Via The Writer’s Almanac:
It was on this day in 1941 that the novelist Virginia Woolf (books by this author) drowned herself in a river near her house in East Sussex. She had long suffered from periods of depression, and modern scholars believe these depressions may have been symptoms of manic-depressive illness, also known as bi-polar disorder.
In her diaries over the years, Woolf had often written about her volatile mood swings, and she seemed to think that they were brought on by her sense that her writing wasn’t good enough. She was relatively healthy for most of the 1920s as she published many of her greatest novels, including Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). But she struggled with her book The Years (1937).
Woolf’s mood only grew worse as the Second World War broke out in 1939. She and her husband moved to their country house in East Sussex when Germans began to bomb London, because they thought it would be safer. But their country house lay under the flight path of the German bombers. More than once, during the summer of 1940, Woolf watched from her garden as the German planes flew over, close enough that she could see the swastikas on the undersides of the wings.
By March of 1941, she was writing in her diary that she had fallen into “a trough of despair.” She wasn’t at all satisfied with her most recent book, and she felt as though the war made writing insignificant. She wrote, “It’s difficult, I find, to write. No audience. No private stimulus, only this outer roar.”
She finally wrote three letters, possibly as much as 10 days before she committed suicide, explaining her reasons for wanting to end her life. In the longest of the three, she wrote to her husband, “I feel certain that I am going mad again. … I shan’t recover this time. … I can’t fight it any longer. … What I want to say is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you.” Woolf left the letters where her husband would find them, and then on this day in 1941 she walked a half-mile to a nearby river and put a heavy rock in the pocket of her fur coat before jumping into the water.
One of the last people to see Virginia Woolf in good spirits was the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who visited Woolf just a month before her death. Bowen later wrote of the visit, “I remember [Virginia] kneeling on the floor … and she sat back on her heels and put her head back in a patch of sun, early spring sun. Then she laughed in this consuming, choking, delightful, hooting way. This is what has remained with me.”