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Virginia Woolf

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What happened in Virginia's childhood that made her ambivalent and somewhat fearful of male sexuality and how did she compensate?

Virginia's eldest stepbrother, George Duckworth, sexually abused her beginning around the time her mother died. Because she was young, extremely shy and naïve, Virginia was horrified by the abuse, but awed by her much older brother (he was twenty-seven; she was thirteen.) Though filled with disgust for her brother and wracked with self-loathing, Virginia never told anyone about the abuse except her sister Vanessa. Because of the abuse, as an adult, Virginia was physically unresponsive to men-even finding male lust unfathomable and inconvenient for all parties involved. Although she was very much in love with her husband Leonard Woolf, she simply couldn't respond to him physically, and sex was something she did not enjoy in the slightest. She compensated by engaging in a number of "affairs of the heart" with dynamic, often beautiful women. Her first stirrings for a woman occurred when she was twenty when she met long-limbed, confident Violet Dickinson. Although the two only shared passionate letters, they remained good friends for many years. Another woman, Katherine Mansfield, evoked extremely complex feelings in Virginia-part love, part hate-and although Virginia may have fallen in love with Katherine, nothing came of it. Finally, Vita Sackville-West was an engaging, darkly attractive female writer who adored Virginia and her writing. Virginia's nephew and her biographer Quentin Bell says that Vita and Virginia engaged in a love affair for the four years between 1925 and 1929. The letters that exist from this period indicate a mutual romantic love. Despite her wandering heart, Virginia remained true to Leonard.

How was the Bloomsbury world different from the world in which Virginia had grown up?

The Bloomsbury Group was full of just the kind of people Virginia was looking for. Intelligent, insightful, well read, well educated, slightly unkempt, unconcerned with fashion and a little snobbish. In addition, Virginia was attracted by the fact that both she and her sister were accepted wholeheartedly into the clan with no mention of their sex, and no expectation that their contributions to the group would be anything less than equal or better. This was a radical shift from the kind of household they, and nearly every British female during the Victorian period, grew up in. Although Leslie Stephen was extremely supportive of his bright daughters, lending them books, teaching them Greek and having them tutored, like most fathers, he reserved the university training for his sons. In fact, few British universities were even admitting female students at that point. This meant that regardless of Virginia's intellectual ambitions, she would always be limited to her own books; she'd have to educate herself. Meanwhile, she was expected to learn charming skills that would be useful when it came time to find a suitable match for marriage: musicianship, social grace and drawing were just a few of the skills that marriageable young woman of the upper middle class were expected to acquire.

Yet when Virginia and Vanessa joined the Bloomsbury Group, the entire Victorian moral system dropped from beneath their feet and they found themselves in an environment in which frankness was in and inhibition out. Add to that the fact that the people gathered at the Stephens' Bloomsbury house on Thursday nights were some of the best minds of the time-including Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keyes, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Desmond MacCarthy and Duncan Grant-and you had an imposing club. However, as the Bloomsbury Group's fame grew (with each accomplishment from its members), its infamy grew in direct correlation. Artists saw it as a snobbish, exclusive club-or worse, a clique. Virginia's friends were shocked by the company she was keeping, especially her stepbrothers, the Duckworths. Rooted firmly in the stiff Victorian moral code in which men and women had cordial relationships, though certainly not overly familiar ones, the Duckworths found Virginia and Vanessa's behavior shocking. They were scandalized when they learned that the girls had taken to staying up until three in the morning visiting with Thoby's friends. Despite her half-brothers' reservations, Virginia and Vanessa thrived in Bloomsbury.

Summarize Virginia's stance on talented women writers and their place in society, as well as the opportunities afforded them in which to practice their art.

Virginia was likely recalling her own lack of opportunity as a young woman when she wrote A Room of One's Own. A slender treatise on the importance of opportunity for talented female writers, the book took society to task for limiting the choices available to women of talent, and suggested that the only way for those women to produce the great works of literature that they were capable of producing was to make sure they had five hundred pounds a year and a room to call their own.

While the ideal writer is androgynous in mind-that is, sexless; a writer whose writing is not informed by his or her sex. Virginia found women whose anger at their lack of opportunity seeped into their prose artless. However, that anger must be wiped clean, and in order for that to happen, women must be given the opportunity to attend university and to be free from the social expectations heaped upon her shoulders even before she leaves the nursery. Economic independence is a necessity, for one thing. A relaxation of the social mores, is another. Virginia writes in A Room of One's Own of a hypothetical Shakespeare's sister who might have been laboring in a laundry or in an ale house, and who, given the opportunities Woolf was now demanding, might have been even better than Shakespeare.

Essay Topics

Why were women not afforded the opportunity to attend university, and what were they expected to do instead?

Describe Virginia's pattern of composition; that is, what kind of mental cycles did she go through before, during and after writing a novel?

How did World War One affect Virginia's career and, more importantly, how did it affect her writing, as well as that of many of the Modernist writers?

Describe the dynamics in the relationship between Clive Bell and Virginia. What brought them together after a few years of animosity?

Why did other artists and British society at large find the Bloomsbury Group so threatening?

Describe the dynamics of Virginia's relationship with Lytton Strachey? What kinds of rivalry, what kinds of love?

Describe the philosophy, or modus operandi, used by the Bloomsbury Group in order to encourage free and open discussion (hint: a philosophy promoted by G.E. Moore)

Name some of Virginia's Modernist contemporaries and compare and contrast their work to hers.

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