Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

Professor Elaine Showalter explores modernity, consciousness, gender and time in Virginia Woolf’s ground-breaking work, Mrs Dalloway. The film is shot around the streets of London, as well as at the British Library and at Gordon Square in Bloomsbury where Virginia and her siblings lived in the early 20th century. The film offers rare glimpses into the manuscript draft of the novel.

So here it is, this beautiful notebook, you can just see her thinking. It is an amazing guide to a writer’s mind. It took Woolf a long time to work out the form of the novel, and what’s wonderful about being able to see the manuscript is you can really follow to an extraordinary degree how her mind was working and the paths that she was blazing. I mean, she’s not following them, she’s discovering them as she writes. She set out to have the novel set on a single day in June, 1923, which was an important choice because she had just been reading Ulysses, one of the great single day novels, which famously is set on June 16th. So the novel is as she intended from the beginning, it’s partly constructed to give us the whole breadth of London contained in a rather small spatial segment. To cut across class, to cut across gender, definitely to cut across age.

And then how to present all these characters and how to connect them to each other? London is an organism, it’s a living part of the book. You go through it and you go through the day in London and the city itself changes as people change, and it has its own moments as it moves through the day marked by the bells. But how do people then relate to each other, how do you go across the city and show them?

Of course, the novel is Mrs Dalloway, so you have Clarissa Dalloway at the centre, and very daringly I think, identified as Mrs Dalloway, and that’s the title of the book, that was so special. You’ve had many novels named for the heroine, Jane Eyre and so on, but Mrs Dalloway is so specific, the signature, the woman whose identity is now subsumed in marriage. Woolf realised that Clarissa had to be seen and she had to be seen by people who knew her and people who were in a relationship to her as well as to strangers that she passed walking through London, or people who served her. She had the concept of pairing Clarissa with a young man who was a veteran of the war, the Great War, a shell shocked veteran who had come back, Septimus Smith, and they were to be contrasted, and she says, insanity and madness, Clarissa the sane figure, Septimus mad and getting madder as the book goes on, his vision much more disturbed and explosive and visionary. But then she began to think it needed more than that, you needed people, other people to look at Clarissa and remember her, and remember her at different points in her life. And so in comes Peter Walsh, So you follow him in London and you follow Septimus Smith in London, and you follow Clarissa. There are the great themes of the novel, which have to do with ageing and mortality, and the meaning of life. That’s what they’re really asking, what is it about at this moment, 1923, five years after the Armistice, what does life mean? They’ve been through the Great War, so shattering, so terrible, so transformative, what is going to happen now? What is going to happen to the Empire? What is going to happen to the city of London, and it’s already begun to change and renew itself after the war

Then how to organise all of this material? She’d been reading a lot of Greek plays and she thought, could there be some kind of chorus that would show you how you were moving through the day? And then she thought, no, what was natural in London was the sound of the bells, Big Ben and all the other church bells, St. Margaret’s, you know, just at the base of Big Ben. And to punctuate the story by having these bells as a counter point to each other going off at the quarter hour, the half hour, the hour, each kind of echoing and resonating in the air of London on this beautiful June day in the middle of the heat wave. In the manuscripts you see this because there are spaces between various narrative sections, and in British edition there are 12 spaces so there are 12 hours of the day.

Caption: 46 Gordon Square

Here we are, it’s the middle of June, we’re in the kind of moment in the season when Mrs Dalloway takes place and we’re in 46 Gordon Square, which was the house in Bloomsbury, which Virginia Stephen and her siblings moved to after their father’s death. It was the beginning of the Bloomsbury Group.

Caption: Modernity

Woolf was really struck by the changes in the aftermath of the Great War. They were changes that affected the class system, but that also affected the family, human changes, personal changes, changes between, she said, parents and children, husbands and wives. And when human relations changed the whole social structure changed, the political structure changed, the society changed. She wanted to represent that, first of all in details, the details of modernity, so the novel is full of cars, automobiles, there’s an aeroplane, something very new, I mean brand new in 1922. There’s the cinema, also a new way of entertaining people, people being entertained, but also a new way of perceiving the world, which was very influential for her.

Caption: Finding new literary forms

There’s a tremendous shift after the War between the fiction of the Edwardian generation and for Woolf’s generation of the early Modernists. Like any group of writers they look back on the previous one with some scorn, they want to rebel against them, they want to do something very different, but this was a striking, dramatic shift. The Edwardians wrote about character, wrote about society in terms of fact. They would want to say how much does a character make every year, what’s his salary, what’s his daily diet, where does he shop? Where do the women spend their time, what do they have for tea? and all that data, Woolf felt was superficial and simply materialistic, she wanted to get at something else, and her generation of writers, Proust, Joyce of course, were aiming for something that became described as consciousness. The idea that there was an internal reality, a way of dealing with personality that was more psychological, more interior, less determined by external fact and by the things that you owned and the places that you worked.

Caption: Representing multiple perspectives

Rather than have the omniscient narrator of 19th century fiction and Edwardian fiction, Woolf thought that the narrative should be managed by multiple perspectives. There’s not one all-knowing narrator, there are several different points of view in the story, and that’s why it was very important for her to have her characters not only see but be seen. You have to look at them from a number of points of view. She needed to show what she calls psychological notation. What is the interior reality? What is happening inside as people see the world, as they live in it with their own memories, fantasies, projections, associations, and as they are perceived by the people they encounter?

Caption: Art and psychoanalysis

There were a lot of elements in the culture of the 1920s really that formed how she’s going to get her narrative to reflect all of these elements. First of all there was Cubism, she was very struck, all of her generation, Bloomsbury generation, very, very struck by the first shows of the Post Impressionists and the Cubists. The concept of Cubism was to represent an object in space from several different angles and perspectives, taken at different times, and the combine them all on the two dimensional picture plane so that you had in the object not only the idea of the three dimensions, which had been developed in art, you know, way to the Renaissance, but the idea of the fourth dimension of time. That idea of multiple perspectives was very influential. Then of course there was psychoanalysis, and the Woolf’s at Hogarth Press had begun to publish Freud in the early 1920s, the translations of Freud. Woolf was not a Freudian but she certainly got from Freud the idea that personality is layered and complex, it’s composed of memories, it’s composed of dreams and fantasies, it’s very much formed in childhood, and all of these are reflected in the novel.

Caption: The influence of film

Woolf was actually an early fan of the movies, although it doesn’t show up very much in her diaries, very few entries where she said, tonight we went to the cinema. But it does show up in the fiction and it shows up in at least one essay that she wrote when she was absolutely overwhelmed by the power of film to represent urban society, the city particularly, and to give a new sense of relationships between people. So in the novel she’s adapting, in a way, the techniques of film montage, having images next to each other, the close up, the tracking shot where you move along a street, you know, from one person to another.

Caption: The female body

In the novel, Mrs Dalloway is seen right away going to buy the flowers for her party. Her house maid, Lucy, is cleaning and she doesn’t want to bother her, but she also wants to go herself, so the novel begins with her buying flowers at Bond Street. And the flowers are identified, I think Woolf names 24 different kinds of flowers available on a June day in London, beautiful flowers, and flowers with beautiful names. And the flowers are also a symbol of women, and they’ve always been in literature a symbol of women. The rose just coming into bloom, the bud, this is the daughter, Elizabeth, the young girl. And then the flower, which is now fading and passed its prime, the petals falling off, and Clarissa feels she’s gone through that age, she is now the rose that is drooping, that is dying, that is faded

We have to understand when we read Mrs Dalloway that in the 1920s menopause was seen not only as a kind of death for women, but almost as a mental disorder. I mean there was really a feeling that women changed so profoundly with menopause that their life was significantly over, and Mrs Dalloway’s very much a victim of this thinking as Woolf herself was.

Traditionally in fiction, houses, particularly in women’s writing, houses are an image of the female body, and you get this all the way back to Jane Eyre, very much to the Gothic novel, and the attic is kind of the psyche, the cellar is the sexuality and so on. And there’s a scene where Clarissa goes upstairs to her bedroom to take a nap, and that room, that attic room is represented as her psyche, it’s a place of death, it’s a place where she is no longer feminine, she’s no longer a woman, she is somebody who must–, there’s a phrase, women at noon must remove their rich apparel. The female body is kind of stripped of all of its beauty, of all of its richness outside and inside as well, the womb is empty, and this attic room is empty, it’s a symbol of death and it’s a kind of centre point in the novel, it’s a point from which she recovers but it is a moment in which her moment of life, her time of life is very much associated with death.

Caption: Septimus Smith

Septimus Smith, is a self made, self educated, in a sense, young man who went into the war and was in some sense psychologically destroyed by it. He is a victim of what was then known as shell shock, or now post traumatic stress disorder, and for a long time was believed to have been actually the result of being near an exploding shell. But doctors began to understand, even during the war, that it was not a physical phenomenon, that it was caused by stress, by grief, by the conflict between the training of soldiers and their training in masculinity, their expectations of themselves as men, that they would be brave, that they were at least to act brave, to suppress their emotions. Septimus too is trying to practise this through the war notably when his closest friend is blown up in front of him. His idea of courage, of masculinity is to carry on, you know, the stiff upper lip, don’t give in, don’t show any emotion, just move on, forget it, put it behind you, and he’s realised that he can’t do this. Now, he’s treated as a victim of shell shock.

Septimus I think is really becoming psychotic and he draws not only on the whole history and experience of shell shock, but also on Virginia Woolf’s experiences with madness. We don’t really know how to diagnose it precisely, how to define it, but she did have hallucinations

This is a society, which is really governed by rules and manners and decorum, and the term that Virginia Woolf uses, proportion, how you behave, where you behave, the degree to which you express yourself, all of this is kind of strictly regulated and internalised. And Septimus Smith is someone who is so disruptive, he completely explodes all of these rules. And for Woolf this also a kind of symbol of what was happening to the society itself, it could no longer –, it was bursting out of those rules and regulations, and that was also a good thing, a positive thing. So there are two extremes of it, there are some of the people that come to the party who were still prisoners of manners and prisoners of proportion, and then there’s Septimus about whom she hears at the party who is the sign of something completely new, really a shell itself exploding in the midst of their society.

Caption: The party

The party takes place late, and the guests begin to arrive, they come from many different stages of Clarissa’s life, from many different parts of her life in London now. They come from many different classes, there is her old nurse, her old nanny, there are poor relatives who didn’t expect to be invited, there are boring people, there are pompous people, there are people of proportion. As it goes on it becomes a kind of procession of life, it comes together with a kind of human spirit, and joy begins to flow apart from her efforts as a hostess. So at the end it becomes a symbol of community and of life going on, it’s one of those wonderful processions the procession of humanity really, all generations, all ages, and to some degree all classes merging together.

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