Trigger-warning: Sexual assault and suicide
This year will be Virginia Woolf’s 139th birthday. Born on January 25th 1882, Woolf left a legacy of modernism, literary revolution and fascination.
Woolf wrote from a young age, whilst also receiving an impressive education, even to degree level (despite not being unable to go to university because women were not permitted). After the death of her mother when she was 13, and being molested by family members throughout her childhood, Woolf began to have mental health troubles, and became increasingly dependent on her sister, Vanessa Bell. Together, they moved into Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, where they founded the Bloomsbury Group with their friends – a modern group of liberal thinkers, writers, and painters.
Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Mrs Dalloway is an inspiring narrative of longing and wistfulness, as well as an ode to the vibrant bustle of London
Woolf married one of her brother’s friends, Leonard Woolf, and had a happy, if passionless, marriage together. Together they ran the Hogarth Press, a publishing house, in London. Woolf tried to kill herself several times throughout her life, and had been institutionalised during recurrent depressed periods. Anxiety, insomnia, depression and nervous episodes plagued her, until she finally drowned herself in 1941, aged 59. Her suicide note to her husband is heartbreaking.
‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’ is perhaps one of the most famous and recognisable opening lines in literary history. Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Mrs Dalloway is an inspiring narrative of longing and wistfulness, as well as an ode to the vibrant bustle of London. This modernist book is famous for its circadian plot and its radical use of stream of consciousness, which permits a gorgeous blend of perspectives, feelings and observations as we stumble from character to character – a reader must relinquish any narrative control.
There are elements of Woolf’s own pain here too
We follow Clarissa Dalloway throughout the day as she gets ready for her party that evening, and contemplates her position in life. Passion and sex haunt her: she gave up Sally and Peter in her youth for her socially eligible husband Richard. She meditates on her identity in marriage and role as a woman – her daughter, Elizabeth, also feels the burden of complying, and dreams of escaping her mother’s fate. The sorrowful story of Septimus haunts us through the pages, as we see him deteriorate after his return from WWI, until his eventual suicide. It is an event which profoundly affects Clarissa and causes her to think about her mortality. There are elements of Woolf’s own pain here too.
To the Lighthouse is a nostalgic tale of youth, and the effects of the passage of time on a family. Whilst little goes on directly, we feel everything intimately. The holiday home in Cornwall which locates the novel is inspired by Woolf’s own childhood experiences on the coast. The story opens with young James’ desire to visit the looming lighthouse on the island, which is denied by his overbearing father. An evening ensues, where we follow a fragmented dynamic between family and guests – an omniscient interlude then marks the passing of time. We end with a broken family: ten years later, the mother and several sons have died in WWI. James has grown up and returns to their holiday home with his father and sister; they finally reach their lighthouse, the one they had dreamed of all summer a decade ago. The lighthouse means something more for each of them, something unattainable, and wishful, and hopeful – on their journey there, they find peace in their lives together.
Woolf’s other famous novel is Orlando, which follows its eponymous hero/heroine over centuries, as they change gender and character and status with several mini evolutions. This revolutionary story of gender and identity is based largely on Woolf’s affair with Vita Sackville-West. They met from the Bloomsbury Group, and experimented with their sexuality. Whilst together, they were constant sources of support, compassion and inspiration to each other – Sackville-West was a considerable help with Woolf’s mental health issues. They remained friends for the rest of their lives and regularly sent letters to each other, which are powerful and heartfelt, and a privilege to read.
Not only did Woolf contribute to the literary world, but she also carved out a space for herself in the realm of feminism. In 1928, she gave two lectures at Cambridge on women writers in history, and why there is a notable lack from the literary canon. This lecture went on to become her celebrated essay: A Room of One’s Own, which argued that women would only be able to write if they had a secure income and their own private space. She mourned all of Shakespeare’s sisters – all the women who could have, and should have, written if they weren’t born as women.