Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway – Context

  1. Other female writers of the time and their representation of women

Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925

Mary Cholmondeley –

Red Pottage (1899)

It mocks religious hypocrisy and the narrowness of country life, and was denounced from a London pulpit as immoral. It “explored the issues of female sexuality and vocation, recurring topics in late-Victorian debates about the New Women.”


Edith Wharton –

The Age of Innocence (1920), The Houseof Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913) and Twilight Sleep (1927)

Women suffered complications and endured unhappiness resulting from their limited positions in society and the inadequacy of their marriages. Known for her “Unhappy women.”

“Genius is of small use to a woman who does not know how to do her hair.” ― Edith Wharton

“I don’t know if I should care for a man who made life easy; I should want someone who made it interesting.” –  The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton


Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April (1922)

  • The novel follows four unalike women in 1920s England who leave their rainy, grey environments to go on holiday in Italy. Mrs Arbuthnot and Mrs Wilkins, who belong to the same ladies’ club but have never spoken, they find some common ground in that both are struggling to make the best of unhappy marriages.
  • Lottie Wilkins, who is very genuine and open, and also very intuitive to others’ needs and desires, although often muddled and awkward in her speech, has been married only a few years, but she and her husband are rubbing each other the wrong way.
  • Rose Arbuthnot is highly religious lady who does extensive charity work, but is married to an author of racy popular novels who neglects her.
  • Lady Caroline Dester is a beautiful socialite who is tired of the burden of London society and is beginning to regard her life as shallow and empty, after a man she loved died in WWI.
  • Fisher is a pompous, snobbish, highly proper lady who knew many Victorian luminaries and regards herself as the hostess and in control of the holiday; she prefers to live in her memories of times past rather than embracing the present and is emotionally closed-off.
  • LINK TO MRS DALLOWAY – “For women live much more in the past than we do, he [Peter Walsh] thought.”
  • The four women experience interpersonal tensions but eventually come together at the castle and find rejuvenation in the tranquil beauty of their surroundings, rediscovering hope and love.


Agatha Christie

There are a remarkable number of strong female characters in Christie’s books, and only a very few of them are depicted negatively. Efficient, practical, and competent businesswomen, housekeepers and secretaries; successful and professional artists, actresses and authors; commanding, cultured, and intellectual headmistresses; the shrewd and courageous Miss Marple, on the surface a fluttery, dithering old maid but underneath ruthless in the cause of justice—these women, however briefly they pass through the stories, are essentially admirable types.” – M. VIPOND

Edith Olivier

The Love Child (1927)

  • Agatha Bodenham has lived a quiet, largely solitary life with her mother. When she is thirty-two her mother dies, and Agatha finds herself alone but for the servants. She remembers the friend and great joy of her childhood – Clarissa. Clarissa her imaginary friend with whom she played and had adventures, but who Agatha had to rid herself of at fourteen when her governess mocked her. Now, with loneliness swamping her, Agatha finds she can summon up the image of Clarissa – just as she was all those years ago.
  • Depicted women as needing company otherwise they get into their own heads looking for companionship.
  • “‘A love-child.’ The phrase had surged up from her inner consciousness, and she spoke it without realising what it implied. It did just express what Clarissa truly was to her – the creation of the love of all her being. It was truth, and in face of truth she knew that no one could take the child away, she had saved her.”
  • Women need a purpose in life and somewhere to direct their love.



Antonia White

Frost in May (1933)

  • Father forcing girl to believe in something they do not (Catholicism)
  • Girls self-sacrifice on behalf of other girls
  • Women have an imagination that even nuns cannot restrict


Margret Mitchell

Gone with the Wind (1936)

  • Gone with the Wind admires a woman’s to be a successful businesswoman in defiance of the restricted role of women in her day.
  • At the same time the novel mourns the loss of the Confederate South—and part of that society was a pervasive sexism.
  • Gone With the Wind, both revels in Scarlett’s accomplishments and sees them as a problem: She’s good at making money, but that doesn’t make her happy; she protects her own, which is presented as cool and admirable, but doing so also (the novel says at various points) makes her unwomanly and unattractive.
  • The characters of “good” femininity—both die nobly sacrificing themselves. One of childbirth.

Katherine Mansfield –

 As a writer, Katherine Mansfield was particularly interested in exploring female identity and sexuality. Many of her female characters – Bertha Young in Bliss, Ada Moss in Pictures and Miss Brill in the short story of that name – are represented as experiencing a crisis of identity. Indeed, in many cases Mansfield’s female characters can be said to have a fragmented identity, suggesting they are experiencing a struggle to integrate their internal and external selves within the strictures of a male-dominated society. In common with other modernist writers, Mansfield focussed on her characters’ internal life rather than the external world.




  1. The Life of Virginia Woolf


  • Born in 1882 to a ‘remarkable’ household in Kensington – her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a historian and author and her mother, born in India, was a model for painters as well as having been a nurse, about which she had also written a book
  • Three full siblings and four half siblings, both parents having been married before
  • Parents were free thinking and very well connected with some of the great minds of the time
  • Talland House – summer home in St Ives where they holidayed until she was 13 (Bourton?)


  • Studied German, Greek and Latin at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London for four years
  • VW and her sisters were educated at home while her brothers were at Cambridge

Mental Health

  • Suffered from depression and mood swings all her life
  • Sexually abused by her half-brothers in childhood
  • First mental breakdown at 13 after the death of her mother, followed two years after by the death of her half-sister
  • Institutionalised for a short time after the death of her father in 1904
  • Drowned herself in 1941


  • Wrote professionally as a contributor for The Times Literary Supplement
  • While living in the Bloomsbury area of London, she got to know many of the Bloomsbury group, a circle of intellectuals and artists, including her future husband Leonard Woolf

(1910 Dreadnought Hoax: Members dressed up as a delegation of Ethiopian royals (VW as a bearded man) and successfully persuaded the English Navy to show them their warship HMS Dreadnought)

  • Established the Hogarth Press, a publishing house run from their own home, with her husband Leonard Woolf, publishing their own works and others’, including Freud and T.S. Eliot

Personal Life

  • 1922 – affair with Vita Sackville-West, the wife of an English diplomat and the two remained friends after the romantic affair ended


  • 1929 A Room of One’s Own – a feminist essay examining women’s role in literature, exploring the idea that “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
  • Gave lectures as well as writing and by her forties was an established intellectual, writer and feminist






  1. Previous female writers and their representation of women

Jane Austen – 1810s – ‘By A Lady’

  • Young women in genteel society
  • Happy marriages despite challenges

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë – 1840s to 1850s – Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

  • Mostly young, unfortunately-circumstanced heroines – independent, having to work
  • Thinking and feeling deeply
  • Difficult aspects of women’s life e.g. boarding school, governess, restraint
  • Preface to the 2nd edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: ‘I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be’
  • On Jane Eyre: if written by a woman ‘she had long forfeited the society of her own sex’

Elizabeth Gaskell – 1840s to 1860s – Mrs Gaskell

  • Politically and socially concerned
  • Female characters from a range of social backgrounds
  • Ruth: Sympathy with a ‘fallen’ woman

Mary Anne Evans – 1850s to 1870s – George Eliot

  • Politically concerned
  • The Mill on the Floss: Spirited, passionate heroine
  • Middlemarch: Range of presentations (passive, conceited, innocent, moral)

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Women writers up until now have ‘failed’ because they aren’t financially independent or intellectually free, and are denied men’s worldly experience

Only Jane Austen wrote entirely ‘as a woman’ rather than in accepted masculine style of her time

The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill (1869)

“If women lived in a different country from men and had never read any of their writings, they would have a literature of their own.”

“If women’s literature is destined to have a different collective character from that of men much longer time is necessary than has yet elapsed before it can emancipate itself from the influence of accepted models, and guide itself by its own impulses.”

The Lady Novelists by George Henry Lewes (1852)

‘the literature of women has fallen short of its functions owing to a very natural and a very explicable weakness—it has been too much a literature of imitation.’




  1. Representation of women by male writers 1890 – 1920

There were a mixture of opinions and attitudes towards women from the male perspective in this time period, but on the most part women were seen as weak and without depth of character.


Male authors from the time period:

Thomas Hardy – 1840 – 1928

– “Hardy not only acknowledges to female volatile emotions, female sensations, but he also treats them with the same devotion to physical detail as he gives to the male.” – Amrita Chattopadhyay.

– “Hardy’s portrayal of women undoubtedly varies from the relatively plain, unsophisticated and traditional towards more complex and controversial portraits of female characters.”

– “Hardy does not in fact create the New Woman as a successful criticism of gender relations.” – Joanna Stolarek.


  • Difficult for a man to successfully describe the true character of a woman in that time where women were looked down upon.
  • Woolf is able to relate to her female characters more personally, making the reader able to understand female perspectives.


D H Lawrence – 1885 – 1930

– “D H Lawrence was regarded by feminists as beyond the pale, because he gave what they regarded as a restrictive, authoritarian view of female sexuality, determined by his crazy adoration of the phallic.” – Dr Sally Minogue.


  • Lawrence believed women should be obedient to authority
  • Woolf does not take this approach in the novel, so female readers feel more empowered.


E M Forster – 1879 – 1970

– “Forster’s reliance on plot and his symbolic use of the female characters require much more reference to the story as such than do the novels of Virginia Woolf, which are organised around the relationship between characters.” – Kerstin Elert.


  • Woolf uses females as important/ main characters, rather than in place of symbols.


Oscar Wilde – 1854 – 1900

– “Wilde mocks society’s confinement of women into prescribed roles and undercuts customary morality but fears self-determining women’s disruptive power.” – Sarika Bose.


  • Women should not be confined to societal opinions from a moral perspective.
  • Woolf does confine Dalloway to a domestic life, but being of a higher class puts her in a better position to make decisions.


Arnold Bennett – 1867 – 1931

– “Bennett believes men are superior to women.”


  • A common perception at the time
  • Woolf does not express this way of thinking, Dalloway being independent and controlled in emotion.


Samuel Butler – 1835 – 1902

-“In most instances of depictions of mother figures in “The Odyssey”, these are women in need of support and guidance as they are weak and fragile. Without a steady male hand to guide them, these women appear to be lost and inconsolable.”


  • Woolf does not make Dalloway a fragile character, but male characters in the novel see her in that light, demonstrating warped societal views.


Lewis Carroll – 1832 – 1898

-“…’Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, ‘Alice’s Adventures under Ground’ and ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ in order to expose how female characters are consistently subjected to societal expectations and Victorian propriety.”

-“Through a contemporary feminist reading, the relationship between text and image is able to expound how patriarchal authority, persecution and even violence are used to control women’s behaviour within Carroll’s iconic narrative.” – Jane Polwin.


– Woolf takes a similar approach but not in order to expose, rather to empower the reader and make them aware of the truths of women’s nature.


  1. Scott Fitzgerald – 1896 – 1940

-“Throughout the novel, women are portrayed in a very negative light. The author’s presentation of women is unflattering and unsympathetic. The women are not described with depth.”


  • Woolf’s presentation of Dalloway is strong and knowledgeable, even though male points of view are used to enhance the depth of the character.


James Joyce – 1882 – 1941

-“The Women in the stories are portrayed as victims, weak slaves in a male dominated world.”

-“The women of the Dubliners are depicted as lower class citizens to men, only worthy of respect when they get married or if they are related to someone of high status in the community.”

-“Joyce uses his women to project a political message of his nationalist sympathies. He portrays them as beaten-down and oppressed but urges that they have the dignity, resilience and strength to go on.”


  • Dalloway does receive higher status because of her marriage (Woolf respecting norms of the time), but was respectable before then.
  • Woolf does not present any of her characters in a “beaten-down” state, only makes judgement on character, creating equality between them.


Ronald Firbank – 1886 – 1926

-“Three More Novels is a series of animated tableaux filled with beautiful, eccentric women pursuing pleasure in the most wicked, perverse, irresponsible ways.”


  • Different associations of women; eccentric/frivolous/shallow
  • Woolf uses this perspective more so, but the characters are of a higher class so are more refined in behaviour.



  1. Life for Women in the 1920’s (Upper/Lower class)




  • Ended with victory, peace had returned.
  • War proved profitable for some- manufacturers and suppliers of goods needed for war had become extremely rich.
  • Younger generation who were too young to go to war could have felt guilt, or the need to live life to the full, as so many young lives were lost.


Role of Women


  • During the war, many women were employed in factories, giving them a wage and a certain degree of independence.
  • 1918- Women over 30 given the vote.
  • 1928- Women over 21 given the vote
  • Empowerment of women, new independence, women started to drink and drive motorcycles.
  • Married women- life stayed the same post-war as pre-war, stay-at-home housewives.





  • 1925- Gold Standard by Winston Churchill re-introduced- kept interest rates high and meant UK exports were expendive.
  • Coal reserves depleted after war, Britain were importing more coal then is was mining.
  • Lack of investment in the new industry led to a period of depression, deflation and decline in the UK’s economy, causing poverty amongst the unemployed which contrasted with the middle and upper class.
  • By mid 1920’s, unemployment had risen to over 2 million.





  • The Education act of 1918- compulsory for all children to be educated up to the age of 14, however, is also created a large distinction between the class differences in education.
  • Lower class children in mass education in free day schools till the age of 14.
  • Upper class children had boarding school education up until the age of 13, followed by further boarding at expensive public schools.
  • 2/3rd of the wealth of the country remained in the ownership of 1% of the population.








  1. Early Twentieth Century Feminism and its Precursors


Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673)

  • Poet, Philosopher and writer
  • Published under her own name
  • Writing addressed the subject of gender
  • First woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society in London 1667


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

  • “A vindication on the Rights of Women”
  • Argues that women are not inferior to men, only that they lacked education


Novelists in the Nineteenth Century

  • Jane Austen – restrictions on women’s lives (middle class), imposed through marriage
  • Brontes – women’s misery and frustration at the social system (Jane Eyre) – had to write under male pseudonyms
  • Elizabeth Gaskell – frustration at the class system and lives of the poor working classes. “Ruth” addressed the issue of a fallen woman and the double standards of the Victorian era.


Educational reforms:


Florence Nightingale

  • Advocated for women’s education and work as nurses.

Harriet Martineau

  • Social reformer cited as the first female sociologist
  • Educational reform so that “marriage need not be the object in life”

Girton College, Cambridge established 1869


Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-1858)

  • Women’s rights advocate
  • More radical than her husband John Stuart Mill, especially critical of the degrading effect of women’s economic dependence on men


Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894)

  • US suffrage pioneer and advocated women’s right to wear trousers (“bloomers”) to put them on an equal footing to men


Women’s Suffrage

  • Emily Wilding Davison hid in the House of Commons for the 1911 census and died under the King’s horse
  • Pankhurst – Deeds not Words, Women’s Social and Political Union
  • Direct action, imprisonment, hunger strikes and force feeding
  • Women over 30/married/property owning granted the franchise in 1918


First World War

  • Women increasingly in the work place
  • Led to changing attitudes to their abilities and less restrictive attitudes to women’s dress/hair
  • Progress to some extent limited to this period as men returned from the war


Virginia Woolf herself

  • Briefly involved in the women’s suffrage movement
  • “A Room of One’s Own” 1929 – based on lectures she delivered at two women’s colleges in Cambridge
  • Assessed limitations towards women writing & invented character ‘Judith Shakespeare’ – to demonstrate that women with the same talents as men were institutionally denied the resources to develop them.


Virginia Woolf’s London

Virginia Woolf loved London, and her novel Mrs Dalloway famously begins with Clarissa Dalloway walking through the city. David Bradshaw investigates how the excitement, beauty and inequalities of London influenced Woolf’s writing.