“The sheets were clean, tight stretched in a broad white band from side to side. Narrower and narrower would her bed be. The candle was half burnt down and she had read deep in Baron Marbot’s Memoirs. She had read late at night of the retreat from Moscow. For the House sat so long that Richard insisted, after her illness, that she must sleep undisturbed. And really she preferred to read of the retreat from Moscow” (Woolf, 31).
I felt compelled by Virginia Woolf’s own reading tactics to lightly research General Baron de Marbot and the historical influence of his Memoirs, in order to get a clearer sense of its literary purpose in Mrs. Dalloway aside from its War-oriented connotation. Why a Memoir? Why Baron’s? Why does Woolf mention that Mrs. Dalloway “preferred to read” at all? And what does it mean for the rest of the novel?
According to the words of the translator, Oliver C. Colt, the Memoirs “are merely reminiscences of an old soldier, […] who came from a family which might be described as landed gentry. His father served in the bodyguard of Louis XV and later in the Republican army. Marbot himself was a soldier from the age of 17 and fought in the wars of the Republic and the campaigns of Napoleon. His memoirs were written for his family and his intimate circle, without thought of publication, and it was not until after his death in 1854 that his family were persuaded to offer the manuscript to publishers” (The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot).
At this point, Mrs. Dalloway isn’t reading about Napoleon’s domination of Austria or Britain’s continuous fight against the new French Empire, but she is reading the retreat from Eastern Europe, a very self-defeating and inglorious moment. Mrs. Dalloway rather read than sleep undisturbed. Perhaps she is more disturbed when she isn’t reading. She rather read the lines of someone else’s awful life, a soldier who experienced multiple deaths in his family, than turn inward. There is this sense that Mrs. Dalloway’s greatest fear might just be looking at herself only to find nothing, the complete nothingness of Clarissa. She rather read De Marbot’s “Crossing of the Ukra” or the “Death of [his] Brother Felix.” There’s this emphasis on the memoir, the reading of life, as long as it’s someone else’s.
The passage shows us that Mrs. Dalloway reads for leisure. Subsequently, we learn that Sally Seton played a great role in the fashioning of her literary preferences. And we are now aware that Mrs. Dalloway used to read, and she still does.
Peter Walsh’s recollection of Mrs. Dalloway provides a background and characterization of the protagonist that we couldn’t know without his historical eye. Peter begins to criticize Richard Dalloway, and like their mutual old friend, Sally Seton, feels that Richard has indeed stifled Clarissa’s soul. He says, “But how could she swallow all that stuff about poetry? How could she let him hold forth about Shakespeare? Seriously and solemnly Richard Dalloway got on his hind legs and said that no decent man ought to read Shakespeare’s sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes …” (Woolf, 75).
Shakespeare is yet another literary reference that manages to create a deep divide between Mrs. Dalloway and her husband. While Richard detests Shakespeare, Clarissa chooses to use a line in Shakespeare’s Othello to describe, what appears to be, the most majestic moment of her life: coming to the realization that she is in love with Sally Seton:
“But she could remember going cold with excitement, and doing her hair in a kind of ecstasy (now the old feeling began to come back to her, as she took out her hairpins, laid them on the dressing-table, began to do her hair), with the rooks flaunting up and down in the pink evening light, and dressing, and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall “if it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy.” That was her feeling- Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it all, all because was coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton” (Woolf, 35).
The literary references in the novel help demonstrate how little soul is left in Mrs. Dalloway, how little she recognizes Clarissa, who might be seen as responsible for that casualty, and how important she feels it is to her living, to avoid the opportunity of self-examination.