Sam Mills

A Most Sensitive and Sophisticated Mind

Picture them, standing on the platform of Paddington Station in August 1913: Leonard and Virginia Woolf, suitcases by their feet, ready to board a train for a long journey. They are going on holiday to Holford, a small, pretty village in Somerset, the same place they went for their honeymoon last summer. They had a wonderful time then, enjoying country walks and sumptuous food. This time, however, I imagine Leonard struggling with his unease, tempted to abort the trip, leave the station, guide Virginia back home to their lodgings in Clifford’s Inn. For Virginia is in a vulnerable state. She has spent the last fortnight in a home in Burley Park, Twickenham. The ‘rest cure’ – seclusion, quiet, the consumption of copious quantities of milk – hasn’t worked. Virginia has come out in virtually the same state as when she went in. She is losing weight, resistant to eating, suffering headaches, delusions and paranoia. Her doctors have given her illness the euphemistic label ‘neurasthenia’. It was a term that covered ‘a multitude of sins, symptoms and miseries’, as Leonard aptly put it, from chronic fatigue to insomnia to irritability to headaches, and regarded as a response to the pace and pressures of modern life, characterised by the telephone, the telegraph, the car, the plane. Leonard, still shellshocked by the events of the past year – the deterioration of their newlywed bliss, Virginia’s slow slide into breakdown – has anxiously consulted doctors as to whether taking her to Holford is a wise idea. He has been warned by Dr Savage: you must take her, she has been promised the holiday as a reward for going to Burley Park; if you renege on your agreement, she might attempt suicide. And so, they get onto the train, they travel to Holford, and the holiday is a disaster.

One night in their first week there, around 3.30 in the morning, Leonard sedates Virginia with 10 grams of the sleeping drug Tripinal. He is in a fraught state; she is in a fraught state. He needs to watch Virginia without her feeling that he is playing doctor, for, as he recalls in his memoirs, ‘I had to be on the alert constantly, day and night, and yet, if possible, not give her the feeling of being watched.’ He calls a family friend, Ka Cox, down to help him. The three of them read and walk and chat together. But Virginia does not improve, and so Leonard persuades her to return to London. Tentatively, he asks if she will see a doctor. If the doctor says she is well, they will accept the verdict, but if he diagnoses illness, she must undergo the treatment he prescribes. Virginia agrees: a relief. On the train back, Leonard watches her every breath, her every move, terrified she might attempt to jump. The journey has ‘that terrible quality of the most real of real life and at the same time of a horrible dream’.

In the consultations with doctors, Virginia asserts that her illness is her fault. Her guilt, her tendency to take the blame, was in part due to  the attitudes of the time, a hangover from the Victorian era when asylum alienists thought that mental health problems could be reined in by will. Later that day, Leonard goes for a consultation with her doctors. He receives a phone call from Ka Cox – Virginia has fallen into a deep sleep and will not wake up. Imagine the icy shock of it: Leonard speeds back to Brunswick Square in a taxi to find Virginia unconscious, and is hit by the terrible realisation that, in the rush and turmoil of leaving the house for the meetings, he has left the case where he stores her medicines unlocked. Virginia has taken the Veronal tablets. A hundred grams of them.

On the top floor of Brunswick Square is another lodger, Geoffrey Keynes, John Maynard’s younger brother. He is also a surgeon. Leonard hammers up the stairs to call for help. Dr Head and Keynes, together with a nurse, work into the early hours to save her life. Later, Leonard wrote to her, ‘You can’t realise how utterly you would end my life for me if you had taken that sleeping medicine successfully or if you ever dismissed me’. He concluded that the main motivation for her suicide attempt was a dread of her doctors. It was a conclusion that would lead to Leonard making some key mistakes later in life as her carer.

‘But he wasn’t her carer, he was her husband,’ someone indignantly asserted to me when I informed them that I was writing a memoir about being a carer, weaving in Virginia and Leonard as a parallel. Of course, the term was not commonly used back in the early twentieth century. But there is no doubt that as their marriage progressed Leonard gradually found himself taking on the role of Virginia’s carer.

Caring is something that you rarely choose to take on: it falls upon you. In the early wintery months of 2016, I found myself regularly visiting my father on a psychiatric ward. He had fallen into a strange state of catatonia, akin to a waking coma. He could not eat, speak or move, yet he was conscious. I was worried about him becoming dehydrated, so I took out a bottle of fresh juice and pressed a straw to his chapped lips. The look of liquid seeping up the straw, the sound of it against his teeth and tongue, was a wild relief. It was also one of the few ways I could reach through the bars of his catatonia-cage and find a way to communicate. Some time later I found an echo when I read about Leonard Woolf as he continued to nurse Virginia throughout 1913. Her half-brother, Gerard Duckworth, lent the Woolfs his family home, the grand Dalingridge Place, so that they could move in there with her nurses. Trying to persuade her to eat was   a challenge. Virginia was prone to sitting for hours, lost in melancholy, making little response to anything spoken to her. Leonard would take her hand and put a fork in it. He would coax her gently: please eat. Finally, Virginia would spear a vegetable and chew it slowly, bringing a short-lived relief when Leonard saw the clock. It would take her five minutes to eat one mouthful. In this way, an entire meal might take an hour.

It seemed grandiose, to compare the lives of  me and my father to such literary icons. Virginia Woolf – one of our greatest living writers,  the genius who produced classics such as Orlando and To The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway and co-ran the magnificent Hogarth Press – how dare I compare her to my Dad, who fell ill with schizophrenia when I was three years old, after losing his job as a factory worker. Leonard Woolf – how dare I compare myself to him, to an esteemed novelist and memoirist, eminent journalist, socialist and political campaigner whose work helped to lay the foundations of the policy of the League of Nations. Yet the more I read about Leonard, the more I recognised all of the common experiences of carers in his: the money worries, the exhaustion, the fretting over a diagnosis, the back-and-forth with doctors, the sensation of being in a nightmare, of feeling overwhelmed. Suddenly he seemed no longer a figure on a pedestal, but someone deeply human to me. When he married Virginia, he was not fully aware of her mental health issues. Unlike some men of his era, he never put her into an asylum (as his friend and art critic Roger Fry did with his wife). He rose to the challenge of caring, though at times it took a heavy toll.

Early in 1914, Leonard had to take a break. Emotionally and physically ground down, he was suffering violent headaches and escaped to a cottage in Wiltshire with Lytton Strachey for ten days. Lytton was working on Eminent Victorians, and read aloud his Cardinal Manning chapter to Leonard. Though Leonard desperately needed the rest, the separation only intensified his devotion to Virginia. He wrote to her, ‘I’ve never been alone with anyone else for a few days without irritating & being irritated… you can day after day & all day give me perfect happiness.’

Virginia fell ill again in 1915; this time she was no longer melancholic but manic. They were living through the First World War, but overwhelmed with private sorrows; Leonard describes 1914 and 1915 as ‘years which we simply lost out of our lives’. In May 1916, he set off for a tribunal, armed with a doctor’s leaflet. It was imperative that he avoided conscription. It wasn’t just a question of being a conscientious objector; it was a question of being a carer. He knew that Virginia would not be able to cope without him. The letter cited his problems with sleep, the severe headaches that pounded his mind, the (inherited) tremor in his hand. His exemption was granted.

For the following decades, Leonard helped Virginia to remain stable. He soon came to realise that he could not rely on doctors for help, for ‘what they knew amounted to practically nothing. They had not the slightest idea of the nature or the cause of Virginia’s mental state, which resulted in her suddenly or gradually losing touch with the real world’. On a steep learning curve, he studied his wife’s ‘most sensitive and sophisticated mind’, trying to learn all the nuances of her illness, and how he might prevent a collapse. He came to recognise that her breakdowns often coincided with finishing a novel, with severing the creative umbilical cord. Indeed, in 1913, Virginia had been putting the finishing touches on her debut, The Voyage Out; publication was delayed for two years when she fell ill. Leonard noted that the Greeks recognised the link between genius and madness, citing Seneca: Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit (there has never been great genius without a mixture of madness in it), and Dryden’s verse: ‘Great wits are sure to madness near allied/And thin partitions do their bounds divide.’ Yet he was also careful to protect that genius too. They both felt that it was not wise for Virginia to have psychoanalysis, concerned it might interfere with her creative processes.

Leonard Woolf has sometimes been unfairly maligned by critics, who have portrayed him as a controlling husband who censored Virginia’s  every move. One revisionist biographer, Irene Coates, even made the outrageous suggestion that he dictated her suicide note. Certainly, Leonard loved to micromanage; he was obsessed with recording his car mileage and expenditure. He adored animals, but he kept his dogs firmly to heel. And there were times when he did curtail their social lives, fearing that Virginia was in a danger zone. However, when I studied their marriage through my own lens as a carer, I saw things differently. One of the biggest challenges of being a carer is to know when to intervene and when to step back. When my father was finally released from his psychiatric ward, I had to watch for the subtlest symptoms of a potential catatonic collapse: a tendency to drum his fingers, an aura of withdrawal, a deacceleration, as though his life was being lived in slow motion. Similarly, Leonard had to develop sensitive antennae for what kept Virginia stable. If Virginia lived ‘a quiet, vegetative life, eating well, going to bed early, and not tiring herself mentally or physically, then she remained well’, Leonard observed. Virginia frequently used the word ‘vibrations’ when she was describing her illness and once, on contemplating her marriage, she reflected that ‘one’s personality seems to echo out across space, when he’s not there to enclose all one’s vibrations’, as if by enclosing her – by creating boundaries – Leonard also created comfort and calm.


On 28 March 1941, at one o’clock in the afternoon, Leonard was in the garden of their home, Monk’s House, Rodmell. He heard Louie, their cook, ringing the bell for lunch. In the sitting-room, he found two letters propped up on the table. One for him, one for Vanessa. His began: ‘Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of these terrible times…’ It concluded: ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.’

The River Ouse was searched, the meadows were searched, a local ruin that Virginia liked to inhabit was searched. Nothing was found except for her walking stick on the river bank. Leonard knew that he had lost her.

In early 1940, he had become aware that Virginia was sliding into deep depression again. The Second World War had shadowed their lives. Virginia visited London to find herself ‘in the desolate ruins of my old squares: gashed; dismantled; the old red bricks all white powder’. They made a suicide pact that if the Nazis invaded Britain, they would gas themselves in their garage (a number of their friends also made suicide plans). Fearing tragedy, Leonard drove her to Dr Octavia Wilberforce, their current doctor, for an examination. Virginia begged her not to prescribe a rest cure and Leonard was nervous of hiring nurses, fearing that Virginia might react violently against them, descend into psychosis, for ‘a wrong word, a mere hint of pressure, even a statement of truth might be enough to drive her over the verge into suicide’.


On 18 April some teenagers picnicking by the River Ouse threw stones at a ‘log’ in the water – discovering Virginia’s dead body.

There were two elm trees at the back of their house, which the Woolfs always called Leonard and Virginia. Leonard buried her ashes at their roots. He wrote: ‘I know that V. will not come across the garden from the Lodge, and yet I look in that direction for her. I know that she is drowned and yet I listen for her to come in at the door. I know that it is the last page and yet I turn it over.’

Leonard’s last conflict was that of a carer, caught between love and responsibility. Writing to his friend Margaret Llewelyn Davies, he reflected that he might have called in nurses, but: ‘I suppose I ought to say I was wrong not to have done so. I have been proved wrong and yet I know myself that I would do the same again. One had to make up one’s mind which would do the greater harm – to insist, in which case I knew it would be a complete break down at once and attempt at suicide, or to run the risk and try to prevent the last symptoms coming on.’ Perhaps he had also grown tired of years in which he had to exert control; in the depth of his love for her, he wanted to treat her as a wife rather than a patient.


Sam Mills is the author of The Quiddity of Will Self, and the recently published memoir The Fragments of my Father. She is the co-founder of indie press Dodo Ink.

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