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  • Chloe Belga

7 Must-Read Virginia Woolf Books

Her name, Virginia Woolf, rings a bell, surely… a 20th-century English author, prominent in the modernist literary movement, a well-known feminist… Or maybe it does not. But if it does, and if you would like to start reading her works, luckily for you, I have read a good amount of her novels over the years and have compiled a list that should facilitate the journey for those who do not know where to start. 


Mrs. Dalloway 

A common one to start with! Known as one of her greatest works, this novel reads like a long painting that is stretched across a singular day in post-World War I England, a day that balances between past and present, and that weaves the life of an elegant upper-class woman with that of a veteran victim of traumatic stress. 

Clarissa Dalloway begins her day readying herself to host a party, yet she is distracted by perpetual reminders of the choices she made that has led her to the very life she currently lives. Woolf addresses the place of women when it comes to romance: Could Clarissa have chosen the more mysterious Peter Walsh, or a woman, Sally Seton? Or did she feel obligated to marry the reliable option? Furthermore, Clarissa grapples with her age, that life is no longer as it was in her youth, and that she is now confined in the present. Several characters from her past appear to reinstill these contemplations. Veteran Septimus Warren Smith’s day is intermingled with hers as he spends the day in a park with his wife, haunted by awful hallucinations and the death of his best friend. By the end, he takes matters into his own hands. As Clarissa hears of his fate, she cannot help but wonder whether or not she made the right decision in staying in the life she carefully constructed for herself, instead of pursuing true happiness.


To The Lighthouse 

Set off the overcast coast of Scotland, the Ramsay family resides on the Isle of Skye, and much like in Mrs. Dalloway and in The Waves, Woolf recounts the passing of time through elements of nature, through seemingly mundane aspects of life, that haunt the characters’ growth.  

Woolf analyzes the complexities of family life and of conflicts between men and women (if there were no feminist notions sprinkled in, it would hardly be a Woolf novel). The main element of the novel is, as one may easily infer, the lighthouse. It is the endpoint, it is what they all wait for, as they all want to go back to the lighthouse. Their journey there, both literal and psychological, symbolizes how a person changes through time, while surrounded by others yet still alone in their own mind. 

It should also be noted that Lily Briscoe is a memorable character. Her desire to be a painter correlates to Woolf’s own thoughts on writing as she addresses the prejudices she faces as a female artist and the creative process. 


The Waves

Do you ever feel that the human soul is endless? That you are made of too many thoughts, experiences, and passions, and cannot be molded into one archetype? That there is far too much to express and that you could not possibly find words for it all? If so, The Waves is for you. 

The novel follows the intertwined lives of six characters that each represent elements of humanity: Bernard (imagination), Louis (materialism), Neville (personal relationships), Jinny (physical pleasure), Susan (motherhood), and Rhoda (solitude). Quite ahead of its time in its structure, Woolf blends their voices to create a chorus of abstract thoughts and emotions. Is there a plot? Not really. Of course, there must be a certain degree of conflict, and yes, there is: They must each deal with the death of their beloved friend Percival. Each character sees Percival very differently, but we never see his true thoughts, hence he remains a mystery that nonetheless deeply affects each character. Throughout the novel, the rhythm of the waves define the passing of time, until the final crash, the very end of their lives. 

If the experimental prose is not too frightening, then this is the novel to start with if you are looking for an intense and captivating story that you will not forget. However, it may not be the best choice if you want a casual Woolf book to spice up your Goodreads. 


Orlando: A Biography 

Situated over the course of three centuries, in a sort of historical comedy, the novel hits with the same shock as The Waves but for different reasons. It is inspired by the family history of Woolf’s close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, an aristocratic poet. 

The book opens on Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabethan England, and his adventures, love life, and career as a poet. Midway in the story, while an ambassador in Constantinople, he wakes up as a woman. The second part of the novel therefore portrays the role of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. The novel then ends in 1928, with the declaration of universal suffrage, and Orlando, now a wife and a mother, keeps hope for the future of the rights of women. 


Flush: A Biography

Be honest. Did you read A Dog’s Purpose as a kid? A Dog’s Journey? A Dog’s Way Home? A Dog’s Life? If you like dogs, this is the Woolf book for you.

It is an imaginative biography of Elizabeth Barret Browning, a Victorian English poet, and her cocker spaniel, Flush. Woolf drew inspiration from two poems Browning wrote about Flush and her correspondence with her husband, Robert Browning. 

Her writing style remains consistent to her other works, except this time, the narration is from a dog’s perspective. It is easy to say that this is not regarded as one of her most serious works, yet it still draws allusions to the conflict between social classes, especially in Browning’s life, and women’s opportunities. Aside from political allusions, she puts focus on the connection between a pet and its owner in a very touching way, such as the language barriers between the two. This was a very intense story if you care a lot about animals in fiction. Yet rest assured, there is no tragic end, rather, it is only a natural and realistic ending.


A Room of One’s Own

This is one of Woolf’s most famous essays, and so it is a shorter read than the others, although it is far more academic in its tone as it invites the readers to reflect on issues that concern more so society than the human mind. She affirms that in order for one to write, one must have money and privacy (a room of one’s own), and women tend to have neither, hence answering why there are so few female authors in history. Of course, this is Virginia Woolf, so she adds some stories to enhance her essay. For a good part of it, the readers follow the story of Shakespeare’s sister to understand how a woman who lacks access to education cannot pursue her dreams and will suffer in consequence. 


Moments of Being

Maybe you have already read a few Woolf books, or you are just not really into fiction. Well, either way, this is a sort of autobiography. In reality, it is a collection of posthumously-published essays on her life. The first part is on the death of her mother and the trauma it ensued: the way it changed her family, as she calls it “the greatest disaster that could happen.” The longest piece is “A Sketch of the Past” in which Woolf recounts her childhood at 22 Hyde Park Gate, and it goes into great detail about her father, Leslie Stephen, who influenced her character and writing greatly. Through this collection of essays, we get insight into her personal life, her influences, and her path towards becoming a writer. 

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