LGBT History Month Profile – Virginia Woolf

To celebrate LGBT History Month in February 2016, Touchstone will profile a significant figure from LGBT history each week.

woolfeAdeline Virginia Woolf (née Stephen; 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English writer and one of the foremost modernists of the twentieth century.

Between the two World Wars, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a central figure in the influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), and the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), with its famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Woolf suffered from severe bouts of mental illness throughout her life, thought to have been bipolar disorder and committed suicide by drowning in 1941 at the age of 59.

The effects of bi-polar disorder at times caused Woolf protracted periods of convalescence, withdrawing from her busy social life, distressed that she could not focus long enough to read or write. She spent times in nursing homes for ‘rest cures’; frankly referred to herself as ‘mad’; said she heard voices and had visions. “My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What’s this passion for?” (from a letter dated 28 Dec. 1932). The subject of suicide enters her stories and essays at times and she disagreed with the perception that it is an act of cowardice and sin. When Virginia was not depressed she worked intensely for long hours at a time. She was vivacious, witty and ebullient company.

Though married, Virginia Woolf met the writer and gardener, Vita Sackville-West in 1922 and the two women began a sexual relationship which lasted well into the 1930’s. In 1928, Woolf presented Sackville-West with Orlando, a fantastical biography in which the eponymous hero’s life spans three centuries and both sexes. Vita Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote, “The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.” After their affair ended, the two women remained friends until Woolf’s death in 1941.

Recently, studies of Virginia Woolf have focused on feminist and lesbian themes in her work, such as in the 1997 collection of critical essays, Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, edited by Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer.

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