Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Note

When Virginia Woolf died by suicide on March 28, 1941, she left behind three suicide notes, two for her husband Leonard and one for her sister, Vanessa.

The notes provide some insight into Virginia’s possible motives for suicide and shed some light on her mental sate at the time.

Virginia’s Notes to Leonard Woolf:

Virginia left two notes to Leonard, one of which was made public at the time of her death when it was published in the press where it was terribly misquoted.

After the press announced Virginia’s death in April of 1941, The Sunday Times of London later ran an article about Virginia’s suicide note titled “Cannot Go On Any Longer – Virginia Woolf’s Last Message,” which painted her as a defeatist who was too weak-willed to cope with the ongoing war.

In the article, a coroner was interviewed who ruled Virginia’s death a suicide. He then proceeded to misquote a line from her suicide note to Leonard, reading it as: “I have the feeling that I shall go mad again and cannot go on any longer in these terrible times” instead of “I have the feeling that I shall go mad again and cannot go on any longer in those terrible times.”

The mistake was then repeated in other newspapers, such as the Gloucestershire Echo in England and the New York Times in the United States.

Virginia Woolf in 1902
Virginia Woolf in 1902

The actual suicide note that Virginia left for Leonard, in its entirety, reads as follows:

“Tuesday.

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 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.

V.”

After reading the note, the coroner told reporters that Virginia’s “sensitive” nature made it difficult for her to cope with the hardships of Britain’s ongoing war with Germany, suggesting that it was the main reason for her suicide:

“Mrs. Woolf was undoubtedly of an extremely sensitive nature and was much more responsive than most people to the general beastliness of things happening in the world today.”

The following Sunday, the paper published a letter from Kathleen Hicks, wife of the Bishop of Lincoln, who unleashed a scathing attack on Virginia’s supposed motives for suicide:

“Many people, possibly even more ‘sensitive,’ have lost their all and seen appalling happenings, yet they take their part nobly in this fight for God against the devil. Where are our ideals of love and faith? And where shall we all be if we listen to and sympathise with this sort of ‘I cannot carry on.’”

Virginia’s husband, Leonard Woolf, was deeply angry. He felt the press was making Virginia’s death look like a sign of surrender. Fuming, Leonard wrote a letter to the Sunday Times in an attempt to clear up the matter:

“I feel that I should not silently allow it to remain on record that Virginia Woolf committed suicide because she could not face the “terrible times” through which all of us are going. For this is not true…The newspapers give her words as: ‘I feel I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times.’ This is not what she wrote. The words which she wrote are: ‘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.’ She had a mental breakdown about twenty-five years ago; the old symptoms began to return about three weeks before she took her own life, and she thought that this time she would not recover. Like everyone else, she felt the general strain of the war, and the return of her illness was no doubt partly due to that strain. But the words of her letter and everything which she ever said prove that she took her life, not because she “could not carry on,” but she thought she was going mad again and would not this time recover.”

Unfortunately, according to the book Afterwards: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf, Leonard’s letter, which the paper published under the title “I Cannot Carry On,” did little to dispel this myth. In fact, Time Magazine once again reprinted the misquotation in an article in their May 5, 1941 issue.

The second suicide note that Virginia wrote to Leonard was not made public at the time and reads:

“Dearest

I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness. No one could have done more than you have done. Please believe that. But I know I shall never get over this: and I am wasting your life. Nothing anyone says can persuade me. You can work, and you will be much better without me. You see I cant write this even, which shows I am right. All I wish to say is that until this disease came upon me we were perfectly happy. It was all due to you. No one could have been so good as you have been from the very first day till now. Everyone knows that.

V.”

There is no doubt that WWII had an effect on Virginia, but there is no indication in either of these notes that she decided to end her life because of it.

Virginia’s Note to Vanessa Bell:

Virginia’s note to Vanessa is not as well known as her note to Leonard. Perhaps Vanessa didn’t share the note with others as Leonard did, or maybe the contents did not pique the interest of the gossip-hungry press as much as the other notes.

It’s not clear if the letter was printed in any publications immediately after Virginia’s death, but Leonard later published it in his autobiography, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, which came out in 1970.

The note to Vanessa reads:

“Sunday

Dearest, You can’t think how I loved your letter. But I feel I have gone too far this time to come back again. I am certain now that I am going mad again. It is just as it was the first time, I am always hearing voices, and I shan’t get over it now. All I want to say is that Leonard has been so astonishingly good, every day, always; I can’t imagine that anyone could have done more for me than he has. We have been perfectly happy until these last few weeks, when this horror began. Will you assure him of this? I feel he has so much to do that he will go on, better without me, and you will help him. I can hardly think clearly anymore. If I could I would tell you what you and the children have meant to me. I think you know. I have fought against it, but I can’t any longer. Virginia.”

Virginia’s note to Vanessa is interesting because it is more of a plea for Vanessa to help Leonard after Virginia’s death than it is an explanation of why she was going to kill herself.

Perhaps Virginia’s main concern when she was writing it was not so much to explain what she thought was obvious, but instead to try and soften the blow of her death for those around her, particularly Leonard who had nursed her through multiple suicide attempts and mental breakdowns throughout their long marriage.

It appears that Virginia felt Leonard’s life would be better without her, as she wrote in the note, yet she feared Leonard, and others, might blame him for her death.

Although suicide notes are usually a list of reasons why a person has decided to kill themselves, it seems Virginia wrote hers solely to accept the blame for her death and dispel any ideas that it was anyone’s fault but her own.

To this day, Virginia Woolf’s suicide and her note, often overshadow her work as well as her life in general.

Due to her mental illness and suicide, Virginia is often seen as a sad, tragic figure when in fact, she was quite brave, funny and happy and lived a long, fulfilling life despite her ongoing struggles with mental illness.

Sources:
Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Sybil Oldfield. Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Woolf, Leonard. The Journey Not the Arrival Matters: An Autobiography of the Years 1939 to 1969. Hogarth Press, 1969.
Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Sybil Oldfield. Rutgers University Press, 2005.