Mrs Dalloway

Bloomsbury Group houses Gordon Square

Some of the houses the Bloomsbury Group lived in in Gordon Square

“Mr and Mrs Richard Dalloway 23, Browne Street Mayfair…….

The truth was that Mr and Mrs Dalloway had found themselves stranded in Lisbon. They had been travelling on the continent for some weeks, chiefly with the view of broadening Mr Dalloway’s mind. Unable for a season, by one of the accidents of political life, to serve his country in Parliament, Mr Dalloway was doing the best he could to serve it out of Parliament. For that purpose the Latin countries did very well, although the East, of course, would have done better.”

(The Voyage Out, 1913)

 

We first meet the Dalloways in Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1913 but begun in 1907. They do not acquit themselves in a good light. They are privately critical and dismissive of the Vinraces and the Ambroses and the rest on board the Euphrosyne. Richard Dalloway lustfully steals a kiss from the young and inexperienced in love, Rachel, before they depart the scene, the cad.

In ,The Voyage Out, Richard Dalloway is on his travels purportedly exploring other countries, taking the temperature, trying the waters, finding out the mood, discovering what is going on in the rest of the world. Knowledge which will serve him in his quest to serve his country, supposedly. He is a character on the fringes of power. It appears that he is temporarily side-lined, out of office.

When Virginia Woolf comes to write, Mrs Dalloway, first entitled, The Hours, in 1923 and then published in 1925 as Mrs Dalloway not much has changed in his career. He is still on the edges of power, more the errand boy than the master. His usefulness seems to be in his keenness to serve, but his wife, Clarissa, has become a successful hostess who can gather the right sorts together for a dinner party; the rich, the famous and the powerful and in this respect outshines by far her husband. In this novel Richard is a much more shadowy figure than he appears in The Voyage Out while his wife Clarissa is at the forefront, the schemer and manipulator.

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Virginia’s bust in Tavistock Square.

The arc of the story happens in one day. In the morning we see Clarissa Dalloway organising the servants, fussing about her dinner party to be held that evening, worrying, thinking, arranging.

Virginia Woolf, expands on her experiments in novel writing. Jacobs Room, her previous novel, is fractured in its style, moving from one scene, one character to another, changing perspective, experiencing characters from different viewpoints and time shifts. It is a harsh and angular novel. Mrs Dalloway is much more tightly constructed within a short time span and within settings closely linked to each other and the characters much more obviously connected. The shifts in viewpoint, the changes of character and setting are much more tightly controlled and smoother in execution.

There are some major issues dealt with in Mrs Dalloway which were challenging issues at the time Virginia Woolf was writing and still remain so in many respects today. She deals with insanity, divorce, love, political influence and the class system in society; the aristocracy and those on the verges of the aristocracy. The servants are there in the background doing their job.

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Tavistock Square sign. The square Virginia and Leonard live in for a while.

Virginia Woolf  again, in Mrs Dalloway, explores love. Peter Walsh has returned from India. He is an old flame of Clarissa’s. It is evident that he was in love with her in the past and although he won’t admit it and tries to deny it, he still is and the finishing few lines of the novel make this most apparent. Love, to Virginia Woolf is a force of nature that is beyond consciousness and the will. He is back in England to arrange with his lawyers in Lincolns Inn the divorce proceedings for the young lady he is betrothed to back in India , the present wife of a major in the Indian Army. We can see the disastrous consequences of his actions. He is obviously on a pathway to ruin, socially and probably economically. Divorce was a taboo action to take at the time Virginia Woolf lived. But heartbreakingly we are all aware of his real love and that is for Clarissa. Virginia Woolf lays all this out for us and we feel and anguish but there is no conclusion or nice rounding up of the loose ends. The novel leaves all these characters still struggling for and not achieving their goals.

Virginia wallked along here to the Ouse

The pathway from Monks House to the Ouse

But the exploration of love as a theme is nothing to Virginia Woolfs exploration of insanity and madness. Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Rezia, who The Dalloways do not know, even of their existence, is carefully, almost forcefully interwoven into the fabric of this novel. His story creates one of the strongest emotional and thought provoking reactions. Sir Wiiliam Bradshaw, who Clarissa does know and who is invited to her party along with his wife Lady Bradshaw, is a Harley Street consultant dealing with people suffering from insanity. Sir William has to treat Septimus Smith. These scenes are intense and deeply felt and have repurcussions at Clarissas diner party when Sir William arrives late because of a certain tragic incident involving Septimus Smith. Virgina woolf expertly weaves characters who do not meet or know each other into the tightly constructed fabric of the novel. Every character has an emphatic role to play.

The description of Septimus Smith’s emotions, feelings and thoughts as he mentally disintegrates are very powerful. As a reader you can feel his emotions and life itself being crushed. Sir William Bradshaw’s treatment of Septimus Smith damns the  medical profession who promote their non existant godlike qualities. Bradshaw believes that there is nothing wrong with Septimus, he needs to attain a certain, “proportion,” in his life, that is all. He proposes to send him away to one of his mental institutions in the country, to help him achieve this so called, “proportion.” Of course Sir William has proportion in his own life giving every patient exactly 40 minutes of his time, charging a fixed extortionate price for his words of wisdom which Virgina Woolf infers is valueless. The words of a quack.He is concerned about keeping his wife in the jewels and luxury she expects and he does it all in an unruffled distant emotionless way. The expensive fees keep Sir William and his wife in the state of luxury they have become used to. A heartless man who has found his niche in a society that values appearance and the social order and doesn’t want to look beneath the surface at reallity. Sir Williams measured, calm, logical, advice administered at an emotional distance causes Septimus to eventually leap from the window of his home to impale himself on the spiked railings beneath and commit suicide, horribly. Septimus’s wife Rezia,”does not like that man.” We the reader are left horrified and shocked. But Virginia  Woolf’s depth of loathing and hatred for the ineptitude of Bradshaw and what he represents  is clear. Being late for Clarissas party because of this sad incident of the young man traumatised by his experiences in the trenches, Bradshaw quiets his conscience by talking to Richard Dalloway about what the government could do.

And Clarissa doesn’t like the look of  Sir William Bradshaw either.She too, ”does not like that man.” She cannot explain why, but something about him makes her think  she would not like to put herself in his hands. She would not feel safe.

Clarissas dinner party is a gathering of people who analyse each other, who move around each other with surface civility and subterranean dislike. There are Lord Gayton and Nancy Blow, Elizabeth and Professor Brierly and little Jim Hutton, “who wore red socks because his black were at the laundry.” There is Lady Rossiter, who used to be Sally Seton and so on and so forth. Everything seems cosy and friendly and the names give an intimacy. Words are spoken, thoughts are thought and apparent influence and advice is made, but it is all surface. Some characters are shadowy spectres who we only learn of through others reactions and thoughts; the Prime Minister who arrives at the party is experienced through the thoughts and reactions of others; the regal car in Piccadilly and St James’s Street and who might be inside, behind its shaded windows. Then there are the characters who are opinionated and you feel sorry for them in their pompous certainties because you know they are wrong and out of date. There are small memories of Bourton with Richard and Peter and Sally Seton and their uncomplicated relationships. A time when Clarissa and her friends met and socialised at this idyllic place in an idyllic past. We assume it is a time pre war when the world was a different place.

One apt and prescient aside that Virginia Woolf makes about Richard Dalloway and which in a way refers back to his conduct with Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out is her comparison of him to Wickham. A few Jane Austen fans will laugh at that no doubt.

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The Sussex Downs.

Mrs Dalloway gives a striking portrait of society and the world at the beginning of the last century after the Great War. We sense its falseness and insincerity. A society needing change.