Virginia Woolf. Her name may spark memories of your high school reading list: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and A Room of One's Own, among her most famous. Or you may have powerful visions of her famous demise: a mentally troubled writer placing heavy stones in her pockets and walking into a river to end her life.
But if you're a literary enthusiast of Woolf, you probably know a lot more about her tragedies: an alleged victim of childhood incest by her half-brother; the unexpected death of her mother at 13 and shortly after, the ensuing deaths of her half-sister, father, and brother; her mental breakdowns, her suicide attempts, her lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder and anorexia. No doubt, the English writer's life was not an enviable one, and the question of whether or not her "madness" informed the genius of her art may never have a definitive answer.
But what we can say is that despite her many personal struggles, Woolf's literary legacy is a testament to the immense resilience of her creative spirit. Considered to be one of the foremost modernists of the 20th century, Woolf was a prolific writer; in her career, she published nine novels, three biographies, countless short stories, essays, letters, and works of nonfiction, which discussed subjects ranging from history, politics, art and feminism.
In honor of the 135th year of Virginia Woolf's birth, we take a look at the more affirming moments of her life that helped her endure her personal struggles and become one of the most prominent writers of her time.
1. Woolf was a storyteller, even as a child. She would often tell bedtime stories to other children about her neighbors, the Dilkes.
2. Woolf had a sense of humor. With laughter in her belly, a very young Virginia angered her childhood music teacher by telling her that the meaning of Christmas was to celebrate the Crucifixion. Needless to say, her teacher had her removed from the room.
3. Woolf had a fascination with putting pen to paper — literally. Even before she was a teenager, Woolf continually experimented with an array of pens to find the perfect one that would inspire her writing.
4. After she married her husband Leonard, Woolf thought she'd hone her domestic skills by enrolling in cooking school. It didn't go so well: her wedding ring accidentally ended up in a pudding dish.
5. Woolf liked to walk. Her afternoon excursions would involve up to eight miles of climbing hills, hopping over ditches, or crawling through fences.
6. Woolf was a staunch pacifist.
7. The Woolfs had a pet monkey named Mitz.
8. Woolf believed in democratic socialism and consequently became a member of the political movement, the Fabian Society.
9. While writing the experimental novel, The Waves, Woolf listened to Beethoven.
10. Before she became engaged to Leonard, she wrote to him with a sense of hope and longing: “I want everything – love, children, adventure, intimacy, work.” Ultimately, she and Leonard decided not to have children because of her psychological condition.
11. Walking her dog along the Thames in January 1915, Woolf had come to a liberating realization. "My writing now delights me solely because I love writing and don’t, honestly, care a hang what anyone says," she wrote. "What seas of horror one dives through in order to pick up these pearls – however they are worth it.”
12. Woolf's book-length essay, Three Guineas, showed her feminist side. In it she described war as a form of male chauvinism and a “preposterous masculine fiction,” adding: “the chief occupations of men are the shedding of blood, the making of money, the giving of orders, and the wearing of uniforms . . . ”
13. Despite committing suicide at the age of 59, Woolf had an intimate bond with her husband who helped her through many of her darkest hours. The letter she left for him in March 1941 revealed as much: “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good . . . I don’t think two people could have been happier.”