Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris (2011)

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris (2011)


I have just read Alexandra Harris’s biography of Virginia Woolf. From reading this biography I have learned the following to add to my knowledge of Virginia:

  • When Virginia was born, 22 Hyde Park Gate was home to Sophie Farrell (the family’s cook) and seven maids who had their bedrooms in the attic, and a sitting room in the gloomy basement.
  • Virginia was named after Aunt Adeline who had just died. However, it was quickly dropped because of sad memories.
  • When Virginia was ten she and Vanessa edited their own newspaper The Hyde Park Gate News (see my ‘interesting’ page) and delivered it to their parents.
  • When in around 1896 Virginia became ill, she was told by her doctors to rest and was not allowed to write. I want to explore this treatment of Virginia’s first breakdown more fully and am reminded of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. This short story is an important example of early feminist literature which shows attitudes to women’s mental health and women’s oppression by patriarchy. I will re-read this story (one of my favourites) and comment on it shortly.
  • Probably as a result of the abuse she suffered by her half-brother, Virginia had a lifelong feeling of shame about her body, she didn’t like seeing herself in a mirror and was awkward about clothes. This reminds me of The New Dress, a short story by Virginia (another one of my favourites), which I will read again soon.
  • Virginia had four proposals of marriage and accepted Lytton Strachey in 1909 then they both thought better of it the next day and changed their minds.
  • Virginia nearly died in 1913 after taking an overdose of Veronal (see my ‘interesting’ page). She had to have her stomach pumped and a team of medical staff worked for hours to save her life.
  •  Virginia Woolf began a diary in October 1917 and she kept it daily until she died in 1941. It started as just factual but it soon became more descriptive. As she became more famous she realised that her diaries may be read by other people some day and she wanted to ‘appear successful even to myself’. So, so she wrote a version of life that she wanted to remember. The thought of days slipping by unrecorded filled her with a sense of loss. She hated to think of a life allowed to waste like a tap left running.
  • Virginia travelled abroad frequently. Holidays in Cassis (Southern France),  visits to Turkey, Greece and Italy and a long stay in the Sierra Nevada, Spain.
  • Virginia refused an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester
  • She refused to give the prestigious Clark lectures (see my ‘interesting’ page) at the University of Cambridge.
  • Virginia and Leonard discussed how they would die if an invasion during the Second World War happened as they knew that a ‘Jewish intellectual and his novelist wife could expect the very worst from the Nazis’.  They planned to go to the garage and breathe the fumes from the car.
  • After Virginia’s suicide, Leonard arranged a cremation which he attended alone.

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