It is almost impossible to discuss modern literature without mentioning Virginia Woolf. Widely regarded as one of the most gifted authors in the English language, her work remains a staple in university curricula across the world. However, as with any author, this prominent novelist’s work can only be fully understood by first examining her personal life.
In 1882, Virginia Woolf was born into the home of Julia Duckworth Stephen and Sir Leslie Stephen. Her father was literary-minded himself, making a living as a scholar and biographer. He ensured that Woolf received a modest education, and may have had a significant impact upon his daughter’s eventual career choice. However, in terms of physical appearance, the young writer distinctly resembled her mother. She had a long, thin countenance, brown hair, and an aquiline profile that was characteristic of the Duckworth line.
Although she was born to a somewhat progressive family, Woolf met incredible adversity during her formative years. At the time of her birth, sexism was deeply ingrained in English society. Victorian ideals were beginning to fade as the century turned, putting her in a difficult position as a female writer. Although bright, she was denied higher education entirely. At age thirteen, the young writer was victimized further when her stepbrother, George Duckworth, began sexually molesting her. These painful events would later serve as fuel for her writing, but caused her traumatic emotional distress. It is now thought that she suffered from manic depression throughout her life.
Despite these setbacks, Woolf was able to find solace in The Bloomsbury Group – a discussion space that became infamous for housing radicals, homosexuals, and members of the avant-garde. Here, she found people who took her work seriously and gave her the inspiration to create.
Like the Bloomsbury members, many of Woolf’s ideas were considered extreme. An outspoken feminist, she is often remembered for her social activism. Her book A Room of One’s Own is now considered a hallmark of feminist literature. In it, Woolf asserts that women are suppressed due to their economic reliance on men. “”A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” she famously wrote. The title of her book has even been integrated into the English vernacular; the phrase “a room of one’s own” now means “a state of independence”, particularly in the financial sense. Her other notable works include To the Lighthouse and The Waves.
Despite her successful career, Woolf eventually succumbed to her depression. At fifty eight years old, she traveled to the River Ouse alone, filled her pockets with rocks, and drowned herself. Some academics contend that her suicide signaled one of the most earthshaking literary losses in the Western world.
Woolf’s death, however, did not signal the death of her works. The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain continues to encourage both promotion and scholarly analysis of her writing. With an eternally active readership, Woolf now basks in the literary immortality that billions of writers aspire to, but a select few ever achieve.