Plenty has been written about the life of Virginia Woolf. Not much has been said about the response to her death. Yet when Britain learned of her suicide in Sussex in the Spring of 1941, the news created debate in the national press and her husband Leonard received more than 200 letters of condolence.
These letters, from friends, family, political figures, eminent writers such as T S Eliot and E M Forster, Jewish refugees and even a German prisoner of war, are part of the Leonard Woolf Papers held in the University of Sussex Library. Now they are all being prepared for publication for the first time by Sybil Oldfield, research reader in English at Sussex.
"The letters are not just an eloquent and poignant body of writing, they also mark a significant moment in English cultural history", says Oldfield, who has previously written about Virginia Woolf`s pacifism. "It was the period of the Blitz, with hundreds of civilians being killed almost everyday. Yet people still felt moved to mourn the loss to society of an irreplaceable artist."
Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse near her Rodmell home on March 28, 1941. Leonard Woolf believed his wife`s suicide was the result of the nervous exhaustion, anxiety and depression that had dogged her for much of her life and which was always particularly acute whenever she had just completed a novel. (She killed herself shortly before the publication of Between the Acts). Unfortunately, the reference in her suicide note to 'those terrible times', meaning her bouts of insanity, were misquoted as 'these terrible times', meaning the War, and triggered some unsympathetic reactions from those who thought she was wrong to take her own life while others were fighting for their country.
"Virginia Woolf`s suicide was not a defeatist, despairing reaction to the war, as was commonly thought", says Oldfield. "She was a pacifist, but she could see that Hitler had to be resisted. Although she and Leonard, a Jew, had talked of committing suicide in the event of Nazi invasion, it was not something she wanted to do. Finally, however, she felt she had no option but to spare her husband what she believed would be her imminent and incurable mental collapse."
Notes for editors
For further information please contact Jacqui Bealing or Alison Field, Press Office, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 877456, email J.A.Bealing@sussex.ac.uk or A.Field@sussex.ac.uk.