Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Virginia Woolf

Episode Summary

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a brilliant author who helped define the modernist genre.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Before we get started with today’s episode, I want to let you know that our story contains mentions of suicide. 

Today’s beautiful mind was a revolutionary author. Let’s talk about Virginia Woolf.

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on January 25, 1882, in West London. Her parents each had children from previous deceased spouses, and would together have four more children after Virginia.  Because of this, Virginia lived with seven competitive siblings, all of them well-educated and creative. 

When Virginia was nine, she played a large role in the creation of a family “newspaper” called the Hyde Park Gate News, named after the family’s home address. The handwritten pamphlet regularly featured family news and gossip, jokes, poems, fictional stories, drawings, and teasing between siblings. This early work has been studied as an example of Virginia’s developing voice as a writer.

Virginia’s cheerful writing stopped at age 13, when her mother passed away. Soon thereafter, both her half-sister and father also died. These tragedies took an intense emotional toll on Virginia.

Under the guidance of her older sister, Vanessa, Virginia moved with her siblings to a house where she could pursue creative goals. The family hosted gatherings with many radical young thinkers who would later achieve fame of their own. These meetups would become known as the Bloomsbury Group.

After another sibling died and Vanessa got married, Virginia coped with grief and change through her writing. As she continued to attend the Bloomsbury Group, her wit developed further. At that point, she was mostly writing book reviews, though she also published a collection of “Reminiscences” that reflected somberly on her childhood and deceased mother.

In 1911, Virginia reunited with Leonard Woolf, who she originally met in 1904 at one of her family gatherings. The pair married the following year. 

Virginia then started writing her first novel, called “The Voyage Out.” She was also  struggling with mental health problems. The book started as an experimental piece called Melymbrosia, in which Virginia aimed to embrace all aspects of life normally missing from Victorian novels.

In The Voyage Out, the protagonist, Rachel, is introduced to freedom and sexuality on a trip to South America. She then quickly dies without any explanation. In the novel, Virginia experimented with surreal worlds, distortions of perception, and nonlinear storytelling.

In 1913, Virginia’s anxiety about failure as a writer led her to attempt suicide. She recovered and published The Voyage Out in 1915, but she continued to struggle with  mania and depression.

Nonetheless, Virginia published much more work throughout the 1920’s, including pamphlets and novels. Her writing was experimental and genre-defining. For example, in 1927, she published “To the Lighthouse” on the anniversary of her mother’s death. The book blends the structure of a novel and an elegy.

Virginia continued her revolutionary work throughout the 1930’s. She pioneered stream of consciousness style writing as a literary device, and her work would come to define a large part of the modernist movement of her time.

 Then, World War II struck. Virginia was working on both a memoir and a novel called “Between the Acts” which examined art, perception, and response. But as London was being bombed, Virginia struggled to find the meaning of writing during such a trying time. It seemed like civilization was on the brink of collapse. The demons Virginia struggled with came back to haunt her.

On March 28, 1941, Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse. 

“Between the Acts” was published soon after her death. Virginia Woolf’s  writing was pivotal for the modernist genre. She lives on through her many publications, including her diary and letters.

Join us tomorrow to hear about another beautiful mind -- an ancient historian who lived over a millennium ago.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!