W is for Woolf


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Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 in London, to a father who was a well known Historian, author and founding editor of The Dictionary of National Biography.

Educated at home by her parents Virginia was surrounded by Victorian Literary society. Virginia resented the fact that her brothers attended Cambridge. The family spent summers in Cornwall, a place that had a profound effect on the young Virginia and the landscape was later to feature in some of her work.

Woolf had her first breakdown in 1897, but it’s generally believed that it was the death of her father in 1904 (her mother had died 9 years earlier) that brought on her first breakdown where she was institutionalized. After she was released she bought a house in Bloomsbury and it was there that she met the writers and artists known as The Bloomsbury Group.

She began writing professionally in 1900, initially for The Times Literary Supplement, but it wasn’t until 1915 that she published her first novel, The Voyage Out, which was published by her half-brother’s imprint. She went on to publish novels and essays to both critical and popular success. Most of her work was initially self-published through the Hogarth Press.

She suffered from depression her whole life and after recently completing the manuscript of her last novel, put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, and walked into the river near her home, drowning herself in 1941. Her body wasn’t found for over 20 days.

Considered to be a major innovator in the English language, Woolf’s novels are highly experimental and she been described as one of the foremost modernists of the 20th Century.

The note she left for her husband read: “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.”

My favourite Woolf quotes:

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

“Every secret of a writers soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”

“Nothing induces me to read a novel except when I have to make money by writing about it. I detest them.”

“Fiction is like a spiders web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all 4 corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.”

“The poet gives us his essence, but prose takes the mold of the body and mind.”

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.”

“The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions-there we have none.”

Virginia talking about “craftsmanship” for the BBC:

Woolf’s best-known nonfiction piece is “A Room Of Ones Own” (1929) where she discusses the difficulties facing female writers, because men hold the legal and economic power. A Guardian Article from 2011 seemed to suggest that the world of fiction is still dominated by men…. What do you think?

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40 thoughts on “W is for Woolf

  1. OMG … the most important words ever spoken to women: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

    Woolf was stgrong, independent , and deeply talented. She lit the light at the end of a long dark tunnel for women everywhere 🙂

    Oooo, this is too much fun.

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  2. I had no idea she came to such a sad end. It seems as I think about it that many authors suffered from depression. Thanks again, Vikki, for these excellent mini biographies. I haven’t commented on all of them, but I have read them and kept them for reference. Much good information. God Bless, Maria at Delight Directed Living

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  3. It’s so sad to read that note. I worked for the Samaritans for a while and it’s a classic thing that suicidal people think their loved ones will be better off without them, when of course in reality nothing could be further from the truth. You can only imagine how much a letter like this will have hurt her husband – and in some ways it could read as quite self-indulgent. But as she says, depression is a horrible illness and incredibly painful to live through. A sad end to a wonderful life.

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  4. I loved Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own (which I read just before reading the equally inspiring Stevie Smith’s Novel On Yellow Paper) and love this quote from it, too: “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” Particularly pertinent in this current time of library services being ‘restructured’, many small libraries closed and staff axed – we still have our freedom of mind.
    When someone is depressed and suicidal, they are not in their ‘right mind’. So, illogical, irrational, apparently selfish, but pressing obsessive/depressed thoughts can lead them to believe that suicide is the only way to stop being a burden on loved ones, perfectly sensible, and a way out of the madness of the mind, especially if severe depression is repeating itself over and over again throughout life – making concentration on her great love, writing, nigh on impossible. It’s very sad that such an amazing, inspiring writer took her life that way but not for me to judge.
    Great post. You’ve put a lot of work into these, which I haven’t commented on thus far (I’m getting through a bipolar/mania episode – hoping it doesn’t crash into depression as can be the cycle), but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve read here and looking up some of the further references, or playing the recording as above. Thanks. And go you… you’ve nearly completed the A-Z challenge!

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  5. Wow, what a treat to hear Virgina Woolf speaking. Thanks for that Vikki. I must admit I find her novels a bit hard going (love some passages in Orlando though). However, have read all her volumes of letters and diaries and everything I could lay my hands on about the Bloomsbury set. There is a great biography of Virginia and her sister Vanessa. In another life I wrote articles about Virginia’s country house as Rodmell and Vanessa’s wonderful Charleston Farm.

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  6. It’s the note she left behind, her last words, just to read them is to be torn apart, to have one’s heart ripped open, leaving the tender, fragile innards exposed. Depression is such a hard place to inhabit, and my guess is that there are few among us who don’t respond viscerally to Virginia Wolff’s words.
    Vikki, I have not had a chance to comment on all your A – Z posts, but I have loved every one of them. Of all the A-Z challenges I have read, yours has been my favourite. Each piece you have presented to us has captured the essence of the writer portrayed. An unique course in literature offered freely by a lover of words to any who care to read them. Beautiful! Thank you! xxx

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  7. She was correct I think in her own time regarding men. I need a room of my own 😀 I’m dazzled by the quality of the comments on your posts

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  8. A number of years ago, I saw the Hogarth Press at Sissinghurst Castle, owned by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson. To paraphrase a comment from ‘some politician’, I felt the hand of literary history on my shoulder! I love Woolf’s novels, although not always an easy read as someone has said, but would also recommend her ‘A Writer’s Diary’ which reveals the passion behind her creativity, and her search for perfection in her writing. Woolf’s home, Monk’s House, in Sussex is also amazing to visit, especially when compared with Charleston Farmhouse, her sister’s colourful, exuberant home nearby. Thanks for the post, Vikki..

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  9. Pingback: 26 April 2013: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves | Gratitude every day

  10. I could listen to her for hours. Such a talent. Such a same she couldn’t enjoy her life and gifts and she should have. What a sad end.

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