Virginia Woolf, née Adeline Virginia Stephen (1882-1941), is widely considered one of the finest and most influential authors of the 1900s, noted especially for her novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928), as well as her participation in the intellectual community that came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group.
Her parents were eminent (and eminently) Victorian figures whose blended family wintered in London and summered in Cornwall. Woolf, who suffered from episodes of bipolar disorder during much of her life, married the author, publisher, and colonial administrator Leonard Woolf in 1912. Their union was marked by affairs on both sides, and in Virginia’s case, with both sexes, along with several hospitalizations and suicide attempts.
Nevertheless, Woolf’s mastery of the stream-of-consciousness writing style that focused on her characters’ inner lives was extraordinary. She believed that the novel was “an emotion which you feel” rather than a form in which you write, and the themes she explored included how we experience time, the challenges in defining character, and how recalled circumstances affect daily life.
Mrs. Dalloway is often seen as inspired by, or a response to, James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, but Woolf first had the idea of writing “some kind of whole made of shivering fragments” in 1908, after studying Italian art. Her attraction to the idea was solidified by seeing the 1910 exhibit Manet and the Post-Impressionists in London.
Originally titled The Hours, Mrs. Dalloway takes place on a single day and follows two main characters — the title character, Clarissa, who is preparing to give a dinner party, and Septimus Smith, a World War I veteran suffering from shell-shock, as it was then known, as they traverse London. Their stories intersect thematically throughout the novel but directly only at its end, when a psychiatrist who was treating Smith arrives at the dinner party and mentions his suicide earlier that day.
As the party progresses, Clarissa comes to understand and admire Smith’s decision. Sixteen years after the novel’s publication, its author committed suicide by stuffing her pockets with rocks and stepping into the River Ouse near her country home in Sussex.