‘The most terrible thing has happened.’ Virginia Woolf: the writer remembered
Virginia Woolf posing in 1924 for the magazine Vogue.
In 1941 on 28th March, Virginia Woolf walked from Monk’s House in Rodmell to the river Ouse where she filled her pockets with stones, or one big stone, and drowned herself. Her body wasn’t discovered until April 18th and was identified by her husband, Leonard, on the same day. Much has been made, written and discussed about Virginia’s final letters, and is mentioned in my own book, Virginia Woolf in Richmond, but I now want to focus on the people who were left after she died.
The most terrible thing has happened. Leonard Woolf in a letter to John Lehmann, 29 March 1941
On the day before Virginia’s suicide, the Woolfs had gone to visit Octavia Wilberforce, a friend and doctor who practised general medicine in Brighton and had previously been consulted on Virginia’s mental issues. In this consultation, Dr Wilberforce had strongly advised complete rest. In the final volume of his autobiography, The Journey Not The Arrival That Matters, Leonard appears to place the blame on himself, having not insisted on trained nurses to supervise his wife: ‘The decision was wrong and led to the disaster.’ (Woolf, L. 1969:92). In a letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies on April 1st, his blame is apparent:
Of course, I could have prevented it by immediately getting nurses and I suppose I ought to say I was wrong not to have done so. I have been proved wrong and yet I know myself that I would do the same again. One had to make up one’s mind which would do the greater harm. Letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies, 1st April 1941, from Letters of Leonard Woolf, 1989:254
He goes on to describe his actions once he had found Virginia’s letters – after he can’t find her in the house, he instinctively thinks she must be down by the river:
I ran across the fields down to the river and almost immediately found her walking-stick lying upon the bank. I searched for some time and then went back to the house and informed the police. Woolf, L. 1969:94-95
Leonard continues in his autobiography the feeling of numbness he felt following his wife’s death and that friends had tried to persuade him to stay with them, or leave Rodmell altogether. Tellingly, he writes ‘It is no good trying to delude oneself that one can escape the consequences of a great catastrophe.’ (Woolf, L. 1969:127). It was obvious that Virginia’s death would be of immense pain to her husband of nearly 30 years.
Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, was told about the disappearance by the Monk’s House gardener over the phone. She immediately went to Rodmell to see Leonard, and found him to be surprisingly calm – after all, they had both half-expected this particular tragedy, ever since Virginia’s first suicide attempts. In Jane Dunn’s Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy, she quotes from Vanessa’s letter to Vita Sackville-West on March 29th: ‘Now we can only wait till the first horrors are over which somehow make it almost impossible to feel much.’ (Dunn, 1990:301). For Vanessa, although she and her sister had not always seen eye to eye, it was a painful end to their intense relationship.
I recently found a book called Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf, edited by Sybil Oldfield (2005) and it is a fascinating insight into the personal and public outpouring of grief following Virginia’s death. For me, perhaps the most poignant, is a letter to Leonard from Sophia Farrell, who was the Stephen family cook, and with whom Virginia had kept up contact all through her life and also sent money. She wrote to Leonard on April 3rd:
Just to say I am so Very Grieved for you for I know how anxious you must be about dear Miss Genia… I have known and loved her ever since she was 4 years old. She was always so sweet and good to me I could never forget her. Sophia Farrell to Leonard Woolf, in Oldfield (Ed.), 2005:1
Sophia would also write two letters to Vanessa, including one after Virginia’s death had been confirmed: ‘I shall miss her dear letters. Thay was allways so bright and cheerfull [sic].’ (Oldfield, 2005:187). Sophia Farrell would die of cancer at the beginning of May the same year.
Leonard Woolf, courtesy of the Houghton Library at Harvard University
Vita Sackville-West was a large influence in Virginia’s life, as has been documented repeatedly. On the evening of Virginia’s suicide, Leonard wrote to Vita because he didn’t want her to hear it from anyone else, personally or publicly. In the letter, he writes: ‘I know what you will feel & what you felt for her.’ (Letters of Leonard Woolf, 1989:250). In the response, on March 31st, Vita writes:
The loveliest mind and spirit I ever knew, immortal both to the world and us who loved her… For you I feel a really overwhelming sorrow, and for myself a loss which can never diminish… I am more touched than I can say by your having written to me. Vita Sackville-West to Leonard Woolf, Letters of Leonard Woolf, 1989:253
The book edited by Sybil Oldfield is truly a treasure, and I urge any Woolfian who hasn’t read it to find a copy. It demonstrates the feeling of loss after Virginia’s disappearance and subsequent death. T.S. Eliot, whose poem The Wasteland was first published by the Hogarth Press, wrote to Leonard on 4th April: ‘For myself and others it is the end of the world. I merely feel quite numb at the moment.’ (Oldfield, 2005:62).
T.S.Eliot with Virginia Woolf and his wife.
The final quote I’m going to leave you with, is from a letter to Leonard from the couple’s friend, Saxon Sydney-Turner, on 31st March 1941:
Maynard [Keynes] told me. You have thirty years of companionship to look back on, thirty years during which you shielded her and watched over her– for which the world as well as her friends is in your debt. Saxon Sydney-Turner to Leonard Woolf, in Oldfield (Ed.) 2005:91
virginia woolf statue campaign
I am helping to campaign for the first, life-size bronze statue of Virginia Woolf in Richmond, the town where she lived for ten years. Please consider donating: the link is here.
virginia woolf in richmond
I am extremely proud to have written about Virginia and Leonard and their life in Richmond, which is often overlooked. It’s available as a hardback and also ebook from online stores.
If you like what you have read, then please do consider supporting me and my foray into literature and writing by buying me a coffee here. You can also check out my professional website here. Thank you for reading.
Dunn, J. (1990) Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy. Virago. Oldfield, S. (Ed.) (2005) Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf. Edinburgh University Press.
Spotts, F. (Ed.)(1989) Letters of Leonard Woolf. Bloomsbury
Woolf, L. (1969) The Journey Not the Arrival Matters: An Autobiography of the Years 1939 to 1969. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich