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Virginia Woolf | Biography

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Early Life

Virginia Woolf, born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London, England on January 25, 1882, grew up surrounded by books. Her father was Leslie Stephen—historian, author, critic, and founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother was Julia Prinsep Duckworth, model for Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and niece of the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Her wealthy London family raised their eight children in the late-Victorian era, and young Woolf educated herself through her father's library and private tutors while her brothers attended prestigious schools. The bustling city and the tranquil seaside town of St. Ives, Cornwall, where the family vacationed, influenced the settings of most of Woolf's novels.

Woolf's mother died unexpectedly when the author was 13. Grief caused Woolf to have her first mental breakdown. Nine years later she suffered another breakdown after her father's death. This time she attempted suicide and went to an institution to heal. Woolf may have had manic depression or bipolar disorder. Recurring episodes throughout her life put Woolf in contact with at least 12 doctors, giving her insight into their changing methods for treating mental illness. In her work she would often write from the perspective of mentally ill characters as well as examine psychiatry's failures.

Professional Life

Woolf began her career as a teacher and journalist. She befriended intellectuals Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, and Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912. They formed the core of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of writers, artists, and thinkers, which also included British novelist E.M. Forster, British economist John Maynard Keynes, British painter Duncan Grant, and Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell. The group met periodically from 1907 to 1930. In 1911 Woolf, unmarried, lived in a house with other Bloomsbury Group males, a choice that upset her family.

Woolf used both experimental and traditional styles in her novels, beginning with The Voyage Out in 1915. Her varied techniques led readers to call her "the multiple Mrs. Woolf." Mrs. Dalloway, Jacob's Room, and To the Lighthouse are Woolf's three major modernist novels (works that deviate from classical or traditional forms) of the 1920s. She developed a new aesthetic in these books, part of her goal to reform the traditional novel. A committed feminist, Woolf wanted to put the interior lives of women on the page. In 1928, as a result of her success as a writer, she was invited to lecture on the topic of Women and Fiction at Newnham College and Girton College, women's colleges of Cambridge University. The lectures she delivered on this topic were reworked into the extended essay, A Room of One's Own, published in book form in 1929.

Woolf had intimate relationships with women throughout her life, most significantly with poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West, whom Woolf met in 1922. Sackville-West was a glamorous outsider, similar to Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway. Although the women shared a deep emotional bond, neither openly identified as lesbian. Woolf stayed married to Leonard Woolf until her death in 1941.

Later Life and Death

Woolf slid into a deep depression in the 1940s. The deaths of close friends, combined with a loss of faith in her own writing, made her feel she had lost the capacity to create. In March 1941 Woolf wrote a final letter to her husband. She then made several suicide attempts, culminating with her walking into the River Ouse with her pockets full of stones on March 28, 1941.

Leonard Woolf disregarded his wife's instructions to "destroy all my papers," and instead preserved Woolf's diaries, letters, and unfinished novel, Between the Acts. British poet T.S. Eliot wrote in Woolf's obituary, "With the death of Virginia Woolf, a whole pattern of culture is broken."

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