Essay — Clarissa, Septimus, and Virginia: Mental Health in Interwar Literature

Clarissa, Septimus, and Virginia: Mental Health in Interwar Literature

Joseph G. Spuckler, Jr

The aftermath of World War I created significant changes in society. The industrialized war not only left the continent in tatters, but it also shook society. Virginia Woolf captured the post-war changes in society in her work. Although Woolf does not write about the war itself, its effects are felt. In Jacob’s Room, an idealistic young man goes to war and does not return. In To The Lighthouse, perhaps Woolf’s most experimental work, war is mentioned in the section titled “Time Passes.” Although in this section two main characters die in parenthetical information, the soldier, Andrew Ramsey, gets slightly more attention although also parenthetical:

[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]” (To The Lighthouse, 111)

In addition to the “merciful” death of a character, the death toll from the shell is inexact. What difference is there between twenty and thirty men when millions have died? The senseless slaughter of a generation changed people’s views. After the war, words like “duty” are mentioned with sarcasm. Many of those who returned home alive, returned home broken.

Perhaps the best example of the effects of the war in Woolf’s writing is in Mrs. Dalloway. Written six and a half years after the war the consequences are still felt. As Mrs. Dalloway is picking up the flowers on Bond Street people are looking up at a skywriting airplane:

As they looked the whole world became perfectly silent, and a flight of gulls crossed the sky, first one gull leading, then another, and in this extraordinary silence and peace, in this pallor, in this purity, bells struck eleven times, the sound fading up there among the gulls. (Mrs. Dalloway 20-21)

Eleven is significant because the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. November 11th is Remembrance Day and at 11:00 there is traditionally a two minute period of silence. It marks the silence in a war that nearly destroyed Europe.  The silence on Bond Street is also symbolic of the war’s end. The white underbelly of urban gulls in Britain may be close enough to give the illusion of doves or peace. Later in Between the Acts, Woolf would use a similar passage but with planes as a second war raged in Europe.

Woolf chooses to examine the issue of mental illness in returning veterans and the hidden problem of mental illness in society as well as possibly writing about her problems.  The cheering crowds that sent the soldiers to war were less receptive to those coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder at the time called “shell shock.” War is as old as civilization and people have come to deal with the death that accompanies it. Although death is difficult to deal with on a personal and societal level, it is part of the reality of war. Shell shock, however, was completely unexpected. Artillery barrages in the war were unlike any before it. Hours and days of bombardment wore on men’s sanity. The command, who was not in the bunkers, treated shell shock as cowardice, malingering, and termed it hysteria, a “female disease,” to shame the men. It was a significant problem for survivors. When the dead are brought back home, they are buried, and the process is straightforward. What to do to men who come home alive but broken?

Septimus Warren Smith is a veteran of the Great War; although he survives the war physically, he is damaged mentally. Septimus’ doctor told his wife to take him out to notice things. Perhaps stimuli would snap him out of his melancholy or funk. In Mrs. Dalloway, the reader is introduced to Septimus with the sound of a car’s backfire. His wife has to break him away from his lock on the vehicle. He responds angrily and announces, in public, that he is going to kill himself. She remembers Septimus as a man who fought and was brave and is now worried she has lost her husband to the war. In the war, Septimus served well and was promoted. He became close with his officer, Evans, and when Evans is killed in the final days of the war, Septimus prides himself on remaining stoic in the face of his friend’s death. He is determined not to let the war destroy him. Although he can feel himself slipping away at times, he tries to control it by being cautious. However, he cannot control the voices and the hallucinations. It is now Evans, his former officer, who haunts his hallucinations. He sees and hears his old friend from beyond the grave.

Lucrezia, Septimus’ wife, also sees the change in the soldier she married in Italy and the changes in herself. She was a fun loving woman who has been worn down after years of taking care of Septimus. Stress has caused her to lose weight, her wedding ring slides off her finger, and she has no one to share the burden. Like Septimus, she too feels alone. She was an Italian war bride and has no friends or family in England for support. She is an outsider in English society. It is not that she is unsympathetic but she is overburdened, but she cannot be happy without him. He, however, is haunted by madness:

He listened. A sparrow perched on the railing opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words, from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death.” (Mrs. Dalloway 23-24)

How does Woolf present a realistic picture of madness? Most at the time had no idea of the experience of insanity; it was something locked away and out of sight. Returning veterans presented a large scale problem that was unexpected, and no one knew how to help. Treatment varied from stimulation of the senses to isolation and even tooth extraction. Woolf experienced tooth extraction and a “rest cure.” When her mother died, Woolf, who was thirteen at the time, fell into a period of madness where she also heard birds sing in ancient Greek. When Septimus does speak to Lucrezia, it is in bursts of mostly nonsense. Leonard Woolf described one of Virginia’s episodes:

She talked almost without stopping for two or three days, paying no attention to anyone in the room or anything said to her. For about a day what she said was coherent; the sentences meant something though it was nearly all insane. Then gradually it became completely incoherent, a mere jumble of dissociated words.” (Beginning Again 172-173)

Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa, is the title character and the story is about her party. How does Septimus fit into the Mrs. Dalloway story? The two characters never meet although Septimus’ death is mentioned at Clarissa’s party. He is someone not in Clarissa’s circle, yet he takes up a large number of pages in her story. Woolf, in her 1929 introduction to the book states she, created the Septimus character as a twin to Clarissa. She describes both characters as having a birdish looks, a hooked nose, pale complexion, and a love for Shakespeare. This description also fits Woolf herself. Although Clarissa seems to have everything, she does feel a loss of self. She is no longer Clarissa but now Mrs. Richard Dalloway. Her life seems to be defined by her husband. Septimus is also no longer Septimus.  The war defined his life. Septimus should be entering the prime of his life. Instead, he is numb and distant. Clarissa sees her life slipping away. She rethinks her past and her old boyfriend. She remembers a kiss from Sally Seton. She has constructed a fortress around herself to protect her mental well being where Septimus’ fortress has crumbled and fell with the death of his friend and officer, Evans. Clarissa, like Septimus, has lost her youth — his to war and hers to time. Both come to recognize that their lives are shallow or empty.

Woolf draws from her life in this book. She drowned herself as her exit from the madness she knew she would never escape. In many of her books water plays a role and also forms the part of the title of three books. Water offered her a solution and water brings realization to Septimus on what he must do. Woolf fills this realization with watery imagery:

Septimus Warren Smith lying on the sofa in the sitting-room; watching the watery gold glow and fade with the astonishing sensibility of some live creature on the roses, on the wall-paper. Outside the trees dragged their leaves like nets through the depths of the air; the sound of water was in the room and through the waves came the voices of birds singing. Every power poured its treasures on his head, and his hand lay there on the back of the sofa, as he had seen his hand lie when he was bathing, floating, on the top of the waves, while far away on shore he heard dogs barking and barking far away. Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more. (Mrs. Dalloway, 139)

Septimus knows that he will kill himself and he is no longer afraid of death. He will receive his closure, and for a short time, Lucrezia sees a happier Septimus. He found the way out of his “funk,” and before he was taken away for his rest cure, he chose his exit. Septimus finds the courage to act and is ironically called a coward by Dr. Holmes who witnesses the aftermath. The phrase “Fear no more” is used eight times between Clarissa and Septimus.

Clarissa first hears of Septimus at her party. The news of his suicide is making its round through her party and affects her:

Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the center which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

But this young man who had killed himself — had he plunged holding his treasure? “If it were now to die, ’twere now to be most happy,” she had said to herself once, coming down in white. (Mrs. Dalloway, 184)

Woolf writes about mental illness and society in a way that presents the issue without making it the apparent theme. Septimus was a conspicuous example of a mental health problem although he did not fit into the circle of elites. The length and scale of the war made the issue too significant to hide. Woolf uses this recognition to show that it is a problem throughout society. Clarissa Dalloway had the resources to hide her problems from view. She and Septimus are doubles and perhaps even copies of Woolf. One would probably have been a bit more shocked if Clarissa took her own life as Woolf originally planned to write. One would not expect that. However, the same can be said about many suicides. Some people build better fortresses than others but it does not mean they suffer less; the effects are just less visible. Although Mrs. Dalloway seems to be a simple story of the modernist period, one that even the basis of a Hollywood movie, the story is involved, and the characters provide a detailed study of the period. Characters like Elizabeth Dalloway, Doris Kilman, Peter Walsh and Sally Seton present additional in-depth portraits of the period and people. What is a simple story of planning for a party develops into a statement on the state of society deeper than most novels of the time. Mrs. Dalloway is perhaps the easiest of Woolf’s books to read and the one that offers more insight on each examination.

Joseph Spuckler holds a Master of Arts degree in International Relations and a Bachelor of Science degree in History. His interests center mostly around World War I and modernist writers, notably Virginia Woolf.


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Poetry Review — War Songs

War Songs by Antarah Ibn Shaddad and translated James Montgomery is a collection of pre-Islamic poetry. Shaddad known as ʿAntar was a pre-Islamic Arab knight and poet, famous for both his poetry and his adventurous life. Montgomery is Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic. He studied Arabic and Ancient Greek at Glasgow University, spent two years on an unfinished DPhil at Oxford, where he was a Snell Exhibitioner at Balliol College before taking up a lectureship at Glasgow. Senior Lectureships at Oslo and Leeds preceded his move to Cambridge in 1997.

‘Antar plays the role of an Arab Beowulf. He is a warrior who lives for battle and destroying his enemies. He is also a poet that unlike the poetry of WWI turns battle into a romantic act. War and battle became a religion which he participated in with zeal.

nobles like this are fair game
My spear mucked him up.
He did not look so fancy
laying there, a feast for night
predators ripping him from head to wrist.

ʿAntar faces death as a challenge not as fear:

I went face to face with Death
up close, with only a shield and a burnished saber
to keep us apart.

Peter Cole (Yale University) provides a detailed introduction into Arab poetry and translation and discusses the challenges of the translation not only in language but in time bringing the 6th century into modern form. The introduction provides a detailed history of not only ‘Antar’s life but also a history of the Arabian peninsula.  ‘Antar is not only famous as a warrior but also as a mixed-race hero.  He is one of the three black ravens in pre-Islamic history — a poet warrior of a black, Ethiopian, mother who was a slave.  ‘Antar, himself, was born into slavery but earned his freedom through heroics in battle.

War Songs will provide the reader with an introduction to early Arabic poetry.  The introduction and forward offers more than adequate information and background for a reader unfamiliar with the history or poetry.  The translation along with the introduction and forward are heavily cited with explanations and source material for those readers looking for more information and further reading.  An excellent collection of poetry, biography, and history.

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Poetry Review — Evolution

An intriguing collection of poems that will take more than one reading or a deal of pondering over each poem. The short lines do not complete a thought and the lack of punctuation leaves the reader to find structure in the lines and create meaning between the words. I am reminded of the first time I read Gertrude Stein’s Tiny Buttons.

Available September 21, 2018

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Poetry Review — Transaction Histories


Transaction Histories by Donna Stonecipher is a series of six poems of several sections. Stonecipher is the author of three books of poems, most recently The Cosmopolitan (2008, winner of the National Poetry Series). She graduated from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, with an MFA in 2001. She completed her Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.

Transaction Histories delivers an exciting collection of observations and bits of news. The color blue and water in all its forms are present and run through the entire collection. The sea, rivers, snow, coastlines, and an infinity pool are all represented. Water is the ban of developers as nothing can be built on it. Later we are reminded of the plastic island in the Pacific the size of Texas, and it is countered with:

The plastic owls had been manufactured to scare away other
birds, as if wisdom itself were frightening — and indeed it was.

The language is crisp and filled with images:

In the photograph there were long rows of hooded horses, their eyes like great dark
romantic marbles glistening out into the unromantic crowds.

The images reflect back and forth through the poems and form connections to the past. Views change as a gardener, artist, and a veterinarian discuss the best places to live. This is countered later by travelers who arrive in a foreign city looking to eat and find the same selection of restaurants they had at home, except with the if one found one’s self at a particular restaurant in India.

Time changes values of items:

Even as we sat watching the sunset, somewhere a lamp was turning into an antique somewhere a sofa was converting from bad taste to good taste.

It also changes what people value:

A lot of people seemed to like to go to the New York Public Library, establish themselves at a desk surrounded by books, and spend all afternoon stroking their smartphones.


Stonecipher takes the reader on a journey from Persian carpets, to the (loosely translated) Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, and Snow.  Between each section is are two short poems call “Landscape” and “Portrait” which offer a view of art from the past and waste from the present.  A stark contrast between the past and present.  The past and present and people and things come together to compliment and contract each other. An enjoyable and thought-provoking collection of modern poetry.

Available September 10, 2018

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Book Review — Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf & the Bloomsbury Group


Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf & the Bloomsbury Group by Amy Licence concern the interrelationships of the Bloomsbury Group members. Licence is a journalist, author, historian, and teacher, currently living in Canterbury, Kent, UK. Other interests include the Bloomsbury Group and Modernism, specifically the Post-Impressionists and Cubism.

What separates this book from most books on Virginia Woolf is that she is the linchpin of the group. Although her affairs were limited to Sackville-West and flirtations with Clive Bell other members had more and varied relationships. Woolf and Bell seem to be more of a competition with her very close sister Vanessa. Vanessa left Virginia for Bell and Virginia was acting in more of a vengeful manner. Woolf does serve as the common link to the Bloomsbury members Clive Bell, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keyes, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Dora Carrington, and Leonard Woolf.

The public image was important, but private matters tended to be kept private. Marriages were made for convenience. Marriage allowed homosexual men a public front for their private lives. It also gave the wife security and freedom to work in arts and literature. Vanessa Bell has a much more active role in the relationships of the period. Her marriage out of love allowed her to develop her art and when the love faded allowed her to enter into other relationships. It may have been shocking at the time, but today it seems rather mild.

It is not only the relationships of the time that could have caused scandal, but it was also the art and literature of the time. In literature, modernism was changing the novel. In art, post-impressionism and cubism were shaking up the art world and in some sense creating a scandal in itself. For those who have read Woolf’s diaries or letters, this work has a wider scope as other points of view are given as well as the state of the arts. The inclusion of Keyes shows how economic theory was changing too. The world was changing and the center of change, in England, seemed to be the Bloomsbury Group. An interesting history and biography of Bloomsbury’s fascinating members.

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Book Review — The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene


The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin is a detailed study of the history of the planet. Simon L. Lewis is Professor of Global Change Science at University College London and University of Leeds. An award-winning scientist, he has been described as having “one of the world’s most influential scientific minds”. He has written for the Guardian and Foreign Policy magazine. Mark A. Maslin is Professor of Earth System Science at University College London and a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Scholar. He is the author of eight books and has written for The Times and New Scientist.

The Human Planet is a book which works to pinpoint the new, or rather current, geologic epoch, the Anthropocene — the human epoch. With attention to the evolution of life and how life on earth. Different events have changed the earth. The Carboniferous period is named for the carbon sinking plant life expanded across the planet. Ice ages had their effects on life. The rise and fall of flora and fauna are used as markers in the history of the earth.

Following the section on historical geology, the authors concentrate on the rise of man from his beginning to his spread across the world. Man would have continued as hunter-gatherers without much effect on the planet. Man, however, did things to change his environment. Agriculture created societies and, in that, it also selectively bred plants and animals to meet his needs. A long string of events came from settling and developing agriculture. A community developed, a government formed, labor was divided. Efficiency in growing food exceeded hunting and gathering. This allowed new activities to begin — primitive manufacturing, cultivating the land, and growth in population.

Technology helped man spread his influence on the planet. Something as harmless as the printing press was responsible for expanding information to a greater number of people and preserved knowledge. That information led to education and development of new technology or applications of technology. The power of steam was known to the ancient Greeks, but it wasn’t until the 18th century when the steam engine was developed. The coal-fired steam engine replaced water mills to power industry. Coal was also used to heat houses and for cooking. London air was described as a sea of coal dust. From there a domino effect of new technology, population growth, deforesting, and removal of animal species continued. Man started changing the environment to suit his needs.

Since the steam engine, man has accelerated his impact on the planet. It is not only fossil fuels but also agriculture to support a growing population. Human population was one billion in 1804. It took until 1927 to reach two billion. 1960 marked three billion. It took only 13 years, on average, to add a billion more people to get to the six billion in 1999. Higher crop yields, better sanitation, better health care led to a population explosion. While longer and better life is a good thing, there will be a point that a great population will become unsupportable.

Technology is something unique to mankind. We use it to make our lives better. The changes are recognizable — huge monoculture crops, sprawling cities, domestication of animals, removal of wild animals, not to mention man-made climate change. The Anthropocene is here. When did it start is the question that this book builds up to. A well-written history of the planet and mankind and the effects of man on the planet.

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Book Review — Rattus New Yorkus

Rattus New Yorkus is a book that would have been at home with the other mass horror books of the 1970s — Earthquakes, giant crabs, killer bees, alligators in the sewers, and of course Willard. Rattus centers on a husband and wife exterminator team, Chris and Benita (Benny) Jackson. The Jacksons are going through a divorce, but still working together. A recently developed rodenticide, Degenesis, doesn’t kill rats but rather renders them sterile. The idea was that if rats can’t reproduce, they would eventually die out solving New York’s rat problem.

Chris and Benny discover that Degenesis does not have the desired effects, in fact, it is creating a hive mind in the New York rats. What may have worked on lab rats certainly is having the opposite impact on the city rat population. The inventor is in denial. The city government begins to panic. Will man remain at the top of the food chain?

Written in the 1970s pulp horror style Rattus proves to be entertaining:

“I made the mistake of turning around. Jumping Jesus! Possibly a thousand rats were on our tail, their own tails bobbing like Satan’s spaghetti.”

The idea is to present the horror, so it is a little short on the science as well as detailed personal information on the characters. That creates the downside in the page count. At only one hundred and twelve pages there seems a little more story could have been written.

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