Virginia Woolf and the Creation of Mrs. Dalloway
Adeline Virginia Stephen, who will later be known as Virginia Woolf, is born on January 25 in London. Her parents, Julia Duckworth and Leslie Stephen, both bring children from previous marriages into the blended family. Altogether, little Virginia has four half-siblings and three full siblings. Her older sister Vanessa, born in 1879, is Woolf’s favorite; she will also appear in Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours.
A voracious reader, Woolf takes full advantage of her father’s extensive library. She receives her early education at home, as she, like most other young women of this time, is denied the formal education her brothers receive.
Woolf’s mother dies on May 5, when Virginia is just 13. That spring, Woolf will have her first mental breakdown, precipitated by this tragic loss. Only a few years later her half-sister, Stella, also dies after a long illness.
Woolf finishes her further education at King’s College, London, one of the first universities to have a dedicated “Ladies’ department.” She studies classics and history, and she meets other women involved in the early womens’ rights movement, known as “the suffragettes.”
After an excruciating two-year battle with cancer, Woolf’s father dies. She suffers another breakdown, during which she believes that sparrows are singing to her in Greek, an idea that will appear in her novel Mrs. Dalloway.
After their father’s death, Woolf and her siblings leave their childhood home and move to the central-London neighborhood of Bloomsbury. Woolf’s circle of friends—which will include the novelist E.M. Forster, the biographer Lytton Strachey, the painter Roger Fry, and the economist John Maynard Keynes—will be called “the Bloomsbury Group” after this locale. In these early years, the artistic and literary debates of the Bloomsbury Group intelligentsia will shape Virginia’s outlook and writing style.
Following the death of a brother and the wedding of her sister Vanessa, Woolf and her brother Adrian move to a new house in Fitzroy Square, where they take on three lodgers. In 1911, a young man named Leonard Woolf moves into the house. Back in London for a one-year hiatus from his civil-servant position in Ceylon (a former British colony, now known as Sri Lanka), Leonard immediately notices Virginia. The two are married on August 10, 1912.
Woolf and Leonard move to Richmond, a suburb outside of London. Woolf’s mental state has been shaky, and Leonard believes that the quiet of the countryside will help her recover. Although her hallucinations soon stop, Woolf, an ardent pacifist, remains tormented by news of the war.
Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, is published. Among the background characters in the story are an older couple named Clarissa and Richard Dalloway. Two years later, Virginia and Leonard jointly found Hogarth Press, a publishing house that will print and distribute most of Virginia’s works.
In May, Woolf writes to the poet T.S. Eliot that she is working on two short stories, including one called “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street.” She finishes the story in September and soon sets about expanding it, sketching out a series of seven tangentially related short stories that will all come together in a final story to take place at Mrs. Dalloway’s party that evening.
On October 14, Woolf writes: “Mrs. Dalloway has branched into a book; […] a study of insanity & suicide: the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side—something like that.” In November, Woolf writes that she is considering organizing the new novel by hour and calling it
In the meantime, however, tragedy has struck Virginia’s life once again: In October, her childhood friend Kitty Maxse dies after falling off the banister of her home, possibly inspiring the scene of Septimus’s suicide.
Virginia completes a first draft of the novel, now titled Mrs. Dalloway, on October 9 at 11:15AM, noting the time in the margin of her notebook. She spends the next three months revising the work, finishing in time to give Leonard a copy for Christmas.
Woolf sends the completed manuscript to her publisher in January, and Mrs. Dalloway is published on May 25.
Over the next decade and a half, Woolf will write a series of novels that now stand as exemplars modernist literature, including To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando: A Biography (1928), The Waves (1931), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (1941). She will also continue writing essays and criticism, including her book-length feminist essay A Room of One’s Own (1929).
On March 28, Woolf dies by suicide at the age of 59, filling her pockets with stones and wading into the River Ouse.