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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