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Mrs Dalloway and Time

Kirsty Hewitt, University of Glasgow

Mrs Dalloway (1925) is a brief novel, but one which offers up a plethora of themes for consideration and discussion.  I have previously considered the role of the different female characters in the novel in Gender and Femininity in Mrs Dalloway, published in the Modernist Review.  This piece will continue to delve into Woolf’s fourth novel, but will instead focus upon the use of which she makes of time.  Set over the course of a single day, time is a pivotal and ever-present construct in Mrs Dalloway.  It is worth mentioning that the working title of the novel was The Hours, which endured until August 1924.[1]

By 1925, the year in which Mrs Dalloway was published, time was of striking importance, particularly apparent within the framework of the city of London.[2] With the introduction of Greenwich Mean Time, the regulation of public and private time duly occurred. The expansion of railways into London suburbs reduced the time which it took to reach the city centre, in turn creating the enduring category of the commuter. Time began to be spent rather than passed, and the notion of leisure time became a much yearned for commodity.  Following the Industrial Revolution, work was measured by time and the terminology ‘on the clock’ was created.  Modernity and time strode hand in hand, the very concept bringing an awareness of real time on a large and widely-accepted scale. Modernist writers used history in order to define their new and exciting present.

Henri Bergson’s concepts of temps and durée are prevalent within his philosophy upon distinctions of time, and added new conceptual dimensions to the understanding of the changing world which emerged during the 1920s.  His ideas about consciousness, memory and their prevalence within the early twentieth-century, are reinforced by Albert Einstein’s 1916 theory that time is relative; the notion that the past, present, and future are all inextricably linked.[3]

Time and memory are handled in three opposing ways by Woolf. In Mrs Dalloway, past and present have different effects upon the novel’s protagonists, each of whom are diametrically opposed with regard to how they handle personal memories. Clarissa Dalloway embraces the past, Peter Walsh wallows within it, and traumatised Septimus Smith tries his utmost to repel it.  Clarissa’s memories live on for her, reinforcing Peter’s idea, that ‘women live much more in the past than we [males] do’. [4]

Clarissa echoes Bergson’s concept of durée and through her, Woolf presents a criticism on the inherited class privilege and upper-class idealism which Clarissa so distinctly embodies. Thacker reiterates this: ‘Clarissa’s delight in urban “life” is shown to be restricted to the ability of her class to enjoy such freedom’.[5]  Peter remembers past instances which are still of the utmost importance to him. He continuously asserts what could have been, as opposed to what is or what was. Through Richard Dalloway, Woolf also presents the notion of an escape from the present and the desire to live in the past in order to regain one’s youth and opportunities. Episodic interpretations of Septimus’s war-scarred past are always at the forefront of his consciousness.  One gets a sense that time is happening to him, and that he is at its mercy.  Sir William Bradshaw controls the masculine influence of time, and clearly has domination over his wife’s time as well as his own.

Elsewhere in the novel, Clarissa’s past is often presented alongside her daughter Elizabeth’s. Here, Woolf reinforces the regimes of clock time which each of her characters are ruled by. One can never escape that: for Woolf, memory and the past are inherently linked with the present, thus creating the importance of the ‘moment’ in her work.

This leads into gendered concepts of time which can be found throughout the novel.[6]  In terms of feminine approaches, Clarissa struggles to fill her time. She flounders within a routine which is structured on this particular day only due to her party preparation. Lucrezia Warren Smith, on the other hand, has a variety of tasks to complete which alter with every hour. The disparity presented between Lucrezia and Clarissa is vast. A contrast is also given between the working woman and the lady of leisure. Some of Woolf’s female characters are almost overwhelmed by time, especially with regard to those who work in private houses; Clarissa’s maid Lucy is a prime example.

A variance is presented between clock time and lived time. Mrs Dalloway takes place in less than a twenty-four hour period, beginning early in the morning and ending during the long-awaited party. This adds to the sense of immediacy which modernity held within its grip, demonstrating the feeling that everything was happening right at the present moment. This is a concept which can only interestingly be moderated with time itself. The idea of time as a regulator harks back to Einstein’s theories of time and relativity, and Bergson’s concepts of temps and durée. In consequence, memory can be said to regulate time. With regard to both Clarissa and Septimus, it can be said that the two exist spatially – and, to an extent, temporally – in Woolf’s depiction of London, but that much of their living – particularly in the case of Septimus – occurs in ‘lived’ time, specifically in terms of their own depictions of nostalgia.

We take for granted the fact that Clarissa’s memories are entirely true, sometimes seeming, as they do, to be far more real than elements of her whirlwind present-day trip around London. Woolf effectively uses clock time as a tool with which to structure the novel.

Big Ben is ever-present in the novel, watching over London almost like a god; he appears as a character proper in the novel and is given human characteristics: ‘Still the last tremors of the great booming voice shook the air round him’.[7]  Big Ben orders and locates experience within the city, helping to define the immediate present: the ‘now’. With this simplistic placing of a London icon, time as a structural principle is close to the surface of Mrs Dalloway: ‘The sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour’ as a marker of time is prevalent.[8] Time is personified throughout Mrs Dalloway: ‘an immortal ode to Time’.[9] It is also rather cleverly given physical characteristics of movement: ‘Time flaps on the mast’.[10]  Structured time as a concept runs alongside lived time, and even the word time itself is mulled upon: ‘The word “time” split its husk; poured its riches over him’.[11]

Time, in the novel, is both act and actor; character and concept. The flux of time, in all of its guises, gives a real sense of agency to the novel, allowing everything to be measured against it. The notion of the infinite nature of time is often just as important for Woolf as the moment itself.  This focus upon time in Mrs Dalloway reflects Woolf’s own obsession with it. Hermione Lee writes: ‘Her compulsive and compulsory timetables fulfilled her need for order, and stopped her thinking about death’.[12]


[1] A.J. Lewis, ‘From ‘The Hours’ to “Mrs. Dalloway”‘, The British Museum Quarterly, 28.1/2 (1964), p. 16.

[2] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (London: The Hogarth Press, 1927; repr. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1996) pp. 53-79.

[3] Albert Einstein, Relativity; The Special and General Theory, trans. by Robert W. Lawson (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1920)

[4] Woolf, p. 62.

[5] Andrew Thacker, Moving Through Modernity; Space and Geography in Modernism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 156.

[6] Woolf, pp. 53-79.

[7] Woolf, p. 55.

[8] Woolf, p. 53.

[9] Woolf, p. 78.

[10] Woolf, p. 55.

[11] Woolf, p. 78.

[12] Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996), p. 411.


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