Virginia Woolf: One Of The Greatest Minds Of The 20th Century

You have probably seen the name "Virginia Woolf" stamping book covers out there. What you may not know is that this British author brought up fundamental questions for 20th century thinking: besides being one of the pioneers of feminism, the writer helped to understand the suffering that surrounds mental illness and changed the history of literature.

With a life marked by existential anxieties, Adeline Virginia Stephen – her real name - was educated at home and was always self-taught, while his brothers attended Cambridge University. Her writing style became known as experimental and based on the flow of consciousness technique, which showed her sensitivity and allowed her to emphasize the individuality of her characters. Her literary trajectory was marked by nine novels, short stories, articles and critical essays.

Woolf grew up in a cultured family frequented by artists, writers and politicians, but in turbulent circumstances. Her mother, Julia Stephen, died when Virginia was still thirteen, and since then, she started having crises and nervous breakdowns until the end of her life. 

These disturbances included hearing voices, birds and people appearing in trees - hallucinations that she seems to explore in her book "Mrs Dalloway". Some experts define their chronic depressive states and sudden mood swings as factors that could be associated with a bipolar disorder.

Plus to the loss of his mother, Woolf also lost to death his half sister, Stella Duckworth, and his father, Leslie Stephen, who died of cancer. To complete this tragic story, Virginia had three half brothers and some biographers say that it appears that she was sexually abused by two of them. All these events are probably associated with Virginia's suffering, but what really took her to more critical states was the lack of treatment for her disorders. The maximum “help” she had been in the famous 'nursing homes', which were actually psychiatric centers.

When Virginia moved to the Bloomsbury neighborhood in 1904, her new home became a center for intellectual encounters, attended by writers Forster and Strachey, the economist Keynes, the painter Grant and the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. This team was called “Bloomsbury group”. 

There, she met her future husband Leonard Woolf, who was also a writer and accompanied her until her last days. Together, they founded the Hogarth Press, which edited not only the couple's works, but also T.S. Elliot's and translations of Freud's works. Another love of Woolf was the poet Vita Sackville-West. Although the two were married at the time, there was a romance between them; Sackville-West was an inspiration for the 1928 book "Orlando”.

As an essayist and activist, Virginia played a very relevant role in the feminist movement. In "Professions for Women", an abbreviated version of her speech in the National Society for Women’s Service, she tells how, in order to write, she had to get rid of the "angel of the home" who seemed to be implied in her feminine condition. In other words, she always rejected the gender roles imposed by society and fought for the emancipation of women.

Photo by Sides Imagery from Pexels

Her first work was "Melymbrosia", in 1908, which served as the basis for her first novel "The Voyage Out", in 1915. After that, she published "Night and Day", in 1919; "Jacob’s Room", in 1922; "Mrs Dalloway", one of her most popular books, in 1925; "To the Lighthouse", in 1927; "Orlando", in 1928; "A room of one’s all", in 1929; "The Waves", in 1931; and "The Years", in 1937. Her most known works are Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and A room of one’s all. 

In the context of the second world war (1939 - 1945), Virginia was very afraid that Leonard, who was a jew, would be persecuted by the Nazis. She was in the midst of another depressive picture when her and Leonard's house in England was destroyed by a german bombing. On March 28, 1940, the writer put on a coat, filled them with stones and entered the River Ouse to end her life. 

Virginia used to address conflicts and loving, family relationships, social changes experienced in England and make monologues and inner reflections. Her contribution to literature and feminism is enormous, and she has influenced several generations of female writers around the world.


The article above was edited by Marina Ponchio.

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