Seventy years on, Woolf reveals a new character

There was more to the Bloomsbury novelist than her bohemian lifestyle, it has emerged

As a leading member of the Bloomsbury set, as famous for their bisexual bed-hopping as their creative output, Virginia Woolf could have gone down in history as a bohemian first, a novelist second.

But an in-depth re-examination of her work by leading academics concludes her novels are far more sophisticated than previously thought – with subtle political and classical references woven into the text. It also reveals that Woolf, despite her claim that she had "never been to school", was educated to degree level. Academics are now calling for her to be viewed in the same light as the great modernist writers, such as T S Eliot and James Joyce.

The findings are part of a major research project by Cambridge University Press, helped with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, as part of a reissuing of Woolf's oeuvre to mark the 70th anniversary of her death later this month.

While almost all editions of James Joyce's Ulysses and T S Eliot's poem The Waste Land come with lengthy annotations – in Eliot's case, written by himself – Woolf's novels tend to be read as stand-alone works of fiction. The new editions, to be published by CUP, will offer annotations that shed light on the many hidden references and will map out textual changes, showing how the books evolved between proofs and editions.

The public perception of Woolf has been shaped by an early biography by her nephew Quentin Bell and by Woolf's own comments about her lack of formal education. In fact, she attended lectures at King's College London, in subjects such as history, German, Greek and Latin, and although she never got a degree, there is evidence to suggest she may have sat exams.

Anna Snaith, a reader in 20th-century literature at King's College London, who annotated the CUP edition of The Years, said the new publications would put paid to the idea that Woolf lacked formal further education. "She was a thoroughly committed political writer and a rigorous intellectual. It is astonishing how rigorous she was with her reading and studies," she said.

Born Virginia Stephen into a well-connected literary family, she was largely home-educated, and suffered a series of breakdowns and depressions following the premature deaths of her mother and half-sister, Stella. She married the publisher Leonard Woolf before embarking on a career as a novelist, her best-known books being To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One's Own, a non-fiction essay in feminism.

However, much of the fascination with her revolves around her affair with the writer Vita Sackville-West, the product of an ethos of liberal sexual values among the writers and painters in the social circle centred on Woolf's house in Gordon Square.

Virginia Nicholson, Woolf's great-niece, also a novelist and the daughter of Quentin Bell, welcomes the CUP research project. "I'm very pleased that she should reach a wider readership, whether more or less educated," she says. "It's great that CUP is finding more dimensions to her work. But I hope their claims that she is more literary and complex won't make people think that she is in any way obscure or inaccessible. Although her books are undoubtedly clever, many of them have appeal for being just a jolly good read."

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam