Virginia Woolf was one of the most eminent modernist writers and a pioneer for women’s rights, author of classics like To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928). In her preface for the 1928 Modern library edition of Mrs Dalloway, she noted that “books are the flowers or fruit stuck here and there on a tree which has its roots deep down in our earliest life.” This may be a reminiscence of the romantic poet John Keats, who in 1818 wrote: “if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves come to a tree, it had better not come at all”. Similarly, the lyrical novel Mrs Dalloway sprung spontaneously from Woolf’s mind. “In some ways this book is a feat, finished without break from illness, which is an exception; and written really, in one year”, she wrote in her diary on Friday 17th October 1924.
Mrs Dalloway came out in 1925 for Hogarth Press, following Jacob’s room (1922). The novel depicts a day in the life of the mundane Clarissa Dalloway. Her character had already appeared in The Voyage Out (1915) and Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street (published in 1922 in “The Dial”). The reader follows her strolling through the center of London on Wednesday 13th June 1923, the day of Wotan, god of war. In James Joyce‘s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom walks the streets of Dublin on 16 June. Woolf was reading Ulysses while writing Mrs Dalloway.
Clarissa goes to Bond Street in the morning to buy some flowers, gets back home, greets her old friend Peter Walsh and gives a party in the evening. Her life in Westminster may seem frivolous. On the other hand, Mrs Dalloway is mirrored by her doppelgänger Septimus Warren Smith (the anagram of “war smitten”), a World War I veteran suffering from shell shock (post-traumatic stress disorder). Woolf probably knew Sigmund Freud‘s essay on war neurosis published by Hogarth Press in 1919. Moreover, she had read Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Sigfried Sassoon. That is to say, young British poets who were either injured or died in war. “I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and insane side by side,” Woolf wrote in her diary on Sunday 14th October 1922.
Fear no more the heat of the sun
In Woolf’s first concept of the novel, Clarissa should have been alone, without a doppelgänger. She would have killed herself or would have died at the end of the party, leaving behind her vapid life.
Nevertheless, on 4th October 1922, while Virginia was writing Mrs Dalloway, her friend Kitty Maxse died falling from the stairs in what might have been a suicide. Kitty Maxse (née Lushington) had been a frequent visitor to the Stephen household and a motherly figure to Virginia.
As a result, Clarissa got a double, a scapegoat who dies in her place. Before throwing himself out of a window, Septimus feels the heat of the sun on his skin. While looking at the Hatchards’ shop window in Piccadilly, Clarissa reads to herself: “Fear no more the heat of the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages.” This is a quote from William Shakespeare‘s Cymbeline, Act IV, Scene 2: the funeral elegy pronounced by Guiderius and Arviragus for the pageboy Fidele. However, he turns out to be alive: his true identity is in fact that of Imogen, king Cymbeline’s daughter.
Always, the hours
Mrs Dalloway‘s working title was The Hours. On 9 November 1922, in the third Jacob’s Room manuscript notebook, Virginia listed the sequence: “Hours. 10. 11. 12. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 1. 2. 3.”, followed by a description of what should have happened at each striking of the clock. Furthermore, the city of London works as a principle of structure in the novel. The idea of chronotope was developed by Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher, literary critic and scholar, in his Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: “We will give the name chronotope (literally, ‘time space’) to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature.”
Moreover, Woolf’s new method, the “tunneling process”, is based on the coexistence of past and present in the caves she digs behind her characters. The French philosopher Henri Bergson developed the idea of durée, duration, “lived time,” the time of our inner subjective experience: if we plunge back into our deeper spiritual life, we find ourselves in a “duration in which the past, always moving on, is swelling unceasingly with a present that is absolutely new.” In St Regents Park, when Lucrezia tells Septimus “it’s time to go”, his insane imagination blooms:
The word ‘time’ split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard, white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time.
Death enters Clarissa’s party when Lady Bradshaw, doctor William Bradshaw’s wife, mentions Septimus’s suicide. Troubled by the news, Clarissa isolates herself from the crowd into a dark room and sees an old woman in the house across the way going to bed. Then she reaches back to her guests. Peter Walsh states that Clarissa “is there” and “was there” in two close sentences. Again, past and present coexist. It is only through time that Time itself may be gained back.
The American novelist and screenwriter Michael Cunningham drew inspiration from Virginia Woolf’s life and Mrs Dalloway for his postmodern novel The Hours, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Guardian included Mrs Dalloway in its list of the 100 best English-language novels selected by Robert McCrum.