Essayist, novelist, critic, short story writer, diarist, and biographer
One of the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century, Woolf is chiefly renowned as an innovative novelist, and in particular for her contribution to the development of the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique. Her novels are noted for their subjective exploration of character and theme and their poetic prose, while her essays are commended for their perceptive observations on nearly the entire range of English literature, as well as many social and political concerns of the early twentieth century.
Woolf was the daughter of the eminent literary critic and historian Sir Leslie Stephen and his second wife, Julia. While Woolf received no formal education, she was raised in a cultured and literary atmosphere, learning from her father's extensive library and from conversing with his friends, many of whom were prominent writers of the era. Her mother died in 1895, and, following the death of her father in 1904, Woolf settled in the Bloomsbury district of London with her sister, Vanessa, and her brothers Thoby and Adrian. Their house became a gathering place where such friends as J. M. Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, and E. M. Forster congregated for lively discussions about philosophy, art, music, and literature. A complex network of friendships and love affairs developed, serving to increase the solidarity of what became known as the Bloomsbury Group. Here she met Leonard Woolf, the author, politician, and economist whom she married in 1912.
Woolf flourished in the unconventional atmosphere that she and her siblings had cultivated. The freedom afforded by the Bloomsbury milieu was conducive to her literary inclinations, and the need to earn money led her to begin submitting book reviews and essays to various publications. Her first published works mainly literary reviews began appearing anonymously in 1904 in the Guardian, a weekly newspaper for Anglo-Catholic clergy. Subsequently Woolf published reviews and essays in a number of other periodicals, including the National Review, Cornhill, and the Times Literary Supplement. Woolf's letters and diaries reveal that journalism occupied much of her time and thought between 1904 and 1909. By the latter year, however, she was becoming absorbed in work on her first novel, eventually published in 1915 as The Voyage Out. She attained great renown as a novelist and short story writer thereafter and continued to write and publish essays throughout her career.
Woolf's fiction reveals an ongoing concern with subjective exploration of character and incident. Although The Voyage Out is relatively conventional, its emphasis on character rather than plot foreshadows Woolf's later treatment of her characters' inner lives. In her third novel, Jacob's Room (1922), she attempted a wholly individual technique, minimizing external action and illuminating aspects of her characters' personalities through series of individual impressions revealed to the reader through interior monologue. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) represents Woolf's first successful attempt to produce a novel in her own distinctive narrative style, rejecting the boundaries of traditional narrative form, which she believed had become too artificial and restrictive for her increasingly poetic, impressionistic renderings of life. The novel marks the emergence of Woolf's mature narrative voice, as well as the perfection of the experimental narrative technique employed tentatively in Jacob's Room. Encompassing one day in the life of an introspective, upper-class woman, Mrs. Dalloway is often discussed in terms of its affinities with James Joyce's similarly constructed Ulysses (1922). However, while both novels are written in stream-of-consciousness style, scholars note that Woolf's novel greatly differs from Joyce's in length, setting, and characterization, and its development of Woolf's lifelong aesthetic concern: the interrelationship of time, existence, and the human psyche. It is believed that by her treatment of these subjects in her strikingly individual prose style, Woolf composed one of the most subtly powerful and memorable English novels of the post-World War I era.
Regarded by many as Woolf's finest achievement, her novel To the Lighthouse (1927) treats themes of marriage, time, and death. In a further development of her subjective mode, plot is completely abandoned, with unity and coherence provided instead by imagery, symbolism, and poetic elements. This technique reached its extreme in The Waves (1931). Here Woolf depicted the passage of time through the impressionistic interior monologues of six characters, and again attempted coherence through recurrent imagery and symbol. While critics praised the poetic prose of The Waves, many argued that Woolf's method had become restrictive and artificial through a too-obvious imposition of pattern and significance upon her material. Woolf's posthumously published novel Between the Acts (1941) combines prose, poetry, and dialogue, demonstrating Woolf's continued desire to expand the scope of the novel.
Woolf maintained that the purpose of writing an essay was to give pleasure to the reader, and she endeavored to do this with witty, supple prose, apt literary and cultural references, and a wide range of subjects. Aiming to identify closely with her audience, she adopted a persona she termed "the common reader": an intelligent, educated person with the will and inclination to be challenged by what he or she reads. While the majority of Woolf's essays are devoted to literary matters, some of her most highly regarded nonfiction writings are topical and occasional essays treating such subjects as war and peace, feminism, life and death, sex and class issues, her own travels, and observations of the contemporary scene. She addressed social and feminist concerns in greatest depth in A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), discussing the cultural and economic pressures that hinder women's scholarly pursuits and exploring the underlying causes of war.
As a literary critic, Woolf undertook the appraisal of a wide range of authors. She reviewed and wrote extended critical commentary on her literary contemporaries, including Rupert Brooke, E. M. Forster, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and D. H. Lawrence; the great Victorian and Romantic poets and novelists; major figures of the eighteenth century and the Elizabethan age; and many lesser-known literary and historical personalities. Her literary criticism is largely appreciative and impressionistic, containing little that can be called objective or analytical. Woolf's commentary on works by authors of the past usually includes a full consideration of the society in which the work originated, and critics have found these essays among her most effective. One of the best and most famous of her literary essays is Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (1924), in which Modernist fiction which Woolf's own works exemplify is contrasted with the Realist-Naturalist tradition represented by H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, and Arnold Bennett. In addition to writing fiction and essays, Woolf was a prolific diarist and letter writer. Because of her importance as an innovator in the modern novel form, and as a commentator on nearly the entire range of English literature and much European literature, Woolf's life and works have been the focus of extensive study.