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Virginia Woolff (nιe Stephen; 25 January 1882 28 March 1941) was an English novelist and essayist, regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century.
During the interwar period, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), and the book-length essay A Room of One's Own (1929), with its famous dictum, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London in 1882. Her mother, a famous beauty, Julia Prinsep Stephen (born Jackson) (18461895), was born in India to Dr. John and Maria Pattle Jackson and later moved to England with her mother, where she served as a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Edward Burne-Jones.. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a notable author, critic and mountaineer. The young Virginia was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. Her parents had each been married previously and been widowed, and, consequently, the household contained the children of three marriages. Julia had three children from her first husband, Herbert Duckworth: George Duckworth (18681934), Stella Duckworth (18691897), and Gerald Duckworth (18701937). Leslie had one daughter from his first wife, Minny Thackeray: Laura Makepeace Stephen (18701945), who was declared mentally disabled and lived with the family until she was institutionalised in 1891. Leslie and Julia had four children together: Vanessa Stephen (18791961), Thoby Stephen (18801906), Virginia, and Adrian Stephen (18831948).
Sir Leslie Stephen's eminence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray (he was the widower of Thackeray's youngest daughter), meant that his children were raised in an environment filled with the influences of Victorian literary society. Henry James, George Henry Lewes, Julia Margaret Cameron (an aunt of Julia Stephen), and James Russell Lowell, who was made Virginia's honorary godfather, were among the visitors to the house. Julia Stephen was equally well connected. Descended from an attendant of Marie Antoinette, she came from a family of renowned beauties who left their mark on Victorian society as models for Pre-Raphaelite artists and early photographers. Supplementing these influences was the immense library at the Stephens' house, from which Virginia and Vanessa (unlike their brothers, who were formally educated) were taught the classics and English literature.
According to Woolf's memoirs, her most vivid childhood memories, however, were not of London but of St Ives in Cornwall, where the family spent every summer until 1895. The Stephens' summer home, Talland House, looked out over Porthminster Bay, and is still standing today, though somewhat altered. Memories of these family holidays and impressions of the landscape, especially the Godrevy Lighthouse, informed the fiction Woolf wrote in later years, most notably To the Lighthouse.
The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her half-sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia's several nervous breakdowns. The death of her father in 1904 provoked her most alarming collapse and she was briefly institutionalised.
Her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods, modern scholars (including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell) have suggested, were also influenced by the sexual abuse she and Vanessa were subjected to by their half-brothers George and Gerald (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate).
Throughout her life, Woolf was plagued by periodic mood swings and associated illnesses. Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks until her suicide.
After the death of their father and Virginia's second nervous breakdown, Vanessa and Adrian sold 22 Hyde Park Gate and bought a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury.
Following studies at King's College, Cambridge, and King's College London, Woolf came to know Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Rupert Brooke, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, and Leonard Woolf, who together formed the nucleus of the intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury Group. Several members of the group attained notoriety in 1910 with the Dreadnought hoax, which Virginia participated in disguised as a male Abyssinian royal. Her complete 1940 talk on the Hoax has recently been discovered and is published in the memoirs collected in the expanded edition of The Platform of Time (2008).
Virginia Stephen married writer Leonard Woolf in 1912, referring to him during their engagement as a "penniless Jew." The couple shared a close bond; in 1937, Woolf wrote in her diary: "Love-making after 25 years cant bear to be separate ... you see it is enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete." The two also collaborated professionally, in 1917 founding the Hogarth Press, which subsequently published Virginia's novels along with works by T.S. Eliot, Laurens van der Post, and others. The ethos of the Bloomsbury group discouraged sexual exclusivity, and in 1922, Virginia met the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson. After a tentative start, they began a sexual relationship that lasted through most of the 1920s. In 1928, Woolf presented Sackville-West with Orlando, a fantastical biography in which the eponymous hero's life spans three centuries and both genders. It has been called by Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West's son, "the longest and most charming love letter in literature." After their affair ended, the two women remained friends until Woolf's death in 1941. Virginia Woolf also remained close to her surviving siblings, Adrian and Vanessa; Thoby had died of an illness at the age of 26.
After completing the manuscript of her last (posthumously published) novel, Between the Acts, Woolf fell victim to a depression similar to that which she had earlier experienced. The onset of World War II, the destruction of her London home during the Blitz, and the cool reception given to her biography of her late friend Roger Fry all worsened her condition until she was unable to work.
On 28 March 1941, Woolf committed suicide. She put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, then walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned herself. Woolf's body was not found until 18 April. Her husband buried her cremated remains under a tree in the garden of their house in Rodmell, Sussex.
In her last note to her husband she wrote:
I feel certain that 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 'til 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.