Migraines and Famous Migraineurs: Virginia Woolf

Patient Expert

Virginia Woolf, an author, feminist and publisher was plagued by mental illness and Migraines throughout her life but was fortunate to be raised by an unconventional family who cared for and tolerated her lengthy periods of illness. Adeline Virginia Stephen was born in London, England on January 25, 1882 to Leslie and Julia Stephen both of whom had been previously married. Virginia's father, an author and historian was considered an eminent figure in mountaineering during its rise in science and popularity, Julia, in addition to having three children and four step-children, was a model for many pre-Raphaelite artists and a nurse. The large Stephen family and a varied number of servants lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, for many years.

The children in the Stephen family were educated quite differently. The boys went off to Cambridge while the girls were schooled at home using the vast, deluxe Victorian library and many social and artistic associations their parents maintained. Virginia's father supported her writings, paid for Greek and Latin lessons and spent time discussing the various books she read. It's been reported that during her childhood, Virginia was a cheery child who was full of life and began a family newspaper called the Hyde Park Gate News to report on the family happenings_._ The Stephen family spent their summer months at Talland House in St. Ives, Cornwall, the setting for many of Virginia's writings including the novel To the Lighthouse. Virginia's youth was complicated by reports of sexual abuse by her half-brothers Gerald who was reported to have committed the revolting act of inspecting her private anatomy under her skirt, and George Duckworth. Virginia wrote about George ""his behavior was little better than a brute's" and he would often go into her room wrapping his arms around her in "violent gusts of passion." These unspeakable acts no doubt added to her depression and her first mental break came after her mother died suddenly in 1895. Her father Leslie was so absorbed in his loss that his grief was often imposed on his children, making their lives difficult.

A few short years later, Virginia's older sister Stella abruptly died after she returned from her honeymoon, further contributing to Virginia's depression. Nine years later her father died sending Virginia into her second breakdown which required her to be institutionalized. In late 1905, feeling better, Virginia began reviewing the Guardian, and the following year, reviewed the Times Literary Supplement. She started her first novel, The Voyage Out in 1908, but her marriage to Leonard Woolf in 1912 and subsequent mental breakdown put off its publication until 1915 by Duckworth & Co., her step-brother Gerald's company.

By now the Woolfs had purchased a home, called Monks House, in the village of Rodmell, which they used for summer vacations. While residing here, they set up a hand printing-press named Hogarth Press as a hobby and therapy for Virginia. The pair published Two Stories together; The Mark on the Wall, Night and Day, Modern Fiction, and Kew Gardens by Virginiawere completed as well during this time. During the early 1920's, a group of young authors and artists including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Duncan Grant, T.S. Eliot and Vanessa Bell, Virginia's sister made up the famed 'Bloomsbury Group.' In 1922, Virginia wrote Jacob's Room in attempts to deal with her brother Thoby's death and in 1924, they traveled back to their city apartment. Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925 followed by To the Lighthouse in 1927. In 1928 her close relationship with Vita Sackville-West leads to the novel, Orlando (1929) after which she wrote about women's plight at being self sufficient in A Room of One's Own. While writing her many novels, short stories, fiction and essays, Virginia often spoke at colleges and universities. She ventured into poetry with The Waves in 1930 and then an interesting perspective of a dog's life owned by Elizabeth Barrett Browning called Flush: A Biography in1933_._ Her next pieces included The Second Common Reader written in 1933_, The Years_ (1937)and Roger Fry: A Biography in 1940. The Woolfs took up residence at their home in the country as WWII raged on and made a pledge to end their lives together if they were captured by the Germans due to Leonard's Jewish legacy.

Leonard was an exceptional caretaker throughout their marriage and during the many depressive episodes and Migraine attacks she suffered. Often having no trouble with words, Virginia found headache pain difficult to explain. In her essay "On Being Ill" she said,

"English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way. The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry."

Virginia Woolf had many suicide attempts. On March 28, 1941 she completed her final suicide attempt by putting her coat on, filling its pockets with rocks, and walking into a river near her home. She continued walking until she was out of sight and wasn't discovered until April that year.

For information on other Famous Migraineurs, read:


Clarke, S.N. "Virginia Woolf: A Short Biography." Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. 2000.

TruStoryBio."Virginia Woolf Biography." December 26, 2012.

Levy, Andrew. A Brain Wider Than the Sky: A Migraine Diary. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Merriman, C.D. "Virginia Woolf." The Literature Network. 2007.

Photo: Virginia Woolf. Library of Congress.

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