Virginia Woolf was born in 1882. She grew up in a literary and intellectual atmosphere and she was educated at King’s College (in London).
She spent her summers at St. Ives and she remained central to her art.
For Virginia, water represented two things: it is harmonious and feminine and the resolution of intolerable conflicts in death.
The death of her mother in 1895 when Virginia was only thirteen and she had her first nervous breakdown and she began to rebel against her father.
It was only with her father’s death in 1904 that Woolf began her own life and literary career. Virginiahad a radical thinking with a revolutionary stream-of-consciousness prose style.
In 1912 Virginia married Leonard Woolf and in 1915 she published ‘The Voyage Out’ followed a traditional pattern. At this time she entered a nursing home and attempted suicide by taking drugs. In 1925 ‘Mrs Dalloway’ appeared and was followed by To the Lighthouse and Orlando. She was a very talented literary critic and a brilliant essayist, as was her volume of literary essays ‘The Common Reader’.
In 1929 she delivered two lectures at Cambridge. ‘A room of One’s Own’ is a work of great impact on the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1929 she began to work on ‘The Waves’. The Second World War increased her anxiety and fears. She died in 1941 at 59.
A Modernist novelist
Virginia Woolf was interested in giving voice to the complex inner world of feeling and memory and conceived the human personality as a continuous shift of impressions and emotions.
The omniscient narrator disappeared and the point of view shifted inside the characters’ minds with the associations of ideas, momentary impressions presented as a continuous flux. She contributed to Modernism with the essay Modern Fiction (1919).
2. Mrs Dalloway (1925)
Mrs. Dalloway covers one day from morning to night in one woman’s life.
Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife, walks through her London neighborhood to prepare for the party she will host that evening. When she returns from flower shopping, an old suitor and friend, Peter Walsh, drops by her house unexpectedly.
The two have always judged each other harshly, and their meeting in the present intertwines with their thoughts of the past. Years earlier, Clarissa refused Peter’s marriage proposal, and Peter has never quite gotten over it. Peter asks Clarissa if she is happy with her husband, Richard, but before she can answer, her daughter, Elizabeth, enters the room. Peter leaves and goes to Regent’s Park. He thinks about Clarissa’s refusal, which still obsessed him.
The point of view then shifts to Septimus, a veteran of World War I who was injured in trench warfare and now suffers from shell shock. Septimus and his Italian wife, Lucrezia, pass time in Regent’s Park. They are waiting for Septimus’s appointment with Sir William Bradshaw, a celebrated psychiatrist.
Before the war, Septimus was a budding young poet and lover of Shakespeare; when the war broke out, he enlisted immediately for romantic patriotic reasons.
He became numb to the horrors of war and its aftermath: when his friend Evans died, he felt little sadness. Now Septimus sees nothing of worth in the England he fought for, and he has lost the desire to preserve either his society or himself. Suicidal, he believes his lack of feeling is a crime.
Clearly Septimus’s experiences in the war have permanently scarred him, and he has serious mental problems. However, Sir William does not listen to what Septimus says and diagnoses “a lack of proportion.” Sir William plans to separate Septimus from Lucrezia and send him to a mental institution in the country.
Richard Dalloway eats lunch with Hugh Whitbread and Lady Bruton, members of high society. The men help Lady Bruton write a letter to the Times, London’s largest newspaper. After lunch, Richard returns home to Clarissa with a large bunch of roses. He intends to tell her that he loves her but finds that he cannot, because it has been so long since he last said it. Clarissa considers the void that exists between people, even between husband and wife.
Even though she values the privacy she is able to maintain in her marriage, considering it vital to the success of the relationship, at the same time she finds slightly disturbing the fact that Richard doesn’t know everything about her.
Clarissa sees off Elizabeth and her history teacher, Miss Kilman, who are going shopping.
The two older women despise one another passionately, each believing the other to be an oppressive force over Elizabeth. Meanwhile, Septimus and Lucrezia are in their apartment, enjoying a moment of happiness together before the men come to take Septimus to the asylum. One of Septimus’s doctors, Dr. Holmes, arrives, and Septimus fears the doctor will destroy his soul. In order to avoid this fate, he jumps from a window to his death.
Peter hears the ambulance go by to pick up Septimus’s body and marvels ironically at the level of London’s civilization. He goes to Clarissa’s party, where most of the novel’s major characters are assembled. Clarissa works hard to make her party a success but feels dissatisfied by her own role and acutely conscious of Peter’s critical eye.
All the partygoers, but especially Peter and Sally Seton, have, to some degree, failed to accomplish the dreams of their youth. Though the social order is undoubtedly changing, Elizabeth and the members of her generation will probably repeat the errors of Clarissa’s generation. Sir William Bradshaw arrives late, and his wife explains that one of his patients, the young veteran (Septimus), has committed suicide. Clarissa retreats to the privacy of a small room to consider Septimus’s death. She understands that he was overwhelmed by life and that men like Sir William make life intolerable. She identifies with Septimus, admiring him for having taken the plunge and for not compromising his soul. She feels, with her comfortable position as a society hostess, responsible for his death.
The party nears its close as guests begin to leave. Clarissa enters the room, and her presence fills Peter with great excitement.
3. Orlando (1928)
The novel tells the story of Orlando from the age of 16 in 16th century England until the age of 36 in 1928. The novel is narrated by an unnamed biographer who expresses their opinions about the story’s events, despite their claims to only report facts.
In his teens, Orlando is a page in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. She dotes on him, considering him her “favorite,” but their relationship dissolves after Elizabeth sees him kiss a young girl. Amid a period of historically low temperatures known as the Great Frost, Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess named Sasha.
However, Sasha is unfaithful to him and departs to Russia after the Frost ends.
Shortly thereafter, Orlando attempts a career as a poet, returning to a piece called “The Oak Tree” which he abandoned many years before. He befriends the poet Nicholas Greene in the hopes that Greene will help his literary career.
However, Greene betrays Orlando by parodying him in one of his works.
In the 17th century, King Charles II appointed Orlando to be an ambassador in Constantinople. Following a night of widespread violence and civil unrest in the city, Orlando sleeps for many days. When Orlando finally awakes, she is now a woman. Although the change is mysterious, Orlando has little difficulty accepting it.
To escape Constantinople amid uprising, Orlando travels with a group of Romani people. However, tensions built between Orlando and the Romani because her upbringing was very different from theirs.
Back in England, Orlando rejoins high society, sometimes presenting as a man and sometimes presenting as a woman. She also travels in literary circles, consorting with poets like Alexander Pope and even Nick Greene who, like her, does not visibly age. Unfortunately, Orlando’s claim to her family’s property is challenged on the grounds that she is a woman. She ultimately wins various lawsuits against her but exhausts much of her fortune doing so.
Around this time, Orlando meets the sea captain Marmaduke Bonthrop “Shel” Shelmerdine. After discovering they are both gender-nonconforming, Orlando and Shel marry. Theirs is a happy marriage, aside from the fact that Shel is away at sea for long stretches of time.
After enduring the oppressive Victorian Era, Orlando finally reaches the 1920s, the decade in which Woolf wrote and published Orlando. Orlando finally publishes “The Oak Tree” to great critical success. In the final scene, Shel flies above Orlando’s home in an airplane before leaping out of the plane to join her.
4. A Room of One’s Own (1929)
The dramatic setting of A Room of One’s Own is that Woolf has been invited to lecture on the topic of Women and Fiction. She advances the thesis that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.
Her essay is constructed as a partly-fictionalized narrative of the thinking that led her to adopt this thesis. She dramatizes that mental process in the character of an imaginary narrator (“call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance“) who is in her same position, wrestling with the same topic.
The narrator begins her investigation at Oxbridge College, where she reflects on the different educational experiences available to men and women as well as on more material differences in their lives. She then spends a day in the British Library pursuing the scholarship on women, all of which has been written by men and all of which has been written in anger.
Turning to history, she finds so little data about the everyday lives of women that she decides to reconstruct their existence imaginatively. The figure of Judith Shakespeare is generated as an example of the tragic fate a highly intelligent woman would have met with under those circumstances.
In light of this background, she considers the achievements of the major women novelists of the nineteenth century and reflects on the importance of tradition to an aspiring writer. A survey of the current state of literature follows, conducted through a reading of the first novel of one of the narrator’s contemporaries.
Woolf closes the essay with an exhortation to her audience of women to take up the tradition that has been so hardly bequeathed to them, and to increase the endowment for their own daughters.