Laura Nelson | 2011 Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) wrote fiction that has intimidated and captivated readers for nearly a century. Yet years before her novels became exemplars of high modernism, Woolf struggled to find her role in world where she identified insurmountable barriers between the educated and uneducated. Throughout the first decade of the twentieth century and up through World War I, Woolf confronted education as both an insider and outsider. Excluded from formal learning because of her sex, Woolf found an informal intellectual community when she became part of the Bloomsbury Group in her early twenties. This paper explores Virginia Woolf’s struggle to balance the embrace of intellectualism in Bloomsbury with her desire to extend learning beyond a privileged few.
Chapter 1 recounts Woolf’s early education through a combination of memoirs, diaries and biographical accounts. Born into a privileged literary household yet limited to home schooling, Woolf watched her brothers attend the elite Cambridge University. I describe the formation of the Bloomsbury Group: an informal association of friends, known for including Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, amongst many others. I argue that Woolf’s introduction into the intellectual environment of Bloomsbury – full of spirited conversation and debate – shaped her ideas about what education could look like.
While Woolf was embracing the high intellectual of Bloomsbury, she also began to consider her role in extending educational opportunities to women historically excluded from learning. In chapter 2, I discuss and contextualize Woolf’s experience as a volunteer English and History teacher at the working class Morley College. After teaching at Morley, Woolf also began experimenting with political work, but struggled to feel genuine passion for the Women’s Suffrage movement.
When the First World War became an unavoidable reality, Bloomsbury dismantled and Woolf’s informal education came to a drastic halt. Watching many of her friends take on active roles during the war, Woolf was not able to commit herself to political work. In chapter 3, I discuss Woolf’s struggle to figure out how to use her education during a time of war. After a close literary analysis of her 1919 novel Night and Day, I explore Woolf’s decision to become a writer. I argue that Woolf’s decision to write allows her to pursue the extension of education beyond traditional boundaries.
Virginia Woolf’s informal education in her early years and up through the First World War allowed her to raise provocative questions about the role of education in society. Her experiences and her later writings on education challenge us to reconsider education in the twenty-first century. Woolf believes that learning can and should extend beyond traditional lines. Influenced by her experience as both an excluded woman and an included part of Bloomsbury, she provides a thought-provoking framework for considering how intellectual communities can bridge and connect individuals from all backgrounds.