The other day, our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, drew our attention to a really interesting recent episode of the BBC’s History Hour. It was a program dedicated in part to the death of Virginia Woolf, who took her own life on March 28, 1941.
Now, here in the northeast, it’s a particularly dreary day: damp and drizzly, and—after a brief tease of spring—cold. It’s also a Monday. And perhaps, you’re thinking, listening to a discussion of someone drowning herself is not precisely what you need.
That’s of course for you to say. I won’t lie to you: I took certain precautionary measures before I listened to the program myself. I once read that the color orange was cheering, and so I have orange things all around me: a bath towel, a striped Penguin Books mug, a bowl of fruit. I’m secretly (at least, it was a secret) a sucker for any of those “happiness” scented products, even though the olfactory equivalent of “happiness” is often an unpleasant mixture of citrus and mint. And at the moment, I may or may not be burning a “Feel-Good Candle,” which I may or may not have claimed was for a “friend who was down” when I bought it.
These things are so tiny in the face of something as large as real sadness, let alone illness. But they are something. They are consciously undertaken prophylactic measures, and proactivity is always healing, or at least wholesome. And really, what is there in real depths but the texture of the towel or the smell of that cloying candle, and the knowledge that you haven’t given up on your own potential happiness? None of which is to say these things aren’t complete and utter snake oil. So far as that goes, we’re living in a golden age of flimflam such as hasn’t been seen since P. T. Barnum. (Or at least the 1970s.)
To anyone familiar with the basic facts of Woolf’s suicide, or indeed with the history of the Bloomsbury Group generally, a lot of this program will be familiar. There’s a good bit of background on the general ideals and accomplishments of the storied group of artists, writers, and bohemians, and their experiments in thought and living. But what is noteworthy is the number of recordings this show brings together: you will hear Leonard Woolf discussing the anguish she felt, and Nigel Nicholson on her mental illness, and Vanessa Bell, and her niece, Angelica Garnett, and Elizabeth Bowen on her laugh. And perhaps most interesting and moving of all, there’s Louie Mayer—the Woolfs’ housekeeper—relating the events of that day when Mrs. Woolf “went for a walk” from which she would not return. Then, too, the program quotes from Woolf’s writing. This is from The Waves:
And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.