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Who is Virginia Woolf?

By Wanda Albano
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Virginia Woolf is one of the most prominent figures of modernism in literature. Her works have now been regarded as feminist classics. She is known for her highly experimental writing; she frequently made use of stream-of-consciousness to elaborate on her characters' emotional and psychological motives, and eschewed traditional elements of the plot. Admirers also credit her lyricism - a strength that they say has been overshadowed by her many peculiarities as an authoress. Her books include Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One's Own, and To the Lighthouse.

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on 25 January 1882 to Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Jackson Duckworth. She had two brothers - Thoby and Adrian, and a sister, Vanessa. She also had four half-siblings from both her parents' previous marriages: two girls and two boys.

Her father was a well-respected literary critic and editor, and was also the widower of Sir William Thackeray's daughter. Virginia Woolf's mother, on the other hand, was descended from a family renowned for its beauties, some of whom even modeled for pre-Raphaelite artists, as well as early photographers. These connections ensured that Virginia Woolf became very familiar with Victorian society, and was constantly meeting the literary figures of the day. Henry James, George Eliot, and James Russel Lowell were all guests at the Stephen residence.

Constantly under the influence of such eminent people, she soon developed a keen intellect and a great respect for the written word. Although she was never formally educated, Virginia Woolf was nevertheless well-versed in English Literature as well as the classics.

At age 13, she suffered her first breakdown as a result of the death of her mother. She was briefly institutionalized at the death of her father a few years later. Mental instability in the form of breakdowns and drastic mood swings would plague the rest of her life. She married Leonard Woolf in 1912. On 28 March 1941, she committed suicide by drowning herself in River Ouse, near her home. She left two similar suicide notes, saying that she was going mad and that she had been very happy with her husband. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after her death.

Virginia Woolf is rumored to have been sexually abused by one or both of her half-brothers, and many argue that this abuse is what induced her mental problems. It is also widely held that her marriage to Leonard Woolf was never consummated and that she was actually attracted to women. However, these allegations have never been proven.

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Discussion Comments

By burcidi — On Feb 15, 2011

@turkay1-- I'm not sure about her brothers, but I know her sister was an artist and painter. There is a novel about Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell called "Vanessa and Virginia." There is also a movie about them- "The Hours." I've read the book but haven't seen the movie yet.

I assume her brothers also engaged in writing or the arts because their parents were in the field and they grew up learning about it.

By candyquilt — On Feb 15, 2011

It's saddening to know that Virginia Woolf had a tough childhood and family life. What about her siblings? Were they also writers?

By burcinc — On Feb 13, 2011

I read "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf for a seminar on women and literature. I was very impressed by her work, it gave our discussion group a good introduction to the history of literature by women and also feminism. We compared her thoughts on this subject and how we view women writers and feminist works today.

I also want to read a Virginia Woolf fiction. I found Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown in the library. It's supposed to be about the conversation of two individuals during a train journey. I'll be sure to share my thoughts on that piece as well.

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