Woolf's Dark Cupboard

March 28: Virginia Woolf committed suicide seventy years ago today. In The Journey Not The Arrival Matters, the last volume of his autobiography, Leonard Woolf explains how, after so many successful attempts to contain them, his wife's mental problems suddenly overwhelmed her watchers:

For years I had been accustomed to watch for signs of danger in V's mind; and the warning symptoms had come on slowly and unmistakably; the headache, the sleeplessness, the inability to concentrate. We had learnt that a breakdown could always be avoided, if she immediately retired into a cocoon of quiescence when the symptoms showed themselves. But this time there were no warning symptoms.

The only other sudden-onset breakdown, her lengthiest and most severe illness, had been at the end of March twenty-six years earlier. She had this very much on her mind in 1941: before she would let anyone examine her on March 26, she demanded a promise that she would not be hospitalized, forced to take another "rest cure." Leonard so promised, but to no avail, Virginia's suicide note conveying her torment, overwhelming apprehension, and love:

Dearest, I feel certain 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 till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer….

Woolf's mental illness was of the manic-depressive or bipolar disorder type. There were five lengthy bouts, most of them involving suicide attempts. She was treated with a pastiche of theories and cures—milk diets, teeth extractions, sedatives, and bed rest. Being a writer as well as a patient, Woolf attempted to peer into "the dark cupboard" of her illness by tracking it in her journal. The following is from a 1937 entry:

I wish I could write out my sensations at this moment….  As if I were drumming slightly in the veins….  As if I were exposed on a high ledge in full light….  As if something cold and horrible—a roar of laughter at my expense—were about to happen….

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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