The British author Virginia Woolf has always been a figure of fascination. She’s been the subject of provocative autobiographical period dramas such as The Hours (2002) and Vita and Virginia (2018). There have also been numerous novels and studies written about her bouts of mental illness, her complicated relationship with her sister Vanessa Bell, her lesbian love affair with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West, and her eventual suicide by drowning.
But there are aspects of her immensely colorful life that these movies and books often skip over. They are small, but not inconsequential. They fill in some missing craters in the popular public image of Virginia Woolf that has become more mythological than human. But she was human, and her life becomes even more interesting as you dig deeper. Here are ten facts about Virginia Woolf’s life that you probably didn’t know.
10. She had a half-sister who was locked up in an asylum.
Comb through history and you will find these stories constantly. Famous families have always used asylums as a dumping ground for their mentally ill, vulnerable, and unwanted women relatives. Rosemary Kennedy. Lucia Joyce. Camille Claudel. And, just as tragically, Laura Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s half-sister.
Laura Stephen was the daughter of author and editor Sir Leslie Stephen and his first wife Harriet (Minnie) Thackeray, making her the granddaughter of William Thackery, author of Vanity Fair. Despite being born from a bloodline of high-achieving academics and artists, Laura was mentally deficient, slow in her development, and emotionally unstable. Sir Leslie Stephen and his second wife Julia Jackson (Virginia’s mother), lacking the resources and knowledge for parents with handicapped children that are available nowadays, eventually had her admitted into the Earlswood Asylum in 1893.
Laura stayed there for four years, and then was put under private care in a home until her death in 1945. As was the custom of the time, this was all done quietly, swiftly, and discreetly, but there is no doubt that this incapacitation of their sister caused great strain on the remaining Stephen children, most especially Laura’s half-sister Virginia, who would be institutionalized herself several times throughout her life. Allegedly, the family had little contact with Laura, and weren’t even informed right away when she died. Laura was essentially forgotten about, as were all the other forsaken women listed above.
9. Her first published piece of writing was about the Bronte sisters.
Every writer has to start somewhere, and Virginia Woolf made her first break into the publishing world with the essay “Haworth, November 1904,” which appeared in The Guardian on December 21st, 1904. Virginia, who worshipped the literary Bronte sisters as idols, wrote the piece after a pilgrimage to their family home, that almost holy shrine where the classics Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were produced.
In her article you’ll see the beginnings of the writing style that would make Virginia Woolf famous when she eventually ventured into writing novels of her own: the intimacies of family life, the significance of small personal objects, and the quiet genius of creative women who get by on their wits and talents.
8. She worked as a night-school teacher.
The death of Virginia’s father Sir Leslie Stephen in 1904 had left her and her siblings with only a modest inheritance. This was the early twentieth century, and for clever, independent women like Virginia, working was often the better option than getting married for money and security. And Virginia worked hard. Along with her journalism work, writing book reviews and articles for various publications, Virginia also took on a part-time job as a night-school teacher to supplement her income.
From 1906-1907, Virginia taught at Morley College, which offered evening classes for working-class people seeking to improve their literacy. This would not be the only teaching she would do in her lifetime; Virginia’s lectures at the prestigious women’s colleges Newnham College and Girton College would eventually be published as A Room of One’s Own in 1929.
Her time teaching at Morley College, however, would be her one brush with the world of the undereducated and unintellectual in her lifetime. It is unlikely that she ever would have worked there if her stern, controlling, conventional, and rather snobbish father hadn’t died in the first place.
7. She had a platonic love affair with her brother-in-law.
This was Clive Bell, art critic and husband of her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. I mentioned earlier that the relationship between the two sisters was complicated, and this was why. Despite being part of a circle of bohemians/intellectuals—known today as the Bloomsbury Group—that advocated free love and unrestricted living, there was friction in the Bell-Stephen triangle due to the romantic tension that existed between Virginia Woolf and her brother-in-law.
Tom Williams of the Australian Spectator claims that “he [Clive Bell] and Virginia were drawn together as they each competed for Vanessa’s attention. What followed was a chaste, emotionally intense relationship that Virginia described as ‘her affair with Clive and Nessa.’”
This reputedly unconsummated love affair would also be the focus of the novel Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, as well as Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers. In any case, Clive’s inability to stay physically and emotionally faithful to his wife broke the marriage, and a compromise was eventually reached. The Bells separated on civil terms, and Vanessa went on to have affairs of her own with critic Roger Fry and painter Duncan Grant. It was a progressive arrangement for its time, and it makes some juicy book material for our time.
6. She was once very, very briefly engaged to Lytton Strachey.
Lytton Strachey was a famous biographer, a great friend of the Stephen family, and the owner of one of the most impressive beards of his era. So it’s surprising that he sought another one, in the form of a wife. Despite being openly homosexual, it is revealed in a letter to his brother James that Lytton had an interest in Virginia that went a step beyond scholarly companionship:
“On Feb. 19 [March 1909] I proposed to Virginia, and was accepted. It was an awkward moment, as you may imagine, especially as I realised, the very minute it was happening, that the whole thing was repulsive to me. Her sense was amazing, and luckily it turned out that she's not in love. The result was that I was able to manage a fairly honorable retreat.”
As it turned out, Virginia and Lytton were better suited to collaborating on writing projects than a marriage union, and their “engagement” was quickly broken off. Lytton would later find a platonic, female life partner in the form of Dora Carrington, a painter who was devotedly and hopelessly in love with him. Their relationship was the basis of the film Carrington (1995), starring Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce as the odd couple. Virginia, as we already know, went on to marry the writer and political theorist Leonard Woolf. Like a Shakespearean play or a Jane Austen novel, everyone more or less got together with the right person in the end.
5. She wrote a biographical novel…about a dog.
It’s a surprise that Disney hasn’t gotten their hands on this one yet. In 1933 Virginia Woolf published Flush, a lighthearted and experimental book that tells a story from the perspective of poet Elizabeth Barret Browning’s dog who loyally stays by her side through illness and romance and adventure alike.
This book, although popular in its time among animal fanatics who were also wild about Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, has been largely forgotten by critics and scholars today. People prefer to focus on Virginia’s more angsty, daring, and sexy output, like Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, and find it hard to accept that she had a tender, brighter side as well. This writer suggests at least giving Flush a fair chance, even if you’re not a dog person.
4. She had an unusual friendship with the war poet Rupert Brooke.
And the two reportedly went skinny-dipping together. This doesn’t exactly fit the modern image of Virginia Woolf as the iconic repressed and depressed writer. With the way she’s represented in film and books, it’s hard to imagine that she ever had fun.
Rupert Brooke was a troubled man himself, and his intense poems will strike a nerve in anyone, even those who didn’t live through a war. In his tragically short lifetime, he tried to find peace through Neopaganism, a mode of experimental living that involved sleeping outdoors, manual labour, communal cooperation, light meals, and going barefoot. A complete rejection of everything bourgeois middle-class life stood for. Virginia Woolf herself flirted with this lifestyle, and her biographers are still speculating whether or not she also flirted with Rupert Brooke.
3. She was in a friendly rivalry with Katherine Mansfield.
Every great artist meets their match at some point in their life, and Virginia met hers in the form of the New Zealand short story writer Katherine Mansfield, who was closely connected to the Bloomsbury Group through mutual friends. By all accounts, Virginia Woolf’s feelings towards her fellow writer were like a potent cocktail, strong and mixed.
She was reputedly very jealous of Katherine Mansfield’s unique writing style, which intimately showcased people’s inner thoughts and relationships in the new modernist fashion. But the two were also close friends and collaborators. Virginia Woolf described their rivalry as a “common certain understanding between us—a queer sense of being ‘like’.”
And they were definitely “like.” Both women were bisexual, chronically ill, resentful towards their oppressive upper-class birth families, and fiercely intellectual at a time when this was considered a defect in women, so this writer imagines that there was also a sense of camaraderie between them as well.
Virginia and her husband Leonard also published some of Katherine Mansfield’s work through their independently run Hogarth Press. (This same press also published works like Hope Mirrlees' "Paris: A Poem.") Katherine, returning the favor, critiqued one of Virginia Woolf’s drafts before it was published. The moral of this story is that between writers, support is far more productive than spite.
2. She hated James Joyce’s writing.
Virginia Woolf and James Joyce have long been battling contenders for the title of “Leader of the Modernist Literary Movement.” Virginia…wasn’t particularly impressed by the output of her opponent. Here is the entry from her diary on her attempt to read Ulysses after its full publication in 1922:
“I should be reading 'Ulysses,' and fabricating my case for and against. I have read 200 pages so far - not a third; and have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested, by the first two or three chapters - to the end of the cemetery scene; and then puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”
Any English major who’s ever grappled with Joyce’s work and found the experience exasperating and unrewarding would probably agree with Virginia. This writer must express admiration for Virginia’s accomplishment of making it to two hundred pages of Ulysses. I only managed eighty before giving up. I don’t even want to attempt Finnegan’s Wake.
1. Her real name isn’t Virginia.
Adeline is the name of a 2015 biographical novel by Norah Vincent, and the title is a deceiving one. Who is Adeline, and what does she have to do with Virginia Woolf?
Well, she is Virginia Woolf. Adeline was Virginia Woolf’s birthname, abandoned in favor of the more sophisticated middle name Virginia later in the author’s life. There is speculation among Woolf scholars that Virginia dropped her first name as a coping mechanism, or a rite of passage into maturity. It would be the same thing as someone nowadays changing their hairstyle or getting a nose piercing.
Virginia wanted a new, ripened identity, separate from who she was as a child in a very, very troubled family. Ultimately, it worked. We know and respect her now as the great writer Virginia Woolf, the incredible voice of an incredible time period.
Featured photo: Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Public Domain.