Today is the birthday (1882) of Adeline Virginia Woolf (née Stephen), an English writer who was one of the foremost modernists of the early 20th century. During the interwar period, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a central figure in the influential Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), and the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), with its famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Woolf was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household. Her parents had each been married previously and been widowed, and, consequently, the household contained the children of three marriages. Her mother, Julia, had three children by her first husband, Herbert Duckworth: George, Stella, and Gerald Duckworth. Her father, Leslie Stephen, had first married Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray (1840–1875), the daughter of William Thackeray, and they had one daughter: Laura Makepeace Stephen, who was declared mentally disabled and lived with the family until she was institutionalized in 1891. Leslie and Julia had four children together: Vanessa (later known as Vanessa Bell) (1879), Thoby (1880), Virginia (1882), and Adrian (1883).
Leslie Stephen’s eminence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray, meant that his children were raised in an environment filled with the influences of Victorian literary society. Henry James, George Henry Lewes, and Virginia’s honorary godfather, James Russell Lowell, were among the visitors to the house. Julia Stephen was equally well connected. She came from a family of beauties who left their mark on Victorian society as models for Pre-Raphaelite artists and early photographers, including her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron who was also a visitor to the Stephen household. Supplementing these influences was the immense library at the Stephens’ house, from which Virginia and Vanessa were taught the classics and English literature. Unlike the girls, their brothers Adrian and Julian (Thoby) were formally educated and sent to Cambridge, a difference that Virginia would resent. The sisters did, however, benefit indirectly from their brothers’ Cambridge contacts, as the boys often brought their new intellectual friends home.
According to Woolf’s memoirs, her most vivid childhood memories were not of London but of St Ives, Cornwall, where the family spent every summer until 1895. The Stephens’ summer home, Talland House, looked out over Porthminster Bay, and is still standing, though somewhat altered. Memories of these family holidays and impressions of the landscape, especially the Godrevy Lighthouse, informed the fiction Woolf wrote in later years, most notably To the Lighthouse.
The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her half-sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia’s several nervous breakdowns. She was, however, able to take courses of study (some at degree level) in Ancient Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London between 1897 and 1901. This brought her into contact with some of the early reformers of women’s higher education such as the principal of the Ladies’ Department, Lilian Faithfull (one of the so-called Steamboat ladies), Clara Pater (sister of the more famous Walter, George Warr. Her sister Vanessa also studied Latin, Italian, art and architecture at King’s Ladies’ Department.
The death of her father in 1904 provoked a serious mental crisis and she was briefly institutionalized. Modern scholars (including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell) have suggested her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods were influenced by the sexual abuse to which she and her sister Vanessa were subjected by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate).
Throughout her life, Woolf was plagued by periodic mood swings and associated illnesses. She spent three short periods in 1910, 1912 and 1913 at Burley House, 15 Cambridge Park, Twickenham, described as “a private nursing home for women with nervous disorder.” Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks throughout her life.
After the death of their father and Virginia’s second nervous breakdown, Vanessa and Adrian sold 22 Hyde Park Gate and bought a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury. Woolf came to know Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Rupert Brooke, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, David Garnett, and Roger Fry, who together formed the nucleus of the intellectual circle of writers and artists known as the Bloomsbury Group. In 1907 Vanessa married Clive Bell, and the couple’s interest in modern art had an important influence on Woolf’s development as an author.
Virginia married the writer Leonard Woolf on 10 August 1912. Despite his low material status (Woolf referring to Leonard during their engagement as a “penniless Jew”) the couple shared a close bond. She wrote at the time:
First he is a Jew; second he is 31; third, he spent 7 years in Ceylon, governing natives, inventing ploughs, shooting tigers, and did so well that they offered him a very high place, which he refused, wishing to marry me, and gave up his entire career there on the chance that I would agree. He has no money of his own… but from the first I have found him the one person to talk to.
We analyse each other’s idiosyncrasies in the light of psycho-analysis walking round the square. My reports, however, are apt to twist up into balls what is really amicable, serious, disinterested, and almost wholly affectionate. It’s true that Leonard sees my faults.
The two also collaborated professionally, in 1917 founding the Hogarth Press, which subsequently published Virginia’s novels along with works by T. S. Eliot, Laurens van der Post, and translations of Freud’s works. The Press also commissioned works by contemporary artists, including Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell.
The ethos of the Bloomsbury group encouraged a liberal approach to sexuality, and in 1922 Virginia met the writer and landscape gardener Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson. After a tentative start, they began a sexual relationship, which, according to Sackville-West in a letter to her husband dated August 17, 1926, was only twice consummated. However, Virginia’s intimacy with Vita seems to have continued into the early 1930s. In 1928, Woolf presented Sackville-West with Orlando, a fantastical biography in which the eponymous hero’s life spans three centuries and both sexes. Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West’s son, wrote, “The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”
Woolf began writing professionally in 1900, initially for the Times Literary Supplement with a journalistic piece about Haworth, home of the Brontë family. Her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915 by her half-brother’s imprint, Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd. Woolf went on to publish novels and essays to both critical and popular success. Much of her work was self-published through the Hogarth Press, because she struggled dealing with external criticism and rejection.
Woolf is considered a major innovator in the English language. In her works she experimented with stream of consciousness and the underlying psychological as well as emotional motives of characters. Woolf’s reputation declined sharply after World War II, but her importance was re-established with the growth of feminist criticism in the 1970s.
Here’s the only known recording of Woolf talking about the art of writing and language:
I taught Woolf for about 10 years as part of a general course for freshmen. To The Lighthouse was required reading for all first year students in the spring semester. I never felt I could do much with the text for a whole host of reasons. The Freudian/Oedipal theme between James and Mr Ramsay that runs through the entire novel seems heavy handed nowadays, although when the book was first published I expect it was novel and engaging.
I do grasp the idea that by using a stream-of-consciousness writing style Woolf was trying to paint a picture of what a day in the life of the Ramsays and entourage in their summer house was like, and I find it well enough done for what it is. Obviously the whole scene is heavily autobiographical; Woolf could well be describing a summer in St Ives with her family and their glitterati friends in the 1920s. The reason I find it well enough done is that I find the writing about the events as tiresome as I would have found the events themselves. Sitting around day after day reading or discussing “good” literature with a bunch of rich and “important” people, would drive me up the wall.
Therein lies the heart of the problem for me. Woolf was brought up in, and lived among, the privileged of England’s society. Their interests and problems are not mine. I am, however, sympathetic to Woolf’s mental illness. People very close to me have suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, so I know the details intimately. Just before she weighted herself down with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse she wrote this gut-wrenching note to Leonard:
I feel certain 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 till 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.
These sentiments are soul searing. Trying to convey their meaning to 18 year olds in New York in the 1980s was impossible.
The final chapters of the first part of To the Lighthouse describe a formal dinner party which Mrs Ramsay hosts. The soup course is of particular concern for many reasons. The full text of the book is here if you want to delve the mysteries of Mrs Ramsay and her ladling of the soup: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100101.txt There is no mention of what kind of soup it is, nor any other details about the meal, only that the soup was worth seconds for one guest – and that caused a stir. So here’s a soup that was popular at the time, Royal Cheddar Cheese Soup.
Royal Cheddar Cheese Soup
1 tablespoon butter
2 yellow onions, peeled and chopped
2 potatoes, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
6 cups chicken stock
½ tsp dry English mustard
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
½ tsp hot pepper sauce
3 tbsp minced chives
Melt the butter over medium heat in a heavy pan. Add the onions, potatoes, and garlic and sauté 10 minutes.
Add the chicken stock and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for 20 minutes.
Using a food processor or blender purée the stock and vegetables .
Whisk together the dry mustard and heavy cream in the pan over medium heat. Then add back the purée and heat through, stirring to avoid sticking.
Stir in the cheese and hot sauce and keep stirring until the cheese has melted.
Ladle into serving bowls and garnish with some chives.