Saturday, June 25, 2011
An Italian Girl in Hyde Park
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Originally published by Hogarth Press, 1925) 215 pages
I admit that I am too intimidated to write about Woolf's fiction. I dance around her image, allude to her in my writings, sing praises of her, but never touch my idol.
This book, one that I have read a number of times, touches on many themes through the inner lives of its main characters: the parameters of madness (Septimus); the erosion of one's passions as one ages (Clarissa, Peter, Sally), class and the rigidity of of the British class system (Peter), distrust of the medical system for the frail and unstable (Septimus, Lucrezia). What it is not about is an upper middle class woman planning a party.
But I think I have found a way to venture in by discussing the character of Lucrezia Warren Smith in Mrs. Dalloway. Lucrezia is the young Italian-born wife of Septimus Warren Smith, the WWI shell-shocked soldier who haunts the pages of the book. What is she doing there? What is her purpose? Why did Woolf make her Italian?
The beauty of this book, with its pioneering stream of consciousness flow, is the way that the characters pass through each others lives. While Clarissa Dalloway is buying her flowers and passing through Hyde Park on this June day some time after the WWI she passes Septimus and Lucrezia in Hyde Park as does Peter Walsh, one of Clarissa's former admirers, and Hugh Whitbread, a long time friend, who will appear in both Peter and Clarissa's reminiscences. Later, Septimus' doctor will arrive at Clarissa's party with disturbing news about Septimus.
And as we drift from the internal monologue of one character to another, like a bee alighting on a flower here, a flower there ... we start to learn of the emotional histories of all of these characters but in particular Lucrezia and Septimus.
Lucrezia met Septimus during the war in Milan where she was born. Septimus had been billeted with an Italian family, hers. She and her sisters made hats - pretty ones - in the courtyard of their home. They marry soon after the war and move back to England. He marries because the "panic" has beset him. He is afraid to be alone. She loves the "quietness" of the English and, I fear, Lucrezia is the type of girl who longs to make an unhappy man happy.
Lucrezia seems to represent the material world, sensuality, the love of beauty, the love of children and family, devotion to kin, connection to a world that Septimus is not longer tethered to because those are the things that Italy and Italian culture represent to the world.
Lucrezia (Rezia) is acutely aware of the beauty around her:
“Beautiful!” she would murmur, nudging Septimus, that he might see. But beauty was behind a pane of glass. Even taste (Rezia liked ices, chocolates, sweet things) had no relish to him. He put down his cup on the little marble table. He looked at people outside; happy they seemed, collecting in the middle of the street, shouting, laughing, squabbling over nothing. But he could not taste, he could not feel.
When we meet them they have been married for five years and Septimus is wandering around Hyde Park, speaking to himself, for Septimus now resides in a world between the dead and the fantastic. He does not know that he speaks aloud or that he frightens onlookers. He observes the dead, specifically Evans his commanding officer. He receives secret messages from the dead. The birds speak to him.
Lucrezia represents feeling, emotion, love. In her moments of desperation, she longs to be sitting in her little courtyard in Italy making hats with her sisters - for the familial warmth and security that she no longer has with Septimus.
At home, Rezia mentions that a neighbor's daughter is pregnant. Rezia is concerned with concrete things, material things.
At tea Rezia told him that Mrs. Filmer’s daughter was expecting a baby. She could not grow old and have no children! She was very lonely, she was very unhappy! She cried for the first time since they were married. Far away he heard her sobbing; he heard it accurately, he noticed it distinctly; he compared it to a piston thumping. But he felt nothing. His wife was crying, and he felt nothing; only each time she sobbed in this profound, this silent, this hopeless way, he descended another step into the pit.
All those things that represent security for Lucrezia are removed from her: husband, the possibility of children, family, and the small comforts which make life livable. She is trapped in a nightmare where she cannot communicate with her husband and the medical authorities seem unable to assist him or understand him. His demands are incomprehensible yet she longs to protect him:
She brought him his papers, the things he had written, things she had written for him. She tumbled them out on to the sofa. They looked at them together. Diagrams, designs, little men and women brandishing sticks for arms, with wings — were they?— on their backs; circles traced round shillings and sixpences — the suns and stars; zigzagging precipices with mountaineers ascending roped together, exactly like knives and forks; sea pieces with little faces laughing out of what might perhaps be waves: the map of the world. Burn them! he cried. Now for his writings; how the dead sing behind rhododendron bushes; odes to Time; conversations with Shakespeare; Evans, Evans, Evans — his messages from the dead; do not cut down trees; tell the Prime Minister. Universal love: the meaning of the world. Burn them! he cried.
But Rezia laid her hands on them. Some were very beautiful, she thought. She would tie them up (for she had no envelope) with a piece of silk.
But Rezia, the symbol of femininity and maternal stability in the novel, cannot spare him or protect him: beauty, love, kindness, devotion ... none of these things can spare Septimus from his fate. He is a fragment of society that cannot be controlled - governed by madness and sorrow and bad luck.
Mrs. Dalloway as the inspiration for my novel-in-progress Vita's Prospects:
A few summers ago I read Mrs. Dalloway and, in a flash of inspiration, I began to plot a book in which a number of the characters intersected with a few others in an emotional web that only the reader can see the whole of:
Billy, a mentally ill, homeless man who (unbeknownst to himself) crosses the path of Vita, an ordinary, middle class woman haunted by the memories of a dead lover whom Billy resembles; Kingston (K), Billy's sometime john and protector who has a business relationship with Vita's place of work, a film centre, and is the financial backer of a documentary about a young prostitute named Opal, who is in love with the violent, misogynistic Billy ...
I wanted to replicate the stream of consciousness of all these characters that Woolf achieves on this single day in June. The novel is also set in a single day in June and relates a day in the life of Billy and Vita - two lost people on opposite ends of society's spectrum.