Thursday, 11 December 2008

Mrs Dalloway, London, William Morris

In their iconoclastic youthful days at the country home Bourton, the characters of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) secretly read the political writings of William Morris. Clarissa Dalloway recalls that ‘Aunt Helena never liked discussion of anything (when Sally gave her William Morris it had to be wrapped in brown paper) ... They meant to found a society to abolish private property’.

Given Morris’s intense presence in Clarissa and Sally’s youth, does he still somehow survive 30 years later, in the novel’s present, the London of 1923? Clarissa does at one point conclude that there is ‘an unseen part of us, which spreads wide [and] might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death’. Might Morris, then, haunt the London of Mrs Dalloway?

As Peter Walsh strolls into Trafalgar Square should we be spectrally aware of the events which took place there on Bloody Sunday, 13 November 1887? Well, perhaps, since Peter, after all, ‘had been a Socialist’. When Miss Kilman takes refuge in Westminster Abbey should we be latently aware of Morris’s own efforts on behalf of this building, in his campaigns for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings? And is it just accident that Richard Dalloway will later order up Imperial Tokay, William Morris’s favourite wine, from his cellars?

What is certain, at any rate, is that the latent Morrisian presence in this book is strong enough to generate the curious family – Mr and Mrs Morris and their children Charles and Elaine – that Peter Walsh meets at dinner in his Bloomsbury hotel towards the end of the novel. These 1920 Morrises have nothing much in common with the family of their great socialist namesake, yet, as Peter Walsh concludes, with an ardour that seems more appropriate to the nineteenth-century Morrises than to their Bloomsbury hotel counterparts, ‘no family in the world can compare with the Morrises’. Amen to that!

Dallowayan London is thus arguably also Morrisian London, and the 1920s are haunted by the 1880s. We would therefore benefit from a more systematic Morris-orientated reading of Mrs Dalloway and of Woolf in general, and there might be a more far-reaching lesson here about the persistence of a Morrisian spatial and political ‘unconscious’ in modernist works that may, on the surface, seem to have spurned his social and aesthetic legacy.


Owlfarmer said...

I don't think it's coincidental that films such as "The Hours" and a revival of interest in the likes of Woolf's novels and the Hogarth Press, or fine press printing in general, or the Kelmscott Press in particular should resonate with us today. Woolf wanted good books to be available in comely editions; Morris wanted to save the world from shoddy goods. In an economy overwhelmed by greed and garbage, that we should yearn for quality and content shouldn't surprise us. They're probably all part of the utopian impulse you mentioned in your last post. In hard times, we long for, and imagine, better.

Anonymous said...

For a good account of Virginia Woolf's interest in Morris, see Peter Stansky's stimulating little pamphlet,'William Morris and Bloomsbury' (London: Cecil Woolf, 1997), pp.5-7 - though he does not discuss her novels. She had read the Mackail biography ('a very interesting book'), wanted to borrow 'Pilgrims of Hope' from a friend, enjoyed 'Chants for Socialists', and in February 1940 expresses an inclination to write about Morris.

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Anonymous said...


I'm an undergrad just starting work on my first dissertation. I have been working my way through as much Morris as possible and am keen to pursue the link between him and Woolf - having quite accidentally come across the Stansky pamphlet and then this blog. This entry is from a while back - I just wondered if you had or were aware of anybody else who has since followed up on this connection - just in case my inept googling leads to unnecessarily reinventing the wheel.

Sorry for the random interruption - fantastic blog!


RBT said...

In 'The Years' the Greek scholar Edward Pargiter who is studying Sophocles' Antigone sees Antigone changing into Kitty Malone, for whom he has an incipient passion. He sees her against 'the Morris wall-papers' in her father's Lodge (he is the Master of the College). Edward goes on to say that she appears 'like a purple flower', i.e. a hyacinth, a flower used in Morris's designs. He rejects the simile, but the connection is there. The passage is on p. 50 of the Oxford World's Classics ed.

Anne E. Fernald's Cambridge edition of Mrs. Dalloway (p. 294) connects the Morrises in Walsh's hotel with Sally and Clarissa's interest in Morris's political writings.

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