T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, E.M. Foster, Elizabeth Bowen, H.G. Wells, and others grapple with the ineffable.
On March 28, 1941, shortly after the gruesome onset of WWII, Virginia Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with rocks, treaded into the River Ouse behind the house in East Sussex where she lived with her husband Leonard, and drowned herself. She had succumbed to a relapse of the all-consuming depression she had narrowly escaped in her youth. Once news of her death broke, an outpour of condolence letters captured the enormous collective grief, mourning at once the deeply personal emptiness left behind by a remarkable woman and a loyal friend, and the severe cultural loss of a brilliant mind and a transcendent artist. The most moving of these letters are collected in Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (public library), edited by University of Sussex researcher Sybil Oldfield — a rousing monument to Woolf’s legacy as an author, humanist, and tireless exponent of the inner light of being.
Oldfield poignantly observes:
Virginia Woolf’s fundamental gift to women was to give us the courage and happiness to think our own thoughts.
One of the letters contained P. H. Wallis’s stirring obituary for Woolf:
In her person, the character of her intellect and irradiating property of her imagination, there was revealed the spiritual antithesis of all that is connoted in the phrase ‘Hitlerism.’ More than any other writer of her generation she grew to be regarded as the apostle of culture, of a learning humanized by the breath of life [and] of a quality of living the more radiant because of its quickening by things of the spirit.
Three days after the suicide, Virginia’s one-time lover and lifelong friend Vita Sackville-West — one of the seven people to whom Leonard had broken the news before the Times and BBC announcements — captures the ineffable grief of the loss in a letter to Leonard:
The loveliest mind and spirit I ever knew, immortal both to the world and us who loved her. … This is not a hard letter to write as you will know something of what I feel and words are unnecessary. For you I feel a really overwhelming sorrow, and for myself a loss which can never diminish.
A week later, on April 7, Vita replied to a distraught letter by Dame Ethel Smyth, one of the other seven whom Leonard had alerted to the tragedy:
Darling Ethel I wish I could say something comforting. All I can feel is that it is better for her to be dead than mad, and I do thank God that she has not been found. The river is tidal so she has probably been carried out to sea. She loved the sea.
But rather than being swept out to the ocean, Woolf’s body, like her spirit had throughout her life, defied the mainstream and was found three weeks later entangled in branches under the river bank. On April 20, upon hearing the news, Vita sent the following stirring letter to artist Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister:
My dear Vanessa,
I am so horrified by the news that Virginia has been found that I scarcely know whether to write to you or not. I had gathered from Leonard some time ago that the search had been given up, and was so thankful, partly because it felt that there was something fitting in the idea of her being carried out to the sea, (a small comfort in the midst of all this tragedy,) and partly because it would spare you and Leonard so much. I really do not know what to say, except that I am haunted by the imagining of what you may both have had to go through. I won’t write to Leonard, such blundering words as I write to you; but if you think you can do so, perhaps you will tell him sometime that I wrote.
A number of the condolence letters came from some of the era’s literary greats. T. S. Eliot wrote Leonard on April 4, 1941:
I only learned the news yesterday afternoon when I was in London, having had no previous intimation. For myself and others it is the end of a world. I merely feel quite numb at the moment, and can’t think about this or anything else, but I want you to know that you are as constantly in my mind as in anyone’s.
On April 3, E. M. Forster wrote:
I have just seen The Times, feel a bit trembly and unable to think of anyone but myself. I will write again to you. As I daresay you know she had invited me to come and I had suggested doing so later in this month. I am just going to Cambridge; dear Leonard, it will seem empty and strange. I can’t write any more now, only send my deepest love and sadness. Leslie Humphrey came over that very day and we talked a great deal about Virginia, he will be desolated like so many of all generations.
On April 4, poet Edith Sitwell reached out to Leonard and shared in the mourning:
No words can express our feelings at this dreadful heartrending thing. We are absolutely overcome. … It cannot help you in the least to know how many people must be feeling a desperate sense of loss. I know that we do, here, — but that does not help you in the least. Nothing can.
Perhaps the day will come when we shall think, ‘At least she was spared seeing people sink lower and lower, and all the new desecrations and shames;’ but at the moment that doesn’t help at all.
When I think of that noble and high spirit and mind!
There isn’t anything one can say, and one must not intrude on your sorrow. But all my life I shall remember the feeling of light, and of happiness, that she gave one. As a person, as well as in her art. Everything seemed worth while, important, and beautiful.
On April 10, H. G. Wells wrote Leonard:
I’ve been wanting to write to you these days about this distressful break in your life and finding it difficult to say what I had to say. you see I know you and your work very well. I have an immense respect for it. … I am concerned before anything else that you should carry on. Virginia I met only twice. Then she was invariably charming and delightful. But I knew she had these moods and phases that at once deepen and enslave affection. She must leave you extraordinarily void. I understand about that sort of thing but I cannot write about that sort of thing. But I do care for you and your work and I want to tell you that.
On April 8, Elizabeth Bowen, one of the last friends to see Woolf before the depression consumed her and among the seven personally informed of the suicide, replied to a letter from Leonard:
You said not to answer your letter, and above all I don’t want to trouble you with words now. And it is no time to speak of my own feeling. As far as I am concerned, a great deal of the meaning seems to have gone out of this world. She illuminated everything, and one referred the most trivial things to her in one’s thoughts. To have been allowed to know her and love her is a great thing.
But perhaps most heartbreaking of all is a note from an anonymous refugee reader who had intended to write Woolf a letter of appreciation, but instead lamented all too late:
Artists must know that they are understood and that there are ‘Common Readers’ in the background.
Woolf’s own last words, penned in her famous diary on January 4, 1929, are at once tragic and serene, reminiscent of Henry Miller’s contention that “all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.” Woolf writes:
Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on forever; goes down to the bottom of the world — this moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves. Perhaps it may be that though we change, one flying after another, so quick, so quick, yet we are somehow successive and continuous we human beings, and show the light through. But what is the light?
Image via National Portrait Gallery