Day 30′s LGBT History Month icon, Virginia Woolf, had a very different life and career from Day 7′s icon, Rita Mae Brown. But both have influenced feminism and literature.
By the time Virginia Woolf burst onto the London literary scene, she had already swung repeatedly from elation to despair. Born in 1882, Woolf was only six when her stepbrother began sexually abusing her, a nightmare that continued until she was an adult. She suffered her first mental breakdown at 13, when her mother died. When she was 22, she fell into mad despair again over the death of her father.
Still, the literary environment that enveloped her childhood and youth fostered the young woman’s innate talent. When she recovered from the aftermath of her father’s death, she and her siblings moved to Gordon Square in London. Surrounded by philosophers, writers, economists and artists, Woolf became part of the Bloomsbury group. They were intellectual and political trendsetters whose personal lives were the source of endless speculation and fascination.
Woolf’s Rise to Fame
Woolf began her freelance career writing book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and teaching English literature and history at Morley College. In 1912 she met politician and journalist Leonard Woolf. While passion was never part of the marriage, love and respect were.
Leonard Woolf supported his wife’s literary ambitions and stood by her through her frequent descents into depression and mental illness. Together they founded Hogarth Press, which published most of Virginia Woolf’s books as well as works by T.S. Elliot and Katherine Mansfield.
Though Virginia Woolf had close relationships with a number of women, her passionate affair with novelist, poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West was the most influential. When Woolf suggested the lead character of her novel Orlando might be modeled after her errant lover, Sackville-West replied,
What fun for you; what fun for me. You see, any vengeance that you want to take will be ready in your hand….You have my full permission.
Woolf was prolific throughout her literary career. Turning her back on traditional forms, she wrote in a modernist style. By the time she died she had published over 500 essays, 10 novels, and a series of non-fiction books. Among her best known works are Jakob’s Room (1922), To the Lighthouse (1927), and A Room of Her Own (1929).
Madness and Suicide
In 1941, when Virginia Woolf was 59, she felt her madness returning and left a suicide note for her husband.
I feel certain that 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.
Woolf filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse in Lewes, England. Nearly a month passed before children playing beside the river discovered her body.
The flood of biographies, literary analyses and even societies devoted to Virginia Woolf has never slowed in the 70 years since her death. The International Virginia Woolf Society describes her as “one of the most important and influential feminist writers of the twentieth century…”
The LGBT History Month site has links to numerous works by Virginia Woolf as well as to articles about her.
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