Based on a True Story: Virginia Woolf

From swift statements that are quickly buried underneath a conversation, but linger in your mind, to cinema flashbacks with a hazy grey or blue tint that seem to say, ‘this goes beyond IMAX entertainment,’ people tend to incorporate their personal experiences into professional work, both purposefully and subconsciously, no matter where one may turn. Reality has a way of attaching itself and demanding exposure. English writer, Virginia Woolf, whose career peaked during the modern era, gained attention because of her not so subtle nudges towards her past. She spoke on true experiences, however, the sharing of her particular truth was frowned upon, in her time period. Virginia Woolf was far from the golden apple of her generation; from incestuous sexual abuse to her sexual orientation, battles with depression, and more, Virginia Woolf was a problematic being of the early modern time, which is reflected in her work, both literally and hypothetically.

Virginia Woolf, born Adeline Virginia Stephen, of London, England, was the child of two Victorian parents and sister to both full and half siblings. The Stephen family spent many summers in St. Ives where her father, Leslie Stephen, a philosopher, bought what is known as Talland House for his growing family to enjoy during breaks from their everyday routines. The Talland House became of great significance to Virginia, as The Stephen family, “settled there for months at a time, and the annual shift from Kensington to Talland House was a substantial, laborious affair. Books, servants, children, cricket bats, photography equipment, bedding and clothes were all brought down by train,” making The Talland House more of a second home than a place of occasional leisure (Granta Magazine). Recounts of Woolf’s time at Talland House can be found in her notable novel, To the Lighthouse (1927).

The release of To the Lighthouse grabbed the attention of authors, readers, and those who oppose opening a letter, let alone a novel, alike. The book was thought of in a diary entry by Mrs. Woolf on May 14, 1925. Woolf wrote, “This is going to be fairly short: to have father’s character done complete in it: & mother’s; & St Ives; & childhood; & all the usual things I try to put in–life, death, &c. But the centre is father’s character, sitting in a boat, reciting We perished, each alone, while he crushes a dying mackerel–However, I must refrain. I must write a few little stories first, & let the Lighthouse simmer, adding to it between tea & dinner till it is complete for writing out,” (Harvard Review), for her plans for the novel, and these plans are recognizably carried out in To the Lighthouse. Virginia wanted the novel to not only be about her parents and her childhood, but about much larger topics, such as Europe before the War. Virginia Woolf loved her finished product. While proudly reading over her work, Virginia, “noticed something remarkable. From the ages of thirteen to forty-four she had been obsessed with her mother, but after writing To the Lighthouse, her mother disappeared. “I no longer hear her voice,” she wrote, “I do not see her.”

The Talland House was a place of cheerful escape from the town for Virginia Woolf, until her mother’s passing in 1895. Her father gave up the lease, following the tragic event, ending Woolf’s annual vacations at the age of thirteen. The loss of her childhood happiness became a permanent sting attached to her heart. “It became entwined with the loss of her mother and elder half-sister Stella, and with her father’s oppressive grief,” (Granta Magazine) which planted seeds of depression into young Woolf that would later sprout due to the long suppression of unwanted circumstances. Virginia gives insight into her personal emotions on the struggles, however, they are disguised as character situations in To the Lighthouse and only briefly discussed in parentheses.

Woolf hid her younger years in a sandbox. She avoided the loss of loved ones by burying memories of Talland House to never be thought of again. As her grief was concealed, so was the pain her half-brother, Gerald, instilled. Gerald sexually abused Virginia in the beloved Talland House, changing the way Woolf viewed the vacation spot forever. Just as the death of her family reflected into the lives of her characters, Woolf also mentions the acts of Gerald. She goes into a bit of detail, as Virginia was not afraid to be raw in her writing, “in her memoir A Sketch of the Past: ‘I remember the feel of his hands going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower, I remember how I hoped that he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts. But he did not stop.’” (Granta Magazine) Virginia held all of these things in until she eventually broke. She endured her first breakdown following the death of her mother and a lifelong battle with depression and other mental illnesses ensued.

Virginia’s mental state continued to deteriorate and add nullity to her novels. To the Lighthouse was particularly written during the beginning stages of her deepest psychological dissent, “Hermione Lee speculates that her illness was “connected (like her state of mind while writing the mad scenes in Mrs. Dalloway) to the strong emotions the novel was drawing on.”” (Journal of Modern Literature) Woolf can be recognized by her use of negative words, such as, no, never, and nothing. These terms are quite apparent in the aforementioned novel. Based on the facts on Virginia Woolf’s life, “their occurrence in To the Lighthouse, in excess of their expected frequency, is significant. Through such saturation, negative locutions delineate and, paradoxically, illuminate the novel’s darker subtext,” (Journal of Modern Literature) one can infer the depth of depression that embodied her. When not working on her later praised novel, Virginia would release the midnight pit that consumed her brain into a diary. In the diary, she professes her will to complete any action absent from her mind and body, including the composition of To the Lighthouse. Every file of Virginia Woolf’s life came flying out of the cabinet as she wrote. To the Lighthouse was in some ways a biography disguised as a fictitious novel which explains the hardships that arrived in the process of creating the piece.

How does a mentally ill women think and function in society? The answer can be found near the end of To the Lighthouse when, “one of the characters thinks, “Nothing is simply one thing,”–a sentence that could stand as a motto both for the life of this complicated writer, and for the experience of reading her fiction.” (Harvard Review) Virginia Woolf put tremendous focus on writing in the moment and writing in a way that shows the strength and capabilities of women. She is much different than the Edwardian writers before her who, she believes, wanted something from their readers. When discussing the veterans of her field, these words are shared: “‘I believe,” she writes in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” “that all novels … Deal with characters, and that it is to express character,–not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose and undramatic, so rich, elastic and alive, has been evolved.” (Harvard Review) To the LIghthouse may very well be categorized as all of those things.

The now best-selling novel, To the Lighthouse, is separated into three parts and organized in a quite unique way. The book is written in third person, which adds to the storytelling mood Woolf believes helps make a novel great. There are sections varying in length throughout, yet, the location never changes. From the beginning of Woolf’s piece, the reader, “must sit at attention as Woolf ignores the normal boundaries and transitions and gathers facts, thoughts and sensations together in long, sinuous sentences,” (Harvard Review) which one may view as a welcome to the different style of writing they are about to encounter. Towards the end of the novel, the reader’s viewpoint switches between a few characters and the narrator becomes more omniscient as, “Woolf did not believe in traditional exposition and we learn little about the history of most of the characters.” (Harvard Review) It is as if a women that has been challenged her entire life found strength in challenging other people through her words.

When asked about the novel, Helen Dunmore states, “There are novels which have an almost uncanny power to renew themselves in the reader’s imagination. Each time I return to To the Lighthouse I’m struck by something that I haven’t noticed before: a flash of description, a moment of double-edged intimacy between two characters, a touch of sensory experience so immediate that it brings a shiver.” (Granta Magazine) This statement, when taken out of context, can easily be mistaken for an opinion on Virginia Woolf’s life.

Virginia Woolf spent a large amount of her childhood in Talland House, yet, each year brought new discoveries and new memories. Woolf has faced death and abuse, but then turned around and wrote unforgettable novels because of it. Virginia had depression show up at her door and launch a fire so hot in her heart that she could barely withstand a working day or fathom the thought of the continuation of her life. Virginia Woolf was troubled in many ways, yes, but her troubles allowed for her to write vividly and unapologetically. She did not follow in the footsteps of authors before her. She stood on her own and shared stories that are discussed in English classes of all levels today. Virginia Woolf was not the golden standard of her time and neither did she want or need to be. Virginia shared things others wouldn’t dare to think of in that day and age. Virginia Woolf shared a much needed autobiography with the world through storytelling and, the most magnificent part of it all, more than half of the time, she wasn’t doing it intentionally.

Work Cited

Dunmore, Helen. “To the Lighthouse.” Granta Magazine, 25 Apr. 2017, Accessed 1 May 2018.

This article discusses the life of Virginia Woolf before and after the publishing of To the Lighthouse. It also touches on the novel itself. Much insight is given to the correlation between Virginia Woolf’s reality and her stories.

Livesey, Margot. “Nothing Is Simply One Thing.” Harvard Review, no. 49, 2016, p. 116+. Student Resources In Context, Accessed 1 May 2018.

This article focuses on the time in which To the Lighthouse was composed. Virginia Woolf’s psychological battles, as well as, her marriage, and how the creation of the novel came to be are all discussed.

NAJARIAN, JAMES. “‘Who Lived at Alfoxton?’: Virginia Woolf and English Romanticism.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 31, no. 4, 1999, p. 527. Student Resources In Context, Accessed 1 May 2018.

In this article, Ellen Trempers opinions on who Virginia Woolf is as a writer is discussed. Multiple pieces by Woolf are mentioned. The focus is on why Tremper believes Woolf is a romantic.

Rubenstein, Roberta. “‘I meant nothing by The Lighthouse’: Virginia Woolf’s poetics of negation.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 31, no. 4, 2008, p. 36+. Student Resources In Context, Accessed 1 May 2018.

This article reveals the negative connotation in To the Lighthouse and how it ties to Virginia Woolf’s reality. It gives an understanding of underlying messages placed in the novel that a reader may not realize on their own. It also discusses the negativity surrounding Virginia Woolf’s mindset.

“Virginia Woolf.” Canadian Social Science, Canadian Research & Development Center of Sciences and Cultures; Canadian Academy of Oriental and Occidental Culture,

This source provides a brief summary of Virginia Woolf’s life. It categorizes her writing styles and names her pieces and what they did for/in society.

ZEMGULYS, ANDREA P. “Night and Day Is Dead’: Virginia Woolf in London ‘Literary and Historic.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 46, no. 1, 2000, p. 56. Student Resources In Context, Accessed 1 May 2018.

This article focuses on another popular novel by Virginia Woolf, Night and Day. Connections are made between the novel and entries in Woolf’s personal diary, which are used to discuss her emotional state and how it, both, benefited and hurt her work.

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