In 1940 the Nazis started bombing London and more than a million houses were destroyed, including Virginia Woolf’s residency. She then moved to the county of Sussex, in south east England.
The influence of the German military was at its peak and nations stepped into a conflict of unimaginable scale, converting the second half of the twentieth century into a time of horror.
Although the Second World War shook the world, for Virginia the world was already a burdensome place, even before the combat began. She struggled with poor health since her mother passed away in May 1895, when Virginia Woolf was only 13 years old. Nonetheless, the writer found comfort in the vivid and exciting childhood memories of her summer vacations in Saint Ives and Cornwall.
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
When she was a little girl, she lived in the 22 Hyde Parkgate. Woolf did not attend school but she had private tutors and her education came mostly from the big library at home. She came from a large family; her father, Leslie Stephen, was a novelist, essayist, historian, and academic, and her mother, Julia Prinsep Jackson –a model born in India, from a lineage of beauties descendants of a maid of Marie Antoinette– was a widow at the time she married Stephen. They both where widowers with kids when they married.
Virginia was born the 25 of January, 1882 and she grew up influenced by the great literary sphere her parents frequented. When she was nine years old, she decided she wanted to be a writer, so she began by working for a weekly journal, reporting family events.
The morning of March 28, 1941, Woolf and her housekeeper, Louie Mayer, had a talk in the writer’s bedroom, and from this discussion Louie felt that Virginia was having a crisis. Immediately, she told Woolf’s husband, Leonard, about it. He tried to keep her busy all day, and even asked Louie to get Virginia’s help to clean up the house. This activity distracted her for a brief period of time, but she then headed to her garden to write. She often used her garden as a hide-out, as she saw the solitude it brought as beneficial to her work.
Leonard Woolf preferred having her spouse in sight, but he knew her well: if Virginia felt trapped, she would become more tense, and her ill temper would escalate.
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” – Virginia Woolf
Virginia suffered from several emotional breakdowns, the first when her mother died, and subsequent attacks following the death of her sister two years later, and her father in 1905 due to cancer.
She suffered sudden mood swings throughout her entire life, but her condition never stopped her from becoming one of the most important literary exponents of her generation. Her first known novel, The Voyage Out, was published by her brother’s publishing house, Gerald Duckworth and Company. After her father’s death, her brothers sold the home in London to buy a house in Bloomsbury, where university colleagues of her brother would frequently visit. Together they built a distinguished intellectual circle, a kind of artist secret society, and it was there that Virginia and Leonard met for the first time. The two would fund their own publishing house, and they would finally get married in 1912.
“(…) I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”
Leonard was aware of Virginia’s sensibility to harsh criticism; he knew about her rivalry with other authors, and her panic when having to bring her books to the printer. He also acknowledged Virginia’s posture towards feminism and her uncertainty on life and marriage. They had heated discussions because of work, her medical treatment, and mental retreats outside London, but it is fair to say that he loved her deeply.
Despite being a witness to her collapse, Leonard never stopped admiring Virginia’s integrity. She would kick and scream in bed, she would insult him and the doctors, and in bad days she would sometimes hallucinate and see her deceased mother in her bedroom. In her deliriums, she would see birds fluttering around and grumble in Greek. Leonard tried hard to calm her down during these episodes and throughout he never stopped seeing her as a beautiful woman, as a gorgeous enigma. Virginia would inspire the same devotion in her millions of readers.
One day, past 11 am, Leonard visited her and saw she was working as she said she would. If he felt something was wrong with Virginia, history books have overlooked it. She then told him she would work a while longer and probably take a walk before lunch. Leonard didn’t suspect anything since Virginia was prone to take long walks in their 29 years of marriage.
While Louie Mayer was cooking lamb leg with mint sauce, Virginia’s favorite dish, the writer was revising her texts. They say she would hesitate before starting her first sentence because in her eyes she needed the perfect combination of words that perfectly outlined the characters and mood.
“We are silhouettes, hollow phantoms moving mistily without a background.”
The dreams and aspirations of her heroes were inspired by Virginia’s daily activities, like going to buy flowers or taking a stroll down the beach. Numerous times, her life shaped her writings, for instance, in Orlando, we can grasp the affair Virginia Woolf had in the twenties with Vita Sackville-West.
Love, nature, and the obstacles England faced at the start of the century were all themes she developed in her prose. English challenges from the start of the century were all subjects in her prose. In Mrs Dalloway, we follow Clarissa Daloway as she prepares for a party she will host that same evening. The story travels back and forth in time and in and out of the character’s mind to construct and image of the protagonist’s life. Her witty opposition to misogyny can be found in her essay A Room of One’s Own, and an homage to her own infancy is found in the novel To the Lighthouse.
Virginia Woolf finished the text she was working on that same day and took the sheets of paper back home.
The housekeeper saw Virginia coming into the house and leaving again, but now with a coat, boots, and the cane she would normally use in her walks. Some Sussex neighbors saw her pass by the church, which was the regular path she’d take to arrive to the river Ouse. None of the people who saw her that day felt anything odd in the writer’s demeanor.
Louie Mayer announced lunch around 1 pm; Virginia didn’t arrived that evening. Leonard, while looking for her around the house, found a letter on top of the nightstand, and it was then that he suddenly understood what was Virginia writing that morning.
Louie and Leonard followed Virginia’s trail with the police. All they found that day were footprints and her cane by the bank of the river. Some men got into the water to try to help in the rescue efforts. Leonard still held some hope and kept looking over the terrain until dawn. When he headed home that night he found another note, this time on the cabin where she worked:
“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. V.”
The river dragged her body, and it was found April 18th 1941, twenty one days after Virginia Woolf committed suicide. She wore a heavy coat whose pockets were filled with rocks. Her disorder never overshadowed her sensibility and artistic achievements.
“Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart and his friends can only read the title.”
As Virginia predicted, Leonard kept on writing and even years later fell in love again . The press would use Woolf’s suicide to write sensationalist headlines, and as a result her reputation was tarnished into someone who was gloomy, dispirited and sad. It is when you open the pages of her work that you savor her vivaciousness and her appreciation for beauty. Leonard accused journalists of viciously attacking his defunct wife, and defended Virginia Woolf’s persona as a tenacious and brave woman who fought hard to overcome her severe depression. She may have suffered loss and constant mental turmoil, but she also wrote some of the most exquisite books in the history of literature.
Translated by Laura Calçada
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