“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” ― Virginia Woolf
Adeline Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) was born in 1882, to a “well-to-do” family in South Kensington. Her childhood had a direct influence on her later writing – for example, she first saw the Godrevy Lighthouse, which features in To the Lighthouse (1927) while on summer holidays at the family’s home in St Ives in Cornwall.
But her younger years had a darker impact on her writing and her life: her mother died of influenza when Woolf was just 13, and soon after her stepsister and surrogate mother also died. During that time, she began to suffer nervous breakdowns, which would plague her for the rest of her life.
Along with her sisters, Woolf studied classics and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College, where she first encountered early members of the women’s rights movement. With encouragement from her father, Woolf became a professional writer in 1900. By 1904 she was being published in The Guardian Women’s Supplement, and from 1905 she wrote for The Times Literary Supplement.
When her father died in 1904, she suffered another breakdown, and would describe herself during those years as a “broken chrysalis,” a theme that would appear repeatedly in her writing. She moved to Bloomsbury, where she met several like-minded intellectuals and formed the Bloomsbury Group.
Woolf married Leonard Woolf in 1912, after months of attempts on his part to gain her attention and affection. Although she was happily in love, Woolf attempted suicide in 1913.
In 1915, she published her first novel, The Voyage Out, through her half-brother’s company, Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd. It showed evidence of what would become her hallmark and pioneering style – stream of consciousness, highlighting the gap between thought and speech. Again, shortly after the publication she attempted suicide.
Two years later, she and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press, named after their home, which published many of her subsequent novels, as well as work by T. S. Eliot and other influential writers of the time. The couple lived in London until their home was destroyed in the war in 1940, when they moved to Sussex.
Woolf continued to suffer breakdowns that are now thought to have been caused by bipolar disorder, which could not be treated properly at the time. In 1941, she drowned herself in a river, fearing another breakdown.
Woolf’s work has been praised for its pioneering style and lyrical narratives that make the mundane appealing; it was heavily influenced by Russian writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy. The content of her writing was also pioneering at the time – she is credited as having inspired feminism, and she was an anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist and a pacifist. She covered themes like war, witchcraft and social class. But Woolf has also been widely criticised for some of her more controversial views and commentaries, with some calling her privileged, racist and elitist.
Her writing has been translated into more than fifty languages, despite the challenges of her pioneering style; some translations have been controversial due to the difficulties in translation. As well as a legacy of highly regarded fiction, Woolf also left a body of autobiographical work and more than five hundred essays and articles, none of which was published in her lifetime.
Why is she on the list?
Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.
- The Best 100 Authors
- Book Depository
- Top 100 Works in World Literature
- For The Love of Books
- The Ideal Library
- The Greatest Books of All Time
- 100 Greatest novels of all time
- The 100 best novels written in English
Read about Woolf
Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell