Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own species. Nevertheless the present specimen, with his narrow hay-coloured wings, fringed with a tassel of the same colour, seemed to be content with life. It was a pleasant morning, mid–September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than that of the summer months. The plough was already scoring the field opposite the window, and where the share had been, the earth was pressed flat and gleamed with moisture. Such vigour came rolling in from the fields and the down beyond that it was difficult to keep the eyes strictly turned upon the book. The rooks too were keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it. Then, suddenly, the net would be thrown into the air again in a wider circle this time, with the utmost clamour and vociferation, as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience.
The same energy which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and even, it seemed, the lean bare-backed downs, sent the moth fluttering from side to side of his square of the window-pane. One could not help watching him. One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him. The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth’s part in life, and a day moth’s at that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meagre opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.
Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in at the open window and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it. One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity. Again, the thought of all that life might have been had he been born in any other shape caused one to view his simple activities with a kind of pity.
After a time, tired by his dancing apparently, he settled on the window ledge in the sun, and, the queer spectacle being at an end, I forgot about him. Then, looking up, my eye was caught by him. He was trying to resume his dancing, but seemed either so stiff or so awkward that he could only flutter to the bottom of the window-pane; and when he tried to fly across it he failed. Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure. After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, on to his back on the window sill. The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs struggled vainly. But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over me that the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid the pencil down again.
The legs agitated themselves once more. I looked as if for the enemy against which he struggled. I looked out of doors. What had happened there? Presumably it was midday, and work in the fields had stopped. Stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. The birds had taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The horses stood still. Yet the power was there all the same, massed outside indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-coloured moth. It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely. Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again, useless though I knew it to be. But even as I did so, the unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.
In 1878, Leslie Stephen and Julia Jackson Duckworth married, which was the second marriage for both of them. They gave birth to Adeline Virginia Stephen four years later, on the 25th of January at 22 Hyde Park Gate, London. Virginia was the third of their four children. Leslie Stephen began his career as a clergyman but soon became agnostic and took up journalism. He and Julia provided their children with a home of wealth and comfort.
Though denied the formal education allowed to males, Virginia was able to take advantage of her father's abundant library and observe his writing talent, and she was surrounded by intellectual conversation. The same year Virginia was born, for instance, her father began editing the huge Dictionary of National Biography. Virginia's mother, more delicate than her husband, helped to bring out the more emotional sides of her children. Both parents were very strong personalities; Virginia would feel overshadowed by them for years.
Virginia would suffer through three major mental breakdowns during her lifetime, and she would die during a fourth. In all likelihood, the compulsive drive to work that she acquired from her parents, combined with her naturally fragile state, primarily contributed to these breakdowns. Yet other factors were important as well. Her first breakdown occurred shortly following the death of her mother in 1895, which Virginia later described as "the greatest disaster that could have happened." Some have suggested that Virginia felt guilt over choosing her father as her favorite parent. In any case, her father's excessive mourning period probably affected her adversely.
Two years later, Virginia's stepsister, Stella Duckworth, died. Stella had assumed charge of the household duties after their mother's death, causing a rift between her and Virginia. Virginia fell sick soon after Stella's death. The same year, Virginia began her first diary.
Over the next seven years, Virginia's decision to write took hold and her admiration for women grew. She educated herself and greatly admired women such as Madge Vaughan, daughter of John Addington Symonds, who wrote novels and whom Virginia would later illustrate as Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway.
Her admiration for strong women was coupled with a growing dislike for male domination in society. Virginia's feelings were likely affected by her relationship to her stepbrother, George Duckworth, who was fourteen when Virginia was born. In the last year of her life, Virginia wrote to a friend regarding the shame she felt when, at the age of six, George fondled her. Similar incidents recurred throughout her childhood until Virginia was in her early twenties. In 1904, her father died, shortly after finishing the Dictionary and receiving a knighthood. Though freed from his shadow, Virginia was overcome by the event and suffered her second mental breakdown, combined with scarlet fever and an attempted suicide.
When she recovered, Virginia left Kensington with her three siblings and moved to Bloomsbury, where she began to consider herself a serious artist. She immersed herself in the intellectual company of her brother Thoby and his Cambridge friends. This group, including E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, later formed what was known as the Bloomsbury Group, under the Cambridge don G.E. Moore. They were dedicated to the liberal discussion of politics and art. In 1906, Thoby died of typhoid fever and Virginia's sister married one of Thoby's college friends, Clive Bell. Virginia was on her own.
Over the next four years, Virginia would begin work on her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915). In 1909, she accepted a marriage proposal from Strachey, who later broke off the engagement. She received a legacy of 2,500 pounds the same year, which would allow her to live independently. In 1911, Leonard Woolf, another of the Bloomsbury Group, returned from Ceylon, and they were married in 1912. Woolf was the stable presence Virginia needed to control her moods and steady her talent. He gave their home a musical atmosphere. Virginia trusted his literary judgment. Their marriage was a partnership, though some suggest their sexual relationship was nonexistent.
Virginia fell ill more frequently as she grew older, often taking respite in rest homes and in the care of her husband. In 1917, Leonard founded the Hogarth Press to publish their own books, hoping that Virginia could bestow the care on the press that she would have bestowed on children. (She had been advised by doctors not to become pregnant after her third serious breakdown in 1913. Virginia was fond of children, however, and spent much time with her brother's and sister's children.) Through the press, she had an early look at Joyce's Ulysses and aided authors such as Forster, Freud, Isherwood, Mansfield, Tolstoy, and Chekov. She sold her half interest in the press in 1938.
Before her death, Virginia published an extraordinary amount of groundbreaking material. She was a renowned member of the Bloomsbury Group and a leading writer of the modernist movement with her use of innovative literary techniques. In contrast to the majority of literature written before the early 1900s, which emphasized plot and detailed descriptions of characters and settings, Woolf's writing thoroughly explores the concepts of time, memory, and consciousness. The plot is generated by the characters' inner lives, rather than by the external world.
In March 1941, Woolf left suicide notes for her husband and sister and drowned herself in a nearby river. She feared her madness was returning and that she would not be able to continue writing, and she wished to spare her loved ones.
Over the course of her many illnesses, however, Woolf had remained productive. Her intense powers of concentration had allowed her to spend ten to twelve hours at a time writing. Her most notable publications include Night and Day, The Mark on the Wall, Jacob's Room, Monday or Tuesday, Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One's Own, The Waves, The Years, and Between the Acts. In total, her work comprises five volumes of collected essays and reviews, two biographies (Flush and Roger Fry), two libertarian books, a volume of selections from her diary, nine novels, and a volume of short stories.