Virginia Woolf, Women and Work


virginawoolfBorn in 1882 into Victorian England, into the large upper middle-class and blended  family of Julia Duckworth and Leslie Stephen, and raised in a dark claustrophobic house in London’s Hyde Park, Virginia Woolf has become a symbol of feminism, high modernism, and experimental fiction.  But she was also a prolific essayist, writing for the “common reader”; a biographer (Flush, the biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog; Roger Fry, the biography of an influential Bloomsbury painter and art historian); a reviewer and journalist (Times Literary Supplement and Good Housekeeping); a polemicist (A Room of One’s Own, 1928; Three Guineas, 1938); an autobiographer (Moments of Being, 1976), and a committed diarist. She and Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912, began the Hogarth Press, which published significant modernist and provocative works, including T.S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, but also many women writers, notably Katherine Mansfield, Vita Sackville West, Nancy Cunard, and Woolf herself.

Educated privately and given free rein of her father’s library (while her brothers went to Cambridge), Virginia, and her sister, Vanessa upon the sudden successive deaths of their mother, half-sister, Stella, and the prolonged passing of their father, moved to Bloomsbury, where they pursued their careers as writer and painter respectively. Here, amid an intellectual, socially progressive, and artistic community– the Bloomsbury group, which included Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey, they relished their personal and artistic freedom. Woolf published nine novels, of which Jacob’s Room, Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, and Between the Acts heralded a radical shift from the Edwardian novels of social realism, and instigated a style that explored multiple inner consciousnesses and what she called “moments of being.” Woolf described her unique method this way: “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel…they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday” (‘Modern Fiction,” 154). Orlando, 1928, a fantasy, that spans English history and letters from the Elizabethan age to the1930s, is a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had a romantic relationship. But her novels and essays are not only evocative and poetic explorations of personal and meta consciousnesses, they also tackle an issue always close to her heart—the independence of women. As she argues passionately in A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas and the novel, The Years, 1937 (which was originally structured as a combination of novel and essays on the professions of women), independence and creativity require not only privacy and liberation from a patriarchal culture that entraps women as angels in the house, but also a proper education and an adequate income.  Eloquently tackling the plight of women writers in the past and present, the insidious and pervasive oppressiveness of patriarchy, and women’s sexuality and lesbianism, Room is one of feminism’s founding iconic texts.

Three Guineas, which is framed as a reply to a letter asking how war can be prevented, becomes a fervent plea for the equality of women in professions and in salary. Woolf points out that marriage was the only profession open to women until 1919, but that even in 1938, after suffrage and the Sexual Disqualification (Removal) Act, women were struggling to achieve equal footing with men. Until women are educated and can earn their living in the professions, she insists, they will not achieve the “ independent and disinterested influence” required to help men prevent wars (97). The shadow of World War II, and its deep and invested roots in patriarchy are the themes of her last novel, Between the Acts (1941). In 1941, Woolf, who had been prone to serious depression throughout her life, committed suicide by drowning in the river Ouse.

Although relatively unrecognized except as a minor modernist writer until about 1970, Woolf herself and her writings have since generated a vast number of literary, biographical, feminist, queer critical studies as well as associations and societies dedicated to her life and work, international conferences, novels (e.g. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours), films (e.g. Sally Potter’s Orlando), and even fashions. An inspiring though not uncontroversial model for feminists, lesbians, and writers in all genres, Woolf now stands as one of the major intellectual figures of the twentieth century.




Lee, Hermione. 1996. Virginia Woolf.  London: Chatto and Windus.

Schulkind, Jeanne, ed. 1976. Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Woolf, Virginia.  1977-84. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, eds. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie, 5 vols. London. Hogarth Press.

— 1975-80. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, eds. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, 6 vols. London: Hogarth Press.

–1925. “Modern Fiction,” The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 150-58.

–1977. Three Guineas. Harmondsworth: Penguin. (includes annual bibliographies)

Mezei, Kathy

Mezei, Kathy

Kathy Mezei is Professor Emeritus, Department of Humanities, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada, and researches domestic space, modern British women writers, Canadian and Quebec literatures and translation studies. With Chiara Briganti she has published Domestic Modernism, the Interwar Novel, and E.H. Young (2006) and The Domestic Space Reader (2012).
Mezei, Kathy

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