Virginia Woolf’s Suicide

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.”

Sources:
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, www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0125.html

The Death of Virginia Woolf

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.

34 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.

    Reply
    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.

      Reply
      1. Madison Mitchell

        rebekah how are you related to virginia woolf? i am playing her in a speed dating activity in my US history class for 1920″s.

        Reply
        1. Amanda

          There is a possibility of Rebekah being a descendent of one of Leonard Woolf’s nine siblings. Neither Leonard nor his wife, Virginia, had any issue.

          Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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,
    Chitrangada

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    1. Bronte

      What an ignorant and disgraceful thing to put here. You know little of life to so brazenly write such hogwash. Such opinions of suicide are usually born of the ignorance of religion and smallness of mind. I would wager 2p that you have never read one word of her books or essays. I feel shocked to see such nonsense here and hope time would see you to some maturity and compassion, very far away from myself.

      Reply
      1. Radclyffe Hilton-Wilde.

        I think I understand what Wildflower was trying to say.It was not a judgment, but an observation perhaps? And I know Virginia would smile that wry smile of hers in agreement. Often comments can be read too quickly, and depth is lost. On a personal note I walk beside that river everyday….for the beauty, my sanity…and Virginia’s company.

        Reply
        1. INAM ULLAH

          She was a great writer and a redical feminist. It is the quality of sensitive people like Virginia Woolf that they cannot bear the appalling condition where humans are dying like vermins. In two world wars she saw bloodshed and killings and she was unable to bear this for long, so, she wanted to fade far away into the forest dim like Nightingale of Keats and She committed suicide.

          Reply
  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 ?

    Reply
    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.

      Reply
    1. Colleen

      Liz: -I have to wonder why you refer to it as a “romantic tradegy”. People are facinated with Virginia Woolf’s story because it is a tradegy period, romantic or not. People are facinated with her sucess as a writer and wonder why would such a successful woman want to kill herself. This happens all the time in today’s world too, and there is nothing romantic about anyone killing themself.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
  7. Karl Dickson

    I am reading a this stuff about woolf and you know I have also tried commiting death also.
    I guess it is only when we feel really depressed and the other day I had a fight with a flatmate and he wanted to kill me but I stood my ground I am a very good healthy teenager at the age of 17yrs.

    Reply
    1. Lyn B

      Sorry to hear this Karl. I remember 17 and now I am almost 50 – the happiest years are to come! I had some rough challenges to go through during my younger years, but I must tell you that God has restored all the sadness and given me complete joy and peace! I know you must not to want to hear this – but death is so final, death without God for eternity is not good! Please read, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” from the Bible. He is the life! So much life with him! He is the way! The way for everything, guidance, direction, love. I hope you take this the way it;s meant to be. I have two girls and it’s hard living being in school and the pressure. God says He will never leave you, Anyways, just had to tell you to give you hope. I never write on any blogs, but I’ve learned so much about Him, the one who loves me and will give me joy through this life.

      Reply
    2. Annette

      Dear Karl, please don’t ever kill yourself. I am glad to tell you that I really want you to live! I want you to continue the ups and downs – always remembering that the ups to come again after a while. Please also try to find a healthier living situation so that no one is trying to hurt you.

      Thank you with love!

      Reply
  8. Virginia

    Too bad mental illness was such a tabboo subject during her era. No one understood it, let alone treated it. Women were not important enough to try to save them even having a great talent like Virginia Woolf had. She should have never been left alone with her suicidal thoughts. But now she’s free. Her writings are brilliant and her talent lives on. May she rest in peace.

    Reply
  9. Courtney A Griffin

    Tonight I was reading about Virginia and her life. She has always fascinated me. Finding this blog made me pretty excited. Nerdy…..I know. I am happy that it exists. She lives on in her truly wonderful works.

    Reply
  10. Michelle Matheus

    I understand that society had little confidence in women’s psychological strength, the ability to deal with the emotional tragedies, rigors of life; these were the assumptions that ensured men’s dominant position in the home, political, legal establishment of society.
    It is not possible today for us to know if having children was an unwise decision for V. Woolf.
    She may have, instead, found the steadiness and strength of mind through the demands of motherhood; the loving and expanding world of a family that she sensed she lacked. Being a part of the normal course of life, respected as a part of it; this involvement and security to thrive in addition to her own artistic genius may have brought her the abundance of a long and beautiful life that she deserved.

    Reply
    1. Frederic Sibley

      Michelle: I am a professional astrologer, in addition to being a published poet and serious photographer. I only mention these things to give myself some credibility in replying to your post. Virginia had 50% of her planets in what is called the 12th house of her horoscope. People with that sort of concentration are extremely vulnerable to what we generally now refer to as “the unconcscious..” This means there is a constant openness to thoughts and feelings that are not necessarily personal to the individual in question, such that there is great difficulty differentiating what is personal from what is not. In addition, there would be a personal disposition toward depression, as Saturn is conjunct Virginia’s natal Moon. Further, Neptune and Pluto are also posited in the 12th, and neither of those lead to a sense of comfort about what might be lurking beneath the surface, as it were. Virginia’s Moon is in Aries, which is not naturally maternal. Rather, the impetus is to be active, usually in a physical way. Of course, she had a lot of mental energy, symbolized by her Sun in Aquarius, as well as her Gemini Ascendant and Mars, the latter of which was what we call “out of bounds,” indicating a heightened strength to it. Finally, in the 5th house, which is an indicator of her attitude toward children and child-rearing, she has the planet Uranus. The latter’s presence there suggests a kind of detachment toward the activities mentioned, or at the very least, an unusual attitude toward progeny and the mothering function in general. My personal view is that motherhood would have pushed Virginia into mental difficulties even more quickly than when she found herself in their company as she did.

      Reply
    2. PENNY GUNTER

      …. Or she could have ended up like the woman in Texas, that drowned all her children in the bath tub and then called the police. Even then, some Doctors could look and see the dangers in a sely mentally disturbed woman, baring children. Being pregnant introduces a woman’s body to massive amounts of hormones, for at least 9 months. It sends perfectly happy women on a crying jag, for hours, because of a sentimental commercial. I myself, cried myself to sleep one night, in the middle of post partum depression because my baby needed to burp and he wouldn’t or couldn’t eat anymore and he was crying!
      You don’t pour gasoline on a fire, while trying to put out the blaze. That’s why doctors recommend, that, some women with medical or mental problems not to get pregnant!

      Reply
  11. Filiz

    Dear Virginia Woolf,
    If you can read this, I constantly hear your voice, especially from the amazing works “A Room of One’s Own” and To the Lighthouse. Thank you for all of the wise, deep words you have written. Although they are on my mind, I revisit them like old friends. You will forever be immortal.
    Much Love,
    Filiz Yilmaz Yakup

    Reply
  12. Amani Banks

    You know, I’ve never read any of Virginia Woolf’s work or anything but I read the note she left for her husband and I came hear to found out why, I mean besides the obvious reason “depression”. I’m still not sure why , but then again I’ve never known her and frankly this could all be going over my head. But anyways, lately I’ve been wondering if people think the way I do too sometimes, and I haven’t decided if I want them too or not. It’s like if everyone thinks like you than you just think like everyone else, you’re the same, but if no one thinks like you, you’re alone. I don’t want to be alone, but I can’t stand the thought of us all being alike secretly. I just wish people were more out in the open with what they thought, it would be so much easier that way. I mean I try too and I get why people don’t do it, because sometimes your head is the only place you can hide and really be you. I feel like sometimes the only person to talk to is yourself. I don’t even know what I’m trying to say anymore. Point is thanks to whoever made this blog, because I just read threw these comments and I don’t feel as lost anymore. So yeah thanks you people writing in the comments about your ideas and stuff you’re cool and good writers. SERIOUSLY I’m pretty sure I haven’t used half of these words right. Wow this was long, sorry.

    Reply
    1. Social Worker thoughts...

      Now that was stream of consciousness!! LOL. This blog has made me more interested to read Virginia Woolf. I looked it up after watching “The Hours”, such great acting in the movie and a poignant story of the oppression of women. The most glaring thing I saw was the repressed homosexual undertones that were so strong with all the female characters. I am uncertain how accurate the portrayal was about that, but no doubt, looking at the history of sexual orientation and liberation there have been many secrets causing dark days back then.

      Reply
  13. Karina

    The more I learn about this marvellous woman. The more she captivates me. I am currently reading Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light.
    I would have loved to have known Virginia Virgina & Leonard. For anyone who can create such work whilst wrestling the darkness of mental illness is truly remarkable.
    Thankyou for your words Virginia. If only you knew how you would be valued 100 years later.
    It is an act of courage to end ones own mortality. However, you speak to us through your words. You live on in those pages.

    Reply
  14. Maria

    It’s really hard to understand mental illness and it’s difficult to sympathize with the person suffering from it. It’s much easier to sympathize with the physical sickness when we see the “physical”.
    I could never judge nor condemn anyone committing suicide because who am I to judge the unseen turmoil that’s going on in one’s mind? Virginia, you’re not the only one… there’s a lot of you in this world. I have encountered some in my lifetime.
    But I believe that God who is the author of life with His wisdom that surpasses all man’s understanding is the only one who can give judgment.
    To those who are suffering from depression and hopelessness, please be at peace with your self, take a deep breath, see the beauty of the world, let go..and let GOD. Call on His name. Be patient. Remember, nothing is permanent. All things pass. GOD alone suffices!

    Reply
    1. Momcat

      Maria – I understand that you are trying to leave a positive comment. But I would like to counter you with these (MY) truths. My 20 year old son died two years ago and that’s PERMANENT. My grief will NEVER pass. I called on god EVERY day of his life, but God decided to ignore my prayers. Lucky are the chosen ones who get their prayers answered. I’m so sick of hearing people say “God is good all the time!” “God is always faithful!” ” Give it to God!” Unless someone has walked in the depths of despair, trite words are useless and insulting. Unless you have felt true anguish – the death of your child – you cannot speak with wisdom about other people’s inner agony and hopelessness.

      Reply
  15. dani

    Oh, the comments here are priceless. Virginia Woolf would alternately laugh and cry reading them. All you beautiful emotional people who love Woolf and are drawn to her…keep reading, keep seeking, keep finding the beauty in this world, and pursuing it.

    ‘I have sought happiness through many ages and not found it; fame and missed it; love and not known it; life–and behold, death is better. I have known many men and many women…none have I understood. It is better that I should lie at peace here with only the sky above me.”
    -V.W.

    Reply

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