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Biography from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Virginia Woolf (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was a British author who is considered to be one of the foremost modernist/feminist literary figures of the twentieth century. Between the World Wars, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Her most works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Jacob's Room, and her essay A Room of One's Own.
Born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London to Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Princep Duckworth (1846–1895), she was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington.
Virginia's parents had married each other after being widowed and the household contained the children of three marriages: Julia's children with her first husband Herbert Duckworth: George Duckworth (1868–1934); Stella Duckworth (1869–1897); and Gerald Duckworth (1870–1937). Laura Makepeace Stephen (1870–1945), Leslie's daughter with Minny Thackeray, was declared mentally disabled and lived with them until she was institutionalised in 1891 to the end of her life; and Leslie and Julia's children: Vanessa Stephen (1879–1961); Thoby Stephen (1880–1906); Virginia; and Adrian Stephen (1883–1948).
Sir Leslie Stephen's eminence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray (he was the widower of Thackeray's eldest daughter) meant that Woolf was raised in an environment filled with the influences of Victorian literary society.
Henry James, George Henry Lewes, Julia Margaret Cameron (an aunt of Julia Duckworth), and James Russell Lowell, who was made Virginia's godfather, were also among the visitors. Julia Duckworth 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 22 Hyde Park Gate, from which Virginia (unlike her brothers who were formally educated) was taught the classics and English literature.
According to her 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. Memories of the family holidays and impressions of the landscape, especially the Godrevy Lighthouse, informed the fiction she wrote in later years, notably To the Lighthouse.
The sudden death of her mother from influenza, 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 have asserted, were also induced by the sexual abuse she and Vanessa were subject 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).
Modern diagnostic techniques have led to her being regarded as having suffered from bipolar disorder, an illness which coloured her work and life, and eventually led to her suicide.
Following the death of her father and her second serious nervous breakdown, Virginia, Vanessa, and Adrian sold 22 Hyde Park Gate, and bought a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury. There they came to know Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, and Leonard Woolf, who together formed the nucleus of the intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury group.
While nowhere near a simple recapitulation of the coterie's ideals, Woolf's work can be understood as consistently in dialogue with Bloomsbury, particularly its tendency (informed by G.E. Moore, among others) towards doctrinaire rationalism.
She began writing professionally in 1905, initially for the Times Literary Supplement with a journalistic piece about Haworth, home of the Brontë family. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf, a writer, civil servant and political theorist. Her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915 by her half-brother's imprint, Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd.
This novel was originally entitled Melymbrosia, but due to criticism Virginia Woolf received about the political nature of the book, she changed the novel and its title. This older version of The Voyage Out has been compiled and is now available to the public under the intended title. She went on to publish novels and essays as a public intellectual to both critical and popular success.
Much of her work was self-published through the Hogarth Press, which she and Leonard founded in 1917. She has been hailed as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century and one of the foremost Modernists, though she disdained some artists in this category.
Personal Life and Problems
Although married to Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf's strongest emotional ties had always been with women. Her lovers included Madge Vaughn (the daughter of J. A. Symonds, and inspiration for the character of Mrs. Dalloway), Violet Dickinson, as well as composer and female activist Ethel Smyth. In 1922, Woolf met and fell in love with Vita Sackville-West. After a tentative start, they began an affair 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." 
At the end of 1940 Woolf suffered another severe bout of mental illness. This time she felt she was unable to recover. On March 28, 1941, at the age of 59, Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse, near her home in Rodmell.
She left two suicide notes; one for her sister Vanessa, the other for her husband: "I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shant [sic] recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness... I can't fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work" (The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. VI, p. 481).
Woolf is considered one of the greatest innovators in the English language. In her works she experimented with stream-of-consciousness, the underlying psychological as well as emotional motives of characters, and the various possibilities of fractured narrative and chronology. In the words of E.M. Forster, she pushed the English language "a little further against the dark," and her literary achievements and creativity are influential even today.
Woolf's reputation declined sharply after World War II, but her eminence was re-established with the surge of Feminist criticism in the 1970s. After a few more ideologically based altercations, not least caused by claims that Woolf was anti-semitic and a snob, it seems that a critical consensus has been reached regarding her stature as a novelist: Virginia Woolf is among the greatest of 20th century writers.
Her work was criticised for epitomizing the narrow world of the upper-middle class English intelligentsia, peopled with delicate, but ultimately trivial, self-centred, and overly introspective individuals. Some critics judged it to be lacking in universality and depth, without the power to communicate anything of emotional or ethical relevance to the disillusioned common reader, weary of the 1920s aesthetes who seemed to belong to an era definitely closed and buried.
Virginia Woolf's peculiarities as a fiction writer have tended to obscure her central strength: Woolf is arguably the major lyrical novelist in the English language. Her novels are highly experimental: a narrative, frequently uneventful and commonplace, is refracted—and sometimes almost dissolved—in the characters' receptive consciousnesses. Intense lyricism and stylistic virtuosity fuse to create a world overabundant with auditory and visual impressions.
The intensity of Virginia Woolf's poetic vision elevates the ordinary, sometimes banal settings of most of her novels (with the exception of Orlando and Between the Acts), even as they are often set in an environment of war. For example, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) centers on Clarissa Dalloway, a middle aged society woman's efforts to organize a party, even as her life is equated with Septimus Warren Smith, a soldier who has returned from the First World War bearing psychological scars.
To the Lighthouse (1927) is set on two days ten years apart anticipating and reflecting on the Ramsay family's holiday and the family members' interlocking tensions resolved in a visit to a lighthouse; also, one of the themes is the struggle in the creative process that beset painter Lily Briscoe to encapsulate the family drama. And yet the novel also meditates on the lives of a nation's inhabitants in the midst of war, of the people left behind. The Waves (1931) presents a group of six friends whose reflections (closer to recitatives than to the interior monologues proper) create a wave-like atmosphere that is more akin to a prose poem than to a plot-centered novel.
Her last work, Between the Acts (1941) sums up and magnifies Woolf's chief preoccupations: the transformation of life through the art, sexual ambivalence, and meditation on the themes of flux of time and life, presented simultaneously as corrosion and rejuvenation - all set in a highly imaginative and symbolic narrative encompassing almost all of English history.
Modern scholarship and interpretations
Recently, studies of Virginia Woolf have focused on feminist and lesbian themes in her work, such as in the 1997 collection of critical essays, Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, edited by Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer. Louise A. DeSalvo offers treatment of the incestuous sexual abuse Woolf suffered as a young woman in her book Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and World.
Woolf's fiction is also studied for its insight into shell shock, war, class and modern British society. Her best-known nonfiction works, A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), discuss the largely failed role of women in the literary canon and the future of women in education and society.
In 2002, The Hours, a film loosely based on Woolf's life and her novel Mrs. Dalloway, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. It did not win, but Nicole Kidman was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Woolf in the movie. The film was adapted from Michael Cunningham's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. The Hours was Woolf's working title for Mrs. Dalloway. Many Virginia Woolf scholars are highly critical of the portrayal of Woolf and her works in the film.
Theodore Dalrymple's essay "The Rage of Virginia Woolf" provides an alternate and rather negative assessment of Virginia Woolf. It can be found in his book, Our Culture: What's Left of It (c) 2005. Publisher: Ivan R. Dee (ISBN 1-56663-643-4).
Irene Coates' book Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf: A Case for the Sanity of Virginia Woolf takes the position that Leonard Woolf's treatment of his wife encouraged her ill health and ultimately was responsible for her death. The position, which is not accepted by Leonard's family, is extensively researched and fills in some of the gaps in the traditional account of Virginia Woolf's life.
Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf provides an authoritative examination of Woolf's life, updating the earlier biography by Woolf's own nephew, Quentin Bell.
Julia Brigg's Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, published in 2005, is the most recent examination of Woolf's life. It focuses on Woolf's writing, including her novels and her commentary on the creative process, to illuminate her life.