Virginia Woolf may not have been born at the right time, since during her life, women were still denied higher education, but she was born in the right place. The Stephen household was a bastion of intellectual curiosity, great respect for literature and an expectation that each member of the family could hold his or her own intellectually.
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on January 25th, 1882, in London, to Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Duckworth Stephen. Virginia's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a luminary in Britain's intellectual circles. His work on the Dictionary of National Biography would still be of significant importance a hundred years after his death, and his early encouragement and recognition of the talent of then unknowns like Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Hardy. He had married before and been made a widower; his first wife, Minny, was the daughter of Thackeray, and they'd had a daughter named Laura before Minny died in 1875. Laura would battle mental illness her entire life and would eventually die in an institution. Although shattered, Leslie soon met a beautiful widowed mother of three named Julia Duckworth. Although a little awed by Leslie's intellect, Julia fell in love with Leslie and the two married in 1878.
Even before Vanessa, Leslie and Julia's first child together, was born, the family was sizable. Julia's three children–Stella, Gerald and George–and Leslie's daughter Laura, made for a full household. Vanessa Stephen was born in 1878, Thoby in 1882, Virginia in 1882 and Adrian in 1884. Virginia was born into a world in transition, and would pass her formative years in a shaky new world. Queen Victoria would die in 1901, WWI would begin in 1914, the British art world would be enraged by Matisse and Picasso and scandalized by thinkers like Jung, Einstein and Freud.
Virginia was a deeply sensitive, thoughtful child who learned to speak late, at the age of three. She was surrounded early by books and the great intelligence of her parents and her siblings. Her father was larger-than-life and provided her a model for intellectual achievement. His massive library was a place of great allure and great comfort to Virginia. If she wanted to read a book, she asked her father and he unlocked the library door, pulled down the book and handed it to her. She read voraciously and absorbed the ideas and conversations that took place in the Stephen house, which was a meeting place for a number of great thinkers. Virginia's godfather, for example, was James Russell Lowell.
Virginia was an unusually pensive child who, nevertheless, had an amusing sense of humor. Her mischievous nature lead to a nickname of "Goat." All of the Stephen children were beautiful, and Virginia in particular had clear jade-colored eyes and elegant features. Vanessa and Virginia were extremely close and rarely apart. They deeply admired one another, and would for the rest of their lives. Almost from the start, they announced their life's plan: Vanessa would be a painter and Virginia would be a writer. In fact, in the Stephen nursery, which took up the top two floors at twenty-two Hyde Gate, Virginia would make up bedtime stories for her siblings.
Leslie and Julia decided to educate the children at the house before sending Thoby and Adrian off to university. Both parents, though good-natured in general, were impatient teachers. Julia had Virginia studying French and Latin at age six. Despite losing his temper with Virginia and Vanessa when they had difficulty with their mathematics lessons, Leslie could enchant his children by reading them Sir Walter Scott out loud, then asking them what they thought of the work. However, Virginia and Vanessa's education was only to go so far. They were encouraged-expected, really-to acquire what were then called "accomplishments": proficiency at some musical instrument, passable drawing skill, graceful manners. These were traits that made one marriageable, and that was the goal for women then. Virginia felt this injustice acutely. While Vanessa took to painting and drawing with a passion, Virginia began producing a little household periodical she called Hyde Park Gate News.
Although Julia's children from her first marriage, Gerald, George and Stella, were quite a bit older than the Stephen children, they had an enormous impact on Virginia's life. George Duckworth, Virginia's handsome, effusive, affectionate and kind older stepbrother, made what Virginia's biographer and nephew Quentin Bell calls "incestuous advances" and abused both Virginia and Vanessa for a number of years.
Yet the Stephens were also a traditional Victorian family in that the male children were expected to head off to university–Cambridge, Oxford, etc–at some point while the daughters were supposed to learn a few charming skills and marry well. This was what the family expected of Virginia and Vanessa, even as they pushed them to be intelligent, articulate young women. Virginia was bitterly resentful and envious of her brother's opportunity and her lack. She made up for it by reading nearly every book in her father's library. In fact, by the time she was thirteen, she was reading so much that her father tired of unlocking the library and pulling down books for her so he gave her the key. It was a turning point. Having the key to the library could easily be equated, for Virginia, with having the key to the world. She spent hours alone with books, and also spent many hours at the London Library and the British Museum.