virginia woolf books

Nearly century has passed since Virginia Woolf published her first essays and novels, and it feels like she's never been more relevant. Readers discovered and re-visited Mrs Dalloway during lockdown, finding solace and reflection in her meditation upon time in London and January 2020 saw Woolf placed at the heart of a group biography about women writers in Bloomsbury. 

Woolf's personal life has made her as much of a subject of of fascination as her writing. As a central figure of the influential Bloomsbury Group, she was embroiled in their complicated and, at the time, scandalous affairs. Their fascinating lives, beset by tragedy, have been turned into films and television dramas. Woolf has become a revered figurehead whose life and thoughts have helped shaped modern ideas about feminism, sexuality and mental health.

Yet, it’s in her artfully crafted books that we most feel her indomitable spirit and continue to hear the voice of Woolf herself. Here's where to start reading. 

Mrs Dalloway (1925)

Although this novel was produced roughly mid-career, it represents the epitome of Woolf’s distinct style and marks the perfect point at which to enter her writing. The plot of the story is deceptively simple. Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party and the novel follows her preparations throughout the day culminating in the event itself. Twinned with her tale is the story of WWI veteran Septimus who suffers from hallucinations and haunting memories. The details of this day expand voluminously to encompass their whole lives and celebrate the importance of our moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings.

To the Lighthouse (1927)

Woolf’s mother died when she was just 13, and this novel is perhaps the author’s most personal as it memorialises her in the vibrant and boisterous character Mrs Ramsay, who tends to her family and guests while at their summer home. Woolf has an extraordinary way of showing how experience is filtered through an individual’s perception at a particular time, through their stream of consciousness. This style works beautifully to create a story so emotionally moving you’ll feel the true poignancy of all that’s lost in the inevitable onward march of time.

Orlando: A Biography (1928)

Beyond the stream-of-consciousness, this playful and funny novella from demonstrates the dazzling breadth of Woolf’s imagination. Written as an elaborate love letter to Woolf's friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, the book depicts a life that bursts through the boundaries of mortal limits with its title character traversing centuries and changing gender. Orlando experiences life as nobleman at the court of Elizabeth I, a diplomat in Constantinople and survives into the twentieth century to become a celebrated poet. The character is brilliantly portrayed by Tilda Swinton in the film adaptation of this novel, but the book itself must be read to experience the true exuberance of its astounding story. 

The Waves (1931)

Woolf is at the height of her writing powers in The Waves. You’ll notice how it crystallises the subjects and style displayed in the four previous novels. Here we see recorded the lives of six characters as they grow from childhood to old age; poetic language captures each of their sensory experiences of the world. Each section begins with a description of the sun as it moves across the sky and thus frames their lives in a single day. It may feel strange to read at first, but savour it slowly and its wisdom will seep in. It’s a book to be kept within reach at all stages of life and read at intervals - you’ll differently identify with its six distinct protagonists as they age and change alongside you.

A Room of One's Own (1929)

Now that you’ve appreciated the artfulness of Woolf’s novels, you’ll find it thrilling to read this extended essay which still remains a nuanced and triumphant feminist statement. Based on two lectures Woolf gave at Girton College, Cambridge, in 1928, A Room of One's Own has become such a vital part of the feminist canon that its title alone has turned into a byword for independence.

Woolf navigates the social and economic factors that prevent women from achieving their full creative potential with compelling creativity. As an example, she imagines a fictional character Judith as a sister to Shakespeare who possesses all his talent but is inhibited by society’s expectations for women. It’s particularly poignant reading her thoughts about the marginalisation of female writers and realising the bravery required for her to write and publish her other revelatory works of fiction.

The Years

In The Years, we appreciate how the scenes Woolf writes about encapsulate both the minutely small and the grand, sweeping elements of life simultaneously. She uses a less poetic writing style in this novel that charts the lives of a genteel family over a period of fifty years, but only through particular moments in particular years. Details of the changing seasons and weather colour the mood of each chapter. Interestingly, during Woolf’s lifetime this was her bestselling book but its popularity has diminished over time. However, it offers a panoramic look at the way personality changes with the shifting sands of history.

Between the Acts (1941)

Considered by some critics to be an unfinished novel, Between the Acts is also Woolf's last and, as a result, is tinged with tragedy. The book, which tells of the goings-on around an amateur production of a play in a village, was published shortly after Woolf's suicide, and she found writing the book a challenge while in the grips of her final depressive episode. Still, it's nevertheless a pertinent, insightful and underrated novel about the devastating impact of the two wars on Britain and its people. Like much of Woolf's writing, Between the Acts is fascinated by time, its passing and how it can shapeshift. It's an important novel to understand what motivated her.

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