To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 16 September 1884.
My dear Theo,
You’re quite right to ask why I haven’t replied to you yet. I did indeed receive your letter with 150 francs enclosed. I began a letter to you, chiefly to thank you because you seemed to have understood my letter, and also to tell you that I only count on 100 francs, but actually find it hard to manage on it as long as things don’t progress. But nevertheless, if it’s 150 francs, there’s a 50 francs windfall extra in so far as our very first agreement before The Hague was only 100 francs, and if we’re only half good friends I wouldn’t want to accept more.
However, I couldn’t finish that letter, and since then I’ve wanted to write to you but I haven’t been able to find the right words. Something has happened, Theo, which most of the people here know or suspect nothing about — nor may ever know, so keep as silent as the grave about it — but which is terrible. To tell you everything I’d have to write a book — I can’t do that. Miss Begemann has taken poison — in a moment of despair, when she’d spoken to her family and people spoke ill of her and me, and she became so upset that she did it, in my view, in a moment of definite mania. Theo, I had already consulted a doctor once about certain symptoms she had. 3 days before I’d warned her brother in confidence that I was afraid she would have a nervous breakdown, and that to my regret I had to state that I believed that the B. family had acted extremely imprudently by speaking to her as they did. Well, this didn’t help, to the extent that the people put me off for two years, and I most definitely wouldn’t accept this since I said, if there’s a question of marriage here it would have to be very soon or not at all.
Well Theo, you’ve read Mme Bovary; do you remember the FIRST Mme Bovary, who died of a nervous fit? It was something like that here, but complicated here by taking poison. She had often said to me when we were taking a quiet walk or something, ‘I wish I could die now’ — I’d never paid attention to it.
One morning, though, she fell to the ground. I still only thought it was a little weakness. But it got worse and worse. Cramps, she lost the power of speech and mumbled all sorts of only half-comprehensible things, collapsed with all sorts of convulsions, cramps etc. It was different from a nervous fit although it was very like one, and I was suddenly suspicious and said — have you taken something by any chance? She screamed ‘Yes!’ Well, I acted boldly. She wanted me to swear I’d never tell anyone about it — I said, fine, I’ll swear anything you want, but on condition that you vomit that stuff up straightaway — stick your finger down your throat until you vomit, otherwise I’ll call the others. Anyway, you understand the rest. The vomiting only half worked and I went with her to her brother Louis, and told Louis, and got him to give her an emetic, and I went straight to Eindhoven, to Dr van de Loo. It was strychnine that she took, but the dose must have been too small, or she may have taken chloroform or laudanum with it to numb herself, which would actually be an antidote to strychnine. But, in short, she then quickly took the antidote that Van de Loo prescribed. No one knows except her herself, Louis B., you, Dr van de Loo and me — and she was rushed straight to a doctor in Utrecht, and it’s been put about that she’s on a trip for the firm, which she was about to embark on anyway. I believe it’s probable that she’ll make a full recovery, but in my view there will certainly be a long period of nervous trouble, and in what form this will manifest itself — more serious or less serious – is very much the question. But she’s in good hands now. Still, you’ll understand how depressed I am because of this event.
It was such a dreadful fright, old chap; we were alone in the field when I heard that. But fortunately at least the poison has worn off now.
But what sort of a position is it, then, and what sort of a religion is it that these respectable people subscribe to? Oh, they’re simply absurd things and they make society into a sort of madhouse, into an upside-down, wrong world. Oh, that mysticism.
You understand that in these last few days everything, everything passed through my mind, and I was absorbed in this sad story. Now she’s tried this and it has not succeeded, I think she’s had such a shock that she won’t lightly try for the second time — a failed suicide is the best remedy for suicide in the future. But if she has a nervous breakdown or brain fever or something, then — — — Still, everything’s gone fairly well with her these first few days — only I fear there’ll be repercussions. Theo — old chap — I’m so upset by it. Regards, do drop me a line, because I’m speaking to no one here.
Do you remember that first Mme Bovary?