Virginia Woolf's legacy should be more than walking
into a river, pockets loaded with rocks and ending her life.
The legacy should be that primarily she is one of the
greatest novelists of the twentieth century and was one of
the first "Modernist" writers. Just as painting was moving
in new directions - some writers wanted to move past the
traditional "story" form of novel that was being written in
the Victorian era. Virginia's early books exhibit her focus
on going beyond mere storytelling and plot. She took her
writing inside the character - into their inner dialogue and used imagery, symbolism, and
metaphor to achieve
psychological effects. Instead
of telling the reader what a
character was like she let the
characters in the book
unfold using feelings and
thoughts. Employing a -
"stream of consciousness"
the reader could hear the
thoughts flowing through
the mind of the character.
The three novels, Mrs.
Dalloway, To The
Lighthouse, and The
Waves, are most often
considered her greatest
claim to fame. She
published Orlando, inspired by one of her lovers.
Presentations she delivered to women at Cambridge in
1928, inspired her to write A Room of Ones Own, which
focused on women's rights. Some called her a feminist,
but she preferred the term "humanists."
Virginia was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, into a wealthy, influential and literate family. Her named changed to Virginia Woolf after her marriage. Both her father's family and her mother's family were well connected, well educated and socially prominent in London. Both her parents had been married previously and were widowed with children when they wed each other. Her father had one daughter. Her mother had a daughter and two sons. Together, the couple had four more children of their own, of which Virginia was the third. These four children were born in quick succession - barely a year apart - and stayed close throughout their lives, later forming the "Bloomsbury Group." All eight children lived with their parents and servants in a large house in Kensington. While the boys were sent to good schools, she and her sister, Vanessa who was three years older, were educated in the classics and English literature in the family's immense library of their London home. Virginia decided early that she would become a writer. Her sister trained to be an artist. It is now believed that Virginia's mental problems were most likely inherited and then exacerbated by sexual abuse from the age six that she and her sister suffered at the hands of their older stepbrothers from her mother's first marriage. When Virginia was 13, her mother suddenly died from influenza. Her half sister Stella, who had taken over the duties of running the family, died two years later which led to the first of Virginia's several nervous break-downs. Some hypothesize that the deaths of the two older women left Virginia and Vanessa vulnerable to the abuse of the stepbrothers. Seven years later her father's death led to her most alarming collapse and she was briefly put into an institution. Woolf was plagued by recurring depressive periods and drastic mood swings throughout her life. Although these periods did affect her social functioning, they were not detrimental to her literary abilities. Lately, using modern diagnostics, it has been theorized that she was suffering from Bi-polar Disorder.
After their father's death in 1904 and her second serious breakdown, she and her sister Vanessa and one of their brothers, sold the huge house where they had lived as youths and bought a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury. It is at this location that they began the "Bloomsbury Group," an intellectual circle formed of friends the brothers had met at Cambridge. One of the members of this group was Leonard Woolf, whom Virginia later married. They were married from 1912 until her death in 1941. Leonard was a writer, civil servant and a political theorist. He was the only member of the Bloomsbury Group that wasn't from the closely- knit English intellectual class and he was Jewish. He seemed to add some diversity - which the group needed. Many in the Bloomsbury Group became accomplished and famous. Leonard seemed to be an ear for listening and had the willingness to be a confident. As Virginia wrote, "All men confide in Leonard - especially such as love their own sex." The Bloomsbury Group was far ahead of their time in acceptance of "sexual diversity." Virginia had several extra-marital affairs - predominantly with other women. Leonard showed no overt jealously, but on one occasion wrote a note to Virginia's lover of four years admonishing her for keeping her up too late and alluding to the ill affects it could have on Virginia's mental state. Throughout their marriage Leonard remained protective of Virginia's mental health. He believed she was the only true "genius" he had ever met. Some theorize that her novels would never have been written without Leonard as a steadying influence. His devotion to her mental stability also motivated their founding of Hogarth Press in 1917. Starting a printing press was to be a manual and bookish diversion for Virginia when she wasn't writing and she selfpublished much of her writing through Hogarth Press. They published many well-known literary achievements, including translating Dostoyevsky, and became Sigmund Freud's publishers in England.
The period between the first and second World Wars was a difficult time for everyone in Europe. Virginia became despondent. Some friends kept poison handy in case the Germans did succeed in invading England. Since Leonard was Jewish they did as well and it was discovered later that the Germans had them on a "arrent list." Bombers flew over their home in the country. During this time, at the end of 1940, Virginia experienced another severe episode of depression. She didn't believe she could recover. So on March 28, 1941, at the age of 59, she filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse, near her Sussex home. She left a suicide note for Leonard and one for her sister Vanessa. Although it would appear as if Virginia was consistently a difficult companion, those who knew her described her as physically beautiful, often jovial, and a wonderful conversationalist. That she was extremely intelligent and extremely talented is without question. Although most sources consider Leonard as a steadying and nurturing effect on Virginia's life, a current book states that Leonard's treatment of her encouraged her ill health and was ultimately responsible for her death. Others report that he was insensitive to the dramatic effects that sexual abuse may have contributed to her condition. It is impossible to ever know what truly transpires within someone else's relationship. He was devoted and stayed with her through her difficult periods, plus his passion for gardening and attention to minute details of all their expenditures, seemed to have a quieting affect on Virginia. Leonard lived twenty-eight years after her death and continued his writing.
If you read Michael Cunningham's 1998, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Hours, or saw the 2002 film adaptation of the book, you experienced a portrayal of Virginia Woolf. Her story intertwined with the stories of two other women decades apart. The author was using one of Woolf's characteristic stylistic methods - manipulating time. Virginia was portrayed as in the process of writing Mrs. Dalloway, who is planning a party. The other two women, decades later are planning parties as well. A fun winter weekend project would be to read the book (it's short) and then watch the movie. Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia. The play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, actually has nothing to do with Virginia, but the author Edward Albee, did ask Leonard Woolf, for his permission to use her name. In London today, one can walk in the same park in the Bloomsbury area of the city, where she and the infamous group lived, walked and discussed the matters of the world. There is a bust of Virginia in the lovely park setting.