Late August 2009 we returned from Glyndebourne, travelling via Virginia Woolf’s home, Monk’s House Rodmell Sussex. We had seen a revival of Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. We stopped for picnic lunch at a field not far from Monk’s House and could see in the late summer light the River Ouse. Entering and walking through the Monk’s House made me think of suicide, in particular the nature of suicide notes. There is something that is very near sacred about utterances from the dying. When my own father died from heart disease I was away at boarding school and I wondered what his final words were. There is a sense in which final words carry weight, as if the presentiment of death gives the mere words a special meaning, imbuing them with mystery even magic.
There are different kinds of literary suicide notes. Baudelaire wrote one to his mother
I am killing myself without any sense of sorrow. I feel none of the agitation that men call sorrow. My debts have never been a cause of sorrow. It’s perfectly simple to rise above such matters. I’m killing myself because I can no longer go on living, because the weariness of falling asleep and the weariness of waking up have become unbearable to me. I’m killing myself because I believe I’m of no use to others – and because I’m a danger to myself. I’m killing myself because I believe I’m immortal and because I hope. At the time of writing these lines I am so lucid that I’m still copying out a few notes for M. Théodore de Banville and have the necessary strength to busy myself with my manuscripts. I give and bestow all I possess to Mlle Lemer, including my little stock of furniture and my portrait – because she’s the only creature who offers me solace. Can anyone blame me for wanting to repay her for the rare pleasures I’ve enjoyed in this horrendous world? I do not know my brother very well – he has neither lived in me nor with me – he has no need of me. My mother, who has so frequently and always unwittingly poisoned my life, has no need of money either. – She has her husband; she has a human being, some one who provides her with affection and friendship. I have no one but Jeanne Lemer. It’s only in her that I’ve found rest and I will not, can not bear the thought that people want to strip her of what I’m giving her, on the pretext that my mind is wandering. You’ve heard me talking to you these last few days. Was I mad?
In the event Baudelaire made a failed attempt. Yet the letter is a powerful piece of writing. There is clarity of thinking, a fastidious attention to disposing of his meagre worldly goods, and a pointed attack on his mother. This aspect of suicide notes is not remarked upon often enough: the desire even at the end to hurt, to cause pain to others.
Virginia Woolf’s suicide note to her husband is a quite different specie of suicide letter writing:
Dearest, I feel certain 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 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.
It is tender, thoughtful and ultimately protective of him. But it also has the hallmarks of melancholia: the belief often erroneous that other people’s lives have been polluted. And there is the pessimism, ‘if anyone could have saved me it would have been you’, what is implicit here is her belief that she was irredeemable.
The final example is a diary entry from Dora Carrington’s journals. She was trained as an artist at the Slade School of Art, London. She lived in a ménage à trois with her husband Ralph Partridge and the writer and critic Lytton Strachey. Carrington wrote this diary entry in the spring of 1932, a few months after the death of Strachey and shortly before she took her own life. Where Baudelaire had addressed his mother and Virginia Woolf her husband, Dora Carrington wrote to her dead lover. There is grief, anguish, longing and yet the voice is strong, determined. The kind of determination that despair fosters and encourages.
At last I am alone. At last there is nothing between us. I have been reading my letters to you in the library this evening. You are so engraved on my brain that I think of nothing else. Everything I look at is part of you. And there seems no point in life now you are gone. I used to say: ‘I must eat my meals properly as Lytton wouldn’t like me to behave badly when he was away.’ But now there is no coming back. No point in ‘improvements’. Nobody to write letters to. Only the interminable long days which never seem to end and the nights which end all too soon and turn to dawns. All gaiety has gone out of my life and I feel old and melancholy. All I can do is to plant snow drops and daffodils in my graveyard! Now there is nothing left. All your papers have been taken away. Your clothes have gone. Your room is bare. In a few months no traces will be left. Just a few book plates in some books and never again, however long I look out of the window, will I see your tall thin figure walking across the path past the dwarf pine past the stumps, and then climb the ha-ha and come across the lawn. Our jokes have gone for ever. There is nobody now to make ‘disçerattas’ with, to laugh with over particular words. To discuss the difficulties of love, to read Ibsen in the evening. And to play cards when we were too ‘dim’ for reading. These mouring [sic] sentinels that we arranged so carefully. The shiftings to get the new rose Corneille in the best position. They will go, and the beauty of our library ‘will be over’. – I feel as if I was in a dream, almost unconscious, so much of me was in you. ***
And I thought as I threw the rubbish on the bonfire, ‘So that’s the end of his spectacles. Those spectacles that have been his companion all these years. Burnt in a heap of leaves.’ And those vests the ‘bodily companions’ of his days now are worn by a carter in the fields. In a few years what will be left of him? A few books on some shelves, but the intimate things that I loved, all gone. And soon even the people who knew his pale thin hands and the texture of his thick shiny hair, and grisly beard, they will be dead and all remembrance of him will vanish. I watched the gap close over others but for Lytton one couldn’t have believed (because one did not believe it was ever possible) that the world would go on the same.
These letters and the diary entry that is really a letter shine a light on an area of human life that is hidden. Those left behind are as ashamed as they ever were when it was still a criminal offence to kill oneself. But for the psychiatrist whose working life involves talking about and responding to these matters, these letters reveal something about the inner world of a person as they approach the decision to do something that is irrevocable but that is felt as urgent and compelling.
Photos by Jan Oyebode