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Virginia Woolf Was More Than Just a Women’s Writer

She was a great observer of everyday life.

By Danny Heitman | HUMANITIES, May/June 2015 | Volume 36, Number 3

Virginia Woolf, that great lover of language, would surely be amused to know that, some seven decades after her death, she endures most vividly in popular culture as a pun—within the title of Edward Albee’s celebrated drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In Albee’s play, a troubled college professor and his equally pained wife taunt each other by singing “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?,” substituting the iconic British writer’s name for that of the fairy-tale villain.

The Woolf reference seems to have no larger meaning, but, perhaps inadvertently, it gives a note of authenticity to the play’s campus setting. Woolf’s experimental novels are much discussed within academia, and her pioneering feminism has given her a special place in women’s studies programs across the country.

It’s a reputation that runs the risk of pigeonholing Woolf as a “women’s writer” and, as a frequent subject of literary theory, the author of books meant to be studied rather than enjoyed. But, in her prose, Woolf is one of the great pleasure-givers of modern literature, and her appeal transcends gender. Just ask Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, the popular and critically acclaimed novel inspired by Woolf’s classic fictional work, Mrs. Dalloway.

“I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time when I was a sophomore in high school,” Cunningham told readers of the Guardian newspaper in 2011. “I was a bit of a slacker, not at all the sort of kid who’d pick up a book like that on my own (it was not, I assure you, part of the curriculum at my slacker-ish school in Los Angeles). I read it in a desperate attempt to impress a girl who was reading it at the time. I hoped, for strictly amorous purposes, to appear more literate than I was.”

Cunningham didn’t really understand all of the themes of Dalloway when he first read it, and he didn’t, alas, get the girl who had inspired him to pick up Woolf’s novel. But he fell in love with Woolf’s style. “I could see, even as an untutored and rather lazy child, the density and symmetry and muscularity of Woolf’s sentences,” Cunningham recalled. “I thought, wow, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar. By which I meant she walked a line between chaos and order, she riffed, and just when it seemed that a sentence was veering off into randomness, she brought it back and united it with the melody.”

Woolf’s example helped drive Cunningham to become a writer himself. His novel The Hours essentially retells Dalloway as a story within a story, alternating between a variation of Woolf’s original narrative and a fictional speculation on Woolf herself. Cunningham’s 1998 novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, then was adapted into a 2002 film of the same name, starring Nicole Kidman as Woolf.

“I feel certain she’d have disliked the book—she was a ferocious critic,” Cunningham said of Woolf, who died in 1941. “She’d probably have had reservations about the film as well, though I like to think that it would have pleased her to see herself played by a beautiful Hollywood movie star.”

Kidman created a buzz for the movie by donning a false nose to mute her matinee-perfect face, evoking Woolf as a woman whom family friend Nigel Nicolson once described as “always beautiful but never pretty.”

Woolf, a seminal figure in feminist thought, would probably not have been surprised that a big-screen treatment of her life would spark so much talk about how she looked rather than what she did. But she was also keenly intent on grounding her literary themes within the world of sensation and physicality, so maybe there’s some value, while considering her ideas, in also remembering what it was like to see and hear her.

We know her best in profile. Many pictures of Woolf show her glancing off to the side, like the figure on a coin. The most notable exception is a 1939 photograph by Gisele Freund in which Woolf peers directly into the camera. Woolf hated the photograph—perhaps because, on some level, she knew how deftly Freund had captured her subject. “I loathe being hoisted about on top of a stick for anyone to stare at,” lamented Woolf, who complained that Freund had broken her promise not to circulate the picture.

The most striking aspect of the photo is the intensity of Woolf’s gaze. In both her conversation and her writing, Woolf had a genius for not only looking at a subject, but looking through it, teasing out inferences and implications at multiple levels. It’s perhaps why the sea figures so prominently in her fiction, as a metaphor for a world in which the bright currents we see at the surface of reality reveal, upon closer inspection, a depth that goes downward for miles.

Take, for example, Woolf’s widely anthologized essay, “The Death of the Moth,” in which she notices a moth’s last moments of life, then records the experience as a window into the fragility of all existence. “The insignificant little creature now knew death,” Woolf reports.

As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. . . . The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. Oh yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.

Woolf takes an equally miniaturist tack in “The Mark on the Wall,” a sketch in which the narrator studies a mark on the wall ultimately revealed as a snail. Although the premise sounds militantly boring—the literary equivalent of watching paint dry—the mark on the wall works as a locus of concentration, like a hypnotist’s watch, allowing the narrator to consider everything from Shakespeare to World War I. In its subtle tracking of how the mind free-associates and its ample use of interior monolog, the sketch serves as a keynote of sorts for the modernist literary movement that Woolf worked so tirelessly to advance.

Woolf’s penetrating sensibility took some getting used to, since she expected those around her to look at the world just as unblinkingly. She didn’t seem to have much patience for small talk. Renowned scholar Hermione Lee wrote an exhaustive 1997 biography of Woolf, yet confesses some anxiety about the prospect, were it possible, of greeting Woolf in person. “I think I would have been afraid of meeting her,” Lee wrote. “I am afraid of not being intelligent enough for her.”

Nicolson, the son of Woolf’s close friend and onetime lover, Vita Sackville-West, had fond memories of hunting butterflies with Woolf when he was a boy—an outing that allowed Woolf to indulge a pastime she’d enjoyed in childhood. “Virginia could tolerate children for short periods, but fled from babies,” he recalled. Nicolson also remembered Woolf’s distaste for bland generalities, even when uttered by youngsters. She once asked the young Nicolson for a detailed report on his morning, including the quality of the sun that had awakened him, and whether he had first put on his right or left sock while dressing.

“It was a lesson in observation, but it was also a hint,” he wrote many years later. “‘Unless you catch ideas on the wing and nail them down, you will soon cease to have any.’ It was advice that I was to remember all my life.”

Thanks to a commentary Woolf did for the BBC, we don’t have to guess what she sounded like. In the 1937 recording, widely available online, Woolf reflects on how the English language pollinates and blooms into new forms. “Royal words mate with commoners,” she tells listeners in a subversive reference to the recent abdication of King Edward VIII, who had forfeited his throne to marry American Wallis Simpson. Woolf’s voice is plummy and patrician, like an English version of Eleanor Roosevelt. Not surprising, perhaps, given Woolf’s origin in one of England’s most prominent families.

She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, a celebrated essayist, editor, and public intellectual, and Julia Prinsep Duckworth Stephen. Julia was, according to Woolf biographer Panthea Reid, “revered for her beauty and wit, her self-sacrifice in nursing the ill, and her bravery in facing early widowhood.” Here’s how Woolf scholar Mark Hussey describes the blended household of Virginia’s childhood:

Her parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen, both previously widowed, began their marriage in 1878 with four young children: Laura (1870–1945), the daughter of Leslie Stephen and his first wife, Harriet Thackery (1840–1875); and George (1868–1934), Gerald (1870–1937), and Stella Duckworth (1869–1897), the children of Julia Prinsep (1846–1895) and Herbert Duckworth (1833–1870).

Together, Leslie and Julia had four more children: Virginia, Vanessa (1879–1961), and brothers Thoby (1880–1906) and Adrian (1883–1948). They all lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate in London.

Although Virginia’s brothers and half-brothers got university educations, Woolf was taught mostly at home—a slight that informed her thinking about how society treated women. Woolf’s family background, though, brought her within the highest circles of British cultural life.

“Woolf’s parents knew many of the intellectual luminaries of the late Victorian era well,” Hussey notes, “counting among their close friends novelists such as George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James. Woolf’s great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron was a pioneering photographer who made portraits of the poets Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, of the naturalist Charles Darwin, and of the philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle, among many others.”

Woolf also had free range over her father’s mammoth library and made the most of it. Reading was her passion—and an act, like any passion, to be engaged actively, not sampled passively. In an essay about her father, Woolf recalled his habit of reciting poetry as he walked or climbed the stairs, and the lesson she took from it seems inescapable. Early on, she learned to pair literature with vitality and movement, and that sensibility runs throughout her lively critical essays, gathered in numerous volumes, including her seminal 1925 collection, The Common Reader. The title takes its cue from Woolf’s appeal to the kind of reader who, like her, was essentially self-educated rather than a professional scholar.

In a 1931 essay, “The Love of Reading,” Woolf describes what it’s like to encounter a literary masterpiece:

The great writers thus often require us to make heroic efforts in order to read them rightly. They bend us and break us. To go from Defoe to Jane Austen, from Hardy to Peacock, from Trollope to Meredith, from Richardson to Rudyard Kipling is to be wrenched and distorted, to be thrown violently this way and that.

As Woolf saw it, reading was a mythic act, not simply a cozy fireside pastime. John Sparrow, reviewing Woolf’s work in the Spectator, connected her view of reading with her broader literary life: “She writes vividly because she reads vividly.”

The Stephen family’s summers in coastal Cornwall also shaped Woolf indelibly, exposing her to the ocean as a source of literary inspiration—and creating memories she would fictionalize for her acclaimed novel, To the Lighthouse.

Darker experiences shadowed Woolf’s youth. In writings not widely known until after her death, she described being sexually abused by her older stepbrothers, George and Gerald Duckworth. Scholars have often discussed how this trauma might have complicated her mental health, which challenged her through much of her life. She had periodic nervous breakdowns, and depression ultimately claimed her life.

“Virginia was a manic-depressive, but at that time the illness had not yet been identified and so could not be treated,” notes biographer Reid. “For her, a normal mood of excitement or depression would become inexplicably magnified so that she could no longer find her sane, balanced self.”

The writing desk became her refuge. “The only way I keep afloat is by working,” Woolf confessed. “Directly I stop working I feel that I am sinking down, down.”

Woolf’s mother died in 1895, and her father died in 1904. After her father’s death, Virginia and the other Stephen siblings, now grown, moved to London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood. “It was a district of London,” noted Nicolson, “that in spite of the elegance of its Georgian squares was considered . . . to be faintly decadent, the resort of raffish divorcées and indolent students, loose in its morals and behavior.”

Bloomsbury’s bohemian sensibility suited Woolf, who joined with other intellectuals in her newfound community to form the Bloomsbury Group, an informal social circle that included Woolf’s sister Vanessa, an artist; Vanessa’s husband, the art critic Clive Bell; artist Roger Fry; economist John Maynard Keynes; and writers Lytton Strachey and E. M. Forster. Through Bloomsbury, Virginia also met writer Leonard Woolf, and they married in 1912.

The Bloomsbury Group had no clear philosophy, although its members shared an enthusiasm for leftish politics and a general willingness to experiment with new kinds of visual and literary art.

The Voyage Out, Woolf’s debut novel published in 1915, follows a fairly conventional form, but its plot—a female protagonist exploring her inner life through an epic voyage—suggested that what women saw and felt and heard and experienced was worthy of fiction, independent of their connection to men. In a series of lectures published in 1929 as A Room of One’s Own, Woolf pointed to the special challenges that women faced in finding the basic necessities for writing—a small income and a quiet place to think. A Room of One’s Own is a formative feminist document, but critic Robert Kanigel argues that men are cheating themselves if they don’t embrace the book, too. “Woolf’s is not a Spartan, clippity-clop style such as the one Ernest Hemingway was perfecting in Paris at about the same time,” Kanigel observes. “This is leisurely, ruminative, with long paragraphs that march up and down the page, long trains of thought, and rich digressions almost hypnotic in their effect. And once trapped within the sweet, sticky filament of her web of words, one is left with no wish whatever to be set free.”

During the Woolfs’ marriage, Virginia had flirtations with women and an affair with Sackville-West, a fellow author in her social circle. Even so, Leonard and Virginia remained close, buying a small printing press and starting a publishing house, Hogarth Press, in 1917. Leonard thought it might be a soothing diversion for Virginia—perhaps the first and only case of anyone entering book publishing to advance their sanity.

If Virginia Woolf had never published a single word of her own, her role in Hogarth would have secured her a place in literary history. Thanks to the Woolfs’ tiny press, the world got its first look at the early work of Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and Forster. The press also published Virginia’s work, of course, including novels of increasingly daring scope. In To the Lighthouse, a family summers along the coast, the lighthouse on the horizon suggesting an assuringly fixed universe. But, as the novel unfolds over a decade, we see the subtle working of time and how it shapes the perceptions of various characters.

A young Eudora Welty picked up To the Lighthouse and found her own world changed. “Blessed with luck and innocence, I fell upon the novel that once and forever opened the door of imaginative fiction for me, and read it cold, in all its wonder and magnitude,” Welty recalled.

The Woolfs divided their time between London, a city that Virginia loved and often wrote about, and Monk’s House, a modest country home in Sussex the couple was able to buy as Virginia’s career bloomed. Even as she welcomed literary experiment, Woolf grew wistful about the future of the traditional letter, which she saw being eclipsed by the speed of news-gathering and the telephone. Almost as if to disprove her own point, Woolf wrote as many as six letters a day.

“Virginia Woolf was a compulsive letter writer,” said English critic V. S. Pritchett. “She did not much care for the solitude she needed but lived for news, gossip, and the expectancy of talk.”

Her letters, published in several volumes, shimmer with brilliant detail. In a letter written during World War II, for example, Woolf interrupts her message to Benedict Nicolson to go outside and watch the German bombers flying over her house. “The raiders began emitting long trails of smoke,” she reports. “I wondered if a bomb was going to fall on top of me. . . . Then I dipped into your letter again.”

The war proved too much for her. Distraught by its destruction, sensing another nervous breakdown, and worried about the burden it would impose on Leonard, Virginia stuffed her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse near Monk’s House on March 28, 1941.

But Cunningham says it would be a mistake to define Woolf by her death. “She did, of course, have her darker interludes,” he concedes. “But when not sunk in her periodic depressions, [she] was the person one most hoped would come to the party; the one who could speak amusingly on just about any subject; the one who glittered and charmed; who was interested in what other people had to say (though not, I admit, always encouraging about their opinions); who loved the idea of the future and all the wonders it might bring.”

Her influence on subsequent generations of writers has been deep. You can see flashes of her vivid sensitivity in the work of Annie Dillard, a bit of her wry critical eye in the recent essays of Rebeca Solnit. Novelist and essayist Daphne Merkin says that despite her edges, Woolf should be remembered as “luminous and tender and generous, the person you would most like to see coming down the path.” Woolf’s legacy marks Merkin’s work, too, although there’s never been anyone else quite like Virginia Woolf.

“The world of the arts was her native territory; she ranged freely under her own sky, speaking her mother tongue fearlessly,” novelist Katherine Anne Porter said of Woolf. “She was at home in that place as much as anyone ever was.”

About the Author

Danny Heitman, a columnist at The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.

Funding Information

NEH has funded numerous projects related to Virginia Woolf, including four separate research fellowships since 1995 and three education seminars for schoolteachers on Woolf’s major novels. In 2010, Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, received $175,000 to support WoolfOnline, which documents the biographical, textual, and publication history of To the Lighthouse.