There is perhaps no female writer in Western literary history more popular than Virginia Woolf. Born Adeline Virginia Stephen, Woolf is the author of such famed books as To the Lighthouse and The Waves, and her feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own,” which explores women’s writing and its historical economic and social underpinnings. Her voice as an early modern feminist has inspired writers and activists alike since the early 1900s, and continues to inform the women’s rights movement today. And as with all great authors, we can look to her upbringing and personal life to understand how she developed into the prolific writer that she was.
Woolf was born into an upper-class household in London on January 25, 1882. Her father was Sir Leslie Stephen, a historian and author who served as the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother was Julia Prinsep Stephen, a nurse and an author of a book on the profession. Both of her parents had been married and widowed before coming together, and both had children from their previous marriages. Thus, Virginia Woolf was raised in a household of eight children—four full siblings and three half-siblings—at their 22 Hyde Park Gate home in Kensington. Between this home and the family’s summer cottage in St. Ives, a beach town at the very southwestern tip of England that was within walking distance to the Godrevy lighthouse depicted in her later modernist works, is where Virginia’s formative years were spent.
Woolf’s parents were both freethinkers, and were quite progressive for their time. They were well connected within artistic and literary circles, and thus Virginia grew up in an environment that supported her creative endeavours. What’s more, her parents believed in education for women, so Virginia and her sisters were educated at home, with uncensored access to her father’s extensive Victorian library. Virginia often writes in her essays about the joy of being able to hide away in the library and get lost in the world of stories, poetry and plays. This early literary influence prompted her to start writing as a very young girl, creating a family newspaper called The Hyde Park Gate News that documented her family’s humorous anecdotes.
However, Virginia’s childhood was as infused with trauma and hardship as it was with joy and learning, which helps explain her lifelong battle with severe depression. Most researchers agree that her inner struggles began after being sexually abused by her half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth in 1888 at the age of six. This, followed by the sudden death of her mother in 1895, resulted in Virginia having her first nervous breakdown. Her mental health issues were then exacerbated two years later when her half-sister Stella, who had taken up responsibility for the family following their mother’s death, passed away at the very early age of 28 upon return from her honeymoon.
Despite her nervous breakdowns, Virginia managed to take classes in German, Greek and Latin at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College in London and to continue writing, most essays and short stories. During her four years at King’s College she met a number of radical feminists who were at the helm of educational reforms, and with whom she resonated in terms of purpose and perspective. Her life began to pick up, and she found herself in the midst of a very exciting and meaningful movement. Unfortunately, the death of her beloved father in 1904 sent her into new depths of despair, and she was subsequently institutionalised for a number of months.
After she was released that same year, her sister Vanessa and brother Adrian sold their Hyde Park Gate family home and purchased a house in the Bloomsbury area of London. The move proved extremely difficult for Virginia at first due to her attachment to her childhood home, and in particular her father’s library. However, her life in Bloomsbury soon blossomed. By the end of 1904 she started reviewing and writing articles for the Time Literary Supplement. She also met, through her siblings’ connections, an intellectual circle of artists and writers that formed the Bloomsbury Group. The group was most famous for their 1910 Dreadnought Hoax, a practical joke in which members of the group dressed up as a delegation of Ethiopian royals and successfully persuaded the English Royal Navy to show them their warship.
Virginia’s role in the stunt as a bearded man caught the attention of Leonard Woolf, a writer and member of the Bloomsbury Group. He took quite a fancy to Virginia, and they were subsequently married in 1912. More than just husband and wife, Virginia and Leonard were professional collaborators, and Leonard Woolf a caring husband for the chronically moody and depressed Virginia. Leonard supported Virginia’s writing career, which already taken off with the publication of her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915, a novel that she had been working on since 1908. As a therapy for her mental health condition, he purchased Virginia a small hand printing press that the Woolfs used to print their personal works. But by about 1922 their small printing hobby turned into a full-time publishing press, and Hogarth Press became a business. From this point on until her eventual death by suicide in 1941, Woolf published most of her works—including Ms. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), and The Waves (1931)—through Hogarth Press, leaving behind an incredible literary legacy.