Spotlight On: Virginia Woolf

Hi everyone,

Today’s post is going to be another installment of my “Spotlight On:…” series. Today it’s the turn of Virginia Woolf. I recently re-read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and loved it so much (may be one of my favourite books) so I figured that now was as good a time as any to write this post.

As always, the post will be divided up into 6 different parts:

1. A little bit about their life

2. Their works I have read

3. Their works I am yet to read

4. Great film/TV adaptations based on their works

5. Quotes

6. An author biography recommendation

So without further ado…


A Little Bit About Their Life

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on 25th January 1882 in London. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a historian and author and her mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen (born in India) served as a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters. She was also a nurse and wrote a book on her profession. Both of her parents had been married and widowed before meeting each other. Woolf had three full siblings – Thoby, Vanessa and Adrian – and four half-siblings – Laura, George, Gerald and Stella. The eight children lived under one room in Kensington.

Two of her brothers had been educated at Cambridge, but the girls were taught at home and made use of the connections of their family as well as their amazing Victorian library. Her father was friends with William Thackeray (the father of his first wife who died unexpectedly), George Henry Lewes, and E.M. Forster. Virginia fell in love with the world of literature.

Woolf spent many of her summers in St. Ives. Their summer home, called Talland House, looks out at the dramatic Porthminster Bay and has a view of Godrevy Lighthouse which inspired her writing (particularly To the Lighthouse). As a young girl, Virginia was light-hearted and playful. She started up her own newspaper called the Hyde Park Gate News to document her family’s anecdotes. However, early traumas darkened her light-heartedness. Virginia Woolf was sexually abused by her half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (she wrote about this in her essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate). In 1895, at the age of 13, she also had to cope with the sudden death of her mother from rheumatic fever which led to her first mental breakdown and the loss of her half-sister, Stella.

While dealing with these many losses, Woolf was committed to her studies in German, Greek and Latin at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London. Her four years of study introduced her to a handful of radical feminists. In 1904, her father died from stomach cancer which started another emotional setback that ultimately led to Woolf being institutionalised for a brief period. In 1905, she began writing professionally as a contributor for The Times Literary Supplement. A year later, Woolf’s 26-year-old brother Thoby died from typhoid fever after a family trip to Greece. The loss of her family members and her own personal desolation would follow her into her literary expression.

After their father’s death, her family home was sold and she purchased a house (along with her siblings) in the Bloomsbury area. During this period, Virginia met several members of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of intellectuals and artists including the essayist Leonard Woolf. The two became closer and eventually they married on 10th August 1912. They loved each other for the rest of their lives.

In 1917, they founded the Hogarth Press together and over the years they published many important books by T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Sigmund Freud, and also by Virginia herself.

A year after World War I ended in 1919, Woolf published Night and Day and Jacob’s Room in 1922 (which was based on her brother Thoby). That year, she met author, poet and gardener, Vita Sackville-West, the wife of an English diplomat. Virginia and Vita began a friendship that developed into a romantic affair. Although their affair did end, they remained friends until Virginia’s death. Woolf had found a literary muse in Sackville-West, who was the inspiration for Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando.

In 1925, Woolf received rave reviews for Mrs. Dalloway, her fourth novel. To the Lighthouse was another critical success and considered revolutionary for its stream of consciousness storytelling. In 1929, Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, a feminist essay based on lectures she had given at a women’s college in which she examines women’s role in literature. She pushed literary voundaries in The Waves (1931). In 1937, she published The Years which would be her final novel

Despite her success, she continued to regularly suffer from debilitating bouts of depression. Her husband, Leonard, was always by her side and was aware of any signs that pointed to his wife falling into depression. He saw, as she was working on what would be her final manuscript (Between the Acts, published post-humously), that she was sinking into despair. At the time, World War 2 was raging on and the couple had decided that if England invaded Germany, they would commit suicide together for fear for Leonard, who was Jewish. In 1940, their home was destroyed during the Blitz.

Unable to cope, Woolf pulled on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse in Yorkshire on 28th March 1941. The authorites found her body three weeks later and Leonard Woolf had her cremated at her remains were scattered at their home, Monk’s House.

She wrote a suicide note to her husband which I won’t include here but it is heartbreaking.


Their Works I Have Read

So far, I have only read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

Their Works I Am Yet to Read

After discovering more about her life, I want to read so many of her works including The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, Jacob’s Room…


Great Film/TV Adaptations of Their Work

I haven’t seen any adaptations of Virginia Woolf’s work. There is a film out called Vita and Virginia which I have on my list to watch; this focuses on the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

Other popular adaptations include Orlando (1992) starring Tilda Swinton, and Mrs Dalloway (1997) starring Vanessa Redgrave.


Quotes

“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

“Books are the mirrors of the soul.”

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?”

“Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others.”

“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”


An Author Biography Recommendation

If you want to learn more about Virginia Woolf’s life, I would recommend reading Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee. Another good idea to learn more about her would be to read extracts from her diary, called A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf.


Thank you for reading!

Love, Zoë xx

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