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Virginia Woolf

Two Masterpieces

The Most Famous Writer in London

The End

In early 1926, Woolf was coming out of her depression. Things were going so well as she wrote the novel To the Lighthouse. The book, widely considered to be a masterpiece, was published on May 5, 1927. With the publication of To the Lighthouse and, later, The Waves, Woolf established herself firmly as one of the leading Modernist voices. In a world that was fundamentally different, fractured and in upheaval, it seemed that writers and artists had to rethink the way they presented their art to the world. Modernism experimented with presentation, and Woolf was one of the movement's prominent writers. Contemporaries like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence were also trying to turn form upside down and inside out.

When To the Lighthouse appeared, it was a critical success, but it was also a popular book, selling quite well. It sold well enough that Woolf was able to buy a car. In 1927 she began working on a fanciful novel called Orlando which was about a hero/heroine whose gender changed throughout the narrative. Orlando's adventures were inspired by Vita Sackville-West's. This was a happy period for Woolf, who was basking in the success of her last book and the ease of the novel she was now writing. Orlando was finished in May of 1928. Following the completion of this book, Woolf began preparing a series of lectures that she was scheduled to deliver at Cambridge that October. These lectures centered on the topic of women, women writers and the opportunities that must be afforded to the gifted female writer if she is to produce great literature-namely, a room of her own. When Orlando was published, it sold exceptionally well, buffeted by the critical acclaim of To the Lighthouse. After a trip to Berlin, accompanied by Vanessa and Leonard, Woolf became sick again. She was laid up for six weeks, unable to work.

In 1929, Hogarth Press published Woolf's Cambridge lectures under the title of A Room of One's Own. In this slender book, Woolf argues that social and economic barriers are the only things keeping women writers from the acclaim they deserve. The best artists, she argues, are androgynous.

Meanwhile, Vanessa Bell was still painting, but was feeling overshadowed not only by her famous sister, but also by her boyfriend, painter Duncan Grant. The sisters continued to see each other nearly every day, however. Woolf began working on her most difficult and most celebrated novel, The Waves, which she was, at this time, still calling Moths. In January and February 1930, she was flying through page after page. But her work was interrupted by the appearance in her life of seventy-year-old Ethel Smyth, a vivacious, demanding, unusual old woman who was madly in love with Woolf-and may have been even before meeting her (she was an avid fan of Woolf's fiction.) Ethel Smyth was a fascinating woman and Woolf enjoyed her company, but was exhausted by her demands for attention. What was most maddening was the effect Smyth had on the composition of The Waves. Woolf had written so much so quickly, and now she felt immobilized by distractions.

In October, Woolf and Leonard, overwhelmed by the work Hogarth Press demanded in order to run well, briefly considered putting an end to the whole endeavor. It simply took up too much time. However, Leonard was very much attached to the venture and found it difficult to close up shop. He hired another assistant (the Woolfs had gone through a succession of assistants during the short history of Hogarth) named John Lehmann. Lehmann was a friend of the Woolfs' nephew Julian Bell, and it was through him that Woolf and Leonard met young writers like Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis and W.H. Auden.

On February 7, 1931, Woolf finished what most literary critics believe to be her best work. After giving the finished manuscript of The Waves to Leonard for editing, Woolf began working on a lighter book called Flush. This book purported to be a biography of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog. In August, Woolf bravely faced the galleys of The Waves and that fall it was published. Woolf, as usual, took to her bed, fearful of the public response to her book.

She needn't have worried. The Waves was a resounding success. It went into a second edition almost at once. Leonard's own new book, After the Deluge was, unfortunately, not as successful as both Woolf and Leonard had hoped. Despite that minor disappointment, that autumn was a happy one for the Woolfs. The year came to a sad close when, in December, Lytton Strachey fell gravely ill. By Christmas Eve, he was at death's door. Woolf and Leonard were in agony, grieving for their dear friend. The next day, however, they received word that he was improving. On January 14th, 1932, Woolf and Leonard traveled to Lytton's home and found his family holding vigil, with Carrington sitting alone looking absolutely miserable. Seven days later, Lytton Strachey died.

Lytton's death devastated Woolf. She'd lost her rival, her friend, and former love. 1932 was a mixed year-Woolf was a famous writer with six successful novels under her belt, yet she was tired, depressed and emotionally weak. One more event pushed her close to the breaking point. Carrington, the woman who had spent the greater part of her adult life in love with Lytton Strachey, and who was married to Ralph Partridge, was now in a state of constant despair. Her husband and friends were convinced that, if given the chance, she'd kill herself. Partridge begged people to keep an eye on her when he had to be away, including Woolf and Leonard. One day that winter after Lytton died, the couple visited Carrington and spent the better part of the day with her. After they left, they received word that Carrington had shot herself.

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