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5 Reasons You Shouldn't Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Wikimedia Commons / George Charles Beresford

Some people – including Adolph Hitler – thought Virginia Woolf was very scary indeed. Read on to learn why you might find her delightful and inspiring.

If you only know Virginia Woolf's name from the 1966 movie that name-checked her, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" you might think she is very scary indeed.

Read on to learn why some might have feared the early 20th century author, but why you might find her delightful and inspiring.

1. She wrote very strange books. Whoever would want to expand their mind far enough to write the biography of a dog? Answer: Virginia Woolf. Woolf's "Flush: A Biography" (1933) was written about fellow writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel. Beyond its unconventional central subject, though, the book was also a biography of Browning herself as well as an examination of the Victorian-era London in which she lived.

Even when writing about people rather than dogs, Woolf did strange things. Her well-known and influential novel "Orlando" (1928) is about a man who spontaneously turns into a woman and then lives for 300 more years (what?). It was groundbreaking in its exploration of gender roles, and is still discussed at length in many women's studies programs.

Then there's "The Waves" (1931). Many define the work as a novel but it's actually something closer to poetry – poetry that doesn't rhyme. Some consider it one of the most underrated novels in the English language, a rich and lyrical masterpiece. But if you like your novels to be novels and not odd, experimental, genre-bending meditations on consciousness, you should be afraid of Virginia Woolf.

2. She was a legendary prankster. Beginning in her 20s, Woolf was part of a group writers and artists called the Bloomsbury Group. If it sounds very intellectual, that's because it was – they were true thinkers who discussed philosophy, political and social issues, and art. But they were also practical jokers who pulled off a notoriously goofy hoax at the expense of the British Royal Navy.

The "Dreadnought Hoax" took place in 1910 and saw Woolf and a few of her friends donning elaborate costumes and makeup – and a fake beard, for Woolf – in order to look like the prince of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and his entourage. In their disguises, they requested a tour of the Navy ship HMS Dreadnought. Not only did the Navy comply with a tour, they welcomed the Bloomsbury jokesters aboard with an honor guard and formal procession. Unaware that they were being punked, naval officers allowed the group to inspect the ship and even accepted fake Abyssinian military honors from them. None of the naval officers had any idea that their guests were anything but genuine until the hoax was revealed at a later date.

The prank lived on in a popular catchphrase that the Bloomsbury Group invented as they spoke in gibberish in an attempt to sound legitimately Abyssinian. When shown something impressive, the jokers would exclaim, "Bunga bunga!" After reading the news accounts of the hoax, the public picked up on the phrase and began using it regularly. When, in 1915 at the height of World War I, the Dreadnought sank a German submarine, the ship received a telegram of congratulations reading simply "BUNGA BUNGA."

3. She was a feminist. It's clear that one of Woolf's greatest wishes was that women and men could have equal opportunities. Some found that wish to be deeply unsettling.

Woolf was writing in a time when the simple fact of her gender closed many doors to her. As a first-wave feminist, she was looking for a world in which women had the right to vote, to own property, to pursue their dreams. She summed it up in her long, famous essay, "A Room of One's Own" (1929), in which she argued that women should have access to education, which would open the doors to financial freedom. She named the essay after the concept that if a woman wanted to be a writer, she would need "money and a room of her own." These might seem like fairly basic things to today's audience, but in Woolf's day, it had been just a few short years since married women in England were even granted the legal right to work. Many opportunities and rights were denied to women in those days, and Woolf and her fellow first-wave feminists wanted to close the gaps.

4. She was overwhelmingly influential. Woolf only lived to 59, dying by suicide after a lifetime of struggling with bipolar disorder. But in her too-short life, she produced a body of work that profoundly influenced and impressed other writers who came after her.

Sylvia Plath, author of "The Bell Jar," wrote of her love of Woolf's work in a letter to her family: "I get courage by reading Virginia Woolf’s "Writer’s Diary"; I feel very akin to her, although my book reads more like a slick best-seller."


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In an interview with the Paris Review, noted French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir said of Woolf: "I liked very much "A Room of One's Own" in which she talks about the situation of women. It's a short essay, but it hits the nail on the head. … Virginia Woolf is one of the women writers who have interested me most."

It's not just other female writers who have appreciated and been influenced by Woolf's words. Michael Cunningham wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Hours" with Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" at its heart. In an interview with Humanities magazine, he talked about his discovery of her work at a young age, and how it blew him away: "I thought, wow, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar. By which I meant she walked a line between chaos and order, she riffed, and just when it seemed that a sentence was veering off into randomness, she brought it back and united it with the melody."

5. Hitler himself wanted to see her arrested. During World War II, high-ranking Nazi officials compiled a list of the prominent people living in Great Britain who would need to be arrested upon a successful takeover of Britain. Of course that takeover never happened, but when a copy of "The Black Book" (which contained the list) was leaked, British citizens learned who among them had been deemed the greatest threats by the Nazis.

Woolf and her husband, Leonard, were both on the list as notable anti-fascists. They were in good company – others listed as threats in "The Black Book" were actors Noel Coward and Paul Robeson, writers Aldous Huxley and H.G. Wells, and even Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.

Woolf believed that fascism was an attack on both peace and women, as the Nazis tended not to value the contributions of women. She wrote her 1938 essay "Three Guineas" about this very subject, showing how feminism and pacifism went hand in hand, standing in opposition to fascism.


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