From a must-listen podcast, The Writer’s Almanac (5 min of daily literary pleasure):
It’s the birthday of the novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, born Virginia Stephen in London (1882). She never went to school, but her father chose books for her to read from his own library. Her brothers all went to the best universities, and she wrote letters to them about her reading. 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 instead of writing letters about what she’d been reading, 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 interior 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. She wrote to a friend, “Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that!” Later that summer, she wrote in her diary, “There’s no doubt in my mind, that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice.”
Woolf’s next book was 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), but 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.”