Virginia Woolf: A Literary Icon of Modernism

Virginia Woolf was a literary pioneer and arguably the greatest English writer of the modernist period.

Jul 4, 2023By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature

virginia woolf


Virginia Woolf is one of the great prose stylists of English literature and has become something of a literary icon. A society beauty in her youth, a prodigiously talented author, and a pioneer of the feminist movement, Virginia Woolf’s legacy is perhaps somewhat overshadowed by the bouts of mental illness she suffered throughout her life and her suicide in 1941. Though she struggled with depression at various points in her adult life, she also produced a remarkable body of work, ranging from fiction to non-fiction, and is rightly celebrated as not only one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century but of all time.


Virginia Woolf: The Early Years

Photograph of Virginia and Adrian Stephen, c. 1886, via Smith College


Named after an unfortunate aunt on her mother’s side of the family, Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on January 25, 1882 to Julia Duckworth Stephen and Sir Leslie Stephen, founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Both her parents had already been married previously. While her disabled half-sister, Laura, from her father’s first marriage would be institutionalized by the time Virginia was nine years old, her half-sister and half-brothers on her mother’s side (George, Stella, and Gerald) lived with the four Stephen children at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, London.


In many ways, her childhood was fairly standard for a young girl of her social class. She was educated at home by her parents while her brothers went off to school and university – a gender disparity which she came to resent. While he did not send his daughters to school, Leslie Stephen did allow all his children “free run of a large and quite unexpurgated library,” from which the young Virginia read voraciously (see Further Reading, Woolf, ‘Leslie Stephen’, p. 114). Recognizing her literary talents, her father cherished the hope that Virginia – rather than his two sons, Thoby and Adrian – would follow in his footsteps and become a writer.


Her childhood was also marred by tragedy, however. Her mother died in 1895, after falling ill with influenza. That summer, Virginia – aged just 13 – suffered her first mental breakdown. In addition, from the age of six, she was sexually assaulted by her half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth, throughout her childhood. Her sister, Vanessa, was also assaulted, and Hermione Lee suggests that her half-sister Laura most probably was, too. When their father became ill in 1902, Virginia and Vanessa were still more vulnerable and exposed to their half-brothers, and his death in 1904 led Virginia to suffer another mental breakdown.

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Finding Freedom in Bloomsbury

Photograph of Vanessa Bell (left) Thoby Stephen (right), via Charleston


Though the death of her father deeply affected Virginia, it also freed her from the conventions imposed on women in middle-class society. No longer having to play hostess to Sir Leslie’s teatime guests, Virginia and her siblings (at Vanessa’s instigation) moved out of their childhood home in Kensington and into 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury. At the time, Bloomsbury was not seen as a desirable locale. This, however, was part of the attraction for the Stephen siblings, who were keen to cast off the strictures and limitations of their middle-class Victorian upbringing in bohemian Bloomsbury.


Here, Virginia began teaching evening classes at Morley College. And, along with her siblings, she held “at homes” for Thoby’s friends at Cambridge University, including Lytton Strachey, Saxon Sydney Turner, Clive Bell, and Leonard Woolf. This marked the beginning of what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. When her favorite brother, Thoby, contracted typhoid during a family holiday to Greece and died shortly after returning to London at their Bloomsbury home in 1906, the Bloomsbury Group could have fallen apart. Shortly after his death, however, Vanessa agreed to marry Clive Bell. And when Virginia married Leonard Woolf in 1912, the group was even further consolidated, with the two Stephen sisters centering the group as Thoby had done before them.


The First Three Novels: The Voyage Out, Night and Day, & Jacob’s Room

Leonard Woolf by Henry Lamb, 1912, Private Collection, via BBC


When Virginia Stephen married Leonard Woolf in 1912, she was thirty years old and, though she thought of herself as a writer, had yet to publish a novel. She was, however, working on what would be her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915). This, along with her next novel, Night and Day (1919), was published by Duckworth Press, established by her half-brother, Gerald. Not only did Virginia not want to be dependent on her abusive half-brother when publishing her books, she felt the pressure to write books that would be sufficiently popular to secure her further publishing deals for any future novels and thus secure her future career as a writer. Determined to revolutionize the novel, this state of affairs did not suit Virginia Woolf or her creative ambitions.


Photograph of Virginia Woolf by Man Ray, 27 November 1934, via AnOther Magazine


In 1915, however, Leonard and Virginia Woolf moved to Hogarth House on Paradise Road, also in London. It was here that the couple would set up the Hogarth Press, which not only went on to print all of Virginia’s later works but also work by T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, and the first English translations of the works of Sigmund Freud.


Though it did entail more work for the young couple, having their own printing press gave Virginia Woolf the freedom to write whatever she liked. Her third novel, Jacob’s Room, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1922 and it marks a significant turn in her writing style. Embracing a more experimental mode of writing with Jacob’s Room, Woolf found her voice as a writer and paved the way for her later works.


Continued Success: Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, & Orlando

Excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s manuscript of Mrs. Dalloway, via the British Library


The first novel published after Jacob’s Room was Mrs Dalloway (1925), which is widely considered to be among Woolf’s greatest works. While Katherine Mansfield had criticized Woolf for neglecting to mention the First World War in her earlier novel Night and Day, here, Woolf drew on her own experiences of illness to depict the inner lives of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked veteran struggling to cope with civilian life.


For her next novel, Woolf drew on her childhood holidays in St. Ives and attempted to exorcise the ghosts of her late parents. In To the Lighthouse (1927), Woolf depicts the lives (and deaths) of members of the Ramsay family both before and after the First World War and a series of deaths that devastate the family. In doing so, she focuses on the human cost of war and loss while meditating upon the struggles faced by female artists.


Photograph of Vita Sackville-West, via the Paris Review


While writing To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf had fallen in love with the English aristocratic socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West. As both a break from her own more serious works of literary experimentation and a love letter to Vita, she published Orlando just one year after the release of To the Lighthouse. In Orlando, Virginia Woolf draws on and fictionalizes Vita’s aristocratic ancestry to create the novel’s eponymous protagonist, who lives for centuries and transitions from a man to a woman. Not only did Virginia Woolf give Vita a fictionalized version of her beloved childhood home, Knole, to keep, she also wrote a feminist classic and an important text for the field of transgender studies.


Politics and Polemic

Photograph of Virginia Woolf by Man Ray, 27 November 1934, via AnOther Magazine


As well as writing some of the twentieth century’s most important novels, Virginia Woolf was also a celebrated essayist and writer of non-fiction. Her essays were collected into two volumes of The Common Reader, and she was involved in the UK’s Labour Party through her husband.


Perhaps her most famous work of non-fiction, however, is A Room of One’s Own, which is now considered a foundational feminist text. While the main body of the text focuses on women’s issues, towards the end of A Room of One’s Own, she takes aim at Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy. And it was the rise of fascism that was to inspire her subsequent extended work of polemical non-fiction, Three Guineas. As a lifelong pacifist, she was horrified by fascist Italy and Germany, having visited both countries before the outbreak of the Second World War with Leonard. In Three Guineas, she seeks to draw parallels between fascism and anti-feminism in these regimes. Despite the seriousness of the topics she covered, both A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas maintain a lightness of tone and an impish irreverence for institutions and figures of authority.


Late Style: The Waves, The Years, & Between the Acts

Photograph of Virginia Woolf by Gisèle Freund, 1939, AnOther Magazine


The Waves was published in 1931 and is perhaps Woolf’s most formally audacious and experimental novel. The novel’s narration is split between six characters, whom we follow from childhood to adulthood, and the events of the novel are focalized and filtered through their various and often interweaving consciousnesses. Throughout her work, Woolf was concerned with exploring human interiority, though nowhere does she explore it so thoroughly as in The Waves.


The Years (1937), then, might seem to be something of a contrast. Originally conceived of as a hybrid of the essay and the novel, extricated the two halves, which came to be The Years and Three Guineas. However, shorn of its experimental hybridity, The Years may not initially seem to be a very experimental novel at all, but rather a return to the realist family sagas of the previous century. Here, however, Woolf sought to demonstrate how the wider currents of public and political life intersect with the privacy of her characters’ lives. Perhaps due to its outward conventionality, The Years was Woolf’s best-selling novel within her own lifetime.


Virginia Woolf would not live to see her final novel, Between the Acts (1941), published. Focusing on the lead-up to and performance of a pageant play as part of a festival in a small village in southern England shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, Between the Acts captures a moment of calm before the storm. Virginia Woolf, however, did not live to see the end of the war.


Photograph of the Grave of Virginia Woolf, Monk’s House Garden, Rodmell, Lewes District, East Sussex, England, via LitHub


Disappointed by the reception of her biography of Roger Fry and feeling unmoored and uncertain following the destruction of her London homes during the Blitz, she fell into a depression and suffered what was to be her final breakdown. On 28 March 1941, she weighed her pockets down with stones and waded into the River Ouse, where she drowned. She was 59 years old.


Virginia Woolf’s life was thus cut tragically short. Yet, in spite of her mental health struggles, she managed to produce a prodigious output of writing – and, more importantly, she did so on her own terms, according to her own artistic ambitions. A lifelong advocate for pacifism and feminism and a scathing critic of the rise of fascism in the early twentieth century, she was as fearless when it came to speaking her mind in her non-fictional works as she was when charting new artistic territories in her fiction. And it is for these achievements that Woolf deserves to be remembered and for which she has become a literary icon.


Further Reading:


Lee, Hermione, Virginia Woolf (London: Vintage, 1997).

Nadel, Ira, Virginia Woolf (London: Reaktion Books, 2016).

Spalding, Frances, The Bloomsbury Group (London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2021).

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Leslie Stephen’, in Selected Essays, ed. by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 111-15.

Woolf, Virginia, Moments of Being: Autobiographical Writings, ed. by Jeanne Schulkind (London: Pimlico, 2002).

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.