Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is now acclaimed as one of the great innovative novelists of the 20th century. Many of her experimental techniques, such as the use of the stream of consciousness, or interior monologue, have been absorbed into the mainstream of fiction. Her novels have been particularly highly regarded from the 1970s onwards by the new school of feminist criticism. However, the intensity of her creative work was accompanied by mental suffering and ill health. Her often troubled mind seemed to seep into her work from an early age. For example, the story A Terrible Tragedy in a Duckpond, written in Woolf’s teens, revealed her adolescent perception of death and anticipated her own tragic end. Brought up in a highly intellectual circle, The Bloomsbury Group, she developed an impressionistic style of writing in her novels To The Lighthouse (1927), The Years (1937) and Between the Acts (1941), as well as a handful of ghostly short stories, including The Lady in the Looking Glass, Lappin and Lapinova and A Haunted House. Even though her darker work was interspersed with more playful productions, such as Orlando (1928), a fantastic biography which traces the history of the youthful, beautiful and aristocratic Orlando through four centuries and both male and female manifestations, an element of melancholy increasingly pervaded Woolf’s later life and works. The reasons for this have been speculated upon ever since her death.
Woolf, the daughter of renowned novelist Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Duckworth, was born and lived until 1904 at Hyde Park Gate, along with her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, and her two highly intelligent brothers. After her father’s death she and her siblings moved to Bloomsbury, where they formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group. Her first notable work, The Voyage Out, appeared in 1915. Realistic in form but already foreshadowing the lyric intensity of her later work, it describes the voyage to South America of a young Englishwoman, her engagement and her subsequent fever and tragic fate. By this time, Woolf had already experienced one of the bouts of acute mental disturbance from which she was to suffer for the rest of her life. Her state of mind was not helped by the death of one of her brothers in 1906, although this event later inspired her first truly celebrated novel, Jacob’s Room (1922). With its indirect narration and poetic impressionism, this book was recognised as a new development in the art of fiction. From this time onwards she was regarded as one of the principal exponents of Modernism, and her subsequent novels, including Mrs Dalloway (1925), which would go on to inspire the novel and Oscar-winning film The Hours, established her reputation securely. A highly quotable author, Woolf also produced the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), with its famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.
Throughout her life, Woolf was plagued by periodic mood swings and associated illnesses. Modern scholars (including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell) have suggested her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods were also influenced by the sexual abuse to which she and her sister Vanessa were subjected by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate). The death of her father in 1904 provoked her most alarming collapse, however, and she was briefly institutionalised after this. Though Woolf’s mental instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks until the very end of her life. After completing the manuscript of her last novel, Between the Acts (published posthumously in 1941), Woolf fell into a depression similar to that which she had earlier experienced. The onset of World War II, the destruction of her London home during the Blitz, and the cool reception given to her biography of her late friend Roger Fry all worsened her condition until she was unable to work. On 28 March 1941, Woolf put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, and walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned herself. Woolf’s body was not found until 18 April 1941. Her husband buried her cremated remains under an elm in the garden of their home in Rodmell, Sussex. The story, A Haunted House, is based on the house where she lived (and died) in Sussex. The house – Asham – seems to have been both haunted and haunting. Ghosts, exquisitely evoked by Virginia in the preceding short story and mentioned by Leonard Woolf in his diary, were apparently already in residence when the Woolfs moved in. If more recent chroniclers are to be believed, they were also still present when the house was demolished in 1994!