Wednesday, March 9, 2011

This Day in Literary History

Thirty-one-year-old writer Virginia Woolf delivers the manuscript of her first novel, The Voyage Out, to her publisher. Coincidentally, this date was also the 21st birthday of Woolf's future lover, Vita Sackville-West, who Woolf would not meet until 1925.

Woolf, born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London in 1882, grew up surrounded by intellectuals. Her father was a writer and philosopher, and her mother was a British aristocrat. In 1902, Virginia's father died, and she took a house with her sister and two brothers in the Bloomsbury district in London near the British Museum. The family developed close friendships with other intellectuals and writers, including writer E.M. Forster, economist J.M. Keyes, and biographer Lytton Strachey. Their group came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group, a leisured set known later for their intellectual and sexual nonconformism: Many of the group, including Woolf herself, were bisexual or homosexual. Woolf became a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and also took odd jobs to support herself until she inherited a comfortable income from an aunt.

Virginia married writer and social reformer Leonard Woolf in 1912. The couple established the Hogarth Press in their dining room several years later. In addition to Virginia Woolf's later novels, the press also published T.S. Eliot and translations of Chekhov and Dostoevsky.

Woolf published her ground-breaking novel, Mrs. Dalloway, in 1925. Its stream-of-consciousness structure deeply influenced later writers. That same year, she fell in love with poet Sackville-West, who was married to the bisexual diplomat and author Harold Nichols. The affair produced Woolf's most whimsical work, Orlando. Woolf wrote several more novels as well as social and literary criticism. However, she was given to depressive spells and battled mental illness all her life. In 1941, fearful for her own mental state and afraid of the coming World War, she filled her pockets with rocks and drowned herself.

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