This article was first published in Literature Lust
The writing of Virginia Woolf has been read, critiqued, and carefully considered over the last hundred years.
War, the city (specifically London), and the passing of time have all been noted as major influences. But what’s often overlooked are the various significant female relationships that left an indelible mark on Woolf as both a writer and a woman.
These relationships not only provided her with the emotional support and intellectual stimulation she craved but they also gave her a platform to explore the feminist ideas and themes of identity that would thread thickly through her literary works.
Virginia Woolf's Early Female Relationships
Virginia Woolf’s early relationships in particular opened the door to her exploration of a person’s inner thoughts and emotions and likely led to the pioneering stream-of-consciousness techniquethat became closely associated with her work.
Mainly this was due to the tragedy of these relationships; Woolf suffered considerable heartache in her young life.
Loss of her Mother
Her mother, Julia Stephen, died when she was only 13 years old, and as a child on the cusp of adolescence, Woolf never fully recovered from this devastating loss.
She had had a close relationship with her mother, though as the sixth of Julia’s seven children, yearned for an undivided attention she rarely received.
Still, it was thanks to Julia, a highly educated woman and a renowned beauty who modelled for several English Pre-Raphaelite painters including Edward Burne-Jones, that Woolf and her siblings were encouraged to embrace a love of arts and intellectual pursuits. And though Julia was, in many ways, a conventional Victorian woman, her determination to educate her daughters equal to that of her sons, helped inform Woolf’s early feminist ideas.
When she died at 49 years old from heart failure brought on by influenza, Julia left a gaping hole in the family’s daily life and their home in Hyde Park Gate.
Woolf would later write:
“What a jumble of things I can remember [of Mother]… but they are all of her in the company; of her surrounded; of her generalized; dispersed; omnipresent, of her as the creator of that crowded, merry world which spun so gaily at the center of my childhood.”
And then noting sorrowfully that after she died:
“Nothing was left. In its place a dark cloud settled over us; we seemed to sit all together cooped up, solemn, unreal, under a haze of heavy emotion. . .a finger was laid on our lips.”
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Literary Mothers & an Exploration of Loss
Woolf would have her first breakdown in the aftermath of her mother’s death. And the feelings of utter dejection and depression that she experienced would dog her for the rest of her life.
But she would also go on to vividly recreate her mother in various celebrated works, most notably Mrs. Ramsay, the nurturing emotional center of To the Lighthouse, Helen Ambrose in The Voyage Out, and the 51-year-old protagonist of Mrs Dalloway.
In addition, she used her experiences of death and grief to examine the complexities of mourning as well as the lasting impact of loss, mining deep into many of her characters’ inner thoughts and psyches in a way that had not been done, at least not so masterfully, in literature before.
Further Tragedy in the Formative Years of Virginia Woolf
Tragically, Julia Stephen was not the only critical figure in Virginia Woolf’s formative young life to pass away.
In 1897, just two years after her mother’s demise, Woolf’s half-sister, Stella Duckworth, also died.
Stella was Julia’s daughter by her first marriage, and as a young woman in her 20s at the time of her mother’s death, took on the duties of tending to and caring for the children left behind.
She became something of a substitute mother to Woolf, who had already spent much of her childhood in her older half-sister’s company.
When Stella died suddenly from peritonitis at 26 years old, the shock of her death only deepened the great sorrow and abandonment Woolf felt and further contributed to the writer’s bouts of melancholy and her struggles with mental health.
Stella would later appear as Eleanor in Woolf’s book The Years. In this 1937 novel tracing the life of a family in London, the character of Eleanor is 22 years old when she must take on the responsibility of managing the family household and her six siblings in the aftermath of her mother’s death.
As the novel travels across years, Eleanor eventually decides to travel too.
Older, and examining her regrets of a life not lived to its fullest, she visits exotic and exciting locations across the globe. It is, perhaps, a poignant gift of an imagined life from Virginia Woolf to that of a deceased but beloved sister.
Sisterhood with Vanessa Bell
Virginia Woolf didn’t grieve the loss of her mother and Stella alone, of course; her brothers and elder sister also suffered the pain.
These awful experiences, shared at such a young age, bonded them together, and Woolf became particularly close to her sister Vanessa Bell, who was nearly three years her senior.
Unfortunately, the sisters would also share another trauma — Following the death of their mother and later, their father, they would both suffer sexual abuse at the hands of their half-brother, George Duckworth.
According to the writer, he would enter one or other of the sisters’ bedrooms insisting they allow him to share their beds. She described his “violent gusts of passion” as being “little better than a brute’s.”
Though many critics put these public claims down to delusions brought on by Woolf’s mental struggles, Bell, though she never spoke of the abuse herself, never denied it either.
Woolf would later claim her sister as her savior during all these experiences. Writing about her father’s passing, which plunged Woolf into another deep abyss of depression, and alluding to the horrific experiences at the hands of her half-brother, she said of Bell, “Where should I have been if it hadn’t been for you when Hyde Park Gate was at its worst?”
Vanessa Bell’s Influence on Virginia Woolf’s Writing
But Bell did not just offer emotional support to her younger sister; she also encouraged her literary endeavors. Of course, there were jealousies and rivalries, as with most siblings, but throughout their lives, Bell remained a deep inspiration for Woolf.
The elder sister was a gifted painter, and according to the scholar Dr. Claudia Tobin, Woolf “acknowledged that the power of Bell’s paintings was partly to be found in their resistance to interpretation in language.”
This reading of her sister’s work led Woolf to attempt something similar in her writing, “[a]s if to evoke in prose something of the elliptical, sometimes disorienting world her sister conjured.”
The Bloomsbury Group
It was also Bell who was primarily responsible for the flourishing of what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. This was an eclectic circle of artists and intellects who initially met at the house Bell, Woolf, and their younger brother Thoby moved into in the bohemian Bloomsbury area of London.
The elder sister began hosting weekly gatherings called the ‘Friday Club’ and this eventually melded with the ‘Thursday Evening’ meet-ups instigated by Thoby and his friends from Cambridge.
Death of a Brother
Unfortunately, and in keeping with the tragic shadow cast over the writer and her family, Thoby contracted typhoid at 26 while on holiday in Greece and died in 1906.
Both sisters were devastated, but this time, Woolf’s grief did not descend into depression. Instead, she threw herself into her writing and engaged wholly in the avant-garde gatherings of their home at 46 Gordon Square.
Female Friends, Radical Thinkers
The women Virginia Woolf met through the Bloomsbury Group were radical thinkers. They included several influential female intellectuals and artists, such as Dorothy Brett, Mary Hutchinson, and Lady Ottoline Morrell. The latter was a photographer, writer, and artist whose passion and influence contributed largely to the early success of the Contemporary Art Society.
Together, they provided a supportive environment where women could engage in intellectual discussions and assert their creative talents. The feminist ideas and discussions that evolved as a result, played a crucial role in shaping Woolf’s own feminist beliefs and her advocacy for women’s rights and independence.
This can be particularly seen in her 1929 seminal essay, A Room of One’s Own. It’s in this striking work that Woolf delves into the societal limitations placed on women and their need to have space, autonomy, and creative opportunities — everything that the women of the Bloomsbury Group knew to be their due.
Love and Friendship with Vita Sackville-West
Of all the female friendships Virginia Woolf struck up, the most significant was with the aristocratic, Vita Sackville-West. The two women initially met at a costume party in December 1922 and were each impressed by the other.
Sackville-West greatly admired Woolf’s extraordinary intellect, while Woolf was taken with the other’s charm and vitality.
They met regularly after that at different dinner parties and later, when Sackville-West traveled to Italy with her husband and then to Tehran, they began corresponding through letters. At this stage, it’s generally accepted that they had become lovers.
Sackville-West was likely Woolf’s first affair. The writer had married Leonard Woolf, and though most involved in the Bloomsbury set, including Vanessa Bell, favored open marriages and engaged in steamy extra-marital relationships with both men and women, Woolf’s greatest passion had always been her writing.
However, this was something new.
Sackville-West had enjoyed several affairs but even she, while staying in Italy, wrote “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia.”
Woolf for her part was deeply enamored by Sackville-West. In one of her letters to her lover, she wrote:
“What can one say — except that I love you and I’ve got to live through this strange quiet evening thinking of you sitting there alone.
Dearest — let me have a line…
You have given me such happiness.”
But theirs was an unconventional romance. Both admitted it was less a sexual attraction and more a meeting of minds or, as Sackville-West wrote, “a mental thing; a spiritual thing, if you like, an intellectual thing.”
Exploring Themes of Desire. Identity and Gender Fluidity
The relationship would also have a profound influence on Woolf’s writing. It encouraged her to explore themes of desire, longing, and the complexities of intimate relationships, all of which can be seen in novels like Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, which she wrote during the years of the affair.
The Inspiration for Orlando
It also inspired a deep dive into an examination of gender fluidity and the fluidity of identity itself. This is best highlighted in what some would say was the writer’s greatest literary work, Orlando.
Written in 1928, Orlando: A Biography, is a playful and imaginative narrative based on both Sackville-West’s engaging family history and Woolf’s own complicated relationship with her beloved friend.
In the novel, the eponymous protagonist undergoes a transformation from a man to a woman, living for centuries through different historical periods.
Most extraordinarily for its time, the tale also challenges the fixed notions of gender and identity. Orlando’s transformation is presented as a natural and fluid process, reflecting the idea that identity is not solely defined by biological sex but can be shaped by experiences, time, and cultural contexts.
Woolf would continue to probe these themes of identity in her writing.
The Waves written in 1931 and considered one of Woolf’s most experimental and poetic works, follows the lives of six characters from childhood to adulthood, exploring their inner thoughts, desires, and sense of identity. It also offers a meditation on the fluidity of time and the interplay between personal identity and social constructs.
But she paid particular attention to female identity. Mother, sister, artist, friend or lover — these roles were explored in great depth by Woolf.
Some were roles she played. All were roles of women who shared her life and shaped it. As such, they also shaped the ideas, techniques, and character portrayals in the literary works that defined that same life, and made Virginia Woolf the pioneering literary figure she’s known as today.