Five Fascinating Facts About… Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

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Compiled by Annabel

First edition

The Royal Society of Literature is celebrating ‘Dalloway Day‘ today – a Wednesday in the middle of June – when Virginia Woolf’s novel in a day is set. So we though we’d join in with ‘five fascinating facts’ relating to this celebrated 1925 book:

1. The origins of Mrs Dalloway’s first chapter lie in a short story ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street‘, which opens in familiar vein but features gloves instead of flowers:

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself. Big Ben was striking as she stepped out into the street. It was eleven o’clock and the unused hour was fresh as if issued to children on a beach. But there was something solemn in the deliberate swing of the repeated strokes; something stirring in the murmur of the wheels and the shuffle of footsteps.

This short story is the opening one of a sequence Woolf wrote alongside Mrs Dalloway called ‘Mrs Dalloway’s Party’, also published in 1925, and reviewed by Ali Hope here.

Other parts of Mrs Dalloway come from another, unfinished, short story called the ‘Prime Minister’. The Prime Minister is one of the powerful symbols in Mrs Dalloway, embodying the social hierarchy, the establishment and tradition. Peter Walsh’s retort to Clarissa that she will marry a prime minister is thus an insult to her.

A Minton Majolica cockatoo, circa 1875.

2. Devonshire House, Bath House, the house with the china cockatoo; she had seen them all lit up once.

As Clarissa goes on her walk from Westminster to Bond Street, she passes the house with the china cockatoo in the window. This was No 1 Stratton Street, the London home of Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906). She was known as ‘the wealthiest woman in Britain’, having inherited her grandfather’s £1.8 million fortune. She was the daughter of the banker Thomas Coutts and was an art collector and philanthropist. You can read an interesting article about her from The Strand Magazine here.

Emulating the sovereign, the baroness used to put the china cockatoo in her window to show she was in residence.

3. On her way to the flower shop in Bond Street, she pauses outside Hatchards to look in the window of Britain’s oldest bookshop, which is still there.

There were Jorrock’s Jaunts and Jollities; there were Soapy Sponge and Mrs. Askwith’s Memoirs and Big Game Shooting in Nigeria, all spread open. Ever so many books there were; but none that seemed exactly right to take to Evelyn Whitbread in her nursing home.

Look who’s in the window!

(Clarissa’s destination was a flower shop in Bond Street called Mulberry’s, but this is nothing to do with the fashion brand now resident there, which was only founded in 1971.)

4. The chiming of Big Ben is one of the key symbols in Mrs Dalloway. Rather than conventional chapters, the chimes punctuate the novel, indicating the relentless passage of time which is such an important feature in the novel. They echo the past and portend the future in a way.

The sound of Big Ben flooded Clarissa’s drawing-room, where she sat, ever so annoyed, at her writing table; worried; annoyed. It was perfectly true that she had not asked Ellie Henderson to her party; but she had done it on purpose.

5. One of Woolf’s possible titles for Mrs Dalloway was indeed The Hours, which Michael Cunningham gave to his 1998 novel which won a Pulitzer Prize a year later. It features three women whose lives are mirrored by Mrs Dalloway and was subsequently made into a movie, with a prominent prosthetic nose not stopping Nicole Kidman playing Virginia Woolf from winning an Oscar.

That’s my choice of five fascinating Mrs Dalloway facts – do add your favourites in the comments below.

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Annabel is Co-founder of Shiny and one of the editors, but has never yet been to Hatchards.

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  1. Lovely! It’s reassuring that Hatchards is still there!!

  2. Nice to know more about that mysterious cockatoo!

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