After the press reported Virginia Woolf’s disappearance in early April of 1941 and her death three weeks later, Virginia’s husband, Leonard Woolf, received an outpouring of condolence letters from not only friends and family but also the general public.
People from all over the world, including a German prisoner of war, Jewish refugees, soldiers, conscientious objectors, fans in America, Canada and Australia as well as others who were suffering from mental illness themselves or had lost loved ones to suicide, sent Leonard condolence letters offering their support and sympathy.
Leonard saved each letter, which were published in a book titled “Afterwards: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf” in 2005.
One of the letters, from a soldier at Wharncliffe War Hospital in Sheffield, offered Leonard his sympathy and insight into mental illness and suicide:
“21 May, 1941, Dear Sir, I do not know you, but please accept my deepest sympathy, in your recent bereavement. Like your wife, I suffer the same, it is hard to try and smile, or even break into conversation, with anyone, one only wants to be left alone…I realise what your poor wife must have been through myself, I feel that it is the best thing, then one does not get in the way.”
An anonymous and unsigned letter dated April 21, just two days after her death was announced, tells Leonard that Virginia’s guardian angel led her away but her spirit remains with him.
Yet another anonymous letter from a fan who learned to speak English from her books states:
“Dear Sir, I am unknown to you and would like to remain so. I have to use a language which I have not yet mastered…And, whatever as a foreigner I learned of English I thank to her. The beauty and subtleness of her language simply struck me…Allow me to express my deep feelings of sympathy”
Novelist Maud Allen, who had never met Virginia but admired her work, also sent her condolences after hearing Virginia was missing and presumed dead:
“4 April, 1941, Dear Mr. Woolf, Since yesterday morning I have had such a feeling of mourning. We shall not have any more of her exquisite writing, we have had it all now…The greatest of our artists – that is what she was…And that makes me want to write and send you my sympathy and gratitude for your part in her and her work. How much she did to kindle “the light in the heart” – because it was in hers.”
The letters demonstrate the profound effect Virginia had on others. Virginia’s work inspired people and made them feel such a connection to her that, when she died, they felt compelled to confess their love for her and comfort Leonard in his time of need, despite the fact that they had never met either of them.
“Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf”; Edited by Sybil Oldfield; 2005