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.
'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.
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)