Virginia Stephen, the daughter of Leslie Stephen and Julia Princep Duckworth, was born at Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, on 25th January 1882. Her father was the author of several important literary works and the editor of the The Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother had three children from her first marriage, George Duckworth (1868–1934), Stella Duckworth (1869–1897), and Gerald Duckworth (1870–1937). Virginia had a sister and two brothers: Vanessa Stephen (1879), Thoby Stephen (1880) and Adrian Stephen (1883).
According to her biographer, Lyndall Gordon: "Virginia's strongest memories from childhood were the idyll of St Ives, a basis for art, and at the other extreme, humiliation at the age of six when Gerald Duckworth, her grown-up half-brother (the younger son of her mother's first marriage), lifted her onto a ledge and explored her private parts - leaving her prey to sexual fear and initiating a lifelong resistance to certain forms of masculine authority."
When Virginia was thirteen her mother died and this brought on the first of her several breakdowns. She was very close to her sister, Vanessa Stephen. Her biographer, Vanessa Curtis, has commented: "When Vanessa was not in her art class, the sisters often spent mornings companionably closeted away in a little class room off the back of the drawing-room, almost entirely made up of windows and perfect for quiet writing and painting." Leslie Stephen held conventional views on education and unlike her two brothers, Virginia did not go to university.
In 1897 Violet Dickinson visited the home of Leslie Stephen for the first time. Stephen wrote that: "She (Violet Dickinson) has taken a great fancy to all the girls, specially to Ginia (Virginia)". In 1902 Violet began corresponding with Virginia. The two women went on holiday together to Venice, Florence and Paris. Virginia who was seventeen years her junior accused Violet of being a "dangerous woman" who was "not at all the right kind of influence over young girls". Vanessa Curtis, the author of Virginia Woolf's Women (2002) has pointed out that "Violet was full of happiness, brusque common sense, jollity and optimism, all of which were qualities much needed and admired by the young Virginia."
Virginia commented on her new friend: "She is 37 and without any pretence to good looks - which humorously she knows quite well herself and lets you know too - even going out of her way to allude laughingly to her grey hairs, and screws her face in to the most comical grimaces. But an observer who would stop here, putting her down as one of those cleverish, adaptable ladies of middle age who are welcome everywhere and not indispensable anywhere - such an observer would be superficial indeed.
Vanessa Curtis has argued that it is difficult to know if the two women had a sexual relationship. However, she points out that in July 1903 Virginia wrote to Violet that "it is astonishing what depths - what volcano depths - your finger has stirred." On another occasion Virginia told Violet that she had a double bed ready in anticipation of her visit to join her on holiday. Curtis goes on to say that "regardless of the question marks that still hang over the exact nature of their early relationship, there can be no denying that Violet was the first true emotional and physical love of Virginia's early adult life."
Leslie Stephen died of cancer on 22nd February 1904. It has been claimed that Virginia came under the control of her older stepbrother George Duckworth, who bullied and sexually abused her. With both her parents dead, Virginia became even closer to Violet Dickinson. The two women went on holiday together to Venice, Florence and Paris. Virginia who was seventeen years her junior accused Violet of being a "dangerous woman" who was "not at all the right kind of influence over young girls".
In 1904 Mary Sheepshanks, the vice-principal of Morley College for Working Men and Women, appointed Virginia to teach history evening classes. Other lecturers at the college included Graham Wallas, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and Ernest Shepherd. Sheepshanks later recalled how much the college meant to the people in the area: "Very many of the students left home early in the morning by the workman's train, came straight from work to their classes and arrived home late, not having had any solid meal all day... It was distinctly a school for tired people."
Violet became a firm believer in Virginia's literary talent and introduced her to Margaret Littleton, the editor of the women's supplement of The Guardian . As a result of this meeting, Virginia was commissioned to write an article on Charlotte Brontë. The author of Virginia Woolf's Women (2002) has pointed out that "Violet was full of happiness, brusque common sense, jollity and optimism, all of which were qualities much needed and admired by the young Virginia."
After the death of their father Virginia and Vanessa Stephen moved to Bloomsbury. Their brother, Thoby Stephen, introduced them to some of his friends that he had met at the University of Cambridge. The group began meeting to discuss literary and artistic issues. The friends, who eventually became known as the Bloomsbury Group, included Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, David Garnett, Desmond MacCarthy, Arthur Waley and Duncan Grant. Virgina also had reviews of books published in the Times Literary Supplement.
The Stephen family went on holiday to Greece in September 1906. Violet Dickinson went with them as a self-styled "foster mother". According to Hermione Lee, the author of Virginia Woolf (1996): "For Thoby, Greece was the last long holiday before he was called to the Bar. He was full of energy and ambitions, passionately opinionated and enthusiastic." Thoby Stephen, who returned home seriously ill from typhoid, died on 20th November 1906.
Vanessa Stephen married Clive Bell on 7th February 1907. Vanessa Curtis , the author of Virginia Woolf's Women (2002) , points out that after their marriage, Clive became very close to Virginia: "Virginia, envious of her sister's newfound married happiness, also began to court favour and affection from Clive. A flirtation between the two sprang up in Cornwall, when Vanessa was too wrapped up in her first baby, Julian, to pay much attention to anyone else. Clive, flattered, and feeling shut out by his wife, reciprocated with passion and longed to make the flirtation physical; Virginia, existing cerebrally and intellectually, was happier to draw the line at long, stimulating walks and clever letters."
On 30th August, 1908, Virginia wrote to Violet Dickinson: "Supposing we drift apart, in the next three years, so that we meet and remember our ancient correspondence." Hermione Lee, the author of Virginia Woolf (1996), has argued that "Virginia's intimacy with Violet was playfully erotic from the beginning of their correspondence. The teasing jokes, the demands for attention, the confiding of secrets, were part of an extortionate appeal for petting and mothering. Violet was her woman." Lee points out that Dickinson played an important role in her writing: "She used Violet as her sounding-board for her evolving ideas about how to live, how to talk and how to write."
In December 1908, Ottoline Morrell had tea with Virginia at her home in Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury. Virginia was impressed with Ottoline and confessed to Violet Dickinson that their relationship was like "sitting under a huge lily, absorbing pollen like a seduced bee." Vanessa believed that Ottoline was bisexual and that she was physically attracted to her sister. In her memoirs, Ottoline admitted that she was entranced by Virginia: "This strange, lovely, furtive creature never seemed to me to be made of common flesh and blood. She comes and goes, she folds her cloak around her and vanishes, having shot into her victim's heart a quiverful of teasing arrows."
in 1910 Virginia suffered another mental breakdown. That summer she spent six weeks at a private nursing home in Twickenham, which specialized in patients with nervous disorders. She was very unhappy during this period and told her sister: "I shall soon have to jump out of a window."
Later that year Clive Bell met Roger Fry in a railway carriage between Cambridge and London. Virginia later recalled: "It must have been in 1910 I suppose that Clive one evening rushed upstairs in a state of the highest excitement. He had just had one of the most interesting conversations of his life. It was with Roger Fry. They had been discussing the theory of art for hours. He thought Roger Fry the most interesting person he had met since Cambridge days. So Roger appeared. He appeared, I seem to think, in a large ulster coat, every pocket of which was stuffed with a book, a paint box or something intriguing; special tips which he had bought from a little man in a back street; he had canvases under his arms; his hair flew; his eyes glowed." From then on Fry became a very important member of the Bloomsbury Group.
Ottoline Morrell remained in close contact with Virginia, but it was always a difficult relationship. In her memoirs, Ottoline recalled: "She seemed to feel certain of her own eminence. It is true, but it is rather crushing, for I feel she is very contemptuous of other people. When I stretched out a hand to feel another woman, I found only a very lovely, clear intellect." Ottoline was fully aware of Virginia's abilities, she had "such energy and vitality and seemed to me far the most imaginative and mastery intellect that I had met for many years."
Virginia took an interest in the campaign for women's suffrage and was active briefly with the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and later joined the Adult Suffrage Society. However, her main political involvement was as a member of the Women's Co-operative Guild, a radical organisation led by Margaret Llewelyn Davies. Virginia wrote that "I went to the Women's Cooperative Guild, which pleased me by its good sense, and the evidence that it does somehow stand for something real to these women. In spite of their solemn passivity they have a deeply hidden and inarticulate desire for something beyond the daily life."
In the spring of 1911 Vanessa Bell went on holiday to Turkey with Clive Bell and Roger Fry. During her stay Vanessa had a miscarriage and a mental breakdown. Virginia went out to help nurse her. She was also going through a period of depression. She wrote: "To be 29 and unmarried - to be a failure - childless - insane too, no writer." Both Vanessa and Virginia fell in love with Fry. That summer Vanessa began an affair with Fry. They tried to keep in secret from Virginia but on 18th January 1912, Vanessa wrote to Fry: "Virginia told me last night that she suspected me of having a liaison with you. She has been quick to suspect it, hasn't she?"
The awareness that her sister was having an affair with Fry was a major influence on why Virginia decided to marry Leonard Woolf on 10th August 1912. He resigned from the colonial service after a six-and-a-half-year stint as civil servant in Ceylon. The couple embarked on a writing life at Hogarth House in Richmond and at her rented home, Asheham House, at Beddingham, near Lewes.
In 1914 Virginia Woolf had a severe mental breakdown. Leonard Woolf nursed her back to recovery and in 1915 her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published. According to Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum: "He had recognized her genius before their marriage, but not the extent of her mental instability. For nearly thirty years one of Leonard's chief occupations was caring for Virginia. Without his vigilant love, her books would never have been written; he was her first reader, her editor, and her publisher. Though not a sexually active marriage, theirs was one of profound and enduring affection."
The couple shared a strong interest in literature and in 1917 founded the Hogarth Press. Over the next few years they published the work of Flora Mayor, Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Robert Graves, Julia Strachey, T. S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell. They also published Virginia's Night and Day, a novel that deals with the subject of women's suffrage in 1919. This was followed by Jacob's Room (1922), a novel that tells the story of Jacob Flanders, a soldier killed in the First World War.
After the war they bought Monk's House, a cottage in Rodmell, so Virginia could be close to her sister, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who lived at Charleston Farmhouse . In 1919 Leonard Woolf was appointed as secretary of an advisory committees on international and imperial questions that had been set-up by the Labour Party. In 1920 Woolf published Empire and Commerce in Africa, which analysed the economic imperialism of African colonization.
Virginia wrote about literature for The Nation and in an article published in December, 1923, attacked the "shallow realism" of Arnold Bennett and advocated a more "internal approach" to literature. This article was an important step in the development of what became known as Modernism. Woolf rejected the traditional framework of narrative, description and rational exposition in prose and made considerable use of the stream of consciousness technique (recording the flow of thoughts and feelings as they pass through the character's mind). This approach was explored in Virginia's novels: Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927).
Woolf became romantically involved with the writer, Vita Sackville-West. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, later recalled: "There may have been - on balance I think that there probably was - some caressing, some bedding together. But whatever may have occurred between them of this nature, I doubt very much whether it was of a kind to excite Virginia or to satisfy Vita. As far as Virginia's life is concerned the point is of no great importance; what was, to her, important was the extent to which she was emotionally involved, the degree to which she was in love. One cannot give a straight answer to such questions but, if the test of passions be blindness, then her affections were not very deeply engaged."
In September 1927, Sackville-West began an affair with Mary Garman, the wife of Roy Campbell, the poet. Mary wrote: "You are sometimes like a mother to me. No one can imagine the tenderness of a lover suddenly descending to being maternal. It is a lovely moment when the mother's voice and hands turn into the lover's."
Virginia Woolf was very jealous of the affair. She wrote to Vita: "I rang you up just now to find you were gone nutting in the woods with Mary Campbell... but not me - damn you." It is believed that Woolf's novel Orlando was influenced by the affair. In October 1927 Virginia wrote to Vita: "Suppose Orlando turns out to be about Vita; and its all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind (heart you have none, who go gallivanting down the lanes with Campbell) - suppose there's the kind of shimmer of reality which sometimes attaches to my people... Shall you mind?"
Vita Sackville-West replied that she thrilled and terrified "at the prospect of being projected into the shape of Orlando". She added: "What fun for you; what fun for me. You see, any vengeance that you want to take will be ready in your hand... You have my full permission." Orlando, was published in October 1928, with three pictures of Vita among its eight photographic illustrations. Dedicated to Vita, the novel, published in 1928, traces the history of the youthful, beautiful, and aristocratic Orlando, and explores the themes of sexual ambiguity.
After reading the book, Mary Garman wrote to Vita: "I hate the idea that you who are so hidden and secret and proud even with people you know best, should be suddenly presented so nakedly for anyone to read about... Vita darling you have been so much Orlando to me that how can I help absolutely understanding and loving the book... Through all the slight mockery which is always in the tone of Virginia's voice, and the analysis etc., Orlando is written by someone who loves you so obviously."
Virginia Woolf was also romantically involved with Katherine Mansfield. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, wrote: "Virginia felt as a lover feels - she desponded when she fancied herself neglected, despaired when Vita was away, waiting anxiously for letters, needed Vita's company and lived in that strange mixture of elation and despair which lovers - and one would have supposed only lovers - can experience. All this she has done and felt for Katherine Mansfield, but she never writes of her as she does of Vita."
A highly respected journalist and literary critic, Virginia published a series of important non-fiction books including A Room of One's Own that appeared in 1929. An important book in the history of feminism, it argues the need for the economic independence of women and explores the consequences of a male-dominated society.
Virginia Woolf's most ambitious novel, The Waves, was published in 1931. According to Lyndall Gordon: "Its framework of steel invents a revolutionary treatment of the lifespan. Here the writer is at her furthest remove from the traditional biographic schema, the public highway from pedigree to grave. Not only are there no pedigrees in The Waves; there are no placing surnames and no society to speak of, for here she explores the genetic givens of existence, unfolding what is innate in human nature against the backdrop of what is permanent in nature: sun and sea."
Woolf became increasingly interested in feminism and in her diary on 31st December, 1932, she resolved to speak out as a woman against the abuses of power. During this period began a relationship with Ethel Smyth, an activist in the Women Social & Political Union and a former lover of Emmeline Pankhurst.
Virginia Woolf had recurring bouts of depression. The outbreak of the Second World War increased her mental turmoil and Leonard Woolf arranged for Octavia Wilberforce to treat Virginia. He later recalled: "She (Octavia Wilberforce) had, to all intents and purposes become Virginia's doctor, and so the moment I became uneasy about Virginia's psychological health in the beginning of 1941 I told Octavia and consulted her professionally. The desperate difficulty which always presented itself when Virginia began to be threatened with a breakdown - a difficulty which occurs, I think, again and again in mental illness - was to decided how far it was safe to go in urging her to take steps - drastic steps - to ward off the attack."
On 28th March, 1941, Virginia wrote a letter to Leonard: "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 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."
Later that morning she committed suicide by drowning herself in the Ouse, near her home in Rodmell. After her body was recovered three weeks later, on 18 April, Leonard Woolf buried her ashes in the Monk's House garden.