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Virginia Woolf

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Important Terms, People and Events

Considered one of the best of the Modernist writers, Virginia Woolf's personal life is almost as intriguing as her fiction. Troubled by mental instability for most of her life, Virginia composed her great works in bursts of manic energy and with the support of her brilliant friends and family. However, upon completion of a book, Virginia fell into a dangerously dark depression in anticipation of the world's reaction to her work. Despite her personal difficulties, Virginia Woolf's fiction represented a shift in both structure and style. The world was changing; literature needed to change too, if it was to properly and honestly convey the new realities.

Virginia Woolf was born into an intellectually gifted family. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, is the author of the massive Dictionary of National Biography, a sixty-two volume compilation of the lives of important British citizens. Virginia's sister Vanessa was a gifted painter, and her two brothers Thoby and Adrian were intelligent, dynamic University men. Despite this heady environment-and having the key to her father's library-Virginia was not afforded the opportunity to attend school like her brothers. This wasn't unusual for the time, but it was something Virginia never quite seemed able to forget. Despite becoming perhaps one of the most intelligent writers of the Twentieth Century, Virginia Woolf always thought of herself as ill educated.

After her parents' deaths, Virginia and her siblings moved out of their family home in Kensington and into a rather shabby London neighborhood called Bloomsbury, where they enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of socialists, artists and students. Thoby, who had made a number of extremely interesting friends while at Cambridge, instituted Thursday night get togethers with his old college buddies and other great London minds: Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Desmond MacCarthy and John Maynard Keyes. Virginia and Vanessa sat in on these conversations, which ranged from Art to philosophy to politics, and soon became a part of the Bloomsbury Group themselves.

As she came into her own, and comfortable in her new environment, Virginia began to write. She first produced short articles and reviews for various London weeklies. She then embarked on her first novel, The Voyage Out, which would consume nearly five years of her life and go through seven drafts. When that book came out to good reviews, she continued producing novels, each one a more daring experiment in language and structure, it seemed, than the last one. After a botched marriage proposal from Lytton Strachey, and after turning down two other proposals in the meantime, Virginia accepted Leonard Woolf's proposal of marriage, after recovering from a mental breakdown in a country nursing home.

Although she had affairs of the heart with other women like Vita Sackville-West and Violet Dickinson, Virginia remained very much in love with Leonard for her entire life. He was her greatest supporter, half-nursemaid, half-cheerleader. He was also a good novelist in his own right, and a publishing entrepreneur, having founded Hogarth Press with Virginia. Together, they scouted great unknown talents like T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and E.M. Forster. Hogarth also began publishing Virginia's novels.

When Virginia published To the Lighthouse and The Waves in 1927 and 1931 respectively, she had turned a corner and could now be considered more than simply avant-garde; she was now, by most critic's accounts, a literary genius. However, until the end, she remained insecure and fearful of the public's reaction to her work.

Virginia didn't only publish fiction; she was also an insightful and, at times, incisive literary and social critic. She was at her best when she took society to task for limiting the opportunities of gifted female writers. A Room of One's Own was a compilation of lectures Virginia gave at Cambridge on the topic of women and fiction, and in this slender volume she argues that talented female writers face the two impediments to fully realizing their potentials: social inferiority and lack of economic independence. Virginia proposed five hundred pounds a year and a private room for female writers with talent. She also published criticism, including two volumes of The Common Reader.

Despite her success, Virginia battled her own internal demons, and although she could quiet them through rest, sometimes she found it impossible to escape the voices in her head. She likely suffered from manic-depression, though doctors knew little about that disorder at the time. Leonard tried to monitor his wife's activities, going so far as to limit the number of visitors she had and to prescribe different kinds of food for her to eat. His efforts likely enabled Virginia to achieve as much as she did. However, he couldn't ultimately save her from herself. On March twenty-eight, 1941, Virginia wrote her husband two notes, both of which told him that if anyone could have saved her, it would have been him. However, she didn't feel she'd be able to come back from this latest episode of what was then called "madness" so she thought it best to end it all. She then picked up her walking stick and headed to the River Ouse. Once on the banks, she filled her pockets with stones, waded into the water, and drowned herself. She was fifty-nine years old.

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