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Alexandra Harris claims in Romantic Moderns that to plant flowers in the middle of a war was to assert one’s firm belief in the future. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925 seven years after the first world war, and her final novel Between the Acts, published in 1941 in the midst of the second, are full of flowers. The pastoral and natural imagery in these novels echo with nostalgia, commemorating happier times past and hoping for their recreation. However, even in their abundance of flowers and birdsong, the images of the pastoral in Woolf’s work do not always look towards a brighter future. The images are distorted and corrupted, resonating with the remaining fears from the previous war and the encroaching fear of the war to come.
In Between the Acts, Woolf uses natural imagery as a means to connect the present to the past, reflecting nostalgia as well as the hope that nature provides for continuity. Miss La Trobe flounders at the silence of the stage, but thankfully ‘the cows took up the burden…in the very nick of time she lifted her great moon-eyed head and bellowed.’ The pastoral animals fill the silent void, all in unison with the ‘same yearning bellow’ (p. 87). The cows are gentle and ‘great’, with eyes like a ‘moon’, timeless in orbit and with a worldly continuity. The visceral ‘bellow’ joins past and present together: ‘it was the primeval voice sounding loud in the ear of the present moment’ (p. 87). Their ability to cross boundaries of time stretches beyond the context of salvaging the pageant as they ‘annihilated the gap; bridged the distance; filled the emptiness and continued the emotion’ (p. 87). The ‘gap’ and ‘distance’ of time is ‘bridged’ by the cry of nature, one that filled the ‘emptiness’ left by human action, presenting the pastoral as an instrument to connect with the past and continue to a salvaged future. While the actors are still adorned in their pageant costumes portraying figures from England’s history, ‘each still acted the unacted part conferred on them by their clothes’ (p. 121). Their ‘beauty ’ (p. 121) from the past is ‘revealed’ (p. 121) by the light: ‘the tender, the fading, the uninquisitive but searching light of evening that reveals depths in water and makes even the red brick bungalow radiant’ (p. 121). The natural glow is ‘tender’, enveloping both nature and the industrial ‘red brick bungalow’, joining them under a single place and time to uncover the beauty in each. The idyllic, pastoral setting of the evening creates nostalgia for the beauty that is found in the ‘unacted part conferred on them by their clothes’, a ‘part’ that is rooted in pre-war England.
Birds and flowers in particular are remembered in Mrs. Dalloway in conjunction with nostalgic thoughts. The depth of Clarissa Dalloway’s emotion for Peter Walsh as she looks at him ‘passing though all that time’ (p. 37) is likened to a bird that ‘touches a branch and rises and flutters away’ (p. 37). The emotion is fleeting and gentle, remembered in natural terms that remain ‘through all that time’. Clarissa’s happiest memory has flowers scattered in it, reflecting the positive connotations that they can have. This pinnacle, ‘the most exquisite moment of her whole life,’ followed ‘passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips’ (p. 30). The flowers are the catalysts and witness, poised in Sally Seton’s hand during Clarissa’s ‘most exquisite moment’. For all the magnitude of this instant, it is the presence of the flowers that take precedence, highlighting their lasting power. Clarissa in particular loves the flower that is arguably England’s symbol of continuity, establishing its roots slowly and firmly in the ground: the rose. She thinks them ‘absolutely lovely’ (p. 101) and cares about them more than international politics, such as the Armenians in the aftermath of their genocide during the First World War: ‘she cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians’ (p. 102). Nevertheless, they are also strangely ‘the only flowers she could bear to see cut’ (p. 102). This contradicts both her affection for them and their status as symbols of continuity, but hints, rather, at an emerging corruption of traditional natural imagery in face of the horrors of the war.
Through likening humans to birds, often in a sinister manner, Woolf begins to corrupt pastoral imagery, tainting it with the actions of humans. In Between the Acts, Isa and Rupert Haines are trapped swans, ‘his snow-white breast circled with a tangle of dirty duckweed; and she too, in her webbed feet was entangled by her husband’ (p. 2). The ‘snow-white’ is polluted, and it is difficult to separate the ‘dirty duckweed’ that imprisons them both with connotations of barbwire, tangling, cutting and trapping those on the war front. People are constantly described negatively as animals, Mrs. Haines with her ‘gooselike eyes, gobbling’ (p. 3), Clarissa with ‘a ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird’s’ (p. 9). The beggar woman in Mrs. Dalloway is a sinister bird, ‘a looming shape, a shadow shape’ (p. 70), steeped in an uncertain darkness, she possessed the ‘bird-like freshness of the very aged, she still twittered’ (p. 70). ‘Bird-like freshness’ is juxtaposed with ‘the very aged’, uniting the two and implying that birds now have ominous echoes of decay and death. The aggressive diction that Lucrezia uses to describe her husband Septimus Smith further distorts the bird symbol, drawing them closer to the monstrosities of the war. Her first impression of him was that of a ‘young hawk’ (p. 124), a bird of prey but still not yet aggressive, until Septimus becomes ‘a hawk or crow, being malicious and a great destroyer of crops’ (p. 126). The circling hawk, ‘malicious’ and ‘a great destroyer of crops,’ is not unlike circling military aircrafts, threatening to destroy what feeds and fuels a country. These comparisons of Woolf’s between birds and people corrupt natural imagery on several different levels. Firstly, the actions of humans – that of the war, maybe even of urbanization – have such large repercussions that they affect perceptions of the natural world, that which was meant to remain and continue. Secondly, there could even be suggestions of the transposition of human and animal roles, where humans are now prey on each other and like birds for game, fear being hunted. Moreover, humans are like birds in Woolf’s novels because birds create a birdsong, but through mirroring and merging with humans, it becomes a song of war.
The pastoral requires birdsong and there is plenty in Woolf’s novels, but what once was a choir of idyllic chirping is distorted into the sinister, and eventually into a choir of war. Septimus, suffering from shell-shock, hears a sparrow chirping his name ‘four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words…joined by another sparrow they sang in voices prolonged’ (p. 21). Birds singing with Greek voices were not an unfamiliar notion to Woolf, who in February 1904 suffered her first complete mental breakdown after hearing birds speaking in Greek. The birds’ voices are now an indication of madness, a corruption of nature. The birdsong is tormenting and ‘prolonged’, the voices are invasive and piercing like the sounds of bombs, drones, gunfire and screams – painful memories for a shell-shocked Septimus. However, in Between the Acts, a novel published in 1941, these links to wartime are made even more explicit. The birds are portrayed just as ‘piercingly’, constantly preventing the characters from sleep: ‘she had been waked by the birds. How they sang! Attacking the dawn…’, ‘the random ribbons of birds’ voices woke her’ (p. 127). The diction used begins to resemble that of wartime, ‘attacking’ in the morning and randomly appearing in ‘ribbons’ of sound. Like air raids, the birds are an aerial onslaught, resounding and preventing humans from sleep and peace. The swallows that dance to the music of the pageant are similar, ‘retreating and advancing…yes, they barred the music, and massed and hoarded’ (p. 113). The birds ‘retreat and advance’ like soldiers on the field in their multitudes, barring the music of England’s happier past in the play with the song of the present and near future, a song at this point that Woolf knows, is one of war.
The distortion of nature, then, signals a loss of the hope and nostalgia found in the pastoral, and indicates the resignation to another world war, the second that Woolf has seen. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf and the characters are still recovering from the First World War, but there is the slightest glimmer of hope: ‘the aeroplane soared straight up, curved in a loop, raced, sank, rose, and whatever it did, wherever it went, out fluttered behind it a thick ruffled bar of white smoke’ (p. 17). The plane here is safely for commercial use, ‘writing letters in the sky’ (p. 17), and in its description resembles a swan. The plane ‘raced, sank, rose’ in the same way a swan would in water, and this image is compounded by the ‘thick ruffled bar of white smoke’, like the ruffled white feathers of the bird. In its comparison to a swan, the plane adopts a naturality that reflects the optimism for the positive undercurrents of the pastoral to return. This, however, is contributed to the historical placing and publication of Mrs. Dalloway, nestled seven years after the First World War without the second in sight. In Between the Acts, however, this begins to change. Airplanes are still compared to birds: ‘twelve aeroplanes in perfect formation like a flight of wild duck came overhead’ (p. 119) and the ducks are still thought of in their unison and harmony, ‘perfect formation’. In spite of this, when applied to the planes, the devised aerial arrangement assumes an ominous tinge, indicating that the war is near. Eventually, the inverse comparison of birds as planes is achieved, as starlings become aerial forces attacking a tree, ‘the whole tree hummed with the whizz they made, as if each bird plucked a wire. A whizz, a buzz rose from the bird-buzzing, bird-vibrant, bird-blackened tree’ (p. 130). The starlings are now mechanical with whizzing sounds and wires, no longer birds but ruthless machines. Conveyed in a tricolon of the birds’ actions, the tree is overwhelmed and helpless as they would not ‘stop devouring the tree’ (p. 130). There is no ‘perfect formation’ but merely a chaos that resonates with mechanical, weapon-like sounds that appear to have seeped into the creatures of nature, Woolf disclosing that war is here.
Woolf has shown the state of pastoral and natural imagery to be indicators of historical significance in her novels. These images are connections to a happier past, and as Fussell aptly expresses, recourse to the pastoral is a means of both fully gauging the calamities of The Great War and imaginatively protecting oneself against them. However, their distortion throughout Mrs. Dalloway and more significantly Between the Acts betrays a disintegration of this hopeful nostalgia. The transformation of the natural world into a world of warfare presents Woolf, who in Mrs. Dalloway was attempting to recover from the First World War, eventually being disillusioned in Between the Acts by the emergence of the second. Between the Acts is appropriately named, after all, set in between two great acts – the two wars. So, flowers and birds for Woolf are no longer, as Harris argues, optimistic symbols of hope. An episode between Woolf and her husband Leonard encapsulates this sentiment, when one afternoon she called him in from the garden to listen to Hitler on the radio, but he preferred to carry on planting irises that would be ‘flowering long after Hitler is dead’. The flowers are Leonard’s optimistic hopes, but Virginia was sitting inside listening to Hitler, dismissing the natural world, hearing and listening instead to the voice of war – a sound that corrupts the pastoral in her novels.
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