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The Core Curriculum

Virginia Woolf

1882 CE – 1941 CE

British author Virginia Woolf was a prominent member of the avant-garde, intellectual Bloomsbury Circle in northern London from the years directly preceding World War I until her suicide in 1941. Woolf is best known for her novels, which represent the peak of British modernist “stream-of-consciousness” style, characterized by the representation of characters’ inner thoughts, a focus on everyday action, and the pervasive instability or unreliability of narration. In her own time, Woolf was also well-known for her writings promoting liberal politics, particularly the nascent feminist movement. Her non-fiction, including A Room of One’s Own (1925) and the anti-fascist tract Three Guineas (1938), is central to the “first wave” feminist canon.

Though Woolf’s adult writing often railed against her parents’ stern, pompous Victorian generation, her future career was certainly aided by her birth, in 1882, into a prominent, upper-middle-class London literary family. Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, was the well-known editor of the first Dictionary of National Biography, a pronounced atheist and overbearing patriarch. After the death of his first wife (the daughter of the famous novelist W. M. Thackeray) and the institutionalization of their schizophrenic daughter, Stephen married Woolf’s mother, Julia Prinsep Jackson, who brought along three children from her previous marriage. Woolf later alleged that the two older boys, George and Gerald Duckworth, had sexually abused her during her adolescence, yet she looked up to their sister, Stella, as a role-model and mother-figure. Julia and Leslie Stephen went on to have four children together: Vanessa, Thoby, Adeline (called by her middle name, Virginia), and Adrian. From childhood, Vanessa and Virginia were intimate, competitive, and rebellious; they decided early on that Vanessa would become a painter and Virginia a writer. Though Woolf’s early life included much happiness, her adolescence was marked by traumatic loss, first of her mother when she was 13, then of Stella two years later, then of her father and idolized brother Thoby in the following decade. Woolf’s mother’s death precipitated a major mental breakdown, the first of several throughout her life, leaving her debilitated for months, confined to bed and given barbituates to curb suicidal impulses. According to the psychiatry of her day, Woolf’s depression and hallucination was diagnosed as “neurasthenic,” for which doctors prescribed large amounts of rest and prohibited exercise or mental exertions such as reading and writing. There is no consensus as to Woolf’s actual mental illness, but many now believe it to have been some form of bipolar disorder.

Certainly a major source of stress on the young Woolf was her overbearing, dependent father. Immediately following his death, she and her siblings “escaped” across London, from their childhood Kensington to the artistic, slightly seedy district of Bloomsbury. Here, they and their acquaintances (many of them her brother Thoby’s friends from Cambridge), settled in apartments on and around Russell Square. The pre-war years of what became the “Bloomsbury Group” were characterized by sexual, artistic, and political exploration. Members and acquaintances included the economist John Maynard Keynes, the biographer Lytton Strachey, the artists Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, and Wyndham Lewis, the novelist E.M. Forster, the philsopher Bertrand Russell, and the poet T.S. Eliot. Among the group’s most notorious exploits was the 1910 “Dreadnought Hoax,” in which Bloomsburians dressed up as a contingent of “Abyssinian ambassadors” and duped the Royal Navy into giving them an official tour of a major warship. Woolf herself playing a bearded, black-faced, “Swahili”-speaking Abyssinian. Other ventures included the creation of the Omega Workshop artist collective and a “Memoir Club.”

Among Woolf’s acquaintances in Bloomsbury was the Jewish writer Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912. Beginning with Woolf’s suicidal breakdown in 1914, while editing her first novel, Leonard became her main lifeline, supporting her through illness and freely accepting her later attraction to women and affairs with them. With Leonard’s help, Woolf tooka  keen interest in publication and the establishment of the Hogarth Press, which put out small-run first editions of many major modernist works, including Eliot’s The Waste Land and Freud’s translated writings. Printing provided a distraction from Woolf’s incipient literary career, which took flight with several short story collections and the novels The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919). Her breakthrough came in 1922 with Jacob’s Room, which displays the beginnings of her characteristic stream-of-consciousness style, a mode which is then refined and mastered in her great novels of the 1920s, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). All three works play upon the boundaries of time, ranging from Mrs. Dalloway’s focus on single day to To the Lighthouse’s punctuation of two days by a bracketed ten-year interval. Though To the Lighthouse places World War I at its background (exploding forward through the death of Andrew Ramsay), both Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway explore the effects of the war more comprehensively, representing both its immediate destruction and its long-term repercussions.

Woolf’s later novels reconceptualize the style of her earliest pieces in new themes and formats. Orlando: A Biography (1928) takes up Leslie Stephen’s biographical mode in its depiction of Orlando, a writer who lives from Elizabethan times to the present, encountering various famous figures, and, in a notorious twist, turning from a man to a woman halfway through the novel. Woolf dedicated Orlando to Vita Sackville-West, her close friend, lover, and the model for Orlando’s character. Woolf’s financial success with Orlando allowed her to experiment further in her subsequent novels: The Waves (1931), Flush: A Biography (1933, the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet spaniel), The Years (a 1937 international best-seller), and Between the Acts (published posthumously in 1941). Though all take on Woolf’s perennial themes addressing the challenges of human connection, they range from the solemn (The Waves) to the playful (Flush). The last, Between the Acts, evinces Woolf’s mounting concern at the threat of a Second World War through its depiction of the impasses within stream-of-consciousness and interpersonal connection. Ultimately, the strain of the editing this novel, the destruction and disruption of the Blitz, the loss of several close friends, and the threatened onset of mental illness led Woolf to drown herself in the Ouse River on 28 March 1941. By that time, she was a well-known public figure, a best-selling and widely translated author, and was much mourned around the world.

 

Written by Emily Cersonsky (Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University).
Works Consulted: Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf, New York: Vintage, 1996.

Historical Contexts

To the Lighthouse

Victorian to Modern

The period of Virginia Woolf’s life spanned the transition from the Victorian to the modern world. In the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution had made Britain the ‘factory to the world’ and solidified its economic power. The British Empire was at the height of its power and influence. In people’s daily lives the church occupied a central place, and class positions and gender roles seemed fixed. Yet between the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, when Woolf was 19, and the end of the Second World War, almost every aspect of British life changed. The impact of two world wars, prolonged economic depression in the 1930s, and the rise of the USA and the Soviet Union as rival world powers meant that by the latter half of the twentieth century, Britain had lost its global pre-eminence, and witnessed radical social, cultural, and political changes.

When Virginia Woolf was born in 1882, horses and carriages rattled past her home in Kensington; by the time she died in 1941, formations of jet aircraft roared overhead and threatened oblivion from the air. Less deadly, but no less revolutionary, the radio, the telephone and the automobile altered the rhythms and expectations of everyday life. The expansion of the voting franchise and increases in leisure time for workers meant that class divisions were weakened, and more of the population than ever before had a voice in politics and a share of cultural life. The creation of a welfare state in 1945 represented to many in Britain a clean break from a world organized by the wealthy, for the wealthy.

As the radical ii I  ideas of thinkers such as Marx, Freud, and Einstein began to take hold, and the influence of religion weakened, people began to challenge orthodoxy and tradition, and agitate for fairer treatment of the poor and of women. It was in this spirit of modern rebellion that Virginia moved with her adult siblings out of the family home and into the (then rather seedy) London district of Bloomsbury to forge a new kind of living arrangement. Virginia and her sister Vanessa rejected the idea of a home presided over by a woman like their mother, the Victorian ‘angel in the house,’ and determined that instead of serving tea and looking decorative, they would take part in intellectual discussions with their brothers and friends. At the same time, however, Woolf and her friends and acquaintances in the free-thinking ‘Bloomsbury Group’ never questioned the necessity of employing servants to run even their most progressive of households.

To the Lighthouse in its time

The First World War broke out suddenly in the summer of 1914 and dragged on far longer, and at vastly greater cost, than anyone had dared to predict. In Britain, thousands of young men responded to appeals to join up in defense of nation and ‘civilization,’ and found themselves stuck, in Ezra Pound’s words, ‘eye-deep in hell,’ living in trenches alongside rats and corpses, and measuring their progress and victories in inches. The destruction of the landscape of battle, of human bodies, and of lives was unprecedented and indescribable, and for many writers and artists like Woolf, grouped under the loose term ‘modernist,’ it represented a decisive, irreparable break from the past and a need for new forms of representation in art and literature.

To The Lighthouse (1927), along with Woolf’s two preceding novels Jacob’s Room (1922) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925), emerges from the period of painful recovery from the war, and displays Woolf’s innovations in prose fiction. Most strikingly, the major events of the novel ­are contained in brief, condensed parentheses, while the day-to-day thoughts and memories of the characters expand to fill the surrounding pages. Although the novel is set on an island off the coast of Scotland, the house and surrounding landscape (including the lighthouse) are closely based on St. Ives, Cornwall, where the Stephen family spent their summers until Virginia’s mother’s death in 1895. It has therefore often been read as one of Woolf’s most autobiographical novels. To the Lighthouse was first published by the Hogarth Press, established by Virginia and her husband Leonard in 1917 in the basement of their home, Hogarth House, in Richmond, west London. Woolf called it ‘easily the best of my books,’ and it sold so well that she and Leonard were able to buy their first car. 

 

Written by Joanna Scutts (Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University).

Sources:
The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Volume Six: The Twentieth Century and Beyond (Broadview Press, 2006)

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996)