Negative Cultural Space: A note on "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street"


And they fetched a book of photographs from Sickert’s paintings and began cutting off a hand or a head, and made them connect or separate, not as a hand or head but as if they had some quite different relationship. . . . They are seeing things that we cannot see, just as a dog bristles and whines in  a dark lane when  nothing is visible to human eyes. . . . What excites them in those photographs is something so deeply sunk that they cannot put words to it. But we, like most English people, have been trained not to see but to talk. Yet it may be, they went on, that there is a zone of silence in the middle of every art.
– Virginia Woolf, “Walter Sickert”

"Ennui" by Walter SickertVirginia Woolf’s essay on an exhibition of works by the English Expressionist painter Walter Sickert remarks also that “All great writers are great colourists, just as they are musicians into the bargain . . . they always contrive to make their scenes glow and darken and change to the eye.” With that sort of artistic sensibility in mind, what—figuratively—can be made of the fragmentary and discordant snippets of upper class London life running through the head of Clarissa Dalloway in Woolf’s short story, “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street”?

Something solemn is impending as Big Ben strikes the eleventh hour and Mrs. Dalloway begins her shopping expedition for new gloves. High noon is approaching but also the end of a cycle. Instead of telling us what is ending, Woolf drops us into Clarissa’s head for happy thoughts of childhood and her late father, a fine fellow and a judge, though “weak” on the Bench. The nature of his weakness is unspecified.

We see a boy risk life and limb by darting in front of horses, and the pity of poor bejeweled Mrs. Foxcraft who is about to lose the Manor House to a cousin because some “nice boy was dead.” (Jack Stewart?) Other apparently unrelated points and counterpoints follow: the hormonal inferiority of women contrasted with the towering reign of Queen Victoria, and a statement of noblesse oblige delivered with a cringe-worthy air of superiority.

Clarissa is brought to tears by the spectacle of Lady Bexborough being borne past like a Queen at a tournament. The lady grieves for the loss of her favorite (son?) Roden and the failing old man. Her dress is shabby, her gloves ill-fitting and she has nothing left to live for, but Lady Bexborough soldiers on.

Lines from “Adonaïs,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s response to the death of friend and fellow poet John Keats, come repeatedly to Clarissa’s mind. Confronting “the contagion of the world’s slow stain” she draws herself upright. Finally, new gloves bought and paid for, she is unperturbed by the sound of a violent explosion on the street outside the shop. She has remembered the name of the shop’s other customer, Miss Anstruther!

If “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” resembles a sort of painting, the style is not conventionally representational. We could attribute its discontinuities, randomness and ambiguity solely to Woolf’s choice of voice. Stream of consciousness was cutting edge in the early 1920s; her use of it here is a demonstration of technical genius.

"Hurricane Warning" by Mary WhyteBut equally impressive is Woolf’s ability to express things left unsaid. She makes use of negative cultural space, deploying bits and pieces of scene like a watercolorist who draws meaning from white space. Mary Whyte’s portrait, “Hurricane Warning,” tricks us into seeing a shirt instead of disconnected blotches of blue-gray. The hurricane is only implied as well. It’s in the man’s worried determination and wild hair; the cloud tones of his shirt, the house siding. Most ominously, it colors the window connected like a dialog balloon to his head.

In Woolf’s story, nothing much actually happens except an abrupt and unexplained finale that may disconcert readers, though not Mrs. Dalloway.  She, like Lady Bexborough, will carry on. But in the face of what impending and dire solemnity?

As Woolf worked on “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” the British Empire was at its zenith, governing a quarter of the world’s population. Britain had prevailed in the Great War, but the Bolshevik revolution sounded a sober warning. Labor strikes roiled UK home waters. A protracted bloodbath attended the birth of the Irish Free State. The Empire had already, in 1919, lost Afghanistan. Next door that same year in India, fifty British soldiers under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer infamously shot 1526 unarmed men, women and children in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Woolf and many of her contemporaries must have suspected that the established order was ripe for a fall.

That intuition is, as I see it, the shape of the negative cultural space that completes “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street.” Taken together with the story’s explicit content, what Woolf shows her post-war contemporaries is a vision of the British national character in decline. Well-bred persons do not cringe at reverses, however shocking or unexpected. They find solace and justification in the past and in oblivion. Regardless of tatters, even in denial of reality if need be, a Briton fares forward until,

He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again;
From the contagion of the world's slow stain
He is secure, and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown grey in vain;
Nor, when the spirit's self has ceased to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.

– from “Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2010



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