Virginia Woolf Essays Volume 65

This article is about the British modernist author. For the American children's author, see Virginia Euwer Wolff. For the British rock band, see Virginia Wolf.

Adeline Virginia Woolf (; née Stephen; 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English writer who is considered one of the most important modernist twentieth century authors and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device.

She was born in an affluent household in South Kensington, London, attended the Ladies' Department of King's College and was acquainted with the early reformers of women's higher education. Having been home-schooled for the most part of her childhood, mostly in English classics and Victorian literature, Woolf began writing professionally in 1900. During the interwar period, Virginia Woolf was an important part of London's literary society as well as a central figure in the group of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. She published her first novel titled The Voyage Out in 1915, through her half-brother’s publishing house, Gerald Duckworth and Company. Her best-known works include the novelsMrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928). She is also known for her essayA Room of One's Own (1929), where she wrote the much-quoted dictum, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."

Woolf became one of the central subjects of the 1970s movement of feminist criticism, and her works have since garnered much attention and widespread commentary for "inspiring feminism", an aspect of her writing that was unheralded earlier. Her works are widely read all over the world and have been translated into more than fifty languages. She suffered from severe bouts of mental illness throughout her life and took her own life by drowning in 1941 at the age of 59.


Family of origin[edit]

See also: Julia Stephen

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on 25 January 1882 at 22 Hyde Park Gate in South Kensington, London to Julia (née Jackson) (1846–1895) and Leslie Stephen (1832–1904). Julia Jackson was born in 1846 in Calcutta, Bengal, British India to Dr John and Maria (Mia) Pattle Jackson, from two Anglo-Indian families.[7] Dr Jackson FRCS was the third son of George Jackson and Mary Howard of Bengal, a physician who spent 25 years with the Bengal Medical Service and East India Company and a professor at the fledgling Calcutta Medical College. While Dr Jackson was an almost invisible presence, the Pattle family (seePattle family tree) were famous beauties, and moved in the upper circles of Bengali society. The seven Pattle sisters all married into important families.Julia Margaret Cameron was a celebrated photographer while Virginia married Earl Somers, and their daughter, Julia Jackson's cousin, was Lady Henry Somerset, the temperance leader. Julia moved to England with her mother at the age of two and spent much of her early life with another of her mother's sister, Sarah. Sarah and her husband Henry Thoby Prinsep, conducted an artistic and literary salon at Little Holland House where she came into contact with a number of Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Edward Burne-Jones, who she modelled for. Julia was the youngest of three sisters and Adeline Virginia Stephen was named after her mother's oldest sister Adeline Maria (1837–1881) and her mother's aunt Virginia (seePattle family tree and Table of ancestors). The Jacksons were a well educated, literary and artistic proconsular middle-class family.[13] In 1867, Julia Jackson married Herbert Duckworth, a barrister,[14] but within three years was left a widow with three infant children.[15] She was devastated and entered a prolonged period of mourning, abandoning her faith and turning to nursing and philanthropy. Julia and Herbert Duckworth had three children;

Leslie Stephen was born in 1832 in South Kensington to Sir James and Lady Jane Catherine Stephen (née Venn), daughter of John Venn, rector of Clapham. The Venns were the centre of the evangelicalClapham sect. Sir James Stephen was the under secretary at the Colonial Office, and with another Clapham member, William Wilberforce, was responsible for the passage of the Slavery Abolition Bill in 1833. As a family of educators, lawyers and writers the Stephens represented the elite intellectual aristocracy. While his family were distinguished and intellectual, they were less colourful and aristocratic than Julia Jackson's. A graduate and fellow of Cambridge University he renounced his faith and position to move to London where he became a notable man of letters. In the same year as Julia Jackson's marriage, he wed Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray (1840–1875), youngest daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, who bore him a daughter, Laura (1870–1945),[c] but died in childbirth in 1875. Laura turned out to be developmentally handicapped. and was eventually institutionalised.

The widowed Julia Duckworth knew Leslie Stephen through her friendship with Minny's older sister Anne (Anny) Isabella Ritchie and had developed an interest in his agnostic writings. She was present the night Minny died and added Lesley Stephen to her list of people needing care, and helped him move next door to her on Hyde Park Gate so Laura could have some companionship with her own children.[25][5] Both were preoccupied with mourning and although they developed a close friendship and intense correspondence, agreed it would go no further.[d][29] Lesley Stephen proposed to her in 1877, an offer she declined, but when Anny married later that year she accepted him and they were married on March 26, 1878. He and Laura then moved next door into Julia's house, where they lived till his death in 1904. Julia was 32 and Leslie was 46.

Their first child, Vanessa, was born on May 30, 1879. Julia, having presented her husband with a child, and now having five children to care for, had decided to limit her family to this. However, despite the fact that the couple took "precautions", "contraception was a very imperfect art in the nineteenth century" resulting in the birth of three more children over the next four years.[e][33][34]

22 Hyde Park Gate (1882–1904)[edit]


Virginia provides insight into her early life in her autobiographical essays, including Reminiscences (1908),22 Hyde Park Gate (1921) and A Sketch of the Past (1940). She also alludes to her childhood in her fictional writing. In To The Lighthouse (1927) Her depiction of the life of the Ramsays in the Hebrides is an only thinly disguised account of the Stephens in Cornwall and the Godrevy Lighthouse they would visit there.[40] However, Woolf's understanding of her mother and family evolved considerably between 1907 and 1940, in which the somewhat distant, yet revered figure of her mother becomes more nuanced and filled in. In 1891, Vanessa and Virginia Stephen began the Hyde Park Gate News,chronicling life and events within the Stephen family,[34] while the following year the Stephen sisters also used photography to supplement their insights, as did Stella Duckworth. Vanessa Bell's 1892 portrait of her sister and parents in the Library at Talland House (see image) was one of the family's favourites, and was written about lovingly in Leslie Stephen's memoir.

Virginia was born into a literate and well-connected household of six children, with two half brothers and a half sister (the Duckworths, from her mother's first marriage), another half sister, Laura (from her father's first marriage, and an older sister, Vanessa and brother Thoby. The following year, another brother Adrian followed. The handicapped Laura Stephen lived with the family until she was institutionalised in 1891. Julia and Leslie had four children together:

Virginia was born at 22 Hyde Park Gate and lived there till her father's death in 1904. Number 22 Hyde Park Gate, South Kensington, lay at the south east end of Hyde Park Gate, a narrow cul-de-sac running south from Kensington Road, just west of the Royal Albert Hall, and opposite Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, where the family regularly took their walks (seeMap). Built in the early nineteenth century as one of a row of single family townhouses for the upper middle class, it soon became too small for their expanding family. At the time of their marriage, it consisted of a basement, two stories and an attic. In 1886 substantial renovations added a new top floor, converted the attic into rooms, and added the first bathroom.[f] It was a tall but narrow townhouse, that at that time had no running water. The servants worked "downstairs" in the basement. The ground floor had a drawing room, separated by a curtain from the servant's pantry and a library. Above this on the first floor were Julia and Leslie's bedrooms. On the next floor were the Duckworth children's rooms, and above them the day and night nurseries of the Stephen children occupied two further floors. Finally in the attic, under the eaves, were the servant's bedrooms, accessed by a back staircase.[5] The house was described as dimly lit and crowded with furniture and paintings. Within it the younger Stephens formed a close-knit group. Life in London differed sharply from that in Cornwall, their outdoor activities consisting mainly of walks in nearby Hyde Park, and their daily activities around their lessons.

Sir Leslie Stephen's eminence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray, meant that his children were raised in an environment filled with the influences of Victorian literary society. Henry James, George Henry Lewes, and Virginia's honorary godfather, James Russell Lowell, were among the visitors to the house. Julia Stephen was equally well connected. Her aunt was a pioneering early photographer Julia Margaret Cameron who was also a visitor to the Stephen household. The two Stephen sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, were almost three years apart in age, and exhibited some sibling rivalry. Virginia christened her older sister "the saint" and was far more inclined to exhibit her cleverness than her more reserved sister. Virginia resented the domesticity Victorian tradition forced on them, far more than her sister. They also competed for Thoby's affections. Virginia would later confess her ambivalence over this rivalry to Duncan Grant in 1917. "indeed one of the concealed worms of my life has been a sister's jealousy — of a sister I mean; and to feed this I have invented such a myth about her that I scarce know one from t'other".

Virginia showed an early affinity for writing. Although both parents disapproved of formal education for females, writing was considered a respectable profession for women, and her father encouraged her in this respect. Later she would describe this as "ever since I was a little creature, scribbling a story in the manner of Hawthorne on the green plush sofa in the drawing room at St. Ives while the grown-ups dined". By the age of five she was writing letters and could tell her father a story every night. Later she, Vanessa and Adrian would develop the tradition of inventing a serial about their next-door neighbours, every night in the nursery, or in the case of St. Ives, of spirits that resided in the garden. It was her fascination with books that formed the strongest bond between her and her father.

Talland House (1882–1894)[edit]

Leslie Stephen was in the habit of hiking in Cornwall, and in the spring of 1881 he came across a large white house in St. Ives, Cornwall, and took out a lease on it that September. Although it had limited amenities[g], its main attraction was the view overlooking Porthminster Bay towards the Godrevy Lighthouse, which the young Virginia could see from the upper windows and was to be the central figure in her To the Lighthouse (1927). It was a large square house, with a terraced garden, divided by hedges, sloping down towards the sea. Each year between 1882 and 1894 from mid-July to mid-September the Stephen's leased Talland House[55][h] as a summer residence. Leslie Stephen, who referred to it thus: "a pocket-paradise", described it as "The pleasantest of my memories... refer to our summers, all of which were passed in Cornwall, especially to the thirteen summers (1882-1894) at St. Ives. There we bought the lease of Talland House: a small but roomy house, with a garden of an acre or two all up and down hill, with quaint little terraces divided by hedges of escallonia, a grape-house and kitchen-garden and a so-called ‘orchard’ beyond".[57] It was in Leslie's words, a place of "intense domestic happiness".

In both London and Cornwall, Julia was perpetually entertaining, and was notorious for her manipulation of her guests' lives, constantly matchmaking in the belief everyone should be married, the domestic equivalence of her philanthropy. As her husband observed "My Julia was of course, though with all due reserve, a bit of a matchmaker".[59] While Cornwall was supposed to be a summer respite, Julia Stephen soon immersed herself in the work of caring for the sick and poor there, as well as in London.[55][i] Both at Hyde Park Gate and Talland House, the family mingled with much of the country's literary and artistic circles. Frequent guests included literary figures such as Henry James and George Meredith,[59] as well as James Russell Lowell, and the children were exposed to much more intellectual conversations than their mother's at Little Holland House. The family did not return, following Julia Stephen's death in May 1895.

For the children it was the highlight of the year, and Virginia's most vivid childhood memories were not of London but of Cornwall. In a diary entry of 22 March 1921, she described why she felt so connected to Talland House, looking back to a summer day in August 1890. "Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One’s past, I suppose; I see children running in the garden … The sound of the sea at night … almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain". Cornwall inspired aspects of her work, in particular the "St Ives Trilogy" of Jacob's Room (1922),To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931).


Julia Stephen fell ill with influenza in February 1895, and never properly recovered, dying on 5 May, when Virginia was only 13. This was a pivotal moment in her life and the beginning of her struggles with mental illness. The Duckworths were travelling abroad at the time of their mother's death, and Stella returned immediately to take charge and assume her role. That summer, rather than return to the memories of St Ives, the Stephens went to Freshwater, Isle of Wight, where a number of their mother's family lived. It was there that Virginia had the first of her many nervous breakdowns, and Vanessa was forced to assume some of her mother's role in caring for Virginia's mental state. Stella became engaged to Jack Hills the following year and they were married on 10 April 1897, making Virginia even more dependent on her older sister. The death of Stella Duckworth, her pregnant surrogate mother, on 19 July 1897, after a long illness, was a further blow to Virginia's sense of self, and the family dynamics. In April 1902 their father became ill, and although he underwent surgery later that year he never fully recovered, dying on 22 February 1904. Virginia's father's death precipitated a further breakdown. Later, Virginia would describe this time as one in which she was dealt successive blows as a "broken chrysalis" with wings still creased. Chrysalis occurs many times in Woolf's writing but the "broken chrysalis" was an image that became a metaphor for those exploring the relationship between Woolf and grief.[71] At his death, Leslie Stephen's net worth was £15,715 6s. 6d.[j] (probate 23 March 1904)[k]


In the late nineteenth century, education was sharply divided along gender lines, a tradition that Virginia would note and condemn in her writing.. Boys were sent to school, and in upper middle class families such as the Stephens, this involved private boys schools, often boarding schools, and university.[75][76][77][l] Girls, if they were afforded the luxury of education, received it from their parents, governesses and tutors. Virginia was educated by her parents who shared the duty. There was a small classroom off the back of the drawing room, with its many windows, which they found perfect for quiet writing and painting. Julia taught the children Latin, French and History, while Leslie taught them mathematics. They also received piano lessons.[84] Supplementing their lessons was the children's unrestricted access to Leslie Stephen's vast library, exposing them to much of the literary canon,[13] resulting in a greater depth of reading than any of their Cambridge contemporaries, Virginia's reading being described as "greedy".[85] After Public School, the boys in the family all attended Cambridge University. The girls derived some indirect benefit from this, as the boys introduced them to their friends.

Later, between the ages of 15 and 19 she was able to pursue higher education. She took courses of study, some at degree level, in beginning and advanced Ancient Greek, intermediate Latin and German, together with continental and English history at the Ladies' Department of King's College London at nearby 13 Kensington Square between 1897 and 1901.[m] She studied Greek under the eminent scholar George Charles Winter Warr, professor of Classical Literature at King's.[88] In addition she had private tutoring in German, Greek and Latin. One of her Greek tutors was Clara Pater (1899–1900), who taught at King's. Another was Janet Case, who involved her in the women's rights movement, and whose obituary Virginia would later write in 1937. Her experiences there led to her 1925 essay On Not Knowing Greek. Her time at King's also brought her into contact with some of the early reformers of women's higher education such as the principal of the Ladies' Department, Lilian Faithfull (one of the so-called Steamboat ladies), in addition to Pater. Her sister Vanessa also enrolled at the Ladies' Department (1899–1901). Although the Stephen girls could not attend Cambridge, they were to be profoundly influenced by their brothers' experiences there. When Thoby went up to Trinity in 1899 he became friends with a circle of young men, including Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Saxon Sydney-Turner, that he would soon introduce to his sisters at the Trinity May Ball in 1900. These men formed a reading group they named the Midnight Society.[93]

Bloomsbury: life in squares (1904–1941)[edit]

Gordon Square (1904–1907)[edit]

On their father's death, the Stephens first instinct was to escape from the dark house of yet more mourning, and this they did immediately, accompanied by George, travelling to Manorbier, on the coast of Pembrokeshire on 27 February. There they spent a month, and it was there that Virginia first came to realise her destiny was as a writer, as she recalls in her diary of 3 September 1922. They then further pursued their new found freedom by spending April in Italy and France, where they met up with Clive Bell again. Virginia then suffered her second nervous breakdown, and first suicidal attempt on 10 May, and convalesced over the next three months.

Before their father died, the Stephens had discussed the need to leave South Kensington in the West End, with its tragic memories and their parents' relations. George Duckworth was 35, his brother Gerald 33. The Stephen children were now between 24 and 20. Virginia was 22. Vanessa and Adrian decided to sell 22 Hyde Park Gate in respectable South Kensington and move to Bloomsbury. Bohemian Bloomsbury, with its characteristic leafy squares seemed sufficiently far away, geographically and socially, and was a much cheaper neighbourhood to rent in (seeMap). They had not inherited much and they were unsure about their finances. Also Bloomsbury was close to the Slade School which Vanessa was then attending. While Gerald was quite happy to move on and find himself a bachelor establishment, George who had always assumed the role of quasi-parent decided to accompany them, much to their dismay. It was then that Lady Margaret Herbert[n]appeared on the scene, George proposed, was accepted and married in September, leaving the Stephens to their own devices.

Vanessa found a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, and they moved in November, to be joined by Virginia now sufficiently recovered. it was at Gordon Square thast the Stephens began to regularly entertain Thoby's intellectual friends in February 1905. The circle now included Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Rupert Brooke, E. M. Forster, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, David Garnett, and Roger Fry, with Thursday evening "At Homes" that became known as the Thursday Club. This circle formed the nucleus of the intellectual circle of writers and artists known as the Bloomsbury Group.[93] Also in 1905 Virginia and Adrian visited Portugal and Spain, Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa, but was declined, while Virginia began teaching evening classes at Morley College and Vanessa added another event to their calendar with the Friday Club, dedicated to the fine arts. The following year, 1906, Virginia suffered two further losses. Her cherished brother Thoby, who was only 26, died of typhoid, following a trip they had all taken to Greece, and immediately after Vanessa accepted Clive's third proposal. Vanessa and Clive were married in February 1907 and as a couple, their interest in avant garde art would have an important influence on Woolf's further development as an author. With Vanessa's marriage, Virginia and Adrian needed to find a new home.

Fitzroy Square (1907–1911) and Brunswick Square (1911–1912)[edit]

Virginia moved into 29 Fitzroy Square in April 1907, a house on the west side of the street, formerly occupied by George Bernard Shaw. It was in Fitzrovia, immediately to the west of Bloomsbury but still relatively close to her sister at Gordon Square. The two sisters continued to travel together, visiting Paris in March. Adrian was now to play a much larger part in Virginia's life, and they resumed the Thursday Club in October at their new home, while Gordon Square became the venue for the Play Reading Society in December. Meanwhile Virginia began work on her first novel, Melymbrosia that eventually became The Voyage Out (1915). Vanessa's first child, Julian was born in February 1908, and in September Virginia accompanied the Bells to Italy and France. It was during this time that Virginia's rivalry with her sister resurfaced, flirting with Clive, which he reciprocated, and which lasted on and off from 1908 to 1914, by which time her sister's marriage was breaking down. Several members of the group attained notoriety in 1910 with the Dreadnought hoax, which Virginia participated in disguised as a male Abyssinian royal. Her complete 1940 talk on the hoax was discovered and is published in the memoirs collected in the expanded edition of The Platform of Time (2008). It was while she was at Fitzroy Square that the question arose of Virginia needing a quiet country retreat, which she started looking for in December 2010 and soon found a property in Sussex (seebelow), maintaining a relationship with that area for the rest of her life.

In 1911 Virginia and Adrian decided to give up their home on Fitzroy Square in favour of a different living arrangement, moving to 38 Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury proper[o] in November, with Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant, and in December they were joined by the writer, Leonard Woolf, an arrangement that continued till late 1912. The house was adjacent to the Foundling Hospital, much to Virginia's amusement since she was an unchaperoned single woman.[111] Duncan Grant decorated Adrian Stephen's rooms (see image).

Marriage (1912–1941)[edit]

In May 1912 Virginia agreed to marry Woolf, and the marriage took place on 10 August. The Woolfs continued to live at Brunswick Square till October 1912, when they moved to a small flat at 13 Clifford's Inn, further to the east. Despite his low material status (Woolf referring to Leonard during their engagement as a "penniless Jew") the couple shared a close bond. Indeed, in 1937, Woolf wrote in her diary: "Love-making—after 25 years can't bear to be separate ... you see it is enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete."

In October 1914, Leonard and Virginia Woolf moved away from Bloomsbury and central London to Richmond, living at 17 The Green, a home discussed by Leonard in his autobiography Beginning Again (1964). In early March 1915, the couple moved again, to nearby Hogarth House, Paradise Road, after which they named their publishing house. Between 1924 and 1939 the Woolfs returned to Bloomsbury, living at 52 Tavistock Square, from where they ran the Hogarth Press from the basement, where Virginia also had her writing room, and is commemorated with a bust of her in the square (see illustration). Their final residence in London was at 37 Mecklenburgh Square (1939–1940), destroyed during the Blitz in September 1940, a month later their previous home on Tavistock Square was also destroyed. After that they made Sussex their permanent home. For descriptions and illustrations of all Virginia Woolf's London homes, see Wilson (1987).

Hogarth Press (1917–1938)[edit]

Main article: Hogarth Press

Virginia had taken up book-binding as a pastime in October 1901, at the age of 19, and the Woolfs had been discussing setting up a publishing house for some time, and at the end of 1916 started making plans. Having discovered that they were not eligible to enroll in the St Bride School of Printing, they started purchasing supplies after seeking advice from the Excelsior Printing Supply Company on Farringdon Road in March 1917, and soon they had a printing press set up on their dining room table at Hogarth House, and the Hogarth Press was born.

The press subsequently published Virginia's novels along with works by T. S. Eliot, Laurens van der Post, and others. The Press also commissioned works by contemporary artists, including Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell. Woolf believed that to break free of a patriarchal society that women writers needed a "room of their own" to develop and often fantasised about an "Outsider's Society" where women writers would create a virtual private space for themselves via their writings to develop a feminist critique of society. Though Woolf never created the "Outsider's society", the Hogarth Press was the closest approximation as the Woolfs chose to publish books by writers that took unconventional points of view to form a reading community. Initially the press concentrated on small expermental publications, of little interwest to large commercial publishers. Until 1930, Woolf often helped her husband print the Hogarth books as the money for employees was not there. Virginia relinquished her interest in 1938. After it was bombed in September 1940, the press was moved to Letchworth for the remainder of the war. Both the Woolfs were internationalists and pacifists who believed that promoting understanding between peoples was the best way to avoid another world war and chose quite consciously to publish works by foreign authors of whom the British reading public were unaware. The first non-British author to be published was the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, the book Reminiscences of Leo Nikolaiovich Tolstoy in 1920, dealing with his friendship with Count Leo Tolstoy.

Vita Sackville-West[edit]

The ethos of the Bloomsbury group encouraged a liberal approach to sexuality, and in 1922 she met the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson. At the time, Sackville-West was the more successful writer both commercially and critically, and it was not until after Woolf's death that she became considered the better writer. After a tentative start, they began a sexual relationship, which, according to Sackville-West in a letter to her husband dated 17 August 1926, was only twice consummated. However, Virginia's intimacy with Vita seems to have continued into the early 1930s.[129] Woolf was also inclined to brag of her affairs with other women within her intimate circle, such as Sibyl Colefax and Comtesse de Polignac.

Julia Stephen and Virginia 1884
Julia, Leslie and Virginia, Talland House 1892
Virginia and Leslie Stephen 1902


Virginia (3rd from left) with her mother and the Stephen children at their lessons, Talland House c. 1894

13 Kensington Square, former home of the Ladies' Department, King's College

Life in squares

46 Gordon Square

29 Fitzroy Square

Woolf's in Richmond

17 The Green

Hogarth House

1From the age of fifteen, photographs framed Woolf’s world. Virginia Woolf wrote about photography in her diaries, letters and essays, and used photographic terms descriptively in her fiction. Before her marriage, and then together with Leonard, Woolf took, developed and preserved over one thousand photographs in albums. Photography was a continuous part of the Woolfs’ lives even if their photographic albums do not tell a coherent life story (Humm 2005).

2She skilfully transformed friends and moments into artful tableaux and she was surrounded by female friends and family who were also energetic photographers such as Lady Ottoline Morrell, Vita Sackville-West and the artist Dora Carrington. At fifteen she used a Frena camera, as her letters to Thoby Stephen and George Duckworth reveal. The Frena, a box-form magazine camera launched in 1896, had a fixed focus lens and eccentric magazine handle requiring a dedicated camera operator. Woolf may be holding her Frena in Vanessa Bell’s photograph of Virginia and Julian taken at Blean in 1910 which is in Snapshots (Humm 2005, 87).

3The essence of photographs lies in the appeal of the experience or the event portrayed to a viewer. Woolf, like her sister and her great aunt the photographer Julia Cameron, frequently invited friends to share her reflections. The letters and diaries describe a constant exchange of photographs, in which photographs become a meeting-place, a conversation, aide-mémoires, and sometimes mechanisms of survival and enticement. At age 16, photographs were `the best present I can think of’ (Woolf 1983c,18). Virginia was happy to send a photograph of herself to her friend Emma Vaughan even if `it is somewhat like an ancient beast of my acquaintance’ (29). Visiting the professional photographer Beresford for the now famous sitting was `an entertainment’ (78).

4By the age of 21, friends photographs were like erotic emblems. `I have Marny’s [Madge Vaughan] photograph on my shelf, like a madonna to which I pray. She makes my room refined, as lavender in my drawers—(!!)’ (88). The first volume of Woolf’s collected letters ends appropriately with Virginia sending her photograph to Leonard. `Dyou like this photograph?—rather too noble, I think. Here’s another’ (497). Woolf invited friends to share their lives with her through photographs. She liked `very much’ to have baby photographs, `he’s an interesting little boy’ [Katherine Arnold-Forster’s son Mark] (495). Barbara Bagenal’s photograph of herself and her son `exactly like his father’ is `stuck in my book’ and an exchange impossible because `mine all got the foggy dew this summer’ (6). The Bagenal photographs are mounted on card in Woolf’s Monk’s House Album 2 visually replicating the way Woolf carefully conserved her friendships. After their deaths, photographs of friends were important memento mori. Wanting to send Jacques Raverat, the French painter, `a picture of me done for a vulgar paper called Vogue’, after his death in 1925 she needed photographs to continue her mental conversations, and from Gwen Raverat, Woolf desperately wanted `a snapshot or any photograph of him? I go on making things up to tell him’ (Woolf 1981a, 130 and 172-3). In the Vogue photograph Virginia is wearing her mother’s dress. Woolf believed that photographs could help her to survive those identity destroying moments of her own life—her incoherent illnesses. For example, writing to Margaret Llewelyn Davies in 1915, Woolf `wanted to say that all through that terrible time’ [a week’s attack of apparent insanity] `I thought of you, and wanted to look at a picture of you, but was afraid to ask!’ (Woolf 1980, 60). Photographs of friends were crucial to Woolf’s own sense of identity. Friends’ photographs often provide solidly visible autobiographical evidence when feelings of loss of identity become overwhelming.

5Mutual image making would also create relationships. Woolf used photographs to entice Vita Sackville-West. Writing to `Mrs Nicolson’ in 1923, Woolf asked Vita to visit in order `to look at my great aunt’s photographs of Tennyson and other people’ (Woolf 1981a 4). By 1926 more desperately, Woolf was writing to Vita’s mother, Lady Sackville, for the name of Vita’s passport photographer so `that I may write to him myself’ for a copy of the photograph (246). Virginia took Vita to London to be photographed for Orlando and used the excuse of further illustrations to make additional visits to Knole and more photography sessions. `You’ll lunch here at onesharp on Monday won’t you: bringing your curls and clothes. Nessa [Vanessa Bell] wants to photograph you at 2’ (435). The photograph appears in Orlando as `Orlando about the year 1840’.

6Writing to her friend Ethel Smyth in 1940 Woolf compared her own subjective feelings to a photographic process. `How then do I transfer these images to my sensitive paper brain? Because I have a heart. Yes, and it is the heart that makes the paper take, as they say’ (Woolf 1983a, 393). In particular, Woolf needed photographs in order to write. For example, she asked Vita, in 1931, for `a photograph of Henry’, [Harold Nicolson’s cocker spaniel], `I ask for a special reason, connected with a little escapade’ which became Woolf’s book Flush (Woolf 1981b, 380). The ironic photographs in Flush and Three Guineas, the loving construction of Vita and Angelica’s photographs in Orlando parallel the multiple references to photographs in Woolf’s fiction. For example, in Night and Day Woolf judges characters by the photographs they display in their houses. In short, photographs may be `only an eye’ but enabled Woolf to see more clearly.

Woolf studies on photography

7That Woolf’s imagination was shaped by photography became a key focus in the 1990s, undoubtedly triggered by developments in literary criticism and cultural studies in the decade, often couched as ‘the turn to the visual’. Critics argued that Woolf used photography to de-stabilise preconceived ideas of biography and that Woolf’s textual representations mirrored photography (Wussow 1994, Neverow 1999). Woolf’s own photographic practice became the focus of my work (Humm 1999). One key volume was Diane F. Gillespie and Leslie K. Hankins edited collection Virginia Woolf and the Arts which brought together much of the now extensive new work on Woolf and the visual, and contained Gillespie’s richly detailed essay on Woolf and photography (Gillespie and Hankins 1997). From 2000 criticism on Woolf and the visual has quadrupled in volume, and is even more wide-ranging and far-reaching, matching a new attention to Bloomsbury art in public galleries. Attention to a photographic Woolf broadened to include other photographers’ interaction with Woolf such as Gisèle Freund, and Woolf’s scrapbooks (Luckhurst 2001, Pawlowski 2010). Further archival research included my own analysis of Woolf and Bell’s personal photo albums and of cinema (Humm 2003 and 2005). The work still in progress shows how these newer issues of Woolf and photography are now absolutely central in any consideration of Woolf studies, confirmed by the International Société d’Études Woolfienne’s conference VirginiaWoolf and Images: Becoming Photographic (2016) celebrated with this special journal edition (Dickey 2010, Cassigneul 2014).

Woolf’s essays

8Woolf wrote many essays which touch on photography often paying attention to photography even in those essays not directly about visual topics. For example, ‘Gold and Iron’ begins with a knowledgeable description of how to develop photographs. Woolf’s voice is always multi-tonal even in the brief ‘I was given the opportunity…’ to see Friese-Greene’s ‘new colour film process’ where she shows a pointed understanding of colourism in cinema (Woolf 1988, 403). In ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’, Woolf describes her great-aunt’s life and career. Woolf’s own continual photographic practice informs her understanding of how Cameron’s photography engenders and expresses a ‘sensibility’ (Woolf 2008, 381). Cameron’s use of dark, amorphous backgrounds and sfumato, or blurred outlines, matches Woolf’s refusal to create two-dimensional characters.

9Although not a cineaste Woolf makes perceptive comments about the new art, and Woolf’s ‘The Cinema’ is the first British essay about avant-garde film (and Woolf saw many films, including Storm Over Asia, Le Million, and Wuthering Heights). ‘The Cinema’, ostensibly about The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, discusses a range of films, including newsreels and Anna Karenina. The essay reveals Woolf’s knowledge of cinematic processes—of close-ups seeing ‘the very quivers’ of a character’s lips, as well as the use of objects ‘pebbles on a beach’ to suggest emotions (351). Woolf points to the unconscious optics of cinema, and judges the art of cinema to lie, not in its subject matter, but in film processes, especially film’s use of constitutive absence ‘we behold them [people and objects] as they are when we are not there’, and how film connects with spectators’ unconscious thoughts and memories (349). Later, Woolf adopts the perspective of a modernist photographer in ‘The House of Commons’, ‘we look down upon some of the glossiest top hats’ presaging her more feminist viewpoints of Three Guineas, and its visual/political images of men’s clothing (Woolf 2009, 325). Modern technologies enable Woolf to new modernist perceptions.

Woolf, Writing and Photography

10Virginia Woolf is one of the foremost visual writers of the twentieth century. She frequently uses a vocabulary drawn from photography, for example, in To the Lighthouse and in her short stories ‘Blue and Green,’ and ‘Monday or Tuesday’. Several of her books contain illustrations: Flush, Orlando, Roger Fry: A Biography and Three Guineas. The Woolf’s Hogarth Press taught Woolf the graphic arts of formatting and spatial form, with Woolf herself type-setting thirty-four books. And the Woolfs published books about cinema, for example, Eric White’s Walking Shadows (1931). First I will examine analogies: how scenes and descriptions in her writing often match her own domestic photography and that of her family. Second I want to examine adoptions by Woolf of the languages and methods of photography. This includes her use of photographic tropes for example in Flush; but, more importantly, the way in which her knowledge of photography encouraged Woolf to find new ways of representing political arguments for example, in Three Guineas.


11One of the things I discovered when researching my book Snapshots of Bloomsbury is that there are close parallels between details in the domestic photographs taken by Virginia Woolf and photos taken of her, and descriptive details in Woolf’s writing. Often Woolf seems to be describing not an actual memory but as if describing a photograph in front of her in the albums. For example, Woolf’s descriptions, in her autobiographical ‘Reminiscences’ of her sister Vanessa’s ’honesty’, ‘clinging to truth too tenaciously’ which Woolf examples by a cricketing reference—’she played cricket better for the same reasons, with her straightforward stroke’ match a photograph taken at Talland Housetheir childhood summer home (Woolf 1985, 31; Humm 2005, 53). The famous opening of Woolf’s autobiography ‘A Sketch of the Past’: ‘I begin: the first memory. This was of red and purple flowers on a black ground—my mother’s dress; and she was sitting either in a train or in an omnibus, and I was on her lap’ matches plate 36f in Leslie Stephen’s photo album which Woolf owned at the time she wrote the autobiography (Woolf 1985, 64). The photograph was, of course, black and white and hence in addition to the overall scene Woolf emphasises the ‘black ground’ of her mother’s dress. The photograph is the first photograph taken of Woolf and hence becomes the first memory.

12Crucially for Woolf’s subsequent photography and writing, in 1892her sister Vanessa took a key photograph of Virginia together with their mother Julia and father sitting reading at Talland House (Humm 2005, 46). All three sisters’ albums, Virginia’s, Vanessa’s and their half-sister Stella’s, contain this 1892 photograph in which Virginia gazes at Vanessa as camera operator as if sharing a ‘primal scene’. Woolf’s father also memorialises the photograph in his Mausoleum Book written about the dead Julia, and includes it in his photo album (although dating the photograph 1893). And the scene is recreated in To the Lighthouse when Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay read together ‘here he looked at her reading. She looked very peaceful, reading’ and Mrs. Ramsay a sentence or so later is reading of roses ‘laying hands on one flower and then another’ which resemble the details of flowers at the rear of the photograph (Woolf 1992, 162–163).

13Woolf’s essays and non-fiction texts often use a dialogic form in order to break with straightforward causality and to bring in the reader. Melba Cuddy-Keane has argued that this use of a dialogic form ‘constitutes Woolf’s greatest separation’ from conventional academia in the 1920s (Cuddy-Keane 79). There are immediate analogies between Woolf’s technique in prose and the photographs that the Woolfs were taking at this time. The Woolfs preference for paired self-portraits of themselves and their friends constitute a dialogic and repetitive visual autobiography.

14These repetitive paired sequences go beyond the conventions of candid or instant photography. In their use of repetition the photographs encourage dialogue between the sitters and between husband and wife as camera operators (Humm 2005, 127). The constant pairing of husband and wife and of friends over decades is a dialogic practice, for example the album’s placing of photographs of John Maynard Keynes and his wife Lydia also exaggerate the quality of coupledom (132). They are double portraits in which each figure has great presence. These photographs displace the normal amateur gap between subject and photographer.

15Similarly in Woolf’s criticism, Woolf’s frequently dialogues with the reader. The introduction to her Life As We Have Known It makes us active readers because the narrator apparently has great difficulty in describing scenes. She sees a woman ‘wearing something like a chain’ (obviously a Mayoress) (Woolf 2009, 226). Miss Kidd is wearing deep purple ‘the colour seemed somehow symbolical,’ the narrator seems not to know the suffragette colours, asking ‘what is the use of it all?’(230, 232).

16Other uses of a dialogic form come in Woolf’s interactions with her father Leslie Stephen’s writings. For example, there are very close parallels between some of Woolf’s essays and those of Stephen’s Hours in a Library. About the writer de Quincey Stephen wrote ‘he is utterly incapable of concentration…the most diffuse of writers’ (Stephen 230). Woolf writes on de Quincey fifty years later ‘he was profusely and indiscriminately loquacious. Discursiveness—the disease’ (455). Reading the essays of Stephen and Woolf together is like hearing two voices in dialogue, and too in disagreement particularly about women writers like George Eliot when Stephen praises Eliot’s early agricultural scenes and Woolf argues ‘confine George Eliot to the agricultural world’ would ‘lose her true flavour’ (Woolf 2008, 177).


17The most obvious adoptions Woolf makes in her writings are of photographic tropes. By the 1930s a new language of modernism had emerged in response to developments in visual cultures including cinema and photographic technologies. Modernism’s new visual vocabularies, shaped by photography’s strategies of close-ups, unusual viewpoints and sharp tonal contrasts emerge in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves—where light transforms objects. The new style was conspicuously urban. Subjects included tall skyscrapers, street scenes and everyday objects often shot with dramatic viewpoints and tonal contrasts. Modernist writing was part of a world in which ubiquitous photographic technologies shaped urban modernity into dramatic and multi-perspective images. It is not really surprising that Woolf would want to adopt these in her writings.

18Yet this complex experience of visual technologies seems at odds with one of Virginia Woolf’s most popular novels of the 1930s—Flush, a novel seemingly all about the sense of smell not sight. Flush is a novel about the dog Flush belonging to the nineteenth-century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and their lives together told from the point of view of the dog. But it is through reading a book like Flush, one apparently least open to visual interpretations, that the crucial impact of modernity’s photography on Woolf can be seen.

19The writing of Flush did begin and end with visual technologies. As noted, on 16 September 1931, Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West asking for a photograph, but it was another dog Pinka, given to Woolf by Vita, who eventually became Flush. Woolf first conceived of Flush as a visual figure. ‘Read the Browning love letters, and the figure of their dog made me laugh so I couldn’t resist making him a Life’ (Woolf 1982, 161-162). In October 1933, following the huge success of Flush in Britain and America, Woolf was again excited by the visual possibilities of Flush. ‘It’s possible that Flush is to be pictured’ (Woolf 1983b, 186). The film was never made but the director Joseph Fiennes is to film Flush in 2017.

20References to the visual appear throughout the novel. It is as if engaging in photography’s representative techniques enables Woolf to figure and finish Flush as a series of connected visual objects. ‘I visualise this book now. . . as a series of great balloons . . . I can take liberties with the representational form’ (142). In Florence, Flush witnesses street politics from above, the typical point of view of the modernist urban photographer. Under the Barrett Browning’s balcony ‘a vast crowd was surging underneath…the people in the street—grave men, gay young women—were kissing each other and raising their babies to the people in the balconies’ (Woolf 1933, 79-80). Photography had maximised panoramic and elevated urban vantage points of view by developing faster shutter exposure times.

21Flush theorizes as much through his visual imagination as through his sense of smell. Flush’s unremitting effort to visualise his surroundings through the photographic enables Woolf to create a humorous distancing. When Flush sees Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s new baby he thinks: ‘it was a live animal. Independently of them all, without the street door being opened, out of herself in the room, alone, Mrs. Browning had become two people’ (83). A photographic perception permits the humour. It is precisely because the photographic makes such continuous interventions in Flush that Flush, just as other of Woolf’s work, is structured by adoptions of the visual.

22A much more complex adoption of photography occurs in Woolf’s Three Guineas. Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, is about the giving of three guineas to those who can prevent war and demonstrates one major way in which photographs and visual memories can reveal a gendered subjectivity in the differing ways with which Woolf counters a masculine patriarchal world, as represented by published photographs: a general, heralds, university professors, a judge, and an Archbishop, with the feminine “affect” of the narrator’s visual memories of photographs of fascist atrocities sent to British supporters during the Spanish Civil War by the Republican government, which are not reproduced in the text.

23In my view it is the absent photographs that in a major way shape the narrative of Three Guineas.Three Guineas is structured by many references to ‘dead bodies and ruined houses’ in which the narrator’s differing ‘looks’ trigger Woolf’s political analysis of patriarchy. The absent photograph functions as a transactional act of memory between narrator and reader. Woolf achieves this by means of specific, visual details. In the absent photograph the ruined houses resemble a child’s game of spillikins, a domestic game. The ‘certain’ bodies are those of children, and the houses still retain ‘a bird-cage’ itself often a compelling metaphor of Victorian women’s private seclusions (Woolf 1993, 125), Woolf subsequently abbreviates the detailed account into a single phrasal mnemonic occurring at further points in the text, for example ‘the photograph of ruined houses and dead bodies’ (138), or ‘pictures of dead bodies and ruined houses (154).

24Each memory of the absent photographs builds on another enabling Woolf to envision more radical reforms for women. ‘Also consider these photographs: they are pictures of dead bodies and ruined houses. Surely in view of these questions and pictures you must consider very carefully before you begin to rebuild your college what is the aim of education […] Now since history and biography—the only evidence available to an outsider—seem to prove that the old education,’ the narrator claims, breeds no ‘hatred of war’, then the new college must be ‘an experimental college (132-33). Each memory of the absent image gives Woolf the strength to move forward into a more complex social agenda, by switching Woolf’s vision from simply championing equal opportunities—because the masculine professional agenda only makes people ‘lose their senses’ (197), to imagine new cultural and intellectual liberties in the Outsiders Society. Woolf’s deep knowledge of photography—her constant photographic practice, photo album construction, and the continued experience of being photographed throughout her life—inspired her to choose photography as a generative medium in Three Guineas.

25Other Woolf writings influenced by photography include The Years which is photographic in the way it rethinks the relationship between characters and space. ‘Kitty who had altered the focus of her eyes to suit the smallness of the Robson family, was taken by surprise.’ (Woolf 2000, 60); Martin stands in front of St. Paul’s cathedral. ‘He stood with his back pressed against the shop trying to get the whole of the Cathedral clear’ (199).

26Woolf’s attention to photography is a constant theme in her work. Her own photographs are transactional, containing exchanges and gestures going beyond what we normally find in family albums but synchronising with a period that had a renaissance of the literature of personality, just as Woolf in fiction frequently creates meaning through characters’ gestures. To Woolf then, photographs are not transparent, unproblematic representations of the real. She uses them for her writings with adoptions and analogies, and her own photographs are forms of self-inquiry representing material, subjective and cultural identities as well as being, of course, snapshots of Bloomsbury.

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