“Mrs. Dalloway said that she would get the flowers herself.” A contemporary reader might put the eye-roll emoji beside this sentence, which introduces us to Mrs. Dalloway, the eponymous protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel. The first meeting is off-putting in a way — can we be invested in a woman so privileged that she usually has people fetching flowers for her? Do we care if she has decided to venture out by herself this one time? The word ‘care’ is pivotal, because Clarissa Dalloway, the posh, middle-aged wife of an MP, apparently seems to care only about flowers, parties and her genteel friends. The unfolding novel reveals that she is weighed down with cares — about her old friends, failed relationships, her rebellious daughter and above all, the state of the world, which has changed radically. Clarissa walks down London one day in the middle of June 1923, when the Great War has just about ended and another one is looming over the horizon.
“The War was over” we are told. Ostensibly yes, but actually it is everywhere — in the buildings still bearing the scars of Zeppelin raids, in the minds of traumatised people who fight darkness even on that bright sunny day in June. Just beneath the surface of sparkling London is the “unreal city”, with grey streets, broken people and a sickly yellow fog that T.S. Eliot spoke of in The Waste Land, published three years before Mrs. Dalloway. “I had not thought death had undone so many./ Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,/ And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.”
On her flower-hunting mission, Mrs. Dalloway walks along Piccadilly towards Bond Street. The Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly had suffered considerable damage during an air-raid in September 1917. Members of its staff were enlisted in the army as soon as the war began. Ernest E.V. Wright, the sub-librarian, served at Gallipoli and the Somme, and resumed his career at the Academy after the war. Others weren’t so lucky. Francis E.F. Crisp, a painter, volunteered for the Artists Rifles and went to the front in 1914. He was dead within 10 weeks. Virginia Woolf’s youngest brother-in-law Cecil was killed in 1917 at the battle of Cambrai just after he turned 30.
One of the fearsome after-effects of the carnage was that it made stories impossible. War veterans returned with PTSD, trapped forever in the horror they have witnessed, unable to move ahead. Septimus Warren Smith, suffering from shell-shock, still talks to his fallen friend Evans. He has retreated to his inner world because he fears that people outside have lost the capacity for love and kindness. Locked up in his personal inferno, he can seek release only through death.
Clarissa, who has never met Septimus, understands his compulsions perfectly when she hears about his death by suicide towards the end of her party. Earlier in the novel, the mind of these two strangers unified briefly as they both found solace in Shakespeare’s lines: “Fear no more the heat of the sun/Nor the furious winter’s rages.” The beauty of the lines is like a talisman protecting them from mortality by transmuting it into something rich and strange. This is the very possibility that war threatens to negate each time it strikes. It shatters art, beauty and love.
Clarissa carries Septimus within her but unlike him, she must go on, in a nod to life, to art. The novel carrying her name is the fragment salvaged from the ruins of war. In its pages, “The War was over” and life has won.
Mrs. Dalloway moves us because not much has changed in human nature since 1925. The world is still at war, victims’ bodies are piling up, minds are getting twisted out of shape by grief. Mrs. Dalloway, the woman and her novel, stands like a lone figure choosing life, rebuffing death.