Gillian Beer talk at Clare Hall

Gillian Beer on Mrs Dalloway, Woolf and War

Clare Hall, Cambridge: 10 March 2016

Around 60 people crammed into the Meeting Room at Clare Hall to hear Gillian Beer talk about Virginia Woolf’s thinking about war. From the beginning of the First World War in 1914, or even from the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), Woolf and her circle were concerned about armed conflict. After the First World War, Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf were very aware of the hope and then the failure of the League of Nations. Leonard Woolf worked tirelessly for alternatives to war in solving international disputes, as did very many people at the time. Europe’s uneasy peace faltered through the 1920s and 30s. In 1937, Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell was killed in the Spanish Civil War, where he was an ambulance driver.

In Three Guineas (1938), Woolf meditates upon the most important question of the time. How are we to prevent war? The term ‘we’ is itself an important element of her discussion. The ‘we’ here is educated women and men; readers; people across the classes who think; people who knew what war meant after 1914. In their very different ways, Leonard and Virginia Woolf both wrote and thought a lot about the problems of war and peace.

Gillian Beer set out some of the intellectual and historical context out of which Woolf wrote Mrs Dalloway (1925; written 1922-24). In 1916, Leonard Woolf published International Government, a work which made an important contribution to British thinking about the League of Nations. In the mid-1920s, the Hogarth Press published In Retreat by First World War veteran Herbert Read (also a poet, art historian and essayist). Virginia Woolf read Read’s book when she was writing Mrs Dalloway. Leonard Woolf published Fear and Politics (in the Hogarth Essays series) in 1925 and After the Deluge, later, in 1931.

In Virginia Woolf’s novel The Years (1937), Woolf describes Armistice Day. The end of the war, marked by eerie silence at the front, was celebrated noisily (many felt disrespectfully) in civilian cities. Woolf is worried about that disrespect in many of her writings of the 1920s and 30s.

Mrs Dalloway can be read as an extended meditation upon the effects of the war, among many other rich and complex ideas. Set in 1923, the book takes a hard look at its own time, written in 1922-24, about the world that Woolf inhabited. The book is very interested in the changes since the war. Gillian Beer remarked that Peter Walsh is used as a measure of change in the novel. He has been away in India for several years. He notices how the British newspapers have changed. Many things seemed more open in 1920s than in the 1910s. Woolf originally called the novel The Hours, and one of the things Peter Walsh notices is Summer Time (daylight saving), which had been introduced in 1916 first by Germany, then by Britain. This was one of the curiously benign legacies of the war.

But the war’s legacy was, Woolf felt, mainly destructive, its damage felt for years afterwards. It lived on inside so many people. The war affected civilians as well as the military: Miss Kilman, for example, is treated unjustly because of her German ancestry. Rezia, married to Septimus Smith, suffers terribly as a result of her husband’s shell shock. Richard Dalloway and the unlikeable William Bradshaw are trying to get the government to recognise shell shock and provide better treatment for its victims.

Readers are often puzzled by Mrs Dalloway’s reaction to the death of Septimus Smith, whom she has never met. First she is annoyed that news of his death might spoil her party. Then she becomes sympathetic, identifying with him; perhaps over-identifying, romanticising his suffering, failing to fully acknowledge why his experience is so different from hers; why he as a poor, young veteran is so unprotected. Yet, Gillian Beer suggested, Woolf suggests a kind of kinship which can’t be brushed aside. Beyond the usual stuff of novels – love, friendship, loss, yearning – is the fact of people simply being alive at the same time. ‘Is this simply a novel about a woman walking up a staircase’ asked Gillian Beer; a novel which atomises loneliness? An intriguing thought.

The talk ended with a fascinating and wide ranging discussion, leading us towards contemporary writers who continue Woolf’s legacy. Ali Smith mentioned Olivia Laing’s new book, The Lonely City; we think too of Ali Smith’s own collection of short stories, Public Library. Garrett Eng wondered about the culture of promises of connection in our own time – are they false? What can we learn, still, from Virginia Woolf?

Our sincere thanks to Gillian Beer and to our audience for a wonderful talk and discussion.

Further reading

Gillian Beer, Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground (Edinburgh UP, 1997)

Susan Pederson, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford UP, 2015)

Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War, rev. edn (Stanford UP, 2011).

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (1938)


Trudi Tate, Clare Hall