February 24, 2018
Virginia Woolf's "Dark Cupboard" of SuicideThere is one surviving recording of Virginia Woolf's voice. It is from 1937, a BBC book program called "Words Fail Me." Biographer Hermione Lee (Virginia Woolf, 1999) says that the voice is thin and flat, the tone detached, the accent posh, the impression of an era long gone. Her nephew Quentin Bell, also her biographer, has said that the recorded voice bears little resemblance to the real thing. Others have written similarly: that Woolf's voice was rich and engaging, her laughter often giddy and uncontrollable.
'Voice' was Virginia Woolf's obsessive theme, in literature and life. Her novels are biographical and introspective, a tumble of angles and reconsiderations. Her diary is in twenty-four volumes -- the first thing she salvaged from her bombed-out London house. The diaries document her long struggle with mental illness as an attempt to silence the unwanted voices in her head; her last letters and suicide notes reveal that this enemy within literally talked her to death.
If 'voice' can mean books, the obsession with it ran in Virginia Woolf's family. Her father was the famous Leslie Stephen, the editor and energy behind the sixty-four volume, Dictionary of National Biography. Books of other and all sorts became Woolf's extended family. She never went to school, had a job, or became part of any group or institution. Her time was spent reading, discussing, binding and then, later, reviewing, writing and publishing books. Even her ignorance was rarefied: she later wrote that her only knowledge of sex at sixteen was what she had read about sodomy in Plato.
Underneath and throughout was another self, the mentally ill one, with its own attendant voices. Sometimes these were identifiable -- the birds she heard singing to her in Greek, King Edward swearing in the azaleas. Sometimes they were the common noise of anxiety, though loud and frightening enough to convince her that to step over the puddle in her path would be to step into unreality.
Woolf's mental illness was periodic, of the "manic-depressive" or "bipolar disorder" type. There were five lengthy bouts, most of them involving suicide attempts. We listen doubtfully to the medical chronicle: a pastiche of theories and male condescension, of sedatives and milk cures and teeth extractions. We listen with admiration and horror to Virginia Woolf's own record of her illness, her decades-long attempt to open, as she put it, "the dark cupboard":
And finally, to her husband, on or about the day of her suicide, March 28th, 1941:
...I feel certain that I am going
mad again: I feel we cant go
through another of these terrible times.
And I shant recover this time. I begin
to hear voices, and cant concentrate.
So I am doing what seems the best thing to do....
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