Virginia Woolf’s Suicide

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When Virginia Woolf left her house on the last day of her life on March 28 in 1941, she left behind a note to Vanessa Bell, her sister, and a note to Leonard Woolf, her husband.

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.

After the discovery of her hat and cane on the bank of the nearby river Ouse, her family assumed she had drowned herself but had no evidence to confirm it.

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.

New York Times Headline on April 3 in 1941: Missing in England; Virginia Woolf Believed Dead

New York Times Headline on April 3 in 1941: Missing in England; Virginia Woolf Believed Dead

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. 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 war with Germany 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. The reporters printed the misquote in the article. The note did not mention 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.”

Virginia’s suicide note to Leonard read:

“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 ’til 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.”

“Virginia Woolf”; Nigel Nicolson; 2000
The Guardian; New Bloomsbury Archive Casts Revealing Light on Virginia Woolf’s Death; Alison Flood; March 2010:
New York Times; Virginia Woolf Believed Dead; April 3, 1941:

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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.

11 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf’s Suicide

  1. agnes leota

    i felt so sorry about virginia woolf, why does she have to die???…but i just want to say virginia woolf your the best, i am so interested of your books. thanks.

    1. Rebekah Woolf

      I want to say thank you for saying that Leota, it means a lot. I am glad that she could bring you some joy. It means a lot to my family.

  2. John

    I have wondered about this remarkable lady for many years, having lived in the area. I have only ever read her last note, here, yet that simple exposition exposes completely the sheer beauty and loveliness of her soul. Her husband was indeed truly blessed to have been so close. The description of her symptoms of her depression resonates and provides, even now, great healing power and comfort during the confusing times when we too go through what she endured.
    So inspirational. I shall pay my respects at Southease, and understand fully now what led to her last act.

    May she rest in great peace and happiness, surrounded by all the love of all of those who she has touched and inspired, through her writings.

  3. Priyadarshini Mukherjee

    Dear Virginia,

    If you can read this, I understand the madness that you speak of. I understand how hard you tried to preserve your love by leaving your life behind.
    I understand your decision.
    I love you, nonetheless.

    All my love,

  4. Wildflower

    Virginia Woolf was a graceful lady.
    She lived a graceful life.
    She wrote gracefully.
    Yet, when pressure came, she couldn’t retain her grace.
    She died an ungraceful death.

  5. Lilly

    woolf will forever be remembered. I love her writings, and I am studying her novel “To the Lighthouse”. Our teacher keeps on saying that she committed suicide after she heard a doctor talking to her husband telling him to not have kids with her because she is sick and she would only bring him sick kids. She did want to have kids but she felt like she is ruining the life of her husband so she committed suicide. But then she died at age 59 she cant have kids at that age. Was this the reason for her first attempt of suicide ?

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      She attempted suicide multiple times in her life. The first time was after her mother died when she was about 13. She also attempted suicide again shortly after getting married when she was about 30. Doctors did advise her not to have children because they felt she wasn’t stable enough to handle the ups and downs of parenting and this did, at times, contribute to her mental health issues but I don’t recall it being the main reason she tried to kill herself. She did, though, feel like she was a burden on her new husband and that was a contributing factor. Her final attempt to kill herself, in 1941, came during another bout of depression that was made worse by the ongoing war.

  6. Yvonne Sandoval

    Beautiful Mrs. Woolf. I hope your heart is at rest and your restless mind at peace. I often wonder about the absence of life and what it will be. I see an emptiness and a completeness, an entirety and nothing at all. It isn’t an after-life, but a removal, an absence of my own personality and physical presence from a life that continues on with my contributions and my deductions causing any further changes forever. Everything is still here, but ourselves. When we’re gone, we truly are gone and away from it all.

    I love you Virgina and I understand why you’d want to leave as I do why you’d want to stay. It’s a difficult thing, saying goodbye to the ones who we love dearly. But sometime staying around can be an impossible burden to bear.

    I hope I find that peace one day in this lifetime.


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