Digital Narrative: Stressful Life Events

“Father died very peacefully, as we sat by him. I know it was what he wanted most. Nothing now can hurt him, and that is what one has dreaded. But how to go on without him, I don’t know. All these years we have hardly been apart, and I want him every moment of the day. But we still have each other-Nessa and Thoby and Adrian and I, and when we are together he and Mother do not seem far off.”*

After Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen died, Woolf suffered her second breakdown and spent time recuperating at her friend Violet Dickenson’s home in Welwyn. Stressful life events, such as a loved one’s death, often precede a bipolar episode, especially in the early years of the illness (Goodwin & Jamison, 2007). Woolf did not have a breakdown after every loss and positive events can be triggers too. Researchers still ponder why some events trigger mood shifts while others do not. Nevertheless, Woolf experienced several critical deaths in her life, losses that influenced both her mental health and writing.

Woolf recorded her thoughts and feelings about these events in diaries, letters, memoirs, essays, novels, and short stories. The digital narratives presented here, compiled from Woolf’s words and archival photographs of family and friends, present Woolf’s perspective on several of her significant relationships.

Smith College Sophia and Austin Smith Professor of Psychology and Philosophy Jill de Villiers performs the role of Woolf in each of the narratives including:

Woolf discussing her mother, Julia Stephen
Woolf discussing her father, Leslie Stephen
Woolf discussing her sister, Vanessa Bell
Woolf discussing her husband, Leonard Woolf
Woolf reading the suicide note she left on the mantelpiece for Leonard

In this section, we invite you to use the digital narratives to examine how some stressful life events impacted Woolf’s health and creative output. For example:

How do the life events outlined in the narratives affect her emotions and sense of self?

What does she say about the relationship between the life-event and her creative work?

___References for this Section____

Goodwin, K.F. & Jamison, K. R. (2007). Manic Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

* Woolf, V. (6 vols. 1975-80). The Letters of Virgina Woolf. (N. Nicolson and J. Trautmann, Eds.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.


Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett
Estate Gisele Freund / IMEC Images
2010 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris
Estate of Sir William Rothenstein / National Portrait Gallery, London
The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf.