Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (January 21, 1882 – March 28, 1941), born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London, epitomized rare literary genius. Despite debilitating battles with mental breakdowns, Woolf produced a body of work considered among the most groundbreaking in twentieth century literature. Her father was a literary critic, and her mother a renowned beauty and artists’ model. Her mother’s sudden death when Virginia was 13 may have been the catalyst for the first of her recurrent nervous breakdowns.

As a young woman, Woolf developed her writer’s voice with a number of litary pursuits. She reviewed books for the Times Literary Supplement, wrote scores of articles and essays, and for a short time, taught English and history at Morley College in London (she herself had never earned a degree). Woolf started her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1907;  after seven and a half years of toil, eventually completed and published it in 1915.

Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, and dogVirginia Woolf wrote criticism and essays while her literary reputation modestly and steadily increased. With her husband Leonard Woolf, she founded Hogarth Press. It started as a hobby, to print fine small editions of literary works. The press gradually grew to accommodate some notable authors from their Bloomsbury circle and beyond, and enjoyed some bestseller successes, notably, the novels of Vita Sackville-West. Some of Virginia Woolf’s novels were published by the press once it gained prestige—a case of publishing close to the vest, rather than self-publishing. She also acted as editor and sometimes marketer for the press, much to her chagrin.

Nurtured by Leonard Woolf and beloved by the literary circle of her Bloomsbury colleagues, Woolf might have lived the ideal writing life were it not for her lifelong struggle with mental illness. But this wasn’t the only source of anguish. She was eternally self-critical, restless, and rarely satisfied with her efforts.

It’s now widely believed that she suffered from bipolar disorder. There were scant options for treatment at this time, and so, during particularly bad bouts of mania or depression, she withdrew, unable to participate in her active social life, and found it nearly impossible to focus on writing. Leonard Woolf was ever vigilant of his wife’s mental state; he cared for and protected her as best as anyone could. This was clearly a marriage of minds, if not a typical union, and there’s little doubt that he helped create the best possible scenario for her thrive and produce, under the circumstances.

Along with her numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, Woolf left much insight into the writer’s life as a diarist and essayist. She encouraged women to write about whatever fascinated them, and to dare to be dreamers and creators. As is well known, Virginia Woolf’s inner demons got the best of her, and she succumbed to suicide in 1941, at the age of 59.

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Virginia Woolf Quotes

virginia woolf“A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out.”

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”

“The extraordinary woman depends on the ordinary woman. It is only when we know what were the conditions of the average woman’s life — the number of children, whether she had money of her own, if she had a room to herself, whether she had help bringing up her family, if she had servants, whether part of the housework was her task — it is only when we can measure the way of life and experience made possible to the ordinary woman that we can account for the success or failure of the extraordinary woman as a writer.” (From the essay “Women and Fiction”, 1929)

“Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing in print without blushing — shivering and wishing to take cover?” (A Writer’s Diary, March, 1919)

“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.”

“It is only when we can measure the way of life and experience made possible to the ordinary woman that we can account for the success or failure of the extraordinary woman as a writer.”

“Happiness is to have a little strong onto which things will attach themselves…as if dipped loosely into a wave of treasure to bring up pearls sticking to it.” (In her journal, April 20, 1925)

Virginia Woolf“What is the use of saying one is indifferent to reviews when positive praise, though mingled with blame, gives one such a start on, that instead of feeling dried up, one feels…flooded with ideas?” (Six days after the publication of To the Lighthouse, May 11, 1927)

“Success, I believe, produces a kind of modesty. It frees you from bothering about yourself.” (In her journal, October 11, 1919)

“It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quites down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything. I’m a little anxious. How am I to bring off this conception? Directly one gets to work is like a person walking, who has seen the country stretching out before. I want to write nothing in this book that I don’t enjoy writing. Yet writing is always difficult.” (A Writer’s Diary, May 11, 1920)

“Fame grows. Chances of meeting this person, doing that thing, accumulate. Life is, as I’ve said since I was ten, awfully interesting…” (In her journal, November 23, 1926)

“O why do I ever let anyone read what I write! Every time I have to go through a breakfast with a letter of criticism I swear I will write for my own praise or blame in future. It is a misery.” (From a letter to Violet Dickinson, 1907)

“My writing makes me tremble…I have wasted all my time trying to begin things and taking up different points of view, and dropping them, and grinding out the dullest stuff, which makes my blood run thick. However, I shall begin again now. I have 4 books of white paper waiting me.” (From a letter to Violet Dickinson, 1907)

“In case you ever foolishly forget; I am never not thinking of you.”

“I thought about how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.”

“I have a deeply hidden and inarticulate desire for something beyond the daily life.”

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

“…I admit the justice of you hint that sometimes I have had an inkling of the way the book might be written by other people. It is very difficult to fight against it; as difficult as to ignore the opinion of one’s probably readers — I think I gather courage as I go on. The only possible reason for writing down all this, is that it represents roughly a view of one’s own. My boldness terrifies me. I feel I have so few of the gifts that make novels amusing.” (From a letter to her brother-in-law, Clive Bell, 1909)

“Outwardly, what is simpler than to write books? Outwardly, what obstacles are there for a woman rather than for a man? Inwardly, I think, the case is very different. She has still many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome. Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against.” (From the essay, “Professions for Women”, 1931)

“I wonder if anyone has ever suffered so much from a book as I have from The Years. Once out I will never look at it again. It’s like a long childbirth. Think of that summer, every morning a headache, and forcing myself into that room in my nightgown; and lying down after a page: and always with the certainty of failure. Now that certainty is mercifully removed to some extent. But now I feel I don’t care what anyone says so long as I’m rid of it. And for some reason I feel I’m respected and liked. But this is only the haze dance of illusion, always changing. Never write a long book again. Yet I feel I shall write more fiction — scenes will form. But I am tired this morning: too much strain and racing yesterday.” (A Writer’s Diary, November 9, 1936)

“Did I say…that Brace* wrote and said they were happy to find that The Years is the bestselling novel in America? This was confirmed by my place at the head of the list in the Herald Tribune. They have sold 25,000 — my record, easily.” (A Writer’s Diary, June 14, 1937; *referring to her publisher, Harcourt, Brace & Co.)

“To be 29 & unmarried — to be a failure — childless –insane, too, no writer…Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss?…It’s having no children, living away from friends, failing to write well.” (From a letter to her sister, Vanessa Bell, 1911)

“I am a little uppish…and self-assertive, because Bruce [her publisher] write to me yesterday, “We think ‘Jacob’s Room’ an extraordinary distinguished and beautiful work. You have, of course, your own method, and it is not easy to foretell how many readers it will have; surely it will have enthusiastic ones, and we delight in publishing it…” As this is my first testimony from an impartial person I am pleased. For one thing it must make some impression, as a whole; and cannot be wholly frigid fireworks.” (A Writer’s Diary, October 4, 1922)

“Time and Tide says I’m a first-rate novelist and a great lyrical poet. And I can already hardly read the reviews: but fell a little dazed, to think then it’s not nonsense; it does make an effect…after all that agony, I’m free, whole; round: can go full ahead. And so stop this cry of content and sober joy.” (A Writer’s Diary, March 12, 1937) 


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