Last November, The Airship covered eight writers who almost died before their time and how it affected their work. It was a fantastic list, but it failed to include any female writers and received a fair deal of social media shaming for it. It was embarrassing, to say the least; that’s just not what we’re about here at The Airship.
Now, we couldn’t apologize without evening the scales, so we’ve compiled a new list — and we’re not calling it “Women Writers Who Almost Died Before Their Time” (that’s looking at you, Wikipedia). Here are 10 more great writers who we almost lost before we found them:
1. Virginia Woolf Jumped Out of a Window
There is no doubt that the world lost Woolf too soon, but did you know that she almost died long before beginning her writing career? By the time Woolf was 22 years old, she had endured the death of her mother, her half-sister and her father. Following her father’s death, Woolf suffered a major mental breakdown and attempted to kill herself by jumping from a window. Woolf somehow survived the fall, but if she had chosen a higher ledge, we would not have Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own, The Waves — any of her prose.
Eerie enough, Woolf’s fall served as an inspiration for her character Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway:
Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door. Holmes would say "In a funk, eh?" Holmes would get him. But no; not Holmes; not Bradshaw. Getting up rather unsteadily, hopping indeed from foot to foot, he considered Mrs. Filmer's nice clean bread knife with "Bread" carved on the handle. Ah, but one mustn't spoil that. The gas fire? But it was too late now. Holmes was coming. Razors he might have got, but Rezia, who always did that sort of thing, had packed them. There remained only the window, the large Bloomsbury-lodging house window, the tiresome, the troublesome, and rather melodramatic business of opening the window and throwing himself out. It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia's (for she was with him). Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing. (He sat on the sill.) But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings—what did they want? Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door. "I'll give it you!" he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer's area railings.
2. Maya Angelou was Almost Beaten to Death
Growing up, Angelou dealt with abandonment, racism, unemployment — and if that wasn’t enough, it turns out she also cheated death. As a young woman, she was nearly beaten to death by a jealous boyfriend and practically killed him for what he had done.
Thankfully, Angelou rose above her impulse to take revenge and didn’t end up in prison. She lived to publish her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1969 and wrote about her near-death experience more recently in her memoir Mom & Me & Mom, which she discusses in this interview:
“I somehow knew I had something to do in this world, and so I let him go,” Angelou said. “You must forgive. It’s for your own sake — to rid yourself of that weight.”
But Angelou writes in the book that she almost chose a path of revenge rather than forgiveness.
“My mother gave me a gun and said, ‘go blow him away. I promise you, you will not do a day,’" Angelou recalled. “I called the man, and he walked out on the street, and I walked out of the place I was in holding this gun, and he said ‘please don't shoot me, please don't shoot me, please, please don't hurt me. I'm sorry.’”
Instead of shooting him, Angelou made the decision to let him go.
“I said, 'You disgust me, go away, go away,'” Angelou said. “And, I have not really, I’m not carrying him another moment.”
3. Jane Austen Had a Dire Case of Typhus
Austen grew up going from caretaker to caretaker, place to place. In 1783, her caretaker moved Austen and her sister Cassandra to Southampton. The town at that time was used primarily as port-of-call for soldiers and sailors, and both sisters soon caught typhus. Jane nearly died from the illness and was kept home for 18 months to recover.
Thankfully, Austen lived to see the publication her work. Her brush with
death was reflected in her first published work, Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne becomes violently ill:
Poor Marianne, languid and low from the nature of her malady, and feeling herself universally ill, could no longer hope that to-morrow would find her recovered; and the idea of what to-morrow would have produced, but for this unlucky illness, made every ailment more severe; for on that day they were to have begun their journey home, and, attended the whole way by a servant of Mrs. Jennings, were to have taken their mother by surprise on the following forenoon. The little that she said, was all in lamentation of this inevitable delay; though Elinor tried to raise her spirits, and make her believe, as she then really believed herself, that it would be a very short one.
4. Nelly Sachs was Almost Sent to a Nazi Concentration Camp
As the Nazis took over Germany, Sachs was terrified to the point of losing her speech entirely, something she went on to recall in her poetry. She and her mother were able to escape Germany on the last flight to Sweden in 1940, just a week before Sachs was scheduled to report to a concentration camp. But even after escaping, the poet experienced a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized.
Sachs’s trauma informed a great deal of her life’s work, including 1946’s In the Houses of Death, which received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966. Here is a quote from her 1956 work, “Und neimand weiss weiter,” in which she describes having a “homesickness scar”:
5. Dorothy Parker Tried to Kill Herself Three Times
After Parker divorced her husband, she had a number of affairs, including one with reporter-turned-playwright Charles MacArthur. The affair resulted in pregnancy, abortion and Parker’s first attempted suicide when she slit her wrists.
If she had not been hospitalized in time, she would not have lived to write the song “I Wished on the Moon” or the screenplay for A Star is Born.
Both projects earned exposure for Parker’s work, catching the eye of Viking Press, which decided to publish an anthology of her work called The Portable Dorothy Parker.
Sadly, Parker continued to struggle with alcoholism and depression throughout her life, attempting suicide a total of three times — though miraculously living through each attempt and eventually outliving many of her Algonquin Round Table peers. Parker wrote about her surprising will to live in poems like Resumé:
6. Clarice Lispector Escaped the Russian Pogroms — then Fell Asleep with a Cigarette
Lispector’s life began with the ultimate close call: She was conceived in the midst of the pogroms during the Russian Civil War, following the murder of her grandfather, the destruction of her family’s home and her mother’s contraction of syphilis from a gang-rape by Russian soldiers. (Lispector conception was actually the result of
a strange myth that pregnancy could cure syphilis.) When Clarice was one year old, her family won passage to Maceió, a port town in northeastern Brazil, and escaped Russia.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t Lispector’s only close call: In 1966, she took a sleeping pill and fell asleep while smoking a cigarette. Thankfully, she awoke in time to put out the fire before losing her life, but she did seriously injure her right hand.
Lispector lived to receive a prize by the Federal District Cultural Foundation for her life’s work in 1976, and she published her last and most famous work, The Hour of the Star, before passing away in 1977. The novella certainly takes inspiration from her near-death experiences:
For at the hour of death you became a celebrated film star, it is a moment of glory for everyone, when the choral music scales the top notes.
7. Elizabeth Bishop Had a Bad Case of the ‘Flu
As a young adult, Bishop collected an inheritance from her father’s death and travelled the world despite her constant struggle with illness and asthma. In 1966, on a trip to Seattle, Bishop was hospitalized and nearly succumbed to a virulent case of influenza. Thankfully, she recovered, and returned to Brazil with her longtime lover, Lota Soares — but the return posed another threat to Bishop, who suffered a total physical and psychological breakdown alongside Soares, requiring hospitalization once more.
Bishop lived to receive several prestigious awards for her poetry and to publish her last collection, Geographies III, which gained her widespread recognition with poems like “The Moose” and “One Art.” Bishop’s near-death experience fueled much of the tone in her final, most well-known collection:
8. Marjane Satrapi was Nearly Blown Up by a Scud Missile (and Later Had Pneumonia)
Satrapi had two close calls with death: the first, when an Iraqi scud missile just barely missed her family’s home in Tehran, instead hitting the building next door, killing the family who lived there; and the second, when she suffered a severe bout of pneumonia after living on the streets of Vienna following high school.
Satrapi lived to tell her story in Persepolis, which received praise from TIME and was ranked fifth in Newsweek’s list of the best fiction books of its decade. Her near-death experiences can be found throughout the graphic novel:
9. Edith Wharton Nearly Succumbed to Typhoid Fever
Wharton’s family fled Paris to escape the chaos of the Franco-Prussian War, but Edith’s real brush with death came when they took refuge in Germany, as she contracted a life-threatening case of typhoid fever.
Eight-year-old Wharton recovered in the hospital, learning German and reading Goethe. It was her first real taste of poetry beyond the sermons her father read to her as a young girl in Paris, and it fueled her love of literature. The experience also undoubtedly influenced her work. From her poem “A Grave”:
10. Sylvia Plath Overdosed on Sleeping Pills
Following Plath’s third year in college, she left a note for her mother stating, “Have gone out for a long walk. Will be home tomorrow.” The note excused Plath while she broke into her mother’s medicine cabinet and snuck into the basement to take an entire bottle of sleeping pills with the intention of killing herself. Plath’s mother sent police out to find her daughter, who wasn’t discovered until three days later, dazed and somehow still alive.
Plath lived to publish The Bell Jar, which includes her near-death experience from the perspective of Esther:
At first, nothing happened, but as I approached the bottom of the bottle, red and blue lights began to flash before my eyes. The bottle slid from my fingers and I lay down. The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.
Of course, with Plath, it’s always hard not to wonder what her work would have been like after her collection Ariel. It’s her greatest work we know, but who knows what she would have produced if her final suicide attempt had not taken her well before her time.
It’s an awfully morbid list, but many bibliophiles have a unrelenting urge to uncover the life stories of their favorite authors. And we do only have the best of intentions: We just want to find out where the stories we love come from.