Virginia Woolf: Biography & Works

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      Birth and Family Ties: Virginia Woolf was born in a highly cultured and educated family in London on January 26, 1882. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a renowned critic, historian, scholar and author of a large number of critical, biographical and philosophical essays. He was a great friend of scholars and men of letters. Virginia was born into what has been called by another of its heirs as the intellectual aristocracy. And Virginia Woolf gathered much of the materials for her novels from this social and cultural milieu in which she had much of her experience of life. This milieu was composed of a small number of families and most of them were intimately connected. The members of this group constituted the cream of the middle class with their high intellectual attainments. It seems the Stephen family in their house at Hyde Park Gate must have resembled the Ramsays in To The Lighthouse with their grown-ups and the younger boys and girls.

      Virginia Woolf was one of six sisters and was remarkably beautiful. She had great affection and attachment for her sister Vanessa and her brother Thoby. And Thoby’s sudden and premature death at the age of twenty-five during a holiday in Greece had a profound effect on her work. This is revealed in her novels like The Voyage Out, Jacob's Room and in The Waves. She did not go through a conventional school because of her indifferent health. She was taught at home mainly by her father.

      The Influence of her Father: The influence of her eminent father, Leslie Stephen, was remarkable. He was already fifty when she was born and had already published most of his important books like History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century or The Science of Ethics. He still wrote daily and methodically in his study, books scattered round him in a circle. It was from him that she imbibed her enthusiasm and love for literature. The atmosphere of the house also was intellectually stimulating to such an extent that she naturally developed an instinct for writing. She acquired the habit of walking through the parks and squares and streets of London from her illustrious father. In later life this habit helped her a lot in her creative activities.

      Then there was the atmosphere of freedom in their family life. Virginia Woolf has mentioned in her Memoirs that they had the right to their own thoughts and to follow their own pursuits. Their father would tell them to read what liked. And his only lesson in the art of reading was, “to read what one liked because one liked it, never to pretend to admire what one did not;” and the only lesson in the art of writing was, “to write in the fewest possible words, as clearly as possible, exactly what one meant.” But the towering personality of her father had also some unhealthy effects. Mrs. Woolf has herself admitted “that if she lived under its shadow for long- “his life would have entirely ended mine.”

      Bloomsbury Group and the Visitors: Really speaking Virginia Woolf came from the cultural elite, the twentieth-century counterpart of the Establishment. And some of the members of this intellectual aristocracy had formed themselves into a sub-group, called ‘Bloomsbury’. The men from Cambridge were its principal members and they became her friends through Virginia’s brothers. Among the members of this group were Lytton Strachey famous for his ‘Eminent Victorians’, and the renowned economist J.M. Keynes. The philosophy of C. E. Moore greatly influenced this group and the exclusive, strictly non-practical pursuit of ‘sweetness and light became the ideal of the followers of Moore. But like her father, Virginia Woolf used the experience both critically and creatively. She could keep herself detached, although she was the center of this group. She was even able to keep herself aloof from the social milieu into which she was born. That is why in her The Voyage Out and The Mark on the Wall we find a lot of caricatures of the dons, distinguished civil servants, aesthetes, politicians and men of letters, in short, the Victorian upper class. And this criticism is the driving impulse that led Virginia Woolf to a more mature interest in her world and its individual members.

      The Bloomsbury group had its serious limitations. The members of this group were cut off from the mainsprings of real life as they lived in an Ivory Tower, an artificial world of their own creation. However, it was in this world that they acquired their characteristic delicacy, subtlety and independent boldness. At the same time this artificial world deprived them of an opportunity to experience those palpable factors of life which is essential for the enrichment of a writer’s endowment.

      Friends and Visitors: A good number of distinguished people used to visit their house at Hyde Park Gate. James Russel Lowell stood godfather to Virginia. Hardy remembered to have seen her in her cradle. Henry James was a frequent guest of the family. But then they were quite young. And after their father’s death, there were the renowned members of the Bloomsbury group.

      Deaths in the Family: Virginia lost her mother when she was just thirteen. It was the first great loss of a very dear and near one that affected her deeply. The charge of the household was taken over by their half-sister Stella Duckworth till Vanessa Stephen was old enough. After that Stella married but died soon after the birth of her first baby. These deaths profoundly affected her. And it seems after such tragic experiences Virginia Woolf began to regard life as an arbitrary trickster.

      Father’s Death: Early Literary Career: Leslie Stephen died in 1904. After his death, Vanessa and Virginia along with Thoby and Adrian shifted to a rented house in Bloomsbury Square and later it became famous as the locale of the Bloomsbury group, a literary club founded by Virginia Woolf. After the death of Thoby in 1906 and the marriage of Vanessa with Clive Bell in 1907, Virginia and Adrian moved to nearby Fitzoy Square. For a few years Clive Bell was to some extent her literary confidant. She had already started writing literary reviews in 1905 in the Times Literary Supplement and her connection with it lasted more than thirty years.

      Marriage: Love for City Life and Sea: Virginia Woolf married Leonard Woolf in 1912. Mr. Woolf had gone to Ceylon to take up a post in the Civil Service in 1904. Not long after his return on leave Virginia announced her engagement to his in a noted to Strachey on June 6, 1912. Soon after, the marriage took place. She was thirty and so far she had published only book reviews. But some of the deepest interests that were to shape her work are clear in retrospect. She was a Londoner born and bred and it is found that London is seldom absent from her work. Both Mrs. Dalloway and The Years are London books in more than one way. Then the days spent in her childhood at Cornwall left memories of the sea etched on her mind and their stamp on novels like The Waves and To the Lighthouse.

      Besides her love for the city and the sea she was fascinated by books. She used to haunt libraries as she would haunt the streets of London, before she could write of the experience in a magical pattern of thought and imagery. This fascination for books has been beautifully described by her in a posthumously published essay entitled Reading.

      First World War and Virginia Woolf: Sadly enough, just two years after Virginia’s marriage, the First World War broke out in 1914. It ended an era of security and stability and people in the West, who grew up before the starting of this Greater War, looked back upon it with nostalgia. Even as late as 1914 we find the classes settled and the writer looking most intently at the class from which he comes in the belief that he is looking at the whole spectrum of life. “Then suddenly, like a chasm on a smooth road the War came.” And the war had great far-reaching effect on life and literature that followed. Gone was the stability and security of the pre-war days, instead a lurking sense of insecurity, the horror of immediate doom and destruction began to haunt the people. And Virginia Woolf’s sensitive soul was overwhelmed with this unexpected shock and the horrible and nerve-shattering experience. She began to suffer from constant fits of depression. But she was looked upon with great honor and admiration in the Bloomsbury circle and her association with this literary club meant a constant source of pleasure and inspiration for her and did much to soothe her ruffled spirit and stimulate her creative activity.

      Starting of Hogarth Press: It was in 1917 when Mr. and Mrs. Woolf founded their Hogarth Press as a Tiobby of printing rather than publishing’. They lived at Hogarth house, Richmond. They used to spend their weekends and holidays at Ascham House near Lewes in Sussex. They took the house on lease, but finally they bought for themselves Monks House, Rodmell, near Lewes in 1919. During the period from 1924 to 1939 Virginia Woolf’s life was filled with her writing and her reputation as a writer, was slowly growing. She was involved in the activities of the Hogarth Press along with her husband. As an artist Virginia Woolf found in Leonard Woolf an ideal companion. He gave her complete intellectual liberty and he knew how to share in her work, not merely with the sympathy and intelligence which she might get from a good friend, but also with the understanding and encouragement which is possible only when two lives are one. They often enjoyed holidays abroad and in England though she could not avoid becoming prey to occasional illness. Their married life seemed to be quite happy, but the pity is that Virginia Woolf found it impossible to continue living in this world.

      Second World War and Death: To many it seemed that the fear of the outbreak of the Second World War had completely shattered her nerves. And when it actually broke out in 1939 she. was very sadly disillusioned. There might be other reasons; but whatever interpretation has been placed on them, the outbreak o the Second World War destroyed her will to live. In the past also she had suffered from fits of depression and illness, but now the strain probably proved too great for her to overcome. And on March 28, 1941, she disappeared from this world and opened ‘that closed door and sought death in the river near her home, leaving her hat and walking stick on the bank.’

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