Virginia Woolf, author (LGBT History Month)
Virginia Woolf was an accomplished 20th century English novelist and one of the founders of the modernist movement. She published nearly 500 essays and nine novels. Bent Alaska presents her story as part of our celebration of LGBT History Month 2011, with thanks to the Equality Forum.
Virginia Woolf (born January 25, 1882; died March 28, 1941) was an accomplished 20th century English novelist and one of the founders of the modernist movement. She published nearly 500 essays and nine novels.
Born Adeline Virginia Stephen, she was privately tutored at home and never attended college. She inherited a love of literature from her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, who had an impressive library and was a magazine editor.
Woolf suffered emotional hardships from an early age. When she was 6, her stepbrother began molesting her. The abuse continued into her early adulthood. At 13, she suffered a mental breakdown following her mother’s death. At 22, Woolf suffered a second breakdown when her father died.
Upon recovering, Woolf and her siblings moved to Bloomsbury in London. There she involved herself with the Bloomsbury Group, a cadre of intellectuals who met for discussion of politics, art and literature. She began her literary career teaching at Morley College and writing book reviews.
In 1912, Virginia married Leonard Woolf, a member of the Bloomsbury Group. The marriage was described as passionless, but loving. Together they founded the Hogarth Press and published significant books, including Mansfield’s Prelude, T.S. Elliot’s Poems, and her own book Kew Gardens.
Woolf had a number of close relationships with women. It is believed there was only one sexual relationship, with Vita Sackville-West, on whom Woolf based the protagonist of her novel Orlando (1928). The plot of Orlando span over 300 years (1588–1928), during which Orlando ages only thirty-six years, and changes gender from male to female. Sackville-West’s son described the novel as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” Orlando was made into a 1993 film with Tilda Swinton in the lead role and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I. From the novel:
For it was this mixture in her of man and woman, one being uppermost and then the other, that often gave her conduct an unexpected turn. The curious of her own sex would argue, for example, if Orlando was a woman, how did she never take more than ten minutes to dress? And were not her clothes chosen rather at random, and sometimes worn rather shabby? And then they would say, still, she has none of the formality of a man, or a man’s love of power. She is excessively tender-hearted. She could not endure to see a donkey beaten or a kitten drowned. Yet again, they noted, she detested household matters, was up at dawn and out among the fields in summer before the sun had risen. No farmer knew more about the crops than she did. She could drink with the best and liked games of hazard. She rode well and drove six horses at a gallop over London Bridge. Yet again, though bold and active as a man, it was remarked that the sight of another in danger brought on the most womanly palpitations. She would burst into tears on slight provocation. She was unversed in geography, found mathematics intolerable, and held some caprices which are more common among women than men, as for instance that to travel south is to travel downhill.
Woolf’s modernist style differed from other writers of the day. It concentrated more on communicating impressions and people’s inner lives than recreating reality. It often included techniques such as stream-of-consciousness writing. Many of her works contain strong feminist themes, such as her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own(1929) where she wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Other works by Virginia Woolf include the novels The Voyage Out (1915), Night and Day (1919), Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (1941). She also wrote volumes of short stories, essays, and other works. She is also the subject of numerous biographies and critical essays, and several of her works have been adapted into movies. The Hours (1998), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, focused on three generations of women affected by Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway — including Woolf herself — and was adapted into a 2002 film with Nicole Kidman portraying Woolf.
Over the course of Woolf’s life, she was treated for mental illness. She was likely suffering a mental breakdown at the time of her death. After weighing down her pockets with stones, she drowned herself in the River Ouse in Lewes, England. According to her suicide note, she feared her suffering would not end.
The only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice is from a talk called “Craftsmanship” in a BBC radio broadcast from April 29, 1937 (transcribed here). The text was published as an essay in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942). YouTube user Atthis22 prepared a slideshow of photographs of Virginia Woolf to accompany the audio. Watch: