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Although not always an easy read, Virginia Woolf is considered one of Britain’s greatest writers. And Woolf lived as she wrote - creating a life that could resemble as closely as possible the dream of a “room of one’s own”, where women could live and freely practice their artistic endeavours.
Read our short biography of one of Britain’s most acclaimed writers.
Virginia (left) with her older sister, Vanessa (right)
Virginia was born Virginia Stephens in 1882 in Hyde Park, London to a wealthy family. Her father was a writer-historian and her mother was a celebrated Pre-Raphaelite model for painters such as Edward Burne-Jones. She was one of three children, as well as having several half brothers and sisters from her parent’s previous marriages.
Virginia was interested in writing from an early age. Age 10, she and her older sister started the Hyde Park Gate News, a journal that chronicled the life of the Stephens family. They kept this up for several years. At age 15, she began keeping a diary, which she would continue to do for the next 12 years.
Virginia with her father
Virginia described her family as not necessarily wealthy but “well-to-do”. They were immensely literate and fond of the arts. They would spend their summers in Cornwall, and her most famous novel, To The Lighthouse (1927) is loosely based on those excursions. Each year they would lease the same house in St Ives, spending thirteen summers there altogether. Due to their father’s work, the children were surrounded by London’s literary set, including Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Henry James and others. Their mother was also equally well-connected in artistic circles. Her aunt was Pre-Raphaelite photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
There was a little rivalry between the two sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, who at time envied each other’s literary skills. Although education was not made a priority for them, writing was considered an acceptable pursuit. She and her sisters were educated at home by their parents. She enjoyed fabricating stories from an early age. A shared love of books maintained a close bond between herself and her father. He had a huge library which he allowed the children unrestricted access to.
Virginia’s mother died on influenza when she was 13 years old. This tragic event marked the beginning of Virginia’s life-long struggle with mental illness that she would eventually succumb to. This year she suffered a nervous breakdown and was cared for by Vanessa. She would describe the ensuing period as “the seven unhappy years”. Nine years later he father would die.
At age 15, Virginia took several course in higher education as King’s College, London as well as some private tutoring. She was also introduced through her brother’s circle of friends at Cambridge University, such as Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey and her future husband, Leonard Woolf.
Virginia with her friend and fellow "Bloomsbury Group member, Lytton Strachey
After their father died, the children sold the family home and moved to Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury was significantly cheaper and socially Bohemian. They moved into Gordon Square and began regularly entertaining their widening circle of friends, which would later be known as the Bloomsbury Group. Their weekly literary and art salons were called the “Thursday Club” and the “Friday Club”. In 1906, Vanessa married Clive Bell and Virginia and their brother Adrian moved on but remained in the Bloomsbury area. She began working on her first novel. Her mental health remained precarious and she would regularly escape London for retreats in the Sussex countryside. Her living arrangements became increasingly scandalous as well - with her brother occupying one floor and writers Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant living on the ground floor. As an unmarried woman this would have been considered quite unusual at the time.
Virginia with her husband, Leonard
She met her future husband, Leonard Woolf, sometime between 1900-1901. He was one of her brother Thorby’s Cambridge friends. They maintained a loose connection over the subsequent years. In 1911, Leonard moved on to a floor of the Brunswick Square house. He proposed several times before she accepted, and they were married in August 1912 and were evidently very close, although the ensuing years were marred by Virginia’s unstable health and suicide attempts.
Some Hogarth Press editons
The next decade was Virginia’s most prolific, beginning with the publication of her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. She and Leonard also started Hogarth Press in the basement of their house. Virginia had previously taken up book-binding as a hobby and in 1917, they set up their own printing press. Their first publication was Two Stories, one by each of them respectively. They had hand-sewn covers and woodcut illustrations on the cover by Dora Carrington. The produced a run of 150 copies, and later printed more volumes of short stories as well as works by T.S. Eliot and others. The press was the fulfilment of Virginia’s dream to create a community of female writers who could write and publish whatever they wanted. As pacifists, they continued printing outside of London during the war, publishing works by unknown foreign authors in an attempt to introduce British readers to a wider world.
In 1940, they London home was bombed and they permanently moved to a small house in the Sussex Downs that they had bought 20 years previously. Virginia had spent much time in the area recuperating from breakdowns. The poet Rupert Brook and his group of bohemian friends summered nearby, and she grew close to him.
While she had suffered bouts of severe depression since she was a teenager, the loss of her home in London accompanied by overworking to finish her last novel, Between the Acts, she became increasingly sick and exhausted. She took her own life on 28th March, 1941. Despite her ill health, she wrote with few pauses over her adult life, and wrote vividly regarding her mental health battles in both her diaries and letters. While did engage a psychotherapist at some points, writing was her primary therapy. She was buried in the garden of their house in Sussex.
Although she cut her own life short, she left an unparalleled body of work that has influenced scores of writers and artists that came after. She not unsuccessfully achieved what she had dreamed to do - she broke free of the constraints of traditional femininity to chart her own path.
Visit: Charlston House Museum
Watch: Orlando, directed by Sally Potter (1992)
Some of my favourite Virginia Woolf quotes...