Virginia Woolf’s Suicide

On the day Virginia Woolf died by suicide, Friday March 28, 1941, her husband Leonard Woolf had tried to keep Virginia occupied, knowing that she wasn’t well and needed to keep busy.

Yet, though he feared she was headed for another mental breakdown and was possibly on the verge of suicide, he still allowed her out of his sight at times because he knew that keeping her confined caused her stress and he did not want to be overbearing.

According to Leonard’s autobiography, the decision not to put Virginia under the surveillance of nurses or caretakers “was wrong and led to the disaster.”

Virginia’s day started out badly, with the Woolf’s housekeeper, Louie Mayer, later stating that she had spoken to Virginia in her bedroom that morning “because it seemed to be one of her bad days again.”

Louie later explained that as she went about her housework, Leonard asked her to give Virginia a feather duster so she could help her clean, which Louie found odd, according to the book Leonard Woolf: A biography: “I gave her a duster, but it seemed very strange. I had never known her want to do any housework with me before.”

The dusting didn’t last long for Virginia as she soon put the feather duster down and went out to her writing lodge in the backyard. Wanting to keep an eye on her, Leonard visited her in her lodge at 11 a.m. and saw her writing something.

Virginia Woolf photographed by Barbara Strachey in 1938
Virginia Woolf, photographed by Barbara Strachey, in 1938

During their conversation, Virginia said she was going to do some housework and then go for a walk before lunch. Virginia and Leonard then returned to the house together and Leonard told her to lie down and rest for a half hour while he went up to his study to work.

After Leonard went upstairs, Louie stated that she saw Virginia go back out to her writing lodge, then return to the house, put on her fur coat and her Wellington boots, pick up her walking stick and walk outside towards the front gate.

Virginia’s biographer, Hermoine Lee, suspects it was either during the first trip to the house with Leonard or the second trip to put on her coat that Virginia left her suicide note to Leonard and her suicide note to Vanessa, her sister, on the table in the upstairs sitting-room. She also left a second note to Leonard in her writing lodge, though it is not clear when she placed it there.

After Virginia exited the front gate, she passed the church on her way down the river Ouse. Along the way, a villager, Bert Skinner, saw Virginia walking but didn’t think anything strange about her behavior.

At about twenty minutes to noon, a farm worker cleaning ditches by an osier bed, John Hubbard, also saw her walking towards the river. He often saw Virginia walking along the river but usually in the afternoon. After watching her for a few minutes, he went home for lunch. It was the last time anyone saw Virginia alive.

At 1 p.m. Louie rang the bell for lunch. Leonard later wrote in his biography “I was in the garden and thought she was in the house.” When Leonard went upstairs to the sitting-room to listen to the news, he found the two suicide notes addressed to him and Vanessa.

After reading the one addressed to him, Leonard ran down the stairs shouting “Louie! I think something has happened to Mrs. Woolf! I think she may have tried to kill herself!”

Leonard searched the house and the garden while Louie ran to fetch a friend, Percy Bartholomew, who then located the village policeman Wilfred Collins. They immediately ran to the river, where Virginia was known to take long walks.

There, Leonard found Virginia’s footprints and walking stick on the river bank but there was no sign of her. Some of the men dove into the water while others brought tackle and ropes to dredge the river:

According to Lee, Leonard searched the surrounding area for any sign of her:

“Leonard thought Virginia might have gone up to the ruin they called “Mad Misery,” and he and Louie went to look. They searched for her ‘along the water meadows, and the river bank, and the brooks, until it was night-time and we had to give up.’ Vanessa came, when he got back home. Leonard told her the catastrophic news. Every single day, including this one, Leonard entered into his diary the cumulative mileage of his car, plus the mileage that day, which on March 28 was thirteen, taking Vanessa back to Charleston. The rest of the space is obscured by a brownish-yellow stain which has been rubbed or wiped. It could be coffee or tea or tears. This smudge is unique in all his years of neat diary-keeping.”

Later that evening, Leonard found the second suicide note Virginia had left for him in her writing lodge. He examined it closely and believed it was what he had seen Virginia writing that morning when he visited her in her lodge.

The notes hinted that Virginia was going to kill herself but didn’t say how or where. Little did she realize that the river she planned to drown herself in would sweep away her body and prevent her friends and family from discovering what happened to her for three whole weeks.

A couple of news articles published during that time frame document the weeks her loved ones, and the world, spent waiting to find out what happened.

In one article, published in the New York Times on April 3, Leonard Woolf is quoted as saying:

“Mrs. Woolf is presumed to be dead. She went for a walk last Friday, leaving a letter behind, and it is thought she has been drowned. Her body, however, has not been recovered.”

The article confirmed Virginia was missing but states the police were not investigating her disappearance:

“The circumstances surrounding the novelist’s disappearance were not revealed. The authorities at Lewes said they had no report of Mrs. Woolf’s supposed death. It was reported her hat and cane had been found on the bank of the Ouse River. Mrs. Woolf had been ill for some time.”

Although there was little doubt that Virginia had killed herself, there was no body, no evidence, no funeral and no closure for her friends, family or her fans.

New York Times headline "Virginia Woolf Missing In England" published on April 3, 1941
New York Times headline “Virginia Woolf Missing In England” published on April 3, 1941

In a letter written by Virginia’s brother-in-law Clive Bell, dated April 3, Bell reveals to his friend, Frances Partridge, that the family had hoped to find her alive but that hope had waned as the days went on:

“For some days, of course, we hoped against hope that she had wandered crazily away and might be discovered in a barn or a village shop. But by now all hope is abandoned; only, as the body has not been found, she cannot be considered dead legally.”

Yet, according to a biography on Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicholson, some of her friends, such as Nicholson’s mother Vita Sackville-West, thought it best if her body was never found and hoped it was instead carried out to sea so that her loved ones would not have to face it.

Three weeks later, some children made the gruesome discovery when Virginia’s body washed up near the bridge at Southease. On April 19, the Associated Press announced to the public “Mrs. Woolf’s Body Found,” and confirmed she had drowned herself. The article hinted that the ongoing World War II may have played a part in her suicide:

“Dr. E. F. Hoare, Coroner at New Haven, Sussex, gave a verdict of suicide today in the drowning of Virginia Woolf, novelist who had been bombed from her home twice. Her body was recovered last night from the River Ouse near her week-end house at Lewes…. Her husband testified that Mrs. Woolf had been depressed for a considerable length of time. When their Bloomsbury home was wrecked by a bomb some time ago, Mr. and Mrs. Woolf moved to another near by. It, too, was made uninhabitable by a bomb, and the Woolfs then moved to their weekend home in Sussex.”

The coroner read a portion of her suicide note to the reporters, but misquoted it, stating “I feel we can’t go through another of these terrible times” instead of “those terrible times,” thus implying that Virginia had killed herself because of the war. The reporters printed the misquote in the article.

The suicide note actually made no mention of the war but Virginia did state she was not well and felt she couldn’t go through another breakdown.

Virginia was later cremated and her remains were buried under one of the two intertwined Elm trees in her backyard, which she had nicknamed “Virginia and Leonard.” Leonard marked the spot with a stone tablet engraved with the last lines from her novel The Waves:

“Against you I fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death! The waves broke on the shore.”

Sources:
Woolf, Leonard. An Autobiography. Vol. II, Oxford University Press, 1980
Glendinning, Victoria. Leonard Woolf: A Biography. Free Press, 2006
Lee, Hermoine. Virginia Woolf. Vintage Books, 1999
Nicolson, Nigel. Virginia Woolf. Penguin Group, 2000.
Flood, Alison. “New Bloomsbury Archive Casts Revealing Light on Virginia Woolf’s Death.” The Guardian, 19 Mar. 2010, www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/19/bloomsbury-archive-virginia-woolf-death
“Virginia Woolf Believed Dead.” New York Times, 3 April. 1941, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0125.html
“Mrs. Woolf’s Body Found.” New York Times, 20 April. 1941, /archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/17/specials/woolf-found.html