The English novelist, critic, and essayist Virginia Stephen Woolf (1882-1941) ranks as one of England's most distinguished writers of the period between World War I and World War II. Her novels can perhaps best be described as impressionistic.
Dissatisfied with the novel based on familiar, factual, and external details, Virginia Woolf followed experimental clues to a more internal, subjective, and in a sense more personal rendering of experience than had been provided by Henry James, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. In the works of these masters the reality of time and experience had formed the stream of consciousness, a concept that probably originated with William James. Virginia Woolf lived in and responded to a world in which certitudes were collapsing under the stresses of changing knowledge, the civilized savagery of war, and new manners and morals. She drew on her personal, sensitive, poetic awareness without rejecting altogether the heritage of literary culture she derived from her family.
Virginia Stephen was born in London on Jan. 25, 1882. She was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, a famous scholar and agnostic philosopher who, among many literary occupations, was at one time editor of Cornhill Magazine and the Dictionary of National Biography. James Russell Lowell, the American poet, was her godfather. Virginia's mother died when the child was 12 or 13 years old, and she was educated at home in her father's library, where she also met his famous friends.
In 1912, eight years after her father's death, Virginia married Leonard Woolf, a brilliant young writer and critic from Cambridge whose interests in literature as well as in economics and the labor movement were well suited to hers. In 1917, for amusement, they originated the Hogarth Press by setting and handprinting on an old press Two Stories by "L. and V. Woolf." The volume was a success, and over the years they published many important books, including Prelude by Katherine Mansfield, then an unknown writer; Poems by T. S. Eliot; and Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf. The policy of the Hogarth Press was to publish the best and most original work that came to its attention, and the Woolfs as publishers favored young and obscure writers. Virginia's older sister Vanessa, who married the critic Clive Bell, participated in this venture by designing dust jackets for the books issued by the Hogarth Press.
Quite early in her career Virginia Woolf's home in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, became a literary and art center, attracting such diverse intellectuals as E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Arthur Waley, Victoria Sackville-West, John Maynard Keynes, and Roger Fry. These artists, critics, and writers became known as the Bloomsbury group. Roger Fry's theory of art may have influenced Virginia's technique as a novelist. Broadly speaking, the Bloomsbury group drew from the philosophic interests of its members (who had been educated at Cambridge) the values of love and beauty as preeminent in life.
Virginia Woolf began writing essays for the Times Literary Supplement when she was young, and over the years these and other essays were collected in a two-volume series called The Common Reader (1925, 1933). These studies range with affection and understanding through all of English literature. Students of fiction have drawn upon these criticisms as a means of understanding Virginia Woolf's own direction as a novelist. One passage frequently studied occurs in "Modern Fiction" in the First Series: "Life is not a series of … big lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?"
Another essay frequently studied is "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," written in 1924, in which Virginia Woolf describes the manner in which the older-generation novelist Arnold Bennett would have portrayed Mrs. Brown, a lady casually met in a railway carriage, by giving her a house and furniture and a position in the world. She then contrasts this method with another: one that exhibits a new interest in the subjective Mrs. Brown, the mysteries of her person, her consciousness, and the consciousness of the observer responding to her.
Two of Virginia Woolf's novels in particular, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), follow successfully the latter approach. The first novels covers a day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway in postwar London; it achieves its vision of reality through the reception by Mrs. Dalloway's mind of what Virginia Woolf called those 'myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel." To the Lighthouseis, in a sense, a family portrait and history rendered in subjective depth through selected points in time. Part I deals with the time between six o'clock in the evening and dinner. Primarily through the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay, it presents the clash of the male and female sensibilities in the family; Mrs. Ramsay functions as a means of equipoise and reconciliation. Part II: Time Passes, is a moving evocation of loss during the interval between Mrs. Ramsay's death and the family's revisit to the house. Part III moves toward completion of this intricate and subjective portrait through the adding of a last detail to a painting by an artist guest, Lily Briscoe, and through the final completion of a plan, rejected by the father in Part I, for him and the children to sail out to the lighthouse. The novel is impressionistic, subjectively perceptive, and poignant.
Virginia Woolf was the author of about 15 books, the last, A Writer's Diary, posthumously published in 1953. Her death by drowning in Lewes, Sussex, on March 28, 1941, has often been regarded as a suicide brought on by the unbearable strains of life during World War II. The true explanation seems to be that she had felt symptoms of a recurrence of a mental breakdown and feared that it would be permanent.
Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Jacob's Room (1922) constitute Virginia Woolf's major achievement. The Voyage Out (1915) first brought her critical attention. Night and Day (1919) is traditional in method. The short stories of Monday or Tuesday (1921) brought critical praise. In The Waves (1931) she masterfully employed the stream-of-consciousness technique. Other experimental novels include Orlando (1928), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (1941). Virginia Woolf's championship of woman's rights is reflected in the essays in A Room of One's Own (1929) and in Three Guineas (1938).
Virginia Woolf's diary was edited by her husband, Leonard Sidney Woolf, The Dairy of Virginia Woolf (1953). Leonard Woolf's five-volume autobiography not only deals in great detail with his life with Virginia Woolf but reveals much about English social and literary history since 1939: Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years, 1880-1904 (1960), Growing: An Autobiography of the Years, 1904-1911 (1962), Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years, 1911 to 1918 (1964), Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years, 1919-1939 (1967), and The Journey, Not the Arrival Matters: An Autobiography of the Years, 1939-1969 (1970).
Much has been written about Virginia Woolf. Her experimental technique as well as her psychological depth made her, in a sense, a critic's writer. Interesting and helpful studies include David Daiches, Virginia Woolf (1942; rev. ed. 1963); Joan Bennett, Virginia Woolf: Her Art as a Novelist (1945; 2d ed. 1964); Bernard Blackstone, Virginia Woolf: A Commentary (1949); James Hafley, The Glass Roof: Virginia Woolf as Novelist (1954); Aileen Pippett, The Moth and the Star: A Biography of Virginia Woolf (1955); Dorothy Brewster, Virginia Woolf (1962); Jean Guiguet, Virginia Woolf and Her Works (trans. 1966); Carl Woodring, Virginia Woolf (1966); and Jean O. Love, World of Consciousness: Mythopoetic Thought in the Novels of Virginia Woolf (1970).