February 20, 2007

Happy Birthday, Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

In honor of the anniversary of Virginia Woolf (1882-1914), a new exhibit is on display in the library's entrance. 

Virginia Woolf was born in London, the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen. She was close to her sister, Vanessa Bell, and was from an early age the family story-teller. She was taught at home, by her parents and governesses, and received an uneven education. In 1891 she started the Hyde Park Gate News which was read by grown-ups and appeared weekly until 1895, and which included her first efforts at fiction.

Her father died in 1904 and the family moved to Bloomsbury where they formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group; this comprised - among others - John Maynard Keynes, E M Forster, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Lytton Strachey: philosophers, writers and artists. A year later she became a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, an association that lasted until just before her death. She married Leonard Woolf in 1912 and her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915. It was favourably received and although it was a realistic novel there were hints of the lyricism which would later become her hallmark. However, her health was already poor and she suffered recurring depressions; she had attempted suicide in 1913. In 1917 she and Leonard formed the Hogarth Press, partly for therapeutic reasons. Its first publication was Two Stories (1917), one by each of the founders. They went on to publish works by other modern writers, including Katherine Mansfield and T S Eliot.

Woolf's second novel, Night and Day, appeared in 1919. Again its mode is realistic, focusing on Katherine Hilberry, whose activities in a literary milieu are counterpointed with those of her friend Mary who is involved in the women's movement. Some critics still think it her best work. Jacob's Room followed in 1922 and marked a turning point in her fiction, showing her experimenting with narrative and language. It was well-received and made her a celebrity. In 1923 she published the essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ in the Nation and Athenaeum. An attack on the ‘Georgian novelists’ Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and H G Wells, it can be read as her own aesthetic manifesto.

Regarded as a major figure in the Modernist movement, she continued to make a significant contribution to the development of the novel. In six years she published the three novels that have made her one of the century's great writers: Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931), noted for their impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style. Her most commercially successful novel Orlando (1928), which describes the fantastic life of an aristocratic poet as he travels through four centuries, changing sex on the way, was dedicated to her intimate friend, Vita Sackville-West.

Her work took its toll on her health, and although she wrote prolifically she was beset by deep depressions and debilitating headaches. Throughout the 1930s she worked on the novel The Years, which was published in 1937. A year later Three Guineas, provisionally entitled ‘Professions for Women’ was published. This was intended as a sequel to A Room of One's Own (1929), a long essay which is still regarded as a feminist classic, and in which Woolf stated that ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ Her last novel, the experimental Between the Acts  was published posthumously in 1941, after she had forced a large stone into her pocket and drowned herself in the River Ouse, near her home at Rodmell in Sussex. She is, with James Joyce (whose novel Ulysses the Hogarth Press declined to publish), regarded as one of the great modern innovators of the novel in English.

From Chambers Biographical Dictionary, © Chambers Harrap Publishers Limited 2003