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Virginia Woolf
Photograph of Virginia Woolf in 1902; photograph by George Charles Beresford
Woolf in 1902
BornAdeline Virginia Stephen
(1882-01-25)25 January 1882
London, England
Died28 March 1941(1941-03-28) (aged 59)
River Ouse in East Sussex, England
  • Novelist
  • essayist
  • publisher
  • critic
Alma materKing's College London
Notable works
(m. 1912)

Adeline Virginia Woolf (/wʊlf/;[2] née Stephen; 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English writer. She is considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors. She pioneered the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device.

Woolf was born into an affluent household in South Kensington, London. She was the seventh child of Julia Prinsep Jackson and Leslie Stephen in a blended family of eight that included the modernist painter Vanessa Bell. She was home-schooled in English classics and Victorian literature from a young age. From 1897 to 1901, she attended the Ladies' Department of King's College London. There, she studied classics and history, coming into contact with early reformers of women's higher education and the women's rights movement.

After her father's death in 1904, the Stephen family moved from Kensington to the more bohemian Bloomsbury, where, in conjunction with the brothers' intellectual friends, they formed the artistic and literary Bloomsbury Group. In 1912, she married Leonard Woolf, and in 1917, the couple founded the Hogarth Press, which published much of her work. They rented a home in Sussex and permanently settled there in 1940.

Woolf began writing professionally in 1900. During the inter-war period, Woolf was an important part of London's literary and artistic society. In 1915, she published her first novel, The Voyage Out, through her half-brother's publishing house, Gerald Duckworth and Company. Her best-known works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928). She is also known for her essays, such as A Room of One's Own (1929).

Woolf became one of the central subjects of the 1970s movement of feminist criticism. Her works, translated into more than 50 languages, have attracted attention and widespread commentary for inspiring feminism. A large body of writing is dedicated to her life and work. She has been the subject of plays, novels, and films. Woolf is commemorated by statues, societies dedicated to her work, and a building at the University of London.


Early life[edit]


Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on 25 January 1882 at 22 Hyde Park Gate in South Kensington, London,[3] to Julia (née Jackson) and Sir Leslie Stephen. Her father was a writer, historian, essayist, biographer, and mountaineer,[3] described by Helena Swanwick as a "gaunt figure with a ragged red brown beard ... a formidable man."[4] Her mother was a noted philanthropist, and her side of the family contained Julia Margaret Cameron, a celebrated photographer, and Lady Henry Somerset, a campaigner for women's rights.[5] Virginia was named after her aunt Adeline, but because of her aunt's recent death the family decided not to use her first name.[6]

Both of the Stephens had children from previous marriages. Julia, from her marriage to barrister Herbert Duckworth, had George, Stella, and Gerald;[5] Leslie had Laura from a marriage to Minny Thackeray, a daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray.[3] Both former spouses had died suddenly, Duckworth of an abscess and Minny Stephen in childbirth.[5][7] Leslie and Julia Stephen had four children together: Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia, and Adrian.[3]

Duckworth/Stephen Family c. 1892. Back row: Gerald Duckworth, Virginia, Thoby and Vanessa Stephen, George Duckworth. Front row: Adrian, Julia, Leslie Stephen.

Virginia lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate until her father's death in 1904.[8][a] She was, as she described it, "born into a large connection, born not of rich parents, but of well-to-do parents, born into a very communicative, literate, letter writing, visiting, articulate, late nineteenth century world."[9] The house was described as dimly-lit, crowded with furniture and paintings.[10] Within it, the younger Stephens made a close-knit group.[11]

Virginia showed an early affinity for writing. By the age of five she was writing letters. A fascination with books helped form a bond between her and her father.[3] From the age of 10, with her sister Vanessa, she began an illustrated family newspaper, the Hyde Park Gate News, chronicling life and events within the Stephen family,[12] and modelled on the popular magazine Tit-Bits.[13] Virginia would run the Hyde Park Gate News until 1895, a few weeks before her mother's death.[14] In 1897 Virginia began her first diary,[15] which she kept for the next twelve years.[16]

Talland House[edit]

In the spring of 1882, Leslie rented a large white house in St Ives, Cornwall.[17][3] The family would spend three months each summer there for the first 13 years of Virginia's life.[18] Although the house had limited amenities, its main attraction was the view overlooking Porthminster Bay towards the Godrevy Lighthouse.[3] The happy summers spent at Talland House would later influence Woolf's novels Jacob's Room, To the Lighthouse and The Waves.[19]

Both at Hyde Park Gate and Talland House, the family socialised with much of the country's literary and artistic circles. Frequent guests included literary figures such as Henry James and George Meredith, as well as James Russell Lowell.[citation needed] The family did not return after 1894; a hotel was constructed in front of the house which blocked the sea view, and Julia Stephen died in May the following year.[20]

Photo of Talland House, St Ives during period when the Stephen family leased it
Talland House, St Ives, Cornwall, c. 1882–1895
Virginia and Adrian Stephen playing cricket at Talland House in 1886
Virginia and Adrian Stephen playing cricket, 1886
Julia, Leslie and Virginia reading in the library at Talland House. Photography by Vanessa Bell
Julia, Leslie and Virginia, Library, Talland House, 1892
Virginia playing cricket with Vanessa 1894
Virginia and Vanessa, 1894
Sexual abuse[edit]

In the 1939 essay "A Sketch of the Past" Woolf first wrote about experiencing sexual abuse by Gerald Duckworth at a young age. There is speculation that this contributed to her mental health issues later in life.[21] There are also suggestions of sexual impropriety from George Duckworth during the period that he was caring for the Stephen sisters.[22]


Portrait of Virginia Woolf with her father Leslie Stephen in 1902, by Beresford
Virginia and Leslie Stephen, 1902

Julia Stephen fell ill with influenza in February 1895, and never properly recovered, dying on 5 May, when Virginia was only 13.[23] This precipitated what Virginia later identified as her first "breakdown"—for months afterwards she was nervous and agitated, and she wrote very little for the subsequent two years.[24]

Stella Duckworth took on a parental role.[3] She married in April 1897, but moved to a house very close to the Stephens to continue to support the family. However, she fell ill on honeymoon and died on 19 July 1897.[25][26] Subsequently George Duckworth took it upon himself to act as the head of the household, and bring Vanessa and Virginia out into society.[27][28] This was not a rite of passage that resonated with either girl; Virginia's view was that "Society in those days was a very competent, perfectly complacent, ruthless machine. A girl had no chance against its fangs. No other desires—say to paint, or to write—could be taken seriously.".[29] Her priority was her writing;[28] she began a new diary at the start of 1897 and filled notebooks with fragments and literary sketches.[23][30]

Leslie Stephen died in February 1904, which caused Virginia to suffer another period of mental instability from April to September, and led to at least one suicide attempt.[31] Woolf later described the period of 1897–1904 as "the seven unhappy years."[32]


Julia Stephen at Talland House supervising Thoby, Vanessa, Virginia and Adrian doing their lessons, summer 1894
Virginia (third from left) with her mother and the Stephen children at their lessons, Talland House, c. 1894

As was common at the time, Julia Stephen did not believe in formal education for her daughters.[12] Virginia was educated in a piecemeal fashion by her parents: Julia taught her Latin, French, and history, while Leslie taught her mathematics. She also received piano lessons.[33][34] She also had unrestricted access to her father's vast library, exposing her to much of the literary canon.[35] This resulted in a greater depth of reading than any of her Cambridge contemporaries.[36] Later, Virginia recalled:

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. There were certain facts – very briefly, very shyly he referred to them. Yet "Read what you like", he said, and all his books...were to be had without asking.[37]

Another source was the conversation of their father's friends, to whom she was exposed.[citation needed] Leslie Stephen described his circle as "most of the literary people of mark...clever young writers and barristers, chiefly of the radical persuasion...we used to meet on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, to smoke and drink and discuss the universe and the reform movement".[4]

From 1897 Virginia received private tuition in Latin and Ancient Greek. One of her tutors was Clara Pater, and another was Janet Case, with whom she formed a lasting friendship and who involved her in the suffrage movement.[38] Virginia also attended a number of lectures at the King's College Ladies' Department.[39]

Although Virginia could not attend Cambridge, she was to be profoundly influenced by her brother Thoby's experiences there. When Thoby went to Trinity in 1899, he befriended a circle of young men, including Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf (whom Virginia would later marry), and Saxon Sydney-Turner, to whom he would introduce his sisters at the Trinity May Ball in 1900.[40] These men formed a reading group they named the Midnight Society, which the Stephen sisters would later be invited to.[41]

Bloomsbury (1904–1912)[edit]

Gordon Square[edit]

Photograph of 46 Gordon Square, Virginia's home from 1904 to 1907
46 Gordon Square

After their father's death, Vanessa and Adrian decided to sell 22 Hyde Park Gate in South Kensington and move to Bloomsbury. This was a much cheaper area—they had not inherited much and were unsure about their finances. The Duckworth brothers did not join the Stephens in their new home; Gerald did not wish to, and George got married during the preparations, leaving to live with his new wife.[42] Virginia lived in the house for brief periods in the autumn – she was sent away to Cambridge and Yorkshire for her health – and settled there permanently in December 1904.[43]

From March 1905 the Stephens began to entertain their brother Thoby's intellectual friends at Gordon Square. The circle, who were largely members of the Cambridge Apostles, included Saxon Sydney-Turner, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and Desmond MacCarthy. Their social gatherings, referred to as "Thursday evenings", were a vision of recreating Trinity College.[44] This circle formed the nucleus of the intellectual circle of writers and artists known as the Bloomsbury Group.[40] Later, it would include John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, and David Garnett.[b][46]

The Stephens and their Bloomsbury Friends
Portrait of Vanessa Stephen in 1902, by George Beresford
Vanessa Stephen 1902
Photograph of Thoby Stephen in 1902
Thoby Stephen 1902
Photograph of Adrian Stephen with his wife Karin Costelloe in 1914, the year they were married
Adrian Stephen
Karin Stephen 1914
Photo of Clive Bell, seated, around 1910
Clive Bell 1910
Snapshot by Ray Strachey of her brother, Lytton Strachey with Sydney Saxon-Turner, reclining at the beach
Lytton Strachey, Sydney Saxon-Turner 1917
Photograph of Desmond MacCarthy sitting on steps, from 1912
Desmond MacCarthy 1912

Virginia began teaching evening classes on a voluntary basis at Morley College, and would continue intermittently for the next two years. This work would later influence themes of class and education in her novel Mrs Dalloway.[47] She made some money from reviews, including some published in church paper The Guardian and the National Review, capitalising on her father's literary reputation in order to earn commissions.[48]

Vanessa added another event to their calendar with the "Friday Club", dedicated to the discussion of the fine arts.[49] This introduced some new people into their circle, including Vanessa's friends from the Royal Academy of Arts and Slade School of Fine Art (where she had been studying),[50] such as Henry Lamb and Gwen Darwin, and also the eighteen-year-old Katherine Laird ("Ka") Cox, who was about to attend Newnham College, Cambridge.[49] Cox would become Virginia's intimate friend. These new members brought the Bloomsbury Group into contact with another, slightly younger, group of Cambridge intellectuals who Virginia would refer to as the "Neo-Pagans". The Friday Club continued until 1912 or 1913.[49]

In the autumn of 1906 the siblings travelled to Greece and Turkey with Violet Dickinson.[51] During the trip Vanessa fell ill with appendicitis. Both Violet and Thoby contracted typhoid fever; Thoby died on 20 November.[52]

Two days after Thoby's death, Vanessa accepted a previous proposal of marriage from Clive Bell.[53] As a couple, their interest in avant-garde art would have an important influence on Woolf's further development as an author.[54]

Fitzroy Square and Brunswick Square[edit]

Photo of 29 Fitzroy Square, Virginia's home from 1907 to 1910
29 Fitzroy Square

After Vanessa's marriage, Virginia and Adrian moved into 29 Fitzroy Square, still very close to Gordon Square.[55][56] The house had previously been occupied by George Bernard Shaw, and the area had been populated by artists since the previous century. Duncan Grant lived there, and Roger Fry would move there in 1913.[55] Virginia resented the wealth that Vanessa's marriage had given her; Virginia and Adrian lived more humbly by comparison.[57]

The siblings resumed the Thursday Club at their new home,[58] while Gordon Square became the venue for a play-reading society.[59] During this period, the group began to increasingly explore progressive ideas, with open discussions of members' homosexual inclinations, and nude dancing from Vanessa, who in 1910 went so far as to propose a libertarian society with sexual freedom for all. Virginia appears not to have shown interest in practising the group's free love ideology, finding an outlet for her sexual desires only in writing.[60][61] Around this time she began work on her first novel, Melymbrosia, which eventually became The Voyage Out (1915).[62][56]

In November 1911 Virginia and Adrian moved to a larger house at 38 Brunswick Square, and invited John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant and Leonard Woolf to become lodgers there.[63][64] Virginia saw it as a new opportunity: "We are going to try all kinds of experiments", she told Ottoline Morrell.[65] This arrangement for a single woman living among men was considered scandalous.[65]

Dreadnought hoax[edit]
Bearded Virginia Woolf in Ethiopian costume 1910, in the Dreadnought Hoax
The Dreadnought hoaxers in Abyssinian regalia, 1910 (Virginia Stephen far left with beard)

Several members of the Bloomsbury Group attained notoriety in 1910 with the Dreadnought hoax, in which they posed as a royal Abyssinian entourage (with Virginia as "Prince Mendax") and received a tour of the HMS Dreadnought by Virginia's cousin Commander Fisher, who was not aware of the joke. Horace de Vere Cole, who had been one of the masterminds of the hoax along with Adrian, later leaked the story to the press and informed the Foreign Office, leading to general outrage from the establishment.[66]

Asham House (1911–1919)[edit]

Virginia Stephen with Katherine Cox at Asham in 1912
Virginia Stephen (L) with Katherine Cox, Asham 1912

During the latter Bloomsbury years Virginia travelled frequently with friends and family, to Dorset and Cornwall as well as further afield to Paris, Italy and Bayreuth. These trips were intended to avoid her suffering exhaustion from extended periods in London.[67] The question arose of Virginia needing a quiet country retreat close to London, for the sake of her still-fragile mental health.[68] In the winter of 1910 she and Adrian stayed at Lewes and started exploring the area of Sussex around the town.[67] She soon found a property in nearby Firle, which she named "Little Talland House"; she maintained a relationship with that area for the rest of her life, tending to spend her time either in Sussex or London.[c][70]

In September 1911 she and Leonard Woolf found Asham House[d] nearby, and Virginia and Vanessa took a joint lease on it.[72] Located at the end of a tree-lined road, the house was in a Regency-Gothic style, "flat, pale, serene, yellow-washed", remote, without electricity or water and allegedly haunted.[73][74] The sisters had two housewarming parties in January 1912.[72]

Virginia recorded the events of the weekends and holidays she spent there in her Asham Diary, part of which was later published as A Writer's Diary in 1953. In terms of creative writing, The Voyage Out was completed there, and much of Night and Day.[75] The house itself inspired the short story "A Haunted House", published in A Haunted House and Other Short Stories.[76] Asham provided Woolf with much-needed relief from the pace of London life, and was where she found a happiness that she expressed in her diary on 5 May 1919: "Oh, but how happy we've been at Asheham! It was a most melodious time. Everything went so freely; – but I can't analyse all the sources of my joy".[75]

Houses in Sussex
Photo of Little Talland House, Firle, East Sussex. Leased by Virginia Woolf in 1911
Little Talland House, Firle
Photo of Asham house in 1914
Asham House, Beddingham
The Round House in Lewes
The Round House, Lewes
Monk's House in Rodmell
Monk's House, Rodmell

While at Asham, in 1916 Leonard and Virginia found a farmhouse to let about four miles away, which they thought would be ideal for her sister. Eventually, Vanessa came down to inspect it, and took possession in October of that year, as a summer home for her family. The Charleston Farmhouse was to become the summer gathering place for the Bloomsbury Group.[77][page needed]

Marriage and war (1912–1920)[edit]

Virginia and Leonard on their engagement in July 1912
Engagement photograph, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, 23 July 1912

Leonard Woolf was one of Thoby Stephen's friends at Trinity College, Cambridge, and had encountered the Stephen sisters in Thoby's rooms while visiting for May Week between 1899 and 1904. He recalled that in "white dresses and large hats, with parasols in their hands, their beauty literally took one's breath away".[78] In 1904 Leonard Woolf left Britain for a civil service position in Ceylon,[79] but returned for a year's leave in 1911 after letters from Lytton Strachey describing Virginia's beauty enticed him back.[80][81] He and Virginia attended social engagements together, and he moved into Brunswick Square as a tenant in December of that year.

Leonard proposed to Virginia on 11 January 1912.[82] Initially she expressed reluctance, but the two continued courting. Leonard decided not to return to Ceylon and resigned his post. On 29 May Virginia declared her love for Leonard,[83] and they married on 10 August at St Pancras Town Hall. The couple spent their honeymoon first at Asham and the Quantock Hills before travelling to the south of France and on to Spain and Italy. On their return they moved to Clifford's Inn,[84] and began to divide their time between London and Asham.[85]

Virginia Woolf had completed a penultimate draft of her first novel The Voyage Out before her wedding, but undertook large-scale alterations to the manuscript between December 1912 and March 1913. The work was subsequently accepted by her half-brother Gerald Duckworth's publishing house, and she found the process of reading and correcting the proofs extremely emotionally difficult.[86] This led to one of several breakdowns over the subsequent two years; Woolf attempted suicide on 9 September 1913 with an overdose of Veronal, being saved with the help of Maynard Keynes' surgeon brother Geoffrey Keynes who drove Leonard to St Bartholomew's Hospital to fetch a stomach pump.[87] Woolf's illness led to Duckworth delaying the publication of The Voyage Out until 26 March 1915.[88]

In the autumn of 1914 the couple moved to a house on Richmond Green,[89] and in late March 1915 they moved to Hogarth House, also in Richmond, after which they named their publishing house in 1917.[90] The decision to move to London's suburbs was made for the sake of Woolf's health.[91] Many of Woolf's circle of friends were against the war, and Woolf herself opposed it from a standpoint of pacifism and anti-censorship.[92] Leonard was exempted from the introduction of conscription in 1916 on medical grounds.[93] The Woolfs employed two servants at the recommendation of Roger Fry in 1916; Lottie Hope worked for a number of other Bloomsbury Group members, and Nellie Boxall would stay with them until 1934.[94]

The Woolfs spent parts of the period of the First World War in Asham, but were obliged by the owner to leave in 1919.[95] "In despair" they purchased the Round House in Lewes, a converted windmill, for £300. No sooner had they bought the Round House, than Monk's House in nearby Rodmell came up for auction, a weatherboarded house with oak-beamed rooms, said to date from the 15th or 16th century.[96] The Woolfs sold the Round House and purchased Monk's House for £700.[97] Monk's House also lacked running water, but came with an acre of garden, and had a view across the Ouse towards the hills of the South Downs. Leonard Woolf describes this view as being unchanged since the days of Chaucer.[98] The Woolfs would retain Monk's House until the end of Virginia's life; it became their permanent home after their London home was bombed, and it was where she completed Between the Acts in early 1941, which was followed by her final breakdown and suicide in the nearby River Ouse on 28 March.[93]

Further works (1920–1940)[edit]

Memoir Club[edit]


1920 saw a postwar reconstitution of the Bloomsbury Group, under the title of the Memoir Club, which as the name suggests focussed on self-writing, in the manner of Proust's A La Recherche, and inspired some of the more influential books of the 20th century. The Group, which had been scattered by the war, was reconvened by Mary ('Molly') MacCarthy who called them "Bloomsberries", and operated under rules derived from the Cambridge Apostles, an elite university debating society that a number of them had been members of. These rules emphasised candour and openness. Among the 125 memoirs presented, Virginia contributed three that were published posthumously in 1976, in the autobiographical anthology Moments of Being. These were 22 Hyde Park Gate (1921), Old Bloomsbury (1922) and Am I a Snob? (1936).[99][page needed]

Vita Sackville-West[edit]

Photo of Vita Sackville-West in armchair at Virginia's home at Monk's House, smoking and with dog on her lap
Vita Sackville-West at Monk's House c. 1934

On 14 December 1922[100] Woolf met the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West,[93] wife of Harold Nicolson. This period was to prove fruitful for both authors, Woolf producing three novels, To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931) as well as a number of essays, including "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924) and "A Letter to a Young Poet" (1932).[101] The two women remained friends until Woolf's death in 1941.

Virginia Woolf also remained close to her surviving siblings, Adrian and Vanessa.[102]

Further novels and non-fiction[edit]

Between 1924 and 1940 the Woolfs returned to Bloomsbury, taking out a ten-year lease at 52 Tavistock Square,[93] from where they ran the Hogarth Press from the basement, where Virginia also had her writing room.[103]

1925 saw the publication of Mrs Dalloway in May followed by her collapse while at Charleston in August. In 1927, her next novel, To the Lighthouse, was published, and the following year she lectured on Women & Fiction at Cambridge University and published Orlando in October.

Her two Cambridge lectures then became the basis for her major essay A Room of One's Own in 1929.[93] Virginia wrote only one drama, Freshwater, based on her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, and produced at her sister's studio on Fitzroy Street in 1935. 1936 saw the publication of The Years, which had its origin in a lecture Woolf gave to the National Society for Women's Service in 1931, an edited version of which would later be published as "Professions for Women".[104] Another collapse of her health followed the novel's completion The Years.[93]

The Woolf's final residence in London was at 37 Mecklenburgh Square (1939–1940), destroyed during the Blitz in September 1940; a month later their previous home on Tavistock Square was also destroyed. After that, they made Sussex their permanent home.[105]


Woolf's suicide letter to her husband

After completing the manuscript of her last novel (posthumously published), Between the Acts (1941), Woolf fell into a depression similar to one which she had earlier experienced. The onset of the Second World War, the destruction of her London home during the Blitz, and the cool reception given to her biography of her late friend Roger Fry all worsened her condition until she was unable to work.[106] When Leonard enlisted in the Home Guard, Virginia disapproved. She held fast to her pacifism and criticised her husband for wearing what she considered to be "the silly uniform of the Home Guard".[107]

After the Second World War began, Woolf's diary indicates that she was obsessed with death, which figured more and more as her mood darkened.[108] On 28 March 1941, Woolf drowned herself by walking into the fast-flowing River Ouse near her home, after placing a large stone in her pocket.[109] Her body was not found until 18 April.[110] Her husband buried her cremated remains beneath an elm tree in the garden of Monk's House, their home in Rodmell, Sussex.[111]

In her suicide note, addressed to her husband, she wrote:

Dearest, I feel certain that 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 it 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. V.[112][113]

Mental health[edit]

Much examination has been made of Woolf's mental health. From the age of 13, following the death of her mother, Woolf suffered periodic mood swings.[114] However, Hermione Lee asserts that Woolf was not "mad"; she was merely a woman who suffered from and struggled with illness for much of her life, a woman of "exceptional courage, intelligence and stoicism", who made the best use, and achieved the best understanding she could of that illness.[115]

Her mother's death in 1895, "the greatest disaster that could happen",[116][117] precipitated a crisis for which their family doctor, Dr Seton, prescribed rest, stopping lessons and writing, and regular walks supervised by Stella.[118] Yet just two years later, Stella too was dead, bringing on Virginia's first expressed wish for death at the age of fifteen. This was a scenario she would later recreate in "Time Passes" (To the Lighthouse, 1927).[119]

The death of her father in 1904 provoked her most alarming collapse, on 10 May, when she threw herself out a window and she was briefly institutionalised[120] under the care of her father's friend, the eminent psychiatrist George Savage. She spent time recovering at the house of Stella's friend Violet Dickinson, and at her aunt Caroline Emelia Stephen's house in Cambridge,[121] and by January 1905, Savage considered her cured.[49]

Her brother Thoby's death in 1906 marked a "decade of deaths" that ended her childhood and adolescence.

On Savage's recommendation, Virginia spent three short periods in 1910, 1912, and 1913 at Burley House at 15 Cambridge Park, Twickenham, described as "a private nursing home for women with nervous disorder" run by Miss Jean Thomas.[122][123] By the end of February 1910, she was becoming increasingly restless, and Savage suggested being away from London. Vanessa rented Moat House, outside Canterbury, in June, but there was no improvement, so Savage sent her to Burley for a "rest cure". This involved partial isolation, deprivation of literature, and force-feeding,[124] and after six weeks she was able to convalesce in Cornwall and Dorset during the autumn.[citation needed]

She loathed the experience; writing to her sister on 28 July,[125] she described how she found the religious atmosphere stifling and the institution ugly, and informed Vanessa that to escape "I shall soon have to jump out of a window".[3] The threat of being sent back would later lead to her contemplating suicide.[126][failed verification] Despite her protests, Savage would refer her back in 1912 for insomnia and in 1913 for depression.[citation needed]

On emerging from Burley House in September 1913, she sought further opinions from two other physicians on the 13th: Maurice Wright, and Henry Head, who had been Henry James's physician. Both recommended she return to Burley House. Distraught, she returned home and attempted suicide by taking an overdose of 100 grains of veronal (a barbiturate) and nearly dying.[127]

On recovery, she went to Dalingridge Hall, George Duckworth's home in East Grinstead, Sussex, to convalesce on 30 September,[128] returning to Asham on 18 November. She remained unstable over the next two years, with another incident involving veronal that she claimed was an 'accident', and consulted another psychiatrist in April 1914, Maurice Craig, who explained that she was not sufficiently psychotic to be certified or committed to an institution.

The rest of the summer of 1914 went better for her, and they moved to Richmond, but in February 1915, just as The Voyage Out was due to be published, she relapsed once more, and remained in poor health for most of that year.[129] Then she began to recover, following 20 years of ill health.[130][131] Nevertheless, there was a feeling among those around her that she was now permanently changed, and not for the better.[132]

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 in the Blitz in September and October. Woolf had completed Between the Acts (published posthumously in 1941) in November, and completing a novel was frequently accompanied by exhaustion.[133] Her health became increasingly a matter of concern, culminating in her decision to end her life on 28 March 1941.[123]

She also suffered many of ailments such as headache, back-ache, fevers and faints, which related closely to her psychological stress. These often lasted for weeks or even months, and impeded her work: "What a gap! ... for 60 days; & those days spent in wearisome headache, jumping pulse, aching back, frets, fidgets, lying awake, sleeping draughts, sedatives, digitalis, going for a little walk, & plunging back into bed again."[134]

Though this instability would frequently affect her social life, she was able to continue her literary productivity with few interruptions throughout her life. Woolf herself provides not only a vivid picture of her symptoms in her diaries and letters, but also her response to the demons that haunted her and at times made her long for death:[135] "But it is always a question whether I wish to avoid these glooms... These 9 weeks give one a plunge into deep waters... One goes down into the well & nothing protects one from the assault of truth."[136]

Psychiatry had little to offer Woolf, but she recognised that writing was one of the behaviours that enabled her to cope with her illness:[135] "The only way I keep afloat... is by working... 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."[137] Sinking under water was Woolf's metaphor for both the effects of depression and psychosis— but also for finding truth, and ultimately was her choice of death.[135]

Throughout her life, Woolf struggled, without success, to find meaning in her illness: on the one hand, an impediment, on the other, something she visualised as an essential part of who she was, and a necessary condition of her art.[135] Her experiences informed her work, such as the character of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway (1925), who, like Woolf, was haunted by the dead, and ultimately takes his own life rather than be admitted to a sanitorium.[3]

Leonard Woolf relates how during the 30 years they were married, they consulted many doctors in the Harley Street area, and although they were given a diagnosis of neurasthenia, he felt they had little understanding of the causes or nature. The proposed 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, beginning with a headache, followed by insomnia and thoughts that started to race. Her remedy was simple: to retire to bed in a darkened room, following which the symptoms slowly subsided.[138]

Modern scholars, including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell,[139] have suggested her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods were influenced by the sexual abuse which she and her sister Vanessa were subjected to by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays "A Sketch of the Past" and "22 Hyde Park Gate"). Biographers point out that when Stella died in 1897, there was no counterbalance to control George's predation, and his nighttime prowling.[3] "22 Hyde Park Gate" ends with the sentence "The old ladies of Kensington and Belgravia never knew that George Duckworth was not only father and mother, brother and sister to those poor Stephen girls; he was their lover also."[140]

It is likely that other factors also played a part. It has been suggested that they include genetic predisposition.[141] Virginia's father, Leslie Stephen, suffered from depression, and her half-sister Laura was institutionalised. Many of Virginia's symptoms, including persistent headache, insomnia, irritability, and anxiety, resembled those of her father's.[142] Another factor is the pressure she placed upon herself in her work; for instance, her breakdown of 1913 was at least partly triggered by the need to finish The Voyage Out.[143]

Virginia herself hinted that her illness was related to how she saw the repressed position of women in society when she wrote A Room of One's Own.[3][144][145] in a 1930 letter to Ethel Smyth:

As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does. And the six months—not three—that I lay in bed taught me a good deal about what is called oneself.[146]

Thomas Caramagno[147] and others,[148] in discussing her illness, oppose the "neurotic-genius" way of looking at mental illness, where creativity and mental illness are conceptualised as linked rather than antithetical.[149][147] Stephen Trombley describes Woolf as having a confrontational relationship with her doctors, and possibly being a woman who is a "victim of male medicine", referring to the lack of understanding, particularly at the time, about mental illness.[150][page needed][151][page needed]


The Bloomsbury Group held very progressive views regarding sexuality and rejected the austere strictness of Victorian society. The majority of its members were homosexual or bisexual.[152]

Woolf had several affairs with women, the most notable being with Vita Sackville-West. The two women developed a deep connection; Vita was arguably one of the few people in Virginia's adult life that she was truly close to.[153]

[Virginia Woolf] told Ethel that she only really loved three people: Leonard, Vanessa, and myself, which annoyed Ethel but pleased me – Vita Sackville-West's letter to husband Harold Nicolson, dated 28 September 1939

During their relationship, both women saw the peak of their literary careers, with the titular protagonist of Woolf's acclaimed Orlando: A Biography being inspired by Sackville-West. The pair remained lovers for a decade and stayed close friends for the rest of Woolf's life.[154][155] Woolf had said to Sackville-West she disliked masculinity.[156]

[Virginia Woolf] dislikes the possessiveness and love of domination in men. In fact she dislikes the quality of masculinity ; says that women stimulate her imagination, by their grace & their art of life – Vita Sackville-West's diary, dated 26 September 1928

Among her other notable affairs were those with Sibyl Colefax, Lady Ottoline Morrell, and Mary Hutchinson.[155] Some surmise that she may have fallen in love with Madge Symonds, the wife of one of her uncles.[157] Madge Symonds was described as one of Woolf's early loves in Sackville-West's diary.[158] She also fell in love with Violet Dickinson, although there is some confusion as to whether the two consummated their relationship.[159]

In regard to relationships with men, Woolf was averse to sex with them, blaming the sexual abuse perpetrated upon her and her sister by her half-brothers when they were children and teens. This is one of the reasons she initially declined marriage proposals from her future husband, Leonard. She even went as far as to tell him that she was not attracted to him, but that she did love him and finally agreed to marriage.[155] Woolf preferred female lovers to male lovers, for the most part, based on her aversion to sex with men. This aversion to relations with men influenced her writing especially when considering her sexual abuse as a child.[160]

I sometimes think that if I married you, I could have everything—and then—is it the sexual side of it that comes between us? As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no physical attraction in you. – Letter to Leonard from Virginia dated May 1, 1912[161]

Leonard became the love of her life and, even though their sexual relationship was questionable, they loved each other deeply and formed a strong and supportive marriage that led to the formation of their publishing house as well as several of her writings. Neither was monogamous with the other sexually, but they were faithful in their love and respect for each other.[162]


Portrait of Woolf in 1917 by Roger Fry
A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c. 1917
Lytton Strachey with Virginia Woolf 1923
Lytton Strachey and Woolf at Garsington, 1923
Portrait of Virginia Woolf 1927
Virginia Woolf 1927

Woolf is considered to be one of the most important 20th-century novelists.[163] A modernist, she was one of the pioneers of using stream of consciousness as a narrative device, alongside contemporaries such as Marcel Proust,[164][165] Dorothy Richardson and James Joyce.[166][167][168] Woolf's reputation was at its greatest during the 1930s, but declined considerably following the Second World War. The growth of feminist criticism in the 1970s helped re-establish her reputation.[169][123]

Virginia submitted her first article in 1890, to a competition in Tit-Bits. Although it was rejected, this shipboard romance by the 8-year-old would presage her first novel 25 years later, as would contributions to the Hyde Park News, such as the model letter "to show young people the right way to express what is in their hearts", a subtle commentary on her mother's legendary matchmaking.[170][171] She transitioned from juvenilia to professional journalism in 1904 at the age of 22. Violet Dickinson introduced her to Kathleen Lyttelton, the editor of the Women's Supplement of The Guardian, a Church of England newspaper. Invited to submit a 1,500-word article, Virginia sent Lyttelton a review of William Dean Howells' The Son of Royal Langbirth and an essay about her visit to Haworth that year, Haworth, November 1904.[3] The review was published anonymously on 4 December, and the essay on the 21st.[172][173] In 1905, Woolf began writing for The Times Literary Supplement.[174]

Woolf would go on to publish novels and essays as a public intellectual to both critical and popular acclaim. Much of her work was self-published through the Hogarth Press. "Virginia Woolf's peculiarities as a fiction writer have tended to obscure her central strength: she is arguably the major lyrical novelist in the English language. Her novels are highly experimental: a narrative, frequently uneventful and commonplace, is refracted—and sometimes almost dissolved—in the characters' receptive consciousness. Intense lyricism and stylistic virtuosity fuse to create a world overabundant with auditory and visual impressions."[175] "The intensity of Virginia Woolf's poetic vision elevates the ordinary, sometimes banal settings"—often wartime environments—"of most of her novels."[175]

Though at least one biography of Virginia Woolf appeared in her lifetime, the first authoritative study of her life was published in 1972 by her nephew Quentin Bell. Hermione Lee's 1996 biography Virginia Woolf[176] provides a thorough and authoritative examination of Woolf's life and work, which she discussed in an interview in 1997.[177] In 2001, Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska edited The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Julia Briggs's Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life (2005) focuses on Woolf's writing, including her novels and her commentary on the creative process, to illuminate her life. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also uses Woolf's literature to understand and analyse gender domination. Woolf biographer Gillian Gill notes that Woolf's traumatic experience of sexual abuse by her half-brothers during her childhood influenced her advocacy of protection of vulnerable children from similar experiences.[178] Biljana Dojčinović has discussed the issues surrounding translations of Woolf to Serbian as a "border-crossing".[179]


Woolf's fiction has been studied for its insight into many themes including war, shell shock, witchcraft, and the role of social class in contemporary modern British society.[180] In the postwar Mrs Dalloway (1925), Woolf addresses the moral dilemma of war and its effects[181][182] and provides an authentic voice for soldiers returning from the First World War, suffering from shell shock, in the person of Septimus Smith.[183] In A Room of One's Own (1929) Woolf equates historical accusations of witchcraft with creativity and genius among women "When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils...then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen".[184] Throughout her work Woolf tried to evaluate the degree to which her privileged background framed the lens through which she viewed class.[185] She both examined her own position as someone who would be considered an elitist snob, but attacked the class structure of Britain as she found it. In her 1936 essay Am I a Snob? she examined her values and those of the privileged circle she existed in. She concluded she was, and subsequent critics and supporters have tried to deal with the dilemma of being both elite and a social critic.[186][187][188]

The sea is a recurring motif in Woolf's work. Noting Woolf's early memory of listening to waves break in Cornwall, Katharine Smyth writes in The Paris Review that "the radiance [of] cresting water would be consecrated again and again in her writing, saturating not only essays, diaries, and letters but also Jacob's Room, The Waves, and To the Lighthouse."[189] Patrizia A. Muscogiuri explains that "seascapes, sailing, diving and the sea itself are aspects of nature and of human beings' relationship with it which frequently inspired Virginia Woolf's writing."[190] This trope is deeply embedded in her texts' structure and grammar; James Antoniou notes in Sydney Morning Herald how "Woolf made a virtue of the semicolon, the shape and function of which resembles the wave, her most famous motif."[191]

Despite the considerable conceptual difficulties, given Woolf's idiosyncratic use of language,[192] her works have been translated into over 50 languages.[180][193] Some writers, such as the Belgian Marguerite Yourcenar, had rather tense encounters with her, while others, such as the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, produced versions that were highly controversial.[192][123]


Virginia Woolf researched the life of her great-aunt, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, publishing her findings in an essay titled "Pattledom" (1925),[194] and later in her introduction to her 1926 edition of Cameron's photographs.[195][196] She had begun work on a play based on an episode in Cameron's life in 1923, but abandoned it. Finally it was performed on 18 January 1935 at the studio of her sister, Vanessa Bell on Fitzroy Street in 1935.[197] Woolf directed it herself, and the cast were mainly members of the Bloomsbury Group, including herself. Freshwater is a short three act comedy satirising the Victorian era, only performed once in Woolf's lifetime. Beneath the comedic elements, there is an exploration of both generational change and artistic freedom. Both Cameron and Woolf fought against the class and gender dynamics of Victorianism[198] and the play shows links to both To the Lighthouse and A Room of One's Own that would follow.[196]


Woolf wrote a body of autobiographical work and more than 500 essays and reviews,[101] some of which, like A Room of One's Own (1929) were of book length. Not all were published in her lifetime. Shortly after her death, Leonard Woolf produced an edited edition of unpublished essays titled The Moment and other Essays, published by the Hogarth Press in 1947. Many of these were originally lectures that she gave,[199] and several more volumes of essays followed, such as The Captain's Death Bed: and other essays (1950).

A Room of One's Own[edit]

Among Woolf's non-fiction works, one of the best known is A Room of One's Own (1929), a book-length essay. Considered a key work of feminist literary criticism, it was written following two lectures she delivered on "Women and Fiction" at Cambridge University the previous year. In it, she examines the historical disempowerment women have faced in many spheres, including social, educational and financial. One of her more famous dicta is contained within the book "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". Much of her argument ("to show you how I arrived at this opinion about the room and the money") is developed through the "unsolved problems" of women and fiction writing to arrive at her conclusion, although she claimed that was only "an opinion upon one minor point".[200] In doing so, she states a good deal about the nature of women and fiction, employing a quasi-fictional style as she examines where women writers failed because of lack of resources and opportunities, examining along the way the experiences of the Brontës, George Eliot and George Sand, as well as the fictional character of Shakespeare's sister, equipped with the same genius but not position. She contrasted these women who accepted a deferential status with Jane Austen, who wrote entirely as a woman.[201]

Hogarth Press[edit]

Shelf of Shakespeare plays hand-bound by Virginia Woolf in her bedroom at Monk's House[e]

Virginia had taken up book-binding as a pastime in October 1901, at the age of 19.[203][204] The Woolfs had been discussing setting up a publishing house for some time – Leonard intended for it to give Virginia a rest from the strain of writing, and therefore help her fragile mental health. Additionally, publishing her works under their own outfit would save her from the stress of submitting her work to an external company, which contributed to her breakdown during the process of publishing her first novel The Voyage Out.[f] The Woolfs obtained their own hand-printing press in April 1917 and set it up on their dining room table at Hogarth House, thus beginning the Hogarth Press.[204][205]

The first publication was Two Stories in July 1917, consisting of "The Mark on the Wall" by Virginia Woolf (which has been described as "Woolf's first foray into modernism"[206]) and "Three Jews" by Leonard Woolf. The accompanying illustrations by Dora Carrington were a success, leading Virginia to remark that the press was "specially good at printing pictures, and we see that we must make a practice of always having pictures." The process took two and a half months with a production run of 150 copies.[207] Other short short stories followed, including Kew Gardens (1919) with a woodblock by Vanessa Bell as frontispiece.[93] Subsequently Bell added further illustrations, adorning each page of the text.[208]

Unlike its contemporary small printers, who specialised in expensive artisanal reprints, the Woolfs concentrated on living avant-garde authors,[209] and over the subsequent five years printed works by a number of authors including Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Clive Bell and Roger Fry. They also produced translations of Russian works with S. S. Koteliansky, and the first translation of the complete works of Sigmund Freud.[210][204] They acquired a larger press in 1921 and began to sell directly to booksellers.[204] In 1938 Virginia sold her share of the company to John Lehmann,[211] who had started working for Hogarth Press seven years previously.[212] The Press eventually became Leonard's only source of income, but his association with it ended in 1946, after publishing 527 titles, and Hogarth is now an imprint of Penguin Random House.[205][204]

The Press also produced explicitly political works. Pamphlets had fallen out of fashion due to the high production costs and low revenue, but the Hogarth Press produced several series on contemporary issues of international politics, challenging colonialism and critiquing Soviet Russia and Italian fascism.[213] The Woolfs also published political fiction, including Turbott Wolfe (1926) by William Plomer and In a Province (1934) by Laurens van der Post, which concern South African racial policies and revolutionary movements respectively.[214] Virginia Woolf saw a link between international politics and feminism, publishing a biography of Indian feminist activist Saroj Nalini Dutt and the memoirs of suffragette Elizabeth Robins.[215] Scholar Ursula McTaggart argues that the Hogarth Press shaped and represented Woolf's later concept of an "Outsiders' Society", a non-organised group of women who would resist "the patriarchal fascism of war and nationalism" by exerting influence through private actions, as described in Three Guineas. In this view, the readers and authors form a loose network, with the Press providing the means to exchange ideas.[216]


Michel Lackey argues that a major influence on Woolf, from 1912 onward, was Russian literature and Woolf adopted many of its aesthetic conventions.[217] The style of Fyodor Dostoyevsky with his depiction of a fluid mind in operation helped to influence Woolf's writings about a "discontinuous writing process", though Woolf objected to Dostoyevsky's obsession with "psychological extremity" and the "tumultuous flux of emotions" in his characters together with his right-wing, monarchist politics as Dostoyevsky was an ardent supporter of the autocracy of the Russian Empire.[217] In contrast to her objections to Dostoyevsky's "exaggerated emotional pitch", Woolf found much to admire in the work of Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy.[217] Woolf admired Chekhov for his stories of ordinary people living their lives, doing banal things and plots that had no neat endings.[217] From Tolstoy, Woolf drew lessons about how a novelist should depict a character's psychological state and the interior tension within.[217] Lackey notes that, from Ivan Turgenev, Woolf drew the lessons that there are multiple "I's" when writing a novel, and the novelist needed to balance those multiple versions of him- or herself to balance the "mundane facts" of a story vs. the writer's overarching vision, which required a "total passion" for art.[217]

The American writer Henry David Thoreau also influenced Woolf. In a 1917 essay, she praised Thoreau for his statement "The millions are awake enough for physical labor, but only one in hundreds of millions is awake enough to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive." They both aimed to capture 'the moment'––as Walter Pater says, "to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame."[218] [219] Woolf praised Thoreau for his "simplicity" in finding "a way for setting free the delicate and complicated machinery of the soul".[219] Like Thoreau, Woolf believed that it was silence that set the mind free to really contemplate and understand the world.[219] Both authors believed in a certain transcendental, mystical approach to life and writing, where even banal things could be capable of generating deep emotions if one had enough silence and the presence of mind to appreciate them.[219] Woolf and Thoreau were both concerned with the difficulty of human relationships in the modern age.[219]

Woolf's preface to Orlando credits Daniel Defoe, Sir Thomas Browne, Laurence Sterne, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Macaulay, Emily Brontë, Thomas de Quincey, and Walter Pater as influences.[220][page needed] Among her contemporaries, Woolf was influenced by Marcel Proust, writing to Roger Fry, "Oh if I could write like that!"[221]

Virginia Woolf and her mother[edit]

The intense scrutiny of Virginia Woolf's literary output has led to speculation as to her mother's influence, including psychoanalytic studies of mother and daughter.[222][223][224][225] Her memories of her mother are memories of an obsession,[226] starting with her first major breakdown on her mother's death in 1895, the loss having a profound lifelong effect.[227] In many ways, her mother's profound influence on Virginia Woolf is conveyed in the latter's recollections, "there she is; beautiful, emphatic ... closer than any of the living are, lighting our random lives as with a burning torch, infinitely noble and delightful to her children".[116]

Woolf's understanding of her mother and family evolved considerably between 1907 and 1940, in which the somewhat distant, yet revered figure, becomes more nuanced and complete.[228] She described her mother as an "invisible presence" in her life, and Ellen Rosenman argues that the mother-daughter relationship is a constant in Woolf's writing.[229] She describes how Woolf's modernism needs to be viewed in relationship to her ambivalence towards her Victorian mother, the centre of the former's female identity, and her voyage to her own sense of autonomy. To Woolf, "Saint Julia" was both a martyr whose perfectionism was intimidating and a source of deprivation, by her absences real and virtual and premature death.[230] Julia's influence and memory pervades Woolf's life and work. "She has haunted me", she wrote.[231]

Historical feminism[edit]

According to the 2007 book Feminism: From Mary Wollstonecraft to Betty Friedan by Bhaskar A. Shukla, "Recently, studies of Virginia Woolf have focused on feminist and lesbian themes in her work, such as in the 1997 collection of critical essays, Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, edited by Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer."[175] In 1928, Woolf took a grassroots approach to informing and inspiring feminism. She addressed undergraduate women at the ODTAA Society at Girton College, Cambridge, and the Arts Society at Newnham College, with two papers that eventually became A Room of One's Own (1929).

Woolf's best-known nonfiction works, A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), examine the difficulties that female writers and intellectuals faced because men held disproportionate legal and economic power, as well as the future of women in education and society.[232] In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir counts, of all women who ever lived, only three female writers—Emily Brontë, Woolf and "sometimes" Katherine Mansfield— have explored "the given".[233]


In her lifetime, Woolf was outspoken on many topics that were considered controversial, some of which are now considered progressive, others regressive.[234] She was an ardent feminist at a time when women's rights were barely recognised, and anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist and a pacifist when chauvinism was popular. On the other hand, she has been criticised for views on class and race in her private writings and published works. Like many of her contemporaries, some of her writing is now considered offensive. As a result, she is considered polarising, a revolutionary feminist and socialist hero or a purveyor of hate speech.[234][235]

Works such as A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938) are frequently taught as icons of feminist literature in courses that would be very critical of some of her views expressed elsewhere.[236] She has also been the recipient of considerable homophobic and misogynist criticism.[237]

Humanist views[edit]

Virginia Woolf was born into a non-religious family and is regarded, along with fellow members of the Bloomsbury group E. M. Forster and G. E. Moore, as a humanist. Both her parents were prominent agnostic atheists. Her father, Leslie Stephen, had become famous in polite society for his writings which expressed and publicised reasons to doubt the veracity of religion. Stephen was also President of the West London Ethical Society, an early humanist organisation, and helped to found the Union of Ethical Societies in 1896. Woolf's mother, Julia Stephen, wrote the book Agnostic Women (1880), which argued that agnosticism (defined here as something more like atheism) could be a highly moral approach to life.

Woolf was a critic of Christianity. In a letter to Ethel Smyth, she gave a scathing denunciation of the religion, seeing it as self-righteous "egotism" and stating "my Jew [Leonard] has more religion in one toenail—more human love, in one hair".[238] Woolf stated in her private letters that she thought of herself as an atheist.[239]

She thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist's religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.

— Woolf characterises Clarissa Dalloway, the title character of Mrs Dalloway[240]


Hermione Lee cites a number of extracts from Woolf's writings that many, including Lee, would consider offensive, and these criticisms can be traced back as far as those of Wyndham Lewis and Q. D. Leavis in the 1920s and 1930s.[235] Other authors provide more nuanced contextual interpretations, and stress the complexity of her character and the apparent inherent contradictions in analysing her apparent flaws.[236] She could certainly be off-hand, rude and even cruel in her dealings with other authors, translators and biographers, such as her treatment of Ruth Gruber.[citation needed] Some authors, including David Daiches, Brenda Silver, Alison Light and other postcolonial feminists, dismiss her (and modernist authors in general) as privileged, elitist, classist, racist, and antisemitic.[241]

Woolf's tendentious expressions, including prejudicial feelings against disabled people, have often been the topic of academic criticism:[235]

The first quotation is from a diary entry of September 1920 and runs: "The fact is the lower classes are detestable." The remainder follow the first in reproducing stereotypes standard to upper-class and upper-middle class life in the early 20th century: "imbeciles should certainly be killed"; "Jews" are greasy; a "crowd" is both an ontological "mass" and is, again, "detestable"; "Germans" are akin to vermin; some "baboon faced intellectuals" mix with "sad green dressed negroes and negresses, looking like chimpanzees" at a peace conference; Kensington High St. revolts one's stomach with its innumerable "women of incredible mediocrity, drab as dishwater".[236]


Often accused of antisemitism,[242] the treatment of Judaism and Jews by Woolf is far from straightforward.[243] She was happily married to an irreligious Jewish man (Leonard Woolf) who had no connection with or knowledge of his people while she generally characterised Jewish characters with negative stereotypes. For instance, she described some of the Jewish characters in her work in terms that suggested they were physically repulsive or dirty. On the other hand, she could criticise her own views: "How I hated marrying a Jew — how I hated their nasal voices and their oriental jewellery, and their noses and their wattles — what a snob I was: for they have immense vitality, and I think I like that quality best of all" (Letter to Ethel Smyth 1930).[244][123][245] These attitudes have been construed to reflect, not so much antisemitism, but social status; she married outside her social class. Leonard, "a penniless Jew from Putney", lacked the material status of the Stephens and their circle.[242]

While travelling on a cruise to Portugal, she protested at finding "a great many Portuguese Jews on board, and other repulsive objects, but we keep clear of them".[246] Furthermore, she wrote in her diary: "I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh." Her 1938 short story, written during Hitler's rule, "The Duchess and the Jeweller" (originally titled "The Duchess and the Jew") has been considered antisemitic.[247]

Some believe that Woolf and her husband Leonard came to despise and fear the 1930s' fascism and antisemitism. Her 1938 book Three Guineas was an indictment of fascism and what Woolf described as a recurring propensity among patriarchal societies to enforce repressive societal mores by violence.[248] And yet, her 1938 story "The Duchess and the Jeweller" was so deeply hateful in its depiction of Jews that Harper's Bazaar asked her to modify it before publication; she reluctantly complied.[249]


Plaque describing Virginia's time at King's College London, on the Virginia Woolf Building there
Plaque honouring Virginia Woolf on the Virginia Woolf Building at King's College London, Kingsway
Bronze cast of Stephen Tomlin's bust of Virginia Woolf (1931) in Tavistock Square
Woolf's bust in Tavistock Square, London, by Stephen Tomlin, 1931. Erected by the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, 2004.

Virginia Woolf is known for her contributions to 20th-century literature and her essays, as well as the influence she has had on literary, particularly feminist criticism. A number of authors have stated that their work was influenced by her, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham,[g] Gabriel García Márquez,[h] and Toni Morrison.[i] Her iconic image[253] is instantly recognisable from the Beresford portrait of her at twenty (at the top of this page) to the Beck and Macgregor portrait in her mother's dress in Vogue at 44 (see Fry (1913)) or Man Ray's cover of Time magazine (see Ray (1937)) at 55.[254] More postcards of Woolf are sold by the National Portrait Gallery, London than of any other person.[255] Her image is ubiquitous, and can be found on products ranging from tea towels to T-shirts.[254]

Virginia Woolf is studied around the world, with organisations devoted to her, such as the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain,[256] and The Virginia Woolf Society of Japan.[257] In addition, trusts—such as the Asham Trust—encourage writers in her honour.[75]

Monuments and memorials[edit]

Statue of Virginia Woolf in Richmond created by Laury Dizengremel

In 2013, Woolf was honoured by her alma mater of King's College London with the opening of the Virginia Woolf Building on Kingsway,[258] together with an exhibit depicting her accompanied by the quotation "London itself perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play & a story & a poem" from her 1926 diary.[259] Busts of Virginia Woolf have been erected at her home in Rodmell, Sussex and at Tavistock Square, London, where she lived between 1924 and 1939.

In 2014, she was one of the inaugural honorees in the Rainbow Honor Walk, a walk of fame in San Francisco's Castro neighbourhood noting LGBTQ people who have "made significant contributions in their fields".[260]

A campaign was launched in 2018 to erect a statue of Woolf in Richmond, where she lived for 10 years.[261] In November 2022 the statue, created by sculptor Laury Dizengremel, was unveiled. It depicts Woolf on a bench overlooking the River Thames, and is the first full-size statue of Woolf.[262][263]


Virginia Woolf portrayed on Romanian postage stamp in 2007
Virginia Woolf on a 2007 Romanian postage stamp


Selected works[edit]

Woolf's most notable works include:[11]


Essays and essay collections[edit]



  1. ^ Woolf provides insight into her early life in her autobiographical essays, including "Reminiscences", "22 Hyde Park Gate", and "A Sketch of the Past".
  2. ^ In the 1960s Leonard Woolf listed those people he considered to be "Old Bloomsbury" as: Vanessa and Clive Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Adrian and Karin Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, E. M. Forster, Sydney Saxon-Turner, Roger Fry, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy and later David Garnett and Julian, Quentin and Angelica Bell. Others add Ottoline Morrell, Dora Carrington and James and Alix Strachey. The "core" group are considered to be the Stephens and Thoby's closest Cambridge friends, Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey and Saxon Sydney-Turner.[45][46]
  3. ^ Virginia was somewhat disparaging about the exterior of Little Talland House, describing it as an "eyesore" (Letter to Violet Dickinson 29 January 1911) and "inconceivably ugly, done up in patches of post-impressionist colour" (Letters, no. 561, April 1911).[69]
  4. ^ Sometimes spelled "Asheham" or "Ascham".[71]
  5. ^ It has been suggested that Woolf bound books to help cope with her depression, as is hinted at in her writing: "A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ... cooking dinner; bookbinding."[202][page needed]
  6. ^ Her second novel, Night and Day (1919), was also published by Duckworth's, but Jacob's Room (1922) was published by Hogarth.[204]
  7. ^ "Like my hero Virginia Woolf, I do lack confidence. I always find that the novel I'm finishing, even if it's turned out fairly well, is not the novel I had in my mind."[250]
  8. ^ "after having read Ulysses in English as well as a very good French translation, I can see that the original Spanish translation was very bad. But I did learn something that was to be very useful to me in my future writing—the technique of the interior monologue. I later found this in Virginia Woolf, and I like the way she uses it better than Joyce."[251]
  9. ^ "I wrote on Woolf and Faulkner. I read a lot of Faulkner then. You might not know this, but in the '50s, American literature was new. It was renegade. English literature was English. So there were these avant-garde professors making American literature a big deal. That tickles me now."[252]


  1. ^ Woolf 1937.
  2. ^ Collins 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Gordon 2004.
  4. ^ a b Licence 2015, p. 12
  5. ^ a b c Garnett 2004.
  6. ^ Harris 2011, pp. 12–13.
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Books and theses[edit]

Biography: Virginia Woolf[edit]

Mental health[edit]

Biography: Other[edit]

Literary commentary[edit]


Chapters and contributions[edit]



Dictionaries and encyclopaedias[edit]

Newspapers and magazines[edit]

Websites and documents[edit]

British Library[edit]

Virginia Woolf's homes and venues[edit]


Audiovisual media[edit]

By Woolf[edit]


Short stories[edit]


Essay collections[edit]


Autobiographical writing[edit]

  • Woolf, Virginia (1985) [1976]. Schulkind, Jeanne (ed.). Moments of Being (2nd ed.). San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0156619180. OL 3028051M.
    • Schulkind, Jeanne. Introduction. pp. 11–24., in Woolf (1985)
    • Reminiscences. 1908. pp. 25–60.
    • A Sketch of the Past. 1940. pp. 61–160.
    • 22 Hyde Park Gate. 1921. pp. 162–177.

Diaries and notebooks[edit]


External links[edit]

Written works[edit]

Archival material[edit]

Audio media[edit]

Visual media[edit]