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A Room of One’s Own: The Life of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Stephen Woolf

Virginia Stephen Woolf

What I knew about Virginia Woolf was revealed to me in a film titled, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The only thing I knew for certain after the movie was that the couple never stopped yelling. That’s all I remember. Was that yelling person Virginia Woolf?  Who was the real Virginia Woolf? Somewhere, along the way, I realized she was an author, but  I never explored it any further. So I was excited to learn that her home, Monk’s House, was part of the National Trust. I wanted to know about the Virginia Woolf!

What I learned about Virginia Woolf…………as  I attempt to sort her story out.

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on January 25, 1882 into a well-heeled family. Both her wealthy, influential, mother and father had been married previously, and widowed, with four children between them, before the birth of Virginia and her three siblings. Thus the family contained the children of three marriages.  Her father, Leslie Stephen, was an eminent editor, critic, and biographer; her mother, Julia Princep Duckworth Stephen, was committed to serving the poor. Virginia and Vanessa, (Virginia’s natural older sister), were educated at home, while the boys attended Cambridge.  The family was well connected and the children were raised in an environment of great literary works, with an immense library, but also under the influences of Victorian society. However, between 1897 and 1901 Vanessa and Virginia were allowed to attend the Ladies’ Department of King’s College, London, to study Ancient Greek, Latin, German, and history. Virginia thrived with all this knowledge.

The early years were rough going for the Stephen’s family. Virginia’s oldest half-sister, Laura Makepeace Stephen, from her father’s first marriage, was committed to an insane asylum. Virginia’s mother suddenly died in 1895, when Virginia was thirteen, followed by the death of another half-sister, Stella Duckworth, two years later. These events and possible child abuse by the older Duckworth brothers, led to the first of Virginia’s several nervous breakdowns. When her father died in 1904 Virginia collapsed and was briefly institutionalized and would be in and out of Burley House in Twickenham, described as “a private nursing home for women with nervous disorders”, in 1910, 1912, and 1913. Though her instability affected her private life, her literary productivity increased and was continued throughout her life. Her bouts of mental illness were thought to have been the result of what is now termed a bipolar disorder. She was extremely fragile.

Vanessa Stephen, being the oldest of the Stephen children, decided to sell the fashionable family home at 22 Hyde Park Gate and bought a house at 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, (a bohemian, not so nice area of London), where Virginia and her brothers and sister, (Thoby, Adrian, and Vanessa) could escape the restraints, criticism, and gossip of a strict Victorian society.

A group of twelve intellectual Cambridge men, known as the “Apostles”, were among the friends of Thoby. The men gathered at the  Bloomsbury home on Thursday evenings to have dinner and discuss anything and everything late into the wee hours of the morning. Virginia and Vanessa attended the meetings as well. Vanessa, who was mostly interested in art, later started a Friday night group consisting of artists and critics. Virginia at this time began writing for the Times Literary Supplement, a forum for literary culture; bringing scholars, scientists, and artists together to address questions of value, meaning and purpose.  Hefty stuff!  Together this young, educated, and elite group  wanted to change the world. The Bloomsbury Group became very close and chose to live a lifestyle all their own, while supporting each other’s endeavors. (More on the Bloomsbury Group in a later post).

Thoby died from typhoid, at age 26, after he and Vanessa fell ill following a vacation in Greece. Soon after Vanessa married Clive Bell, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, and moved out of the Bloomsbury home, leaving Adrian and Virginia to fend for themselves.  Virginia was very upset by this move. Could Vanessa no longer cope with Virginia’s fragile mental state, attention and needs? Vanessa was more of a free spirit and she wanted her freedom from being the “mother” to her siblings. Virginia reluctantly accepted this, but would ultimately get her revenge.  Virginia rented a cottage in Firle, in the Sussex countryside, but continued her friendship and meetings with the Bloomsbury Group, of which Vanessa and Clive Bell were still a part of.

During this time, Leonard Woolf, another Cambridge man, briefly met Virginia Stephen at one of the forays in Bloomsbury, before leaving for a diplomatic post in Ceylon. Lytton Strachey, another Bloomsbury member, had proposed to Virginia (although he was a homosexual) and was quite pleased and relieved, when she turned him down. In correspondence to Leonard, during his stay in Ceylon, Lytton convinced Leonard that when he returned to England he should give up his job and propose to Virginia, and he did. They barely knew one another, and although Leonard was poor and Jewish, Virginia accepted. It was 1912 and Virginia was thirty. Did Virginia need someone to take care of her? Was Leonard aware of Virginia’s state of mind? The answer was yes she did and no he didn’t.

Virginia’s writings were very controversial, supporting the thoughts of the Bloomsbury Group of radical thinking, women’s rights and the freedom to love both men and women. She found it increasingly hard to get her work published and  was  at odds with “polite society”.

In 1915 Virginia completed her book, Voyage Out, and she and Leonard set up Hogarth Press to publish Virginia’s work and the work of her liberal friends: the hand printing providing a hobby as well as therapy for Virginia. In 1919 the Woolfs bought Monk’s House, in the countryside of Sussex, where Leonard thought Virginia could write in peace with less mental stress. Although Virginia loved the city and all it’s trappings and busywork, the move was a success for her mental health.  Virginia had no more mental breakdowns for twenty years. That’s not to say their life was uneventful, as you will find when we discuss Vanessa’s life.

One of Virginia’s books that I found very interesting was Mrs Dalloway. She definitely had a flair and gift with words and she experimented with stream of consciousness and the underlying psychological as well as emotional motives of her characters. Who was more prepared to write like this than Virginia? Her novels were highly experimental, with a narrative frequently uneventful and commonplace, as we see in Mrs Dalloway. This book centers on the efforts of Clara Dalloway, a middle-aged society woman, to organize a party, as her life is paralleled with that of Septmus Warren Smith, a working- class veteran who has just returned from WWI bearing deep emotional scars. The book has no chapters, does not explain anything, and no conversation is needed. It is just one continuous thought. (Stream of Consciousness) The story is the thoughts of Mrs Dalloway, in one given day! You know how you think things to yourself, your own running commentary as you go about the business of your day? This is Mrs. Dalloway! Her thoughts, just like ours, that jump from one to another. And then the day ends. It’s quite remarkable to be put into words and is extraordinary in thought! I’ve never read anything like it! Virginia went on to publish novels and essays as a public individual to both critical and popular success. In her book-length essay, A Room of Own’s Own, (1929) she wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” She achieved this at Monk’s House.  Now with our background somewhat complete, we’ll visit her home at Monk’s House, to learn more about her and the intertwining lives of others.  I can’t wait to see where this incredibly complex woman lived!  See you there!

Virginia Woolf

Listen to Virginia Woolf Speak

4 Responses to “A Room of One’s Own: The Life of Virginia Woolf”

  1. Doug Warren

    I remember the movie too, but didn’t really know much about her either. Fascinating how you really get so immersed in the background and stories related to your travels.


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