Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Woolf | Biography


Virginia Woolf, christened Adeline Virginia Stephen, was born January 25, 1882. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a prominent historian, author, and mountaineer. Her mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen, was also a published author in her field of expertise: nursing. Virginia's childhood home was a bustling place and included her three full-blood siblings and four half-siblings. While their brothers went to school, Virginia and her sisters were educated at home. Virginia's writing career had an early start—at age 9 she began writing Hyde Park Gate News, a newspaper chronicling family events. Publication of the cheeky articles stopped upon her mother's death in 1895, which sent Virginia into her first of many depressions. Her father's death in 1904 triggered a full mental breakdown.

After Woolf recovered she and her three full-blood siblings moved into their own house in the Bloomsbury section of London, where they continued their studies and honed their art and writing. The residence became a magnet for radical artists, writers, and thinkers, including the novelist E.M. Forster and the economist John Maynard Keyes. The Bloomsbury Group, as they dubbed themselves, questioned ideas commonly accepted by society in search of what is good and true. Woolf herself questioned popular literature of the era with her first novel, Melymbrosia, which aimed to explore aspects of life omitted from traditional Victorian novels. It was finally published in 1915 as The Voyage Out.

Virginia married writer Leonard Woolf in 1912. Between bouts of manic depression, she continued writing literary reviews, novels, and essays. Among the most famous are Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), A Room of One's Own (1929), and The Waves (1931). Woolf's body of work is known for its exploration of nature and the contrasts between the feminine and masculine. The satirical biography Orlando (1928), written in honor of Woolf's lesbian lover, poet Vita Sackville-West, addresses both themes. The tongue-in-cheek novel, which Woolf once referred to as "a writer's holiday," was hailed as a critical success for its genre-defying content and structure. Hailed by Sackville-West's son as "the longest and most charming love-letter in literature," Orlando was also a commercial success, selling more than 8,000 copies in its first six months. Comparatively, Woolf's previous novel, To the Lighthouse, sold only 3,800 copies during an entire year.

Woolf's literary success did little to quash the depression she had struggled with her entire life. She committed suicide on March 28, 1941. Today, she is remembered as one of the leading voices of the modernist literature movement in the 20th century.

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