The Biography of Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf: Her Birth and Family Background
Virginia Woolf was born in London on January 26, 1882. She belonged to a well-known literary family. Her father, the famous literary scholar, Leslie Stephen, was the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and of the Cornhill Magazine. He had besides written numerous critical, biographical and philosophical essays. He was a friend of men of letters and brilliant scholars. Virginia Woolf was born in a family which has been appropriately called by another of its heirs as “the intellectual aristocracy” and which resembled the Ramsays in her novel To the Lighthouse with the older and younger boys and girls.
The social and cultural milieu from which she derived material of most of her novels and gathered most of her experience of life, consisted of a small group of cultured families, which were intimately connected with one another. The members of these families belonged more or less to the top layers of the Middle class and were distinguished for their intellectual attainments and moral responsibility which made them to develop a form of social exclusiveness from others. They came to consider themselves superior not only to the philistine bourgeois but also to the barbarian aristocracy. She in other words belonged to the “cultured elite”, the members of some of which had also formed themselves into a sub-group, known as the “Bloomsbury” Notable among the members of this group were Lytton Strachey and the famous economist J. M. Keynes. They were influenced by the philosophy of C. E. Moore and practised strictly the ideals of sweetness and light.
Virginia Woolf came into contact with them through her brothers who were all Cambridge fellows. The quality and range of social and intellectual background which was available to Virginia Woolf can be had from a study of the “Bloomsbury Group”, with which as well as with the social milieu of her times she was only indirectly influenced, as she directly kept herself aloof from it. She is very much at ease in her fiction and her Diary with young people of both the sexes. She was extremely close to her sister Vanessa and her brother Thonby, whose death at the age of 25 during a holiday in Greece in 1906 shocked her greatly.
Her literary and cultural background
Her father, Leslie Stephen, was fifty years old when she was born and the great days of his life were more or less over. His athletic feats on the river and the rambles in the mountains were almost over by this time. He wrote methodically and daily in his study at the top of the house. She remembers bow he would take his hat and his stick and “calling for his dog and his daughter he would go out for a walk into Kensington Garden”. She grew in the company of her father as she developed the habit of walking through the parks, squares and streets of London which became a prominent trait of her life. It provided ideas to her work, background to her novels and the subject of one of her most charming essays, Street Haunting.
Atmosphere of freedom in her family life
In her memories she has brought out the atmosphere of freedom in their family life. “The right to think one’s own thoughts and to follow one’s owns pursuits and choose one’s own profession”, this was what marked the relations of the members of her family. Although Leslie Stephen did not like that women should smoke, yet the freedom which his daughters enjoyed at home and outside, was really notable. He advised his children “to read what they liked and his only lesson in the art of reading was to read what one likes because one likes it, never pretend to admire what one did not”, and in the art of writing “to write in the fewest possible words as clearly as possible, exactly what one meant.” She was absorbed in the art of writing from the beginning of her childhood, scribbling a story in the manner of Hawthorne on the green plush sofa in the drawing room at St. Ivas while the grown-ups dined.
Virginia Woolf’s Education
Her health was indifferent from the very beginning of her life. She therefore could not receive conventional schooling. She was instead taught at home by her father. She met such of her father’s friends as Hardy, Henry James and Meredith, who were frequent visitors at her father’s house. She learnt Greek with a teacher at home about whom she writes in her Diary that “she was oddly inarticulate. No hand for work.”
Distinguished visitors to her father’s house
She had many visitors at her father’s house. She had a god-father in James Russell Lowell. Thomas Hardy with whom she had tea in 1926, is recalled seeing her, or it might have been, my sister, but he thought it was me, in my cradle”. Henry James more frequently came to their house when they were all young. On seeing the Stephen girls at Rye, he had burst forth into the remark that they and their friends were not quite up to the lady-like standard which belonged to the Hyde Park Gate. However, they were, indeed, lady-like when Leonard Woolf first met-them at a tea party in their brother Thonby’s room at Cambridge. It was summer afternoon and Vanessa and Virginia both dressed in white dresses with large hats and parasols, looked the most Victorian of Victorian ladies and whose beauty literally took one’s breath away. But they had a look of intelligence, hypercritical, satirical sarcastic, which warned the onlooker to be careful about them.
Virginia Woolf’s Tragic Life
Virginia Woolf’s mother died when she was only thirteen and this more than anything else, affected her deeply. Her half-sister Stella Duckworth, was in charge of the household for several years, till Vanessa grew old enough to replace her. Then Stella married and died a year after her marriage on the death of her first baby. Virginia came to consider life as a big arbitrary trickster soon after the death of Roper Fry. Her father died in 1904. She lived thereafter in Garden Square with her brother and sister.
Virginia Woolf’s Literary Affiliations : The Bloomsbury Group
The young men of Virginia Woolf’s family and their friends studied at Cambridge at this time. She could not go there for studies because of ill-health and studied most of time at home, learning among other things Greek with a teacher, Janet Case. After the death of her father in 1904, she and her sister Vanessa along with their brothers, Thonby and Adrian took on rent a house in Bloomsbury Squire, which later on became a well-known literary locality, on account of its association with the Bloomsbury Group, a literary group started by Virginia Woolf. After the death of Thonby in 1906 and marriage of Vanessa with Clive Bell in 1907, Adrian and Virginia migrated to nearby Fitzroy Square. The Bells resided in Gordon Square House, not far off from theirs, and between 1907 and 1912 Clive Bell was to some extent Virginia Woolf’s literary confident. She had already started writing literary reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, which continued uninterrupted for thirty years or so. Her connections with the Bloomsbury Group were rather of an intimate sort. She was known intimately to Lytton Strachey, as he was Thonby’s friend at Cambridge. Virginia had a profound respect for his opinion of her work and several of her essays deal with the art of biography, which contain appreciative estimates of his work.
Her Marriage with Leonard Woolf
Her marriage with Leonard Woolf, who had taken up an assignment in Civil Service in Ceylon, took place in June 1912. At this time he had returned to England on leave. She was a Londoner and London is seldom absent from her work. Her work is replete with the memories of the sea, for many summers were spent in her childhood at St. Ives in Cornwall. Memories of her visit to the libraries and streets of London are also found in her works, as it is from her experience there that their imagery and thought are really made. We do not know the date when she finished the Reading, for it was discovered among the papers in a drawer which contained her sketches and stories. Her delight in reading is borne out by this free reverie in an ideal library. It also expresses her sense of the long past of English history and the realization of the present. The interplay of life and literature and the intermingling of the inner and outer stream are to be found in her collection of critical essays contained in The Common Reader.
Outbreak of Word War I and her ill-health
The First World War broke out two years after her marriage. This meant the end of a period of relative security and stability which people in Western Europe had enjoyed quiet before 1914. Virginia Woolf had a sensitive soul; she was physically weak and sickly. War and its horrors were too much for her to bear. It shattered her nerves and she began to suffer from constant fits of depression. But she continued to work hard. She was living in London and as the daughter of Leslie Stephen and wife of Leonard Woolf, she was held in high esteem by members of the Bloomsbury Group, who virtually were the greatest men of letters of the day. She derived unfailing and constant inspiration from her association with this club which contributed a great deal towards the enrichment and development of her creative literary activity.
Virginia Woolf as a founder of the Hogarth Press
She and her husband started the Hogarth Press in 1917 as a result of their deep interest in printing rather than publishing. They lived at Hogarth House, Richmond, between 1915 to 1924. They spent their weekends at Ashcham House near Lewes in Sussex, where their holidays were spent. They purchased the Monks House, Rodmell, near Lewes. During 1924 and 1939 her life was marked by her writing, the activities related to the Hogarth Press, holidays abroad and in England, occasional illnesses and many other interests and engagements involving her deeply in her family and friends. All along her reputation as a writer, particularly as a novelist and a critic, was steadily increasing.
Virginia Woolf’s Death
She went along with her husband to attend the Labour Party Conferences. She did not take part in open discussions, but she supported her husband in private. She was deeply moved at one Labour Party meeting at Brighton by the speech of George Lansbury and began to think from now on whether as a human being she should not put in her best efforts to change the structure of society. She went on working hard, writing novels, one after another, and numerous articles and essays and keeping herself busy in the work of the Press. After the outbreak of war she suffered from fits of depression and ill-health. The strains caused were too great for her to bear and the outbreak of the war snapped fully her will to live. She, it is said, disappeared on March 28, 1941. She opened the closed door and sought death in the river near her home, leaving her hat and walking stick on the back. She ended her life by drowning herself in the river.
Virginia Woolf’s Personality
In order to take stock of Virginia Woolf’s personality it is necessary to look at both the sides of it. The only side of life to which she was fully and effectually consigned was the life of imagination. She exulted in the higher pleasures of imagination and she showed a tendency at times towards its more recessive forms, such as fantasy, lyricism or dissociated idealism. To Mr. Bell, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, she was the gayest human being he had known. Her talk was scintillating and she delighted in flights of imagination and fancy.
Virginia’s company is described by David Garnett in the following words:
“Virginia holding a cigarette would lean forward before speaking and clear her throat with a motion like that of a noble bird of prey. Then as she spoke excitement would suddenly come and her voice would crack and in that cracked high note one felt all her humour and delight in life. She had a warmth and feelings of fellowship which set people at their ease her voice and glance were filled with affection, mockery, curiosity and comradeship. She saw everyone, including herself with detachment and life itself as vast as a Shakespearean comedy. She loved telling stories at her own expense. All her personal vanity was forgotten in story-telling art.”
There was another side of her personality, which is entirely different from the first, and it is the dark, disquieting side. She, in the words of Christopher Isherwood, looked like an unhappy, high-born lady in a ballad, a fairy tale, princess under a spell, with wonderful forlorn eyes. Her Diary contains a reference dated January and February 1941 to her “battle against depression”. But she was not to be engulfed in the “trough of despair”. Plans were made by her for new books and she paid visits to new places.
The Cause of Virginia Woolf’s Death
On March 28, 1941 she was subjected to a strain which proved too much for her to bear. She disappeared and opened “that door” and sought death in the river near her home, leaving her hat and walking stick on the bank of the river. She committed suicide not because of the depression caused over her last novel, nor because she was afraid to go through another war. These might have been strong causes for her suicide, but the actual reason was the return of the mental condition from which she had suffered earlier and from which she thought she would never recover again. Even her childhood was a period when her universe was a divided one fostering two opposite tendencies in her life. At times she would engage herself in the immediate world, where sensations mixed freely with fantasy.
Virginia Woolf lived in a sort of an unfamiliar region, where her father, a sort of mysterious giant to her, conversed freely about books with George Meredith, Henry James and Thomas Hardy, and they were persons who were different from those who meet us everyday in life. She exercised on her parents a magic spell, without, however, securing deliverance for herself which she obscurely sought. Her marriage with Leonard Woolf did not change her way of life; nor did it change the course of her inner development. She found in her husband an ideal companion, who allowed her all the intellectual liberty she required. He not only shared fully in her work, with the intelligence and sympathy, which she might have received from a friend, but also was able to provide her with that understanding and encouragement which is possible when the two lives are identical and fused into one. She had a happy and harmonious married life; not withstanding she found it impossible to adjust to the world around her.
“No wonder that so sensitive, questioning, insecure a spirit as Virginia Woolf preferred to drift out on the stream which she had so often written about ratter than be present at the liquidation of all she loved.”
(F. R. Karl and Marvin Magalaner)
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