Today in History: Virginia Woolf Drowns Herself


On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the Ouse River near her home in Sussex. Her body was found on April 18th. Before she died, she left a note to her husband Leonard, saying, “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.” Today Letters of Note posted a copy of Woolf’s letter to Leonard.

On April 3rd, Clive Bell wrote to Frances Partridge: “I’m not sure whether the Times will by now have announced that Virginia is missing. I’m afraid there is not the slightest doubt that she drowned herself about noon last Friday. She had left letters for Leonard and Vanessa [Woolf and Bell]. Her stick and footprints were found by the edge of the river. 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.”

The Bloomsbury Archive at Cambridge University contains Woolf’s suicide note as well as thousands of other letters from and photographs of her friends and colleagues in the Bloomsbury group, one of England’s most notable gatherings of writers, artists, and intellectuals, which included the authors E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, and peripherally, Aldous Huxley.

Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, was published shortly after her death, though she was still revising it when she decided to leave the waking world. In the novel, the denizens of a small town in England celebrate their history during an annual pageant which takes place on a sunny day in June 1939, just a few months before the Second World War began in full. The novel ends with the following lines:

“Isa let her sewing drop. The great hooded chairs had become enormous. And Giles too. And Isa too against the window. The window was all sky without color. The house had lost its shelter. It was night before roads were made or houses. It was the night that dwellers in caves had watched from some high place among rocks.

Then the curtain rose. They spoke.”

Let Woolf’s voice go on by reading some of her novels this week. When was the last time you read A Room of One’s Own? Maybe it’s time to read it again, with new eyes.

Photo credit: © The Estate of Gisèle Freund, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London