The Burden of Illness
March 28, 1941 – This was the day when famous English writer and feminist Virginia Woolf (59) filled the pockets of her coat with stones and walked into the River Ouse to drown herself. It took three weeks before her body was found.
She is remembered especially for her novels Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and her reflecting book A Room of One’s Own.
Woolf (original name Adeline Virginia Stephen) suffered from periods of deep depression all her life. Around 1910 she had been admitted three times to a “private nursing home for women with nervous disorder”.
Most experts today agree she was a victim of bipolar disorder. Lithium, which in her situation might have been effective medication, did not come into general use until 30 years after her death.
Woolf’s last letter to her husband shows clearly how much she suffered from the awareness of being mentally ill, and from the fear of her illness getting worse – and also from the typical self-deprecation that comes with depression:
Dearest, 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.
I wish I could say some nice things here about Virginia Woolf’s work as a novelist, or give you some striking quote, like I’ve done with several other novelists and poets here. But I can’t.
I think it’s best to be honest about this.
I don’t like Virginia Woolf as a writer. To me, her writing feels as a somewhat artificial construction that’s often overgrown with a confusing ivy of words. I’ve tried to read her a few times, long ago, but I never managed to finish one of her books..
Today, preparing this post, I read some pages of Mrs. Dalloway again. One of the things this novel is famous for is her description of Septimus, a character suffering from World War I “shell shock”. But to me, Woolf’s ivy of words kept standing in the way.
I’m sorry for this, because I surely can identify with her as a person. I’ve been depressed enough to attempt suicide myself. Twice. So I think I do have the right to say that I can understand how desperate and forlorn she must have felt when locked in depression.
Maybe you (yes I mean you, reading this post) are more capable than I am when it comes to appreciating Virginia Woolf’s work? You’re welcome to add something here to illustrate her qualities as a writer.
This is Virginia Woolf’s tombstone in the garden of her house in Sussex. The inscription says:
Virginia Woolf tomb stone saying
Beneath this tree are
buried the ashes of
Born January 25 1882
Died March 28 1941
Death is the enemy. Against you
I will fling myself, unvanquished
and unyielding o Death!
The waves broke on the shore.