Literature27 Mar 2010 04:48 pm
On March 28, 1941, English novelist, essayist, diarist, epistler, publisher and pioneering feminist Virginia Woolf donned her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones and then walked into the River Ouse, near her home in Sussex, and committed suicide by drowning herself. Her body was not found until weeks later, and her husband buried her cremated remains under an elm tree in the garden of the home that they had shared together. She had left two similar suicide notes, one possibly written a few days earlier before an unsuccessful attempt. The one addressed to her husband Leonard read in part;
“I feel certain that 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 ’til 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.”
Ever since her tragic suicide, literary sleuths have wondered why one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the 20th century decided to take her own life. Woolf had been plagued by periodic mood swings and intermittent bouts of depression since the sudden death of her mother when she was only 13 years old. When her beloved half-sister Stella passed away only two years later, Woolf suffered her first of several nervous breakdowns, the most severe of which occurred after the death of her father in 1904, which was so severe that she had to be briefly institutionalized. It has also been suggested that her mental illness was also influenced by the sexual abuse she and Vanessa were subjected to by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate). Other biographers have suggested that her wild mood swings were the result of untreated bipolar disorder. Despite the fact that Woolf’s mental illness took its toll on her social life, her literary output remained relatively constant until her suicide.
Regardless of what factor finally drove Woolf to take her own life, her prolific output of diaries, letters, critical reviews, essays, short stories, and novels have continued to be the source of much contemporary scholarly study. Her most famous works include the classic novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), and the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), with its famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
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