Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on January 25, 1882 in London, England. She was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen a literary critic and first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Virginia’s mother was his second wife, Julia Prinsep Jackson Duckworth. Virginia had two brothers, Thoby and Adrian. She was always very close to her older sister Vanessa whom she called ‘Nessa’ who would become a painter and marry art critic Clive Bell. She also had four half-siblings from her father’s first marriage; Laura Makepeace Stephen, George, Gerald (who would found Duckworth and Co. Publishing) and Stella Duckworth. Her father Sir Leslie Stephen laid the foundation for his children’s love of literature by having a massive library in the house. Virginia was known to be an avid reader but would soon reject the traditional mores and values of that generation.
The Stephens often summered at ‘Talland House’ in St. Ives, County Cornwall in the southwest of England along the rocky shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Virginia often recalled the fond memories of these times which had an influence on her writing including visits to a nearby lighthouse. Sadly these happy times ended when her mother died when she was just thirteen years old and she then suffered the first major breakdown of many that would plague her off and on the rest of her life. Following this was the trauma of the death of Stella, who had become like a mother to Virginia and then the death of her father which caused another period of profound depression. As the oldest surviving sibling Vanessa then moved her sister and brothers to another neighborhood in London, Bloomsbury. Virginia began feeling better and by 1905 was writing in earnest both articles and essays, and became a book reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. She also taught English and History at nearby Morley College in London.
In 1906 Virginia, Vanessa and their brothers traveled to Europe, where Thoby contracted typhoid fever and died. Back in England their home had became a meeting place for both authors and artists. Virginia married left-wing political journalist, author and editor Leonard Woolf on August 10, 1912. They would have no children. In 1914 when World War I broke out they were living in Richmond and Woolf was working on her writing with all her devotion.
Leonard and Virginia would themselves get into the publishing business and together they founded the Hogarth Press in 1917. At the outbreak of WWII the Woolfs were living at their country retreat, ‘Monk’s House’ near the village of Rodmell in Lewes, Sussex. In 1940 they received word that their London home had been destroyed. With the fear of a German invasion looming and Leonard’s Jewish heritage the couple decided to make a suicide pact if the possibility of falling into German hands arose. Leonard was ever vigilant to the onset of the next major depressive episode in his wife; and knew that one was near when she would get migraine headaches and lay sleepless at night. However both her husband and her doctor failed to see to that a major depressive episode would end her life.
Virginia Woolf died on March 28, 1941 after committing suicide. She drowned herself in the River Ouse near their home in Sussex, by putting rocks in her coat pockets. Her body was not found until April. She was then cremated; her ashes spread under two elms at Monks’ House. She had left a note indicating that she felt herself going mad and feared she would not recover.
Woolf was to prove herself to be an innovative and influential 20th Century author. In many of her novels she moves away from the use of plot and structure to employ stream-of-consciousness to emphasize the psychological aspects of her characters. Themes in her works included studies of gender relations, class hierarchy and the consequences of war. She was also among the founders of the Modernist movement which also includes T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.
Virginia Woolf spent much of her life fighting the effects of bi-polar disorder and was frequently hospitalized as a “rest cure”. She attributed much of her suffering from the sexual abuse she received from her half-brother. Much of her work was also colored by her own mental instabilities (she referred to herself as “mad” on many occasions) her confusion about her sexual orientation and her feminist views. Regardless of history’s view Woolf’s prodigious output of diaries, letters, critical reviews, essays, short stories, and novels continue to be the source of much scholarly study.