This January marks 140 years since the birth of Virginia Woolf. To celebrate her birthday, let’s take a look at the life of this influential writer.
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on the 25th January 1882. The daughter of author, historian and mountaineer, Sir Leslie Stephen, and model and nurse, Julia, she had a privileged upbringing. Her liberal-thinking parents had been married and widowed before marrying each other and so Virginia had four half-siblings as well as two brothers and a sister. The family lived together at 22 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington, London. Virginia enjoyed writing, and showed an aptitude for it, from a young age, founding the family newspaper, the Hyde Park Gate News, at the age of 9.
Despite her privileged upbringing, Virginia’s life was tinged with tragedy and rife with mental health problems. When she was 13, her mother died, and Virginia stopped writing family stories in her newspaper whilst she sunk into a deep depression. Two years later, in 1897, her half-sister Stella died – an event which Virginia noted in her diary as being “impossible to write of”. Tragedy struck again in 1904 when her father died, causing Virginia to have a nervous breakdown.
Following these tragic events, Virginia and her full siblings moved to the bohemian area of Bloomsbury, living separately from their half-siblings. Here, they studied, pursued the Arts and entertained – their gatherings quickly became weekly parties involving some of the most radical young thinkers of the time. Virginia’s future husband, Leonard Woolf, attended one such event in November 1904. In 1906, Virginia’s brother Thoby died and her sister, Vanessa, married. Virginia coped with these losses to the household through writing and in 1908 her book Reminiscences (a memoir about her childhood and the death of her mother) was published.
In 1911, Leonard Woolf returned to London after resigning from colonial service in the East, and he and Virginia married in 1912. The couple became dedicated writers with Leonard publishing the anti-colonialist novel The Village in the Jungle in 1914 before becoming a political writer and an advocate for peace and justice. New anxieties that Virginia was a failure as a writer and a woman, and that she was unloved by her husband and hated by her sister, provoked a suicide attempt in 1913 but, by the end of 1915, she had found a way to mostly suppress her mental health problems.
In 1917, the Woolf’s bought a printing press and established their own publishing company, the Hogarth Press, at their home in London. Not only did the couple publish their own work, but their publications also include work by famous writers such as T.S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud and Katherine Mansfield, and the Woolf home became a hub of activity for notable early-20th century writers and thinkers. Virginia’s own writing captured her thoughts and opinions on a range of subject matter, including gender roles, sexuality, class, discrimination, and the need to reform society, and she was influenced by artists such as Igor Stravinsky, Marcel Proust and the Post-Impressionists.
During World War II, as Virginia was working on what would be her final work, Between the Acts, the Woolf’s decided that, if England were invaded by Germany, they would commit suicide together, fearing that Leonard, who was Jewish, would be in danger. Then, in 1940, the Woolf’s home was destroyed during the Blitz. On the 28th March 1941, unable to cope with these latest events, Virginia walked into the River Ouse with stones in her pockets and tragically drowned herself.