Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.
Virginia Woolf was born Virginia Stephen in London in 1882. She 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 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 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). 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.”