Virginia Woolf is renowned for her essays, her contributions to the literature of the 20th century, and the impact she has had on literary criticism in general and feminist critique in particular. She has been cited as an influence by many writers, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison.
Woolf struggled with mental illness her entire life. She made at least two suicide attempts while being institutionalized multiple times. According to Dalsimer (2004), she suffered from symptoms that today would be classified as bipolar disorder, but there was no effective treatment available to her while she was alive. Near the age of 59, Woolf committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Ouse at Lewes in 1941.
Virginia Woolf’s Childhood
Adeline Virginia Stephen became Virginia Woolf on January 25, 1882. Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904) was her father, while Julia Stephen was her mother (1846–95). Woolf’s father was a well-known mountaineer, historian, and novelist. Her mother, an author and nurse who was born in India, began her career as a model for painters. From her parents’ prior unions, Woolf has three siblings and four half-siblings. The parents and all eight children shared a home in London, England.
Virginia Woolf had a traumatic childhood. Woolf said that Gerald Duckworth first assaulted her when she was six years old. According to some, this caused a lifetime of sexual anxiety and rejection of masculine leadership.
When her mother passed away in 1895 from rheumatic sickness, her childhood traumas worsened since her older brothers sexually molested her. At the age of 13, Woolf experienced a mental collapse as a result of the loss. Two years later, Woolf’s suffering was made worse by the passing of her elder half-sister.
Woolf’s Relationship with Vita Sackville-West
The Bloomsbury group promoted a liberal view of sexuality, and on December 14, 1922, Woolf had dinner with Clive Bell and met Vita Sackville-West, a writer and gardener who was the wife of Harold Nicolson. The following day, she wrote in her notebook about meeting “the charming gifted aristocratic Sackville West.” Sackville-West was at the time the more popular and critically acclaimed poet and novelist, and it wasn’t until Woolf’s passing that she was regarded as the superior author. They had a sexual relationship after a hesitant beginning; however, according to Sackville-West in a letter to her husband on August 17, 1926, they were only sexually active twice.
In her tireless efforts to boost Woolf’s self-esteem, Sackville-West praised Woolf for her vivacity and wit, her health, her intelligence, and her literary accomplishments rather than encouraging her to see herself as a quasi-reclusive inclined to illness who should isolate herself from the outside world. A more positive self-image and the conviction that her writings were the results of her strengths rather than her weaknesses were developed in Woolf as a result of Sackville-West’s influence. Since she was 15, Woolf had accepted her father’s and his doctor’s assessment that reading and writing were harmful to her nervous system and necessitated a regimen of physical labor, such as gardening, to prevent a complete psychological collapse.
Virginia Woolf’s Adult Life
Woolf battled depression her entire life. Fame, prosperity, or popularity did not help her through her depressive episodes. When he could, Leonard Woolf supported his wife and stood by her side as she wrote the book ‘Between the Acts’ (1941). During this time, Woolf experienced progressively severe depressive episodes. The brutality of the conflict and Leonard’s worries that he would be targeted because of his Jewish origin made the situation worse. German bombs decimated the couple’s house in 1940, but they managed to escape unharmed.
Although her mental instability frequently interfered with her social life, she was able to maintain her writing output throughout her life with minimal setbacks. In her journals and letters, Woolf not only paints a clear picture of her symptoms but also her reaction to the demons that tormented her and occasionally made her yearn for death: “But it is always a matter whether I wish to avoid these glooms… These nine weeks plunge one into deep waters; one descends into the well where there is no defense against the assault of reality.”
Without success, Woolf tried throughout her life to make sense of her sickness, which she saw as both a hindrance and an essential component of who she was and a prerequisite for her creativity. Her own experiences influenced her writing, such as Septimus Warren Smith in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ (1925), a character who, like Woolf, was haunted by the dead and finally chose to commit suicide rather than be admitted to a sanatorium.
The Death of Virginia Woolf
On March 28th, 1941, Woolf committed suicide by strolling into the nearby River Ouse while carrying a bag of stones in her coat pockets. It was the 18th of April before her body was discovered. Her husband interred her cremated remains in the garden of Monk’s House, their residence near Rodmell, Sussex, beneath an elm tree.
Virginia Woolf’s suicide note (addressed to her husband) 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.
After reading Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, Leonard Woolf frantically looked for her in the area. On the river bank, he quickly discovered her footsteps and walking stick, but she had already been swept away by the water. Three weeks later, it would be discovered to have washed ashore close to Southease, England.
T.S. Eliot described Virginia Woolf’s passing as “the end of a world” when it was first reported.
Aftermath of Virginia Woolf’s Passing
Virginia Woolf was cremated after she passed away, and her ashes were scattered beneath the couple’s “Virginia” and “Leonard” Elm trees in the backyard. The final lines of her book ‘The Waves’ were inscribed on a stone by Leonard: “Against you, I fling myself, unconquered and uncompromising, O Death! On the shore, the waves broke.
She abandoned an unfinished work and autobiography. Her final composition would be a suicide note by Virginia Woolf.
But Woolf’s reputation and memory have endured. Her essays have elevated her to the status of a contemporary feminist icon, while her novels have become cherished classics. She was even made immortal in Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book ‘The Hours’, which Nicole Kidman portrayed in the movie version.
Virginia Woolf’s passing also encouraged a group of researchers to start working on an app that would analyze a person’s writing to determine whether or not they had suicidal tendencies.
Did Virginia Woolf have Bipolar Disorder?
Her family history had a direct connection to her disease. Additionally, Virginia Woolf endured nine years of sexual abuse from her half-siblings. Her bipolar symptoms took a pernicious course and were accompanied by hospitalizations, suicidal behavior, and functional impairment.
What were Virginia Woolf’s stressors that led to her mental breakdown?
Virginia had suffered from nervous breakdowns all her life. When Virginia was fifteen, she went through the first of multiple breakdowns following the deaths of her mother and half-sister. After her father passed away when she was twenty-two, Virginia experienced her second breakdown and spent a short time in an institution.
Was ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf autobiographical?
Virginia’s mental instability and the instability of her marriage are both represented in various ways in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. There is a similarity between the two marriages of Septimus and Rezia Smith and Clarissa and Richard Dalloway and that of her and her husband, Leonard Woolf. Virginia’s tragic demise and subsequent suicide remind one of Septimus Smith, a character in her book ‘Mrs. Dalloway’.