As is the case with many a writer’s life, it is their death–or, more precisely–their suicide that will define them. Virginia Woolf is just one such scribe from an era in writing when a person felt things so deeply that no matter how much of it poured out of them and onto the page it was still there. Always lingering, never fully gone. Over the course of Woolf’s life, her periods of impressive productivity were met with the struggle of battling her rarely at bay depression.
In the final months of her all too short existence (even if fifty-nine is a later than average suicide), Woolf’s unshakeable preoccupation with ending it colored not just her mood, but her writing. With diary pages filled with declarations of despondency, her final entry was, ironically (yet perhaps fittingly), utterly detached–clinical in its description of her visit to a doctor and friend that her husband, Leonard, took her to help prevent yet another breakdown. Appropriately, the final line of the page was, “L. is doing the rhododendrons.” Always trying to make life more beautiful–more bearable for her–Leonard was a beacon of light and patience that few women ever have the luck of finding in a monogamous relationship, often cut short by even the slightest sign of being “too emotional” nowadays (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–or more accurately, who isn’t?).
While some will argue this point with outrage, anyone who has ever experienced the same level of depression as Woolf knows that her greatest masterpiece is her suicide note. Succinct and both matter-of-fact while containing a wealth of sentiments clearly conveyed, Woolf wrote to her husband, “…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.”
Remaining hyper-critical and self-flagellating to the end, Woolf also adds, “And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read.” This tragic three-word line–I can’t read–also gives anyone aware of Woolf’s constant need to remain intellectually stimulated just how crestfallen she must have felt to be unable to enjoy one of her life’s few pleasures as a result of her debilitating mental illness. So it was that the River Ouse beckoned to her from her nearby home.
With the stream of consciousness style that would make her a pioneer and a visionary in the literary world, Woolf is effusive in her expression of love, the only thing that–even more than her work–seemed to keep her going for as long as she did. At last getting to the crux of what she wants to verbalize, Woolf wrote, “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.”
Although Woolf is not associated with being a “maudlin” sort of person so much as a melodramatic, unpredictably “sensitive” one, it is very apparent in her final missive to Leonard that she was often underestimated as a loving and caring woman–instead painted as the castrating shrew/harpy Leonard had the decency of character to put up with for so many years (even though some schools blame him for not taking better measures to remedy her state). Her posthumous final novel, Between the Acts, however, is a strong indication of just how little interest she had in things of romance, both physical and emotional. The anchoring character of the plot, Bartholomew Oliver, has a son named Giles, a foil for Leonard, whose wife, Isa, can no longer feign interest in him, living apart in the same domicile as Bartholomew with their children.
This sexual reluctance, paired with a hesitancy to feel close with anyone, is omnipresent in Between the Acts, and is perhaps Woolf’s best attempt at explaining her recoiling behavior to, among others, Leonard. Tortured by cerebral overwroughtness, a perpetual fear of her own unwell mind, Woolf punched her ticket early, weighing herself down with rocks that at last matched the impalpable and burdensome heaviness she was experiencing all the time. Some call that weakness, while others know precisely what it is she was talking about when she said, “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again.”