Born in London on 25 January 1882, Virginia Woolf seemed destined for a creative life. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a well-known historian, author and critic, while her mother Julia, a renowned beauty, had been an artist’s model for various Pre-Raphaelite painters. Both her parents had been previously married – Leslie Stephen to the daughter of William Thackeray and Julia to Herbert Duckworth (with whom she had two sons, George and Gerald, and a daughter, Stella). When Leslie and Julia married this large family was brought together in one house in Kensington, where they were soon joined by Vanessa (born 1879), Thoby (1880) and Adrian (1883) as well as Virginia herself.
Growing up in this busy household, the children were introduced to leading figures of late Victorian literary society; the house was often visited by great authors and artists of the day, from Henry James to George Eliot. While their brothers were packed off to school and university, Virginia and Vanessa remained at home studying the classics and English literature, each pursuing their growing creative interests - Vanessa for art and Virginia for writing. Whilst Virginia often spoke happily of her childhood, she would suffer from depression all her life, having mood swings and periodic breakdowns. Despite her illness she wrote prolifically throughout her whole life.
Woolf began to work as a writer at the age of 18, her first work being an article on the Bronte family for the Times Literary Supplement. Around this period her brother began to bring his friends down from Cambridge – these men would become some of the most influential figures of the era and included economist Maynard Keynes, novelist E.M. Forster and biographer Lytton Strachey. After the death of Woolf’s father in 1904 she had her worst breakdown, causing her to be briefly institutionalised.
The family moved from Kensington to a house in Bloomsbury and it was at this house that their group of extraordinary friends would gather, becoming known as ‘the Bloomsbury Group’. They became famous for their championing of pacifism, aestheticism and belief in the abiding importance of the arts. They were also renowned for their anti-establishment sense of humour, notably when they orchestrated ‘the Dreadnought Hoax’ in 1910, in which some members dressed up as Abyssinian dignitaries and were able to ‘inspect’ one of the Royal Navy’s newest battleships. Vanessa married Clive Bell in 1907 but would live with her lover, artist Duncan Grant, for most of her life. Virginia married Leonard Woolf in 1912 and they would remain together despite her extra-marital affairs.
In 1915 the first of Virginia Woolf's books was published titled The Voyage Out; here she began to develop the themes and style that would dominate her work. Focusing less on narrative, her books attempted to distil the psychological and emotional motives for her character’s actions. She was instrumental in the development of modernism, particularly the stream-of-consciousness, allowing her books to make seemingly unimportant day-to-day events seem vital and essential. It has been argued that her style of lyrical writing was that of a poet, trying to get as near to the form of a novel as possible. The book was published by her half-brother Gerald Duckworth; however in 1917 Woolf and her husband founded their own publisher Hogarth Press, who would publish many more Virginia Woolf books.
After the First World War Woolf and Leonard bought Monks House in Rodmell, East Sussex, not far from Charleston Farmhouse, the home of her sister. There she was able to write in peace and develop her particular style. Though she published Night and Day (1919) and Jacob’s Room (1922), it was not until the publication of Mrs Dalloway in 1925 that her reputation as one of the most inventive writers of the 20th century was secured. Telling the story of one day in the lives of a society hostess and a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, it remains her most widely read book.
In 1922 Virginia met the writer, gardener and aristocrat Vita Sackville-West. The two women were deeply drawn to each other and began an affair, known and approved of by both their husbands. Though the romance was short-lived they remained close friends and in 1928 Woolf published a love letter to Vita, the biography Orlando which was the story of a fictional figure who lives for 500 years and oscillates between genders. The fantastical book was both a private joke for the two women, lampooning many public and historical figures as well as a fascinating study of the nature of love, time and gender. The book has been acclaimed by the feminist movement to the extent that the word ‘Orlando’ has become synonymous with women writing fiction about gender.
After Orlando, Woolf began to write more non-fiction, giving lectures and publishing essays. She gave two extremely influential lectures: A Room of One’s Own, subsequently published in 1929, and Three Guineas, published in 1938. These essays dealt with the roles of women in society and the necessity of women’s independence in order for them to be creative. However, they also tackled a broad range of issues of the day, from the prevention of war to the rise of fascism. These non-fiction works were instrumental in proving Woolf not only to be a writer of fiction, but a fiercely intelligent academic and theorist.
While Woolf's literary reputation grew, her mental well-being remained unstable. Despite her great intellectual status she was self-conscious about her ideas and even her fashion sense. She was competitive and even at the height of her success believed her writing to be flawed, comparing herself unfavourably to contemporaries. With the coming of the Second World War, she became increasingly depressed at the destruction wrought by the Blitz and the possibility of a German invasion (Woolf was in the so called ‘Black Book’ of British figures to be arrested after a Nazi takeover), as well as being extremely unsatisfied with her latest novel Between the Acts.
Woolf's condition worsened throughout early 1941 and she felt certain that she was heading for another breakdown. Determined not to cause any further distress to her family, she filled her coat pockets with stones on 28 March 1941, walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned herself. Her body was not discovered until 18 April. She left a note to her husband stating that 'I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer' but also that, 'I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been'.