♔Adeline Virginia Stephen, was the third child of Sir Leslie Stephen, a Victorian man of letters, and renowned literary critic and Julia Duckworth, philanthropist & model.
Born into an affluent family in Kensington, London, Virginia and her sisters were home-schooled, mainly in English classics and Victorian literature, while their brothers Thoby and Adrian were sent to Cambridge.
Virginia spent much of her time reading copiously from her father’s vast library of literary classics.
According to Woolf’s memoirs, her most vivid childhood memories were not of London but of St Ives, Cornwall, where the family spent every summer until 1895. The Stephens’ summer home, Talland House, still stands today, and looks out over the dramatic Porthminster Bay with a view of the Godrevy Lighthouse, the inspiration for much of her writing.
In her later memoirs, Woolf recalled St. Ives with a great fondness, and incorporated scenes from those early summers into her novel, To the Lighthouse. (1927)
Woolf describes why she felt so connected to Talland House in a diary entry dated March 22nd, 1921:
Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One’s past, I suppose; I see children running in the garden … The sound of the sea at night … almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain.
Throughout her life Virginia suffered from severe bouts of mental illness, the first of several nervous breakdowns was in 1895, following her mothers unexpected and tragic death from influenza aged forty-nine. A second severe breakdown was triggered in 1904 by the death of her father. According to nephew and biographer Quentin Bell, during this time,Virginia attempted her first suicide and was institutionalised.
It was 1911, and with both her parents deceased, Virginia took the decision to move out of the family home in Hyde Park and lease a large four-storied house in the more ‘bohemian’ Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury famed for its literati. At the same Leonard Woolf had returned to England after two years working in Ceylon as a civil servant and needed a place to stay.
Virginia rented the top floor apartment to Leonard Woolf; she occupied the third floor; her brother Adrian lived on the second; and Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant occupied the bottom apartment. A very courageous endeavour for a lady in strict Edwardian England.
Seeing Virginia on a daily basis, Leonard Woolf, fell in love with her all over again, as indeed he had done after meeting her in 1900 when Virginia visited her brother Thoby at Trinity college,Cambridge. Leonard set about courting Virginia and after six months of much reluctance and persuasion they were married on Saturday, August 10 1912 at St. Pancras Registry Office, London.
The Woolf’s set up home at Clifford’s Inn, Fleet Street an area in the heart of London famed for housing literary giants such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pepys, Johnson, Boswell, and Tennyson. During the day Virginia worked on The Voyage Out and Leonard wrote The Village in the Jungle. In the evenings, they would cross Fleet Street to dine at the Cock Tavern, a famous haunt for the Literati.
During 1913, whilst finishing the draft for The Voyage Out, Virginia suffered another breakdown, Virginia agreed to rest in a nursing home, but after returning home, the delusions and sleeplessness returned. Leonard took his wife to rest in Nether Stowey, a village in Somerset, where poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth once lived. Virginia’s condition remained unstable, and a few days after returning to London, Virginia attempted suicide by overdose. Leonard stayed with her constantly. The breakdown lasted almost two years, with only short periods of respite.
A Shelf of Shakespeare Plays hand bound by Virginia Woolf in her bedroom at Monk’s House. It has been suggested that Woolf bound books to help cope with her depression, as is hinted at in her writing:
“A great part of every day is not lived consciously. one walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; … cooking dinner; bookbinding.
Her first novel The Voyage Out, which had been held up from publication for two years, appeared (1915), It received fairly good reviews and Virginia was cited as being an important new novelist’. Immediately, Virginia set about writing her second book; Night and Day, it was published in 1919 and was also well received, but less so than The Voyage Out; both books were financially unprofitable.
In April 1920, Virginia began writing Jacob’s Room, which was to be her first acclaimed masterpiece. Jacob’s Room was published in October 1922, and received fiercely partisan reviews.
Resolute, Virginia continued working on her next novel Mrs. Dalloway (first called The Hours). Virginia used anytime not spent on Mrs. Dalloway to write and assemble The Common Reader, a collection of essays about English literature. And, while writing on these two projects during 1923 and 1924, she was already planning her next novel, one to be written about her father and mother, To the Lighthouse.
Mrs. Dalloway, The Common Reader, and To the Lighthouse were all recognised as revolutionary, solid productions, yet it was not until after Orlando was published in 1928 that Virginia began to receive any real monetary profit from her writings. She was 47 years old and had been writing for nearly 27 years.
Following Orlando’s success was The Waves (1931), Flush (1933), a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog; and The Years (1937), a major best seller. both in England and America.
Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, was published posthumously. She had completed a first draft but was still unsatisfied. On March 28, 1941, she wrote a note to Leonard:
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V
While she was writing the note; Leonard passed her desk and reminded her that it was nearing lunchtime. A little later, he called to her but there was no answer. He went to look for her and found her hat and her walking stick on the river bank.
Shortly after Woolf’s final disappearance on the 3 April 1941, friend Clive Bell wrote to the writer and fellow Bloomsbury group member Frances Partridge:
I’m not sure whether the Times will by now have announced that Virginia is missing. I’m afraid there is not the slightest doubt that she drowned herself about noon last Friday. She had left letters for Leonard and Vanessa [Woolf and Bell]. Her stick and footprints were found by the edge of the river. For some days, of course, we hoped against hope that she had wandered crazily away and might be discovered in a barn or a village shop.
Virginia Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home, she was 59. Leonard buried her cremated remains beneath an elm tree in the garden of Monk’s House, their beloved home in Rodmell, Sussex.
The headstone reads: Beneath this tree are buried the ashes of Virginia Woolf. Born January 25 1882, Died March 28 1941:
Death is the enemy. Against you, I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding
– O Death!
~The Waves, Virginia Woolf