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’.

Literature Cambridge