Virginia Woolf

On this date in 1882, novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, née Adeline Virginia Stephen, the daughter of freethinker Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Jackson Duckworth, was born in London. Starting at an early age, she and her sister Vanessa were sexually abused by two half-brothers. Woolf’s mother died when she was in her early teens, followed by the death of her caretaking half-sister Stella, then her father from a slow cancer in 1904 and finally her brother Toby in 1906.

Woolf had the first of several major breakdowns following Toby’s death. She moved into the home of her sister Vanessa and her husband Clive Bell in Bloomsbury, which became the hub of the intellectual and largely freethinking Bloomsbury group. In 1905 she began working for the Times Literary Supplement. She married Leonard Woolf in 1912.

Her first book, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915, followed by Night and Day (1919), Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Orlando (1938). Woolf wrote more than 500 essays, among them “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), in which she famously observed, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Her “Three Guineas” was likewise a feminist rallying cry to women to come into their own.

Woolf pioneered the modern novel, employing stream-of-consciousness and a non-linear narrative. Orlando featured an androgynous protagonist, reputedly inspired by Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had a love affair. Woolf committed suicide by drowning herself during a recurring period of mental breakdown and despair in early World War II, writing her husband: “I owe all my happiness to you but can’t go on and spoil your life.” (D. 1941)

Freedom From Religion Foundation