Born and brought up in Kensington, the daughter of Leslie Stephen (later knighted), Virginia Stephen suffered her first nervous breakdown at the age of 13, following the death of her mother. She was to be plagued by debilitating depressions the rest of her life, perpetually in dread of what she called the old devil. Her marriage to Leonard Woolf was long and happy. Together they founded the Hogarth Press, and became the focal point of the Bloomsbury Group, a radical and close-knit circle of writers and intellectuals that flourished between the wars.
In a famous essay, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, published in 1924, Woolf set down her artistic manifesto. In it she rejected the tedious surface realism of the old guard (the works of Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy), insisting that the nature of reality was more transitory and elusive—a luminous halo—which she tried to snare in her fiction. This led to technical experiment and the method known as stream-of-consciousness, and so her novels do demand effort and concentration, which she repays.
Her fourth novel, Mrs Dalloway (1925), is perhaps the best place to start. It takes place during a single day as society hostess Clarissa Dalloway makes preparations for a dinner-party. Within this simple frame Woolf plunges into Clarissa's inner life, laying bare the multitude of impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel—which make up her core being. An ominous thread is woven into the narrative in the form of a tragic young man, Septimus Smith, who is haunted by his experiences in the First World War. He hears birds speaking Greek (as did Woolf during her illness) and slides terrifyingly into madness and suicidal despair. To the Lighthouse (1927) centres on Mrs Ramsay, radiating out to her family and friends as they spend a holiday at the seaside. Little happens in the way of plot, everything in the senses and perceptions of the characters, as Woolf evokes her own idyllic childhood holidays in St Ives, Cornwall, and explores the conflicting roles open to women, through Mrs Ramsay (wife and mother) and Lily Briscoe (artist). The Waves (1931) is a prose poem for six voices in which experience is distilled to its essence as they speak directly to the reader, moving with the seasons from bright youth to reflective maturity. Between the Acts (1941), published posthumously, is about a pageant of Olde Englande held at a country house on a warm summer night. But the year is 1939, invasion threatens, and an elegiac note sounds through this short novel that a thousand years of history, epitomized by this peaceful pastoral scene, is about to end in brutal violation.
Woolf was an ardent champion of women's rights, protesting especially against the denial of educational opportunity and the injustices of a patriarchal society in A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). She was a perceptive critic, essayist, and biographer; her six volumes of letters and her wonderful diaries (five volumes) are fascinating, indispensable reading. No English writer of the twentieth century has grown more in stature and importance after death than Virginia Woolf. On 28 March 1941 she put stones in her pocket and walked into the River Ouse and drowned.