It’s Virginia Woolf’s birthday today. She was born 134 years ago, and died in 1941 at the age of 59, driven to commit suicide by her depression. I can see the scene in my mind’s eye: her gaunt frame, mournful eyes, walking with weighted pockets into a river. I’m unsure whether the image in my mind is an amalgamation of what I have read about Woolf over the years, or whether it’s simply taken from the film The Hours. Our minds are so curious. Sometimes it’s hard to extricate fact from imagination.
Silly that thing we do, focusing on how someone died, before rewinding their stories to talk about how they lived. The first time I read Woolf was at university. She featured prominently on my reading lists and while I didn’t always find myself falling into her writing as I might have done with other authors I was reading at the same time (Margaret Atwood, Radclyffe Hall), I was awed by Woolf’s spirit and originality.
Woolf was a part of the Bloomsbury Group, which included John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, and the man, who would become her husband, Leonard Woolf. The group was made up mostly of upper middle class writers, thinkers and artists, whose later work went on to influence attitudes towards feminism, sexuality and pacifism.
In 1910 the Bloomsbury Group gained attention for dressing up a delegation of Ethiopian royals (painting their faces… ) and persuading the Navy to show them the HMS Dreadnought. Woolf disguised herself as a bearded man. She later played with gender in her novel Orlando, in part a portrait of her lover, the writer and celebrated hostess Vita Sackville-West.
Woolf herself is said to have invented stream of consciousness writing, along with James Joyce and Joseph Conrad. Modernists like Woolf experimented with form and rejected conventional realist traditions, partly as a reaction to World War 1 and to find new ways of grappling with rapid industrialisation in their age.
Author of The Hours, Michael Cunningham, says it wonderfully: ‘She was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar. By which I meant she walked a line between chaos and order, she riffed, and just when it seemed that a sentence was veering off into randomness, she brought it back and united it with the melody.’
Of her novels, Mrs Dalloway, in particular, left a lasting impression on me. To read Woolf at university was exactly the right time. I’d flown the nest, and had landed in a world of colour, miles away from the trusted monotony of home. Its multi-perspective structure was dizzying, and underlined to me how we have internal lives that are both varied and similar, that we are all full of idiosyncrasies and flaws, a wretched twist of desires and needs.
And then her essay, A Room of One’s Own. That to me, was like an awakening, along with Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. I lusted a whole summer after a deckchair emblazoned with a motif of the essay title, but they were perpetually sold out. Instead, I wrote out my favourite quotes in silver pen on an old satchel: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ / ‘Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.’ / ‘Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.’ I wore that satchel, Woolf quotes intermingled with others, until the silver blurred into a grey cloud.
Much of Woolf’s work was self-published by Hogarth Press, named after Woolf’s marital home. The press was set up in their dining room and was a useful distraction when her mental health worsened. Their London home was later destroyed in the Blitz. Not long afterwards, Woolf’s mental health took a turn for the worse, and well, we know what happened.
Today, a bust of her stands in Tavistock Gardens in London, quite a feat for a woman who doubted her talent and couldn’t imagine that her work would still be read today. Happy birthday, Virginia Woolf. I’ll always equate you with freedom and revolution. Thank you for the words.