Virginia Woolf: a Brief Biography

After some initial biographical research on the life of Virginia Woolf, who is one of my options for primary texts, it became clear that she had grown up with a fascination for natural history and the taxonomic ecology of the time. In his biography of her, Nigel Nicholson mentions that, “Virginia Woolf was a keen hunter of butterflies and moths. With her brothers and sister she would smear tree trunks with treacle to attract and capture the insects, and then pin their lifelike corpses to cork boards, their wings outspread.” Later, with the transition in scientific thought, Woolf’s eco-consciousness shifted as well to reflect a culture turning away from taxonomic classification to holistic ecology (Alt). This consciousness of the natural world comes through in her writings, as well as an emphasis on space/place as a whole. The historical context in which Woolf was writing also contributes to her feminist writings, with the growing suffrage movement and her interactions with “radical” feminists throughout her education at King’s College. 

Woolf’s childhood also greatly informs her passion for the natural world. She grew up summering in natural locations in England, when her family wanted to get away from Kensington. For example, since she was born in 1895, her family would summer in St. Ives in Cornwall, a retreat from city life and the blooming industrialization and modernization of the turn of the century (“Virginia Woolf”). These early memories of the pastoral escape and summers by the sea informed her later novel To the Lighthouse. Woolf experienced a long list of childhood traumatic events, from losing a parent, dealing with deadly infectious diseases, and sexual assault from her two half-brothers. These tragedies within the home and struggles with mental health may also contribute to her interest in writing and the outside/natural world as a place of literary imagination and perhaps safety. 

Alt, Christina. Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature. Cambridge University Press, 2010, doi:10.1017/CBO9780511762178.  

Nicolson, Nigel. “Virginia Woolf.” The New York Times: on the Web, The New York Times, 2000,  

“Virginia Woolf.”, A&E Networks Television, 27 Mar. 2020, 

3 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf: a Brief Biography”

  1. Thank you for this biographical piece, Jackie; a different vantage point to read Virginia Woolf. There are many facts and suppositions and claims that are happening here. I love that “summer” functions as a verb: do this more. Is writing about nature (and thus, identify with nature, be one with nature) a coping mechanism for Woolf against human violence and trauma? You did mention the word “safety;” do taxonomized butterflies, which can be read as a living death, signify safety for her? Nigel uses the word “keen hunter;” is nature prey and that Woolf skews the power dynamic? What are the patterns in her writing of nature (how do you define nature?)? Or how nature manifests generally in her body of work? Good luck!

  2. As someone who has read only a few of her works, I found this information to be very insightful, just as I found the information we learned about the Feilds to be insightful in Beneath the Bough. Perhaps you could spend some time looking into how the dynamics between her characters and how they relate to her own life. I think there is a balance to be found in the analysis of the influence of an author’s experiences and their works.

  3. Jackie, I loved how you opened this post with a quote about young Woolf and butterflies. I appreciated how you shared what the town she grew up in was industrial, and why there was an importance to get away during the summers to the country. I am slightly familiar with some of Woolf’s writing and I was sadden to read about her traumas. I had no idea her childhood was so difficult, and that is interesting to research how that contributed to her writing.

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