She was an author, essayist, critic, a thought-provoking feminist and literary pioneer. She is most famous for her novels Mrs. Dolloway and To The Lighthouse. She is considered one of the most important modernist writers of the 20th century and among the first to use stream of consciousness as a narrative device.
** CAUTION! TRIGGER WARNING!!! ** The following essay contains references to suicide and sexual abuse.
Virginia Woolf died on this day. March 28, 1941, by suicide. After writing a note to her husband, Leonard Woolf, she walked to the nearby River Ouse, filled her pockets with heavy stones, then walked into the water and drowned. Her suicide note reads:
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.”
What led to the suicide? What was the terrible disease, and what caused the voices in her head? To answer these questions, I did some sleuthing into Virginia Woolf’s life.
Virginia Woolf (Adeline Virginia Stephen) was born on January 25, 1882, into an affluent household in South Kensington, London. She was the seventh child in a blended family. Her mother, Julia (Jackson Duckworth) Stephen had three children from her previous marriage to Herbert Duckworth, who had died. These children were: George (age fourteen at the time of Virginia’s birth) Stella (age thirteen at the time of Virginia’s birth) and Gerald (age twelve at the time). Her father, Leslie Stephen, had a daughter named Laura, from his previous wife Harriet Thackaray who died in childbirth. Julia and Leslie then had four children of their own: Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian. The Stephen family had many artistic and literary members, including famous Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was Virginia’s great aunt.
Death, Depression and Devastation
Virginia was home schooled. She learned English Classics and Victorian Literature, Mathematics and Science. The family spent summers in Cornwall, which later became a great influence on her writing. The Godrevy Lighthouse in Cornwall was the inspiration for her novel To The Lighthouse.
Virginia’s childhood might seem idyllic, but there was darkness lurking in the corners. In 1895, her mother died of influenza. Julia was just thirteen years old and the death shattered her. (Virginia’s half brothers George and Gerald would have been twenty-seven and twenty-five, respectively.) She sank into a severe depression, which was to be the first of many. Just two years later, her half sister Stella (who had been a mother figure to Virginia) also died. This too was a devastating blow that really affected Virginia.
Despite her depression and grieving, in 1897 Virginia enrolled in the Women’s Department of King’s College, London. She studied there for four years. It was there she came in contact with early reformers of the women’s right’s movement, which would later influence her writing as well.
In 1904, Virginia’s father died. She was then said to suffer a “full blown nervous breakdown” and was hospitalized. These three family deaths no doubt affected Virginia’s mental state for the rest of her life. Some historians believed she may have suffered from bi-polar disorder (although at the time psychology did not yet have a name for it.)
After the death of their father, the four Stephens siblings (now all twenty-somethings) moved to Bloomsbury, known as the “Bohemian” section of London. They lived independently of George and Gerald Duckworth. Or perhaps, more accurately, Virginia had finally escaped cruel treatment from her half-brothers… Something sinister had been going on in Virginia’s childhood home. She would hint at it later in her autobiographical writings.
Fortunately, the four siblings were wealthy and had a lot of time to paint, write, entertain, and engage in artistic pursuits. They began hosting weekly gatherings of what were considered “radical” young people. These avant-garde parties and the people attending them came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. Participants included art critic Clive Bell (who Virginia’s sister Vanessa would later marry) writer Lytton Strachey, and economist John Maynard Keyes. The irreverent and sometimes bawdy gatherings encouraged Virginia to speak out and exercise her sharp wit (which was still rather frowned upon in Victorian circles.)
Through her Bloomsbury friends, Virginia became interested in radical new art forms such as Surrealism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism. The artwork would later influence her writing. She claimed she wanted to write in a language that was “some kind of whole, made of shivering fragments,” and could capture “the flight of the mind.”
But what was actually going on in Virginia’s mind? What kind of flight was taking place, and why?
Virginia began writing critical reviews of literature for the Times Literary Supplement and other journals. She never used her real name, and instead signed her reviews as “Anonymous”. Interestingly later in her book A Room of One’s Own, she would claim “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
It was during this time that Virginia got the idea to “re-form” the standard novel. She wanted to create a “holistic” form embracing “aspects of life that were fugitive from the Victorian novel.” She attempted to write such a novel, and it would later be published as The Voyage Out, the tale of a sheltered young woman who embarks on an excursion to South America and is introduced to freedom and sexuality.
Marriage, Demons and More Death
Through the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia became acquainted with, and fell in love with, Leonard Woolf, a writer and political activist. They married in August, 1912.
Shortly after, Virginia began to have bouts of severe depression. She was plagued with irrational fears, and worried that she was a “failure as a writer and a woman.” She also believed her sister Vanessa hated her and that Leonard did not love her. These obsessions provoked a suicide attempt in September 1913.
What followed was an extremely productive period. The Woolfs bought their own printing press and published books, including the works of T.S. Elliot and Sigmund Freud, from their basement. Between 1924 and 1940, Virginia wrote her most popular novels including To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Dolloway, and Orlando.
Yet her demons were never far behind. During the thirty years of her marriage, Virginia continued to see a variety of doctors and mental health professionals for her illnesses. Reportedly, she made several more suicide attempts during this time. She suffered from hallucinations, as well as periods of both mania and depression.
Virginia tried various psychiatric treatments, but nothing worked. One of these treatments even involved pulling several of her teeth out — it was believed at the time that mental illness was associated with dental infection! It must have been a living hell. In her diaries and letters, Woolf provided a vivid picture of her symptoms and how she tried to reconcile them. “But it is always a question whether I wish to avoid these glooms… These 9 weeks give one a plunge into deep waters… One goes down into the well & nothing protects one from the assault of truth.”
For Virginia, writing was actually a therapy that helped her cope with her mental illness. “The only way I keep afloat… is by working… Directly (when) I stop working I feel that I am sinking down, down. And as usual, I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth.“
What was this horrible “truth” she kept referring to?
Sinking under water was Woolf’s metaphor for both the effects of depression and psychosis— but also for finding truth. Ironically, it was through drowning that she ultimately ended her own life.
Was There More to the Story?
More recent biographers have pointed out that Virginia’s mental illnesses may have been caused by childhood sexual abuse. Her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell, states that Virginia’s nervous breakdowns and recurring depressive periods were a result of this abuse. Allegedly, Virginia and her sister Vanessa were continually molested by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth.
Is it true?
It is entirely plausible.
In her autobiographical essays “A Sketch of the Past“ and “22 Hyde Park Gate”, Virginia tells of George’s nighttime prowling, and even describes him as her first lover. She states: “The old ladies of Kensington and Belgravia never knew that George Duckworth was not only father and mother, brother and sister to those poor Stephen girls; he was their lover also.”
In the veiled world of Victorian sensibilities, Woolf may have not had the courage to write about the abuse specifically.
Biographers have pointed out that when Stella died in 1897, there was no no one left to control George’s torment of his young sisters. This would explain Virginia’s severe depression and breakdown after the deaths of Stella and her mother.
According to Virginia Woolf’s History of Sexual Victimization: A Case Study in Light of Current Research by Lucia C. A. Williams, Department of Psychology, Federal University of São Carlos, São Carlos, Brazil:
“Virginia Woolf was “an incest survivor” (DeSalvo, 1990: p. 1). She was sexually abused by her two older half brothers George and Gerald Duckworth, according to her own testimony. DeSalvo (1989) characterizes the abuse reported by Woolf as being “extremely traumatic”, and identifies variables which may be categorized in this case study as the following risk factors: 1) “she was abused when young” (p. 8); 2) the abuse had long duration (it started when Woolf was about six or seven, and only stopped when she was 24); 3) “it probably involved many incidents” (p. 8); 4) the abuse was perpetrated by close trusted members of the family, that is, it was incestuous in nature; 5) there was more than one perpetrator; and 6) “another member of the family was also abused” (p. 8), referring to Woolf’s sister Vanessa.“
You can read the report for yourself HERE https://file.scirp.org/pdf/PSYCH_2014081809564684.pdf
It does seem highly unlikely that Virginia Woolf would use such terms to describe her brother if incest had not taken place. And it certainly would explain her mental illness. I also wonder why more hasn’t been written about this.
What we know for sure is Virginia Woolf was an accomplished writer, a trail blazer, a woman of many talents and a literary innovator. We honor her on this day, the anniversary of her tragic death.
I will leave you with this telling quote:
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.“
— Virginia Woolf