Virginia Woolf at Monk's house, 1942, - Wikimedia Commons/Unknown
CAIRO – 25 January 2018: January 25 marks the 136th anniversary of the birth of acclaimed English author Virginia Woolf. A pioneer of early feminist writing, she is also responsible for helping cement the 'stream of consciousness' as a valid form of writing.
Born in 1882 as Virginia Stephen, Woolf came from a rich and privileged Victorian family. Her father was a renowned literary figure, the first editor for the "Dictionary of National Biography" and a famous mountain climber, while her mother was a nurse praised for her beauty and popular amongst artistic and other social circles. Woolf demonstrated great writing talent from a young age, and even had her own newspaper at the age of nine, “The Hyde Park Gate News”.
Unfortunately, Woolf's early life was plagued with misfortunate, from being molested by her half-brothers to losing her mother and older sister by the time she was 15. By the time her father died in 1904, Woolf had a full mental breakdown. Thus came her life-long struggle with depression, which she wrote frequently and deeply about. Writing was her means of coping, a way for her to put her darkest thoughts into form so that she could confront them. Woolf studied at King's College in London, learning German, Greek and Latin at the Ladies' Department.
By 1905 she was writing professionally for The Times Literary Supplement. After viewing art in Italy, she was inspired to pursue writing novels, this time "reinventing" it in her own way. She became involved with the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of artists and writers who were famous for the 1910 Dreadnought Hoax, where Virginia dressed up as a bearded man with her colleagues from the group as Abyssinian princes in order to convince the British army to show them a warship. This hilarious prank also brought Virginia closer to fellow writer Leonard Woolf; they married on 1912.
Her first published novel would be released after several years in the making as “The Voyage Out” on 1915. This tragic, romantic tale follows a young woman's journey to South America, where she finds love and freedom for the first time in her life. It brought Woolf instant critical attention, particularly for its dreamlike nature and refusal to provide certainty. The praise she received didn't help her deteriorating mental state however; Woolf spent much of her time suffering in a state of delirium, almost at the brink of a suicidal breakdown. Thankfully, she managed to reclaim her senses, though her battle with mental illness was a lifelong affair.
In 1917, Woolf and her husband founded their own printing press, Hogarth Press, and published a joint novel together titled “Two Stories”; the first story was by her husband Leonard, titled “Two Jews”, while Virginia's story was “The Mark on the Wall”, and it followed an anonymous woman who notices a mark on the wall, leading to her writing about the very nature of thought itself.
Her most famous writing came in 1925 with the publishing of her fourth novel, "Mrs. Dalloway". Following the aftermath of World War I, the book explored the day in a life of the titular character, tackling themes such as feminism, mental health and even homosexuality. It was a massive success, having been adapted into a 1997 feature film starring Vanessa Redgrave and directed by Marleen Gorris.
She then followed with another success, 1928's “To the Lighthouse”, a modernist classic which exemplified the stream of consciousness writing style that Woolf so pioneered. That same year also saw the publication of “Orlando”, an odd yet thoughtful story of a man who mysteriously becomes a woman who lives on for 300 years without aging, examining England's history as it changes. It became the most popular of her stories, and was adapted in 1992 into a British film featuring Tilda Swinton as the titular character.
In total, Woolf authored 15 books throughout her lifetime, which was tragically cut short on March 28, 1941, when a 59-year-old Virginia wrote her last letter to Leonard, filled her pockets with pebbles, and walked into a lake, drowning herself. The horrors of World War II, coupled with her lifelong struggle with mental illness simply proved too much to bear. The rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s saw with it a renewed interest in Virginia's writing, and she is today considered one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.