Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Virginia's Last Letter

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Virginia Woolf. On March 28th, 1941, at the age of 59, the writer took her own life by filling her pockets with rocks and wading into the fast-flowing River Ouse near her home in Rodwell, East Sussex. Her body was found three weeks later by children playing near the banks of the river, a long way downstream from where she died …

Virginia had struggled with bouts of severe mental illness for most of her life, and had attempted suicide on more than one occasion. She relied heavily on the support of the husband Leonard, and many believe that his love and devotion was the reason Virginia managed to survive so long against the relenting onslaught of the demons that plagued her.

In his autobiography, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, Leonard described how the final bout of Virginia’s illness caught everyone by surprise, leaving her family and friends powerless to prevent its destructive and ultimately fatal consequences.
"For years I had been accustomed to watch for signs of danger in V's mind; and the warning symptoms had come on slowly and unmistakably; the headache, the sleeplessness, the inability to concentrate. We had learnt that a breakdown could always be avoided, if she immediately retired into a cocoon of quiescence when the symptoms showed themselves. But this time there were no warning symptoms."
Virginia, for her part, seemed to be painfully aware of the effect her illness had on the lives of those around her. Before her death, she wrote three letters: one to her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, and two to Leonard. In the last of these letters, she acknowledges the debt of gratitude she owes her husband, and expresses her desire to no longer be a burden to him. It is tender, poignant and unutterably heartbreaking … a final love letter to the one man who brought her happiness …

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 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.

Virginia by Vanessa Bell
And so it was: on this day in 1941, the dim lights of Virginia Woolf’s troubled life were finally extinguished. Leonard lost a wife, Vanessa lost a sister … and the world lost an irreplaceable literary talent.

To read the New York Times obituary of Virginia Woolf, click here:

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