The famous King’s alumna and patron of the new Kingsway campus also suffered from mental illness. Was her condition a help or a hindrance?
Born into an intellectual and well-connected family in 1882, Virginia Woolf resided in Kensington with her parents, as well as her three full siblings and four half siblings from both her parents’ previous marriages. When she was six, she was sexually abused by George and Gerald Duckworth, her two step-brothers.
At 13, after her mother’s sudden death, she suffered her first nervous breakdown. Two years later, the death of her sister Stella deeply affected her, but her father’s death when she was 22 triggered her second and most alarming breakdown, for which she was briefly institutionalised.
All her life, she would suffer from dramatic mood swings and severe depression, but she managed to find some relief in her writing. During her episodes, birds would talk to her in Greek, her dead mother would be resuscitated and voices would tell her to do wild things.
In 1913 she attempted suicide for the first time, overdosing on veranol, and she was only saved thanks to a doctor living nearby who pumped her stomach. She hadn’t written anything yet.
She saw the renowned psychiatrist George Savage intermittently for ten years, but like many of his colleagues, he subscribed to the focal infection theory: mental disequilibrium being caused by a tooth infection. He insisted on extracting three of her perfectly healthy teeth. Having to wear fake teeth for the rest of her life, Woolf retained a profound distrust of doctors and modern medicine.
The publishing house she owned with her husband Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912, published Freud, and she read him voraciously. Her writings were also an attempt to understand who she was: the white pages were the analyst’s sofa and the black ink the stream of her consciousness. There was reality only in what she wrote.
Peter Dally, a psychiatrist who wrote her biography in 1999, said: “Virginia’s need to write was, among other things, to make sense out of mental chaos and gain control of madness. Through her novels, she made her inner world less frightening. Writing was often agony but it provided the ‘strongest pleasure she knew’.”
She became a part of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of intellectuals and free thinkers who shared her unconventional values and felt oppressed by the rigidity of Victorian England. They encouraged her to write. And write she would: it would be interrupted, hampered and hindered by her manic depression, but all in all she wrote approximately 20 books.
She was recognised as a brilliant writer with a unique style and an authoritative modernist voice. Her most famous novels include To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own, in which she famously stated that a woman needed to have a room of her own if she were to write fiction. Between the Acts, Virginia’s last novel which she finished the year of her death, takes place on a single summer’s day.
Eaten alive by her old demons, away from London and while Leonard was battling with his own depression, she surrendered on a winter’s day in 1941, drowning herself in a river next to her Sussex house, her pockets full of rocks. In a heartbreaking note to her husband she said, “If anyone could have saved me, it would have been you.”
Her literary genius did not stem from her mental issues, but her battle against the voices in her head made her the writer she struggled to be. Her life was devoted to two activities: literature and battling mental illness.