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Self and Suffering: Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and the War

Juliette Feyel

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1Although Virginia Woolf’s opinion of Lawrence was to evolve over the years, she always harboured certain reservations about his writings:

[It’s] the preaching [in Lawrence] that rasps me [...] [Lawrence] must give advice, get you into the system too. Hence his attraction for those who want to be fitted, which I don’t. […] What a discovery that would be – a system that did not shut down. (Diary 4: 126-27)

2This kind of misunderstanding, along with Lawrence’s own reservations about the Bloomsbury group, should not, however, prevent us from comparing the two writers. They did, after all, live at the same time and in the same country, they were the witnesses of the same historical upheavals.

3Woolf and Lawrence shared a number of perspectives regarding the dislocations caused by the First World War. They considered it as a threat to the mode of individualised and subjective experience which they were trying to represent – if not construct ­– in their writings. This is made apparent if we read together Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Lawrence’s short story “England, My England” (1922). Both fictions address the destructive consequences of the war at the individual level. They draw on the same narrative trope, in so far as both works focus on the ordeal of a young man who is sent to the front. Lawrence and Woolf both choose to capture the torments and traumas of war through the relations between their hero and his wife. Both writers resort to free indirect speech in order to represent the subjective viewpoint of the character who has come through the ordeal of war, thus contrasting this isolated or estranged singularity with the unthinking modes of convention and non-experience that are drawn upon by those who have not been violently jolted out of their sustaining social routines. Our intention is therefore to examine how the two writers represent the ordeal of suffering and the specific traumas or mutilations which they identify as the worst consequences of war. This will enable us to identify both the affinities between the two writers and the extent to which Woolf and Lawrence differ from each other.

Differing approaches to the same topic

4Some of the significant divergences between the these two works of fiction are immediately evident and indisputable: there is, for instance, the question of the chronology chosen by the two writers. The narrative action of Mrs Dalloway takes place five years after the war. In appearance, ordinary peacetime life has resumed and everybody is striving to get on with their usual activities, as if everything had gone back to normal:

For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for someone like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven — over. (MrsD 4-5)

5The last comment sounds like the voice of the people, of those who no longer want to hear anything about the past. At the beginning of the novel, Rezia and Septimus are in a public area and Rezia tries to conceal her husband’s strange behaviour. We are told that the couple met at the end of the war and had married shortly afterwards. Lawrence’s story, by contrast, covers the decade preceding the war. The relationship between Egbert and Winifred has been the object of a searching analysis in the narrative by the time the war breaks out. Egbert enrols in the army. The description of his life at the front is briefly dealt with in the last few pages of the story. His prolonged agony and his death are described at greater length. While Woolf seems to focus on the consequences of the war, Lawrence’s attention is drawn to its causes.

6Woolf’s narrator could appear to be striving to alert public opinion and to expose the general and shameful unawareness of the ongoing destructive effects of war. The words of Dr Holmes return, like a leitmotif, as he repeats endlessly and ironically that Septimus has “nothing whatever the matter” (MrsD 23, 24, 25, 101, etc.) Her novel can thus be read as a call for the recognition of shell shock as a mental pathology and, more generally, for a humane treatment of all patients suffering from psychiatric disorder. In her choice of a name for Septimus’ doctor, Virginia Woolf may have been hinting at the historical figure of Sir Gordon Morgan Holmes, a British Army neurologist who planned and oversaw the management of shell shock cases at the front from 1916 onward. His treatment basically consisted in sending the traumatized soldiers back to their unit after a couple of days’ rest (Macleod). At the end of the novel, the novel’s other doctor, Sir William Bradshaw, engages in a conversation with Richard Dalloway on the question of the relevance of a parliamentary Bill regarding the deferred effects of shell shock. As Levenback explains, before being considered for a pension, one had to appear before a medical board appointed by the ministry, which would then “assess the degree of disablement.” Policy regarding such traumas was governed by a model of diagnosis and treatment where blame was placed on the individual, rather than on the external factors to which the soldier had been subjected (Levenback 60). No such explicitly political dimension or commitment emerges from Lawrence’s story. We might even go so far as to argue that the motif of the war operates as a kind of deus ex machina the effect of which is to put an end to a situation characterised by the relentless deterioration of the mutual, interpersonal engagement within the couple, with the result that this malaise à deux may be interpreted as representing the general malaise of the civilization.

7As for the female characters, the roles assumed by Rezia and Winifred show significant differences. Winifred – whose name is phonically close to Frieda – is portrayed as being “ruddy” and “strong,” “with a certain crude, passionate quiescence and a hawthorn robustness” (EME 304). She also has “an almost barbaric sense of duty and of family” (EME 309) from which she will gradually and relentlessly exclude Egbert, as she remains under the financial and symbolic dominion of her father. It is her resentment toward her husband that causes her to encourage him to enrol, in the name of duty and family responsibilities. Rezia, on the contrary, is described as young, sweet, and innocent, frail and vulnerable:

She was like a bird sheltering under the thin hollow of a leaf, who blinks at the sun when the leaf moves; starts at the crack of a dry twig. She was exposed; she was surrounded by the enormous trees, vast clouds of an indifferent world, exposed; tortured [...]. (MrsD 72)

8Inexperienced and naïve, she chose to follow a man whom she hardly knew to a foreign country. In his moments of remission, Septimus always perceives the young woman as the source of a peaceful, reassuring atmosphere. Her character is probably even more pathetic than that of Septimus. Not only does Woolf describe the traumas endured by the soldiers, her intention is also to apprehend the particular despair and helplessness of their wives, when they come back home.

Two social satires

9In spite of these differences, we may note that both narratives contain elements of social satire. The doctors Holmes and Bradshaw embody the authority of undisputed knowledge. Doctors know better. They are thus entitled to rule everyone, refusing to countenance the slightest doubt :

Bradshaw said they must be separated.

“Must,” “must,” why “must”? What power had Bradshaw over him? “What right has Bradshaw to say ‘must’ to me?” he [Septimus] demanded. (MrsD 161)

10When Septimus is found dead, Rezia is immediately removed from his presence: “Married people ought to be together, Mrs. Filmer thought. But they must do as the doctor said” (167). If patients try to resist, doctors will impose their will onto them by force. Holmes’ powerful body is referred to when he pushes Rezia who was trying to prevent him from seeing Septimus. Their supposed knowledge is the foundation of their formidable power within society:

Proportion, divine proportion, Sir William’s goddess, was acquired by Sir William walking hospitals [...]. Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalized despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion [...]. ( MrsD 109)

11The two men therefore symbolize an insidious form of violence, masked under a humane face. It is a violence exercised by the all-powerful upper-classes acting as the custodians of patriarchal values, a violence proper to those who dictate rules, who judge cases in the confident expectation that they will be the recipients of public gratitude for a service which they have performed in the interest of a common well-being of which they are the trustees. Godfrey Marshall, in his own way, is a comparable patriarchal symbol because of his belief in the “old, almost magic prestige of paternity,” his commitment to “the old smoky torch of paternal godhead” (EME 314) and to a social order in which he is the main reference, the only fixed point. Even at the best period of their marriage, Egbert and Winifred:

drew the sustenance for their fire of passion from him, from the old man. It was he who fed their flame. He triumphed secretly in the thought. And it was to her father that Winifred still turned, as the one source of all surety and life and support. (EME 9)

12Regarding himself as a pillar of strength and a source of happiness, Godfrey’s “Christmassy” look (EME 7) actually conceals what is a well-intentioned tyranny. He provides his three daughters with houses so that he may keep them under the influence of his power, suffocating Egbert’s family in a “tiny flat” in town (EME 10).

13If Winifred cannot be compared to Rezia, she can be associated with Lady Bruton. Lady Bruton invites Richard Dalloway, without Clarissa. Like Bradshaw, she acts as a person who is at liberty to impose her will and to separate husband and wife. Her name conflates the sounds of Briton and brutish, as if to denounce militaristic and patriotic values:

Which was she now, the General’s great-grand-daughter? great-great-grand-daughter? Richard Dalloway asked himself. Sir Roderick, Sir Miles, Sir Talbot — that was it. It was remarkable how in that family the likeness persisted in the women. She should have been a general of dragoons herself. (MrsD 115)

14As for Winifred, she is the incarnation of the negative woman who tries to force men to submit to her values. A skilled manipulator, she makes use of her daughter’s misfortune in order to blackmail Egbert. The Mater Dolorata (EME 19, 23), the “queen bee” embodying the all-powerful female order, that of hierarchy and self-sacrifice, is the most dreaded enemy of the Lawrencian male heroes. Yet she is also, as much as Lady Bruton, who lives in the shadow of her heroic ancestors, the supporter of a patriarchal order to which she refers whenever she requires her father’s help.

15As a counterpoint to these socially dominant bullies, the soldier seems a rather vulnerable creature:

[Egbert] was made of quite a different paste. The girls and the father were strong-limbed, thick-blooded people, true English, as holly-trees and hawthorn are English. Their culture was grafted on to them, as one might perhaps graft a common pink rose on to a thornstem. It flowered oddly enough, but it did not alter their blood.
And Egbert was a born rose. (EME 7)

16Winifred acknowledges his superiority, she regards him as a “higher being,” because of his charm, his “supple, handsome body,” his slender figure, “the fine texture of his flesh and his hair, the slight arch of his nose”(EME 8). His constitution makes Egbert – another Herbert – an avatar of those thin and delicate beings, too refined not to stand out in the crowd. In similar fashion, Septimus is described as having “educated” hands, an “angular, big-nosed, intelligent, sensitive profile” (MrsD 92). His skinny figure suggests a geat sensibility, the persistence of an impulse towards elevation and refinement, a certain natural distinction, a sharper intuition. In spite of his delirium, Septimus shows a better awareness than anyone else of the deeds of his persecutors. “So he was in their power! Holmes and Bradshaw were on him! The brute with the red nostrils was snuffing into every secret place!” ( MrsD 161)

17As sensitive beings, the two men are set apart and branded as sacrificial victims. In the course of his hallucinations, Septimus imagines he is the Saviour:

Look the unseen bade him, the voice which now communicated with him who was the greatest of mankind, Septimus, lately taken from life to death, the Lord who had come to renew society, who lay like a coverlet, a snow blanket smitten only by the sun, for ever unwasted, suffering for ever, the scapegoat, the eternal sufferer [...]. (MrsD 27)

18The Christ-like motif both encapsulates and sublimates the cruelty of a generation which dispatched its youngest men to certain death. Septimus’s name makes him the perfect representative of the man reduced to a unit, “London has swallowed up many millions of young men called Smith” (MrsD 92), while his forename reduces him to the status of a number. As to Egbert, he is sacrificed on the altar of family, offered up to the implacable order of society’s expectations and demands. He must conform to the standards which Winifred imposes on him, which her father had set:

he was a man from the north with a hard head and a hard skin too, having received a good many knocks. [...] He was a man of courage, not given to complaining, bearing his burdens by himself. (EME 7)

19Since Egbert is unable to espouse these norms, he will have to compensate this default with the gift of his life, for the father “had even the right to sacrifice the child of God, like Isaac. Fatherhood that had life-and-death authority over the children: a great natural power”(EME 16).

20Both Woolf and Lawrence thus endorse the idea that sons were massacred as a result of the lust for power harboured by the fathers and the idea that they are the victims of an order imposed upon them by society, in the name of its noblest ideals. War is merely the outcome of an everlasting, unending situation, its source is to be looked for in the brutality of those who rule and possess, in the death instincts of human nature.

The destruction of the self

21Woolf’s novel and Lawrence’s short story show even closer similarities when we examine the way they represent the deeper damages caused by war. Egbert’s daughters spontaneously love him, instinctively feeling an affinity with him. Winifred was also under his spell in the first years of their passion, when she exposed herself to the ancient and chthonic spirit of Crockham. Yet the flat in town symbolises her father’s territory, the area of her subjection to conventional laws. The source of the resentment felt by Godfrey and by Winifred towards Egbert is motivated by the latter’s capacity to remain aloof, to withhold his self with “diffidence.”

he had no desire to give himself to the world, and still less had he any desire to fight his way in the world. No, no, the world wasn’t worth it. He wanted to ignore it, to go his own way apart, like a casual pilgrim down the forsaken sidetracks. He loved his wife, his cottage and garden. He would make his life there, as a sort of epicurean hermit. He loved the past, the old music and dances and customs of old England. He would try and live in the spirit of these, not in the spirit of the world of business. (EME 10)

22Egbert rejects any kind of useful activity. He refuses to acknowledge that work is a moral value, considering it rather as an alienation of the self. His power, Lawrence writes, “lay in the abnegation of power. He was himself the living negative of power.” Without trying either to convince or to resist, he is simply irrepressibly free. Lacking any means of control over him, “[Winifred] was baffled and maddened” (EME 13). The Marshalls – another bellicose name – send Egbert to war because they resent his remoteness, the capacity which, for so many years, he has demonstrated to defeat their power. Lawrence insists on the natural independence of his character, his capacity to keep his self apart, safe from the outside world, in order to highlight a contrast with the final dilution of his sacred self. If war is such a tragedy, it is because it forces men to resign their true individuality. Egbert feels a spontaneous disgust toward any sort of mass feeling, he knows that he will degrade himself because the “mob expects it of him” (EME 28). The intimacy of the barracks and the uniform results in the loss of the wonderful integrity of his blood: “he felt as if the hideous cloth went into his blood and made it gritty and dirty” (EME 30). His death is described in details that are intended to suggest the simultaneous disintegration of the body, the loss of perception, and the slow dissipation of his consciousness:

the dissolving into the black sea of death, in the extremity of dissolution [...] to forget! Utterly, utterly to forget, in the great forgetting of death. To break the core and the unit of life, and to lapse out on the great darkness [...] and mingle and commingle with the one darkness [...] (EME 33)

23The visions experienced by Septimus cause him to achieve an oceanic immersion within the order of the surrounding nature. He feels that his body is becoming organically connected to all the other living creatures:

But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. (MrsD 24)

24He imagines he is bathing in water. Various images overlap in his mind, the dead come back to the world and talk to him, calling him, all sounds and colours mingle and affect him, like a touch. All identities disappear, all limits are abolished, war has inflicted a wound that breaks through and shatters his subjective integrity. Septimus will eventually jump out of the window at the very moment when Holmes is breaking into his room. If his own personal space is to be violated (“the red nostrils beast snuffs into every secret place” (MD 161), the only means through which he may preserve his precarious autonomy is by leaving this world. Woolf herself said that, in a post-war world, suicide was probably an act of sanity (Diary 2, 207). “It was their idea of tragedy [Septimus thought], not his or Rezia’s” (MrsD 163).

25At the end of the novel, when Clarissa learns about his death, she is suddenly struck by an intuitive empathy for Septimus. When the young man had visions, he imagined himself falling into flames. When Clarissa imagines the young man’s fall, she identifies with him, “her dress flames, her body burnt.” Pondering the significance of his death, she realizes that life, ordinary activities, the entire frame of conventional behaviour, all contribute to making her lose her true self, her true “centre.”

A thing there was that mattered; a thing wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This, he had preserved. (MD 206)

26Mrs Dalloway and “England my England” reveal starkly different choices in terms of narrative technique. Yet, they show similarities insofar as they read as a clinical exploration or autopsy of patriarchy and of the old heroic masculine ideal at the root of WW1. If the ruling fathers cling to their privileges, they do so with all the more tenacity as there is no alternative in sight, nothing beyond certain symptoms of decadence. The similarities between the two texts go even further than this. Over and above the killing of millions of men, Woolf and Lawrence denounce one particular crime that is worse than any other. It is the crime perpetuated against the self, against that property which should remain untouched and untamed in a man’s soul. While Woolf depicted the ongoing disintegration of the self in the aftermath of the war, contrasting this relentless process of existential attrition with the obnoxious and criminal optimism of the mass of post-war civilians, Lawrence chose to describe the rise of this thirst for sacrifice which led to the fatal destruction of those who refused to surrender. In other words, notwithstanding the apparent discordance of their viewpoints, both writers experienced and figured the catastrophe in a similar mode. They both felt that, beyond the quantified immensity of the slaughter, a blow had been struck against something that was as invisible as it was foundational. Both writers intimately sensed that the condition of modern man would no longer be the same.

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Primary sources:

Lawrence, D.H. England, My England and Other Stories. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: CUP, 1990.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. Ed. Stella McNichol, intro. and notes Elaine Showalter. London: Penguin Classics, 2011.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell, intro Quentin Bell. London: Hogarth Press, 1977-1984. 4 vol.

General works:

Leese, Peter. Shell shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Macleod, A.D. “Shell shock, Gordon Holmes and the Great War.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2004; 97: 86-89.

On D.H. Lawrence:

Delany, Paul. D.H. Lawrence's Nightmare: The Writer and His Circle in the Years of the Great War. Hassocks : Harvester Press, 1979.

Krockel, Carl. War trauma and English Modernism : T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

On Virginia Woolf:

Bonikowski, Wyatt. Shell shock and the Modernist Imagination: the Death Drive in Post-World War I British Fiction. Farnham, Surrey; Burlington: Ashgate, 2013.

Hawthorn, Jeremy. Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway: A Study in Alienation. London: Chatto & Windus, 1975.

Hussey, Mark (ed). Virginia Woolf and War: Fiction, Reality, and Myth. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Pattison, Julian. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Basingstoke : Macmillan Education, 1987.

Robbins, Dorothy Dodge. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 2012.

Sherry, Vincent B. The Great War and the Language of Modernism. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Wood, Jane M. (ed). The Theme of Peace and War in Virginia Woolf's War Writings: Essays on Her Political Philosophy. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010.

On both writers:

Kiely, Robert. Beyond Egotism: The Fiction of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Koh, Jae-kyung. D.H. Lawrence and the Great War: The Quest for Cultural Regeneration. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007.

Levenback, Karen L. Virginia Woolf and the Great War. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

Rivkin, Julie. “Joyce, Woolf, and Lawrence.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 23, no. 3 (Summer, 1982), 390-394.

Wussow, Helen. The Nightmare of History: The Fictions of Virginia Woolf and D.H.Lawrence. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1998.

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Juliette Feyel, « Self and Suffering: Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and the War »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 46 | 2015, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2015, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Juliette Feyel

Cambridge University, UK

Juliette Feyel is Bye-fellow at Cambridge University. She taught French and Comparative Literature in France before joining Fitzwilliam College and the MML Faculty in 2012. She is particularly interested in the way British and French modernists sought new forms of sacredness out of official, institutionalized religions, hoping to find in the life of the body a new self as well as a new kind of communal bond. She has written extensively on D.H. Lawrence and Georges Bataille.

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