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Serendipity: Who’s Afraid Like Virginia Woolf?

British Author Virginia Woolf

British Author Virginia Woolf

The following is the beginning of a book review by Linda Colley of Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815. The review is entitled “Facing Napoleon’s Own EU” and can be found in the November 5, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books.

Throughout 1940, Virginia Woolf struggled with the terrors and mysteries of war. Neither of the Woolfs knew that their names were on the “black list” of Britons set to be arrested—and presumably killed—in the event of a successful Nazi invasion, but since [husband] Leonard was Jewish, the couple prepared for the worst. They hoarded gasoline in their garage so as to be able to kill themselves by inhaling carbon monoxide, and took the further precaution of of acquiring a deadly dose of morphine from a friend. But none of this protected them from hearing Hitler’s voice over the radio, or the noise of German bombers flying over their London house at night, rattling its windowpanes.

“Here they are again,” wrote Virginia in a famous essay published five months before her suicide. “It is a queer experience lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet which may at any moment sting you to death.” Earlier, she had written about how different all this was from British experience of the Napoleonic Wars. Both Jane Austen and Walter Scott lived through these conflicts, she noted, yet neither had mentioned it in their novels. This, she thought, demonstrated “that their model, their vision of human life, was not disturbed or agitated or changed by war. Nor were they themselves…. War were then remote:; wars were carried on by soldiers and sailors, not by private people.”

Unfortunately, Woolf was particularly prey to depression. Her house in London was destroyed by bombing, and her most recent book (a biography of her friend Roger Fry) was not well received. On March 28, 1941, she loaded her pockets with heavy stones and walked into the River Ouse, drowning herself. Her body was not found until weeks later. In her last note to her husband, she wrote:

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

So when you hear about ISIS and Donald Trump’s latest outrage, remember that it is still possible to survive, and even prevail. I look at Virginia Woolf’s face and cannot help falling in love with it.