After the press announced Virginia Woolf’s death in April of 1941, The Sunday Times of London later ran an article about Virginia 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 and 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 U.S.
The actual suicide note that Virginia left for Leonard, in its entirety, reads as follows:
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.
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 their May 5, 1941 issue.
There is no doubt that WWII had an effect on Virginia, but there is no indication that she decided to end her life because of it. 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, full life.
People often overlook the fact that Virginia lived until she was nearly 60 years old, had a long, happy marriage, survived the death of many of her close friends and family members and achieved the career that she always wanted, despite her ongoing struggles with mental illness.
Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Sybil Oldfield. Rutgers University Press, 2005.