On this day in history : 28th March 1941 – English novelist Virginia Woolf, whilst suffering from depression, commits suicide by drowning herself in a river near to her Sussex home….

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Virginia Stephen (Woolf) 1902 – Photo: George Charles Beresford

Born Adeline Virginia Stephen on the 25th of January 1882 Virginia suffered with her mental health throughout her life…. Her first breakdown occurred in 1895, after the death of her mother….

Virginia met her future husband, Leonard Woolf, in November 1904 – they eventually married on the 10th of August 1912…. However, she continued to suffer periods of mood swings, manic excitement and psychotic episodes; she attempted suicide on more than one occasion. Psychiatrists today consider her illness to have been bipolar disorder….

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Virginia and Leonard Woolf – 1912

Her diary indicates she had become obsessed with death after the beginning of World War II…. After the Woolfs’ London home was bombed during the Blitz they moved to another house nearby – only for that to be made un-inhabitable in the same way…. It was at this point they moved to their country home near to Lewes, Sussex….

After completing the manuscript for what was to be her final novel ‘Between the Acts’, which was published posthumously, Virginia fell into a deep depression…. It was on a Friday that she decided to take a walk, along the banks of the River Ouse, which lay close to her home….it was a walk she was never to return from…. She left behind two notes; one for her sister, Vanessa Bell – who lived nearby – and the other for her husband…. It read….

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Public domain

“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”….

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Virginia and Vanessa 1894 – Public domain

Without a doubt the letter stated her intention, it was a suicide note – but gave no indication as to where or how she meant to carry it out….she simply did not come home. Her hat and walking cane were discovered on the river bank but this was the only evidence the family had as to what may have happened to her…. Newspaper reports said that she was missing – but stated that at this stage the police were not investigating her disappearance…. The hope was that she would turn up alive – having been ill for some time perhaps she had just needed some time alone – but as time went by this hope diminished….

Eventually, three weeks later on the 18th of April the gruesome discovery was made by some children…. Her body washed up near to the bridge in the village of Southease….the Press announced the story the following day….

Virginia Woolf had drowned herself by filling the pockets of her overcoat with stones and walking into the River Ouse…. She is considered to be one of the most important modernist writers of the 20th Century…. Leonard buried her cremated ashes beneath an elm tree in the garden of Monk’s House, their home in Rodmell, Sussex – which is now owned by the National Trust….

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Monk’s House – image credit: Elisa.rolle CC BY-SA 4.0

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