The first line jolts the reader:
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself. (146)
Gloves? Surely that should be flowers?
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. (5)
The gloves are from Virginia Woolf’s short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street (1923). The flowers are from the opening line of the novel Mrs Dalloway, published later in 1925.
Wednesday 19thJune is Dalloway Day. I contribute this post (somewhat revised from its earlier connection to #Woolfalong in 2016) which has been popular since it first appeared.
Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway appears in Virginia Woolf’s fiction on several occasions. First in The Voyage Out (1915), then in the short story, then in the novel and finally in several short stories written after Mrs Dalloway. We can conclude that Virginia Woolf found her useful to her writing.
Mrs Dalloway does indeed buy some gloves right at the end of this story, which is less than 8 pages long. The gloves are French, white, half an inch over the elbow with pearl buttons. As in the novel we follow Clarissa through the streets from her home in Westminster.
The story is an early experiment in stream of consciousness, a technique to convey the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness experienced by Clarissa. She leaves her house, meets an old friend, remembers the death of another, notices the other people in Bond Street and enters the glove shop. Virginia Woolf records the variety of thoughts in Clarissa’s head, memories, impressions, things she observes and muses upon, including the feeling of familiarity about the other customer in the glove shop. And then …
There was a violent explosion in the street outside. The shop-woman cowered behind the counters. But Clarissa, sitting very upright, smiled at the other lady. ‘Miss Anstruther!’ she exclaimed. (153)
And so the story ends.
The appearances of Mrs Dalloway
We first met Clarissa on the ship sailing to South America in The Voyage Out. She and her husband join the Euphrosyne in the stormy passage from Lisbon to the African coast. Clarissa is portrayed as slight, rather empty-headed but also generous and gracious, a striker of attitudes.
‘It’s so like Whistler!’ she exclaimed, with a wave towards the shore, as she shook Rachel by the hand … (36)
After her departure Mrs Dalloway is described by a more modern woman:
‘She was quite nice, but a thimble-pated creature.’ Helen continued. ‘I’ve never heard such nonsense! Chitter-chatter-chitter-chatter – fish and the Greek alphabet! – never listened to a word any one said – chock-full of idiotic theories about the way to bring up children. ‘(79)
I love the ‘thimble-pated creature’.
In the short story she is more fleshed out, has more of an interior life, and indeed her inner life is the point of the story.
She mounted the little hill lightly. The air stirred with energy. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Piccadilly and Arlington Street and the Mall seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, upon waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To ride; to dance; she had adored all that. Or going [for] long walks in the country, talking about books, what to do with one’s life, for young people were amazingly priggish – Oh the things one had said! But one had conviction. Middle age is the devil. People like Jack will never know that, she thought; for he never once thought of death, never, they said, knowing he was dying. And now can never mourn – how did it go? – a head grown grey . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain . . . have drunk their cup a round or two before. . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain! She held herself upright. (148)
She has moved from thinking about the Admiralty, to the park, her youthful self, and the death of her friend Jack to quoting Shelley’s poem Adonais. (Also quoted by her in The Voyage Out, where she exclaims ‘I feel there’s almost everything one wants in “Adonais”.’ (40) The short story touches upon genealogy, the social changes brought by the war, the possibility of generosity to the shop woman, class; in short many of the themes of Mrs Dalloway.
The most significant later addition found in the novel is Septimus, a damaged victim of the war who brings a sense of tragedy and inhumanity to Mrs Dalloway. However the damage inflicted by the war was present in Mrs Dalloway’s expedition to buy gloves. It is a lesser, more sketchy idea that Mrs Dalloway expresses as she makes her purchase:
Thousands of young men had died that things might go on. (153)
The story grew as Virginia Woolf noted in her diary. ‘Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide,’ (October 1922, 52).
Through writing Mrs DallowayVirginia Woolf developed what she called her ‘tunnelling process, by which I tell the past by instalments, as I have need of it.’ Not surprisingly Mrs Dalloway was turning out to be a richer character than her earlier appearances in The Voyage Out or Bond Street.
The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering, too tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support. (October 1923. 61)
And as she worked on the novel she reflected on her writing processes, what she was achieving. After returning from Charleston one evening in August 1924 she recorded:
I don’t often trouble now to describe cornfields and groups of harvesting women in loose blues and reds, and little staring yellow frocked girls. …All my nerves stood upright, flushed, electrified (what’s the word?) with the sheer beauty – beauty surrounding and superabounding. So that one almost resents it, not being capable of catching it all and holding it all at the moment. One’s progress through life is made immensely interesting by trying to grasp all these developments as one passes. I feel as if I were putting out my fingers tentatively on (here is Leonard, …) August 1924. 65)
One can make the argument that Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street is an early exercise in grasping all of that and in Mrs Dalloway she demonstrates her confident use of it.
Clarissa has walk-on parts in some of the stories written after the novel. In her diaries Virginia Woolf noted that Mrs D ‘ushers in a host of others, I begin to perceive’ (August 1922, 48). Clarissa’s party was a device for Virginia Woolf to explore the responses of a number of people in social situations. She wrote these while she was mulling over To The Lighthouse. Readers of that novel will be familiar with the extended evening meal in the first section of the book. By the time she wrote To The Lighthouse she could write of the inner world of several characters in the Ramsay household.
In The New Dress, I especially like the awkwardness experienced by Mabel Waring. Already lacking confidence and with a husband who has no interest in her, her social isolation is explored in the context of the wrong dress at Clarissa’s party. And I notice the disdain with which Mr Serle treats Miss Anning when they are introduced in Together and Apart. The interaction between the two is painfully observed.
There is so much to gain from reading these stories, especially in tracking the development of Virginia Woolf’s writing.
More Mrs Dalloway
The character was also drawn on by Michael Cunningham in The Hours, which was an early title for Mrs Dalloway.
There are still the flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour.
It is New York City. It is the end of the twentieth century. (9)
So, New York, twenty years ago, not the effects of the Great War on London, but of HIV/Aids on the US.
As Clarissa works so well for writers, perhaps you have written a Mrs Dalloway story? Perhaps you will now?
A Haunted House, the complete shorter fiction by Virginia Woolf. Introduction by Helen Simpson, Edited by Susan Dick Published by Vintage in 2003. 314pp
The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1915
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1925
The Hours by Michael Cunningham published in 1998. Paperback edition by 4thEstate. 226pp
There are 7 more posts on this blog that explore Virginia Woolf, in words, in dance and in art. Click on her name in the wordcloud to find more.
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