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One of the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf is chiefly renowned as an innovative novelist. She also wrote book reviews, biographical and autobiographical sketches, social and literary criticism, personal essays, and commemorative articles treating a wide range of topics. Concerned primarily with depicting the life of the mind, Woolf revolted against traditional narrative structures and developed her own highly individualized style of writing.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life in an Unconventional and Literary Atmosphere
Born in London, Virginia Woolf was the third child of Julia and Leslie Stephen. Although her brothers, Thoby and Adrian, were sent to school, Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, were taught at home by their parents and by tutors. Theirs was a highly literary family. Woolf received no formal education, but she was raised in a cultured atmosphere, learning from her father’s extensive library and from conversing with his friends, many of whom were prominent writers of the era.
Formation of the Bloomsbury Group
Following the death of her father in 1904, Woolf settled in the Bloomsbury district of London with her sister and brothers. Their house became a gathering place where such friends as J. M. Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, and E. M. Forster congregated for lively discussions about philosophy, art, music, and literature. A complex network of friendships and love affairs developed, serving to increase the solidarity of what became known as the Bloomsbury Group. Here she met Leonard Woolf, the author, politician, and economist whom she married in 1912. Woolf flourished in the unconventional atmosphere that she and her siblings had cultivated.
Financial Need Catalyzes Literary Output
The need to earn money led her to begin submitting book reviews and essays to various publications. Her first published works—mainly literary reviews—began appearing anonymously in 1904 in the Guardian, a weekly newspaper for Anglo-Catholic clergy. Woolf’s letters and diaries reveal that journalism occupied much of her time and thought between 1904 and 1909. By the latter year, however, she was becoming absorbed in work on her first novel, eventually published in 1915 as The Voyage Out.
The Hogarth Press
In 1914, World War I began, a devastating conflict that involved carnage on an unprecedented scale. It involved nearly every European country and, eventually, the United States. About twenty million people were killed as a direct result of the war. Nearly a million British soldiers died (similar losses were experienced by all the other warring nations). In 1917, while England was in the midst of fighting World War I, Woolf and her husband cofounded the Hogarth Press. They bought a small handpress, with a booklet of instructions, and set up shop on the dining room table in Hogarth House, their lodgings in Richmond. They planned to print only some of their own writings and that of their talented friends. Leonard hoped the manual work would provide Virginia a relaxing diversion from the stress of writing.
It is a tribute to their combined business acumen and critical judgment that this small independent venture became, as Mary Gaither recounts, ”a self-supporting business and a significant publishing voice in England between the wars.” Certainly being her own publisher made it much easier for Virginia Woolf to pursue her experimental bent but also enabled her to gain greater financial independence from what was at that time a male-dominated industry. Like Woolf, many British women joined the professional work force in an increased capacity during World War I, capitalizing on England’s need for heavy industry to support its armed forces.
This philosophy of daring and experimental writing is shown in her self-published works. While the novel Night and Day (1919) is not a stylistic experiment, it deals with the controversial issue of women’s suffrage, or right to vote—a right championed by Woolf. At the time of its publication, English women over the age of thirty had just finally received voting rights; it would still be another decade before women held the exact same voting rights as men. Where Woolf might have had difficulty finding another publisher for a book dealing with such a subject, access to Hogarth Press left her free to deal with whatever subject matter she saw fit.
This freedom expressed itself more in stylistic terms in her following works. The novel Jacob’s Room (1922), for example, tells the story of a character who is never directly introduced to the reader, but only revealed through the recollections of others. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) takes place over the course of a single day and presents the thoughts of characters in a free-flowing way meant to mimic actual consciousness. This description of her characters’s ”inner life” continued with To the Lighthouse (1927), and both novels earned Woolf the esteem of critics and readers. These novels, despite being experimental in style, directly reflect the author’s own literate and well-heeled upbringing in their characters and settings.
Circumventing Censorship in Orlando
Woolf drew upon her own relationships in Orlando (1928) a book characterized by Woolf as a biography but by most readers as a novel. The main character, who does not grow old and changes genders, is directly inspired by the female author Vita Sackville-West, a bisexual member of the Bloomsbury Group with whom Woolf had an intimate relationship. Many scholars and critics have viewed the main character’s gender-switching as a clever device meant to suggest—but not directly depict—a lesbian relationship, since such topics were the subject of censorship at the time.
Depression and Suicide
Woolf fought an ongoing battle against depression for most of her life. After her mother’s death in 1895, she had a nervous breakdown, the first of four periods of depression and emotional trauma. Woolf had a second breakdown nine years later when her father died. A third episode of mental illness began early in 1912, became acute in September of 1913 (when she attempted suicide), and lasted into 1916.
In 1941 Woolf published her last novel, Between the Acts. She suffered another emotional breakdown in February of 1941, likely brought on by the escalation of World War II. After the horror of World War I, many people felt there could not possibly be another conflict of that type in Europe. That Europe could descend into violence once again so soon after World War I shocked and saddened Woolf deeply. Fearing that she lacked the stamina needed to weather further bouts of depression, Woolf drowned herself in a pond near Monks House, the Woolfs’ home in Sussex, on March 28, 1941.
Works in Literary Context
Stream of Consciousness
Woolf grew up in an environment rich in Victorian literary influences. Although she lacked the formal education afforded to men of her day, Woolf acquired extensive knowledge of the classics and English literature in the family’s enormous home library. In addition, many influential literary figures visited her childhood house, including George Eliot, Henry James, George Lewes, Julia Cameron, and James Lowell, who was named Woolf’s godfather. Proximity to influential writers of her day continued into her adulthood with the formation of the Bloomsbury group and creation of the Hogarth Press. With the freedom to create and publish her own work, Woolf largely avoided traditional narrative structures or plots. Her novels are noted for their subjective exploration of character and theme and their poetic prose. Woolf is chiefly renowned as an innovative novelist and in particular for her contribution to the development of the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique.
The stream-of-consciousness technique is found in much of Woolf’s fiction. This technique, which emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is meant to reflect the way in which a character’s thoughts flow freely, often without formal sentence structure or punctuation. Famous writers that popularized this technique included James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Examples of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style can be found in many of her works but are especially notable in Mrs. Dalloway (1925).
Writing for ”the Common Reader”
Woolf also wrote book reviews, biographical and autobiographical sketches, social and literary criticism, personal essays, and commemorative articles treating a wide range of topics. Her essays are commended for their perceptive observations on nearly the entire range of English literature, as well as many social and political concerns of the early twentieth century. She maintained that the purpose of writing an essay was to give pleasure to the reader, and she endeavored to do this with witty, supple prose, apt literary and cultural references, and a wide range of subjects. Aiming to identify closely with her audience, she adopted a persona she termed ”the common reader”: an intelligent, educated person with the will and inclination to be challenged by what he or she reads.
Because of her importance as an innovator in the modern novel form, and as a commentator on nearly the entire range of English literature and much European literature, Woolf’s life and works have been the focus of extensive study. In addition to occupying the attention of scholars, Woolf has inspired experimental works in a variety of artistic genres including author Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours (1998), in which Woolf appears as a character, and playwright Edward Albee’s work Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) among many others.
Works in Critical Context
The writings of Virginia Woolf have always been admired by discriminating readers, but her work has suffered, as has that of many other major authors, periods of neglect by the literary establishment. She was, as she herself put it, always a hare a long way ahead of ”those hounds my critics.” It was difficult to find copies of her books during the 1950s and 1960s, and they were rarely included on syllabi for literature classes. The extensive and serious treatment given Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse in Erich Auerbach’s much-esteemed book Mimesis (translated into English in 1953), presaged and perhaps helped cause the turnaround.
The advantages of the recent critical and popular attention are manifold. Her novels are now in print again, in a variety of editions, often with introductions in homage by today’s writers. They have been translated into more than fifty languages. Her essays, reviews, and short stories have been collected. And then there is the vast delight of the many volumes of letters and diaries, all scrupulously edited, copiously footnoted, and indexed. Even her reading notes are being published.
When Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925, Woolf received the immediate critical attention her earlier fiction failed to find. In a review for the New York Times, John W. Crawford wrote that, despite the inventiveness of other contemporary authors, ”Virginia Woolf is almost alone …in the intricate yet clear art of her composition.” Edwin Muir, in Transition: Essays on Contemporary Literature, compares the novel favorably to her earlier Night and Day, stating, ”[I]t is infinitely more subtle in its means, and it has on all its pages, as Night and Day had not, the glow of an indisputable artistic triumph.
To the Lighthouse
The critical success Woolf achieved with Mrs. Dalloway raised expectations for the 1927 release of her next novel, To the Lighthouse. Critical opinion of the book was mixed, with many noting the author’s obvious skill at turning a phrase and offering credit for the stylistic and structural difficulties she tackled with the work. Edwin Muir, in a review for Nation and Atheneum, states that the book is ”difficult to judge” because of this, and he credits Woolf as ”a writer of profound imagination.” Muir concedes, ”Yet as a whole, though showing an advance on many sides, it produces a less congruous and powerful effect than Mrs. Dalloway. In his review for the New York Times, Louis Kronenberger agrees: ”It is inferior to Mrs. Dalloway in the degree to which its aims are achieved; it is superior in the magnitude of the aims themselves.” Orlo Williams, in a review for the Monthly Criterion, offers praise wrapped in criticism: ”Her mastery increases with each book, but, I fear, it will always fall short of her vision.” Despite these reviews, modern scholars have devoted much attention to the novel as one of Woolf s most complex and masterful works.
- Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953.
- Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
- Bennett, Joan. Virginia Woolf: Her Art as a Novelist. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1964.
- Edel, Leon. Bloomsbury: A House of Lions. Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1979.
- Fleishman, Avrom. Virginia Woolf: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
- Freedman, Ralph, ed. Virginia Woolf: Revaluation and Continuity. Berkeley: University of California Press,1980.
- Gaither, Mary. ”A Short History of the Press,” in A Checklist of the Hogarth Press, by J. Howard Woolmer. Andes, N.Y.: Woolmer / Brotherson, 1976.
- Goldman, Mark. The Reader’s Art: Virginia Woolf as Literary Critic. The Hague: Mouton, 1976.
- Gorsky, Suan Rubinow. Virginia Woolf. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
- Kirkpatrick, B.J. A Bibliography of Virginia Woolf, 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
- Latham, Jacqueline E. M., ed. Critics on Virginia Woolf. London: Allen & Unwin, 1970.
- Leaska, Mitchell A. The Novels of Virginia Woolf: From Beginning to End. New York: John Jay Press, 1977.
- Lehmann, John. Virginia Woolf and Her World. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
- Noble, Joan Russell, ed. Recollections of Virginia Woolf by Her Contemporaries. New York: Morrow, 1972.
- Spater, George and Ian Parsons. A Marriage of True Minds. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
- Crawford, John W. ”The Perfect Hostess (review of Mrs. Dalloway.” New York Times (May 10, 1925). Reprinted on the New York Times Web site at http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/08/ reviews/woolf-dalloway.html. Accessed May 27, 2008.
- Kronenberger, Louis. ”Virginia Woolf Explores an English Country Home (review of To the Lighthouse.” New York Times, May 8,1927. Reprinted on the New York Times Web site at http://www.nytimes.com/ books/97/06/08/reviews/woolf-lighthouse.html. Accessed May 27, 2008.
- University of Alabama in Huntsville Web site. Contemporary Reviews of To the Lighthouse. Retrieved May 27, 2008 from http://www. uah.edu/woolf/lighthousecontemprev.html.
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