Virginia Woolf was born in London in 1882, the daughter of the Victorian literary critic Leslie Stephen. She lived and was educated in a highly intellectual atmosphere at home, as her father was friendly with many of the main literary figures of the period, among them Henry James. Her mother died when she was 13 and the loss influenced her profoundly. It was soon after her mother’s death that she had the first of a series of nervous breakdowns which affected her all her life. When her father died in 1904, she moved to a new area of London, Bloomsbury, where she founded a close circle of intellectuals, who became known as the “Bloomsbury Group”. Among them there was Leonard Woolf, who later became her husband, and the novelist E.M. Forster, besides painters and art critics.
The Bloomsberries shared the desire to challenge the strict Victorian social norms, and demonstrated a sexual freedom that was ahead of their time. They were rather elitist and exclusive. They have been highly criticized for their snobbishness and selfishness. The group was also reproached with its pacifism during the First World War.
In 1913, after completing her first novel, The Voyage Out, she attempted suicide following another of her recurrent mental breakdowns. In 1917 she and her husband founded the Hogarth Press which published the best experimental works of the period besides her own works. Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931) and Between the Acts (1941) are her most famous novels. Her love affair with Vita Sackville-West inspired her to write a fantasy Orlando (1928), the story of an attractive nobleman who lives through different centuries changing sex several times. Besides being a novelist, she was an essayist, journalist and art critic. Her judgments were both highly regarded and feared for their uncompromising frankness. The Common Reader (1925-32) contains the best critical work. She was also deeply interested in feminist themes. Discrimination against women is examined in A Room of One’s Own (1929), while the dominant role played by men in society is the theme of Three Guineas (1938). She eventually committed suicide by drowning in the River Ouse in 1941.
The work of Virginia Woolf marks an important step in the development of the novel, as she consciously rejected some of the main conventions of the realistic fiction of the Victorian Age and developed a new way of expressing a different perception of reality. For her, events were not important in themselves. What was important was the impression they made on the characters who experienced them. The great technical innovation she introduced in narrative technique was to shift the point of view inside her characters’ minds, thus revealing them through their own thoughts, sensations and impressions. This led to the abandonment of the chronological ordering of events. Her novels involve constant shifting backwards and forwards in time according to the sensations and recollections aroused in the characters by the events they are experiencing. Virginia Woolf’s fiction is often characterized by two levels of narration, one of external events arranged in chronological order and one of the flux of thoughts arranged according to the association of ideas. Her novels rely on very flimsy plots. They focus on internal thoughts, feelings and reactions in a highly evocative and figurative language which follows the random associations.