Virginia Woolf: A Short Biography

In 1926 Virginia Woolf contributed an introduction to Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron. This publication may be seen as a springboard from which to approach Woolf’s life: Virginia saw herself as descending from a distinctive male and female inheritance; Cameron was the famous Victorian photographer and Woolf’s great-aunt; Woolf’s friend Roger Fry also contributed an introduction and leads us to the Bloomsbury Group; and the book was published by the Hogarth Press which Virginia had started with her husband Leonard in 1917.

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on 25 January 1882 in London. Her father, Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), was a man of letters (and first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography) who came from a family distinguished for public service (part of the ‘intellectual aristocracy’ of Victorian England). Her mother, Julia (1846–95), from whom Virginia inherited her looks, was the daughter of one and niece of the other five beautiful Pattle sisters (Julia Margaret Cameron was the seventh: not beautiful but the only one remembered today). Both parents had been married before: her father to the daughter of the novelist, Thackeray, by whom he had a daughter Laura (1870–1945) who was intellectually backward; and her mother to a barrister, Herbert Duckworth (1833–70), by whom she had three children, George (1868–1934), Stella (1869–97), and Gerald (1870–1937). Julia and Leslie Stephen had four children: Vanessa (1879–1961), Thoby (1880–1906), Virginia (1882–1941), and Adrian (1883–1948). All eight children lived with the parents and a number of servants at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington.

Long summer holidays were spent at Talland House in St Ives, Cornwall, and St Ives played a large part in Virginia’s imagination. It was the setting for her novel To the Lighthouse, despite its ostensibly being placed on the Isle of Skye. London and/or St Ives provided the principal settings of most of her novels.

In 1895 her mother died unexpectedly, and Virginia suffered her first mental breakdown. Her half-sister Stella took over the running of the household as well as coping with Leslie’s demands for sympathy and emotional support. Stella married Jack Hills in 1897, but she too died suddenly on her return from her honeymoon. The household burden then fell upon Vanessa.

Virginia was allowed uncensored access to her father’s extensive library, and from an early age determined to be a writer. Her education was sketchy and she never went to school. Vanessa trained to become a painter. Their two brothers were sent to preparatory and public schools, and then to Cambridge. There Thoby made friends with Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes. This was the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group.

Leslie Stephen died in 1904, and Virginia had a second breakdown. While she was sick, Vanessa arranged for the four siblings to move from 22 Hyde Park Gate to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. At the end of the year Virginia started reviewing with a clerical paper called the Guardian; in 1905 she started reviewing in the Times Literary Supplement and continued writing for that journal for many years. Following a trip to Greece in 1906, Thoby died of typhoid and in 1907 Vanessa married Clive Bell. Thoby had started ‘Thursday evenings’ for his friends to visit, and this kind of arrangement was continued after his death by Vanessa and then by Virginia and Adrian when they moved to 29 Fitzroy Square. In 1911 Virginia moved to 38 Brunswick Square. Leonard Woolf had joined the Ceylon Civil Service in 1904 and returned in 1911 on leave. He soon decided that he wanted to marry Virginia, and she eventually agreed. They were married in St Pancras Registry Office on 10 August 1912. They decided to earn money by writing and journalism.

Since about 1908 Virginia had been writing her first novel The Voyage Out (originally to be called Melymbrosia). It was finished by 1913 but, owing to another severe mental breakdown after her marriage, it was not published until 1915 by Duckworth & Co. (Gerald’s publishing house). The novel was fairly conventional in form. She then began writing her second novel Night and Day – if anything even more conventional – which was published in 1919, also by Duckworth.

From 1911 Virginia had rented small houses near Lewes in Sussex, most notably Asheham House. Her sister Vanessa rented Charleston Farmhouse nearby from 1916 onwards. In 1919 the Woolfs bought Monks House in the village of Rodmell. This was a small weather-boarded house (now owned by the National Trust) which they used principally for summer holidays until they were bombed out of their flat in Mecklenburgh Square in 1940 when it became their home.

In 1917 the Woolfs had bought a small hand printing-press in order to take up printing as a hobby and as therapy for Virginia. By now they were living in Richmond (Surrey) and the Hogarth Press was named after their house. Virginia wrote, printed and published a couple of experimental short stories, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ and ‘Kew Gardens’. The Woolfs continued handprinting until 1932, but in the meantime they increasingly became publishers rather than printers. By about 1922 the Hogarth Press had become a business. From 1921 Virginia always published with the Press, except for a few limited editions.

1921 saw Virginia’s first collection of short stories Monday or Tuesday, most of which were experimental in nature. In 1922 her first experimental novel, Jacob’s Room, appeared. In 1924 the Woolfs moved back to London, to 52 Tavistock Square. In 1925 Mrs. Dalloway was published, followed by To the Lighthouse in 1927, and The Waves in 1931. These three novels are generally considered to be her greatest claim to fame as a modernist writer. Her involvement with the aristocratic novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West led to Orlando (1928), a roman à clef inspired by Vita’s life and ancestors at Knole in Kent. Two talks to women’s colleges at Cambridge in 1928 led to A Room of One’s Own (1929), a discussion of women’s writing and its historical economic and social underpinning.


See also: Virginia Woolf’s Holiday Homes in the Country

For a more detailed discussion of Virginia Woolf’s breakdowns, see:
Virginia Woolf: Writing the Suicide by Malcolm Ingram

Text copyright© S. N. Clarke & VWSGB 2000


• Sea view from the window of Talland House, St Ives (1999)
• Front view of Talland House (1999)
• Asheham House, Sussex (1977)
• Wooden gate of Monks House entrance, Rodmell, Sussex (1977)
• Looking out of the Woolfs’ sitting room, Monks House (2001)
• Church view from balcony outside Leonard’s study, Monks House (2001)
• Garden view from balcony outside Leonard’s study, Monks House (2001)
• Entrance of Monk’s House (1977)
• Virginia’s writing lodge, Monk’s House (1977)

Photos copyright© S. N. Clarke & H. Fukushima

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