This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.
Virginia Woolf is one of the most important literary voices of all time. The author of iconic novels like Mrs Dalloway and the sweeping epic Orlando, she transformed not only literature in the 20th century, but feminist thought as well. But she is often remembered as a tragic figure, too. Her death by suicide at the age of 59 and her history of loss and mental illness have led some to romanticize her darkness or view her tortured artist.
Empowering women are recurring and significant elements of her oeuvre. The theme is most powerfully summed up in her essay A Room of One’s Own, and more specifically in the oft-repeated quote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Thanks in part to her privilege, but also her talent, Woolf had such money. She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882. Her parents were both intellectuals; her father was an author, editor, and historian, while her mother was famously a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters (and less famously—but more impressively—a nurse and an author herself). Despite this, Woolf was denied the Cambridge education her brothers received. Nevertheless, she still had access to home-schooling and her father’s personal library, which shaped her passion for writing.
Personal tragedy defined her early years. She was sexually abused by her older half-brothers. Her mother died when she was only 13, and her older half-sister died two years later. The loss of her father in 1904 sparked a breakdown, briefly sending Woolf to an institution. All the while, Woolf pursued an interest in writing. Though she stalled at each personal loss, she continuously returned to her craft. One might say it was her way of reclaiming her sense of self.
After nine years, many rewrites, and several delays, Woolf published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. The book, and Woolf’s narrative style, was met with praise. Soon, she was producing work with speed. By 1919, she published her second novel, Night and Day. Jacob’s Room came in out in 1922, and in 1925, Woolf published what is undoubtedly her most celebrated tome, Mrs Dalloway. The book touched upon topics like feminism, mental health, and even homosexuality decades ahead of their time. Woolf herself experienced a romantic relationship with a woman. Her friend, Vita Sackville-West, was briefly her lover, and is said to have inspired the gender-bending title character of the thematically groundbreaking Orlando, published in 1928. Woolf even embarked on a lecture tour, sharing her progressive thoughts on womanhood with students. (Her experience would eventually shape her essay, A Room of One’s Own.)
Her influence on feminist thought is Woolf’s lasting legacy. Throughout her work, there is an ongoing belief that women were capable of so much more than society would allow for them. By no means was Woolf a perfect person—she had a history of anti-Semitism and classism in her writing, for instance, and even participated in an infamous “practical joke” known as the Dreadnaught Hoax, in which she dressed in blackface in order to sneak aboard a military ship. But there is one virtue that remains illuminated through her fault: using her words to propel a movement of women to fight for rooms of their own.END
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