Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Note to Vanessa Bell

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

The notes to Leonard were widely published in the press and even misquoted. Yet, Vanessa’s note is not as well known. 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 read:

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.

Virginia Woolf at Monk's house in 1935

Virginia Woolf at Monk’s house in 1935

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.

The Journey Not the Arrival Matters: An Autobiography of the Years 1939 to 1969; Leonard Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Note to Vanessa Bell

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Rebecca graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in Journalism in 2001.

7 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Note to Vanessa Bell

  1. tamaya

    I think it took great concentration for Virginia to write the letter. Short of course! She was trying to hold on to herself while she wrote her final words. We don’t need to know any details of why, its known. good for her to do what she did, in terms of consoling Leonard and Vanessa.

  2. O.K. Brand

    I have just finished reading the five-volume The Diary of Virginia Woolf and I don’t believe the real reason she killed herself has ever been revealed. Even after reading her complete Diary (as edited and prepared as it was for publication), I suspect the two mentioned suicide notes have been used as a cover to conceal more of what was really going on in Virginia’s life at that time. Volume five of her Diary ends in such a way as if much of its content was edited out so that the public would never know the details of her final months, weeks and days. She wasn’t stupid (as clearly evidenced by her writings in the Diary) and would have therefore admitted herself (or allowed herself to be admitted) to a hospital, such as the one in Brighton, after she was seen by a (general medicine) physician Octavia Wilberforce on March 27, 1941, the day before her suicide. But something very upsetting was revealed to her that ended forever any hope of her ever wanting to continue living, and, in my opinion, it wasn’t another recurring episode of “madness” that she previously experienced. This is what we, as the public, are supposed to believe so that the real truth is never known. I have read where Leonard was seeing another woman, perhaps platonically, but he may have kept this fact from Virginia. This woman spent time with Leonard socially during the week and devoted her weekends to be with her husband. This does not suggest that there was anything lurid going on, but, naturally, Leonard being a gregarious person, enjoyed his friendships. So I speculate–SPECULATE—that what happened after March 24, 1941, the date of Virginia’s last diary entry, is that Virginia learned of Leonard’s friendship with this woman, and it devastated her and cast her into a severe despair. That, in addition to other issues in her life at the time, resulted in her drowning herself in a river, putting rocks in the pockets of her overcoat so that she would definitely sink. This is the behavior of someone who is in severe despair, so severe that she refuses hospitalization (I would guess), refuses to heed the advice of her sister Vanessa and her husband Leonard; that this despair is so severe that it overrides everything in her life at the time—family, friends, successful literary career, fame, a devoted husband Leonard by her side, truly a devoted spouse to her (no doubt about it). Leonard having Virginia see Dr. Octavia Wilberforce on March 27 was done emergently, Leonard’s vain attempt to help Virginia recover herself. The fact that she killed herself the next day, March 28, 1941, indicates how serious she was about ending her life, for she apparently perhaps no longer believed she could live with Leonard anymore. This is what I think happened. I don’t fault Leonard. I’ve read his autobiography and it’s obvious that he needed to have a “normal” life outside of his marital life with Virginia. She suffered from “manic depression,” or what is known today as “bipolar disorder,” but there probably were other elements of mental illness in her makeup, as well.

  3. Oleander

    According to a course I took on social psychology in college, due to the differences in how one reasons and values things when in such an extreme, suicidal state, it’s actually not uncommon to leave no suicide note or to leave one as superficial as: “remember to walk the dog.” This is because the ability to value things becomes skewed, resulting in what a healthy mind would see as small, being taken to be insurmountably huge and vice-versa. Having known severely depressed people who had attempted suicide, personally, I can attest to this from experience.

    That said, I think Virginia made her reasoning quite clear here: “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.” — Imagine that you’re losing your grip on reality and you can’t even trust your own perception anymore. Things that you thought were good for you seem bad, things that you thought were bad seem good, and your ability to reason about the world has failed such that you cannot make sense of any of it — and being perfectly aware of that is your last rational thought . Also imagine that when others try to “help” you, they feed you medication that makes you feel ill and be ridden with side-effects, all the while invalidating any complaints you have because you’re “crazy” and, of course, you aren’t a valid witness even to your own body’s functions anymore. Imagine that and then imagine the thought that you’d live the rest of your life that way, in a prison of your own mind and body, with no hope of getting out. That is what Virginia was facing, and keep in mind that the description I gave you was what individuals go through in the current era, not during her lifetime — her experience would’ve been worse.

    So, while others may not have understood or agreed with her decision to commit suicide, she did seem to have her own reason for it. Actually understanding the hardship that individuals like Virginia go through makes it very hard to argue against this attempt to find relief with anything more than the sincere plea that you love them and can’t stand the thought of them gone.

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      I wonder the same thing. I don’t know where the originals are but I’m guessing they are in Leonard’s papers, which his girlfriend Trekkie donated to a local University after he died.

  4. Carla White

    I’m a person who has had the experience of extremely depressed people very close to me (immediate family) talk sometimes incessantly about suicide and attempt it. I have all the sympathy in the world CG ot them, and they all sought help and had as access to whatever help they needed. It has negatively impacted my own life in so many ways it’s almost like they killed a little of me every time they threatened and attempted suicide. I can’t know what life is like in their shoes. Any time I’ve expressed these thoughts on social media, I am scorned, shamed, ridiculed, and castigated for my “selfishness”. So me and people like me have no help…no empathy or sympathy or outlet. People who commit suicide, on the other hand, are universally pitied and become absolutely untouchable as far as any criticism of their action. I think this is wrong, as I believe it reinforces in these people a kind of perverted “reward” to their reputation after death.

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      I am sorry that happened to you, Carla. That is no way to treat anyone and you shouldn’t be criticized for expressing your feelings. It is really common for people with depressed and suicidal loved ones to feel depressed and sad themselves due to the difficult situation they are in. It is a tough job being a caregiver, either emotionally or physically. I would suggest you seek therapy to help you work through these feelings you are experiencing so you can better help your loved ones without feeling so emotionally drained in the process.

      Also, to address your second point, it isn’t that people who die by suicide are “untouchable” to criticism, it is that they are victims of a disease and they shouldn’t be criticized for suffering from an illness. Just like you wouldn’t criticize a cancer patient for having cancer, you shouldn’t criticize a depressed or suicidal person for being depressed or acting on that depression. They are ill and need help, not criticism. While it is true that society does tend to romanticize mental illness and suicide, I don’t agree that they are being “rewarded” for their actions. I think a lot of it is that people don’t want to speak ill of the dead and the fact that they died by suicide compounds this.

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