Suicide is dead glamorous but it attracts me purely as a voyeur. There’s a suicide in this country every hour, and an attempt every minute. More women try it, more men succeed. Women take pills in the bed or bath. Men gas themselves in their cars, but hanging, like Alexander McQueen in his closet, is a close runner-up. Some show-offs, like Issie Blow, drink weedkiller – a popular method in China. And it would be hard to top Yukio Mishima, who disembowelled himself live on television. Although as Japan gets increasingly westernised, suicide has become less fashionable there. The razor dripping with blood, that evocative cinematic image, accounts for only 2% of successful suicides, which is not surprising given how hard it is to hack through a vein. Most people cut in the wrong direction. Mishima didn’t manage to extract his internal organs with a blunt kitchen knife. I’ve been fascinated by suicide since before I got my Big Teeth, when my aunt Irene the Slut came to a bad end in New York. But I wanted to grow up with millions of men committing suicide over me, not to die myself.
My first suicide was a boy called John who was not so secretly in love with me. John slashed his wrists and I got the credit. I went round after school to watch his mother scrub his bedroom carpet, on her knees, tutting over his blood, while John and I drank the vodka tomato juice that I’d brought with me in my school bag. We pored over the details of his failure, deciding that it would be for the best if he jumped off a roof next time. Razors are just unreliable. Fast forward to my crazy teens, when one of my American boyfriends, Chuck E, blew his brains out while cleaning his father’s gun in preparation for his summer job of holding up liquor stores. I got the credit for Chuck E’s suicide, which was probably an accident. This time there were no Blood Marys but I was front row at his funeral. There were other boyfriends, overdoses and car crashes but nothing prepared me for the death of my brother. We used to stay up late talking about our favourite suicides, Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe and Virginia Woolf. But whereas he was rehearsing his own end, I’ve always been with Dorothy Parker, “Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live.”
My brother did not leave a suicide note, unlike Virginia Woolf, who left two; one for her husband, one for her sister, now on display in the British Museum. You can almost sniff the paper through the glass. Suicide tweets don’t have the same sex appeal.
“Her sister ran off with a poufta,” a crumblie told me, pushing her way in as I examined Woolf’s sinister, spidery handwriting. I doubt if Vanessa Bell ran, in those big Victorian skirts.
Vanessa Bell did not go to Woolf’s funeral. Maybe, like me, she had trouble deciding what to wear? The shock of losing a sibling fills the mind with trivia to distract from the finality of loss. Suicide is seductive when it’s cinematic, but in real life it is rarely the end of the story. The small sitting-room in Monk’s House, where Virginia Woolf left her suicide notes, smells like it hasn’t been cleaned since that day in 1941 when Woolfie jumped into the River Ouse wearing her fur coat weighted down with a big stone, fearing she was “going mad again”.
Her body was found three weeks later, bloated by the grey river she had swallowed. Why did she want to leave that room of her own – or that garden shed – where she stood at her writing desk? (Did Hemingway, who blew his brains out, stand at his typewriter in tribute to Woolf? I doubt it, but I like to daydream.) She’d been fed up with the war, was losing her teeth, thought her last book, Between the Acts, was shite and had been obsessively scrubbing the kitchen floor while the servants were out.
Woolf was described by ex-BBC arts correspondent Rosie Millard as a “sex-mad snob”, but her single bed with its white cover is a visual reminder of her close but sexless marriage to her publisher, Leonard Woolf. Her bedroom is an extension to their cottage, bought with the proceeds of To the Lighthouse, and has a view of her garden where she heard the birds speak to her in Chinese. This extra room is attached to the house, but separate from it.
The day she went to die, did she take a short cut through the field of nettles? Or go the long way round past the sheep? An angry dog ran towards me as I walked along the high, narrow bank of the ugly River Ouse; not tempted to jump. I’ve missed the deadline for dying young, and I hate getting my hair wet, but if I did want to suicide I’d jump from the more picturesque Beachy Head nearby.
Why did she kill herself?
“Eliot ordered and not me,” she wrote in her diary, “these mists of the spirit have other causes, I expect; though they are deeply hidden.” Complex questions rarely have one simple answer. And in the end her books sold more copies than T S Eliot’s. It’s not a competition, but it often feels like it is. Woolf is not defined by her death, but by her place at the heart of Bloomsbury – by contrast with Sylvia Plath, whose death cult overshadows her work.
Both women have been treated cruelly since, Woolf being played in The Hours by a big prosthetic nose attached to Nicole Kidman; while Plath had the posthumous humiliation of Gwyneth Paltrow at her most goopy in Sylvia.
Did Sylvia leave a suicide note? Was it destroyed by her troll husband Ted? It’s easier to cast Plath as victim because there’s a villain in the story. Leonard Woolf disobeyed his wife’s instructions to destroy her papers. Ted Hughes destroyed Sylvia’s last diary and novel in progress. He didn’t want her children to read them. Or anyone else. When I’m fed up with the world and everybody in it, a trip to Heptonstall, where Plath’s corpse was transported to be buried in the village she hated, pure cheers me up. I wouldn’t like to be parked there for eternity, but the serenity of the graveyard makes me want to go on living. I didn’t want any flowers, Sylvia wrote, which is just as well as her grave is now covered in weeds, while Ted, the lesser poet who’d abandoned her for a copycat who gassed herself a few years later, is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Plath’s death, unlike Woolf’s courageous leap into a tidal river, was oddly passive, given her control freakery over everything from bees to blackheads. She just sat there with her head in the oven waiting for death to happen. She had failed before, maddening for a perfectionist. Did she imagine like Lady Lazarus she would rise again? Of course she did resurrect, becoming the most famous dead poet on the planet with the Ariel poems she wrote during her last, dark days.
Because death isn’t enough to create a legend; talent is needed too. Princess Diana’s face is no longer on the tea towel, but the dead glamorous Marilyn Monroe is still selling everything from Chanel Number 5 to conspiracy theories. Marilyn died in the nude, according to Elton John, and Sylvia Plath apparently hadn’t washed her hair. Al Alvarez, who saw Plath shortly before her death, could smell her unwashed hair as she walked ahead of him up the stairs. And this was before she stuck her head in the oven like a chicken. An entry in Plath’s diary about Elizabeth Taylor stealing Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds says, “How these things affect us.” Was Sylvia Plath affected by the death of Marilyn Monroe? Did her neurotic, passive face watch Marilyn’s corpse being loaded on to the limo, the roots in the star’s platinum hair reminding Plath of her own platinum summer when she’d overdosed and crawled under the house to die?
Virginia Woolf said, “Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more.” My brother was a suicide junkie for years before curing himself. His death made the mourners at his funeral want to live.
“Who’s that? Is he married?” my ex-bestie asked, scanning the church for possibilities. While her husband, who used to wait at his garden gate to watch me come home from school, smiled at me while fluttering his surprisingly long eyelashes.
“Your dad’s a very attractive man,” my cousin’s widow said about my alcoholic father who managed to shrink every time I saw him. Soon after my brother killed himself, my father gave up dialysis to spend more time in the pub instead of living what turned out to be the last year of his own life in an ambulance going to hospital with “boring old guys”. When told he had a week to live, he shouted, “A whole week stuck in here!” Euthanasia is the least glamorous of suicides but he begged my mother to speed things up and “send him to Switzerland”; while she, who had “taken control” of my dad when he was 19, was already looking around for a replacement.
Leonard Woolf did not marry again. He stayed in Monk’s House, the home he had shared with his wife and her books, but did not use her bedroom. Writers go on living and changing after death. In the garden, where Virginia Woolf’s ashes are buried, you can almost hear the grating, self-conscious voice of the woman whose idea of daring was to dispense with table napkins saying, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”
Carole Morin is the author of Spying on Strange Men
On 28 March 1941 Virginia Woolf drowned herself in Sussex’s River Ouse. Novelist Carole Morin has always been fascinated by suicide. She tells us why