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VIRGINIA WOOLF, born Adeline Virginia Stephen (1882-1941). The Life and Work of Virginia Woolf. born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London on January 25, 1882, and died by suicide on March 12, 1941

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the life and work of virginia woolf
The Life and Work of Virginia Woolf
  • born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London on January 25, 1882, and died by suicide on March 12, 1941
  • came from a family of writers: her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a prominent writer during Queen Victoria’s reign, and her maternal grandfather was William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair.
Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 into a large household living at 22 Hyde Park Gate near Kensington Gardens in west London.
Both of Virginia's parents had lost their former partner.
  • Leslie Stephens had originally been married to Harriet, daughter of William Thackeray, who died in 1875.
  • Julia had married a young barrister, Herbert Duckworth, who died in 1870.
  • These two families, and their combined four children, came together when Stephen and Julia married in 1878.
  • Four more children followed, Vanessa in 1879, Thorby in 1880, Virginia in 1882 and Adrian in 1883.
Virginia Stephen and her sister Vanessa were interested in the arts from their childhood, Vanessa in painting and Virginia in writing. (on Nessa, Diaries, p. 118)
Their mother’s death in 1895 took a great toll on them.
  • They were sexually abused by their stepbrothers, George and Gerald Duckworth.
  • Virginia suffered her first mental breakdown when she was thirteen years old (in May 1895, when Julia died )and several were to follow throughout her life.
Virginia's older sister Stella died a few months later, shortly after her marriage, taking another mother figure away from Virginia.
  • In 1904 her father died and Virginia suffered a severe breakdown. (Diaries, p. 135)
It was in 1905, while Virginia was still ill, that she moved from her childhood home to the Bloomsbury area of London, which she was to make famous.
  • Rents were lower here.
  • It was convenient for the Slade art school where her sister Vanessa studied.
  • Virginia lived at 46 Gordon Square with Thorby, Adrian and Vanessa.
  • It was at 46 Gordon Square that the "Bloomsbury Group" formed.
The Stephen sisters settled in Bloomsbury, a section of London that was an unofficial artist’s colony before and after World War I.
  • Virginia married Leonard Woolf in 1912, and in 1917 they started Hogarth Press which operated out of their home in London. Virginia Woolf worked as a typesetter and reader for the press from 1917 to 1937.
Leonard was to nurse her through illnesses and breakdowns.
  • The Woolfs began their married life at 13 Clifford's Inn, off Fleet Street. They were happy here for a short while, Leonard working on a new novel, and Virginia finishing The Voyage Out, which she had worked on for five years.
  • Finishing the novel brought on the worst break down Virginia had ever suffered. On the 9th of September 1913 she took an overdose of the sleeping draught Vernol, and was only saved by prompt action from Leonard.
As a result of this breakdown Leonard decided that Virginia would do better away from the excitements of London.
  • The couple moved to 17, The Green, Richmond in October 1914.
  • In December that year they arranged to move the short distance to Hogarth House in Paradise Road.
The move to Hogarth House was made with four psychiatric nurses helping to control Virginia.
  • Virginia spent her first nine months at Hogarth House in a state of insanity.
  • Strangely she wrote of being incredibly happy at this time: "I've had some very curious visions in this room... lying in bed, mad, and seeing the sunlight quivering like gold water, on the wall. I've heard the voices of the dead here. And felt, through it all, exquisitely happy.“ (see parallels with Clarissa)
At Hogarth House Leonard thought that some interesting manual work might help his wife rest from her writing.
  • They bought a small hand press on impulse one afternoon walking up Farringdon Street.
  • They went on to publish Prelude by Katherine Mansfield in 1918, and in 1919 published Poems by T.S. Elliot, Kew Gardens by Virginia, and The Critic In Judgment by John Middleton Murray.
  • In 1923 Hogarth Press published the first edition of T.S. Elliot's The Waste Land.
In October 1923 Leonard reluctantly agreed to a move back to London, which his wife missed desperately. They moved to 52 Tavistock Square. Virginia wrote most of her greatest novels here, published by Hogarth Press in the basement.
At Monk's House Virginia fell into introspection. The war depressed her.
  • Leonard became worried and persuaded her to see Dr Octavia Wilberforce on 27th March 1941. The next morning she wrote a note to Leonard:

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel I can't go through another one 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 until 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 that 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 that two people could have been happier than we have been."

Woolf was prolific, with over 35 essay collections, biographies, and novels being published during her lifetime.
  • Her journals and her many other books were published posthumously.
  • Woolf’s essays are often anthologized.
  • She attacked what she considered outdated ideas about literature:
  • argued that literary expression should not overlook any aspect of human life
  • wrote that women must never be silenced.
Despite a successful career, Woolf’s private life was deeply and consistently troubled.
  • Her comfortable marriage did not assuage periods of depression, prompted by self-doubts and, to a lesser extent, world affairs.
  • Recalling the horrors of World War I, Woolf and others watched developments in Germany, and dreaded the prospects of another brutal war and the triumph of anti-semitism. (Diaries, p. 332)
Fearing of another breakdown, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones one day in March1941, to make herself heavier when she leapt into the River Ouse.
historical background
Historical background
  • The world of Mrs. Dalloway is dualistic; it concerns two opposites.
  • Though London is calm, basking in sunlight and peace following World War I, the reader sees the inner struggles of the characters, who are fraught with contradiction and unhappiness. (Diaries, on loving London: p. 313, p. 126)
The war is a real, tangible presence in the novel. Memories of it are still fresh (Septimus Warren Smith, a soldier who had been traumatized by the violence he had witnessed).
  • In Woolf’s time, victims of post-battle stress were called “shell shocked,” and their mental conditions were misunderstood.
  • The novel reflects the work of Sigmund Freud, who revolutionized the new field of psychology with the publication of his first work, An Introduction to Psychoanalysis, in 1916.
mrs dalloway 1925
Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
  • Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street
  • The Voyage Out (1915)
  • The Prime Minister
  • Influence of James Joyce (Ulysses) – the stream of consciousness
  • The Hours
  • Mrs. Dalloway


  • The sense of separateness and uniqueness (the novel is made up of the internal thoughts of its various characters)
  • Clarissa is a representation of extreme, problematic individualism (her isolation; being entrapped within the confines of her consciousness)
  • One’s identity is not fixed (Clarissa’s identity changes when she’s with Peter, Miss Kilman, Elizabeth etc.)
communication vs privacy
Communication vs. Privacy
  • Clarissa, Septimus, Peter, and others struggle to find outlets for communication as well as adequate privacy, and the balance between the two is difficult for all to attain.
  • Clarissa in particular struggles to open the pathway for communication and throws parties in an attempt to draw people together.
  • At the same time, she feels shrouded within her own reflective soul.
social change
Social change
  • the novel attacks the values of bourgeois society in the post-war world: the upper middle class can’t continue living the way it used to since the whole fabric of existence has radically changed (e.g. Septimus)
  • Clarissa’s snobbishness is exaggerated to show the instability and lack of profundity inherent in the British upper classes after the war. (C. looks down on her cousin Ellie Henderson because she lacks the sufficient social graces; C. despises the lesbian Mrs. Kilman; Sally complains that C. has never visited her because she married a miner’s son)
The political and social scene of Britain is changing significantly (the rise of the Labor Party, unrest in India);
  • The shifting of political power to the party that represents the interests of the broader population, instead of remaining faithful to the interests of the old, aristocratic ruling classes.
  • Education of young women and their social position are changing.
narration and point of view
Narration and point of view
  • Meshing of a third person (external) narrator’s point of view with a first person character’s point of view
  • Literary critics call this style of narration “represented thought and speech”, (writing from deep feeling, D., p. 56)
  • Events occur within a single day (people can relive, through the operations of memory, whole years within the space of minutes) (D., p. 101)
  • The novel multiplies the time by presenting the thoughts of different characters
  • Chronological time in this novel is only one sense of time, as the characters bring the past into the present, allow the meaning and remembrance of the present to be shaped by the past , and shape memories of and feelings about the past with experience in the present.
character double
Character double
  • “Septimus’ s character is in all essentials Clarissa’s, but taken to a deadly extreme.” (Alex Page in “A Dangerous Day: Mrs. Dalloway and her Double”): where C. is isolated, S. is disassociated from reality; where C. manages the disappointments and strictures society imposes on her, S. buckles under greater pressures (D., p. 51, a study of insanity and suicide)
When informed of S’s death, C. retreats from her guests as if she herself were susceptible to the same degree of despair that destroys the young man.
  • C’s suppression of love is a sort of suicide, a death in life (Emily Jensen)
  • Mrs. Dalloway is an examination of C. and S. as problems in psychology and mental heath
  • Both characters are compared to birds
a novel without a plot
A novel without a plot
  • A plot establishes causal relationships between characters, or between characters and events. Moreover, this series of interconnected events must unify the entire story or determine most of its happenings.
  • Mrs. Dalloway establishes causal relationships between characters, but the only unifying element is the time: the Wednesday, in June 1923.
  • Deciding on a plot means having definitive views about social types and social forces.
  • To relate a story is simply to relate events and situations as they happen.
  • Chance and coincidence
Mapping in Mrs D