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Adeline Virginia Woolf (born Stephen; 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English novelist, essayist, epistler, publisher, feminist, and writer of short stories, regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century.

During the interwar period, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), and the book-length essay A Room of One's Own (1929), with its famous dictum, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."


Early life

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London in 1882. Her mother, a famous beauty, Julia Prinsep Stephen (born Jackson) (1846–1895), was born in India to Dr. John and Maria Pattle Jackson and later moved to England with her mother, where she served as a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Edward Burne-Jones. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a notable author, critic and mountaineer. The young Virginia was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household at 22 Hyde Park Gatemarker, Kensingtonmarker. Her parents had each been married previously and been widowed, and, consequently, the household contained the children of three marriages. Julia had three children from her first husband, Herbert Duckworth: George, Stella, and Gerald Duckworth. Her father was married to Minny Thackeray, and they had one daughter: Laura Makepeace Stephen, who was declared mentally disabled and lived with the family until she was institutionalized in 1891. Leslie and Julia had four children together: Vanessa Stephen (1879), Thoby Stephen (1880), Virginia (1882), and Adrian Stephen (1883).

Sir Leslie Stephen's eminence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray (he was the widower of Thackeray's youngest daughter), meant that his children were raised in an environment filled with the influences of Victorian literary society. Henry James, George Henry Lewes, Julia Margaret Cameron (an aunt of Julia Stephen), and James Russell Lowell, who was made Virginia's honorary godfather, were among the visitors to the house. Julia Stephen was equally well connected. Descended from an attendant of Marie Antoinette, she came from a family of renowned beauties who left their mark on Victorian society as models for Pre-Raphaelite artists and early photographers. Supplementing these influences was the immense library at the Stephens' house, from which Virginia and Vanessa (unlike their brothers, who were formally educated) were taught the classics and English literature.

According to Woolf's memoirs, her most vivid childhood memories, however, were not of London but of St. Ivesmarker in Cornwallmarker, where the family spent every summer until 1895. The Stephens' summer home, Talland House, looked out over Porthminster Bay, and is still standing today, though somewhat altered. Memories of these family holidays and impressions of the landscape, especially the Godrevy Lighthousemarker, informed the fiction Woolf wrote in later years, most notably To the Lighthouse.

The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her half-sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia's several nervous breakdowns. The death of her father in 1904 provoked her most alarming collapse and she was briefly institutionalised.

Her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods, modern scholars (including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell) have suggested, were also influenced by the sexual abuse she and 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).

Throughout her life, Woolf was plagued by periodic mood swings and associated illnesses. Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks until her suicide.


After the death of their father and Virginia's second nervous breakdown, Vanessa and Adrian sold 22 Hyde Park Gate and bought a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsburymarker.

Following studies at King's College, Cambridgemarker, and King's College Londonmarker, Woolf came to know Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Rupert Brooke, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, and Leonard Woolf, who together formed the nucleus of the intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury Group. Several members of the group attained notoriety in 1910 with the Dreadnought hoax, which Virginia participated in disguised as a male Abyssinian royal. Her complete 1940 talk on the Hoax has recently been discovered and is published in the memoirs collected in the expanded edition of The Platform of Time (2008).

Virginia Stephen married writer Leonard Woolf in 1912. Despite his low material status (Woolf referring to Leonard during their engagement as a "penniless Jew") the couple shared a close bond. Indeed, in 1937, Woolf wrote in her diary: "“Love-making — after 25 years can’t bear to be separate ... you see it is enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete.”" The two also collaborated professionally, in 1917 founding the Hogarth Press, which subsequently published Virginia's novels along with works by T.S. Eliot, Laurens van der Post, and others.The ethos of the Bloomsbury group discouraged sexual exclusivity, and in 1922, Virginia met the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson. After a tentative start, they began a sexual relationship that lasted through most of the 1920s.In 1928, Woolf presented Sackville-West with Orlando, a fantastical biography in which the eponymous hero's life spans three centuries and both genders. It has been called by Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West's son, "the longest and most charming love letter in literature." After their affair ended, the two women remained friends until Woolf's death in 1941. Virginia Woolf also remained close to her surviving siblings, Adrian and Vanessa; Thoby had died of an illness at the age of 26.


After completing the manuscript of her last (posthumously published) novel, Between the Acts, Woolf fell victim to a depression similar to that which she had earlier experienced. The onset of World War II, 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.

On 28 March 1941, Woolf committed suicide. She put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, then walked into the River Ousemarker near her home and drowned herself. Woolf's skeletonised body was not found until 18 April. Her husband buried her cremated remains under a tree in the garden of Monk's Housemarker, their home in Rodmellmarker, Sussex.

In her last note to her husband she wrote:


Woolf began writing professionally in 1905, initially for the Times Literary Supplement with a journalistic piece about Haworthmarker, home of the Brontë family. Her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915 by her half-brother's imprint, Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd.

This novel was originally entitled Melymbrosia, but Woolf repeatedly changed the draft. An earlier version of The Voyage Out has been reconstructed by Woolf scholar Louise DeSalvo and is now available to the public under the intended title. DeSalvo argues that many of the changes Woolf made in the text were in response to changes in her own life.
Woolf went on to publish novels and essays as a public intellectual to both critical and popular success. Much of her work was self-published through the Hogarth Press. She has been hailed as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century and one of the foremost modernists.

Woolf is considered one of the greatest innovators in the English language. In her works she experimented with stream-of-consciousness and the underlying psychological as well as emotional motives of characters. Woolf's reputation declined sharply after World War II, but her eminence was re-established with the surge of Feminist criticism in the 1970s.

Her work was criticised for epitomizing the narrow world of the upper-middle class English intelligentsia. Some critics judged it to be lacking in universality and depth, without the power to communicate anything of emotional or ethical relevance to the disillusioned common reader, weary of the 1920s aesthetes. She was also criticized by some as an anti-semite, despite her being happily married to a Jewish man. This anti-semitism is drawn from the fact that she often wrote of Jewish characters in stereotypical archetypes and generalizations. The overwhelming and rising 1920s and 30s anti-semitism had an unavoidable influence on Virginia Woolf. She wrote in her diary, "I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh." However, in a 1930 letter to the composer, Ethel Smyth, quoted in Nigel Nicolson's biography,Virginia Woolf, she recollects her boasts of Leonard's Jewishness confirming her snobbish tendencies, "How I hated marrying a Jew- What a snob I was, for they have immense vitality." In another letter to her dear friend Ethel Smyth, Virginia gives a scathing denunciation of Christianity, pointing to its self-righteous "egotism" and stating "my Jew has more religion in one toe nail--more human love, in one hair." Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf actually hated and feared 1930s fascism with its anti-semitism knowing they were on Hitler's blacklist. Her 1938 book Three Guineas was an indictment of fascism.

Virginia Woolf's peculiarities as a fiction writer have tended to obscure her central strength: Woolf 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.

The intensity of Virginia Woolf's poetic vision elevates the ordinary, sometimes banal settings - often wartime environments - of most of her novels. For example, Mrs Dalloway (1925) centres on the efforts of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged society woman, to organize a party, even as her life is paralleled with that of Septimus Warren Smith, a working-class veteran who has returned from the First World War bearing deep psychological scars.

To the Lighthouse (1927) is set on two days ten years apart. The plot centers around the Ramsay family's anticipation of and reflection upon a visit to a lighthouse and the connected familial tensions. One of the primary themes of the novel is the struggle in the creative process that beset painter Lily Briscoe while she struggles to paint in the midst of the family drama. The novel is also a meditation upon the lives of a nation's inhabitants in the midst of war, and of the people left behind. It also explores the passage of time, and how women are forced by society to allow men to take emotional strength from them.

Orlando (1928) has a different quality from all Virginia Woolf's other novels suggested by its subtitle, "A Biography", as it attempts to represent the character of a real person and is dedicated to Vita Sackville-West. It was meant to console Vita for being a girl and for the loss of her ancestral home, though it is also a satirical treatment of Vita and her work. In Orlando the techniques of historical biographers are being ridiculed; the character of a pompous biographer is being assumed in order for it to be mocked.

The Waves (1931) presents a group of six friends whose reflections, which are closer to recitatives than to interior monologues proper, create a wave-like atmosphere that is more akin to a prose poem than to a plot-centered novel.

Her last work, Between the Acts (1941) sums up and magnifies Woolf's chief preoccupations: the transformation of life through art, sexual ambivalence, and meditation on the themes of flux of time and life, presented simultaneously as corrosion and rejuvenation—all set in a highly imaginative and symbolic narrative encompassing almost all of English history. This book is the most lyrical of all her works, not only in feeling but in style being chiefly written in verse.

While nowhere near a simple recapitulation of the coterie's ideals, Woolf's work can be understood as consistently in dialogue with Bloomsbury, particularly its tendency (informed by G.E. Moore, among others) towards doctrinaire rationalism.

Her works have been translated into over 50 languages, by writers of the calibre of Jorge Luis Borges and Marguerite Yourcenar.

Modern scholarship and interpretations

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. More controversially, Louise A. DeSalvo reads most of Woolf's life and career through the lens of the incestuous sexual abuse Woolf experienced as a young woman in her 1989 book Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work.

Woolf's fiction is also studied for its insight into shell shock, war, class, and modern British society. Her best-known nonfiction works, A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), examine the difficulties female writers and intellectuals face because men hold disproportionate legal and economic power, and the future of women in education and society.

Irene Coates's book Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf: A Case for the Sanity of Virginia Woolf takes the position that Leonard Woolf's treatment of his wife encouraged her ill health and ultimately was responsible for her death. The position, which is not accepted by Leonard's family, is extensively researched and fills in some of the gaps in the traditional account of Virginia Woolf's life. In contrast, Victoria Glendinning's book Leonard Woolf: A Biography, which is even more extensively researched and supported by contemporaneous writings, argues that Leonard Woolf was not only very supportive of his wife, but enabled her to live as long as she did by providing her with the life and atmosphere she needed to live and write. Accounts of Virginia's supposed anti-semitism (Leonard was a secular Jew) are not only taken out of historical context but greatly exaggerated. Virginia's own diaries support this view of the Woolfs' marriage.

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.

In 1992, Thomas Caramagno published the book The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf's Art and Manic-Depressive Illness."

Hermione Lee's 1996 biography Virginia Woolf provides a thorough and authoritative examination of Woolf's life and work.

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, published in 2005, is the most recent examination of Woolf's life. It focuses on Woolf's writing, including her novels and her commentary on the creative process, to illuminate her life. Thomas Szasz's book My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf (ISBN 0-7658-0321-6) was published in 2006.

Rita Martin’s play Flores no me pongan (2006) considers Woolf's last minutes of life in order to debate polemical issues such as bisexuality, Jewishness, and war. Written in Spanish, the play was performed in Miami under the direction of actress Miriam Bermudez.

In films

  • Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was an American play (1962) by Edward Albee and film (1966) directed by Mike Nichols (screenplay by Ernest Lehman adapted from the play). Virginia Woolf does not appear as a character. According to the playwright, the title of the play — which is about a dysfunctional university married couple — refers to an academic joke about "who's afraid of living life without false illusions".
  • Virginia Woolf is a character in the film The Hours (2002). She is portrayed by Nicole Kidman.



Short story collections


Virginia Woolf published three books to which she gave the subtitle "A Biography":
  • Orlando: A Biography (1928, usually characterised Novel, inspired by the life of Vita Sackville-West)
  • Flush: A Biography (1933, more explicitly cross-genre: fiction as "stream of consciousness" tale by Flush, a dog; non-fiction in the sense of telling the story of the owner of the dog, Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
  • Roger Fry: A Biography (1940, usually characterised non-fiction, however: "[Woolf's] novelistic skills worked against her talent as a biographer, for her impressionistic observations jostled uncomfortably with the simultaneous need to marshall a multitude of facts.")

Non-fiction books

  • Modern Fiction (1919)
  • The Common Reader (1925)
  • A Room of One's Own (1929)
  • On Being Ill (1930)
  • The London Scene (1931)
  • The Common Reader: Second Series (1932)
  • Three Guineas (1938)
  • The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942)
  • The Moment and Other Essays (1947)
  • The Captain's Death Bed And Other Essays (1950)
  • Granite and Rainbow (1958)
  • Books and Portraits (1978)
  • Women And Writing (1979)
  • Collected Essays (four volumes)


Autobiographical writings and diaries

  • A Writer’s Diary (1953) - Extracts from the complete diary
  • Moments of Being (1976)
  • A Moment's Liberty: the shorter diary (1990)
  • The Diary of Virginia Woolf (five volumes) - Diary of Virginia Woolf from 1915 to 1941
  • Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909 (1990)
  • Travels With Virginia Woolf (1993) - Greek travel diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Jan Morris
  • The Platform of Time: Memoirs of Family and Friends, Expanded Edition, edited by S. P. Rosenbaum (London, Hesperus, 2008)


  • Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters (1993)
  • The Letters of Virginia Woolf 1888-1941 (six volumes, 1975-1980)
  • Paper Darts: The Illustrated Letters of Virginia Woolf (1991)

Prefaces, contributions

  • Selections Autobiographical and Imaginative from the Works of George Gissing ed. Alfred C. Gissing, with an introduction by Virginia Woolf (London & New York, 1929)


  • Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson. New York, Penguin Group. 2000
  • Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972; Revised editions 1990, 1996
  • "Vanessa and Virginia" by Susan Sellers (Two Ravens, 2008; Harcourt 2009) [Fictional biography of Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell]
  • The Unknown Virginia Woolf by Roger Poole. Cambridge UP, 1978.
  • The Invisible Presence: Virginia Woolf and the Mother-Daughter Relationship by Ellen Bayuk Rosenman. Louisiana State University Press, 1986.
  • Virginia Woolf and the politics of style, by Pamela J. Transue. SUNY Press, 1986. ISBN 0887062865.
  • The Victorian heritage of Virginia Woolf: the external world in her novels, by Janis M. Paul. Pilgrim Books, 1987. ISBN 0937664731.
  • Virginia Woolf's To the lighthouse, by Harold Bloom. Chelsea House, 1988. ISBN 1555460348.
  • Virginia Woolf: the frames of art and life, by C. Ruth Miller. Macmillan, 1988. ISBN 0333448804.
  • Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work by Louise DeSalvo. Boston: Little Brown, 1989
  • A Virginia Woolf Chronology by Edward Bishop. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989.
  • A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf by Jane Dunn. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990
  • Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life by Lyndall Gordon. New York: Norton, 1984; 1991.
  • Virginia Woolf and war, by Mark Hussey. Syracuse University Press, 1991. ISBN 0815625375.
  • The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf's Art and Manic-Depressive Illness by Thomas D. Caramago. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1992
  • Virginia Woolf by James King. NY: W.W. Norton, 1994.
  • Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf by Panthea Reid. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
  • Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee. New York: Knopf, 1997.
  • Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf by Mitchell Leaska. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
  • The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf, by Jane Goldman. Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 0521794587.
  • Virginia Woolf and the nineteenth-century domestic novel, by Emily Blair. SUNY Press, 2002. ISBN 0791471195.
  • Virginia Woolf: becoming a writer, by Katherine Dalsimer. Yale University Press, 2002. ISBN 0300092083.
  • Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman by Ruth Gruber. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005
  • My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf by Thomas Szasz, 2006
  • Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, by Julia Briggs. Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 0156032295.
  • The Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury by Sarah M. Hall, Continuum Publishing, 2007
  • Virginia Woolf and the Visible World, by Emily Dalgarno. Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 0521033608,.
  • A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf by Ilana Simons, New York: Penguin Press, 2007

Related works and cultural references

  • American composer Dominick Argento (b.1927) received the Pulitzer Prize in Music (1975) for his song cycle, "From the Diary of Virginia Woolf", which was premiered by Dame Janet Baker, mezzo soprano, and Martin Issep, pianist, at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • Michael Cunningham's 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Hours, focused on three generations of women affected by Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway. In 2002, a film version of the novel was released starring Nicole Kidman as Woolf, a role for which she won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Actress. The film also starred Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep.
  • Edward Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, premiered in 1963 and was later adapted into a film version in 1966. The play/film utilizes Woolf's name as a musical punch-line for a joke that replaces "the big bad wolf" in the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" with "Virginia Woolf". The play and film have nothing to do with the author or her life, though Albee asked Leonard Woolf's permission to use his late wife's name, and was granted it.
  • The rock band Modest Mouse took their name from Woolf's story "The Mark on the Wall".
  • Indigo Girls include the song, "Virginia Woolf," written by Emily Saliers, on their 1992 album, Rites of Passage. On a live version of the song from their 1200 Curfews compilation, Emily humorously remarks: "I wrote papers about her [Woolf] in college, but I didn't know what I was talking about."
  • Jack Feldstein, stream-of-consciousness neon animation filmmaker, created an homage to Virginia Woolf in his The Adventures of Virginia Woolf (2007).
  • Musician Patrick Wolf based his stage name upon the author's.
  • The writer Jeanette Winterson claims Woolf has been a huge influence upon her writing life, citing the novel Orlando as inspiration for the sexual duality expressed in many of Winterson's own novels.


  1. Smith College libraries biography of Julia Prinsep Stephen
  2. Alan Bell, ‘Stephen, Sir Leslie (1832–1904)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006
  3. Robert Meyer, 1998, Case Studies in Abnormal Behaviour, Allyn and Bacon
  4. Bell 1996: 44
  5. Lee, Hermione: "Virginia Woolf." Knopf, 1997.
  6. Haule, J. (1982). Melymbrosia: An Early Version of "The Voyage out". Contemporary Literature, 23, 100-104.
  7. Lee, Hermione: "Virginia Woolf." Knopf, 1997.
  8. "Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf", Morris Beja, 1985, Introduction, p.1
  9. "Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf", Morris Beja, 1985, Introduction, p.1,3,53.
  10. "Tales of abjection and miscegenation: Virginia Woolf's and Leonard Woolf's Jewish stories" Twentieth Century Literature, Fall, 2003 by Leena Kore Schroder,
  11. "The Letters of Virginia Woolf" Volume Five 1932-1935, Nigel Nicolson & Joanne Trautmann, 1979, p. 321.
  12. "The Hours" DVD, "Special Features", "The Mind and Times of Virginia Woolf", 2003.
  13. "Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf", Morris Beja, 1985, p.13,53.
  14. "Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf", Morris Beja, 1985, p.15-17.
  15. "The Novels of Virginia Woolf", Hermione Lee, 1977, pp.138-157.
  16. "Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf", Morris Beja, 1985, p.19.
  17. "Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf", Morris Beja, 1985, p.24.
  18. "From Clapham to Bloomsbury: a genealogy of morals", Professor Gertrude Himmelfarb, 2001.
  19. Frances Spalding (ed.), Virginia Woolf: Paper Darts: the Illustrated Letters, Collins & Brown, 1991, (ISBN 1-85585-046-X) (hb) & (ISBN 1-85585-103-2) (pb), pp. 139-140

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