New Bloomsbury archive casts revealing light on Virginia Woolf’s deathLetter opened to public viewing for the first time shows Clive Bell coming to terms with sister-in-law’s suicide
A revealing letter about the disappearance and suicide of Virginia Woolf in 1941 is part of a new archive of letters by the Bloomsbury group that is being opened to public viewing for the first time.
The two collections belonged to the novelist Rosamond Lehmann and the diarist and writer Frances Partridge, once described by fellow group member Clive Bell as having “the best legs in Bloomsbury”. Lehmann and Partridge became friends at Cambridge University, later getting to know the group of intellectuals that also included Woolf, EM Forster, Lytton Strachey and JM Keynes.
One of the documents in the archive, which has been acquired by King’s College Cambridge, sees Clive Bell writing to Partridge on 3 April 1941, shortly after Woolf’s final disappearance. “I’m not sure whether the Times will by now have announced that Virginia is missing. I’m afraid there is not the slightest doubt that she drowned herself about noon last Friday,” writes Bell. “She had left letters for Leonard and Vanessa [Woolf and Bell]. Her stick and footprints were found by the edge of the river. For some days, of course, we hoped against hope that she had wandered crazily away and might be discovered in a barn or a village shop. But by now all hope is abandoned; only, as the body has not been found, she cannot be considered dead legally.”
Bell wrote that it had become evident some weeks earlier that Woolf “was in for another of those long and agonising breakdowns of which she had had several already”. “The prospect of two years’ insanity, then to wake up to the sort of world which another two years of war will have made, was such that I can’t feel sure that she was unwise,” he added.
The archive’s thousands of pages of letters, including some from Woolf herself, and 30 albums of photographs featuring key members of the group such as Forster and Strachey, are being opened to the public by King’s. The collection also details the Bloomsbury group’s reaction to the suicide of the artist Dora Carrington, the first wife of Frances Partridge’s husband Ralph Partridge. She shot herself two months after Strachey – with whom she was besotted — died of stomach cancer. She was still alive when Ralph and Frances arrived at the Wiltshire house, hours later.
“For me the final touch of horror seems to be given by the fact that she was still alive and conscious when you arrived,” wrote Clive Bell to Frances Partridge in 1932. “What can it have been like – I’m glad I can’t clearly imagine it. This world of tragedy in which all my dearest friends are engulfed is only half-real to me because I left England a day or two after Lytton died. Hadn’t you and Ralph better get out of it for a bit?”
Lehmann – whose controversial first novel Dusty Answer, partly about her time as a student in Cambridge, catapulted her to fame – provides a lighter note in an August 1932 letter to Partridge about an argument between her husband Wogan Philipps and his father. “It started with an argument about capital punishment (W against, Papa for, of course) and developed at lightning speed into communism, filthy painting, being in a filthy set, rotten intellectuals, intention of making Wogan squirm and beg for every penny, etc etc,” she wrote. “Before we knew where we were, Wogan was presented with a document to sign, agreeing to go into Morris’s motorworks as an ordinary mechanic and then go to Russia for six months and find any work he could. Meanwhile another letter was composed to Morris asking him if he would take in Wogan and cure him of communist nonsense.”
She also gives an insight into her lifestyle, writing about how she had been looking after her son Hugo while his nurse had a holiday. “I’ve really enjoyed it, tho’ it makes one feel rather blank in the head. He really is rather an amusing child,” she wrote.
King’s archivist Patricia McGuire said the two collections also provide glimpses into what Partridge and Lehmann “were reading or listening to, into what art galleries and exhibitions they were attending and into how they responded to major political events of the day, such as the Spanish civil war”.
“In a way, these two women belonged to a generation that could only have existed between the wars,” she said. “They had education, training and rights but they also had lots of free time and didn’t necessarily have to keep a house. They had well-developed points of view, were articulate about their emotions and at the same time struggled with their bohemian lifestyles and the more conservative, older generation.”