Virginia Woolf’s Battle With Manic-Depression and Her Writing

Warning: This article includes references to suicide and sexual abuse that may be upsetting to some readers. If you or one of your loved ones are experiencing a mental health emergency or crisis, the following resources are available to support you.

By Bill Polkowski

Many persons known for their creativity have suffered from manic-depression. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), author of several novels, many essays and works of nonfiction, an absolutely brilliant woman, was one of them.

Tragically, when she was fifty-nine she took her own life by weighing herself down with a rock, walking or leaping into a fast-flowing river, and drowning. (Lee 746-751) Virginia had been hospitalized twice before, and it is said that she feared a recurrent episode severe enough to land her in an asylum where she would have to spend the rest of her life. She lived at a time when there were far fewer medications available and not such an array of options for psychiatric care as we have today.

Both of Virginia Woolf”s parents, Leslie (himself an eminent writer) and Julia Stephen, were previously widowed. They began their life together with four young children from previous marriages. In the next five years they had four children of their own. Virginia was the third of the four siblings, the first two having recurrent depressive episodes and the last suffering from cyclothymia, a form of cyclic variations in mood not as severe as those typical in full-blown manic-depression. Virginia’s parents knew many of the great intellectuals of the Victorian era, including T.S. Eliot and the novelists Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and H.G.Wells. She was a voracious reader and would assess herself in comparison with these and many others of the greats (258-267). 

When Virginia was thirteen-years-old her mother died, and not long after her older half-sister married and died three months later in childbirth. Besides dealing with the untimely deaths of her mother and half-sister, she revealed that she had been sexually abused by her two half-brothers (151-152). Hers was a life of great intellectual stimulation, but also of emotional hardship and stress.

In these quotations from a collection of essays gathered under the title Essays on the Self, you can get an idea of her writing style. Writing of the essayist William Hazlitt, whom she admired for his uncommon insight and penetrative thinking, she says:

Convictions are his life-blood; ideas have formed in him like stalactites, drop by drop, year by year. He has sharpened them in a thousand solitary walks; he has tested them in argument after argument, sitting in his corner, sardonically observant, over a late supper at the Southampton Inn. But he has not changed them. His mind is his own and it is made up.

 In “Evening over Sussex,” Woolf draws attention to how transitory life is and how little has any enduring meaning. She writes of an episode during a carriage ride with others:

While they are thus busied, I said to myself: Gone, gone; over, over; past and done with, past and done with. I feel life left behind even as the road is left behind. We have been over that stretch, and are already forgotten. There, windows were lit by our lamp for a second; the light is out now. Others come behind us.

In “Thoughts of Peace in an Air Raid,” she, a pacifist, trenchantly criticizes what we now term toxic masculinity:

“To fight against a real enemy, to earn undying honour and glory by shooting total strangers, and to come home with my breast covered with medals and decorations, that was the summit of my hope… It was for this that my whole life so far had been dedicated, my education, training, everything….”

Those were the words of a young Englishman who fought in the last war. In the face of them, so do the current thinkers honestly believe that by writing “Disarmament” on a sheet of paper at a conference table they will have done all that is needful? … The young airman up in the sky is driven not only by loudspeakers; he is driven by voices in himself—ancient instincts, instincts fostered and cherished by education and tradition. Is he to be blamed for those instincts? Could we switch off the maternal instinct at the command of a table full of  politicians? … We must help the young Englishmen to root out from themselves the love of medals and decorations. We must create more honourable activities for those who try to conquer in themselves their fighting instinct, their subconscious Hitlerism. We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun.

The sound of sawing overhead has increased. All the searchlights are erect. They point at a spot directly above the roof. At any moment a bomb may fall on this very room. One, two, three, four, five, six … the seconds pass. The bomb did not fall. But during those seconds of suspense all thinking stopped. All feeling, save one dull dread, ceased…. The emotion of fear and hate is therefore sterile, unfertile. Directly that fear passes, the mind reaches out and instinctively revives itself by trying to create.

Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway takes place during a single day when Clarissa Dalloway is planning an evening party for people of great distinction. It uses a stream-of-consciousness technique so that we may see the very thoughts of the characters. We can view Mrs. Dalloway through her own thoughts and those of various people in her life—her former lover Peter Walsh (they still have feelings for each other); her husband Richard (a high-level minister in the government); her daughter Elizabeth; and her servant.

There is a parallel story of Septimus Smith (he is a foil for Clarissa, through whom we get a deeper insight into her character); and his new, young Italian wife Lucrezia, who is in England with Septimus and isolated from her family in Italy. Septimus has suffered from shell-shock in the war (what we would call PTSD) and the death of his best friend. He is floridly psychotic, hallucinating, and suicidal. Lucrezia is distraught and has no idea what to do. They see a psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw, who assures them that Septimus needs to be hospitalized. He will see to the necessary arrangements. We can view Septimus’s very thoughts when he sees the psychiatrist, his mental dismissal of him and how Septimus’s subsequent thoughts distress him—he doesn’t want to enter a psychiatric hospital. Instead, he jumps to his death.

Some of the others in her life see Clarissa as a superficial snob, but she sees herself as performing the invaluable function of introducing people to one another and fostering their relationships and their communication. Some literary critics believe that Woolf wants to portray Clarissa as living at the superficial level of societal rules and expectations, a sort of defense mechanism to stave off depression and to escape what turns out to be Septimus’s fate. At the evening party Dr. Bradshaw informs others there of his patient’s suicide, hardly suitable for party conversation. The reader may find it puzzling that this news results in Clarissa feeling guilty and in some way responsible for the death.

Some critics suspect that Mrs. Dalloway is in part autobiographical, that Clarissa Dalloway suffers from depression too, though for Clarissa it remains hidden from herself. Both occupied a place of privilege and the company of important people recognized for their accomplishment. Besides, we can discern Woolf’s identification with Septimus—fear of prolonged, perhaps life-long, hospitalization in an asylum. 

Virginia Woolf shows that she is a sensitive, keen observer of people, self-aware and thoughtful. She reveals the interior life of her characters, their very thoughts; the masks they wear and how their self-presentation is related to the culture in which they are embedded; and how all this is related to their own experiences. I’ve become taken with Woolf’s person and writing. If you haven’t read her and if you value the world of imagination in fostering insight and understanding, I hope you will choose to enter her world. 

Further Reading

Other works by Woolf that you might explore next are her classic novel To the Lighthouse and the partly-fictionalized A Room of One’s Own.

I find it noteworthy that To the Lighthouse portrays a not uncommon family dynamic. The boy, James, longs to visit the lighthouse, but time after time his father, Mr. Ramsey, finds reasons not to go. His mother is more attuned to his desires. The boy loves her and hates his father. The great irony is that he grows up to be just like his father. The lighthouse appears to be a symbol of longing for the unobtainable.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf portrays herself at Oxbridge University (a fictional place) giving a series of lectures to women about writing and the disadvantages under which women labor: lack of money and power. Typically, women have responsibility for the care of children and domestic chores, plus lack a room of one’s own in which to disengage from these responsibilities and have the time and space to concentrate on their writing, the pursuit of which Victorian society makes next to impossible.

References are from a 1998 edition of Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee, the definitive biography, almost nine hundred pages long. Lee is a professor of English Literature at Oxford University.

During the last several years, Bill Polkowski has written many book reviews for the NAMI newsletter. He has lived with manic depression for almost fifty years. When he hasn’t been in school, he has been a hospice chaplain, a social worker, a psychotherapist, and a Presbyterian pastor. Although he diagnosed himself (accurately) during his first manic episode, he didn’t seek psychiatric treatment until the beginning of his fifth episode. Since then, he has never had depressive episodes, and for years no manic episodes. He has four graduate degrees and ten years of graduate studies: M. Div., Princeton Theological Seminary (three years); Ph.D. in Philosophy, the University of Michigan (five years); M.S.W., the University of Michigan, with a fieldwork placement with Clinical Psychology students (two years). Though retired for many years, he says he will never stop learning.

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