Her words faded. So a rocket fades. Its sparks, having grazed their way into the night, surrender to it, dark descends, pours over the outlines of houses and towers: bleak hill-sides soften and fall in.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf was living in Rodmell, West Sussex when, on an early spring day during Britain’s darkest hour in 1941, she filled her overcoat with stones and threw herself into the nearby River Ouse. She was 59, and it was her third and successful attempt at suicide.
When I was young, I walked the South Downs Way from Winchester to Eastbourne, laden with tent, book and light wallet, an ancient thoroughfare over emerald hills dotted with round barrows and hill forts, a soft quilt laid on clay and chalk. On a sunny day the folds and creases of the Downs separate the variegated patchwork of the Sussex Weald from the twinkling English Channel. The South Downs Way crosses the Ouse at the village of Southease. This is where Woolf’s body washed up a few days after her disappearance. In high summer when I was there the river didn’t seem capacious enough to envelope and extinguish a human life, however despairing.
Last summer I read Woolf’s slim 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway. It rewards a swift reader able to take it in over a few sittings and be swept along in its rare currents – not the way I did: 15 precious minutes per day for several weeks, hunkering down in the toilet to evade mercurial toddlers and dyspeptic responsible adults. Woolf’s prose swoops and soars, the narrative voice a butterfly alighting from one of its multiple subjects to another, holding a microphone to their lonely thoughts.
It is one of the finest novels of the 20th century, and probably the finest to be set in London. ‘Fear no more’, the refrain in Clarissa’s mind echoes the heartbeat and the striking of the hours by Big Ben. (Henri Bergson’s theories of time were then in fashion.) The clocktower serves as the epicentre of the novel whose chimes in 1924 may still have been in earshot of each of its scenes forming an elliptic arc of narrative and geography – Westminster, Regents Park, The Strand.
The inevitable but still shocking climax is the suicide of poor, shellshocked Septimus Warren Smith. Unlike in Ulysses where Joyce eventually joins the paths of the two protagonists in the riotous brothel of the Circe episode, Woolf only once and fleetingly brings Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus together, and even then the one is unaware of the other. When she hears of his suicide she is initially put out that such unpleasantness should intrude on her party (‘with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on’). A short while later Clarissa seems attracted to the notion of oblivion that Septimus has now achieved, the lights going out at last.
I completed my reading while on holiday in Dębki, a Polish seaside resort on the eastern banks of the Piaśnica river as it empties into the Baltic Sea. The river formed the Polish-German border between the wars. A sign declaring ‘GRANICA’ in the severe, sinister font favoured during the period is still there on the northern bank of Lake Żarnowiec as a reminder, from which point the river resumes its course for another 10 kilometres before emptying into the sea. Here, one afternoon, my six-year-old and I rented a kayak adorned with a crocodile face and drifted downriver, weaving between other carefree holidaymakers, skirting the reed-beds in the company of dragonflies, pond skaters (or ‘water spiders’, as she called them) and the occasional swan. Later I returned to the place of embarkation to collect the bicycle. I cycled along an embankment as the sun sunk towards the horizon over hot empty fields. I pictured the uneasy peace in the area precisely 80 years ago, while Hitler and Stalin plotted their horrific double invasion and the Polish regime scrambled despairingly for international support. Within weeks the Nazis would launch their onslaught over that border. Poles undoubtedly had a sense of foreboding but noone could have predicted the scale of barbaric cruelty about to befall them. We kayaked downriver from the site of the first mass executions of Poles by the Nazis. Poland’s allies Britain and France sat on their hands.
Borders of the imagined communities of nations have shifted over the centuries in these parts like the sands along the duney northern European coastline. Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, Belorussians and the neighbours have had their lives upended for centuries according to the vicissitudes of the ruling classes and their wars and marriages.
England knows nothing of this, though its immigrants and asylum seekers – those now ostracised by the xenophobia that at once fuels and is legitimised by Brexit – certainly do. Instead, the society rests on class distinctions that are the accumulation of a millennium of largely stable land ownership, insulation from revolutionary shock or foreign invasion (except for William of Orange’s invasion by invitation in 1688) and absence of population displacement. Such class distinctions explain Clarissa’s fey insouciance towards Septimus’s torment.
By contrast, in Septimus’s wife Rezia, Woolf depicts an unbearable loneliness where her vain words briefly illuminate and fade like sparks at night-time, reminders of the visible world that only proves its continued existence at daybreak: ‘at midnight, when all boundaries are lost, the country reverts to its ancient shape, as the Romans saw it.’
…she feared time itself … the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years, the colours, salts, tones of existence…
Clarissa, by contrast, is nonchalant, airy, too comfortable to be capable of empathy. (Note Woolf’s sardonic interjection as the character’s recalls to mind an erstwhile kindred spirit: ‘If I ever have a moment (she will never have a moment) I shall go and see Sally at Ealing.’)
Historians are haunted by the spectre of the 1930s. In the novel, there is a chill augury in the scene of a band of boys with their guns marching up Whitehall. Clarissa’s adolescent devotee, Peter Walsh, imagines them ‘as if one will worked legs and arms uniformly, and life, with its varieties, its irreticences, had been laid under a pavement of monuments and wreathes and drugged into a stiff yet staring corpse by discipline.’ The unspeakable cruelty of the Second World War began on the plains of central Europe while England filed its nails. Clarissa Dalloway, attractive, pampered, earnest and narcissistic, embodied her nation.
There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.