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Virtual Book Club V

Biographers have long been interested in representations of madness in Virginia Woolf’s work. In part, this reflects assumptions that Woolf’s literary endeavours must in some way shed light on the author’s own life and experiences. Yet, as Hermione Lee has put it

‘Our versions of her [Woolf] will depend on our own attitudes to feminism, medicine and mental illness.’1

Perhaps this is nowhere more apparent than in the representations of shell-shock in Woolf’s 1925 work, Mrs Dalloway. In this complex novel, the inner life and experiences of the central character, Clarissa Dalloway (a society hostess who is spending the day preparing for a party) are counterpointed by the trauma and eventual suicide of First World War veteran Septimus Warren Smith.

Parallels between illness and war were not peculiar to Virginia Woolf in the inter-war period: however this was certainly a topic that was important to her. In On Being Ill, Woolf listed a series of diagnoses (physical and mental) as ‘great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it’. Illness, for Woolf, was a vital aspect of life: particularly in its ability to make the patient recognise his or her proximity to death: ‘the inevitable catastrophe’.2 This is certainly the case in Mrs Dalloway, both through the traumatic images that reflect Septimus’ experiences of war and Clarissa’s own response to hearing of the stranger’s death. The character of Septimus, in particular, reflects a multitude of changing social and medical ideas during the First World War, whereby the widespread physical injuries experienced by soldiers, alongside changing views of shell-shock and emotional conflict, encouraged a re-evaluation of concepts of normality and masculinity.

Septimus’ breakdown thus conflicts with his claim that war had ‘taught him’ to hide emotion, and the novel instead emphasises his vulnerability. Although, physically, Septimus has survived the conflict and ‘congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably’ at the death of his friend, Evans, this enforced stereotype of masculinity is shown to unravel as he develops an increasing paranoid guilt (and hallucinations of Evans) over a ‘crime’ he cannot express (p. 64). This ‘guilt’ mirrored Woolf’s own feelings about her illness during periods of deep depression, and she admitted in her diary that she found Septimus incredibly hard to write, concerned with the potential accusation of merely ‘writing essays about myself’.3 However, Septimus is also interesting as a reflection on the changing understanding and experiences of shell-shock in the inter-war years. While initial assumptions had associated shell-shock with physical damage to the brain or nerves resulting from the explosion of shells, by the end of the war many physicians were taking a psychological approach to the topic. Symptoms, too, had changed: the fear and hallucinations that characterise Septimus’ experiences were a world away from the limb paralyses and speech, sight and movement disorders that were most frequent in the early war years.

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Photograph of Dr Maurice Craig (assistant medical officer of the hospital 1898-1907) dressed as Charles Surface for a staff fancy dress ball, 11 January 1907

Treatment, however, was often little different to pre-war therapies for hysteria: here, perhaps, is where Woolf critiqued her own experiences most explicitly. It is usually agreed that Smith’s doctors reflect Virigina’s own. The local GP, Dr Holmes, represents the older members of the psychiatric establishment including Woolf’s family doctor, Sir George Savage, and specialist Maurice Craig (both former Bethlem superintendents), while Harley Street specialist, Sir William Bradshaw, has been claimed to represent Sir Henry Head, the high profile neurologist Virginia visited just once. When Dr Holmes, then, suggests that Septimus might be cured by visiting the Music Hall, playing golf, following outside interests, bromide at bedtime and porridge for breakfast (p. 67), he details the moral treatment both Savage and Craig had long adhered to as part of the asylum establishment. In the 1880s, for example, Savage was approached in his private practice for advice on a case of ‘sexual perversion in a man’: his advice to his suicidal patient was ‘to follow his occupation with energy, to seek mixed society, to go to places of amusement in cities and to pursue his musical tastes’.4

Woolf referred to Savage as ‘that pigheaded man’,5 claiming a doctor was ‘worse than a husband’, and she would never ‘believe, or have believed, in anything any doctor says’.6 Yet the modern nerve specialist, it seems, might have no better advice. In Mrs Dalloway, Sir William Bradshaw refuses to listen to either Septimus or his wife, insisting that the only possible course of treatment is to send Septimus to a nursing home. Despite his disparaging remarks on general practitioners, Sir William is ultimately just as conventional as Dr Holmes has been, with his methods of rest and ‘milk in bed’ reflecting further treatment Virginia herself had been forced to undergo (p. 73). This rest cure is particularly associated with American physician Silas Weir Mitchell, who published his methods in the exquisitely titled Fat and Blood: and how to make them (1877).

Mrs Dalloway, then, has as much to tell us about social and medical attitudes to neuroses in the 1920s as it does about Virginia Woolf’s own life and experiences. Septimus Smith functions as Clarissa Dalloway’s double: a biting commentary on social convention and perceptions of masculinity, femininity, normalcy and madness.

Woolf, V. Mrs Dalloway, (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1996)

Next month our Education and Outreach Officer, Caroline Smith, will be reviewing Adrian Foulds' 'The Quickening Maze'. We'll be publishing this review in the week commencing 14 July. In the meantime please share your thoughts about 'Mrs Dalloway' below.