130 years of Virginia Woolf

A look back at an extraordinary literary lifetime

Virginia Woolf would have been 130 today, January 25th; what would she have thought of us all?

Certainly she wouldn’t think much of the state of the English novel. In her own fiction she went deep into the heart of human consciousness, experimenting boldly with language and narrative. She might well wonder why there has been so little development from her innovative work.

In 1908, when she was writing her very first novel, The Voyage Out, she exulted: "how I shall re-form the novel and capture multitudes of things at present fugitive, enclose the whole and shape infinite strange shapes". By the end of her life in 1941 she could justly claim to have done that.

It is impossible to consider her literary impact without thinking of her novels. In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf takes a day in a society woman’s life but builds out of it her mental history and her innermost fears and desires, which are mirrored in the fractured mind of Septimus Smith, a First World War survivor.

In To The Lighthouse, perhaps her best known and best-regarded novel, Woolf asks what fiction is even as she writes it. She always asks what reality is too, offering us multiple visions of the world.

The Waves carries experimentation further, deeper into pure consciousness. Orlando has as its hero/heroine a man who turns into a woman, migrating through history. It was made into a film, with Tilda Swinton as the protagonist.

Her essays too have been gathering increasing acclaim. A Room of One’s Own has become a central feminist text. Her shorter pieces on writing, literature, and the imagination, and also on apparently more everyday issues such as ‘being ill’, still speak to us. She had a lighter side too: Flush tells the story of Elizabeth Barrett Brownings’s spaniel – in the dog’s own words!

Woolf has her faults, and her detractors. Social and intellectual snobbery mars her work, though it is more evident in her less guarded letters and diaries. But her revelations about the human mind and its extraordinary workings pierce deep.

There’s no doubt that her unusual understanding of consciousness, and her ability to represent it in language, were informed by her own bouts of mental illness. These crippling attacks punctuated her life, and they led finally to her suicide by drowning in March 1941. She had just passed her 59th birthday, and just finished her novel Between the Acts. As often at the end of the spell of intense creative activity involved in completing a novel, she felt her illness approaching again, and couldn’t face the struggle with it that she had so many times before courageously undertaken.

We should salute her courage today for sustaining that long struggle, and for producing a body of work which is like no other.     

Virginia Woolf's novels are to be reissued by Wordsworth Classics in February, including special editions of Mrs Dalloway, Jacob's Room, Orlando, The Waves and The Years.

Painting by Roger Fry