Woolf [née Stephen], (Adeline) Virginia
- Lyndall Gordon
(Adeline) Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)
Woolf [née Stephen], (Adeline) Virginia (1882–1941), writer and publisher, was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on 25 January 1882 at 22 Hyde Park Gate, London. She was the third child of Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), a London man of letters and founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and his second wife, Julia Prinsep Duckworth, née Jackson (1846–1895) [see Stephen, Julia Prinsep], whose soulful, large-eyed beauty had made her a frequent subject for the pioneering Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, her great-aunt. The niece wrote Cameron's biography for the Dictionary of National Biography, and drew on her own nursing practice for her Notes on Sickrooms (1883). The Stephen forebears were evangelicals, part of the Clapham Sect around the reformer William Wilberforce; Leslie Stephen was the son of Jane Catherine Venn (daughter of John Venn [see under Venn, Henry], rector of Clapham) and Sir James Stephen, the colonial under-secretary who framed the bill to abolish slavery in 1833. As lawyers, writers, and educators, the Stephens belonged to the professional élite—the intellectual aristocracy, so called—in nineteenth-century England. Julia Jackson grew up in a different set, that of the Pre-Raphaelite artists who gathered at Little Holland House in London. Though artists, including Holman Hunt, proposed to her, she chose to marry a polished gentleman, Herbert Duckworth. She was a grieving young widow with three children when she married Leslie Stephen and produced four more: the artist Vanessa Bell (1879–1961), (Julius) Thoby Stephen (1880–1906), Virginia, and the psychoanalyst Adrian Stephen (1883–1948).
In spring 1882, just after Virginia's birth, Leslie Stephen was on one of his habitual tramps in Cornwall when, on an impulse, he rented Talland House outside St Ives. There was no furniture in the upstairs rooms nor did the cold water tap work, but there was a perfect view across the sea to Godrevy lighthouse. So each year from mid-July to mid-September, for the following ten years, the Stephen family moved to that large square house with its terraced gardens, divided by hedges of escallonia, descending the slope towards the sea. An entry in Virginia's diary for 22 March 1921 looks back to an ordinary summer day in August 1890, to the sound of the sea and the children in the garden, and concludes that all her life was 'built on that, permeated by that: how much so I could never explain'.
The rest of the year was spent in London, shut up at 22 Hyde Park Gate, in Kensington, a tall, narrow house, crammed with the ill-assorted offspring of different unions. The younger Stephens, as a close-knit group of gifted children, excluded Laura, the slower child of their father's first marriage to Minny Thackeray [see Stephen, Harriet Marian (1840-1875)]. When Laura showed signs of disturbance, she was detached from the family and put away for life in an asylum.
It was decided at an early age that Virginia was to be a writer. Writing absorbed her, she said, 'ever since I was a little creature, scribbling a story in the manner of Hawthorne on the green plush sofa in the drawing room at St. Ives while the grown-ups dined' (V. Woolf, Diary, 19 Dec 1938). At five she could write a letter in 'a most lovely hand' and tell her father a story every night. Later, after her elder brother, Thoby, went away to school, she, Vanessa, and Adrian devised a serial in the night nursery—as in the Brontë parsonage—a romance about the unsuspecting Dilke family next door who were made to discover gold under the nursery floor. At St Ives there was a different serial, a garden story about Beccage and Hollywinks, spirits of evil who lived on the rubbish heap and disappeared through a hole in the escallonia hedge.
Virginia's bookishness drew her closer to her father than his other children were. Her mother caught her, at nine, twisting a lock of her hair as she read, in imitation of Leslie Stephen. Throughout her life, she retained a fascination for 'that old wretch my father' (V. Woolf, Letters, 3 May 1927), though she often condemned him. During her adolescence he seemed a tyrant; then, as she grew older, she would dip into his letters and memoirs, and find a mirror image of herself, 'a fastidious delicate mind, educated & transparent' (Diary, 22 Dec 1940). The ambivalence was never resolved. Her father was forty-nine when she was born, and she and the other children of his second marriage saw an eminent Victorian with a great forehead and nose, a long grey beard, and heavy eyebrows, wisps of which lowered over his eyes. In colossal hiker's boots he would hop along before or behind the family party, swinging his stick, and humming 'like a stridulous grasshopper' (Letters, 10 Aug 1909).
Virginia's strongest memories from childhood were the idyll of St Ives, a basis for art, and at the other extreme, humiliation at the age of six when Gerald Duckworth, her grown-up half-brother (the younger son of her mother's first marriage), lifted her onto a ledge and explored her private parts—leaving her prey to sexual fear and initiating a lifelong resistance to certain forms of masculine authority.
There is a photograph of Julia Stephen reading with her four youngest children about 1894. Virginia's face is long, her bones thin and delicate, and her observant eyes are rounded at their lower edge like pears. The photograph breathes the stillness of the children's absorption. More than thirty years later Virginia Woolf created a similar scene in her most famous novel, To the Lighthouse (1927), based on childhood memory. As the mother, Mrs Ramsay, reads aloud she thinks that 'they were happier now than they would ever be again'. In actual life, domestic security exploded for Virginia at thirteen, when Mrs Stephen died unexpectedly, at forty-nine, on 5 May 1895. This was closely followed by the death of her half-sister and surrogate mother, Stella Duckworth Hills, while pregnant in 1897. Later, in an autobiographical fragment (among her essays of 1940, Berg collection, New York Public Library), Virginia pictured herself as she was at that time: an emergent creature struck by successive blows as she sat with wings still creased 'on the broken chrysalis'.
Further blows came. Leslie Stephen died in 1904, and then, too, Virginia's elder brother, Thoby, from typhoid, contracted on an expedition to Greece in 1906. That decade of deaths sealed off her childhood and divided it sharply from the rest of her life. Ghostly voices spoke to her with increasing urgency, perhaps more real than the people who lived by her side. When voices of the dead urged her to impossible things, they drove her mad but, controlled, they became the material of fiction, as in her treatment of Septimus Warren Smith, haunted by dead fellow soldiers of the First World War, in her novel Mrs Dalloway. He commits suicide after doctors prescribe a sanatorium.
In September 1897 there is the first record, in her Early Journals, of Virginia Stephen's wish to die: 'This diary is lengthening indeed', she wrote at the age of fifteen, 'but death would be shorter & less painful.' To go on she needed a rhinoceros skin—'and that one has not got!'
After the deaths of Mrs Stephen and Stella there was no controlling George Duckworth, her elder half-brother, who would prowl by night, and pounce. He was his sister's 'first lover' according to Virginia's memoir '22 Hyde Park Gate':
creaking stealthily, the door [of her bedroom] opened; treading gingerly someone entered. ‘Who?’ I cried. ‘Don't be frightened’, George whispered. ‘And don't turn on the light, oh beloved. Beloved—’ and he flung himself on my bed, and took me in his arms.Moments of Being
Though he fondled his sister by night, by day he ridiculed her appearance and spoke of her as 'the poor goat'.
Shame and Victorian proprieties forbade mention of this. When she was twenty-two Virginia collapsed on 10 May 1904, two and a half months after her father's death. That summer she threw herself out of a window and was nursed back to health, within three months, by Stella's friend Violet Dickinson. She and Virginia developed a ‘romantic friendship’. Miss Dickinson was thirty-nine, large (6 feet 2 inches), high-spirited, harum-scarum—the first and kindest of the strong women to whom Virginia looked for petting and cherishing. Violet, prescribing fresh air and friendship, was more successful than any later nurse.
During the ‘black summer’ of 1910 Virginia's mental health was again threatened, though to judge by her witty letters she was in no sense mad. In July and August she spent six weeks at a private nursing home, Burley, in Twickenham, which specialized in patients with nervous disorders. This was her first experience of a sanatorium, and she loathed it: the phoney religious atmosphere and the ugliness of an institution decorated in mottled green and red. Worse, she felt shut up with the tiniest of minds. In this the staff seemed indistinguishable from the patients. She told her sister that to escape, 'I shall soon have to jump out of a window.'
Despite Virginia's protests, her doctor, Sir George Savage, could think of nothing better than to send her back to Burley in 1913, when she sank into depression. This time she emerged suicidal. On 9 September 1913 she saw two new mind specialists, Dr Maurice Wright and the distinguished Sir Henry Head (overbearing and dangerously misguided in the view of Henry James who had consulted Head in 1912). Both doctors prescribed a return to the sanatorium. She went home, took an overdose of veronal, and nearly died. In October she was installed in George Duckworth's house near East Grinstead, Sussex, becoming once more the dependant of the man who, for her, epitomized sexual abuse and social power. A relapse followed in February 1915, when she lost control. Incoherent, sometimes screaming, she lapsed into a coma.
Whatever the diagnosis—it has been called acute neurasthenia or manic depression—Virginia's instability had some biochemical base which was not understood. She certainly had a genetic basis for mental suffering—her father was depressive and gloomy, her mother melancholic—yet aspects of her disturbance are open to explanation and, beyond that, even in ‘madness’ hers remained a rare mind. Two facts counter any glib diagnosis: first, in her own view breakdowns were connected with the position of women. Her feminist treatise A Room of One's Own speculates on the fate of Shakespeare's sister, a hypothetical woman born to write in the sixteenth century, who
would have been so thwarted and pulled apart by contrary obligations to genius and womanhood that she would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.
The second counter-truth is that in 'the lava of madness' she found her subjects. 'It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does' (Letters, 22 June 1930). She prolonged her apprenticeship that the volcanic matter might be cooled by an educated intellect. This was the result of a rigorous but unconventional training.
Virginia Stephen was educated at home. When she was six her father passed on her first letter to her godfather, adding that when he felt 'lazy' in the mornings he amused himself 'by reading lessons with the children instead of dictionarying' (Letters, 1.1). Between thirteen and fifteen Virginia had further lessons for two hours every morning (some Livy or Greek exercises) with her father in his study on the fourth floor of 22 Hyde Park Gate. It had a high ceiling of yellow-stained wood and three long windows which overlooked the roofs of Kensington. Along the walls were complete editions of English and French classics—twenty, thirty, or forty volumes—bound in red calf. Leslie Stephen lay in a rocking chair, somewhat like a cradle, with a board across its arms and on it a china inkstand. There he wrote his books and read, dropping books in a circle around him. In April 1897 he noted that Ginia was devouring books, almost faster than he liked—among them Lockhart's Life of Sir Walter Scott, Macaulay's History, and the two volumes of Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography by her grandfather Sir James Stephen.
Lessons were often preceded by walks with Leslie Stephen in Kensington Gardens. At such times he was simple and confiding. He had contempt for novelists who merely reflected workaday life with servile fidelity, and he taught Virginia to admire 'fountains of poetic interest' which Hawthorne could discover in a prosaic scene (L. Stephen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hours in a Library, 1, 1892, 169–98). His quick, terse judgments had a sure directional instinct like his hiker's steps, when he could do 40 miles a day; to be with him felt like an adventurous expedition. Though his silences might last from the Round Pond to Marble Arch, they were 'curiously full of meaning, as if he were thinking half-aloud about poetry and philosophy and people he had known', as she wrote in 'Leslie Stephen', an essay of 1932. He had once been a Cambridge don, and Virginia had the advantage, at fifteen, of daily supervisions which were all the better for their informality. In her essay on her father she recalls:
To read what one liked because one liked it, never to pretend to admire what one did not—that was his only lesson in the art of reading. To write in the fewest possible words, as clearly as possible, exactly what one meant—that was his only lesson in the art of writing.
All the same, because he did not see how closely she approached his own high gifts, Virginia was wary, and did not show him some of her pieces, including 'A history of women'. For Leslie Stephen held contradictory attitudes to women's education. In theory, as he had written to his wife when courting her, he hated 'to see women's lives wasted simply because they have not been trained well enough to take an independent interest in any study' (1877, Berg collection, New York Public Library), but later, at one lunch, Virginia noticed how he snubbed his niece Katherine Stephen (who became principal of Newnham College, Cambridge) for presuming to be an intellectual.
At twenty Virginia went in for another 'orgy of reading' (Hours in a library, 1916, in V. Woolf, Essays), including Hakluyt's Voyages of the Elizabethan Seamen which her father brought her from the London Library. At this stage she decided that, as there was no acceptable contemporary giant, she would stay with the classics 'and consort entirely with minds of the very first order'.
Leslie Stephen shaped Virginia's tastes, especially for biography. She picked up his reverential glow balanced by humour. He taught her to pit observed truth against established paradigms, and that if writing is to last it must have, for its backbone, some fierce attachment to an idea. But his deepest influence on his daughter's writing may lie in his unorthodox tramps. Virginia, too, was a walker. A year after her father's death she returned to his favourite ground in Cornwall, and in her Cornwall diary of 1905 lies the origin of her narrative experiments. As her fiction was to follow the uncharted paths of the mind's free movement, so this diary records how she would step aside from the highway at St Ives and trust to footpaths 'as thin as though trodden by rabbits', which led over hills and moor (V. Woolf, Early Journals). As though she were tracking a metaphor for her future work, she followed natural paths which ignored artificial boundaries. Padlocked gates and farm walls were deceptive barriers, for when she climbed over, the path would continue. By tramping literally in her father's footsteps, she came upon an exploratory plot that ignored the signposts of birth, marriage, and death in order to find those unlooked-for moments that shape our lives. As early as 1905, tracking her individual way across the gorse where there were only grey farms, she noted that 'for the walker who prefers the variety & incident of the open fields to the orthodox precision of the high road, there is no such ground for walking as this'. In his postscript to the Dictionary of National Biography Leslie Stephen had said he was impatient of the kind of research that seemed incapable of fruitful conclusions. The success of his daughter's novels was to depend on their conclusions, where she would justify the mind's keen ramble by a dramatic find.
Virginia was largely self-educated, and continued with a programme of reading throughout her life. Her only sustained formal study was in Greek. At fifteen she attended a few Greek classes at King's College in London, and at eighteen wrote to a cousin, Emma Vaughan, in June 1900: 'Greek … is my daily bread, and a keen delight to me.' In October that year she began private lessons with old Clara Pater, sister to Walter Pater, in an atmosphere of Persian cats and Morris wallpaper, but these lessons proved too undisciplined, and in 1902 Miss Pater was replaced by Janet Case, one of the first women to pass through Girton College, Cambridge, who gave Virginia the only systematic tuition she ever had and introduced her to the feminist cause.
Early writings: finding her subject
George Duckworth tried to launch Virginia, with her sister Vanessa, in London society. It was a failure: at social events Virginia would know and speak to nobody all evening and would stand, crushed by the crowd, against a wall. On one occasion she managed to read Tennyson behind a curtain. Though she was to draw on London society in her works, notably in Mrs Dalloway, she was too intellectual and unconventional to feel at ease in such a set. Later, in another feminist treatise, Three Guineas, she characterized women as 'Outsiders'. It was her view that the 'Outsider' is latent in all women. In her essay 'Thoughts upon social success' (1903; Early Journals) the society woman, encased in artifice, appears unreachable: the dinner bell striking eight calls her into existence. If approached by an authentic woman, 'she folds all her petals closely round her'.
After her father's death in 1904 Virginia—together with Vanessa, Thoby, and Adrian—left the solid red brick of Kensington for the superb fadedness of Bloomsbury. In their new home at 46 Gordon Square, Vanessa dispensed with the red plush and wallpapers of Hyde Park Gate; instead she painted the walls white and allowed light to enter the tall, clean, rather cold rooms. The trees seemed to fountain from the centre of the square. For the sisters this meant freedom to put writing and painting first; to reinforce their conspiratorial bond at Hyde Park Gate with a shared artistic purpose; and to speak their minds as they shook off time-wasting activities such as going to balls, drawing on white gloves, making tea-table conversation (at which they were wonderfully adept) with important men.
Virginia's first story, 'Phyllis and Rosamond' (1906), feels its way into a mode of existence she and her sister had recently escaped: the lives of two society girls, daughters at home, two specimens of the many who 'cluster in the shade'. Here, in the unseen space of consciousness, the young writer found a prime subject for future work. It is no accident that her first published essay (for a women's supplement of a clerical journal called The Guardian) recounts a pilgrimage to Haworth parsonage, the Yorkshire home of the Brontës who, half a century before, had voiced the hidden trials of women.
At home Virginia Stephen played up to the family's caricature of her as mad genius and helpless, scatty dependant of her sister. She would expand on the agony of shopping for one forced to keep her underclothes pinned together by brooches. Yet she was professional and direct as a teacher from 1905 to 1907 at Morley College, a night school for workers in south London. It soon became obvious that the organizers preferred the safety of mediocrity. The principal, Mary Sheepshanks, suggested that Virginia might hold a little social evening or pass on a little English grammar, but she replied that the newly literate should not be fobbed off with sham learning. Virginia insisted on a proper course in English history, even though only three pupils came, and hoped to give them a foundation for further study rather than the unconnected fragments offered by the college curriculum.
As a writer, too, Virginia Stephen showed herself self-disciplined, professional, prolific, and courageous. In biographical reviews between 1908 and 1910 she developed a theory crucial to her development as a novelist. With Elizabeth I, with the traveller Lady Hester Stanhope, or the letter writer Jane Carlyle, she examined the hidden moments and obscure formative experiences in a life, rather than its more public actions. In her first novel, The Voyage Out, drafted between 1908 and 1912 and published in 1915, a would-be novelist called Terence Hewet expounds the challenge which the author had set for herself: 'I should like to write about Silence; the things people don't say. But the difficulty is immense.' The heroine, Rachel Vinrace, is a silent creature who is surfacing throughout a voyage, and then dies before her shape is clear. In Rachel we have a new kind of heroine, easily defaced, therefore faceless, and, because we cannot see her, we can hear her breathe, and faintly, far off, pick up her elusive note. Rachel may be defined by sexual fear or by the other self she imagines as she looks overboard: the great white monsters of the lower waters who would explode if they came to the surface. The aim, though, is not just to stress a woman's vulnerability, but to suggest possibilities latent as yet in human nature. When Rachel and her aunt look out of the window at night into the dark garden of the foreign villa, they speak in broken sentences like people in their sleep. They barely break the night's silence: 'Very gentle their voices sounded, as if they fell through the waves of the sea.'
During the twentieth century it was customary to separate the pre-modern from the modernist author, but these advanced explorations of women's nature challenge any such methodological divide.
Bloomsbury and marriage
In Gordon Square the two Stephen sisters brought together a group of innovative men whom Thoby had known in Cambridge: Leonard Sidney Woolf (1880–1969), a stubborn, passionate man, alert to the ills of society and with the practical sense to combat them; the biographer Lytton Strachey; the art critic Clive Bell; the artists Roger Fry and Duncan Grant; the novelist E. M. Forster; and the economist John Maynard Keynes. The shock of Thoby's death in 1906 sealed his sisters' ties to his friends. Vanessa married Clive Bell in 1907, and the Stephens' ‘Thursday evenings’ continued at 29 Fitzroy Square, where Virginia and Adrian set up a separate home. This proved the beginning of the Bloomsbury group, afterwards called ‘Old Bloomsbury’ to distinguish it from its later adherents. Old Bloomsbury abjured the chattiness of society for speculative silence; granted agency to women; welcomed sexual freedom and homosexuality; and generally ridiculed the social, religious, and moral orthodoxies of the Victorians. This appeared avant-garde, especially to disapproving relatives of the unchaperoned Stephen sisters, and even more so when it was reported that Vanessa had managed to shake off all her upper clothing when she danced at a party in 1911, while Virginia had bathed naked in the river at Grantchester with the poet Rupert Brooke. Yet the group looked back to the reforming energy of Clapham, continued to uphold the rational humanism of Leslie Stephen's generation of Victorian agnostics, and reinforced the family piety of their forebears with their relish for recollections and memoirs.
The amusingly congenial Lytton Strachey came from the same upper middle-class intelligentsia as the Stephens. Strachey was an active homosexual, and after an abortive proposal from him in 1909 Virginia, at thirty, married Leonard Woolf on 10 August 1912 in St Pancras town hall. A few months earlier, in May, he had resigned from the colonial service after a six-and-a-half-year stint as civil servant in Ceylon, demonstrating his determination to marry Virginia. The pair embarked on a writing life in London and in Virginia's and Vanessa's rented retreat, Asheham House, at the foot of the South Downs in Sussex.
Virginia introduced Leonard to friends and relations as a penniless Jew. As a Jew, and also as a heterosexual male, he was alien; as Thoby's friend, he felt close. She was stimulated and a little put out by the severity of his judgments—'I despise you forever', he might say if she wished to kick up her heels at a fashionable party given by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Leonard Woolf backed his wife's writing with an inflexible work routine, even on Sundays; he plucked out her ‘thorns’; and he nursed her through periods of mental suffering. He was hurt by his wife's antisemitic remarks about his family, while he, for his part, was a bit obtuse to the inhibiting effects of sexual fear, and early on blamed his wife as a sexual failure—endorsed by Vanessa, who had suffered from Virginia's flirtation with Clive Bell and where an element of rivalry always interfused sisterly bonds. Leonard's accusation was repeated in his autobiographical novel The Wise Virgins (1914). But their correspondence reveals that ‘the Woolves’ developed their own dramas of intimacy, conducted in the private language of playful animals. This kind of lovemaking—in which a man lends himself to a woman's imaginative drama—is re-created in her greatest story, 'Lappin and Lapinova' (published in 1939, but begun as far back as 1919).
The adjustment to marriage, as well as fears for the publication of The Voyage Out, were the background to Virginia Woolf's breakdowns in 1913 and 1915. In 1915 Miss Thomas, director of Burley, announced that Virginia's mind was 'played out' and persuaded her family that her character had permanently deteriorated. But the doctors and nurses who believed there could be no full recovery were wrong. By November 1915 she was ‘sane’. The twenty dark years were over, and the fertile stretch of her life began.
High priestess of modernism
From 1915 until 1924 the Woolfs lived quietly at Hogarth House, Richmond. There, in 1917, they ordered a hand-printing machine and set up the Hogarth Press, at first as a hobby and with a view to publishing their own work. Soon, though, the Hogarth Press became a publishing phenomenon, putting out some of the most advanced writing of the day, including works by T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster, Maynard Keynes, Gorki, Freud, Robert Graves, Edith Sitwell, and of course the Woolfs themselves. When they moved to 52 Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury in March 1924, they re-established their press in the basement.
At the time the press was established Virginia Woolf was writing her second novel, Night and Day, which revives the subject of her first, unpublished story, 'Phyllis and Rosamond': the undefined nature of women who 'cluster in the shade'. Katharine Hilbery is the granddaughter of an eminent Victorian poet. Her character is modelled on Vanessa: her silent stoicism and secret commitment to mathematics, an equivalent to Vanessa's painting and, like that, in conflict with a sense of responsibility as a daughter at home. Katharine is drawn into the contrasting lives of the new woman, the idealistic political worker Mary Datchet, and of the abrasive solicitor Ralph Denham, rising out of a graceless suburban household which yet, as Katharine perceives, seethes with vigour. The Hilbery house is in Cheyne Walk, in the Chelsea area of London where George Eliot had lived and later Henry James. There art and prosperity mingle as a stable, pre-war civilization. But it has become too mannered, a milieu that cherishes the effete writer William Rodney, to whom Katharine almost automatically becomes engaged. Katharine's mute uneasiness questions the intellectual aristocracy. As her unease deepens into wordless futility, she is driven to reject the Strachey-like Rodney for the ungentlemanly but life-giving Denham. Biographically, the novel offers a rationale for the Woolf marriage, while it circles the unknown and unused potentialities of women in the context of their struggle for the vote, not granted until its year of publication, 1919.
The continuity with the Victorian novel led Katherine Mansfield to disparage Night and Day as old-fashioned. There was no novelty, Mansfield claimed: no attention to the war and no evidence of modernity. This remained the view through the twentieth century. It was not recognized that the ordeal of consciousness, as developed by George Eliot and Henry James, was Virginia Woolf's starting point for the novel of the future where, as she put it in 'The Mark on the Wall' (1917), her plan was to follow the mental track of 'modest mouse-coloured people … Those are the depths [novelists] will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories.' She discards the pretensions of the great soul for a nondescript old woman in a third-class carriage or a housewife ordering the fish, and relocates the Romantic drama, the awakening to a moment of sublimity, in the domestic scene. This is the source of Virginia Woolf's continuing appeal for most readers: her repeated demonstration that the most humdrum domestic actions, knitting a brown stocking, or dishing out the bœuf en daube, or sewing a dress for a party, can stir moments of inward enlargement, just as a mark on the wall sends the writer's thoughts racing on different tracks, on the history of the house and its occupants or the question of death and after.
From 1919 Virginia Woolf shaped the modern novel. Her essays 'Modern novels' (1919) and 'Poetry, fiction and the future' (1927) introduce a principle that writers have no need of sensational events: any day can suffice. She rejects the narrative coherence of Victorian fiction in favour of 'an ordinary mind on an ordinary day', often several minds. Three short fictions, 'The Mark on the Wall' (1917), 'Kew Gardens' (1919), and 'An Unwritten Novel' (1920), were less stories than theoretical expositions of the new form of fiction that she had come upon, back in 1905, in the course of tramps in Cornwall. Her aim was to find in the ‘moment of being’ a climactic inward event, parallel to what her friend T. S. Eliot termed 'unattended moments' and what James Joyce termed 'epiphany'. Woolf and Eliot wished to cut through the voluminousness of nineteenth-century writing in order to identify 'the moment of importance'. Both wished to cross the frontiers of consciousness where words fail. Virginia Woolf said that she had to crack through the paving stone and be enveloped in a mist. This was not mere cloudiness, as hostile critics assumed, but the first move to crack through the predictable façade of the traditional novel where every button on a gentleman's jacket is in place. The Victorians had trusted language to say just what they meant; the moderns found this impossible, and therefore communicated through symbols—the lighthouse or the waves—which require a reciprocal effort on the part of the reader. Virginia Woolf therefore gave fiction the depth of poetry.
Although she dismissed the shallow realism of her immediate predecessors H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, and Arnold Bennett, it is significant that her criticism skirts George Eliot, founder of realism—for George Eliot had attended to 'the roar from the other side of silence' (Middlemarch, chap. 20). In this sense Virginia Woolf's modernism was not as new as it appeared. She also followed Henry James in her conviction that dramas of interior life were as momentous and dangerous as visible ones; and, like James, cultivated an inclusive view of truth as opposed to the reductive categories of standard thinking. Arguably, the most innovative element in her work was her challenge to the category per se.
Stung by Mansfield's view of her as old-fashioned, Virginia Woolf cultivated an up-to-date image with shorn hair, lipstick, and lifted chin, as seen in the jutting profile of her Man Ray portrait. Her post-war letters practised the modish tone of mocking hilarity as she watched Mrs Clifford's mouth 'open like an old leather bag' (Diary, 1.254). Her next novel was almost ostentatiously modern, a collage of broken impressions that makes up the portrait of a young man who died, as Thoby did, still unformed. All through Jacob's Room his would-be biographer talks directly to the reader: we two push ourselves forward—busy, agog, distractable—while our subject slips out of sight. The would-be biographer is vibrating 'at the mouth of the cavern of mystery, endowing Jacob Flanders with all sorts of qualities he had not at all … What remains is mostly a matter of guess work. Yet over him we hang vibrating.' The biographic obsession is comic in its futility. The deliberately fragmented narrative with its curt sentences, its gaps and tantalizing glimpses, compels us to share in the biographer's effort and failure.
A problem rose out of the haste for modernity: the book's treatment of the myriad people who glanced at Jacob but did not see him. Given their brash, instant visibility, they should hit the eye with the jolt of the crowded caricatures in Eliot's post-war poems or with the deflating humour of Katherine Mansfield, both of whom the Hogarth Press had published in 1918 and 1919 as samples of advanced writing. But the casual thrust of derision never quite brought out the best in Virginia Woolf. Her opinions became rash to the point of prejudice. She had neither Eliot's lethal strike nor the worldly-wise affections of Mansfield. She herself feared that Jacob's Room would come to appear 'sterile acrobatics' (Diary, 14 Feb 1922).
It was published in 1922, the same year as Eliot's The Waste Land and Joyce's Ulysses. Censorship had not allowed the Hogarth Press to publish Ulysses, but though Virginia Woolf disliked this novel (she spoke of an adolescent scratching his pimples), Joyce's expansion of consciousness flowing through the hours of the day surely influenced her next novel, Mrs Dalloway (1925), whose original title was 'The Hours'. Here she found her distinctive mode: her use of consciousness became more focused, more penetrating (digging out caves, she said, behind her characters).
Far from a floating self-indulgence suggested by the outworn phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ (associated with Virginia Woolf in the past), a 'framework of steel' (To the Lighthouse) provides the substructure of each novel. This may be seen in the bifurcation of Mrs Dalloway, which follows concurrently the minds of two people who never meet but whose lives do bear on each other, in the way of light/shadow, sanity/insanity, public/private. The shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith represents the underside of consciousness which the ruling society of Westminster does not acknowledge.
To the Lighthouse (1927) experiments with the passage of time through a tripartite frame. The reader moves from the Victorian setting of the opening section to the post-war setting of the final section via the blind corridor of 'Time Passes'. The brutal impersonality of this bravura piece of writing takes us through the period of the First World War during which precious lives—Mrs Ramsay, her daughter dying in childbirth, her son killed at the front—are sidelined in square brackets, and the Ramsay house, representing civilization, almost rots away. Civilization is restored, first by the cleaner Mrs McNab, then by the artist Lily Briscoe who returns to complete her painting of Mrs Ramsay reading to her child; only, now, Mrs Ramsay must be distilled from memory—not the beauty a photograph might record, but what will endure: the unseen source of her life-giving power. The passage of time has shaped this woman as a wedge-shaped core of darkness. It is an abstraction, a modernist portrait.
On the publication day of this great novel, its author drooped under 'the damp cloud' of a review in the Times Literary Supplement, 'timid', 'doubting', a replica of its reviews of her previous two novels (Diary, 5 May 1927). Yet a month later she began to find herself 'almost an established figure … They don't laugh at me any longer', she noted in her diary on 6 June. 'Possibly I shall be a celebrated writer.'
Virginia Woolf's most daring novel, The Waves (1931), has not yet had its due. Its ‘framework of steel’ invents a revolutionary treatment of the lifespan. Here the writer is at her furthest remove from the traditional biographic schema, the public highway from pedigree to grave. Not only are there no pedigrees in The Waves; there are no placing surnames and no society to speak of, for here she explores the genetic givens of existence, unfolding what is innate in human nature against the backdrop of what is permanent in nature: sun and sea. A writer called Bernard wishes, he tells his reader, 'to give you my life'. That life, like those of his five friends, is composed in each case around a defining phrase—'a limpet clinging to a rock' or 'the nymph of the fountain, always wet'—which gives a life its internal coherence. Compared with this, the set form of the lifespan—the chronology of birth, school, mating, death—is, says Bernard, 'a convenience, a lie' because it does not see, beneath the platform of public action, the half-finished sentences and half-discernible acts on which life turns. The diagram of the lifespan allows parallel lives to reach their apogee at any one of nine phases from childhood to old age.
Part of Virginia Woolf's greatness lay in her continuation of Henry James's aim to define the novel as a form of art. She fulfils its inherent flexibility when she blends the novel with other genres to create new forms: where The Waves is a poem–novel, The Years (1937) is an essay–novel, and Between the Acts (1941) a drama–novel. Her flair for experiment remained at the ready throughout her life: as she brought a great work to completion, she would see, on her horizon, another wave rising, far out.
Women and the lives of the obscure
Virginia Woolf entered the political arena with A Room of One's Own (1929). It originated as two papers read to women undergraduates in the Arts Society at Newnham College and the ODTAA Society at Girton College, Cambridge, in October 1928. The aim was to establish a woman's tradition, recognizable through its distinct problems: the age-old confinement of women to the domestic sphere, the pressures of conformity to patriarchal ideas, and worst, the denial of income and privacy ('a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write'). A brief history of women's writing tries to prove that their works were deformed by inward strife—not convincingly when we are pressed to agree that Jane Eyre is flawed by its author's protest against the limitations imposed upon women. On the other hand, Virginia Woolf is brilliantly persuasive when she ridicules the power bias of male history narrowing in on war and kings with golden teapots on their heads. A counter-history waits in the wings: the untried potentialities of women, nurtured but unspoilt in women's colleges, who are not to be imitation men but are to think back 'through their mothers'. Virginia Woolf wants to retrieve rather than discard the traditions of womanhood, a position forecast in 1906 at the outset of her career with a historical story, 'The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn', set during the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses. It suggests that women excluded from historical record were the true makers of England as they passed their unnoticed code of preservation from mother to daughter, cultivating domestic order and the arts of peace, as opposed to militarized thugs who repeatedly destroyed it.
The second feminist treatise, Three Guineas (1938), was cooler than A Room of One's Own, addressing the ‘Sir’ who struts about in uniforms with medals and honorary degrees. Virginia Woolf's pacifism, in the run-up to the Second World War, evoked understandable opposition—Leonard Woolf was lukewarm, and certain friends, Victoria (Vita) Sackville-West and Maynard Keynes, sent her to Coventry—but her attack on war as a pastime of men in power has survived its ill-timed publication and has come to underpin the conviction that, far from withdrawing from politics, Virginia Woolf had a politics which looked beyond her age. She cast her vote against power itself; nor could she condone the adversarial sport of party politics because she cared too much for the fate of ordinary people.
What was timely in Three Guineas was its point that certain professions, like the church and diplomatic corps, were still closed to women. Where the ‘woman question’ in the nineteenth century was concerned largely with issues of the vote and education, Virginia Woolf became the leading spokeswoman for the dominant issue of the twentieth century: professional advance. Her support for the advancement of women co-existed with her readiness to love women. It was flirtatious rather than physical, and she remained evasive and ambivalent about her sexual identity, but she adored, romanced, mythologized, and wished to be petted by women, in particular the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West, where romance, from December 1925, was bound up with the amusement Virginia Woolf found in the aristocracy. According to Vita, they made love only twice, despite many opportunities (Vita Sackville-West to Harold Nicolson, 17 Aug 1926, Nicolson, 158–9). Orlando: a Biography (1928) celebrates Vita as a man-woman, switching gender to endorse the androgynous creative mind through the ages.
Though women throughout the world appropriated Virginia Woolf in these terms during the 1970s and 1980s (a time when her public image changed from that of precious aesthete to that of fighter for the cause), some lost sight of the longer-term issue that underpins her work from start to finish: the question of woman's nature and what it will contribute to civilization. This is the subject of 'The Mysterious Case of Miss V.' (1906), which reappears as a proposition in The Voyage Out: that it will take yet six generations for women to come into their own. For this reason the feminist Woolf has remained pertinent, increasingly a contemporary as her twentieth-century generation recedes further into the past. In a speech of 21 January 1931 before the London National Society for Women's Service (printed eventually with The Pargiters, 1977), she told a parable of a fisherwoman who unreels the rod of reason into the pool of consciousness—when the line races away to the depths of the pool, the fisherwoman reels it back. Reason comes to the surface panting with rage and disappointment, but the fisherwoman tells her that men are not ready to hear the facts about women's passions which she has retrieved. The question of woman's obliterated desire is restated in fictional terms in the honeymoon-and-after story 'Lappin and Lapinova'.
Virginia Woolf's commitment to unseen aspects of womanhood was bound up with an impulse to explore the lives of the obscure. She celebrated (and practised) marginal genres of diary and letters which were open to women. Her biographical theories broke the march of verifiable fact as practised by her father in the 378 lives (amounting to 1000 pages) which he contributed to the Dictionary of National Biography from 1885 to 1901. On 3 December 1923 his daughter observed in her diary, 'I shouldn't have been so clever, but I should have been more stable, without that contribution to the history of England.' In a biographical dictionary, of course, subjects are chosen on the basis of public importance; Virginia Woolf inverts this in her essay 'The Art of Biography' (1939):
The question now inevitably asks itself, whether the lives of great men only should be recorded. Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography—the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious? And what is greatness? And what is smallness?
So she chose to write on Selina Trimmer, who took up her duties as a governess in 1790; on Sara Coleridge, who edited the works of her father, the poet; on Flush, the spaniel who shared the sickroom of Elizabeth Barrett and accompanied her when she eloped with Browning; and on Harriette Wilson, who, as a courtesan (to, among others, the duke of Wellington), lived the life of an outcast, winding 'in and out among the bogs and precipices of the shadowy underworld'.
Virginia Woolf's biographical essays took up the challenge of the gaps in such lives—it might be said in all lives—which she approached by accepting that a measure of imaginative truth must co-exist with factual truth. The greater her work, the more completely it takes issue with her father's practice of biography as he edited the Dictionary of National Biography during the first ten years of her life. At the age of five Thoby had produced a box which he called his ‘contradictionary box’. Asked the reason for its name, he said it was full of rubbish. Leslie Stephen had discerned gleams of satire. In a sense Virginia Woolf's whole œuvre was contra-dictionary: her lives of the obscure; the intractable absence of the biographic subject who cannot be deduced from his leavings in Jacob's Room; the unseen inward life of Mrs Ramsay, lit momentarily by the beam of the lighthouse; and invisible presences—the continuing presence of the dead, blurring the formal limits of the lifespan. All forecast possibilities for biography. 'The art of biography is still in its infancy', Virginia Woolf observed in the second draft of The Waves, 'or more accurately speaking, is yet to be born.'
Virginia Woolf did not venture to apply her theories to her one full-scale effort, Roger Fry: a Biography (1940), perhaps because she felt an obligation to the Fry family (who commissioned it) to present the kind of proper, discreet portrait they would expect. In the course of writing this book she groaned under the burden of fact, much as her father had done in the 1880s, locked by his own rulings to the 'drudgery' of 'Dryasdust' (DNB, 3.1029). Even so the daughter, like the father, did exercise the selectiveness that Virginia Woolf advocates in 'The Art of Biography': 'almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.'
A public voice
In the last decade of Virginia Woolf's life she began to develop a public voice to counter the rant of political demagogues. She called the autumn of 1932 'a great season of liberation' as she resolved to speak out as a woman against the abuses of power (Diary, 31 Dec 1932). In this she was encouraged by a new friendship with an older, militant feminist, Dame Ethel Smyth, who had composed the music for the suffragettes' 'March of the Women' and conducted it with a toothbrush from a window in Holloway prison. While Virginia was enlivened by Ethel's directness, she did not welcome her demands for attention, nor as a lover, and resisted Ethel when she blamed Leonard for his wife's lack of religious sense: 'Lord! How I detest these savers up of merit', she wrote (Letters, 8 Aug 1934), 'my Jew has more religion in one toenail—more human love, in one hair.'
In 1932 Virginia Woolf began to write a series of feminist essays with an idea of alternating essays and fiction in a work which became a fictional chronicle of a family from the 1880s to the 1930s, emphasizing the fate of Victorian daughters of the author's generation. This was The Years. The discarded essays (collected posthumously as The Pargiters) were closely linked with the outspokenness of Three Guineas. In her defiant role as outsider, Virginia Woolf refused all honours: the Clark lectures at Cambridge for 1933; appointment as Companion of Honour in 1935; and honorary degrees from Manchester and Liverpool in 1933 and 1939. She would not allow herself to be used as a token woman. 'It is an utterly corrupt society', she wrote in her diary on 25 March 1933, '& I will take nothing that it can give me.'
A public voice requires an audience, and in her final novel, Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf turns away from the élite audience of her modernist novels to address a national audience, the grass roots of rural England, through a form of drama which became popular in the late thirties: the historical pageant. The novel is set in a country house in 1939 just before the outbreak of war, and the challenge of its pageant, as of local dramas going on between the acts, is the question of whether England's national treasure—its character and literature—can be retrieved from the past and sustained through the present threat of invasion.
The novel was written during the blitz. The Woolfs' London home at 37 Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, where they had moved with their press in 1939, was bombed in September 1940, and they retreated to a village existence in their country home, Monk's House, in Rodmell, Sussex. When Virginia Woolf went up to London she saw 'the desolate ruins of my old squares: gashed; dismantled; the old red bricks all white powder … Grey dirt & broken windows … all that completeness ravished' (Diary, 15 Jan 1941). It reinforced her fear that the treasures of the past would not survive. Her feeling for certain alleys and little courts between Chancery Lane and the City amounted to a passion, the closest she came to patriotism: the England of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pepys, Samuel Johnson, and Dickens. As German bombers flew nightly over Rodmell, she shook free from war propaganda which attributed insane love of power to an occasional dictator. Reframing the old Clapham issue of slavery, she suggested that we are all enslaved, irrespective of nationality, by 'a subconscious Hitlerism in the hearts of men'. The word ‘slavery’ reverberates through her 'Thoughts on peace in an air raid' (1940): 'If we could free ourselves of slavery we should free men from tyranny.'
Rodmell is only 3 miles from Newhaven, where the German Ninth Army would have landed if operation Sea Lion had been carried out. The Woolfs could not know that both of them were already on Himmler's list for immediate arrest, but they were aware of the danger to a Jew and his wife. In 1940 Leonard devised two contingency plans for their joint suicide, though at this point Virginia hoped for ten years more and to finish her novel. But towards the end of the year and early in 1941 she lost confidence that she could reach a wider audience and began to think there was no cure for womanishness bred by manliness—'both so hateful' (Letters, 25 Jan 1941).
Just before 11.45 on the morning of Friday 28 March 1941 Virginia Woolf weighted her pocket with a large stone and drowned herself in the fast-running River Ouse near Monk's House. She was hearing voices and feared she was going mad, but there was no outward sign of derangement. Her suicide notes were written with rational civility and gratitude to her husband. After her body was recovered three weeks later, on 18 April, Leonard buried her ashes in Monk's House garden under one of the two elms with boughs interlaced which they had called Leonard and Virginia. The elms are no more; and the ashes are now under a replica of Stephen Tomlin's bust of Virginia Woolf in 1931 with long, stiffened face and owlish, in-turned eyes.
Virginia Woolf left nine novels, nearly 4000 letters, about 400 essays (some attributions uncertain), and thirty volumes of her diary. With the rise of brutal regimes in the thirties, she began to appear too withdrawn, too fragile and precious, to critics from Wyndham Lewis to Queenie Leavis, who did not pick up her public voice. From the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s her reputation dropped. Her search for a wider public, set in motion in her last years, had seemed to founder in the whirlpools of her diffidence and the cross-currents of the Second World War. Yet her pacifism, unacceptable at the time, began to read convincingly twenty-five years later when Americans of the late 1960s rejected their warmongers in Vietnam, a mark of civilization as Virginia Woolf conceived it. Not surprisingly her wide popularity began then and there, reaching cult status with the publication of Quentin Bell's biography of his aunt in 1972. Nicholas Henderson, who was British ambassador to the United States, described how the celebrity-hunters of Washington 'prostrated themselves at Quentin's feet asking to be told “everything”' (Mandarin: the Diaries of an Ambassador, 1969–1982, 1994, 337). There followed a burst of posthumous publication from 1975 to 1985. The complete diary, a monument to its age, may come to be seen as the editing feat of the century, not only for its accuracy, but for the family and social detail which Anne Olivier Bell offers in her comprehensive notes. At the same time there were informed editions of the complete letters (in six volumes, edited by Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson), essays, various memoirs, drafts of her novels, and the complete shorter fiction. Her international reputation has continued to spread, stimulating other media. A CD of eighteen songs, Woolf—a Portrait in Song by Chappelle, Smith, and Taylor, celebrates a life too long perceived as tragic. In 2002 a ballet, Orlando, was put on by the Compagnie Buissonnière in São Paulo.
The experimental modernity of the early 1920s was the image Virginia Woolf imprinted on the public until, in the 1970s and 1980s, this image shifted to another partial truth: the feminist Virginia Woolf who advanced the struggle for women's rights. In the nineties Eileen Atkins gave a marvellously accurate one-woman performance as Virginia Woolf delivering A Room of One's Own in Cambridge. There was a Bookmark programme on BBC2, bringing together the life and work in November 1984, directed by Anna Benson Gyles. In the same year there was a dramatization of To the Lighthouse on television. Films of Orlando and Mrs Dalloway came out in 1993 and 1998 with Vanessa Redgrave in the latter role.
At the same time there has been a curious insistence on narrowing Virginia Woolf's life to the woes of insanity and suicide, particularly evident in biographical plays, from Edna O'Brien in the late 1970s to the film The Hours (2003). There has often been a similar bias in treatments of other women writers—the suicide of Sylvia Plath and the mental decline of Iris Murdoch, going back to the brooding tombstones in Mrs Gaskell's life of Charlotte Brontë. In each case the effect is to distance the work in order to dwell instead on the sufferings that bring greatness down. There has been a concurrent tendency to judge a woman by her flaws—Charlotte Brontë's failure to be a lady by nineteenth-century standards of passionlessness; Plath's excessive ambition by 1950s standards of femininity; and Virginia Woolf's self-confessed snobbery and antisemitism, at present to the fore. It is not that genuine flaws should be ignored, but we need to be aware that flaws in men—say, Wordsworth's abandonment of the pregnant Annette Vallon or Dickens's unkindness to his wife or Tolstoy's crazed religiosity—are still perceived differently, and appear incidental to starry reputations.
For this and other reasons, the woman writing has remained somewhat elusive. As the queen of the Bloomsbury group and as a writer of letters, Virginia Woolf flaunted different colours according to her company. 'How queer', she acknowledged, 'to have so many selves' (Diary, 4 July 1935). The result was an abundance of legends in her lifetime and for three to four decades following her death. The batty image constructed by her family and her flights of fancy at Bloomsbury parties gave her a reputation for untrustworthiness which has influenced the popular view of her life; the myth of the frail lady authoress with her frigid body, a precious aesthete withdrawn from the world, is endlessly repeated. But she kept the hardworking professional out of sight. She had to 'be private, secret, as anonymous and submerged as possible in order to write' (Letters, 17 Sept 1938).
In the shadow of legend was the 'restless searcher' (Diary, 27 Feb 1926). She liked to imagine a voyage of discovery or the fin of a submerged form lurking in the waves. 'Why is there not a discovery in life?' she went on. 'Something one can lay hands on & say—This is it?' Each afternoon, when she took long walks, London itself beckoned as an unexplored land. Crossing Russell Square, close to home, she sensed 'the infinite oddity of the human position', and felt, she said, 'my own strangeness, walking on the earth'.
- The definitive collected edition of the novels of Virginia Woolf (London, Hogarth Press, 1990) [series in 9 vols., various eds.]
- V. Woolf, Moments of being: unpublished autobiographical writings, ed. J. Schulkind (1976)
- The diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. A. O. Bell and A. McNeillie, 5 vols. (1977–84)
- The letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. N. Nicolson, 6 vols. (1975–80)
- A passionate apprentice: the early journals of Virginia Woolf, ed. M. A. Leaska (1990)
- The essays of Virginia Woolf, ed. A. McNeillie, 6 vols. (1986–)
- The complete shorter fiction of Virginia Woolf, ed. S. Dick, 2nd edn (1989)
- L. Woolf, Autobiography, 5 vols. (1960–69)
- J. R. Noble, ed., Recollections of Virginia Woolf (1972)
- S. P. Rosenbaum, The Bloomsbury group: a collection of memoirs, commentary and criticism (1975)
- Q. Bell, Virginia Woolf: a biography (1972)
- B. J. Kirkpatrick, A bibliography of Virginia Woolf, 3rd edn (1980)
- R. Kennedy, A boy at the Hogarth Press (1972)
- R. Majumdar and A. McLauren, eds., Virginia Woolf: the critical heritage (1975)
- H. Lee, Virginia Woolf (1996)
- N. Nicolson, ed., Vita and Harold (1992)
- BL, notebook, Add. MS 61837
- BL, memoir of her father
- Girton Cam., papers
- NRA, corresp. and literary papers
- NYPL, Berg collection, literary MSS and notebooks
- U. Sussex, corresp., family papers, and literary MSS
- U. Sussex, corresp. and papers
- BL, letters to S. S. Koteliansky, Add. MS 48974
- BL, letters to John Lehmann, Add. MS 56234
- BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 63351
- Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp. with Theodora Bosanquet
- King's AC Cam., corresp. with Roger Fry
- King's AC Cam., letters to John Maynard Keynes
- King's AC Cam., letters and postcards to G. H. W. Rylands
- King's AC Cam., letters to W. J. H. Sprott
- King's AC Cam., letters to Thoby Stephen
- LUL, letters to Gladys Easdale
- NYPL, Berg collection, letters from T. S. Eliot
- UCL, letters to Arnold Bennett
- BBC TV Bookmark programme (Nov 1984), directed by Anna Benson Gyles (on life and work)
- TV production of To the Lighthouse (c.1985)
- ‘Craftsmanship’, broadcast in the series ‘Words Fail Me’, 29 April 1937, published in The Listener (5 May 1937)
- G. C. Beresford, photographs, 1902, NPG [see illus.]
- photographs, 1902–1933, Hult. Arch.
- G. C. Beresford, double portrait, photograph, 1903 (with her father), NPG
- F. Dodd, chalk drawing, 1908, NPG
- V. Bell, portrait, 1911–1912
- V. Bell, oils, 1912, NPG
- R. Strachey, oils, 1920–29, NPG
- W. Lewis, pencil, pen, and wash drawing, 1921, V&A
- Lenare, photograph, 1926–9
- J. E. Blanche, oils, 1927, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design
- S. Tomlin, lead cast of bust, 1931, NPG
- Ramsey & Muspratt, two photographs, bromide print, 1932, NPG
- B. Anrep, group portrait, mosaic, 1933 (The awakening of the muses), National Gallery, London
- Man Ray, photograph, silver print, 1934, NPG
- G. Freund, two colour prints, 1939, NPG
- M. Beck, photograph, repro. in Vogue (1927)
Wealth at Death
£14,051 3s. 5d.: resworn probate, 19 Aug 1941, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
- Stephen, Sir Leslie (1832–1904), author, literary critic, and first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography
- Stephen [née Jackson], Julia Prinsep (1846–1895), celebrated beauty and philanthropist
- Cameron [née Pattle], Julia Margaret (1815–1879), photographer
- Wilberforce, William (1759–1833), politician, philanthropist, and slavery abolitionist
- Venn, John (1759–1813), Church of England clergyman
- Venn, Henry (1725–1797), Church of England clergyman
- Stephen, Sir James (1789–1859), civil servant
- Bell [née Stephen], Vanessa (1879–1961), painter
- Stephen [née Thackeray], Harriet Marian [Minny] (1840–1875), wife of Leslie Stephen
- Woolf, Leonard Sidney (1880–1969), author and publisher
- West, Victoria Mary [Vita] Sackville- (1892–1962), writer and gardener