A Meditation inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway on Upper Class Snobbery and its influence on economic competitiveness
“The Prime Minister”, said Peter Walsh. (…) One couldn’t laugh at him. He looked so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits – poor chap, all rigged up in gold lace. And to be fair, as he went his rounds, first with Clarissa then with Richard escorting him, he did it very well. He tried to look somebody. It was amusing to watch. Nobody looked at him. They just went on talking, yet it was perfectly plain that they all knew, felt to the marrow of their bones, this majesty passing; this symbol of what they all stood for, English Society. (…) Lord, lord, the snobbery of the English! thought Peter Walsh, standing in the corner. How they loved dressing up on gold lace and doing homage!
Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway, Harcourt Publishing, 1953, p. 172
We swear to God, that it was neither Boris Johnson, nor Brexit, nor “The Crown” (a Netflix series) nor even the 100th anniversary of the Signing of Versailles Treaty that had us turn our attention to Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway. It was the simple fact that the delivery (by regular mail) of the 3rd volume of Marcel Proust’s 7-part series “In Search of Lost Time” from one NAFTA-country to another took so ridiculously long (- 7 Weeks! Listen up Brexiteers! This is what you are in for once you have successfully pivoted your economy away from the EU towards the ominous, oh so fast growing Pacific-Rim countries! – ) that it felt like a good alternative to supplement our Proust study with a dash into the literary work of Mrs. Woolf. Little did we know that we would find in her yet another formidable, systemic risk researcher. And, yes, little did we suspect that both, Mrs. Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway, would take us right back into the Brexit-/Boris Johnson- trap which we had originally planned to leave aside for a while.
But, alas, the topic of English snobbery and (male) portentousness is just as much at the heart of the novel as is the question of existential loneliness and despair as such.
Let us, however, advance our analysis step by step here. Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1923, i.e. a mere 4 years after the signing of the Versailles Treaty. So the novel naturally echoes the traumas which WWI left behind in brave war veterans like Septimus Warren Smith and in society at large as it proved painfully inapt in treating subject traumas adequately. (Supposedly our post-modern societies are better equipped to handle mental disorders and depressions now. One cannot help but wonder though whether the Sir Bradshaw’s of our time celebrate their expertise with a little less pomp and self-assuredness than they did in Mrs. Woolf’s days.) Mrs. Dalloway, nevertheless, does not contend itself with just denouncing the medical profession from back then. It also reflects on the growing emotional alienation, isolation and disconnect that people start to experience in the emerging modern society of the early 20s. Clearly, this weird silence, this strange inability to have the brunt of one’s ruminations being echoed by others has always been an inevitable feature of social community. (Just imagine what it would be like if this were otherwise. Wouldn’t one then be eternally drowned in the incoherence of manifold human expressions that pop up here and there without any prior reflection whatsoever?) Nevertheless, modernity with its globalization (Peter Walsh, for instance, is just coming back from Burma), its urbanization and its technological advances (airplanes, radio, telephone) is taking the disconnect between people to new heights. And if you add the decidedly decorum-oriented/stiff upper-lip culture of the post-Victorian age into the mix then you end up with a social reality that pretty much confirms Sally Seton’s observation according to which one “knows nothing (…) even of the people on lives with every day”. (Mrs. Dalloway, p. 192)
It is hence somewhat natural that the narrative stream-of-consciousness technique would have been pioneered in England and on the British Isles. After all, what else would there be to talk about other than what is not being talked about? Continue reading