoors, and alternative life styles, including social nudity. Although she had some reservations, Woolf was involved with their activities for a while, fascinated by their bucolic innocence in contrast to the skeptical intellectualism of Bloomsbury.


Mental health

From the age of 13, following the death of her mother, Woolf suffered periodic mood swings from severe depression to manic excitement, including psychotic episodes, which the family referred to as her “madness.” But as Hermione Lee points out, she was not “mad.” She was merely a woman who suffered from and struggled with illness for much of her relatively short life, a woman of “exceptional courage, intelligence, and stoicism,” a woman who made the best use of and achieved the best understanding of that illness. The death of her mother was the “greatest disaster that could happen.” And that of her father in 1904 provoked her most alarming collapse, when she threw herself out of a window, and she was briefly institutionalised under the care of her father’s friend, the eminent psychiatrist George Savage. Savage blamed her education, which was frowned upon by many at the time as unsuitable for women, for her illness.

By the end of February 1910, she was becoming increasingly restless, and Dr. Savage suggested being away from London. She loathed the experience, writing to her sister on July 28, describing how she found the phoney religious atmosphere stifling and the institution ugly, and informing Vanessa that to escape, “I shall soon have to jump out of a window.” The threat of being sent back would later lead to her contemplating suicide. Despite her protests, Savage would refer her back in 1912 for insomnia and in 1913 for depression. Distraught, she returned home and attempted suicide by taking an overdose of 100 grains of veronal, nearly dying had she not been found by Ka Cox, who summoned help.

Over the rest of her life, she suffered recurrent bouts of depression. In 1940, a number of factors appeared to overwhelm her. Her biography of Roger Fry had been published in July, and she had been disappointed in its reception. The horrors of war depressed her, and their London homes had been destroyed. Her health became increasingly a matter of concern. In 1941, at age 59, Woolf committed suicide.

In her diaries and letters, Woolf herself provides not only a vivid picture of her symptoms but also her response to the demons that haunted her and at times made her long for death. She recognised that writing was one of the behaviours that enabled her to cope with her illness: “The only way I keep afloat is by working… I feel like I’m sinking as soon as I stop working.”And as usual, I feel that if I sink further, I shall reach the truth.” Sinking under water was Woolf’s metaphor for both the effects of depression and psychosis, but also finding the truth, and ultimately, her choice of death.

Leonard Woolf relates how, during the 30 years they were married, they consulted many doctors. The solution was simple: as long as she lived a quiet life without any physical or mental exertion, she was well. On the other hand, any mental, emotional, or physical strain resulted in a reappearance of her symptoms. These began with a headache, followed by insomnia and racing thoughts. Her remedy was simple: to retire to bed in a darkened room, eat, and drink plenty of milk, following which the symptoms slowly subsided.

It has been suggested that her illness included a genetic predisposition, for both trauma and family history have been implicated in bipolar disorder. Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, suffered from depression, and her half-sister, Laura, was institutionalized. Many of Virginia’s symptoms, including persistent headache, insomniairritability, and anxiety, resembled those of her father. Another factor is the pressure she placed on herself in her work; for instance, her breakdown in 1913 was at least partly triggered by the need to finish The Voyage Out.

Virginia, herself, hinted that her illness was related to how she saw the repressed position of women in society when she wrote in A Room of One’s Own that had Shakespeare had a sister of equal genius, “she would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.”

Thomas Caramagno and others warn against the “neurotic-genius” way of looking at mental illness, which rationalises the theory that creativity is somehow born of mental illness.



Woolf fell into a depression similar to the one she had previously experienced after finishing the manuscript for her final novel, Between the Acts (published posthumously).The onset of World War II, the destruction of her London home, and the cool reception given to her biography of her late friend Roger Fry all worsened her condition until she was unable to work.

After World War II began, Woolf’s diary indicates that she was obsessed with death, which figured more and more as her mood darkened. On March 28, 1941, Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home. She wrote in her suicide note to her husband how grateful she was to have him and his support throughout.

Several changes were made in the draught of her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), and it was argued that these were in response to changes in her own life. First World War bore deep psychological scars; thus, she provided an authentic voice for soldiers suffering from shell shock. Her novels are also a meditation on the lives of a nation’s inhabitants in the midst of war and of the people left behind. They also explore the passage of time and how women were forced by society to allow men to take emotional strength from them. Her fiction has been studied for the role of social class in contemporary British society. In A Room of One’s Own, she talks about “genius restricted,” where several other women of genius got neglected because of inequality and exclusion.


She was influenced by American writer Henry David Thoreau, who said that “the millions are awake enough for physical labor, but only one in hundreds of millions is awake enough for a poetic or divine life.” “To be awake is to be alive.” Woolf believed that silence freed the mind to truly contemplate and comprehend the world.Woolf and Thoreau were both concerned with the difficulty of human relationships in the modern age. Other notable influences include William ShakespeareGeorge EliotDaniel DefoeJames Joyce, E. M. Forster, etc.


In her lifetime, Woolf was outspoken on many topics that were considered controversial, some of which are now considered progressive, others regressive. She was an ardent feminist at a time when women’s rights were barely recognised and an anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and pacifist when chauvinism was popular.



Teachings we get from Woolf’s writings:

  • Notice everything: this is depicted from her prose “The death of the moth”.
  • Defining who we really are with all our vulnerabilities and confusions. She raised her sensitivity to the highest art form.
  • Accept everyday: Representation of her age and the trivial things around her that she was able to write explicitly and unafraid. She believed that monuments were not meant to last but to pass.
  • Be a feminist: She was aware that men and women fit themselves in rigid roles. She believed that one must be man-womanly or woman-manly. She desperately wanted to rise the status of women in her society. “Women have always been poor. Not for 200 years mere but from the beginning of time”.
  • The Victorians in their writings focused on the external things but Woolf in her writings emphasized the internal or inner state of mind.

Virginia Woolf is studied around the world. Her works have been translated into more than 50 languages. A large body of literature is dedicated to her life and work and she has been the subject of plays, novels and films. Woolf is commemorated today by statues, societies dedicated to her work and a building at University of London. Virginia Woolf is known for her contributions to twentieth-century literature and her essays, as well as the influence she has had on literary, particularly feminist criticism.



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