Another Example of How Little I Know

Today’s Wall Street Journal featured an excerpt from ‘Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany’ by Jane Mount. The excerpt looked at the writing lairs of four well-known authors—Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, James Baldwin, and Roald Dahl.

The first writer featured was Virginia Woolf. I’ve certainly heard of her, but more because of the play and movie, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, than any of her writings. In fact, the WSJ prompted me to read more about Woolf, and Wikipedia was more than willing to oblige me with an extensive essay about Woolf’s life and her works. Despite her being one of the twentieth century’s most important and celebrated authors, I realized after scrolling through Wikipedia that I had not read anything by Virginia Woolf.

The WSJ story noted that Woolf wrote parts of all her major works in a converted toolshed she called her “writing lodge,” where she had views of Mount Caburn, one of the highest points in East Sussex. The shed was also where she wrote her farewell letter to Leonard on March 28, 1941, before heading to the River Ouse with pockets full of stones.

Wait. What was that?

The shed was also where she wrote her farewell letter to Leonard on March 28, 1941, before heading to the River Ouse with pockets full of stones.

Mount slips that last sentence in there so casually as if everyone is familiar with the tragic end of Woolf’s life. But I guess I’m no bibliophile – I had never heard about this thing with the pockets full of stones. And that’s what prompted me to learn more about Woolf and the River Ouse.

The Wikipedia article has an extensive section on Woolf’s mental health – she suffered periodic mood swings from severe depression to manic excitement. Today, many people claim that she likely had possibly bipolar disorder. She also attempted suicide several times.

Her farewell letter to her husband is both sad and beautiful in the love she expresses for her husband:

Dearest,

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight it any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

Because of the river current, it wasn’t until three weeks later that her body was discovered. A sad end to a remarkable life. There’s actually a complete blog post devoted to her final days and the aftermath.

And in case you are interested in the writng spaces of the other three authors highlighted in the WSJ story:

  • At age 46, James Baldwin left his country for Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a medieval village on France’s Côte d’Azur. He spent the last 18 years of his life in a villa nestled among orchards, rosemary hedges and fields of wild strawberries. There Baldwin wrote several works, including his famous “An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis.”
  • Dylan Thomas used a little shed down the road from his house (located on a cliff overlooking the Taf estuary in Laugharne, Wales) as his writing studio and created some of his most famous works there, including the poems “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” and “Over Sir John’s Hill” and the play “Under Milk Wood.” Thomas died at age 39 on a trip to New York City, from pneumonia and a lifetime of drinking too much.
  • Roald Dahl and his family were living in Gipsy House in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, U.K., when he realized his kids were so noisy that he needed his own writing space. After seeing Dylan Thomas’s shed in Wales, he built a shed of his own in his garden.

So lots of interesting facts and stories I had never heard before about some famous writers. Once again, the older I get, the more I realize I don’t know.

And I have to admit, the shed thing intrigued me; I may have to take a trip to Home Depot and see if anything inspires my writing…

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