Virginia Woolf was born 140 years ago today, on January 25, 1882 in London. Known for her stylistically complex and innovative writing, Woolf has been a controversial figure for years, both in and out of literary circles. Although she was a prolific writer of both novels and essays, much of her work did not find sufficient critical acclaim until after her suicide in 1941. Today, many critics hold her alongside James Joyce and T.S. Eliot as a pillar of Modernist literature, although there are a slew of diverging opinions on her work, its connection with feminism and other progressive ideals, and how it functions around the traditional structure of a novel.
Aside from the scholarly debates on Woolf’s place in literary canon, the content of her work has generated some controversy as well. Perhaps her best known subject of criticism is Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. An October 2021 Atlantic article refers to Mrs. Dalloway as “the great novel of the Internet” due to its reflection on loneliness while having to maintain a certain image to the rest of society. However, this novel includes themes such as the main character’s homosexuality and the trauma another character endured at war. The former is a reflection of Woolf’s own identity, and the latter connects to her pacifist views. Neither theme was widely represented in the literature of the time, especially in works by female writers.
To the Lighthouse
Just two years later, Woolf published the deeply experimental novel To the Lighthouse, known for its unconventional plot structure – or lack thereof – and use of stream of consciousness. While To the Lighthouse is largely a meditation on emotion, memory, and the passage of time, it also explores the effects of war.
A Room of One’s Own
Woolf’s feminist values are most overtly explored in her full-length essay A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929. Here, she writes about women’s place in society – a concept still revolutionary at the time, given that British women only gained suffrage in 1918. Her commentary is closely tied to the importance of intellectual freedom: “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom, and women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves…. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own” (p. 104).
Although some of Woolf’s ideals centered on class and race reflect her place in 20th century British high society, she was ahead of her time when it came to exploring often-challenged themes like sexuality, trauma, and gender roles. Her reflections on emotion and consciousness also give representation to those living with mental illness. While not a perfect legacy, she is certainly an important writer to include in the conversation around intellectual freedom.
Gretchen Kaser Corsillo (she/her) is the Director of Rutherford (NJ) Public Library and has worked in public libraries in a variety of capacities since 2003. In 2013, she received her Master’s of Library & Information Science from the University of Pittsburgh. She also holds a B.A. in Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing and a minor in Political Science from Ramapo College. Prior to working as a professional librarian, Gretchen worked in the marketing and legal fields; the latter, combined with her interest in writing, has made her a strong advocate for intellectual freedom.