MONDAY, March 28: How strange that—at the 70th anniversary of her suicide—Viginia Woolf’s name resurfaces in media around the world in relation to another sad death. Elizabeth Taylor obituaries and tribute stories all mention her star turn in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for which she won her second Best Actress Oscar. Of course, almost none of the Liz Taylor stories mention Woolf herself. Perhaps it is considered bad taste to remember the day Virginia Woolf put on her overcoat, loaded her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse near her home. A few newspapers in the UK have noted her passing 70 years ago in recent coverage—most American newspapers haven’t.
Don’t remember Virginia Woolf? Wikipedia has a lengthy biography, which includes links to summaries of her books—and, at the end of the Wiki page, there’s a link to the Project Gutenberg repository of free online copies of some of her work. For Baby Boomers who studied literature in college, Woolf was the required gateway to feminist literature and “new” 20th century forms of prose. For the former, “Orlando” and “A Room of One’s Own” were required reading; for the latter, “To the Lighthouse” dazzled undergraduates.
It’s difficult to overestimate her importance to a generation, especially of young women, studying Woolf in the ’60s and ’70s. She still had an incendiary edge for many. Among her most famous lines was: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”
The anniversary is, indeed, worth recalling for two reasons:
One is that Elizabeth Taylor’s own image as a daring actress was caught up in that Oscar-winning performance, when she appeared on the big screen in foul-mouthed fury and frustration. Many long essays have been written about the importance of both the Edward Albee play and the movie version—so we won’t dwell on the larger themes, except to make this point: In Elizabeth Taylor’s explosive Martha, we see the kind of crisis that Dr. Meg Meeker writes about in her new book—a person so isolated in her frustration that she lashes out at herself and the world. And that theme connects the Albee storyline back to the life and demise of Virginia Woolf herself. The drama’s final lines are Martha’s husband chanting, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” And, Martha, hauntingly admits: “I am, George. I am.” So, honor Virginia Woolf’s sad anniversary by reading Meg Meeker.
The second reason Woolf’s demise—on March 28, 1941—is worth noting is that she died in the midst of a cataclysm of tragic events. She suffered throughout her life with depression into which she sank after some professional reverses with her latest books—compounded by the horrors of the London Blitz as World War II set much of the city ablaze. Today, our awareness of suicide is rising among vulnerable populations, including long-time veterans of military service. ReadTheSpirit publishes a book that has been praised as especially effective in wrestling with issues that arise in suicide-prevention programs: “Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass.” Take a look. You may want to read that book, as well.
Of course, Virginia Woolf should not be remembered solely for her suicide. Her works continue to inspire readers around the world. And, until her depression finally got the best of her at age 59, she relentlessly found hope in many sad situations. Another famous Woolf line: “I meant to write about death—only life came breaking in as usual.” That’s the spirit in which we mark the anniversary of her suicide with recommendations of Meg Meeker and the Fleming book, as well.
(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)