Post by Graveyardbride on Mar 30, 2014 0:02:43 GMT -5
March 28, 1941: ‘I am going mad again’
What is the meaning of life?... a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. – Virginia Woolf
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born January 25, 1882, into a privileged English family. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a historian, author and prominent figure in the golden age of mountaineering. Her mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen (née Jackson), had been born in India to English parents, and later served as a model for several pre-Raphaelite painters. She was also a nurse and wrote a book on the profession. Both Sir Leslie and his wife were widowed when they married and already had four children between them. Their marriage was blessed with four additional children and the family of 10 all lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington. As a young girl, Virginia was light-hearted and playful. Her free-thinking parents encouraged her to write and she started a family newspaper, the Hyde Park Gate News, to document her family’s humorous anecdotes. The Stephen family spent their summers in St. Ives, a beach town at the very southwestern tip of England and their summer home, Talland House, looked out onto dramatic Portminster Bay. The house, which still stands, is a short walking distance from Godrevy Lighthouse and Virginia’s novel, To the Lighthouse (published in 1927), recalled those early summers.
But there was also a dark blot on Virginia’s otherwise idyllic childhood for there were rumors that when she was age six, her two older half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth, sexually abused her. Some attribute her later emotional problems to the alleged abuse. However, mental illness ran in the Stephen family as evidenced by the fact Sir Leslie’s daughter Laura by his first marriage was mentally incapacitated to the point she was permanently institutionalized in 1891 at the age of 21.
But it was the death of Virginia’s mother that most affected her. Julia Stephen, exhausted from running a household consisting of eight children, developed what was diagnosed as rheumatic fever and died May 5, 1895, when Virginia was thirteen. She would later describe her mother’s death as “the greatest disaster that could happen.” Just two years later, Virginia’s half-sister Stella Duckworth, who had been running the Stephen household since their mother’s death, died – another severe blow to Virginia.
But in spite of her misery, Virginia managed to take classes in German, Greek and Latin at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London. Her four years of study brought her into contact with a handful of radical feminists at the helm of educational reforms.
In 1904, Sir Leslie died. Virginia was 22 by this time, but she was devastated by his death and was institutionalized for the first time.
Following Sir Leslie’s death, Virginia’s sister Vanessa and brother Adrian sold the family home in Hyde Park Gate and purchased a house in the Bloomsbury area of London. Through their connections, Virginia became acquainted with several members of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of intellectuals and artists who became infamous in 1910 for their Dreadnought hoax, a practical joke in which members of the group dressed up as a delegation of Ethiopian royals and successfully persuaded the English Royal Navy to show them its warship, HMS Dreadnought. Virginia disguised herself as a bearded man during the incident. Following the outrageous prank, Leonard Woolf, a writer and member of the group, took a fancy to Virginia and the two were married August 10, 1912.
Several years before her marriage, Virginia had begun working on a novel she called Melymbrosia. After nine years and innumerable drafts, it was finally released in 1915 as The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. She used the book to experiment with several literary tools, including compelling and unusual narrative perspectives, dream-states and free association prose. In 1925, Mrs. Dalloway, her fourth novel, was released to rave reviews. The mesmerizing story interweaves interior monologues and raises issues of feminism, mental illness and homosexuality in post-World War I England. (Mrs. Dalloway was turned into a movie in 1997 and the book was the subject of the Michael Cunningham novel and film, The Hours.)
In 1917, the Woolfs purchased a printing press and established the Hogarth Press in the basement of their London home. Virginia published her short stories and before long, the enterprise became a respected publishing concern, publishing the works of authors such as Katharine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot and Sigmund Freud.
In addition to their London home, in 1919, Leonard and Virginia purchased a country house in the village of Rodmell near the River Ouse (“ouse” is the Celtic word for water) in East Sussex. It was named Monk’s House, though no monks ever lived there and it was here that Virginia wrote Jacob’s Room, in memory of her brother Thoby who died of typhoid fever in 1906.
Throughout her career, Virginia Woolf spoke regularly at colleges and universities, penned dramatic letters, wrote moving essays and self-published a long list of short stories. By her mid-forties, she had established herself as both an intellectual and innovative thinker and writer. Because of her ability to balance dream-like scenes with intensive plot lines, she earned the respect of both peers and the public. But despite her outward success, she continued to regularly suffer bouts of depression and dramatic mood swings.
Leonard Woolf was aware of his wife’s emotional problems and observed, as she was working on what would be her final manuscript, Between the Acts, that she was sinking into a bottomless pit. Adding to her inner turmoil, both the couple’s Bloomsbury home and the offices of Hogarth Press had been destroyed during the Blitz. They moved to a dwelling nearby, but it, too, was rendered uninhabitable by a bomb. Thus, the couple had no choice but to leave London and move to their Sussex home (above). By this time, the headaches and “voices” had returned and this in combination with Hitler’s Blitzkrieg proved too much for the 59-year-old Virginia. On Friday, March 28, 1941, she wrote two nearly identical notes, one to her husband and the other to her sister Vanessa Bell. The note to Leonard Woolf read:
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
Then she left Monk’s House and followed the footpath to the River Ouse, where she placed a heavy stone in her coat pocket and allowed the water’s current to carry her down to oblivion. The newspapers reported her missing and presumed dead, indicating she had left a letter behind and that her husband testified his wife “had been depressed for a considerable length of time.” It wasn’t until April 17 that her body was discovered by some children playing near the river. Following an inquest into her death, which was ruled a suicide, Virginia Woolf’s corpse was cremated. Her ashes were scattered under the elm tree just beyond her garden.
On April 27, a month after her death, The Sunday Times ran the following evisceration by a Mrs. Kathleen Hicks, wife of the Bishop of Lincoln:
“I read in your issue of Sunday last that the coroner at the inquest on Mrs. Virginia Woolf said that she was ‘undoubtedly much more sensitive than most people to the general beastliness of things happening in the world to-day.’ What right has anyone to make such an assertion?
“If he really said this, he belittles those who are hiding their agony of mind, suffering bravely and carrying on unselfishly for the sake of others. Many people, possibly even more ‘sensitive,’ have lost their all and seen appalling happenings, yet they take their part nobly in this fight for God against the devil.
“Where are our ideals of love and faith? And what shall we all be if we listen to and sympathize with this sort of ‘I cannot carry on?’”
Upon reading Mrs. Hicks’ letter, Leonard Woolf was so appalled that he immediately sent the newspaper an emotionally charged fact-check rebuttal:
“I feel that I should not silently allow to remain on record that Virginia Woolf committed suicide because she could not face the ‘terrible times’ through which all of us are going. For this is not true ... Then newspapers give her words as:
“‘I feel I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times.’
“This is not what she wrote: the words which she wrote are:
“‘I feel that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.’
“She had had a mental breakdown about twenty-five years ago; the old symptoms began to return about three weeks before she took her life, and she felt that this time she would not recover. Like everyone else, she felt the general strain of the war, and the return of her illness was partly due to that strain. But the words of her letter and everything which she has ever said prove that she took her life, not because she could not ‘carry on,’ but because she felt she was going mad again and would not this time recover.”
Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, was published posthumously. Leonard Woolf continued to live at Monk’s House until his death in 1969.
Sources: Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell; Awesome Stories; and Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf by Sybil Oldfield.