Who was Virginia Woolf?

Bust of Virginia Woolf by Stephen Tomlin in the garden at Monk's House

Virginia Woolf was an innovative modern novelist, essayist, literary critic, and central member of the Bloomsbury group.

A literary inheritance

Woolf was born in 1882 into what historian Noel Annan famously termed the ‘Intellectual Aristocracy', a world of upper-middle class educated elites who intermarried.

Her father, Leslie Stephen, was the founding editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Stephen’s first wife was daughter of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.

Woolf’s mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen (née Jackson, formerly Mrs Duckworth), was part of the Little Holland House literary circle and a model for Edward Burne-Jones’s painting, Annunciation. Gerald Duckworth, Julia’s son by her first marriage, founded Duckworth & Co. who published Woolf’s first two novels.

The Bloomsbury group

Virginia and her siblings Vanessa, Thoby and Adrian moved to Bloomsbury in London in 1904. Here they surrounded themselves with Thoby's friends from Cambridge University, the artists, writers and philosophers who would collectively become known as the Bloomsbury group. Notable figures included John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, E.M. Forster and Leonard Woolf.

Virginia married Leonard in 1912, and together they founded the Hogarth Press, which published T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Woolf’s later novels.

A new way of writing

Woolf’s novels tested the boundaries of traditional narrative. Rather than following Victorian and Edwardian conventions for plotting and character development, she focussed on the inner worlds of her characters. She traced our participation in the natural and urban worlds we inhabit, and how we become part of the experiences, places, and people we encounter.

Although for most of her life Woolf suffered from bouts of mental illness, a condition which would lead her to commit suicide in 1941, her novels remained exuberant in their embrace of human experience. This is perhaps most aptly summed up in Mrs Dalloway’s exclamation, ‘What a lark! What a plunge!’

Sussex and Monk’s House

Though Woolf is often seen as a London writer, which she certainly was, both she and Leonard Woolf had an abiding love for the South Downs. They purchased Monk’s House near Rodmell in 1919, and from then on, used it as their writer’s retreat.

Monk's House was not the only Bloomsbury outpost in the South Downs. In 1916 Woolf's sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, moved to Charleston Farmhouse with the painter Duncan Grant. Bell and Grant lived and worked at Charleston on and off for the rest of their lives, regularly hosting Bloomsbury friends and acquaintances including Virginia and Leonard.

Imagining the landscape

The Sussex landscape was integral to Woolf’s writing, and she attempted to capture what she saw as its unsurpassable beauty in her novels and essays.

She was also engaged in its conservation, writing against unsympathetic developments in the countryside with a passion matching that of the National Trust and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England.

Our places with Virginia Woolf connections