(1882 – 1941)
Born in London into a large family of rather eminent Victorians, Virginia Woolf wrote ten novels, in addition to copious essays and short stories, which have secured her a place in the modernist canon afforded few other women writers. Her essay A Room of One’s Own (1929) has become a feminist classic; from that essay, the sentence ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ has become shorthand for lesbianism—a case in point being Lillian Faderman’s 1994 anthology of lesbian literature titled Chloe Plus Olivia. Nearly all of Woolf’s novels and many of her short stories have been interpreted from a variety of feminist, lesbian feminist and queer critical perspectives.
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born to Julia Pattle Duckworth Stephen, whose Pre-Raphaelite beauty was captured in the famous photographs of her aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron. Sir Leslie Stephen, literary critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, who although he did not believe in formally educating girls, made his voluminous library available to his precocious daughter Virginia. After her father’s death in 1904, Woolf’s intellectual powers flourished when she, her sister Vanessa and brother Thoby moved to London’s Bloomsbury. There they formed what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group, which included Clive Bell, Desmond MacCarthy, Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant and Lytton Strachey—the latter three of whom were homosexual. Strachey once proposed to Virginia but successfully recanted ‘before the end of the conversation’, he confessed in a letter to Leonard Woolf, who was more serious and tenacious in his proposal. Although she admitted feeling no physical attraction for him, Virginia Stephen agreed to marry Leonard Woolf in 1912. All biographers agree that it was essentially a sexless marriage, but many also agree that on some levels it was a satisfying partnership for both. Their union is undoubtedly responsible for creating one of the most important presses in the history of twentieth-century literature: the Hogarth Press, which published some of the most important authors in the modernist canon, including T. S. Eliot—Woolf typeset The Waste Land herself—Gertrude Stein and Katherine Mansfield, as well as translations of Sigmund Freud. Hogarth Press, of course, also published Woolf’s novels from Jacob’s Room (1922) to her final novel, Between the Acts, which was published in 1941 after Woolf committed suicide by drowning. ‘I’m the only woman in England free to write what I like’, wrote Woolf. Woolf’s acute awareness of censorship, however—especially in the case of Radclyffe Hall‘s banned lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness—has led some critics to examine Woolf’s strategies of encoding the lesbian content of much of her fiction.
While many critics and biographers have insisted on viewing the intense emotional, erotically charged and sometimes sexual relationships that Woolf developed with women throughout her entire life as the result of one or more psychological wounds—her mother’s early death when Virginia was 13 or her sexual abuse by a half-brother—critical and biographical perspectives have shifted to make significant space for the discussion of Woolf as a writer with a lesbian consciousness. Her most famous affair of the heart and the one to have been most physical was that with Vita Sackville-West, for whom she wrote the novel Orlando (1928). Nearly all of Woolf’s novels—including her first, The Voyage Out (1915); her more famous ones, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Light-house (1927); and her last two, The Years (1937) and Between the Acts (1941)—have been interpreted in light of their lesbian themes. Woolf’s pronouncement that ‘Women alone stir my imagination’ has stirred the imagination of countless readers and scholars of her work.
(“The Gay 100”, p52).