The best Virginia Woolf novels and short-story collections, and why you should read them
Virginia Woolf wrote just nine novels, but she also left a number of volumes of non-fiction, an important volume of short stories, and an unusual work of biography, among countless essays and reviews. But what are Woolf’s best books? We’ve compiled our favourite top-ten list of Virginia Woolf’s books, with some interesting facts about each of them. What’s your personal recommendation for the best Virginia Woolf book?
10. The Years (1937). Woolf’s most popular novel during her lifetime, The Years spans over half a century from 1880 to the 1930s, chronicling the lives of one family, the Pargiters. The novel adapts an idea she had explored in several of her previous novels, notably Mrs Dalloway and the first section of To the Lighthouse (see below) – namely, the depiction of one day in the lives of the characters. Here, each section (which focuses on a particular year during the novel’s 50-year span) centres on just one day in that year. Recommended edition: The Years (Oxford World’s Classics).
9. Flush: A Biography (1933). Not strictly a novel, this ‘biography’ is – like Woolf’s other great ‘biography’, Orlando (see below) – not really non-fiction either. However, its subject is, or was, real: Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s pet dog. The cocker spaniel, Flush, is acquired by Barrett Browning and taken from the countryside to London, where he lives among the London literati before travelling out with the Brownings to Italy. Recommended edition: Flush (Oxford World’s Classics).
8. Between the Acts (1941). Woolf’s ninth and final novel, Between the Acts was published shortly after her suicide in 1941. Like Orlando it engages with centuries of English history (particularly literary history), in this instance in the form of a pageant play which is being put on in a small English village. Like the more famous Mrs Dalloway, the action of the novel takes place on a single day. Recommended edition: Between the Acts (Oxford World’s Classics).
7. A Room of One’s Own (1929). Based on several lectures Woolf delivered at the University of Cambridge, A Room of One’s Own is seen as a feminist literary tract. Woolf argues that great writers are ‘androgynous’ in the sense that they contain both masculine and feminine impulses and sympathies. She also discusses how, if Shakespeare had had a sister of equal talents, ‘Judith’ Shakespeare (as Woolf chooses to call this fictional sibling) would never have made it as a poet and playwright during the Elizabethan era, because she would not have had the opportunities in terms of schooling and stage-acting that her brother enjoyed. Woolf later published a sequel to this work, Three Guineas (1938) – the idea for which supposedly came to her while she was lying musing in the bath. Recommended edition: A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas 2/e (Oxford World’s Classics).
6. Monday or Tuesday (1921). Woolf’s landmark collection of short stories which marked a watershed in her creative development. After two rather conventional novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919), Woolf began to experiment with short ‘stories’ or sketches as a way of trying out her new impressionistic mode of writing. The result was a handful of classic vignettes – some of them little more than a page long – such as ‘The Mark on the Wall’, ‘Kew Gardens’, and ‘A Haunted House’ (a two-page take on the ghost story). Recommended edition: The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction (Oxford World’s Classics).
5. Jacob’s Room (1922). After the critical success of her short stories in Monday or Tuesday, Woolf wrote her third novel, Jacob’s Room, to see if she could translate such an impressionistic style to the big canvas. Although a summary of the plot of Jacob’s Room makes the novel sound quite conventional – it follows the early life of a young man, Jacob Flanders, from childhood to maturity – the way that she goes about telling Jacob’s life is pure Woolf. We never gain a great insight into Jacob’s character, instead having to make do with glimpses of the man caught by other people, fleeting impressions of him in the train or at the next table in the restaurant. We won’t give away the ending here. Recommended edition: Jacob’s Room (Oxford World’s Classics).
4. The Waves (1931). Perhaps the most lyrical and poetic of all Woolf’s novels, The Waves was originally titled ‘The Moths’ and comprises six monologues or ‘voices’, which are loosely linked together by a more conventional narrator-figure who describes the course of the day (yes, one day again) from sunrise to sunset. In a letter of November 1928, Woolf referred to the book as ‘an abstract mystical eyeless book: a playpoem’, rather than a novel. Recommended edition: The Waves (Oxford World’s Classics).
3. Orlando (1928). Subtitled ‘A Biography’, this novel is a sort of fantasy version of several centuries of British history, through which the titular Orlando – a gender-switching bohemian figure – joyously moves. In part a tongue-in-cheek fantasy ‘biography’ of Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville-West, in part a response to English literary history, it’s one of Woolf’s most inventive novels. Recommended edition: Orlando 2/e (Oxford World’s Classics).
2. To the Lighthouse (1927). Divided into three sections – perhaps in ironic homage to the classic Victorian ‘triple-decker’ novel – To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s fifth novel, focuses on the Ramsay family and their holiday on the Isle of Skye in the early twentieth century. However, Woolf is drawing on memories of her own childhood holidays in the 1890s; the patriarch of the novel, Mr Ramsay, is reminiscent of Woolf’s own father, the Victorian man of letters Sir Leslie Stephen. Staying with the Ramsays are various other characters including the female artist Lily Briscoe, who in many ways is Woolf’s artistic stand-in in the novel. Recommended edition: To the Lighthouse n/e (Oxford World’s Classics).
1. Mrs Dalloway (1925). As we reveal in our post on this novel, the character of Clarissa Dalloway made her debut in print in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915). But ten years later Woolf would return to the character for this, her fourth – and, for our money, greatest – novel. Set over the course of one day in June 1923, the novel cleverly and poetically interfuses a number of different consciousnesses, including the title character, her old flame Peter Walsh, and the WWI veteran and shell-shock sufferer Septimus Smith. We include Mrs Dalloway in our pick of the 8 works of modernist literature everyone should read. Recommended edition: Mrs Dalloway (Oxford World’s Classics).