Professor Gillian Beer explores how Virginia Woolf and her great novel Mrs Dalloway were shaped by the 1914-18 conflict.
Virginia Woolf spent the First World War on the Home front mainly in London. It was an anxious time; she lost several cousins in the conflict, and her brother-in-law Cecil Woolf died at the Front; in 1915 she suffered a mental breakdown.
For Woolf the war had changed everything, and her three novels written soon after it - Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) - display a marked shift in style. 'There had to be new forms for our new sensations', she wrote in a 1916 essay, and in 1923 went further:
"We are sharply cut off from our predecessors. A shift in the scale - the war, the sudden slip of masses held in position for ages - has shaken the fabric from top to bottom, alienated us from the past and made us perhaps too vividly conscious of the present."
In 1925, Woolf's brilliant novel Mrs Dalloway would amaze readers with its literary techniques and its counterpointing of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and war veteran Septimus Warren-Smith. Here was a work of fiction in which the principal characters never meet, where the Victorian staples of plot and family relationships are eclipsed by a new emphasis on what the characters think rather than what they do or say.
For Dame Gillian Beer this thronging novel with its cast of war profiteers, war casualties, and passers-by ultimately has a positive message. In Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf draws the reader and the novel's characters together: "Whether known or unknown to each other, in a shared humanity," she says, "her work draws us all alongside, across time.".