25th January 2022 marks the 140th birthday of the brilliant Virginia Woolf.
I live in London now, and to be able to routinely walk the same streets that Virginia Woolf and many of her contemporaries — famous writers such as James Joyce and Maurice Proust — would have walked is a truly remarkable experience.
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born into a well-to-do family in South Kensington, the seventh child of mother Julia Prinsep Jackson and father Leslie Stephen. After being homeschooled in English classics and Victorian literature, and then attending the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London (where she studied classics and history and was introduced to the early reformers of women’s higher education and Women’s Rights Movement), Virginia Woolf began her professional writing career in 1900. She was one of the pioneers of writing in the style referred to as “stream of consciousness.”
After her father’s death, the family moved to the Bloomsbury area of London, where she would eventually form the artistic and literary Bloomsbury Group (along with her brothers’ intellectual friends).
In 1912, she married Leonard Woolf, with whom she co-founded the Hogarth Press (a publishing house where she published a lot of her own work).
Throughout her life, Virginia Woolf also had passionate relationships with women. One woman of particular note was Vita Sackville-West. Many of Vita’s books were also published through Hogarth Press, and much of the two women’s literature output was inspired by their relationship (which lasted right up to Virginia’s death in 1941).
All through the interwar period, Virginia played a key role in London’s literary and artistic society. All of her most famous novels were written during this time including Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928). Her infamous essay A Room of One’s Own came out in 1929.
One of the reasons that I love and respect Virginia so much is that she was a pillar of feminism.
One of the reasons that I love and respect Virginia so much is that she was a pillar of feminism. Though the term itself wasn’t coined until the 1970s, Virginia was one of feminism’s most inspiring foremothers, and both her life and her work became central topics as the movement now known as “Second Wave Feminism” unfolded.
Virginia also often examines the topic of social class in her work. She scrutinized her privileged background and questioned how privilege affected her own worldview. Her 1936 essay Am I a Snob? concluded that she was in fact both elite and a social critic.
Sadly, though, Virginia suffered from mental illness throughout her life. She was institutionalized numerous times and attempted suicide several times before, tragically, in 1941, she finally succeeded.
You can see in her letters to Leonard (her husband) how profoundly she suffered. Her poignant suicide letter assures him — and now us — that she fought hard and loved fiercely.
I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V
And so, at the terribly young age of 59, Virginia (suffering from symptoms that we would now recognize as “bipolar disorder”) welcomed her untimely death by drowning herself in the River Ouse.
That may have been the end of her life, but her work will never lose its potency.
© Sophia Jin (1/25/22) Special for FF2 Media®
For the mile-high view of the life and work of Virginia Woolf, start by visiting her Wikipedia page.
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