Date of Award

Winter 1985

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


In her early twenties, Virginia Woolf considered becoming a historian, and for several years after she began The Voyage Out, her criticism centered on historical and biographical subjects. Later she, alone among British novelists, combined history and modernist technique, most obviously in her last five novels. Orlando and Flush are mock biographies; The Waves appears against vast cycles of history and prehistory; The Years is a modernist rendering of the three generation novel; Between the Acts concerns a pageant of English history performed while planes preparing for war fly overhead. But the historical fiction that began with Orlando did not represent a return to earlier interests. This dissertation, dealing with the early criticism and the first five novels, proposes that history played a formative and continuing role in Woolf's criticism and her fiction.

A study of Woolf's early criticism belies the common assumption that her critical theories evolved from her fiction. The criteria Woolf developed in response to biographies and histories are precisely the criteria she later applied to fiction. Her work in history also affected her prose style and her feminism. Initially she admired what she later saw as masculine history and prose. Her own style was too like "the coils of my own brain." Before she had finished The Voyage Out, however, she charged that traditional history ignored "our point of view." Many years later, she contended that the female writer must find her own sentence, "adapting it to the shape of her thought.".

The role of history in Woolf's fiction was, initially, to point her in directions she did not consciously intend to go. In the first two novels, the historical themes--debates over Gibbon, Mrs. Hilbery's unfinished biography--are often extraneous; but they became the focus of Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse, novels that constitute what Woolf later called "the new biography" and what I term "the new history." In writing fiction Woolf did not abandon history; she found other forms through which to explore it.