Literary Daybook, March 28

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published March 28, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 28, the Borrowers go up in a balloon.
-- "The Borrowers Aloft" (1959)
by Mary Norton

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1941, Virginia Woolf committed suicide, at the age of 59. Woolf's mental illness was of the manic-depressive type, and during her lifelong battle for equilibrium there were a handful of breakdowns, most of them involving suicide attempts. That this last one should succeed -- death by drowning, rocks placed in the pockets of her fur coat before jumping into the River Ouse -- could have surprised few. As described in Hermione Lee's compelling recent biography ("Virginia Woolf," 1997), the failure of attempts by her sister, Vanessa Bell, and her husband, Leonard, to help Woolf through her last depression make painful reading.

Still, Woolf's last years seemed to show genuine improvement. Her diary entries and letters show her feeling finally "beyond harm; armed against all that can happen." Her last book, "The Years," was a bestseller; she was proud of the love and resilience of her 25-year marriage, and of having helped make their Hogarth Press a success. She had achieved the detachment to observe, "Happily, I'm interested in depression," or the defiance to say, with Montaigne, "Let death find me planting cabbages." Her only talk of suicide was with Leonard, as their planned response to Hitler's invasion.

Against Woolf's buoyancy, biographer Lee charts an opposed series of waves, and the rise of yet another invasion from within: the death of several close to her; the destruction of her beloved London, bombs destroying her own house; the slide into feeling that living had become "like a moth in a towel" and that even her cure-all, reading, was "like a donkey going round & round in a well." In the end, when her "voices returned," she felt beyond reach of any love or cure:


I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness. No one could have done more than you have done. Please believe that. But I know that I shall never get over this: & I am wasting your life. It is this madness ... No one could have been so good as you have been. From the very first day till now. Everyone knows that.


-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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