May 11: Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

After making his round-the-world wager with his friends at the Reform Club, Phileas Fogg strides to his home at 7 Saville Row, several blocks away, to collect some clothes and his newly hired servant Jean Passepartout. Halfway there, he crosses the route that would be taken by Clarissa Dalloway fifty years later (had she, or he, actually existed), on her way to nearby Bond Street to buy flowers for her party that evening. Woolf begins her novel with Clarissa’s meditative stroll, which becomes a kind of hymn to the joys of London:

Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

Mrs Dalloway (1925) is one of the most localized of books, both in time and space, taking place on a single day in June 1923 within a few fashionable neighborhoods of central London. It might have seemed more logical to begin our journey with Woolf’s picaresque, uncanny Orlando, whose hero has an affair with a Russian princess before changing sex in Constantinople and becoming the book’s heroine. Or with the globe-spanning Joseph Conrad, with novels set in Malaysia and Latin America, whose Heart of Darkness takes us from London to the Belgian Congo and back again. Yet it makes sense to begin with a novel set squarely in London, not only because this is our point of departure but because Mrs Dalloway already shows London becoming the world city it is today. Clarissa’s former suitor Peter Walsh has returned from India in order to arrange a divorce; her daughter’s tutor and possible lover, Miss Kilman, feels radically out of place in an England that only recently was locked in a life-or-death struggle with her native Germany; and the Italian war bride Rezia struggles to adapt to London life and to rescue her shell-shocked husband Septimus Warren Smith from the brink of suicide.

The world has certainly come home to London, most ominously in the form of World War One, whose aftershocks resonate throughout the city and through the novel. Even as Clarissa enjoys “life; London; this moment of June,” she also hears “the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead.” This turns out to be a sky-writing biplane advertising a product that people on the ground try to make out (toffee? Glaxo pharmaceuticals?). Yet the plane’s approach seems oddly like an air raid, its effects almost fatal:

     Suddenly Mrs. Coates looked up into the sky. The sound of an aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd. There it was coming over the trees, letting out white smoke from behind, which curled and twisted. . . . . Dropping dead down the aeroplane soared straight up, curved in a loop, raced, sank, rose . . . . and again, in a   fresh space of sky, began writing a K, an E, a Y perhaps?

     “Glaxo,” said Mrs. Coates in a strained, awe-stricken voice, gazing straight up, and   her baby, lying stiff and white in her arms, gazed straight up.

 Sky-writing had actually been invented that year by the aptly named Major Jack Savage, recently retired from the Royal Air Force; he wrote his aerial advertisements using planes decommissioned from the RAF after the war’s end. 

Mrs Dalloway is haunted by the chaos that lies just outside the comfortable boundaries of Clarissa’s upper-class environment. Anything at all can shake the foundations of a still fragile postwar world. As the biplane flies overhead, a curtained limousine glides along Bond Street, causing a stir of excitement, though no one can see who is inside the car as it heads to Buckingham Palace. Its discrete glamour stirs patriotic sentiments in prosperous gentlemen and an impoverished flower-seller, but also thoughts of loss and even a near-riot:

in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire. In a public house in a back street a Colonial insulted the House of Windsor which led to words, broken beer glasses, and a general shindy, which echoed strangely across the way in the ears of girls buying white underlinen threaded with pure white ribbon for their weddings. For the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound.

A few blocks away in Regent’s Park, worried sick about her husband’s erratic behavior, Rezia senses England’s entire civilization dropping away, leaving her in a primeval wasteland:

     “For you should see the Milan gardens,” she said aloud. But to whom?

     There was nobody. Her words faded. So a rocket fades. Its sparks, having grazed their way into the night, surrender to it, dark descends, pours over the outlines of houses and towers; bleak hillsides soften and fall in. . . . as perhaps at midnight, when all boundaries are lost, the country reverts to its ancient shape, as the Romans saw it, lying cloudy, when they landed, and the hills had no names and rivers wound they knew not where – such was her darkness. . . .

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s hard-bitten hero Marlow had already compared the European scramble for Africa with the Roman conquest of a dank and primitive England: “marshes, forests, savages, – precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink.” Woolf brings the comparison home. Amid all of Clarissa’s upper-class comforts – the irises and delphiniums, the dove-grey gloves, the Prime Minister dropping by her party – her London bears more than a passing resemblance to Conrad’s heart of darkness. Even Mr. Kurtz’s famous last words – “The horror! The horror!” – are echoed in a mounting crescendo in the novel’s opening pages. First, Clarissa recalls “the horror of the moment” when she learned of Peter Walsh’s impending marriage; then the shell-shocked Septimus feels “as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames,” and finally nineteen-year-old Maisie Johnson, newly arrived from Scotland seeking employment, is disturbed by Septimus’s behavior, and she wishes she’d never come to town: “Horror! horror! she wanted to cry. (She had left her people; they had warned her what would happen.) Why hadn’t she stayed at home? she cried, twisting the knob of the iron railing.”

Virginia Woolf was a lifelong Londoner, but she was also a citizen of a wider literary world. She was studying Russian when she began work on the novel, and she read Sophocles and Euripides in Greek as she finished it. She also took a close, quizzical interest in foreign-born writers on the English scene, including Conrad, Henry James, and her friend T.S. Eliot. In her essay collection The Common Reader (published in the same year as Mrs Dalloway) she wrote that “instances will occur to everybody of American writers in particular who have written with the highest discrimination of our literature and of ourselves; who have lived a lifetime among us,  and finally have taken legal steps to become subjects of King George. For all that, have they understood us, have they not remained to the end of their days foreigners?”


  A feminist, a socialist, and a pacifist in a largely patriarchal, capitalist, and imperialist England, Woolf herself often felt like a foreigner at home. A slyly subversive streak, though, ran through her serious commitment to pacifist anti-imperialism. In 1910 she donned a cross-dressing disguise to join her brother Adrian and several friends in a “state visit” to the warship H.M.S. Dreadnought, anchored in Portsmouth. The visitors were welcomed with an honor guard and given a tour of the ship; they expressed their admiration with cries of “Bunga! Bunga!” Conversing in a gibberish made up of Latin and Greek, they bestowed bogus military honors on the clueless officers and returned to London unexposed. The Royal Navy was deeply embarrassed when the friends published an account of the hoax, complete with a formal photo of the delegation, in the London Daily Mirror. (Woolf is the hirsute gentleman on the left.)


Woolf on left

  The foreign and the familiar constantly intermingle in Woolf’s work. In The Common Reader, she describes the disorienting strangeness of Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, yet she drew deeply on their work to find resources not available to her in Victorian fiction. Her description of Chekhov’s stories could be an account of Mrs Dalloway itself: “Once the eye is used to these shades, half the ‘conclusions’ of fiction fade into thin air; they show like transparences with a light behind them – gaudy, glaring, superficial. . . . In consequence, as we read these little stories about nothing at all, the horizon widens; the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom.” Mrs Dalloway is imbued as well with Woolf’s admiration for Proust (“My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that?”), and her more ambivalent response to Joyce’s Ulysses, which she described in print as “a memorable catastrophe” and in private as the work of “an undergraduate scratching his pimples.” Devising her own version of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique, and like him adapting the ancient Greek unities of time and place for her novel, Woolf draws on Sophocles and Euripides as well as on Chekhov, Conrad, Eliot, Joyce, and Proust.


    Yet her London isn’t the “unreal city” of Eliot’s Waste Land but an intensely present world. Woolf’s shifting, glancing sentences emphasize nuance and openness to experience, not the imposing mastery of her male counterparts. As she wrote in her great essay A Room of One’s Own, the shadow of the letter “I” too often falls across their pages. As Clarissa walks to Bond Street to buy her flowers, she reflects that “her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct.” She loves London’s “hosts of people; and dancing all night; and the wagons plodding past to market . . . what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab.” No one has ever surpassed Woolf’s ability to create scenes in which the most serious concerns – world war, madness, the unbridgeable gaps between men and women – emerge from “this, here, now.”     At the same time, Woolf shows us the here and now on the threshold of death, and she sees her London almost with an archaeologist’s eye. When the curtained limousine glides down Bond Street,


  there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within . . . . the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time, when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth. The face in the motor car will then be known.


Woolf’s panoramic framing of her local scenes fueled the book’s circulation out into the world, embraced by readers around the globe who wouldn’t be able to locate Bond Street or even London itself on a map. In 1998 Michael Cunningham’s best-selling reworking of the novel, The Hours – Woolf’s original title – set the story in Los Angeles and Greenwich Village. Writing on a different continent and for a new generation, Cunningham expanded on the theme of same-sex desire that Woolf had only hinted at in the figure of Miss Kilman and in Clarissa’s early crush on the free-spirited Sally Seton, whose ardent kiss she vividly recalls decades later. But then, Woolf’s subtly subversive book was never confined to its immediate time and place. The most local of novels, Mrs Dalloway is also one of the most worldly books ever written, a long day’s journey into life; London; this moment of June.