Tag Archives: Oxford World Classics

Mrs Dalloway on Dalloway Day

I had planned my summer around a week in Cambridge joining others to think about Virginia Woolf and her women. You know what happened to that. I am hoping that I can do it in 2021. Meanwhile, whatever else happens, it is DALLOWAY DAY today, Wednesday 17th June 2020.

And to celebrate, here again is the post I wrote after rereading Mrs Dalloway in preparation for my summer expedition, a slight revision from the version published on this blog in February.

Mrs Dalloway

In her diary as she was writing Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf expressed her ambitions for this novel.

In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense. [June 19th 1923, p57]

The events of this novel take place over a single day in the summer of 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a Conservative MP, living in Westminster, London, is giving a party in the evening. It is June and the day is hot. She leaves her house to fetch some flowers for the party. 

She meets various acquaintances who reappear later, as well as passing close to a damaged First World War veteran who is waiting to see the nerve expert Sir William Bradshaw. Before the party she is visited by a man who she last saw when she was a young woman, having refused to marry him. Peter Walsh has been in India. 

Clarissa is concerned because her husband has accepted an invitation to lunch with Mrs Bruton. This formidable lady seeks his help with a eugenics programme to send good quality people to Canada. And she has dealings with her daughter’s tutor, Miss Kilman, an evangelist, who seems to Clarissa to have stolen Elizabeth. 

The story moves easily through Clarissa’s thoughts as well as the points of view of other characters. Among the most striking is Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran who is suffering from what we would call PTSD, then known as war neurosis. The doctors he consults say all he needs is rest. Both he and his wife Rezia are made desperate by the absence of help from the medical profession. Septimus commits suicide as Dr Holmes arrives to take him away for his rest cure. 

In the party everything comes together. Clarissa entertains her guests, even the Prime Minister attends (I can’t resist mentioning that he is a figure of gravity, much revered by those attending). Also present are the people she has met during the day and from her past. Sir William Bradshaw arrives, bringing news of his patient’s suicide.

And I am wrong to say that the plot is contained within one day. For of course, all those lives have pasts (‘beautiful caves’), some interleaved with each other’s and Clarissa’s. And these too we enter to understand the events of the day and the characters. In her diary the author referred to

… how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters [30th August 1923, p60]

And a year later she used a different image to describe this feature of Mrs Dalloway:

… But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; … [August 15th 1924, p65]

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway and the women in the novel.

Clarissa Dalloway is the central character bringing everything together. As the title indicates she is married. Her decision to marry Richard Dalloway rather than Peter Walsh determined the direction of her mature life. We learn that she is frail, a victim and survivor of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that ravaged the country as the First World War ended. For this reason I do not like the ruddy-faced portrait on the Oxford edition. Clarissa had slight, thin features.

As she neared the end of composing the book Virginia Woolf worried about Clarissa. She refers to the design she has for the novel and how well it is all progressing.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering and tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support. [October 15th 1923, p61]

While it does seem that the people in her circle see her as rather lightweight, Virginia Woolf shows that she has strong liberal values, but is not always well-informed. The character of Miss Kilman (note the name) stands in complete opposition to Clarissa, with her certainties, especially in relation to love and religion. Clarissa reflects on the damage wrought by these things as she contemplates Miss Kilman.

The cruellest things in the world, she thought, seeing them clumsy, hot domineering, hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel and unscrupulous, dressed in a mackintosh coat, on the landing; love and religion. Had she ever tried to convert anyone herself? Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves? (p107)

Many of the characters are shown up by contrast to Clarissa. The odious Lady Bruton with her ideas about eugenics; Clarissa’s childhood acquaintances, one of whom has remained a mouse (Ellie Henderson) and the other despite great liveliness and unconventionality in her youth is now married to a rich farmer and has many sons (Sally Seton). One feels that Clarissa would have supported Rezia if they had met.

Life, death, sanity, insanity, the social system is all in Mrs Dalloway as Virginia Woolf intended. This novel also prompts us to think about time, its passage and effects, as Big Ben tolls throughout the day. And it is set in London, which despite later bomb damage is still recognisable today. The richness of this novel cannot be overpraised. I look forward to yet another rereading.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf published in 1925. I used the Oxford World’s Classics edition. 185 pp

Diary extracts from A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf published by Persephone Books (2012)

Previous posts on Mrs Dalloway

I have twice before written about Mrs Dalloway on Bookword.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing in July 2015

The second Mrs Dalloway in July 2019

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Is it a biography? Is it a novel? No! It’s a dog. It’s a pedigree red cocker spaniel. Flush belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and featured in two of her poems as well as in her correspondence with Robert Browning. He is a literary dog, and Virginia Woolf wrote his biography, an innovative mixture of fiction and fact.

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Flush’s life began in about 1840 in a village with a loving mistress, who gave him to the poet Elizabeth Barrett. Flush gave up the pleasure of the countryside to live in Wimpole Street and to become devoted to his new mistress. He had to learn the life of a pampered housedog, was torn apart by jealousy of Robert Browning when he began to visit, and by the terror of being dognapped.

This is not an anthropomorphic story. Virginia Woolf does not make Flush the dog into an almost human. He has values, affections, emotions, and confusions. But these are rooted in his dog-ness. The reader’s attention is never very far from the concerns of the humans.

As well as mixing fact and fiction Virginia Woolf was exploring the world from the point of view of a dog. That meant that she had to focus on smells. Luckily the Brownings eloped to Italy, which drew from Virginia Woolf some of her most descriptive writing.

But Flush wandered off into the streets of Florence to enjoy the rapture of smell. He threaded his path through main streets and back streets, through squares and alleys, by smell. He nosed his way from smell to smell; the rough, the smooth, the dark, the golden, where they bake bread, where the women sit combing their hair, where the bird-cages are piled high on the causeway, where the wine spills itself in dark red stains on the pavement, where leather smells and harness and garlic, where cloth is beaten, where vine leaves tremble, where men sit and drink and spit and dice – he ran in and out, always with his nose to the ground, drinking in the essence; or with his nose in the air vibrating with the aroma. (86-7)

And even more than the technique of writing with her nose, the writer was looking at the world in an innovative way, and in particular using a witness to the experiences of a woman poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Flush is a guide for the reader, for example by his reaction to Elizabeth’s fearsome father who visits every evening to check that she has eaten. Having benefited from his mistress’s small appetite, Flush slinks away, leaving Elizabeth to her father’s approval. Through Flush’s story we can look at her life as a young woman under her father’s tyrannical rule, at her time as an invalid, at her growing affection for Robert Browning, and finally at their life in Italy. There is the subtle parallel between a young woman’s life and a dog’s. And Flush is a witness to the social and economic contrasts in London, cheek by jowl so to speak, the poverty that exists adjacent to Wimpole Street. This is not a silly or sweet book.

Publishing Flush

Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931) was experimental and had been tough to produce. Flush was written ‘by way of a change’ (diary 23.12.32). As she worked on it she felt restricted by the imperative to complete it, ‘that abominable dog Flush’ (diary 3.1.33) wanting to get on with The Years.

She rightly predicted that in the longer term Flush would be seen as less significant than many of her other novels, describing it in her frustration as ‘that silly book’ (diary 28.4.33).

Virginia Woolf was not at all sure how Flush would be received. She was afraid that readers would react to it as if it were a sentimental book, and that her reputation would be damaged.

Flush will be out on Thursday and I shall be very much depressed, I think, by the kind of praise. They’ll say it’s “charming”, delicate, ladylike. And it will be popular. Well now I must let this slip over me without paying it any attention. I must concentrate on The Pargiters – or Here and Now. I must not let myself believe that I’m simply a ladylike prattler; for one thing it’s not true. But they’ll all say so. And I shall very much dislike the popular success of Flush .No, I must say to myself, this is a mere wisp, a veil of water; and so create, hardly, fiercely, as I feel now more able to do than ever before. (diary 2.10.33)

It has fewer devotees than To the Lighthouse, or Mrs Dalloway, or many of her other books. But it is a serious experiment and there is much joy, humour and smelliness in it.

Flush the dog

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I was reminded of Flush the spaniel recently by an article in the Paris Review in October by Erin Schwartz. You can find it here. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote two poems to her dog: one To Flush, My Dog is long, twenty verses long. You can find it here. The poem extols the dog’s virtues as a friend. The other Flush or Faunus celebrates Flush’s ability to comfort his mistress when she is upset. Here’s a link. Neither poem is especially striking.

I chose to read Flush because my family has just been increased by a fast-growing cocker spaniel. When we chose the breed, I had forgotten that literary Flush was a spaniel. Our puppy is not red but we think she is beautiful all the same. Her name is Lupin. I will not be writing a novel about her.

NB: on several occasions Virginia Woolf has Flush eating grapes. I have been told in puppy classes that grapes are poison for dogs.

Red Cocker Spaniel 8th Sept 2018 by Canarian via WikiCommons

Lupin October 2018

Flush by Virginia Woolf, first published by the Hogarth Press in 1933. I read the Oxford World Classics edition. 132pp

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Filed under Books, poetry, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf