Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) remains one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. Alongside her novels, Woolf was a prolific creator of essays, diaries, letters and biographies, capturing the changing world around her in her focus on the themes of transformation in gender roles, sexuality and class.
Woolf was outspoken in her writing on the position of women in society, most notably in A Room of One’s Own (1929), the Three Guineas (1938) and Orlando (1928), a fictionalised account of the life of her friend Vita Sackville-West as a ‘man-woman’, born in the Renaissance but surviving till the present day.
A prominent member of the avant-garde, intellectual, Bloomsbury Circle, she is best known for her novels, which represent the peak of British modernist “stream-of-consciousness” style, characterized by the representation of characters’ inner thoughts, a focus on everyday action, and the pervasive instability or unreliability of narration.
Woolf’s literary breakthrough came in 1922 with the publication of Jacob’s Room, which displays the beginnings of her characteristic stream-of-consciousness style, which she refined and mastered in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927).
The publication of Orlando brought Woolf financial success and the ‘room’ to experiment further in her subsequent novels: The Waves (1931), Flush: A Biography (1933), The Years (a 1937 international best-seller), and Between the Acts (1941), all of which address the challenges of human connection. Her last novel, Between the Acts, covers her mounting concern at the threat of a Second World War, but ultimately the strain of the editing this novel, the destruction and disruption of the Blitz, the loss of several close friends, and the threatened onset of mental illness led Woolf to drown herself in the Ouse River on 28 March 1941. By that time, she was a well-known public figure, a best-selling and widely translated author, and was much mourned around the world.
Besides her writing, Woolf had a considerable impact on the cultural life around her. The publishing house she ran with her husband Leonard Woolf, the Hogarth Press, whose publications included books by writers such as T S Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Katherine Mansfield, E M Forster, and the Woolf’s themselves.