Virginia Woolf: A Literary Genius

"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
-Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

1936: Virginia Woolf in her work room at her country home near Lewes, England.

Virginia Woolf stands as one of the greatest novelists to ever grace the English literary scene. Her numerous works stand as a foundation to both contemporary fiction and the feminist approach to literature. Woolf captivated her audience during her lifetime and continues to inspire readers and authors in the present day. There is perhaps no greater author, essayist or critic than Virginia Woolf. She is truly an irreplaceable treasure of the world of literature. However, the joy that is found in celebration of her literary career is overshadowed by her devastating life. In order to understand the style of Woolf and her success, it is important to first examine the dark and harrowing adventure that was her existence.


Virginia Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen seen here in 1860. Stephen's position in Victorian literary circles greatly influenced Virginia's future career.

Virginia (left) and her sister Vanessa (right) at their family's summer home in 1893. Virginia refers to Vanessa as her best friend and confidant throughout her diaries.

On January 25th, 1882 Adeline Virginia Stephen was born in the upperclass district of Kensington in London, England. The child's mother, Julia Stephen, was fond of the name Virginia and decided to use it as the child's first name instead. Both Julia and her husband, Leslie Stephen,had been previously married resulting in a large combined family of over ten children, four of which they had together. Virginia was the ninth child to enter the Stephen household. From a young age, Virginia was encouraged to pursue literature and the intellectual world. This was due to her parents' roles in society. Leslie Stephen was a noteworthy author, historian and mountaineer. Julia Stephen was a popular model and socialite with a number of famous relatives and ancestors (Mary Antoinette and Julia Margaret Cameron just to name a few). More importantly however, the couple shared strong friendships with an immense group of prominent writers, artists and intellectuals. This allowed Virginia and her siblings direct access to the hub of Victorian culture. In her personal diaries Virginia notes the incredible amount of inspiration and knowledge she attained from the greatest minds of Victorian literature who seemed to surround her childhood home on a daily basis. Furthermore, the Stephen household was home to an impressive library from which Virginia credits her introduction to the classics and other literary masterpieces. Without the encouragement from her parents and their friends, the success of Virginia Woolf most likely would not have occurred.

However, Virginia's childhood was not as outstanding as one would imagine. It is speculated that Virginia and her sister Vanessa began to be sexually abused by her half brothers Gerald and George Duckworth which continued into the sisters' teenage years. Furthermore, Virginia's mother unexpectedly died in 1895 along with her half sister Stella in 1897. Each of these deaths were unbearable for a young Virginia resulting in a number of nervous breakdowns and a diagnosis of clinical depression. Virginia's doctors disregarded the child's mental illness and treated it as though it was a phase that she would outgrow. Seven years later in 1904, Virginia's father also passed away. This resulted in a severe breakdown forcing Virginia to be institutionalized. Virginia continued to struggle with mental illness for the remainder of her lifetime.

Virginia photographed with her mother Julia Stephen.


In attempt to escape the memory of her father's death Virginia bought a house in the central London district of Bloomsbury with her sister Vanessa. It is at Bloomsbury that Virginia would receive her greatest influence to begin her literary career. Both her and Vanessa began to form friendships with affluent writers, artists and philosophers that inhabited the Bloomsbury area. The sisters would attend parties and gatherings on a weekly basis to discuss social issues, literature and the new works of their friends. This gathering of intellectuals evolved into the established Bloomsbury Group. The most prominent members of the group were Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and the Stephen sisters themselves. Virginia had been professionally writing for a number of years but her work gained extraordinary merit and attention once she became a part of the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia relied on the group to criticize her work and offer her ideas on future projects. Her relationship with Leonard Woolf in particular was utterly important. The two members became increasingly close and married on August 10th 1912. However, this was not the only intimate relationship that Virginia Woolf took part in with a Bloomsbury member. By 1922 Woolf found herself in a sexual relationship with Vita Sackville-West, a Bloomsbury writer. This relationship allowed Woolf to explore her sexuality and her role as a woman. It also forced her to examine marriage and its functions. These ideas of sexuality, feminism and relationships would occur frequently throughout Woolf's novels and greatly influenced the themes she is remembered for today. The Bloomsbury Group ultimately sparked the fuse of Virginia Woolf's literary career. It provided her insight to her potential as a writer and gave her the opportunity to freely create masterpieces with the support of both friends and coworkers.

THE MEMOIR CLUB BY VANESSA BELL (1943). This painting by Virginia Woolf's sister depicts one of the many Bloomsbury Group gatherings. Woolf is depicted in the centre of the painting.


Virginia Woolf toyed with the idea of writing professionally for a number of years but, as mentioned above, her decision to become a professional writer did not occur until her involvement in the Bloomsbury Group. Woolf's first novel was entitled The Voyage Out and was published in 1915. This novel is definitely not one of Woolf's most celebrated works. Not many copies were originally published and Woolf was still unknown to public readers. However, it did allow Woolf to explore the world of writing and get used to her literary voice. By 1917, Virginia and Leonard Woolf founded the Hogarth Press, their own publishing company. This allowed Virginia to control the publishing of her works and inspired her to continue writing novels. She did not reach public popularity until Mrs. Dalloway was released in 1925. The novel is regarded as Woolf's greatest success and continually ranks as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. The novel revolves around themes of mental health, feminism and sexuality all of which were controversial at the time and became synonymous with Virginia Woolf's name. The female response to Mrs. Dalloway was extremely positive and inspired Woolf to write A Room of One's Own in 1929 focusing on the struggles women face in the world of literature and calling women to demand change. Woolf wrote nine novels, twelve non-fiction books, four short story collections, three biographies and a number of critical essays throughout her literary career all of which continue to be analyzed by readers in the modern world.

The amount of publications of Virginia Woolf is most definitely noteworthy, however her writing style and reoccurring themes are what she is remembered for. Woolf is credited for her incredible use of streams of consciousness. Although Virginia Woolf did not invent the literary tool, she transformed it and made it her own. Original users of streams of consciousness such as James Joyce and Joseph Conrad rarely used the approach with a female character. Woolf changed this and delved into the thought processes of her female protagonists, specifically Mrs. Dalloway. This allowed readers, men and women alike, to experience common female emotions, reactions and beliefs all of which were not freely expressed in Victorian London. Virginia Woolf gave women a voice and a presence in the literary world. Furthermore, many scholars argue that Woolf's use of streams of consciousness is more realistic than any other author. She does not censor her characters' thoughts meaning that even seemingly insignificant thoughts are still present in Woolf's works. This often results in characters rambling for pages and pages about a single object or idea. Although this may seem drab and boring to some, it mirrors the inner voice of the average person, giving a more honest identity to the streams of consciousness approach.

Another prominent aspect of Virginia Woolf's literary career was her incorporation of stances on social issues particularly mental health, gender equality and sexuality. Mental health was viewed as taboo during this point in history. Suffering from a variety of mental illnesses herself, Woolf was outraged by society's lack of understanding of the mentally sick. She consistently exposed the reality of mental illness and the death grip it holds on its victim. She also painted doctors in a very poor light, criticizing their treatments and diagnoses. This is clearly evident in her portrayal of Septimus Smith, a character that appears in a number of Woolf's novels. Septimus suffers from shell shock and has suicidal tendencies. His doctors put him through a number of harmful treatments and believe his illness is merely an act. Woolf reached out to the mentally ill and showed them sympathy. Woolf's approach to mental health was never done before in literature. Similarly her writings supported female leadership and confidence as well as homosexuality. She tackled these controversial issues that appealed to groups that were consistently painted negatively in literature. Virginia Woolf is a revolutionary author because of her ability to tackle these social issues without hesitation.

For further information on each of Woolf's individual books, please refer to the following Powerpoint Presentation. It thoroughly covers each of the most popular works of Virginia Woolf. The presentation can be accessed below:

In order to really grasp the essence of Virginia Woolf, one needs to fully experience her writings. The following is a recording of Virginia Woolf reading her essay entitled Words Fail Me which focuses on her criticism of many author's poor use of vocabulary and what she wished to see change in the world of literature.

These are the most celebrated novels of Virginia Woolf. They are commonly studied by university students as examples of great contemporary feminist literature.


Although Virginia Woolf found success in regards to writing, her mental instability never subsided and continued to progress year after year. Her husband Leonard insisted that Virginia be attended to by physicians on a daily basis. After Virginia attempted suicide on two occasions, the couple decided to move to Lewes, a countryside town in England. The hope was that the quaintness of the country home would calm Virginia and rehabilitate her. Virginia hated the idea of moving away from her Bloomsbury colleagues and her sister, however she finally agreed once Leonard promised they would return to London as soon as she got better. The home in Lewes did nothing for Woolf's mental health. By 1935 she had attempted suicide four times. Maids remember Woolf spending days at a time in bed without eating and staying in the same position. Leonard Woolf later wrote that the only thing keeping Virginia alive was her dedication to writing. She continued to release novels and essays despite her illness. However, mental illness would eventually take absolute control of Woolf's life. Doctors encouraged Virginia to once again be institutionalized however both Leonard and Virginia refused. She still maintained that the treatments for mental illnesses at that time were pathetic and immoral. Virginia despised her doctors since she believed they did not understand her condition nor could offer any help.
Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Lewes home. Virginia stressed in her diaries that she had no place at Lewes and that her heart remained in London.


After the onset of World War II, Virginia Woolf's depression increased dramatically sending her into her most severe set of nervous breakdowns. This was due to a number of factors. Firstly, her latest publications received mass criticism and many negative reviews. This was damaging to Woolf's confidence and she began to suffer from writer's block. Furthermore, she felt isolated after years of being cut off from her Bloomsbury colleagues and her sister. Lastly, the bombing of London destroyed Woolf's city home and many of her possessions, ending the chance of her return to the beloved city. Each of these factors may have been manageable had they occurred separately. However, they hit Virginia Woolf simultaneously causing her depression to advance to a stage she had never experienced before. On March 28th, 1941, Virginia Woolf succeeded in killing herself at the age of 51. While unattended, Virginia walked to the River Ouse which flowed close to her home, filled her pockets with stones and waded into the water, eventually drowning. Her battle with mental illness was finally brought to an end.

Virginia Woolf left a suicide note for Leonard to find. In the letter she explains that she could no longer focus on her writing and that she was grateful for Leonard's love and support. A copy of the letter can be found below as well as a video clip. The clip is taken from the film The Hours which depicts Woolf in her final years. The scene shows Woolf writing and reciting the letter and finally drowning herself.

A photograph of Virginia Woolf's suicide letter to her husband, Leonard Woolf. (1941)


A London statue in commemoration of the incredible writer, Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf continues to be celebrated in today's literary communities. Her works stood as a foundation for future feminist and contemporary authors. She also was a key icon in the sexual revolution of the 1960s to 1980s since she exposed the dominant role men play in society and the need for women in roles of power and control. Without Woolf many other literary masterpieces would never have existed in the same way society knows them today. For example, Sylvia Plath, author of the widely successful The Bell Jar, explained that Woolf's works inspired her to begin writing. Plath goes to the extent of saying that female writings would be nowhere near as widespread if it were not for the example that Virginia Woolf set. The most recent example of Woolf's impact on modern literature is the novel The Hours by Michael Cunningham which revolves around three different plotlines: Virginia Woolf writing Mrs. Dalloway, a 1950s representation of Mrs. Dalloway and a subsequent modern representation of the iconic protagonist. The novel was widely celebrated and was later turned into an award winning film. Furthermore, Virginia Woolf's critical essays, short stories and non-fiction selections are studied and analyzed by students across the globe. There is no doubt that Woolf was one of the greatest contributors to literature to has ever lived. Her innovative style, respect for neglected groups, and influence on future readers and writers is remarkable. She will never be forgotten nor will her complex characters. She is without a doubt a literary genius.

The Hours depicts Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman, far right), a 1950s Mrs. Dalloway (played by Julianne Moore, inner right) and a modern Mrs. Dalloway (played by Meryl Streep, far left).


This Wkispace only begins to explain the extraordinary being that was Virginia Woolf. The following sites and videos should also be looked at to fully understand this brilliant author.

The Mind and Times of Virginia Woolf: This is a detailed documentary of Woolf's life and legacy.

The International Virginia Woolf Society: A fantastic organization based in Toronto that works to preserve and promote Woolf's publications in the modern world.

International Virginia Woolf Society

George Eliot By Virginia Woolf: This is another sample of Virginia Woolf's critical essays. In this particular piece she speaks about George Eliot, her favourite female author.

George Eliot by Virginia Woolf

The Bloomsbury Group: The full story and contributions of the Bloomsbury Group are not fully explained in this Wikispace. This website does a much better job in presenting the Bloomsbury Group.

The Bloomsbury Group


"A good novel must have a permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain around us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out."
-Virginia Woolf