Friday, 28 March 2014

Virginia Woolf

VirginiaWoolf.jpgAs you all probably know, I am a keen fan of Virginia Woolf. I wrote an essay based on A Room of One's Own for a Newnham history essay prize over Christmas, and I also reviewed the book on my blog in the same month. Today is the anniversary of her suicide, and in her memory I have decided to dedicate this blog post to her. Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on 25 January 1882 in London. Her father, Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography who came from a family distinguished for public service (part of the ‘intellectual aristocracy' of Victorian England). Her mother, Julia (1846-95), was the daughter and niece of the six beautiful Pattle sisters. Both parents had been married before: her father to the daughter of the novelist, Thackeray, by whom he had a daughter Laura (1870-1945) and her mother to a barrister, Herbert Duckworth (1833-70), by whom she had three children, George (1868-1934), Stella (1869-97), and Gerald (1870-1937). Julia and Stephen had four children: Vanessa (1879-1961), Thoby (1880-1906), Virginia (1882-1941), and Adrian (1883-1948). All eight children lived with the parents and a number of servants at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. 

In 1895 her mother died unexpectedly, and Woolf suffered her first mental breakdown. Her half-sister Stella took over the running of the household as well as coping with Leslie’s demands for sympathy and emotional support. Stella married Jack Hills in 1897, but she too died suddenly on her return from her honeymoon. The household burden then fell upon Vanessa.

Woolf was allowed uncensored access to her father’s extensive library, and from an early age she was determined to be a writer. She had a patchy education and never actually went to school, instead training to be a painter. Their two brothers were sent to preparatory and public schools, and then to Cambridge. There Thoby made friends with Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes - the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group.

Leslie Stephen died in 1904, and Woolf had a second breakdown. While she was sick, Vanessa arranged for the four siblings to move from 22 Hyde Park Gate to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. At the end of the year Woolf started reviewing with the Guardian. In 1911 Woolf moved to 38 Brunswick Square. Leonard Woolf had joined the Ceylon Civil Service in 1904 and returned in 1911 on leave. He soon decided that he wanted to marry Virginia, and she eventually agreed. They were married in St Pancras Registry Office on 10 August 1912. They decided to earn money by writing and journalism.

Since about 1908 Virginia had been writing her first novel The Voyage Out (originally to be called Melymbrosia). It was finished by 1913 but, owing to another severe mental breakdown after her marriage, it was not published until 1915 by Duckworth & Co. (Gerald’s publishing house). The novel was fairly conventional in form. She then began writing her second novel Night and Day - if anything even more conventional - which was published in 1919, also by Duckworth.

In 1917 the Woolfs had bought a small hand printing-press in order to take up printing as a hobby and as therapy for Virginia. By now they were living in Richmond (Surrey) and the Hogarth Press was named after their house. Virginia wrote, printed and published a couple of experimental short stories, 'The Mark on the Wall' and 'Kew Gardens'. The Woolfs continued handprinting until 1932, but in the meantime they increasingly became publishers rather than printers. By about 1922 the Hogarth Press had become a business. From 1921 Virginia always published with the Press, except for a few limited editions.

After completing the manuscript of her last novel (Between the Acts) which was published after her death, Woolf became depressed once again caused by the onset of World War II and the destruction of her London home during the Blitz. On 28 March 1941, Woolf put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, walked into the River Ouse near her home, and drowned herself. Woolf's body was not found until 18 April 1941. Her husband buried her cremated remains under an elm in the garden of Monk's House, their home in Rodmell, Sussex.