Adeline Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) was born in London in 1882, the second daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Stephen (née Jackson). Both her parents had been widowed and had children from their first marriages: Leslie Stephen had a daughter, Laura, who was born with a mental disability; Julia Stephen had two sons and a daughter. Virginia also had three full siblings: Vanessa, her elder sister, and Thoby and Adrian, her younger brothers.

Although raised in a secure and affluent home, her childhood and teenage years were marred by various tragedies and traumas. The most serious of these was the loss of her mother at the age of 13, but she also had to face the institutionalisation of her half-sister Laura in 1891, and the death of her other half-sister, Stella Duckworth, when she was 15. There is evidence that she was sexually abused as a child and teenager by her half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth. Perhaps due to the impact of these events, combined with a constitutional disposition, from her teenage years onwards she suffered repeated mental breakdowns which culminated in her death by suicide in 1941.

In 1912 she married the writer Leonard Woolf, with whom she founded the Hogarth Press in 1917. Both Leonard and Virginia Woolf were prominent members of the set of writers, intellectuals, and artists known as the 'Bloomsbury Group', which met regularly in London and at Charleston in Sussex. The couple did not have children, following medical advice that this would be inadvisable given Woolf's emotional instability.

Brought up in a cultured and literary household (her father was a writer and critic, and the first editor of The Dictionary of National Biography), with access to an extensive library, it is not surprising that Virginia Woolf wrote creatively from an early age. Her professional writing career began in 1900 with a journalistic piece, and she went on to publish a wide range of novels, essays, short-stories, articles, diaries and biographies.

Amongst her novels, the best known are: Mrs Dalloway (1925); To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), whilst lesser known works include Jacob's Room (1922) and The Years (1937). Only one volume of her short stories, Monday or Tuesday (1921), was published during her lifetime, although three others were published after her death. Her essays and literary criticism include The Common Reader (1925), A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), whilst her biographical works include studies of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning (1933) and of the artist and personal friend, Roger Fry (1940).

Since her death, Woolf herself has become the focus of much literary criticism, and the subject of numerous biographies, including Virginia Woolf: A Biography (1972) by her nephew, Quentin Bell, and Virginia Woolf  by Hermione Lee (1997).