Clothing in Mrs Dalloway

Clothing in Mrs Dalloway

Claire Nicholson discusses some aspects of clothing in Mrs Dalloway (1925):

Woolf’s lifetime (1882-1941) coincided with a period of extraordinary change in clothing styles, especially for women. As a child of the late-Victorian era she knew the discomfort of wearing endless layers of cumbersome clothing, but by 1940 she was able to record the comfort and convenience of wearing her husband’s corduroy trousers. This enormous shift in clothing choices and the loosening of strict dress codes led to clothes becoming a more creative expression of identity, which is reflected in her fiction.

Her first two novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919) are written in a fairly conventional style. Brief descriptions of dress are used to situate character in terms of class or position, with little to suggest individuality. But although Woolf is reliant upon brief pieces of visual description she is resistant to a detailed, photographic fidelity to appearance. Indeed she is critical of other novelists, especially Arnold Bennett, who she described as a ‘materialist’ for his over-detailed and lifeless descriptions of external appearance. Woolf was seeking a method whereby dress could be used selectively and appropriately to illuminate the psychological dimension of a character rather than presenting a simple photographic image in words. By the 1920s she was exploring how to capture the sense of how each character experiences the world through their own unique consciousness, and her purpose in relation to clothes was not so much to explore external ‘meanings’ of dress, as to express what it is to experience or to ‘undergo’ dress. As Clair Hughes says, in this aim, Woolf, like Henry James, was 'moving towards a "poetics" of dress'. (Clair Hughes, Dressed in Fiction (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 8.)

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In Mrs Dalloway (1925), clothes play a crucial part, not merely for their compliance with a certain dress code, but also for their effect upon the wearer’s consciousness. Just before the novel was published in May 1925 Woolf wrote in her diary: ‘My present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: & I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness, &c.’

When Clarissa Dalloway sits at her dressing table she ‘collects herself’ as she prepares the identity she will present to the world in her mermaid-green evening dress at her party. She repairs a tear in the dress herself, rejecting the maid’s help, and her ‘frock consciousness’ is complete when she escorts her most important guest, the Prime Minister, around the room: ‘she seemed,  having that gift still; to be; to exist; summing it all up in the moment as she passed’ (my italics, 154). We are not given any precise image of the dress but it exemplifies her social success and she enjoys the complete synthesis of body, mind and garment. Her identity is so immersed into the garment that when she hears news of the suicide of Septimus Smith the sensation she feels is expressed through her dress; ‘her dress flamed; her body burnt’ (163).

Perhaps Woolf’s use of clothing in her fiction is best summed up in a quotation from a later novel, Orlando (1928):

‘Vain trifles as they seems clothes have more important offices than merely to keep us warm, they change our view of the world and the wold’s view of us’ (180)

Claire Nicholson
Lecturer, Literature Cambridge

Claire will lecture on clothing in Orlando in our 2018 summer course, Woolf and Politics.

Virginia Woolf and Musical Performance

This is an extract from the beginning of Professor Claire Davison’s talk, given at Lucy Cavendish College on 29 November 2017 to an audience of 50 from town and gown. Our warmest thanks to her Claire a fascinating lecture and discussion.


The talk was introduced by a short extract from the Overture to Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers, in a recording from 1911 conducted by Smyth herself.

In June 1930, Virginia Woolf wrote to Ethel Smyth:

If only I weren’t a writer, perhaps I could thank you and praise you and admire you perfectly simply and expressively and say in one word what I felt about the Concert yesterday. As it is, an image forms in my mind; a quickset briar hedge, innumerably intricate and spiky and thorned; in the centre burns a rose. Miraculously, the rose is you; flushed pink, wearing pearls. The thorn hedge is the music; and I have to break my way through violins, flutes, cymbals, voices to this burning centre. Now I admit this has nothing to do with musical criticism. It is only what I feel as I sat on my silver winged (was it winged?) chair on the slippery floor yesterday. I am enthralled that you, the dominant and superb, should have this tremor and vibration of fire around you – violins flickering, flutes purring; (the image is of a winter hedge) – that you should be able to create this world from your centre. (Virginia Woolf to Ethel Smyth, June 1930, Collected Letters vol. IV, pp. 171-2)

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Woolf’s oft-quoted letter to Smyth, with its evocative, idiosyncratic cameo portrait of the composer, shows the powerful inspiration of a new friend, whom Woolf would describe in somewhat punchier terms six months later as being ‘of the race of pioneers, of path makers, […] who has gone before and felled trees and blasted rocks and built bridges and thus made a way for all those who come after her.’ (1) The quotation is also one of the very rare instances of a minor editorial oversight in the Letters of Virginia Woolf: there is no footnote contextualising the event, which was most likely a concert of Smyth’s music at Mansion House, London. (2) The repertoire that evening included her overture to The Wreckers, Spring Canticle and the Anacreontic Ode. Such details matter. They suggest that the miraculous pink flushed rose in the spiky, burning hedge may be less a dazzling and rather daring metaphor than a transposition of a very vividly recalled scene: that of the impassioned, conductor energetically directing the ring of musicians performing around her.

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There has been a welcome awakening of critical interest in recent years in what was in many ways an oddly mismatched intimacy between the two women in the 1930s; in literary and modernist studies however, accounts of Smyth still tend to favour caricature or anecdote, and surprisingly little attention has been paid to Smyth’s musicianship or to the mutual interplay of literary and musical influences in otherwise detailed recent accounts of their relationship. Similarly, the importance of music in Woolf’s life and writing has been splendidly documented in recent years, shedding light on Woolf’s sensitive awareness of the awkward relationship between music and language for example, the influence of Wagner, comic opera, and the musical form of modernist narrative strategies, along with the interwoven domains of twentieth-century music, literature and philosophy. (3) 

There is a tendency among professional musicians, however, to suspect that literary appropriations of musical motifs and musical representation tend as Smyth herself put it, ‘to go strangely astray’. (4) The literary critic, for example, is inevitably drawn to the stories music tells as an embedded narrative, to equate musicality and expressive elegance, to seize on apparent structural analogies (sonata form, symphonic form, fugue for example), or to etherealise and dematerialise music. Pater famously claimed that ‘All art constantly aspires to the condition of music’ but this is a personal and in fact rather vague claim, not a truth. What is this condition of music to which the arts supposedly aspire?  Is there such a thing as a condition of music? Does music actually have it, or only aspire to it? While such questions can only tantalise, there is no denying that what music does have is a powerful performative effect whether it is being heard, read about, or remembered. This power of music in performance is still only partly understood by neurologists today, as they seek to chart how the brain receives, stores and retrieves the structural density, complex sonic patterns, rhythmic momentum and profound emotional appeal of music, and the part these play in the tenacity of musical memory. (5)

My talk aims to fill in some of the blanks by focusing on music in performance in Woolf’s work. To return to the opening quotation, I wish to address music not in terms of story, narrative form or a highly metaphoric expression of dawning friendship, but as an expression of her powerfully vivid recollections and evocations of music being performed, a reflection of what happens when music happens. As we shall see, this notably implies taking music out of bounds, from the concert hall to the hedgerow briars, so to speak, and from the domestic salon to the political arena. To do so, I draw on three interwoven facets of music, and three very different works:

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• the short story, ‘The String Quartet’ which I explore as ‘a listening text’;
• Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, and the question of ‘performing out of music’;
• what I refer to as ‘Singing Songs of Sixpence’ in Three Guineas.


(1) Virginia Woolf, ‘Speech before the London/National Society for Women’s Service, 21 January 1931’, in The Pargiters by Virgina Woolf: The Novel Essay Portion of the Years, ed. Mitchell Leaska (Hogarth Press, 1977), pp. xxvii-xxviii.
(2) Library, Royal College of Music, London.
(3) See in particular Emma Sutton’s outstanding monograph, Virginia Woolf and Classical Music (Edinburgh University Press, 2013), and also Adriana Varga’s edited collection, Virginia Woolf and Music (Indiana University Press, 2014).
(4) Ethel Smyth, ‘Where Musical Criticism Goes Astray’, Female Pipings in Eden (London: Peter Davies, 1933), pp. 71-86.
(5) See in particular Oliver Sach’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Knopf, 2007).

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Hans Grietens on Woolf’s Rooms

Woolf's Rooms Summer Course 2017

In July 2017, I attended the Cambridge Literature Summer Course Woolf’s Rooms, together with more than 25 students from all around the world. An unforgettable experience!

I was immersed for a whole week in the writings of Virginia Woolf and gained a deeper understanding of her work. We studied the different meanings of rooms in Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own and her novels Jacob’s Room, The Waves, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts. We learned about public and private space, boundaries, rooms filled with people, empty rooms, rooms inhabited, rooms creating safety, a sense of self, and so much more. I did not know that Virginia Woolf referred so often to rooms in her novels. And I found it amazing to discover how she connects so many themes to rooms.

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For me this Summer Course was very inspiring for several reasons. I gained many new insights from the morning lectures, all given by leading experts who showed great passion for Virginia Woolf and who stimulated me to read and reread her works. The lectures helped me to slowly recognise Woolf’s unique voice and tone and to start understanding the multiple layers in her work. As one lecturer concluded: ‘Woolf’s novels keep giving!’ They are so dense and rich. I also enjoyed the group of participants. It was a mixed group, people of different ages, cultures and backgrounds, but with a common interest in Virginia Woolf, the Bloomsbury group, modernism and women’s writing. Easy to keep conversations going!

I liked the discussions in small groups of three students and a supervisor (tutor). Reflecting on the lectures and sharing our own reading experiences, we got a flavour of the famous Cambridge supervision model. The guided tours to King’s College, Girton College and Newnham College were all very worthwhile. An absolute highlight for me was our visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, where we had a close look at the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own. Impressive. A goosebump moment! Another highlight was when we read aloud long sections of The Waves, a very intense experience. And I also keep good memories of Kabe Wilson’s talk on his remix of A Room of One’s Own: Of One Woman or So. A very original talk which astonished the audience. Last but not least, there were the fun moments, the daily life in Homerton College, the drinks in the bar, the walks through Cambridge, the conviviality, the discussions on how to become a real ‘Woolfian’ and our future plans. I made many new friends in this Summer Course. I already look forward to seeing them next year.

Hans Grietens
The Netherlands

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Listening to Tennyson's poetry

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We are delighted to offer a Study Day on Tennyson, Sunday 18 February 2018. This includes readings of some of Tennyson's most moving works by expert readers. A rare opportunity to hear the remarkable long poem Maud (1855) alongside some brilliant short poems: 'Break, Break, Break', 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' and others. Further details here.

If you are interested to hear Tennyson's poems read aloud, we recommend the wonderful readings of his poetry recorded at the English Faculty, Cambridge in 2009 to mark the bicentenary of Tennyson's birth. You can find the printed text on the same page as the recordings, to read as you listen. Listen here.

Bookings for our Tennyson Study Day at Stapleford Granary are now open.


Virginia Woolf on Roger Fry

Woolf on Roger Fry, with a quotation from Fry on E. M. Forster

As a critic of literature, then, he was not what is called a safe guide. He looked at the carpet from the wrong side; but he made it for that very reason display unexpected patterns. And many of his theories held good for both arts. Design, rhythm, texture—there they were again—in Flaubert as in Cézanne. And he would hold up a book to the light as if it were a picture and show where in his view—it was a painter's of course—it fell short. He greatly admired E. M. Forster's *Passage to India*. 'I think it's a marvellous texture—really beautiful writing. But Oh lord I wish he weren't a mystic, or that he would keep his mysticism out of his books. . . . I'm certain that the only meanings that are worth anything In a work of art are those that the artist himself knows nothing about. The moment he tries to explain his ideas and his emotions he misses the great thing.'

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Virginia Woolf, *Roger Fry: A Biography* (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940), 240-1. Available online:

We look forward to Frances Spalding's talk on Woolf and Fry, Wed. 18 October 2017, 1.00 pm, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.


Some interesting information about Virginia Woolf's biography of Roger Fry from Smith College Libraries in Northampton, Mass., USA:

'As was her custom, Woolf alternated between writing nonfiction and fiction, working on *Roger Fry* and *Between the Acts* simultaneously in 1938. She was also writing her autobiography, “A Sketch of the Past.” Woolf began her research within a month of Fry’s death (9 September 1934) and the project took five years to complete. *Roger Fry* was published on 25 July 1940, six months after Woolf’s fifty-eighth birthday and eight months before her death.'

Quoted from:…/rarebook/ex…/penandpress/case15b.htm

Articles on The Years

In 1977, the Bulletin of the New York Public Library published several very interesting articles on Woolf's novel The Years (1937). These are now available online and can be downloaded as a PDF. A wonderful resource for readers. Thanks so much to Woolf scholar Vara Neverow for this information. Link here. Scroll to the very end of the list. The Woolf essays are in the latter part of the 1977 issue.

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Writing Mrs Dalloway

From Susan Sellers' lecture on Writing Mrs Dalloway
Mrs Dalloway Study Day
, 16 September 2017, Stapleford Granary

One of the things that frustrates me as a scholar is the way cultural adaptations (such as Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Woolf in the film The Hours) suggests she wrote from a state of depressed introspection. But this simply isn't true. Woolf was constantly looking outwards. Not only was she phenomenally well read – she studied Greek and Latin, undertaking her own translations of The Oresteia, and was an authority on a range of French writers, the Russian novel and the full span of English Literature – but she was knowledgeable about many other things too. At the time Woolf was writing Mrs Dalloway important new scientific ideas were in circulation, including Einstein's theory of relativity. We know that Woolf read the philosopher Henri Bergson, who explored in a book called Time and Free Will the difference between what he called historical time – which is external and linear, and measured in terms of the spatial distance travelled by a pendulum on the hands of a clock; and psychological time – which is internal, subjective, and measured by the relative emotional intensity of a moment.

There’s a wonderful re-enactment of this distinction in the novel, in the ways the two London clocks – Big Ben on the Houses of Parliament and St Margaret’s on the church nearby – ring out time.

Big Ben when it strikes is described in deliberately military terms, so that Peter Walsh for example hears it as he comes across a military parade:

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'Boys in uniform, carrying guns, marched with their eyes ahead of them, marched, their arms stiff, and on their faces an expression like the letters of a legend written round the base of a statue praising duty, gratitude, fidelity, love of England.'

This is a picture of England at its most patriotic and conformist, reminiscent – in that insistence on uniform that not only refers to clothes or movements but even the expressions on faces – of the machine, devoid of feeling, Septimus congratulated himself on becoming as he fought in the trenches of the First World War.

'St Margaret’s, on the other hand, with its late chime, not only seems to mock the chilling precision and inhumanity of Big Ben, but is also described in terms that connect it to Clarissa and which allow for human feeling:Ah, said St Margaret's, like a hostess who comes into her drawing room on the very stroke of the hour and finds her guests there already. I am not late. No, it is precisely half-past eleven ... Yet, though she is perfectly right, her voice, being the voice of the hostess, is reluctant to inflict its individuality. Some grief for the past holds it back; some concern for the present. It is half-past eleven, she says, and the sound of St Margaret's glides into the recesses of the heart and buries itself in ring after ring of sound, like something alive which wants to confide itself, to disperse itself, to be, with a tremor of delight, at rest – like Clarissa herself, thought Peter Walsh, coming downstairs on the stroke of the hour in white.'

Unlike the emotionally dead marching men, then, this is a sound that is almost ‘alive’.


Mrs Dalloway: Peace and Betrayal, 1923

From Trudi Tate's lecture on Mrs Dalloway: Peace and Betrayal, 1923
Mrs Dalloway Study Day
, 16 September 2017, Stapleford Granary

On the day of Mrs Dalloway’s party, Richard Dalloway MP buys some roses for his wife Clarissa. When he arrives home, he finds Clarissa worrying over whether she should invite a dull cousin to her party. Richard settles her anxieties and puts her down on the sofa, like a child, for an afternoon rest, before returning to his work at the House of Commons. ‘“Some committee?” she asked as he opened the door.’ ‘“Armenians”, he said; or perhaps it was “Albanians”.’ What did he say? Clarissa is not sure, but she enjoys looking at the roses.

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'And people would say, "Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt." She cared so much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again) – no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians?' (157)


This is a startling paragraph to find in a book published in 1925. In this lecture, I hope to show that Clarissa’s confusion over Armenia and Albania is an obvious, even heavy-handed, satiric moment in the novel. Many readers might not recognise the references now, but they would have been quite obvious to Woolf’s first readers. I am going to suggest that Mrs Dalloway, one of Woolf’s most ‘aesthetic’ novels, is partly a satire on the political climate in Britain shortly after the First World War. But it is a satire of a very peculiar kind. It raises uncomfortable questions about how British civilians were placed in relation to the events of the war and to the settlements which followed.

First, I want to make a few general remarks about the end of the FWW. This is the context in which Woolf was writing – just a few years after the Armistice when people were feeling betrayed and angry about the war, and also about the peace settlements.

For many people, the suffering did not end with the war. The peace treaties reshaped the map of Europe, dismantling the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and creating a number of new nations, including Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Austria. Millions of people were displaced or rendered stateless by the treaties; this caused serious hardship and many people were forced to emigrate. (Some 4 to 5 million people were made refugees between 1914 and 1922.)

For several months after the Armistice of November 1918 Britain helped to maintain a blockade against central Europe. People were starving; women and children died of hunger in Germany, Austria and elsewhere. 


Wars continued after the war, in Poland, Albania, Greece, Russia, and Turkey. The peace settlements raised new sets of problems which contributed to the rise of fascism and another war in 1939. The peace settlements failed terribly. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), John Maynard Keynes warned that war had set Europe on the road to ruin; the Versailles Treaty continued this process. The war had ruined the economies of Europe. Countries which had previously been self-sufficient now depended on the United States for their basic food requirements. The treaties made the situation worse.

We are familiar with the idea of disillusion in literature of the First World War. But the peace, too, was disappointing. People felt disillusioned all over again, worrying about international relations (with good reason) as well as local problems. And people were aware that the two were often connected. For Leonard Woolf, writing in 1922, international politics were central to Britain’s future prosperity.

'This country', wrote Leonard Woolf in 1922, 'must stand out in Europe and the world as a sincere supporter of a policy of peace and international co-operation.' Leonard Woolf believed that political action immediately after the war was even more important than it had been during the conflict, and he often despaired that the bad decisions which had taken Britain into the war were being made again after it had ended. He saw the 1920s as ‘a time of continual crisis’. And the governments of the day were, by and large, not very good at dealing with such crises. This is the context in which Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs Dalloway.

Further reading

Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes (1994)
N. P. Howard, ‘The Social and Political Consequences of the Allied Food Blockade of Germany, 1918-19’, German History, 2, 2 (1993), 161–87
John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919; London: Macmillan, 1984)
Harold Nicolson, Peacemaking 1919 (1933; rpt 1985)
Trudi Tate, 'Mrs Dalloway and the Armenian Question', in Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (1998; rev. 2013)
Andrew Thorpe, Britain in the Era of Two World Wars (1994)
Leonard Woolf, Downhill All the Way (Autobiography of 1919-39) (1967)
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)

Alison Hennegan on A Room of One's Own

This is an extract from the opening lecture given by Alison Hennegan on our 2017 summer course, Woolf’s Rooms.

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A Room of One’s Own (1929) was originally a talk, requested by undergraduates at Girton and Newnham, the two first women’s university colleges in Britain: Girton founded in 1869, Newnham in 1871. And it is, I think, worth saying at this point, something of the very different philosophies and aspirations which distinguished those two colleges.

Emily Davies, the daughter of a Welsh clergyman, who was the first Mistress of Girton, was clear that anything the undergraduate men of Cambridge were asked to do, her students must do, too. To do otherwise would immediately incur the charge of being lesser, not up to it, needing an easier way.

Anne Jemima Clough, the first Principal of Newnham, and sister of one of mid-nineteenth century England’s most interesting poets, Arthur Hugh Clough, thought differently. Of course she wanted her women student to have access to a university education, but she was not so impressed by everything that nineteenth-century Cambridge did to feel that she and her women must follow slavishly. ‘Equal but different’ was her position. Equality, for her, did not mean being identical.

And this is something which Woolf returns to time and again throughout her work. It helps to shape her first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915. It’s present in her first thoroughly experimental novel, Jacob’s Room, published in 1922, with its often deeply hostile critique of the education conventionally offered upper middle class English boys and youths which teaches attitudes to women and their intellectual capacities which are at best condescending, at worst contemptuous. (Think of Jacob’s musings in King’s Chapel as he surveys the women in it.)

It’s working away in the difficult relations between Clarissa Dalloway and Miss Kilman, her daughter’s governess. And it would be one way of characterizing a central difference between Mrs Ramsey and Lily Brisce in the 1927 novel, To The Lighthouse.

Constantly Woolf has in her sights some of the most influential teachings of the previous century, such as Ruskin’s 1865 essay, Sesame and Lilies, whose two sections detail the most appropriate education for boys and young men. Their chapter is tellingly entitled ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’ – banks, counting houses, the world of economics. The chapter devoted to the education of girls and young women is equally tellingly entitled: it’s called ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’.  

So those two very different versions of equality – as ‘identical’ or ‘equal but different’ – run side by side throughout the various nineteenth-century feminist struggles, and they remain thoroughly familiar to us today. Wherever issues of evaluation, judgement, ranking pertain, they remain relevant, and they thread their way through A Room of One’s Own

But those two versions of equality yield no easy answers. How do they affect our sense of what is a good book, who is a good writer, what is a subject worth tackling, who stands where when they make those judgements, and why?

Alison Hennegan
Trinity Hall, Cambridge
July 2017

Sarah Cain on T. S. Eliot

From Sarah Cain's lecture on The Waste Land, 11 June 2017.

In late 1921, Eliot wrote to his brother Henry: ‘The great thing I am trying to learn is how to use all my energy without waste, to be calm when there is nothing to be gained by worry, and to concentrate without effort […] I realise that our family was never taught mental, any more than physical hygiene, and as a result we are a seedy lot’. Four months earlier, in August 1921, Eliot had been signed off his work at Lloyds Bank – his sick card simply read ‘nervous breakdown’ – to take a rest-cure at Margate followed by a trip to Switzerland; it was during this trip that he completed the first full draft of the poem that would be published as The Waste Land in April 1922. Eliot’s own experiences of illness and nervous breakdown are, first of all, useful biographical contexts for his early poems, particularly The Waste Land; but they also connect to the broader ways the texts interrogate the relationship of world, body and mind, and engage intriguingly with the stresses of modernity. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, medicine, psychology and physiology were all intensely focused on the ‘nerves’ as mysterious sites of trouble and disruption. Modernity itself was thought to induce particular kinds of illness: it was thought that the very experience of living a modern life – from the constant encounter with technology to travel at ever-faster speeds, or the time pressures of living at a faster pace than ever – could bring on conditions such as hysteria, paranoia and insanity, or neurasthenia (also known as ‘nerve weakness’).

Eliot’s work consistently represents the force of modernity, and the violence it enacts upon the self, as a form of shock: an electrical confrontation that ruptures body, mind and world. This motif appears throughout the early poems leading up to The Waste Land, from the 1920 poem ‘The Hippopotamus’, in which the ‘flesh and blood’ of the hippopotamus is ‘susceptible to nervous shock’; to the hysteric ‘epileptic’ of ‘Sweeney Erect’ who seems to exist only in the contorted shapes of her body on the mattress. Eliot’s lyrics obsess over illness and health, and in the relationship between the self and its surroundings, activating these anxieties as part of wider relationships between urban experience, life and work: in section III of The Waste Land, for example, the automatic, mechanical bodies of the typist and the ‘young man carbuncular’ are juxtaposed with an image of the worker as a ‘human engine’, ‘a taxi throbbing waiting’ in the ‘violet’ London twilight, which ‘hums’ with nervous reverberations. In this respect, Eliot envisages the movement through the modern city in similar terms to Walter Benjamin, who argued that the mobile eye of the flâneur and the neurasthenic’s inability to deal effectively with the modern world link together in the experience of the modern city and its technological demands.

For futher discussion of Eliot and psychology, see Sarah Cain, 'Attention and Efficiency: The Experimental Psychology of Modernism', in Biological Discourses: The Language of Science and Literature around 1900 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2017). More details here.


Michael Hrebeniak on T. S. Eliot

The Epoch of Space: Eliot's Art of Assemblage

Michael Hrebeniak

Reading The Waste Land Study Day, 11 June 2017

Michael Hrebeniak summarises some of the key ideas from his lecture.

T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land strikes a paradox: a bid for conservative recovery inside a radical poetics. This lecture suggested ways of understanding Eliot's great poem in terms of collage, the characteristic predisposition of modernism. This provides a framework for his exploration of the self-conscious surrender of personality and the poet's location within literary tradition.

The lecture considered the poem alongside corresponding movements in music and painting as an assemblage of shards and pieces that must be read through one another: a narrative tension between the linear, the dispersed and the side-by-side that generates fertility from waste. It looked at examples from Stravinsky, jazz, Picasso, and others.

The upshot is a textual focus that swerves completely from final meaning into an attitude of uncertainty that underpins Eliot's delicate exploration of cultural memory. Fluctuating patterns and recesses within the poem's narrative enforce reflection and encourage agility in the act of reading, which becomes an unprejudiced adventure.

It is here that The Waste Land's collage of 'broken images' might ironically yield a new consciousness, activating the poem's references to vegetation and anthropological myths of renewal through the radiant chambers of our own minds.