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Virginia Woolf | Biography

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Virginia Woolf, born Adeline Virginia Stephen 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, niece of the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and model for Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. 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 went to prestigious schools. The bustling city and the tranquil seaside town of St. Ives, Cornwall, where the family vacationed, influence 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 and also examine psychiatry's failures.

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 E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, 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 of the 1920s. She developed a new aesthetic in these books, part of her goal of reforming the traditional novel. A committed feminist, Woolf wanted to put the interior lives of women on the page. Mrs. Dalloway also deals with the impact of World War I, a world-changing event that pushed many writers into the Modernist era.

She 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. Though the women shared a deep emotional bond, neither openly identified as lesbian. Woolf stay married to Leonard Woolf until her death.

She 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, at age 59, Woolf wrote a last letter to Leonard. 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 her instructions to "destroy all my papers" and instead preserved Woolf's diaries, letters, and incomplete novel Between the Acts. 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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