Introduction to Virginia Woolf

Birth and Family Ties
Virginia Woolf was born in a highly cultured and educated family in London on January 26, 1882. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a renowned critic, historian, scholar and author of a large number of critical, biographical and philosophical essays. He was a great friend of scholars and men of letters. Virginia was born into what has been called by another of its heirs as the intellectual aristocracy. Virginia Woolf gathered much of the materials for her novels from this social and cultural milieu in which she had much of her experience of life.

This milieu was composed of a small number of families and most of them were intimately connected. The members of this group constituted the cream of the middle class with their high intellectual attainments. It seems the Stephen family in their house at Hyde Park Gate must have resembled the Ramsays in To The Lighthouse with their grown-ups and the younger boys and girls.

Virginia Woolf was one of six sisters and was remarkably beautiful. She had great affection and attachment for her sister Vanessa and her brother Thoby. Thoby’s sudden and premature death at the age of twenty-five during a holiday in Greece had a profound effect on her work. This is revealed in her novels like The Voyage Out, Jacob’s Room and in The Waves. She did not go through a conventional school because of her indifferent health. She was taught at home mainly by her father.
The Influence of her Father
The influence of her eminent father, Leslie Stephen, was remarkable. He was already fifty when she was born and had already published most of his important books like History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century or The Science of Ethics. He still wrote daily and methodically in his study, books scattered round him in a circle. It was from him, that she imbibed her enthusiasm and love for literature. The atmosphere of the house also was intellectually stimulating to such an extent that she naturally developed an instinct for writing. She acquired the habit of walking through the parks and squares and streets of London from her illustrious father. In later life this habit helped her a lot in her creative activities.
Then there was the atmosphere of freedom in their family life! Virginia Woolf has mentioned in her Memoirs that they had the right to think their own thoughts and to follow their own pursuits. Their father would tell them to read what they liked. And his only lesson in the art of reading was, “to read what one liked because one liked it, never to pretend to admire what one did not;” and the only lesson in the art of writing was, “to write in the fewest possible words, as clearly as possible, exactly what one meant.” But the towering personality of her father had also some unhealthy effects. Mrs. Woolf has herself admitted, “that if she lived under its shadow for long—”his life would have entirely ended mine”.
Bloomsbury Group and the Visitors
Really speaking Virginia Woolf came from the cultural elite, the twentieth century counterpart of the Establishment. And some of the members of this intellectual aristocracy had formed themselves into a sub-group, called ‘Bloomsbury’. The men from Cambridge were its principle members and they became her friends through Virginia’s brothers. Among the members of this group were Lytton Strachey famous for his ‘Eminent Victorians’, and the renowned economist J.M. Keynes. The philosophy of C. E. Moore greatly influenced this group and the exclusive, strictly non-practical pursuit of ‘sweetness and light’ became the ideal of the followers of Moore. But like her father Virginia Woolf used the experience both critically and creatively. She could keep herself detached, although she was the centre of this group. She was even able to keep herself aloof from the social milieu into which she was born. That is why in her The Voyage Out and The Mark on the Wall we find a lot of caricatures of the dons, distinguished civil servants, aesthetes, politicians and men of letters, in short, the Victorian upper class. And this criticism is the driving impulse that led Virginia Woolf to a more mature interest in her world and its individual members.
The Bloomsbury group had its serious limitations. The members of this group were cut off from the mainstreams of real life as they lived in an Ivory Tower, an artificial world of their own creation. However it was in this world that they acquired their characteristic delicacy, subtlety and independent boldness. At the same time this artificial world deprived them of an opportunity to experience those palpable factors of life which is essential for the enrichment of a writer’s endowment.
Friends and Visitors
A good number of distinguished people used to visit their house at Hyde Park Gate. James Russel Lowell stood as a godfather to Virginia. Hardy remembered to have seen her in her cradle. Henry James was a frequent guest of the family. But then they were quite young. And after their father’s death they were the renowned members of the Bloomsbury group.
Deaths in the Family
Virginia lost her mother when she was just thirteen. It was the first great loss of a very dear and near one that affected her deeply. The charge of the household was taken over by their half-sister Stella Duckworth till Vanessa Stephen was old enough. After that Stella married but died soon after the birth of her first baby. These deaths profoundly affected her. And it seems after such tragic experiences Virginia Woolf began to regard life as an arbitrary trickster.
Father’s Death: Early Literary Career
Leslie Stephen died in 1904. After his death Vanessa and Virginia along with Thoby and Adrian shifted to a rented house in Bloomsbury Square and later it became famous as the locale of the Bloomsbury group, a literary club founded by Virginia Woolf. After the death of Thoby in 1906 and the marriage of Vanessa with Clive Bell in 1907, Virginia and Adrian moved to nearby Fitzoy Square. For a few years Clive Bell was to some extent her literary confidant. She had already started writing literary reviews in 1905 in the Times Literary Supplement and her connection with it lasted more than thirty years.
Marriage: Love for City Life and Sea
Virginia Woolf married Leonard Woolf in 1912. Mr. Woolf had gone to Ceylon to take up a post in the Civil Service in 1904. Not long after his return on leave Virginia announced her engagement to him in a note to Strachey on June 6, 1912. Soon after, the marriage took place. She was thirty and so far she had published only book reviews. But some of the deepest interests that were to shape her work are clear in retrospect. She was a London born and it is found that London is seldom absent from her work. Both Mrs. Dalloway and The Years are London books in more than one way. Then the days spent in her childhood at Cornwall left memories of the sea etched on her mind and their stamp on novels like The Waves and To the Lighthouse.
Besides her love for the city and the sea she was fascinated by books. She used to haunt libraries as she would haunt the streets of London, before she could write of the experience in a magical pattern of thought and imagery. This fascination for books has been beautifully described by her in a posthumously published essay entitled “Reading.”
First World War and Virginia Woolf
Sadly enough, just two years after Virginia’s marriage, the First World War broke out in 1914. It ended an era of security and stability and people in the West, who grew up before the starting of this Greater War, looked back upon it with nostalgia. Even as late as 1914 we find the classes settled and the writer looking most intently at the class from which he comes in the belief that he is looking at the-whole spectrum of life. “Then suddenly, like a chasm on a smooth road the War came.” And the war had great far-reaching effect on the life and literature that followed. Gone was the stability and security, of the pre-war days, instead a lurking sense of insecurity, the horror of immediate doom and destruction began to haunt the people. Virginia Woolf’s sensitive soul was overwhelmed with this unexpected shock and the horrible and nerve-shattering experience. She began to suffer from constant fits of depression. But she was looked upon with great honour and admiration in the Bloomsbury circle and her association with this literary club meant a constant source of pleasure and inspiration for her and did much to soothe her ruffled spirit and stimulate her creative activity.
Starting of Hogarth Press
It was in 1917 when Mr. and Mrs. Woolf founded their Hogarth Press as a ‘hobby of printing rather than publishing’. They lived at Hogarth house, Richmond. They used to spend their weekends and holidays at Ascham House near Lewes in Sussex. They took the house on lease, but finally they bought for themselves. Monks House, Rodmell, near Lewes in 1919. During the period from 1924 to 1939 Virginia Woolf’s life was filled with her writing and her reputation as a writer was slowly growing. She was involved in the activities of the Press along with her husband. As an artist Virginia Woolf found in Leonard Woolf an ideal companion. He gave her complete intellectual liberty and he knew how to share in her work, not merely with the sympathy and intelligence which she might get from a good friend, but also with the understanding and encouragement which is possible only when two lives are one. They often enjoyed holidays abroad and in England though she could not avoid becoming prey to occasional illness. Their married life seemed to be quite happy, but the pity is that Virginia Woolf found it impossible to continue living in this world.
Second World War and Death
To many it seemed that the fear of the outbreak of the Second World War had completely shattered her nerves. And when it actually broke out in 1939 she was very sadly disillusioned. There might be other reasons; but whatever interpretation has been placed on them, the outbreak of the Second World War destroyed her will to live. In the past also she had suffered from fits of depression and illness, but now the strain probably proved too great for her to overcome. And on March 28, 1941, she disappeared from this world and opened that closed door and sought death in the river near her home, leaving her hat and walking stick on the bank.’
The influences of environment, social, political, cultural as well as intellectual are supreme on man. Naturally no writer can escape such influences, as he is also a product of the age in which he is born and bred. To understand the works of a writer, specially those of a novelist, we must have a clear understanding of the times in which he lived and worked, as it is the novel which reflects the time-spirit to a far greater extent than other art forms.
The Effect of Rapid Industrialisation
In England, by the last decade of the nineteenth century there was a complete breakdown of the agrarian way of life and economy. The year 1880 was a landmark in the social and literary history of England. An era of rapid social change was ushered in. The change was to be noticed in every sphere of life’ The increased urbanisation and industrialisation brought in their wake various problems. There was a housing shortage, over-crowding, increase in crime and the rapidly increasing ugliness. There was also a considerable fall in the standard of sexual morality. City slums raised their ugly heads in all directions. Taboos and public opinion on sex were no longer able to keep under control sexual promiscuity in a crowded city life. It led to some healthy reaction. The Victorian ethics of competition and money-relationship had to give place to a new concept of social responsibility and morality. A new concept of the welfare state emerged. The state or society was considered to be responsible for the education, health and and the well-being of its citizens. Though private morality took a nose­dive, the sphere of social morality expanded.
Rationalism and Traditional Values
A blind faith in traditional values slowly gave way to a scientific spirit and rationalism. This led to a questioning of accepted social beliefs and conventions. Traditional religious ideas and nations were shaken by scepticism and agnosticism. In the Victorian era also there was much criticism of traditional beliefs, but the writers of that age, like Dickens or Thackeray, never challenged the very fundamentals, the very basis of their social and moral order. But by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century there came on the literary scene writers like Shaw, Wells and Galsworthy who started criticising the very basis of the existing social, economic and moral system. The common man was perplexed as this marked a wholesale criticism of the existing order from different angles and points of view, often opposite and contradictory. The common man was at a loss to know what to accept and what to reject.
The New Psychology: Power of the Unconscious
It was Freud who first emphasised the power of the unconscious to affect conduct. The breakdown of accepted values resulted in an increased introvertism with the individual’s withdrawal into his own shell. Freud declared that human beings are not so rational as they make themselves out to be. He pointed out that intellectual convictions were based on a rationalisation of emotional needs. According to him, the conduct of human beings is not all guided and controlled by the conscious; it is, in fact, at the mercy of the force lying buried, deep within the sub-conscious and the unconscious. Then came Jung and Bergson who carried Freud’s formulations to their logical conclusions. Thus more and more emphasis is being laid on the study of the unconscious, as a new dimension has been added to the study and assessment of human behaviour.
Changed Attitude Towards Sex
The epoch-making ideas of Freud and his followers had far-reaching influence on the moral attitudes of the 20th century significantly in matters of sex. According to them, repressed sex instincts are at the root of much neurosis and other signs of abnormality. And Freud’s theory of ‘the Oedipus Complex’ has really caused a sensation. A major theme of modern literature is the study of unconscious, as the intellect is no longer regarded as the means of the true and real understanding of the human soul; instead the emphasis is placed on feeling and emotion. Modern psychology has boldly asserted that man is not to be considered as self-responsible or rational in his behaviour. The theory of ‘the Oedipus Complex’ has had a profound impact on private and family relationship. Gone were the Victorian taboos on sex and there is a free and uninhibited discussion on sex.
Break-up of Old Family Relationships
The notion of male superiority has suffered a serious blow and assessment of the relative roles of the sexes has already changed. The woman has come into her own. The old authoritarian pattern in family relationships is no longer operative. And there is a re-orientation of parent-child relationship.
First World War and its Impact
It is impossible to overestimate the effects of the First World War in any attempt to assess the prevailing tone of the contemporary world-picture of the nineteen-twenties. The credit of the old world was falling. The war suddenly and violently brought the collapse of the whole edifice. It increased tension, frustration and neurosis. It strained the authoritarian pattern of family relationship. It could be described as—a revolt against authority. Political and religious scepticism, cynicism and general disillusionment became the order of the day. The interest shifted from the ‘extrovert’ to the ‘introvert’, from outer to the inner. Economic depression, unemployment, overpopulation, acute shortages have increased the hardships of life. And the enormous storms and strains of life caused nervous breakdowns. To the younger survivors of the war, Gertrude Stein had said: “You are a lost generation.” And to T.S. Eliot the world became indeed a ‘Wasteland’ and its denizens ‘The Hollowmen’. The hero in the inter-war novels is rather an ‘anti-hero’ to whom things happen. He is a neurotic, a cripple, emotionally if not physically. Moral and ethical values were no longer accepted to be absolute. Philosophy and Metaphysics began to show keen interest in the study of the nature of man. To Freud man is a biological phenomenon and to the Marxist he is an outcome of economic and social forces. The Victorian ideas about man and his essential rationality were thrown overboard.
Socialism and Internationalism
The Victorian notion of the supremacy of the Whites also had to be changed. It was replaced by the ideas and ideal of socialism and internationalism. Nationalism lost its aureole and imperialism came in for a great deal of criticism. The idea that the relations between the nations should be based on equality and mutual respect and not on the political subjection and imperial supremacy began to prevail. Gone were the days of Kipling and Tennyson. Their place was taken by great modern writers like T.S. Eliot and Forster to propagate the new thoughts and ideals.
In Quest of New Values and Systems
The disintegration of faith and traditional beliefs was almost complete. But a thoroughly disillusioned society is fundamentally a disintegrated society, a mere aggregate of individualities. So man was in quest of new values and systems. And this led writers, like D.H. Lawrence, to seek refuge from uncertainty and perplexity in some mystic religion of blood. T.S. Eliot is found searching for this pattern in the close similarity between the myths of different people, and the European literary tradition. And on the other side, Marxism with its emphasis on class war provided many with the vision of a new society which will replace the present one in the not too distant future.
The modern English novel is, no doubt, distinct in many ways, but still it has been affected by many of the historical and social influences and its literary development by the fiction of many other countries, notably of France and, at a later stage, of Russia. Whatever may be the case the modern writer is quite conscious of his age and desires it to be reflected in his works.
Social and literary critics of the period between the wars have often pointed out that it is a period of transition, a period of breaking up and settling down. Another point to be remembered is that in the modern age there has been a phenomenal rise in literacy due to the great spread of education. Cheap books and magazines have been pouring out in a very large number. But this has happened at the cost of quality which declined to a great extent. The cinema, the radio, the so called popular literature of a very low standard have led to an increase of vulgarity, brutality and coarseness, finally lowering of tastes of readers. And this lowering of tastes has had an adverse effect on art and literature of the new age.
Immense Popularity
It is an established fact that the English novel has attained immense popularity in the 20th century leading to an eclipse of poetry and drama. And the novel is the only literary form which has been able to stand the onslaught of radio and cinema by producing work of outstanding merit. As a result we find myriads of novels pouring out of the press to be received by the public with great enthusiasm. It seems modern man under the influence of science prefers discussion, analysis and classification. And the novel can provide it and hence its immense popularity.
Immense Variety and Complexity
The immense variety and complexity of the modern novel is another prominent feature. We find novels on all possible themes and subjects with different trends. We have traditionalists like H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and Galsworthy. Though original in some respects they follow the Victorian tradition as far as the technique of the novel is concerned. Then we have also the innovators, like Henry James, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf who have, so to say, brought about a revolution in the technique of the novel by their novel method of probing deep into the sub-conscious of the human mind. And there are many other varieties of the novel, such as biographical novels, satirical novels, regional novels, sex novels, novels of humour and so on.
Realism and Modern Novel
The modern novel presents life with detached accuracy, regardless of moral or ideological consideration. Hence the modern novel is realistic. The increasing separation of the modern novelist from the values and attitudes of his society is reflected not only in the subjects, but also in the structures of his fiction and its modes of representing reality. The name of ‘realism’ was soon given to the school of Flaubert after he wrote his epoch-making novel Madam Borary. Realism rejects any idealisation of reality to suit romantic wishes of the reader or the writer. In fact the novelist is to be entirely a recorder of ‘reality’. So the modern novel covering as it does all aspects of contemporary life, the pleasant as well as the ugly, never presents a one-sided view of life. That is why we find D.H. Lawrence giving us a realistic account of the life and sufferings of the colliers. The modern age is an era of disintegration and interrogation. The modern novel presents realistically the doubts, conflicts and the frustrations of the present day world. Hence mainly the novels of the inter-war and post-war years are pessimistic in tone. And there is large scale criticism, and often condemnation, of contemporary values of civilisation. This is evident in the novels of E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham and D.H. Lawrence. We find Huxley analysing the disease of modern civilisation and searching for a cure and D. H. Lawrence revolting against reason and intellect, believing that ‘the flesh is wiser than the intellect’.
Frank treatment of Sex
One of the most important aspects of the modern novel is its free and frank treatment of the problems of love, sex and marriage. The Victorian inhibition of sex was thrown overboard. One of the common themes of the modern novels is sex within marriage or outside marriage. The preoccupation of the modern novel with sex themes is very much due to the theories of psychologists like Freud and Havelock Ellis and the frustration, boredom and brutality caused by the two devastating World Wars. D.H. Lawrence is, undoubtedly, a great author of sex novels, but he seeks to sublimate sex, as he regards sex as a great spiritual passion.
Art Form
The novel is now judged by severely aesthetic considerations. It is not merely a light story for after-dinner reading. In modern novels there is a serious art form. Instead of regularity of form, they show a tendency of what may seem to apears a freakish changefulness and unpredictability. A careful analysis will show that form with modern novelists is not as freakish as it seems. The chief point is that their concept of form has not been traditional for the novel. They are not obsessed with the plot as was Fielding or Trollope. They have a tendency to deformalisation. In fact the modern novel is very well-constructed, having nothing loose or rambling about it. We find that novelists, like Mrs. Woolf, giving careful thought to the aesthetics of the novel and propounding their own theories. Albert has rightly remarked: “Henry James and Conrad evolved techniques which revolutionised the form of the novel. Basically, they amount to “an abandonment of the direct and rather loose biographical method in favour of an indirect or oblique narrative, with great concern for the aesthetic considerations of pattern and composition, and a new conception of characterisation built on the study of the inner consciousness.”
Plot-its Decay
Modern novels show a tendency of discontinuity instead of continuity of action. Prof. Edwin Muir is quite justified when he says that the story seems have died out of the 20th century English novel. A continuous action seems to the new writers too unlike ordinary experience. According to them, the sense of life is often best rendered by an abrupt passing from one series of events, one group of characrers, one centre of consciousness, to another. “The great modern novels, like Ulysses, are still stories, but they are stories without an ending, and the characteristic modern novel is a story without an ending.” They do not particularly care about neatly finishing off a given action, following it through the fall of the curtain. In short the modern novel may be likened to an incomplete sentence, and, “its completeness is a reflection of the incompleteness of a whole region of thought and belief.” Instead of telling a story with an eye on the clock and calendar, he probes deeper and deeper into human consciousness and moves freely backward and forward in time. The unities of time and place have no meaning or significance for him.
Character—its Decay
Modern novelists, like Virginia Woolf and others, deliberately discard the conventional way of drawing up finished characters, rather portraits, and develop a different method of characterisation to produce different effects. From the conventional point of view the character has also decayed in the modern novel. As regards delineation of character the method of direct narration and the dramatic method were mainly adopted by the novelists of the past. They were almost wholly interested in the externals of personality, vividly and graphically describing the habits, manners and physical appearance. But the new writers reject such characterisation as superficial. According to them, it is impossible to give a psychologically true account of character by such means. They emphasize the fluidity of personality rather than its fixity. Modern artists like Joyce and Mrs. Woolf probe deep into the subconscious, even the unconscious, and lose themselves in the complexities and subtleties of inner life. A character is sketched not by extension, but by probing the depths. Character is thus presented outside time and space. Hence characters like Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay are revealed to us in their true colours and shades, though James Joyce and Virginia Woolf have presented only a few hours in the lives of these characters. This new technique of characterisation, this psychological probing, deeper into the subconscious has been the death of both the hero and the villain in the traditional sense in the modern novel.
Stream of Consciousness Technique
We have already mentioned that Freud and Jung shook the foundation of human thought by revealing that human consciousness has deep layers, and buried under the conscious, there lies the sub-conscious and the unconscious. And if these hidden elements are not given due weight, an account of human personality can never be complete’ and satisfactory. And hence modern novelists of England, like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, have made the English novel truly psychological in nature. To Virginia Woolf, ‘life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’ And according to her, the task of a novelist is ‘to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity, it may display.’ The most important aspect of this type of psychological or stream of consciousness’ novel is that such novels have mainly as the subject matter the consciousness of one or more characters. The depicted consciousness serves as the screen on which the material’ in these novels is presented. Instead of a lot of external action we get the interior monologue and the fluid mental states —a fluid existing simultaneously at a number of points in a person’s total experience. Thus we find that this stream of consciousness floods the novels of James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf and Conrad Aiken, and trickles through the novels of innumerable others.
Theme of the Novel
There is also a shift in the theme in modern psychological novels. Unlike the traditional novel it never aims at upholding the accepted and recognised social values. The Individual is more important for the novelist than society. For him each individual is a lonely soul and one particular personality can never merge or become one with another. So according to David Daiches, the theme of the modern novelist is not the relation between gentility and morality but the relation between loneliness and love. And then both E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence feel that ‘the great society’ is the enemy of the individual and want it to be reformed. So the novelist today is not concerned with the great society, that is society at large, but with the achievement of a little society which can be achieved if at all, only through great patience and care.
It may be noted in the end that new writers do not represent a sharp and an absolute break with tradition. As for example in the works of same novelists, like D.H. Lawrence, much that is largely traditional, both in plot and characterisation, can be found persisting side by side with much that is new and unconventional. However, the modern English novel is an extremely vital and living form of art with a very bright and glorious future.

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