The Book of the City of the Ladies

The daybreak of feminism

(Versión en Español aquí)


Christine de Pizan was studying at home, like many other nights, when she ran into Matheolus’s Lamentations. At first, she was completely sure that all the misogynistic statements of the book were nothing but nonsense, but then, she remembered some other great writers and philosophers who said the same things. Hence, she wondered whether she was wrong in her perception of women, being herself one of them. This thought made her fall in despair. At that point, the Three Virtues (Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice) appeared to Christine to help her see that she was not the wrong one and build a city. One where any woman in the same situation of Christine could go and seek for refuge. This way, a long conversation between the Three Virtues and Christine started, where they refuted and explained all the male chauvinist ideas of that time.

Introduction to the book and influences

Firstly, I ought to mention that this book was written between the end of the year 1404 and the beginning of 1405. Even though it is more than five hundred years old, some of the topics treated are still ongoing and the perspective with which they are treated is very progressive, even for today’s society. Nevertheless, we cannot forget when the book was written, as some other ideas could look old-fashioned to us, but they were a complete breakthrough at the time.

The title of the book (in French just The City of Ladies) is a clear reference to the book The City of God, written by Saint Augustine. Even the concept of Christine´s work is clearly influenced by Saint Augustine’s, where he makes a defence of the Christianity by confronting a Christian city against a pagan one, and uses this to explain theological ideas. Christine also receives a strong influence from the exempla, books that started to become popular a couple of centuries before with the aim of lecture the reader in matters of faith. We see that the Book of the City of the Ladies drinks from centuries of theological thought to refute the sexist ideas spread mainly by the Church. As a matter of fact, Christine uses one of the major theological authorities, one of the four Doctors of the Church, to precisely dismantle the reasoning of bishops and priests, and even those of the same Doctor. It is simply brilliant.

The first thing that caught my attention when I started the book was the fact that almost all women that appear there were personalities of Ancient History , Christian or pagan. I was expecting for a collection of women contemporary to Christine, I was hoping to discover a lot of unknown women of the Renaissance. There is indeed a moment when Christine explicitly says that not only foreigners are to enter the city, and she mentions some contemporary women that she considers equal to the other she has mentioned before. This, however, is not a big part of the book. Why, if there were contemporary women who could serve as an example to refute these sexist ideas, does Christine refer to women so distant in time? Even though at first this was shocking, I can now understand that the impact of the book would have been smaller had Christine not used these figures.

First of all, being able to show this degree of knowledge of history, Greek and Roman mythology, biblical stories and the like gives Christine authority. She is not a woman saying that her neighbours are good people, she is a scholar giving us hundreds of examples that show how the established ideas are a nonsense.

Besides, bishops and theologist often used mythological or biblical examples to build sexist arguments, like Judith´s story or the myth of the Gorgon which we will discuss later. It makes sense to use the same source as the people she wants to refute. Same as she did with the simile with Saint Augustine’s book, Christine is showing her ability to pick up the weapons used against women and use them in their favour.

We also have to take into account that she wrote the book in the Renaissance, when Roman culture and mythology were in the spotlight. Also, the value of these figures was unquestionable, so she could avoid any kind of clash of interests with the examples she is making to refute an idea. In addition, she is showing that women have been subdued to the same pressure since the beginning of time, and it is not related with their attitude or their religion.

Finally, Christine is also able to turn over some myths which were used to support the idea that women were evil. She reinterprets them to also show that a misogynistic interpretation is not the only way to see the world. Christine’s value as a historian by interpreting, analysing and reinterpreting myths and stories is incalculable. Besides, she is able to use all of it to defend her ideas, creating a book that after more than five hundred years is still on point.

Some of the themes treated

Due to the huge number of subjects treated in the book, I am not going to go in-depth in all of them. I will focus only in those I find more interesting. Nevertheless, I shall also mention some other themes treated, just to let us have an idea of what we will find in the book.

The book is divided into three parts, the three conversations with Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice. Reason personified as a woman is an initial allegory to break down the idea that women were purely emotional beings and that they were unable to think logically, unable to use reason. It already shows us that Lady Reason will be in the charge of building the foundation of the City, i.e. she will be in the charge of breaking the main ideas society has about women. In this conversation, Lady Reason and Christine speak about why men want to slander the group of women. They mention some books which were specifically written to speak about how mean women are or even about the bad functioning of women’s bodies. Lady Reason points out that the fact that men did not allow women to read these books is an argument per se about how unconvincing these statements are, as any person who reads these books and knows a little bit about women would realise about the absurdity of what’s written.

Also, in this first part, Christine puts in the centre of stage the abilities that women are supposed not to have, such as intelligence, braveness, strength, leadership, creativity, … She fills the book with women who have every single one of these skills. Here again, I was surprised that most of the examples of good rulers are from Middle East or Merovingian Frank queens. It may have something to do with the fact that preislamic civilizations were matriarchies. Merovingian Frank society, on the other hand, was not a matriarchy, but their legislative body was not very developed, so the power of personal influence was sometimes higher than the power of a title. That left some accessible power for those women intelligent and ambitious enough who also had the luck of being born in a wealthy family; we can see examples of this in the figure of the «Queen Mother», a very respected figure who, in times of uncertainty or when there were weak kings, had complete power.

I think one of the arguments with Lady Reason is a good example of the mood of the book: Christine asks Lady Reason if there is some sense in the saying “women are only good for talking, crying and knitting.” Against all odds, the answer of Lady Reason is that the saying is completely true. Nevertheless, she also explains why those are not characteristics to be ashamed of, but on the contrary skills to be proud of. Lady Reason shows several examples (all of them biblical) where a woman got the favor of Jesuschrist over any man because of her tears or her talk (such as the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany…). In this way, Christine chooses to praise female characteristics instead of rejecting them.

The second part of the book is the conversation with Lady Rectitude, a rhetoric figure created by Christine. In French, Christine chooses to call her Droiture and not Rectitude like in the English translation, as rectitude can be associated with religious rigidity, and she wanted to avoid that. Droit means straight, erect and so Droiture is a reference to the straight lines of the buildings that form the City, which in this analogy is a reference to the persistence and the good sense. In the conversation with Lady Rectitude, they discuss about the skills of the women who will be allowed to enter the city: filial, maternal and conjugal love, persistency, chastity and fidelity among many others. Christine also makes a statement in defence of marriage, and she tells us that she had a happy marriage full of respect, although she is aware that she was incredibly lucky for that. Again, by defencing marriage and those skills, Christine is praising characteristics associated to women. Even though she is constantly speaking about examples of women who do not conform to the stereotypes, she choses to recognise women as a collective with common qualities that are different from those of men, and she decides to make a case for these skills.

In this part, Christine also speaks about abuse and rape. When she is speaking about marriage, Christine says that there are women who have to suffer abuse from their husbands in a daily basis, and she lauds those women that continue with their role as a wife and mother in the family unity, as they are able to leave their sorrow and choose the maternal and conjugal love instead. This is obviously something crazy to say today, (please, if somebody is in this situation you have to get out of there, ask for help and leave as soon as possible*) but in 1405 it was a complete break down with all the ideas they had. Firstly, Christine is showing the reality that some women have to live in, and also, she is making the statement that, even though the situation is brutal for them, those women chose to honour the sacrament of marriage. With this, she is stressing again that women are persistent, full of maternal and conjugal love, and that they are true to their responsibilities as Christians, honouring the will of God.

The ideas Christine presents about rape could form part of a book written today. First of all, she refutes the idea that women do enjoy being raped by showing examples of women who committed suicide after being raped. The most interesting example is that of Lucrecia’s rape which led into the fall of Roman Monarchy. With this example, Christine also makes the point that clothes or attitude have nothing to do with being raped, as Tarquinius met Lucrecia when she was knitting with her slaves, wearing demure clothes and she did not even notice Tarquinius presence. This last point is also addressed to women who believe that whenever they maintain the “proper” attitude they will not suffer vexations from men.

Christine also makes the point that we should not judge a woman because she wants to feel beautiful. As an example of how appearance should not be judged she speaks about Bartholomew the Apostle. He enjoyed dressing in silk, and this fact has nothing to do with all the good acts performed by him when he was following Jesus. I think she makes an interesting point here, and it is related with nowadays society, where the title “feminist” is given or taken according to whether you decide to wear make-up or wax yourself, same as the title of “respectable women”, which is more related with the length of the skirt.

Before going to the third part, I would like to speak about the reinterpretations of biblical or mythological stories made by Christine. There are more than those I mention within the book, but I am going to focus on two of them: The story of Judith and the story of the Gorgon, both used to make the point of how evil and dangerous women are.

So, the legend of Judith tells us that, trying to stop the siege of Betulia, her home city, Judith seduced Holofernes, the leader of the enemy army. After getting him drunk, she cut his head off. It is clear how this story was used to warn men against beautiful women. Nevertheless, Christine focuses on how brave was Judith, as she risked her life by going to the enemy camp and seducing Holofernes. She also focuses on the wittiness of Judith. Besides, she stresses the fact that God was with Judith, as she succeeded with her plan, and so, she saved God´s chosen people. Then, Christine presents Judith as a hero, and not as an evil seductress. About the Gorgone, a figure that was used to warn men against women seductive weapons, Christine explains that the origin of this myth was a woman with such deep eyes that made all who look at them to stop breathing for a moment, and due to jealousy people made up the legend.

In the third part of the book, Justice shows Christine who is going to rule the city and who shall be living in the most beautiful towers: the Virgin Mary and all the (female) Saints. It is only logical that is Justice who should speak about this, as at that time justice was linked with religion. Again, Christine is sending a message to the Church: now the city is full and ruled by worshiped women.

Finally, I think is very interesting to mention that the book is full of Christine´s monologues where she demands to those ungrateful men to shut up and to stop slandering women. In these one can appreciate the weariness and the unease Christine is feeling:

[…]Let them be silent! Let them be silent from now on, those writers who malign women and who talk about them in their books and poems. Let them be silent, all their accomplices and supporters! They should lower their eyes in shame for having dare to express criticism in the face of the truth, which contradicts their words […]

It is worth saying that she always mentions priests and bishops in these parts, so we can see that in her eyes they lead the oppression against women.

To finish

To finish this entrance of the blog, I would like to leave some parts of the last chapter of the book:

Most honourable ladies, praise be to God: The construction of our city is finally at an end. All of you who love virtue, glory and a fine reputation can now be lodged in great splendour inside its walls, not just women of the past but also those of the present and the future, for this city has been founded and built to accommodate all deserving women. My dearest ladies, the human heart is naturally filled with joy when it sees that it has triumphed in a particular endeavour and has defeated its enemies. From this moment on, my ladies, you have every reason to rejoice -in a suitable devout and respectable manner- at seeing the completion of this new city. It will not only shelter you all, or rather those of you who have proved yourselves to be worthy, but will also defend and protect you against your attackers and assailants, provided you look after it well. For you can see this is made of virtuous material which shines so brightly that you can gaze at your reflections in it, especially the lofty turrets that were built in this final part of the book […]

I would like to finish the post by thanking Christine de Pizan for everything she started, even though today is still not near the end, and thanks to Victor for all our conversations that little by little are helping me to build my little city.

Christine de Pizan

(Versión en español aquí)

In this post I am going to speak about Christine de Pizan, who was considered one of the precursors of feminism. I am not going to analyse her work, though, in spite of the interest of it, as the idea of this post is just to introduce this great woman so future immersions in her work can be more accessible and comprehensible.

Who was Christine de Pizan?

She was born in Venice in 1364. Christine and her family moved to Paris when she was only three, as her father, Tomas de Pizzano, was hired as Charles the V’s court physician, counsellor and astronomer. This allowed Christine to have access to the court library, as well as having contact with some of the most prominent humanists of that time. Her father gave Christine an education in science and humanities personally, although he could not go as deep as he wanted because Christine´s mother was completely opposed to her having a “boyish” education. She got married when she was 15, and she herself described her marriage as happy. Nevertheless, it did not last for long, as ten years later she became a widow. Her husband’s death followed by her father’s made Christine the only provider of the family (her mother, her three children and a niece). This fact changed her life, as she had to face social rejection when she was trying to make a living as a writer. In spite of all the difficulties, she became the first professional known female writer, becoming the first chronicler of the court of Charles the VI, king of France, which finally made her gain the respect of the writers community.

Her participation in “The woman question”

Around 1401 the first French literary debate took place, discussing about the poem “Roman de la Rose” and lasting for two years. The most prestigious people of France took part on this debate, and among all them, Christine. Even though in the beginning the debate was about the merits of the writer of the poem, in the end the debate turned into arguing about its misogynist stereotypes and the dignity of the women. A turning point in the history of women was when Christine decided to copy all the arguments of the debate and send them to Isabeau de Baviera and the bishop of Paris, among other people. This act made the political and religious power get involved in the subject of the dignity of the women for the first time in history. It may look like this was not a big thing, but nothing could be further than the truth: For the first time in forever, what looked like another conversation among intellectuals, became a public subject, known as “The rose question”. The dignity of women was in the spotlight, and it was set out that a debate about literary stereotypes was not about just literature but about an oppressed collective which, as Christine remarked several times, did not even have the possibility to publicly defend itself, as the access to humanities was completely forbidden to women. Christine was the first person to speak from a gender perspective, saying that women face in a daily basis the hostility of men almost everywhere, and, very importantly, she did so by referring at her authority as a woman in a world controlled by men.

Qu’il ne me soit imputé comme folie, arrogance ou présomption d’oser, moi, femme, reprendre et contredire un auteur si sutil, quand lui, seul homme, osa entreprendre de diffamer et blâmer sans exception tout un sexe!

“ And do not reproach as madness, arrogance or presumptuousness my dare, me, as a woman, to criticise such a subtle author when he, a single man, dared to badmouth and condemn the whole female sex with no exception.”

Although there were obviously some intellectual figures (males) defending that women were not a malicious collective before the appearance of Christine, nobody ever thought it was an idea that could be interesting in a social, political or, even less, religious level. It was Christine who took that first step, and she defended her arguments in such an eloquent, vehement and intelligent way that generated a debate about the women figure which lasted for two hundred years, known as The woman question. She herself took part on it, and brought one key book: The city of the Ladies. In this debate, intellectuals around all the world were arguing about the social status assigned to women and about their intellectual capacity. Nevertheless, they did not only spoke about women, but also about men, and some subjects as diverse as the marriage, adultery, chastity, work, sexuality and celibacy, violence, laws… They even treated some theological issues, such as God or Heaven and Hell. Christine´s legacy forms the first rock in the building of feminism, as most of the intellectuals that talked about it in the first place drank from Christine´s work and the ideas exposed in The women question.

Christine de Pizan, la Querella de la Rosa

Mrs Dalloway

(Versión en español aquí)

About Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) was born in London on the 25th of January of 1882. Thanks to her parents (her father was a well-known writer and mountaineer and her mother a famous model) she had the chance to meet personally some of the most famous Victorian writers, which she always thought they were very narrow minded. While her two brothers received and education in Cambridge, Virginia and her sister received a private education at home. Her mental health was very fragile: she had her first break down when her mother died, when she was aged 13. The death of her step-mother and step-sister and the sexual abuse committed by her two step-brothers were not helpful for her mental health issues. When her father died, the Stephen family moved to Bloomsbury, where they created the homonymic artistic and literary group. She got married in 1912 with Leonard Woolf. Together, they decided to buy a hand press and after a while, in 1917, they created the famous Hogarth Press. She published a great amount of her job in this publishing house and it also allowed her to make contact with the work of foreign authors that were still not translated to English, as they were in charge of making these translations. The precarity of her mental health was a constant in her life, and it was because of it that they decided to move to Sussex in 1940, to avoid the stress of the life in London. Nevertheless, she committed suicide in 1941, drowning herself in the river Ouse.

Virginia started her career as a journalist, although afterwards she wrote novels and essays. She broke down all the preconceptions in literature in her search for a way to express forgotten subjects such as mental illness.

Historical context

Virginia started writing Mrs. Dalloway in June 1923, just five years after the end of the First World War. The Great War was a huge blow for the British society. It deromanticized all the concepts before associated to the war and traumatized the public opinion. Men with PTSD (in that time known as Shell Shock) were counted as thousands, and obviously the society was affected in a very negative way when, instead of the war heroes they were expecting, the men who came were emaciated with hallucinations and convulsions, and, in some cases, they were not even able to walk straight. In addition, none of the parts involved in the war won anything. In fact, in the case of England, the economy entered in a deacceleration process, among other things because of the debt that was generated by four years of conflict. All of this caused and existential crisis which always tends to arouse questions and transformation. Grandiloquent questions, such as “What is happening with us?” “What is going to happen with London, with England or with the Empire?” But also more pragmatical questions: What are we going to do with those with Shell Shock? In this matter, even though it was indeed recognised as an illness, it was thought as something physical and not psychological, and, even with that, the official position in UK was to leave it out. The situation was completely unfair for those with Shell Shock in the front: if they had a panic or anxiety attack and because of that they were not able to carry on with an order, they would face a martial court, and the sentence was death in not few cases. Another important thing happened during that time: the female suffrage was approved in UK during 1918, although women were allowed to vote only if they were over the age of 30 while men could vote if the were over 21. Also, most of the universities in UK accepted to award women with “equivalent” degrees to those of men. The paper of the women in society was strongly called into question, and with it, the one of men. Finally, we have to think that “modernity” was appearing in the everyday life. Cars were replacing horse carriages, cinema, that had appeared only twenty years before was arriving to big cities, airplanes were a brand new thing… A lot of now quotidian things were still unknown in many places of the world, and they were starting to take part in the life of people who lived in cities such as London.

About Mrs. Dalloway.

I have to say that Virginia’s writing style is very dense. Mrs Dalloway is a book incredibly full of critic and symbols, and the language used on is at the same level. Each sentence has been written down there for a reason, and it gives you more than you could think at first. All of this make reading the book extremely interesting, but it can also make the reading slow at some points. About the technical aspects of the novel, I think the most significant one is that there is no division by chapters. The way Virginia sets the rhythm of the book is by using the bells of the different clocks that appear during the book. Also, in the English versions there are twelve little spaces, one for each hour of the day, showing again that the only structure of the book is the passage of time.  

The book takes place in a summer day during a heat wave in London. Being able to transmit that feeling of being in London during a heat wave is vital for Virginia, as the city plays the role of the link between all the characters, it is a mean to get rid of all the gender, class and even age differences. As there is no omniscient narrator and we only have the inner monologues of the characters, the city forms part of the book as a living being, constantly moving, where all the characters move with her, running into each other which gives a natural way to change from one to another. Again, those same clocks that before were setting up the rhythm of the novel, they are now used to let us see that London is continuously moving, evolving at the same time all her inhabitants evolve. The use of inner monologues is a very interesting resource that also shows us one of the main differences between the interwar literature and its predecessor, the Edwardian literature. While the first one focuses in the inner perspectives, the introspection, the personal memories, etc, the later puts the attention on the external details that surround and affect people. For Virginia this is nothing else but superficial, and it does not allow you to understand the human mind.

Is also because of the usage of inner monologues to tell us the story that is so important to see what the characters generate in other people. Peter, Richard, Sally, Hugh, etc they help us understand Clarissa, they show us all the associations they have with her, while the doctors and Rezia help us understand Septimus. In addition, the casual encounters between characters are very meaningful, as they set up the mind of two characters in the same place, so it is easier to see their different perspectives.

Another resource that is used by Virginia to make a point in how important is to understand the mind of the different character is the plot, or better said, the absence of such a plot. The book tells us the day of Clarissa Dalloway while she is preparing a party she is going to host that night. We can see this is an everyday situation, in which there is nothing extraordinary. Nevertheless, the fact that the situation is so common give us the chance to understand ordinary people of that society and the realities of the society as a whole. In that sense, Clarissa Dalloway is a 52 years old high-class woman; the stereotypical educated, quiet, strict woman, the perfect Victorian dame. Richard Dalloway, her husband, is a conservatory politician a little bit older than her, again the perfect Victorian gentleman, while Peter Walsh is a socialist son of landowners in India who is not able to find his spot in the society. While Clarissa is the image of the sanity and the sense of proportion, Septimus is the image of the madness. He is going to be the mirror image of Clarissa during all the book, showing us the other side of the coin. He will make the contrast with the sense of proportion of Clarissa and all her guests. Also, he is going to be the nearest part to the Great War, as he is a veteran with Shell Shock who suffers from hallucinations due to the horror lived. His wife, Rezia, is an Italian woman overtaken by the events of her marriage. Sally is Clarissa’s childhood friend, and she shows us the empowered side of women, as, even if she is not a de facto activist, she refuses to just follow what she is supposed to do, at least not without asking questions.

The title of the book is already a statement. It is not the first time that a book has the name of the main character, but this is not her full name, but her married title, Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa explains explicitly how she feels invisible to the world, that she is no longer herself, but an extension of her husband. There are even situations when people address to her as Mrs Richard Dalloway, not even by her name. She lives in a constant inner contradiction: on the one hand, she feels that the only way of living is to accept and follow the ordinary roles, on the other, she is not truly happy with that. Clarissa admires and is jealous of Sally’s spontaneity and happiness, but she does not allow herself to be like that, she is completely dominated by the sense of proportion, the excessive Victorian moderation. Sally is also why Clarissa doubt about her sexuality, although she reaches the conclusion that there are two kind of passions: the one a woman feels for her husband and the one a woman feels for another woman, being this last one the only one that truly creates a fire in her. Having into account that the book was written in 1923, the fact that women´s sexuality is a subject is something very pioneering, and even more when they are speaking about a sexuality out of the stablished.

In his role as mirror image of Clarissa, Septimus is the male character that make us doubt the most about the male roles. Septimus himself speaks about the sentimental congestion he was feeling. As a matter of fact, he could not even mourn Evan, his best friend, as he had to continue with his duty in the front. He never showed any feelings related with the war, even though it was a dreadful experience. In fact, these shocking experiences make him have an existential crisis: Septimus wonders what is the meaning of living in a world so full of wickedness, he cannot stop thinking about the nightmares he has seen, and he even doubt if it is worthy to have a child in a world like this. Even with that, he still maintains the face of a strong man, until one day, in the middle of an argument with Rezia he explodes, and all those feelings he had never managed end up as a PTSD outbreak. Then, if the values associated to the masculinity can derive in such an extreme situation like this, are they so good? Again, the rigidity of the Victorian principles arises.

In a less extreme way, Peter Walsh wonders himself if the perfect gentlemen idea makes any sense, and we can see how he despises it, although it looks that it is because he does not fit in that image. On the other hand, Richard also shows us the lack of emotional management men have to deal with. There is a moment when he is bringing flowers to Clarissa, and all the way back home he is thinking in how much he loves her, and that he should tell her about that more often. During all the path, he looks like a romantic man, dreaming with telling his loved one everything he feels. Nevertheless, when he arrives home the situation is completely different of what he was dreaming of: he is not even able to put word to his feelings, probably because he has never seen anybody doing something like that, and he stays quiet, helpless, hoping that his silence and the flowers are enough for Clarissa to understand. Containing your feelings is something fundamental to be a true British gentleman, and that is too high a price to pay, even if these people were not aware of it.

Speaking about women, I must mention the flowers and the attic. Different flowers are constantly appearing in the book. In fact, it starts with Clarissa going to buy flowers in Bond Street. They are a symbol of the body of women as well as a symbol of femininity. In that time, menopause was related with the lost of womanhood, and Clarissa is a 52 years old woman, probably already menopausal. That is why we see the roses about to wither. In the same fashion, houses are associated with the human body, and even more when they are related with female characters. Then, the charmless attic almost empty where Clarissa has been sleeping for a while is again a sign of her womb, which is empty too. But regarding to the attic, there is something I found more interesting than that. In her feminist essay “A Room of One´s Own”, Virginia speaks about the need of women of having a room for themselves if they want to create. It was very meaningful for me to see how Clarissa says that, even if the attic is grey and unattractive, at least is a room where she read without giving any explanations. We can see how the main character of the book values that room of one´s own of which Virginia would speak some years later.

The book is so full about feminist allusions that if I mention all of them I would never finish. Nevertheless, I would like to speak about one part that felt too close with nowadays’ situation. In a moment, Sally makes a comment that makes Hugh feel embarrassed, and he decides to kiss Sally as a revenge when they are alone. (We have to think that the connotations of an unwanted kiss were even stronger at that moment than they are now). When she reports it, the general reaction is saying that she is laying, as Hugh is a perfect gentleman that would never do such a thing. Nowadays, almost one hundred years after this novel was written, we see situations too similar to this one, reaching a point where even if the victim presents audio-visuals proofs her word is still questioned. The fact that injustices described in a hundred-year-old book are systematically repeated today is very significant and should make us think about the path we are taking (or choosing not to take) as a society.

Even though the main character is Clarissa, my favourite character was Septimus. First, finding a case of Shell Shock in a book exposed in such a human way is very interesting. With Septimus and all the character that are surrounding him, Virginia shows us the way society saw mental illness, something that she suffered herself. As a matter of fact, the doctors did not treat Septimus as a sick person, but as an attention seeker that is just physically exhausted. They do not understand why Septimus is not able to wake up from bed, and they compare his situation with having a bad day. All this generates a lot of negative feelings from Septimus towards the doctors, as they only make him feel worse. These feelings are the cause of his suicide in order to avoid seeing them again. Septimus himself does not understand what is wrong with him, and in the moments of sanity he wonders why he is not able to give Rezia what she deserves as his wife. Finally, Rezia is a woman divided and completely confused about the situation: on the one hand she can see that his husband is having a hard time, and that he is not able to react by himself, on the other hand, doctors are constantly denying that there is anything wrong with Septimus, and so she feels that her husband is just a selfish person who does not love her. With this four characters, Virginia is not only showing the situation that mental ill people suffer, but she is clearly stating her opinion on that: the situation is so wrong that none of the people involved is improving.

Septimus is feeling alone, neglected, far from all the people that are surrounding him. He feels even castrated because of the experience he lived: he does not want to bring children to this world, but he is not even able to bring this topic with Rezia, as he would be denying her the miracle of being a mother, and also, he would be failing in one of the most important tasks as a man. Nonetheless, he is not an isolated case at all. As I mentioned before, there were thousands of men with PTSD, the problem is that they were abandoned, they were forgotten on purpose by the society. It says a lot about Virginia’s courage and how she could not stand injustices the fact that she included a character with Shell Shock in a book written only five years after the end of the Great War, trying to reproduce as truly as she was able how he was feeling.

Being able to speak faithfully about mental illness was a key part in Virginia´s work. I have to say that the way everything is treated in this book is impressive. Septimus’ setbacks are so human, so easy to empathise with… The last scene when Septimus is finally able to laugh again with Rezia but then he receives the doctor´s visit and he commits suicide is simply devastating. One can really understand the anxiety and all the doubts he is having, the need of committing suicide even if he does not really want to die, he wants to live. I think it is one of the best moments I have read in a lot of time, and one of the most accurate regarding to how a mentally ill person feels for sure.

Some ideas such as the Empire, the colonies, british politics, religion, class differences were fundamental in the interwar british society, and so it is normal that they are treated in a book which wants us to know the depths of its characters. Sometimes Virginia choses to show us in a subtle way, for example with the contrast between Peter Walsh and Richard, Clarissa and Rezia or Clarissa’s daughter and her teacher, but there are some other situations when Virginia is more straightforward and she questions an idea in a more accessible way by using a soliloquy of one of the characters.


To sum up, I have really enjoyed reading Mrs Dalloway. I believe it is a very demanding book, though. Not only because of the vocabulary used, but also because of the amount of details and her writing style. It is not a book to read when you are tired, and I also think that it asks for the reader to have some historical notions, in order to really understand the importance of some details, for example, how relevant and pioneering was to include a character like Septimus. For those who like to read between the lines and who enjoy to overthink and analyse, I would say this is their kind of book, as it is a book with two stories: the story you can read and the story you can infer from all the comments and thoughts the characters have about their society.

In my opinion, the stronger thing of the book are the characters. They are so real and strong that even way after finishing the book they stay with you. Septimus is a modern tragedy, a subversion of the classic war hero; he is a character treated so humanly that encourages you to rekindle his story again and again. Clarissa, on the other hand, is the speaker of a whole period, of all women who feel forgotten, of all women who felt and feel out of place, waiting for a change that never comes.

For there she was