Friday, July 02, 2004

Mrs. Dalloway and Celtic Mythology Redux

As you may recall, a little over a week ago there was an article about Mrs. Dalloway in the TLS. In it Keith Brown talked about how the criticism of Woolf's work in general and Mrs. Dalloway specifically, was only "reasonably satisfactory," that there is

a dimension to that novel, and indeed to much of Virginia Woolf's work, with which this kind of critical approach cannot quite come to terms. Woolf predicted well before publication that her novel would be faulted on its construction, and she was right; yet her untroubled tone suggests that she did not feel that anyone making such a charge would fully have understood what they were reading. Few of the reactions she met with after the novel came out struck her as very perceptive: though many of the same comments are still made today. We still tend to chide her, like her friend Charles Sanger, for contemplating the lives of the idle rich; or waver between Lytton Strachey's belief that the sombre Septimus is the central character of Mrs. Dalloway, and Gerald Brenan's feeling that he is an awkward intrusion into the design. Yet still the voice of the author herself remains, quietly observing that none of this “lays hold of the thing that I have done”.
Brown went on to then propose "that the design of Mrs. Dalloway comes into focus with remarkable sharpness when it is seen in the light--or darkness--of Celtic mythology or religion." He then suggests that since Clarissa Dalloway's party is taking place in the middle of June, that is was close to the summer solstice and that the framework for the book is the Celtic solstice ritual with Clarissa playing priestess and Septimus Smith playing the sacrifice. At first I thought Brown was full of it but by the end of the (not fully published) article I thought, well maybe he is right. I was inspired to read Mrs. Dalloway again, for it had been a long time, to find out if Brown was right. I have finished the book, read with Brown's article in mind, and my opinion is that Brown is really grasping at straws. I should have realized this without even having to read Mrs. Dalloway. At one point Brown is talking about the possible date of Clarissa's party. In the book the day marked simply, "for it was the middle of June." Yes, the solstice, usually the 21st, is mid-June, but then so is the 15th. And Brown makes the mistake of calling mid-summer's eve Beltane. Beltane is always May 1st. Litha is the Celtic name for summer solstice. The fact that it was June may have no part in the story at all, because isn't June a traditional party season for the upper classes anyway? If so, it would be silly to assume that there is a significance regarding the date. And just because Woolf herself commented that none of the reviews of her book, "lays hold of the thing that I have done" (as quoted by Brown), does that mean we have to go searching for some obscure answer to what Woolf meant? Could she not have been referring to the fact that what she had done in Mrs. Dalloway was so different than what was currently being written (but for Joyce's Ulysses) that people just didn't get it? Brown argues
If one wishes to say “yes” to life, to one’s world--and Mrs. Dalloway is a sustained attempt to do so--where is the frame of reference that will not only synthesize all this, but somehow enable one to accept it? Christian ideas--at least to the daughter of England's most celebrated agnostic--would seem largely irrelevant. Whereas ancient Celtic culture and myth, with their extraordinary blend of delicacy, beauty, feeling for nature and grotesque atrocity, provide a far more apt correlative to Lloyd Georgian England as Woolf experienced it. (The fact that the Celtic gods were the indigenous deities of the land would give this thought a particular appeal, of course, to anyone with Virginia Woolf's characteristically Edwardian pageant-of-history sense of the past.)
. But it seems to me that Woolf, who had a rather classical education and studied Greek, is much more likely to come from that frame of reference than a Celtic one. The Greeks too had an "extraordinary blend of delicacy, beauty, feeling for nature and grotesque atrocity." One could just as likely view Mrs. Dalloway within the framework of Dionysian revelries or the rites of Demeter than Celtic myth. Granted, I am not a TLS subscriber and didn't get to read the whole of the argument, but I can only imagine that it is more of the same. I think Brown is way off base, though he offers an interesting perspective. He's been harboring his Celtic myth theory for going on twenty years, perhaps it's time he lets it go. More about Mrs. Dalloway, sans Celtic myth, tomorrow.