A century ago that word stood for everything loathsome to the dying Victorian Age. Homosexuality and impiety, infidelity and socialism, all were embraced at one time or another by the roughly dozen figures of the Bloomsbury Group while even the most freethinking of their Imperial elders scratched their heads, wondering what their small acts of mid-century intellectual defiance had wrought.
Fearsome celebrities that long century ago, today most of the Bloomsbury cabal are the private delights beloved of a small collection of literature nerds and post-Edwardian junkies. Lytton Strachey, who savaged Victorian respectability and piety beyond all hope of recovery in Eminent Victorians (1918) and Queen Victoria (1921), is today That Fellow with the Long Hands in That One Carrington Painting, while Dora Carrington herself is simply That Artist Emma Thompson Played in That Movie Once. We do remember John Maynard Keynes—as Keynes the Economist, not Keynes the Homosexual Rebel. And of the others—Desmond MacCarthy, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry … only whispers.
But there is one member of Bloomsbury we must always return to, literature’s greatest chronicler of the radiant desperation of human inter-dependence: Virginia Woolf (1882–1941). She came of intellectual royalty—her father’s first wife was a daughter of the novelist William Thackeray, and he himself was none other than freethought icon Leslie Stephen, one of the Victorian Era’s most learned and respected agnostics. (His History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century is still the volume I press into the hands of students who want to learn about Collins and Hume in style.)
Undoubtedly brilliant, Stephen was also in chronic need of constant sympathy from everyone around him, a trait Woolf would later import onto the figure of Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse (1927). He wailed for attention, demanded soothing, lived in constant fear of financial ruin, and exploded when anyone disturbed a strand in the precarious familial web he wove after his wife’s death in 1895. That death, coming as it did when Woolf was just thirteen, was but one of the many burdens placed on the mercurial youth’s shoulders. Repeatedly sexually abused by close relatives from the age of six, she also lost her mother, father, and dearest brother all before her twenty-fourth birthday.
As a child, she was given to incredible explosions of temper that earned her the nickname “The Goat.” As she grew up, repeated bouts of depression combined with crippling headaches, loss of appetite, and dizziness put her in a home for mental convalescence on several occasions. Physically sensitive, she was also imaginative beyond her age’s ken, constructing elaborate stories about the incidental figures she witnessed going about their daily lives and pouring her own hyper-acute awareness into the heads of strangers.
When her father died in 1904, Woolf and her siblings were free at last to stumble out from under the cloud of his apprehensions and try living on their own terms. Finding lodging in the Bloomsbury district of London, they attracted an exceptional collection of young and emerging minds chomping at the bit to tear to tatters all of Victorianism’s lingering assumptions. They talked openly about sex, mocked religion, had raucous intellectually incestual affairs, and considered an artistic, unfettered conversation among friends a thing more to be sought than all the trappings of Imperial prosperity.
Among this group of University-educated writers, artists, and critics, Woolf, always an avid reader, spurred herself to a new breakneck pace of self-education. She felt keenly throughout her life the harm that had been done her by not being able to attend university on account of her gender, and she would weave some of her most enduring works (A Room of One’s Own , Three Guineas ) around the long and deep harm caused by that lack. Drinking in deep her new intellectual atmosphere, she began percolating a new conception of what literary writing might be and do.
After some warm-up novels (The Voyage Out  and Night and Day ), Woolf struck bedrock at last with Jacob’s Room (1922). In this book she found the structure that could support the uniqueness of her insights into mental health, temporality, and the deafening din of humanity’s untold stories. For the next decade, she would stretch that structure to its theoretical limits in a series of modern masterpieces that made a return to the comforts of The Great British Novel all but impossible.
Woolf’s new approach to the novel, exemplified by Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and culminating in The Waves (1931), featured a dramatic rejection of plot as the thing that books should be about. In her most famous books, nothing happens; the central characters themselves, particularly in Jacob and Dalloway, are little more than loci for the accumulation of devastating mini-portraits conjured from the depths of Woolf’s empathic fancy.
The Other People in Woolf’s stories suffocate with their omnipresence as much as they disturb in their tragic beauty. To be a character in a Woolf novel is to be confronted with doom in the eyes of every man of the crowd.
We smother each other with love and indifference alike, and in the universality of our hopelessness there is room for sympathy for all sorts. The society hostess it would be easy to mock à la Dorothy Parker becomes almost heroic in her devotion to the transitory rite of the Evening Party, and even the perpetually loafing, drug-addled poet has something in him of desperate impotent grandeur. Our cosmic insignificance unites us all in common cause through the camaraderie of the existential trenches. Even as we cut into each other with our needs, we are bound to each thereby as well, and there is something in that to shelter under against the press of oblivion.
Woolf’s health, both mental and physical, necessitated just such close reliance upon a tight circle of relatives and friends: her husband, Leonard, who dedicated his life to the preservation and enrichment of hers; her sister Vanessa, whose roles of mother and artist Woolf envied and scorned in not entirely equal measure; and a whole troop of friends, Bloomsburians and New Pagans alike, who drove her to distraction with their antics and demands but whose presence and good opinion were essential to her equilibrium. She loved conversation and formulating impossibilities in the raw of the moment, even as she knew that the price for her over-stimulation was often great and paid not only by her but by those who loved her.
That dynamic—of stretching individuals on the rack of others’ regard while begging them not to leave their grim stations—runs through her most important novels, pushing their theoretical innovations. The Waves is a sustained meditation on the mutual invasiveness of six childhood friends and their inability to escape the consequences of each other’s existences in memory and life.
This is, I believe, the very stuff of her unique brand of agnosticism. She refuses all comment on The Beyond. Religion is a done matter of ongoing concern only for those too deeply ensnared by resentment to accept anything less than eternal consequences for Earthly snubs (see Doris Kilman in Dalloway). Once the non-importance of God is no longer interesting enough to excite concern, we are left with the task of facing each other and the emotional snares we lay in each other’s psyches in this all-too-temporary world. The exploration of that new interconnected psychological frontier was Woolf’s great project. She took us beyond the rapture of belief, beyond the agony of disbelief, to the complicated gnarl of Each Other.
Her particular genius had its downsides. She had a habit of introducing people based not on who they actually were but on who her imagination wanted them to be, resulting in a number of awkward evenings. Her focus on the dynamics of family and friendship gave her penetrating insights that fueled her novels and literary criticism but at the same time often prevented her from seeing larger pictures, inviting critique from the Left just as her socialism and Bloomsbury morals invited it from the Right. She was not great at keeping secrets. But by and large these were the sort of faults that people loved her more for having, and the voice we hear from her works is by all accounts the person she was.
The ill health and tragedy that had haunted her early years had subsided somewhat in the 1920s, thanks to Leonard’s minute care and her continuing critical success. That pattern would reverse itself in the 1930s. Her books continued to sell, but she sensed strain in the praise from those whose opinion she cared about most. As Europe gave itself over to fascism, she doubted that her refined literary gifts meant anything any longer, while the tortured and drawn-out experience of writing The Years (1937) left her drained mentally and emotionally. Strachey, Carrington, and Fry were dead, and Woolf, more popular than ever, felt increasingly isolated. She felt her old symptoms returning, the headaches accompanied now by voices in her head. The convalescent home loomed on the horizon, and with it untold years of being a burden to everyone she loved, to people whom she felt already gave too much of their lives to her care.
Virginia Woolf took her own life on March 28, 1941.
FURTHER READING: Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse show Woolf at her best—her big ideas are there, nestled in a structure that is intellectually challenging but still approachable in a way that The Waves often isn’t. For biographical information, her nephew Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf: A Biography (1972) is elegant and indispensable