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The Tragic Life of Virginia Woolf

Warning: Mentions of suicide

One of the most important literary figures of all time, Virginia Woolf had a massive impact during her time and continues to do so to this day. But Virginia Woolf didn't only have a genius mind, she also had a soul tormented with tragedies. Her life could be considered a tragedy itself. Let's learn how her life unraveled in time and led to her untimely demise.


Virginia Woolf was born on 25 January 1882, in Kensington, London. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother, Julia Stephen, was a model and philanthropist. She had six siblings in total: three from her father's first marriage and three from his second marriage. She was also a child of the second marriage. Virginia had been interested in literature from a young age, spending time in her father's library. She had decided she wanted to be a writer when she was quite young.


Because of the discrimination against women in the Victorian Era - the era in which Virginia Woolf lived - Virginia was never sent to school but instead, received education via private tutors. In contrast, her two brothers were sent to Cambridge which would infuriate Virginia later in life. Her troubles began when her mother died when Virginia was only thirteen years old. And not much later, at fifteen, her half-sister Stella also passed away. On top of all those losses, her father's death which happened when she was twenty two caused her mental health to crumble and she attempted suicide. After that, Virginia was institutionalized.


In 1904, after her father's death, Virginia and her siblings moved to Bloomsbury. This was a turning point in Virginia's life. In Bloomsbury, she met many people with whom she would form the Bloomsbury Group later. This group was known for its libertarian attitude towards matters of sexuality and many of its members were homosexuals, including Virginia Woolf herself. The Bloomsbury Group had several other famous members like John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey, to whom Virginia was engaged for a while in 1909.


Virginia Woolf married Leonard Woolf in 1912. Leonard was a political worker, journalist and internationalist. They were happy and Virginia was truly grateful for having Leonard by her side, as she would also express in her suicide letters later on. But Virginia was mentally ill. She showed symptoms of manic-depressive illness, otherwise known as bipolar disorder. Her condition was so severe that at one point she started hearing imaginary voices. Because of Virginia's medical condition, the couple was advised not to have children. Virginia and Leonard listened to this advice and indeed had no children. In 1915, Leonard and Virginia established their own publishing house together: Hogarth Press. They published works of many authors including Virginia's own works.


Virginia Woolf wrote many books, the most famous ones being "Mrs. Dalloway" - one of the best examples of the "stream of consciousness" method - , "A Room of One's Own" and "To the Lighthouse". All of her books carry parts of her life and personality in some way. Let's look at some of them: In "A Room of One's Own", we can clearly see her feminist side. She cared deeply about the inequality of opportunity between men and women, having experienced it herself. The book is based on two lectures on feminism Virginia gave at Newham College and Girton College and is considered as one of the best representatives of the feminist movement. "To the Lighthouse" also covers similar topics. For this book, Virginia drew her inspiration from her observations on her parents' inequality in their marriage. She based the characters "Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay" on her parents. And in her novel "Orlando", Virginia was inspired by her relationship with Vita Sackville-West. Even though Vita and Virginia were people of opposite opinions, Virginia still found her irresistable. Their relationship lasted only about three years but those three years were enough to inspire Virginia to write a novel which would become an immediate best-seller.


Having experienced both of the World Wars, the theme of war was an important theme for Virginia. She was against war, an advocate for peace. She wrote about the horrors of war and dangers of fascism. Virginia also had her fair share of the damage wars cause. During the bombing of London by the Nazis in World War II, her house got destroyed. We can see the effects wars had on her in her book "Three Guineas" where she wrote about the effects of war and fascism.


During her final years, Virginia's depression had gotten unbearable for her. She had lost her faith in her talent, started to hear voices and was not able to write anymore. So, in 1941, she filled her over-coat's pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse. She left behind three suicide letters for her husband. Even though she had asked her husband to destroy all her papers in her letters, Leonard published her diary entries by compiling them into a volume "The Writer's Diary" and also published her finished novel "Between the Acts".


This is what Virginia Woolf wrote in her suicide note for her husband:

"Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that - everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.


I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been."



On Virginia Woolf's grave is written "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!", the last words of her book "The Waves".


In 1941, the world lost not just a great writer and mind but also a great soul. Virginia endured many tragedies in her lifetime, definitely more than an average person could. If she hadn't ended her life at the age of fifty nine, who knows what more revolutionary works Virginia Woolf would have written?

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