Introduction to Virginia Woolf: Life and Works

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  • 0:47 Early Life
  • 2:01 Publisher and Critic
  • 2:53 Major Works
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Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

This lesson introduces Virginia Woolf's life and works. We'll cover her involvement with the Bloomsbury Group and the evolution of her experimental style across works like Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and the Waves.

Introduction to Virginia Woolf

Today, we're going to talk about Virginia Woolf. She's one of the more famous Modernist writers. Modernism is just a movement between World War I and World War II in literature.

Virginia Woolf was made kind of famous recently for the release of the movie 'The Hours,' which is also a book. It's kind of about her life and her works. The takeaway from that movie should not be Nicole Kidman's weird prosthetic nose, although I think that for a lot of people it was. We're going to go a little deeper into Virginia Woolf, beyond the nose.

Early Life

Modernist writer Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf born and died dates

She was born in 1882, which, as a fun fact, is the same year as James Joyce. She also died in the same year, 1941. She was born to kind of a pretty tony family. Both of her parents had previously been married, so there were a lot of random half-siblings running around.

Her father was kind of a historian/writer type of guy. He was really involved in the art world. Her mother was a model which, in that day, meant a model for paintings; you can see her mom in some paintings.

They both died when she was pretty young. That sort of set off the beginning of her struggle with mental illness. It was her first nervous breakdown just after her mom died. So that was rough on her.

It was also rough on her because she wasn't really allowed to be educated properly because she was a woman. She didn't get to go to Cambridge even though all of her brothers got to go. She was lucky that her dad was a prominent art history writer, because he had a really awesome library. She would go around and read stuff, and she ended up being largely self-educated, at least beyond what you would normally teach women.

A Publisher and Critic

In 1912, she marries Leonard Woolf, and that's where she gets her last name. Together, they start their own printing press, which is called the Hogarth Press. They end up publishing a lot of the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud's works in England.

The Hogarth Press is kind of a publishing arm of the Bloomsbury Group, which is just a bunch of artists and bohemian-type folks who lived in Bloomsbury. That's just an area of London. You can go there; it's right by the British Museum. They published T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land; the first copy of that was run through the Hogarth Press.

So they're kind of figures in the literary movement before Virginia Woolf publishes anything herself, or at least before she publishes novels. She's kind of working as a critic and she writes things for newspapers.

Major Works

She didn't publish a novel until she was 33. And she didn't publish anything fame-making until maybe Jacob's Room in 1922. That's when she's 40. So she kind of takes a while to get going.

Her first books are The Voyage Out in 1915 and Night and Day in 1919. And in 1922, again, she publishes Jacob's Room.

Jacob's Room is kind of her first thing that's getting to be more experimental. It's an indirect character study of Jacob, but we never see Jacob. We just see things in his room, essentially. And that's an experimental way of doing a character study. That's her first sort of veering into weirdness.

Her breakthrough novel, in 1925, is Mrs. Dalloway. That's the one that gets all the play in The Hours. It takes place over the course of a single day in June. That's another similarity with Joyce; Ulysses also takes place on a single day in June. It's kind of like 24, only with a lot less Jack Bauer.

In the book, Clarissa Dalloway (that's Mrs. Dalloway of the title) is throwing a party. She decides to buy the flowers herself. That's the opening line of the book. Then there's this other character, Septimus, who's a shell-shocked veteran of World War I. He ends up killing himself. They're kind of connected through their existence in London.

It's narrated so that we get the close, internal thoughts of the characters. It ends up being somewhere between stream of consciousness, which is usually in first person and just kind of thoughts without much punctuation or anything, and 'free indirect discourse', which is in third person, but gets into the minds of the characters.

Then, in 1927, she publishes To the Lighthouse, which is even more experimental than Mrs. Dalloway. It's got even more shifting perspectives and less of a sense of concrete time. Mrs. Dalloway was one day. To the Lighthouse is kind of a miasma.

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