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Virginia Woolf | Biography


Adeline Virginia Stephen, later known as Virginia Woolf, was born into an artistic family on January 25, 1882, in London, England. Her father, Leslie Stephen was a well-known editor and biographer. Her mother, Julia Jackson Stephen, was a well-connected, good-natured woman, known for her beauty and modeling for pre-Raphaelite painters. Woolf began writing at an early age, spearheading a family newspaper, the Hyde Park Gate News, in which she heckled her older sister Vanessa, a painter, and her younger brother, Adrian, her mother's favorite as he was believed to be the most sensitive child.

Every summer the family vacationed on the Cornwall coast. In 1895, when Woolf was 13, her mother died at age 49. Shortly after Julia Stephen's death, Woolf suffered her first nervous breakdown. Deeply saddened and depressed, Woolf stopped writing for almost a year. As she began to emerge from her depression, her half sister, Stella Duckworth, died in 1897. When her father died in 1904, Woolf suffered another nervous breakdown.

During Woolf's recovery, Vanessa, Woolf's sister, moved the Stephen children (Thoby, Virginia, Adrian, and herself) to the Bloomsbury section of London, where the siblings were free to pursue their intellectual and artistic interests.

During a family vacation in Greece in 1906, Woolf expressed her literary intentions, "I should like to write not only with the eye, but with the mind; & discover real things beneath the show." Shortly after this trip, Thoby died of typhoid fever, and Vanessa married art critic Clive Bell. Counting both events as losses, Woolf remained afloat, secretly writing Reminiscences, about her mother and her childhood.

Woolf wrote three novels, often called the St. Ives trilogy, inspired by her childhood summers in Cornwall: Jacob's Room (1922), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931). She represented those formative memories closely in To the Lighthouse, moving St. Ives Bay and the Godrevy Lighthouse to the Hebrides, and basing the novel on Julia and Leslie Stephen's marital dynamic in the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, a traditional couple preserving the gender roles of a class-based society.

Both of Woolf's parents had children from previous marriages and spent summers with their eight children and friends at Talland House. Her father allowed Woolf access to his extensive library and because of him was surrounded by literary influences. Prominent writers such as Henry James, James Russell Lowell, and George Meredith frequented the Stephens' London and St. Ives homes.

Haunted by her mother's absence, Woolf wanted to write about her mother's life and death within the context of family summers. In "A Sketch of the Past" Woolf confessed her mother "obsessed" her: "I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day's doings." The idea for To the Lighthouse came while she was strolling in Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury. She drafted the book in an "involuntary rush." After completing it Woolf declared she was no longer obsessed by her mother.

In 1905 Woolf and her family returned to Cornwall after an absence of 11 years, inspiring the third section of To the Lighthouse. Woolf found their "past preserved," as though "it had been guarded & treasured for us to come back to one day." On their arrival the caretaker cried at the memory of Julia Stephen's "beauty & charity," emphasizing the lasting effect Mrs. Stephen had on the community. That summer Woolf reflected on their train expedition, which was "more ... to fulfill a tradition than for the sake of any actual pleasure." Perhaps this sensation is reflected in the novel through the thoughts of Cam and James Ramsay, who resent Mr. Ramsay's lighthouse expeditions, "rites he went through for his own pleasure in memory of dead people."

Between 1907 and 1930 the Bells and the Stephens hosted meetings of young artists and intellectuals. Inspired by the works of G.E. Moore, A.N. Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell, the Bloomsbury group, as it was known, discussed subjects related to art, literature, and philosophy. The group was interested in the meanings of goodness, truth, and beauty, and questioned conventional thinking. These meetings of the minds inspired Woolf to write both critically and creatively. Political theorist and writer Leonard Woolf, writer and critic Lytton Strachey, and novelist E.M. Forster were among their guests. Writers T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley also were associated with the group. In 1911 Leonard Woolf returned from eight years of government service in Ceylon (now Sri-Lanka), and he and Virginia married the following summer.

Plagued by loss and lack of confidence in her work, Virginia Woolf suffered bouts of depression throughout her life and attempted suicide multiple times. While working on Between the Acts, her final novel, despondent and unable to write, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse on March 28, 1941.

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