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Who was Virginia Woolf?

Written by
Image of Allison Adler Inglis-Taylor
Allison Adler Inglis-TaylorResearcher, University of Oxford
Bust of Virginia Woolf in the garden of Monk's House, East Sussex
A bust of Virginia Woolf can be seen in the garden at Monk's House | © National Trust Images/Caroline Arber

An innovative modern novelist, essayist, literary critic and central member of the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Woolf was shaped by her unconventional approach to gender and sexuality. Her home was the idyllic Monk's House in East Sussex.

A literary inheritance

Virginia 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 the daughter of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Virginia’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., which published Virginia'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 Virginia’s later novels.

A new way of writing

Virginia’s novels tested the boundaries of traditional narrative. Rather than following Victorian and Edwardian conventions for plotting and character development, she focused 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 Virginia suffered from bouts of mental illness - a condition that 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!’

Virginia Woolf's writing desk in the Writing Lodge at Monk's House, East Sussex
Virginia Woolf's writing desk can be found in the Writing Lodge at Monk's House | © National Trust Images

Breaking boundaries

Virginia was happily married to Leonard for almost 30 years, but also had an intense affair with another married writer, Vita Sackville-West. Virginia's love of Vita inspired the novel Orlando (1928), which imagines Vita (as Orlando) living through centuries, shifting gender and commenting on the changing assumptions about love, marriage and the role of women over time. Orlando’s ancestral home is based on Knole, Vita’s family home, and expresses Virginia's attachment to the place.

Sussex and Monk’s House

Though Virginia 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 wasn't the only Bloomsbury outpost in the South Downs. In 1916, Virginia'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.

Virginia's legacy

Virginia Woolf's novels are now among the most important works of modern English literature. Her books reveal her profound skill as a writer, as well as her broad-ranging, fluid approach to life.

To Virginia and the Bloomsbury Group she was part of, gender and sexuality were not made up of a simple, confining set of rules. They were a malleable, shifting spectrum of experiences. It was a bold view that helped to challenge some of the stifling expectations of society.

Virginia’s story is just one of those we explored in 2017 as part of a programme called Prejudice and Pride. As part of the programme, we held events, exhibitions and installations telling the stories of the men and women who challenged conventional notions of gender and sexuality, and who shaped the properties in which they lived.

Trusted Source

This article contains information written by Allison Adler Inglis-Taylor from the University of Oxford.

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