The writer Virginia Woolf was born on this day in 1882. According to Garrison Keillor’s wonderful Writer’s Almanac, the former Virginia Stephen “never went to school, but her father chose books for her to read from his own library.”
She was only allowed to move out of her family home after her father’s death, when she was 22. She moved into a house with her brothers and sister, and instead of writing letters about what she’d been reading, she began to write literary criticism for the Times Literary Supplement, and she became one of the most accomplished literary critics of the era.
Woolf believed that the problem with 19th-century literature was that novelists had focused entirely on the clothing people wore and the food they ate and the things they did. She believed that the most mysterious and essential aspects of human beings were not their possessions or their habits, but their interior emotions and thoughts.
She considered her first few novels failures, but then in 1922, she began to read the work of Marcel Proust, who had just died that year. That moved her to write her first masterpiece: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), about all the thoughts that pass through the mind of a middle-aged woman on the day she gives a party. Woolf went on to write many more novels, including To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931), but she was also one of the greatest essayists of her generation. In her long essay about women and literature, A Room of One’s Own (1929), she wrote: “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”
The Writer’s Almanac item is here. While you’re there, you might choose to contribute to support the Almanac. If you do, a $75 contribution will earn you “the official The Writer’s Almanac mug. The mug features Garrison’s signature sign off — Be Well, Do Good Work & Keep in Touch.” Complete information on contributing is here.