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Woolf, Virginia (1882-1941)  
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Passionate friendships with women were essential to the life and work of novelist Virginia Woolf.

Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, in Hyde Park Gate, London, the daughter of Leslie Stephen, a man of letters, who in the same year began editing the Dictionary of National Biography and Julia Pattle Duckworth, a Victorian beauty immortalized in the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron.

Virginia's mother's first marriage ended with the death of her husband, leaving her with three children, one of whom, Gerald Duckworth, is known to have sexually molested Woolf as an adolescent.

Her adolescence was marked as well by a sequence of deaths and the first bout of a mental illness that would haunt her for the rest of her life: Her mother died in 1895; her half-sister Stella, who served as mother-substitute, in 1897; her father in 1904 and her brother Thoby in 1906.

She experienced her first mental breakdown at the age of thirteen following her mother's death, while the final one ended with her suicide when she walked into the river Ouse on March 28, 1941.

Virginia and Vanessa

Woolf developed her closest attachment to her sister Vanessa, what she called "a very close conspiracy." The two sisters functioned as co-conspirators in their alliance as women artists, on the one hand against the tyranny of the father who repeatedly sought to enlist their services as surrogate wives; on the other hand, against Victorian mores that considered marriage the only suitable profession for middle-class daughters.

Vanessa likewise served as surrogate mother, by taking over the maternal function after Stella's death, and by eventually becoming herself a mother, in contrast to the younger Virginia.

As women artists, the two sisters recognized a clear division of labor: Virginia the writer in her study, Vanessa the painter in her studio. All children were educated at home, in the father's library and with private tutors, although the two brothers eventually attended Cambridge University.

The Beginnings of the Bloomsbury Group

Following Leslie Stephen's death, the four siblings moved to Bloomsbury, a section of London that would eventually give name to a group of artists and intellectuals, the Bloomsbury Group. This group began when Thoby and his Cambridge friends moved back to London and met every Thursday evening to discuss art and literature, as well as pressing political issues such as pacifism and socialism.

Initially, Virginia and Vanessa were the only two women present, as Thoby's sisters but also as intellectuals and artists.

Several of the male participants were avowed homosexuals, including Lytton Strachey, who proposed to Virginia in 1909, although the engagement was almost immediately broken off.

Her Relationship to Gay Men

Woolf's relationship to gay men remained an ambivalent one. On the one hand, she appreciated a lack of sexual interest that made it possible for her to have access to an intellectual environment based on an indifference to her gender; on the other hand, the absence of women meant a lacking female eroticism that for her prohibited creativity.

Much later, on August 19, 1930, she wrote in a letter to Ethel Smyth: "It is true that I only want to show off to women. Women alone stir my imagination."

Marriage to Leonard Woolf and the Founding of the Hogarth Press

In 1912, she married Leonard Woolf, "a penniless Jew," also a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a political writer who had recently returned from service in India. This marriage is considered to have been a supportive although passionless one.

In 1917, the Woolfs established Hogarth Press as an attempt to engage Virginia in more practical work in the hope of keeping at bay further bouts of mental illness. The Press published the works of several lesbian and gay writers, including E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, and Vita Sackville-West.

The move to Bloomsbury also marked Woolf's initiation as a writer. Her first publication took the form of an unsigned review in the newspaper Guardian, facilitated by Violet Dickinson.

Her Relationships with Women

The relationship with Dickinson was one of several intense friendships Woolf had with women throughout her life. These affairs of the heart left their traces in passionate letters and diary entries characterized by a mutual attraction and a desire for emotional intimacy expressed in highly eroticized language.

They often resulted in literary works, not always published, written as tribute to friendships that greatly fostered--but were ultimately confined to--writing.

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Virginia Woolf in 1902.
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