Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s Birthday?

By Tim Ballingall

She—though Virginia herself may have queried this humble blogger as to the abstract relevance of her sex before mocking said blogger’s attempt at referencing the first sentence of Orlando—was born Adele Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, to Julia Stephen, a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters, and Leslie Stephen, a prominent biographer. Virginia also had seven siblings and half-siblings.

That this upper-middle-class Kensington household was the picture-perfect Victorian ideal fell flat shortly past the front door. Laura, one of Virginia’s older half-sisters, was confined to a separate part of the house because of her mental disability. And both Virginia and Vanessa suffered sexual abuse from their older, half-brother, George.

Nevertheless, the Stephen household upheld a strict air and fostered literate and intellectual growth. Victorian society—which she even then criticized—denied girls formal education, so Virginia learned the classics of English literature from the expansive home library.

Conforming to the long tradition of influential historical figures suffering from clinical depression and/or bipolar disorder—Leo Tolstoy, Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent Van Goph, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Jackson Pollock, the woe-is-me list goes on and on—Virginia suffered the first of several nervous breakdowns when her mother died in 1895. Virginia was 13. Two years later, her older sister, Stella, also died. In 1904, her father died.

On the up-side, the following year, Virginia was among the founding members of the Bloomsbury group, an intellectual circle of iconoclastic artists and writers, one of whom being Leonard Woolf.

Virginia and Leonard married in 1912 and started up the Hogarth Press three years later. Leonard, though an intellectual equal, never matched his wife’s quality and success with writing, but, still, biographers believe he and Virginia, despite the ebb and flow of her “madness,” loved each other dearly.

In 1915 Virginia published her first novel. The Voyage Out narrates Rachel Vinrace’s self-discovering voyage to South America. Nineteen twenty-five’s Mrs. Dalloway details a day in Clarissa Dalloway’s life as she plans a party. Two years later, Virginia led readers To The Lighthouse, which takes place more in the mist of conscious introspection than in the Ramsays’ Hebrides summer home. The following year, Virginia took a break from serious works to write the mock-epic, Orlando, a “biography” of a struggling poet/aristocrat who lives for three hundred-plus years and inexplicably undergoes a gender transformation.

Woolf as depicted in "The Hours."

Despite the richly challenging oasis of her works, by 1941, mental illness had drowned her mind. She suffered depression, sleeplessness, lack of hunger, and she was hearing voices. On March 28 she committed suicide.

Virginia Woolf’s writing is said to be not only quintessential Modernist fiction but some of the best of the twentieth century. Stylistic experimentation such as stream-of-consciousness features prominently in much of Woolf’s best writing. And her criticism of gender norms—especially A Room of One’s Own—would be oft cited in the feminist movement of the twentieth century.

For further reading:

824.912 W8833e—The Essays of Virginia Woolf / Edited by Andrew McNeillie.

PR 6045 O72Z494 1977—The Diary of Virginia Woolf / Edited by Anne Olivier Bell; Introduction by Quentin Bell.

826.912 Sa14β—The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf / Edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska with an Introduction by Mitchell A. Leaska.

823.912 W883meβ—Melymbrosia: An Early Version of The Voyage Out / Edited, with an Introduction by Louise A. DeSalvo.

PR 6045 O72M77 1925—Mrs. Dalloway

823.912 W883o—Orlando

PR6045.O72 T6 1955a—To The Lighthouse

JSTOR articles

Films on Demand


1 Response to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s Birthday?”

  1. 1 Tomáš Pavelka January 24, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Virginia Woolf was a magnificent author, creator of great masterpieces. I totally loved Mrs Dalloway, which is amazing book! Please join the community and contribute with a memory of this great author at her online memorial ❤

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