British novelist and critic. A mentally sick woman, plagued by depression that finally led to her suicide, she rejected in her writing the superficial materialism of her contemporaries and broke new ground by writing with great poetic intensity about the feelings that constituted reality for her and her characters.
Virginia Woolf was born Virginia Stephen, daughter of the eminent man of letters Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904) by his second wife. As a nervous and delicate child, she was educated at home, mainly by her father. Her mother's death in 1895 and her father's death in 1904 caused her first major breakdowns. Virginia, her brother Thoby, and her sister Vanessa (1879–1961) then set up house in the Bloomsbury district of London, gathering around them the Bloomsbury group of writers and artists, many of whom had been at Cambridge with Thoby. The group included the writer Leonard Woolf (1880–1969) and Clive Bell (1881–1964), whom Vanessa later married. Other members of the group were Roger Fry, J. M. Keynes, and Lytton Strachey. In 1906 the death of Thoby from typhoid caused Virginia to suffer another prolonged breakdown.
In 1912 Virginia married Leonard Woolf; it was his devotion and care throughout her bouts of mental illness that provided the stability she needed in order to write during her calm periods. Her first novels The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919) were not strikingly innovative, but Jacob's Room (1922) launched her as a highly original writer. In the 1920s her husband was literary editor of the Nation (1923–30) and they both played an active part in running the Hogarth Press, the publishing house they had founded together in 1917. In this period Virginia Woolf produced two of her best novels, Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). In both these novels the plot is very slight and of considerably less importance than the relationships and thoughts of her characters. In addition to these novels, her first series of essays appeared in this period, published as The Common Reader (1925; second series 1932). A Room of One's Own (1929) acknowledges her interest in feminism while her sixteenth-century fantasy Orlando (1928), perhaps her most imaginative work, caused a considerable stir. This strange evocation of her lesbian lover, the writer Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962) to whom the book is dedicated, is set in the ancestral home of the Sackvilles and extends over four centuries – with Orlando, the main protagonist, undergoing a sex change during the reign of Charles II.
Despite the nervous exhaustion that writing caused her, Virginia Woolf continued a steady output of books. Flush (1933) was a whimsical biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel. She also wrote three more major novels: The Waves (1931), The Years (1937), and the posthumously published Between the Acts (1941), as well as essays and short stories. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II the Woolfs left London for their Sussex home at Rodmell. However, Virginia's depressions became increasingly incapacitating and in the spring of 1941 she drowned herself. Her edited letters and diaries, as well as Leonard's five-volume autobiography (1960–69), reveal the extent of her friendships among the literary and artistic circles of her time as well as the seriousness of her illness.