Shut up in the Dark



Woolf, ca. 1902.

In July 1910, after she had attempted to kill herself by defenestration, Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) was institutionalized at Burley House, “a nursing home for women with nervous disorder.” She wrote the letter below to her sister, Vanessa Bell. Read more of Woolf’s correspondence in the five-volume Letters of Virginia Woolf.


I meant to write several days ago, although you do say you dont care a damn. But in that too I was hoodwinked by Miss Thomas. I gather that some great conspiracy is going on behind my back. What a mercy we cant have at each other! or we should quarrel till midnight, and Clarissas (the coming ‘neice’) deformities, inherited from generations of hard drinking Bells, would be laid at my door. She-(Miss T.) wont read me or quote your letters. But I gather that you want me to stay on here. She is in a highly wrought state, as the lunatic upstairs has somehow brought her case into court; and I cant make her speak calmly. Do write and explain.

Having read your last letter at least 10 times—so that Miss Bradbury (nurse) is sure it is a love letter and looks very arch—I cant find a word about my future … I really dont think I can stand much more of this. Miss T. is charming, and Miss Bradbury is a good woman, but you cant conceive how I want intelligent conversation—even yours. Religion seems to me to have ruined them all. Miss T. is always culminating in silent prayer. Miss Somerville (patient), the absent minded one with the deaf dog, wears two crucifixes. Miss B. says Church Bells are the sweetest sound on earth. She also says that the old Queen the Queen Mother and the present Queen represent the highest womanhood. They reverence my gifts, although God has left me in the dark. They are always wondering what God is up to. The religious mind is quite amazing. 

However, what I meant to say is that I shall soon have to jump out of a window. The ugliness of the house is almost unbelievable—having white, and mottled green and red. Then there is all the eating and drinking and being shut up in the dark.

My God! What a mercy to be done with it!

Now, my sweet honey Bee, you know how you would feel if you had stayed in bed alone here for 4 weeks. But I wont argue, as I dont know what you have said. Anyhow, I will abide by Savage.

Miss T. and I have long conversations. She has a charming nature; rather whimsical, and even sensual. But there again, religion comes in; and she leads a spotless life. Apparently she is well off and takes patients more or less as a spiritual work. She has harboured innumerable young women in love difficulties. They are always turning up to lunch, and I creep out of bed and look at them. At present there is one upstairs, and a barren wife across the passage. The utmost tact is shown with regard to our complaints and I make Miss T. blush by asking if they’re mad.

Miss Somerville has periods of excitement, when she pulls up all the roses, and goes to church. Then she is silent for weeks. She is now being silent; and is made very nervous by the sight of me. As I went out into the garden yesterday in a blanket with bare legs, she had some reason. Miss Bradbury is the woman you saw out of the window and said was homicidial [sic]. I was very kind with her at dinner, but she then put me to bed, and is a trained nurse.

Miss T. talks about you with awe. How you smile, and say such quaint things—how your eyes fill with tears—how beautiful your soul is—and your hands. She also thinks you write such beautiful English! Your language is so apt and so expressive. Julian is the most remarkable child she ever saw. The worst of her is that she is a little too emotional.

I have been out in the garden for 2 hours; and feel quite normal. I feel my brains, like a pear, to see if its ripe; it will be exquisite by September.

… I long to see you. Its damned dull being here alone. Write sheets. Give Clive my love. His visits are my brightest spots. He must come again.

I will be very reasonable.