In 1882, Virginia Woolf was born into a world that was quickly evolving. Her family was split by the mores of the stifling Victorian era, with her half-siblings firmly on the side of "polite society" and her own brothers and sisters curious about what lie on the darker side of that society. Woolf's father, the eminent scholar and biographer Sir Leslie Stephen, was a man of letters and a man of vision, befriending and encouraging authors who were then unknown, including Henry James and Thomas Hardy. As much as he encouraged his own daughters to better their minds, higher education, even in the Stephen household, was reserved for the men of the family-Woolf's brothers Thoby and Adrian. This was a bitter lesson in inequality that Woolf could never forget, even when she was later offered honorary degrees from Cambridge and other British universities that, when she was growing up, didn't even admit women into their ranks.
When Woolf and her sister Vanessa moved out of their posh London neighborhood and into a slightly seedy neighborhood called Bloomsbury with their brothers, they were on the cusp of something entirely new. They could either fall backwards into the safe arms of the upper-middle class society in which they grew up, or they could push forth into the somewhat avant-garde, ultra-intellectual and suspect world of Thoby's Cambridge friends-Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Desmond MacCarthy, among others. The sisters plunged headfirst into the Bloomsbury Group.
The Bloomsbury Group started out as a weekly gathering of old college friends. However, as time passed, it became an intense salon of ideas, philosophy, and theories on art and politics. Woolf and Vanessa were both important members of the group. For the first time, Woolf was around people who didn't seem to care that she was a woman, and who expected her to contribute to the group both in conversation and in deed (as in her novels). Though her old friends were scandalized by the company she was keeping (the Bloomsbury Group was famous, even in its own time, and its members were considered rude, unkempt and depraved), Woolf felt at ease among her new friends, and flourished in their company.
With this encouragement, she began writing. First she began publishing short journalistic pieces, and then longer reviews. Before long she was a regular contributor to a number of London weeklies, and was privately trying her hand at fiction. After her first novel, The Voyage Out was published to good reviews, Woolf never looked back and began producing novel after successful and daring novel. Through her often difficult but nearly always brilliant novels, she became one of the most important Modernist writers, along with James Joyce and T.S. Eliot.
Modernism was a literary movement in which its practitioners discovered new ways to relate the human experience in an uncertain, somewhat hopeless time in history. World War One had just demoralized England and the Continent, and a whole generation of young men and women were, as Gertrude Stein would later put it, "lost." Changing times demanded different modes of expression. Woolf and James Joyce, for example, utilized stream-of-consciousness to convey a character's interior monologue and to capture the irregularities and meanderings of thought.
Despite her successes, Woolf battled mental illness for most of her life. Mental illness was still poorly understood in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and Woolf–who was likely suffering from manic-depression–had few tools at her disposal with which to battle her inner demons. She lost weeks of precious work time due to her bouts with mania or with depression, and she was plagued, during these times of madness, by voices in her head. However, her devoted husband Leonard shepherded her through these difficult periods in her life and she seemed to bounce back and produce another great work of literature.
However, on March 28, 1941, as World War Two raged on, Woolf left her husband two suicide notes, walked to the River Ouse, filled her pockets with heavy stones, and drowned herself. With her suicide, the world lost one of its most gifted voices. She left a canon of experimental, stunning fiction and a collection of insightful and incisive nonfiction and criticism. Her belief that women writers face two hindrances-social inferiority and economic dependence-was a revolutionary stance to take in the twenties when A Room of One's Own was published. Even more so was her assertion that all women deserved equal opportunity in education and career. Despite having had no educational opportunity herself, Virginia Woolf became, through her own efforts, one of the best writers of the twentieth century.
Take a Study Break!