Virginia Woolf, whose maiden name was Stephen, and Leonard Woolf first met while Virginia was visiting her brother Thoby at Trinity college around the year 1900.
Noting the white dress and parasol she wore the day they met, Leonard declared she looked like “the most Victorian of Victorian young ladies.”
The smart and beautiful young woman that she was, Virginia Woolf had many suitors and admirers, both male and female, so it was no surprise that Leonard also found himself drawn to her.
In February of 1909, Lytton Strachey proposed to Virginia but then withdrew his proposal the next day. After withdrawing his proposal, Strachey immediately wrote to Leonard Woolf in Ceylon where he was working as a Civil Servant and urged him to marry Virginia:
“Your destiny is clearly marked out for you, but will you allow it to work? You must marry Virginia. She’s sitting waiting for you, is there any objection? She’s the only woman in the world with sufficient brains, it’s a miracle that she should exist; but if you’re not careful you’ll lose the opportunity…She’s young, wild, inquisitive, discontended, and longing to be in love.”
Intrigued by the idea, Leonard wrote back:
“Do you think Virginia would have me? Wire to me if she accepts. I’ll take the next boat home.”
Since she did not know Leonard very well and thought the matter to be a joke, Virginia gave no answer. It wasn’t until two years later when Leonard returned to England that Virginia and Leonard met again. Needing a place to stay, Leonard rented rooms on the top floor of her and her brother Adrian’s house in Brunswick square and they soon began dating.
During their six month courtship, Leonard proposed numerous times. Fearful of marriage and the emotional and sexual involvement it required, Virginia hesitated. In a letter to Leonard, she bluntly stated:
“As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no physical attraction in you. There are moments—when you kissed me the other day was one—when I feel no more than a rock. And yet your caring for me as you do almost overwhelms me. It is so real, and so strange.”
On Leonard’s third proposal, Virginia finally accepted and the couple were engaged. Shortly after the engagement, Virginia wrote to her friend Violet Dickinson to tell her the news:
“My Violet, I’ve got a confession to make. I’m going to marry Leonard Woolf. He’s a penniless Jew. I’m more happy than anyone ever said was possible – but I insist upon your liking him too. May we both come on Tuesday? Would you rather I come alone? He was a great friend of Thoby’s, went out to India – came back last summer when I saw him, and he has been living here since the winter.”
The couple finally married on Saturday, August 10 in 1912 at St. Pancras Registry Office, according to the book Leonard Woolf: a Biography:
“It was a small wedding. The only other people there were Roger Fry, Gerald Duckworth, Virginia’s aunt Mary Fisher, Duncan Grant, Saxon Sydney-Turner and the young artist Frederick Etchells, a friend of Duncan and Roger’s. Adrian was away in Germany. Lytton was enduring a long wet holiday in Scotland and Ireland with Henry Lamb…Vanessa, deep in her own concerns, interrupted the proceedings by enquiring how one went about changing the name of a child. She did not like ‘Clement,’ the name she had given her second son. (She was to add the name ‘Quentin.’) ‘One thing at a time, please, Madam,’ said the registrar. They all went back to 46 Gordon Square. After lunch, ‘Clive sat down and wrote a short, painful letter to Virginia, declaring his love for both her and her husband.'”
Virginia and Leonard spent their wedding night at their rented house, Asheham house, which was reportedly haunted, in East Sussex, before traveling to France, Spain and Italy.
It was during the honeymoon that Leonard discovered Virginia’s dislike of sex, which they both blamed on her traumatic sexual abuse as a child.
Despite this, the couple hoped to have children. Shortly after their wedding though, Virginia was heartbroken when her doctors advised her to refrain from motherhood on account of her ongoing mental health issues.
Even after her marriage, Virginia continued to have many suitors, such as her friend’s husband, Phillip Morrell who developed a crush on Virginia in the summer of 1927.
The feeling was not mutual so nothing came of it. At the time, Virginia was in the midst of a lesbian affair with writer and aristocrat Vita Sackville-West. Surprisingly, Leonard knew all about the relationship and didn’t object.
Throughout their long marriage, Leonard nursed Virginia through multiple bouts of depression, numerous suicide attempts and the ups and downs of her bipolar disorder. When she died by suicide in March of 1941, she left a note for Leonard telling him: “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”
Leonard was devastated after Virginia’s death but carried on the best he could since he knew it was what Virginia wanted. Leonard eventually fell in love again, with a woman named Trekkie Parsons, and lived out the rest of his life at his home, Monk’s House in Rodmell, which he had shared with Virginia.
After Leonard died in 1969, he was cremated and buried next to Virginia in their backyard at Monk’s house.
Gorden, Lyndall. Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life. W.W. North & Company, 1984
Singh, Randhir Pratap. Novels of Virginia Woolf. Sarup & Sons, 2004
“Virginia Woolf.” The Modernism Lab, Yale University, campuspress.yale.edu/modernismlab/virginia-woolf/