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War through the Prism of Time in the Post-war Novels of Woolf and Lawrence

Shirley Bricout

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1During the industrial revolution and in the period leading up to 1914, technological innovation invaded and took hold of daily lives, causing a profound mutation in the collective and individual relation to time. The advent of the railway age, for instance, brought about a profound modification in people’s perception of temporal and spatial bearings. The growing use of the telegraph, and later the telephone, furthermore rendered possible the immediate communication of what now became a public, commonly available commodity of “news,” which had previously been available only “after the event.” One of the tangible results of these shifts was standardization of time in 1880 through the institution of Greenwich Mean Time throughout Great Britain, a norm which France was to adopt in 1891. The need for a common set of time coordinates was paramount for the efficient operation of the telegraph and for the running of an extensive railway network according to a schedule (Kern 13-30). It is therefore hardly surprising if the period also witnessed the formulation of groundbreaking theories which underwrote the notion of the plurality of times. As an example, we may mention Henri Bergson, who contended that, in the sphere of subjective individual experience, time may speed up or slow down, whereas within the objective framework of science, it would appear to remain constant. In Time and Free Will, Bergson distinguished between durée réelle, or chronological time, and durée interne, or psychological time (227). In this regard he was following on from Nietzsche who, in “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life,” had differentiated “monumental history” and “the time of everyday people.” My intention here is thus to focus on private time as opposed to “monumental time,” to adopt a term which Paul Ricoeur derived from Nietzsche and used in Time and Narrative (1984).

2The First World War, through its cataclysmic magnitude, its role in the mechanization of warfare and in the ensuing multiplication of the number of casualties, thus stands, in monumental history, as a dividing line or “watershed” between an earlier, now vanished, world, and a new, profoundly changed world that was forged in the ordeal of these few years. In the literary field, the public, authorized promotion of the war as a national and collective struggle prompted Modernist artists to offer a dissonant, divergent response to the resulting aesthetic and moral aporia: the diffuse sense which they harboured of the lack of paradigms through which to convey the magnitude of the conflict. The challenges they had to address thus led them to experiment a radically changed framework for the perception of time, with the result that, by the end of the twenties, the artist Percy Wyndham Lewis was to launch a critical attack on this Modernist trend in his book Time and Western Man, dismissing, among others, the philosophers Henri Bergson and Alfred Whitehead, along with the authors James Joyce and Ezra Pound as the “Time School.”

3To illustrate this departure from conventional and traditional norms, I shall consider the question of the foregrounding of the prism of time as the modality through which to apprehend the enduring of the war, by examining a number of post-war novels and narratives by Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence. The purpose is not to assess the influence of a philosopher such as Bergson on the thinking or the writing of Woolf or Lawrence. According to a letter to Arthur McLeod dated 23 April 1913, Lawrence had read some of the philosopher’s works. “The Bergson book was very dull,” he wrote. “Bergson bores me. He feels a bit thin” (Li 544). As to Woolf, critics disagree as to whether she had read any of his books. Flóris Delattre, writing in the 1930s, pointed to the fact that her sister-in-law, Karin Stephen, had written an essay on Bergson and had subsequently entertained a literary correspondence with the philosopher (136). Others, including Ricoeur, argue that to identify philosophical influences in Woolfian fiction would be to divest it of its experimental power (190). In her extensive study, Ann Banfield furthermore contends that Woolf may have adopted the “Cambridge” time philosophy initiated by G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell.

4Our aim here is therefore to show how Woolf and Lawrence, according to their own specific aims and methods, fictionalized the events of the war and its aftermath, through their experimentation in the disruption of a conventional narrative time. Whatever the differences in their strategies ‒ Woolf’s writing being more experimental in this respect‒ both the contrasts and the similarities can prove enlightening. By identifying the aesthetic responses of Woolf and Lawrence with the profound modifications which had occurred in the awareness and apprehension of time, we can identify their specific contribution to the paradigms and configurations of the “war narrative.” Taking our cue from Freud’s study of trauma and time, we shall then see how the accounts of war memories and war trauma inevitably disrupt the chronological unfolding of the narrative, forcibly imposing the requirements of an innovative reshaping of the narrative organization. In our conclusion, we shall assess the legacy of this Modernist exploration of time, which subjected writers to the imperative need to produce a radically altered aesthetic response to the enormity of war, by looking at some recent novels whose plot addresses the now historical epoch of the First World War.

Dramatizing time

5In view of the unprecedented magnitude of the caesura of the First World War, the chronological sequence linking past and present commonly finds itself requalified as “before” and “after the conflict.” This dividing line is patent in the evolution of both authors’ approach to the task of writing. Indeed in Night and Day, published in 1919 but whose plot unfolds before the war, Woolf had set herself the goal of mastering the traditional form of the novel before, as Quentin Bell writes, “go[ing] beyond the formal railway line of a sentence” (106), venturing off the tracks and into the space of aesthetic experimentation. Katherine, the main character of the 1919 novel, is already brought to ponder the relation between past and present, as she attempts to write the biography of her illustrious ancestor:

Sometimes [Katharine] felt that it was necessary for her very existence that she should free herself from the past; at others, that the past had completely displaced the present which, when one resumed life after a morning among the dead, proved to be of an utterly thin and inferior composition. (N&D 40)

The character’s life, to the extent that it is stifled by the weight of monumental history, is symbolically epitomized by the fact that “the grandfather’s clock in the hall was ticking in competition with the small clock on the landing” (N&D 108).

6In similar fashion, against the backdrop of the inexorably spreading mechanization, Lawrence’s Women in Love, published in 1920 and whose plot is also set in the period before also expresses a nostalgia for the past. In an exchange between Loerke and Birkin the latter muses: “The lovely accomplished past. […] It was better than the sordid scrambling conflict of the present” (WL 154). The shift in focalization later reveals that Gudrun, reflecting on monumental time, feels

the thought of the mechanical succession of day following day, day following day, ad infinitum was one of the things that made her heart palpitate with a real approach of madness. The terrible bondage of this tick-tack of time, this twitching of the hands of the clock, this eternal repetition of hours and days – oh God, it was too awful to contemplate. And there was no escape from it, no escape. (WL 564)

  • 1 For more on the absence of clock time in The Plumed Serpent. See Prim 37.

7Both writers dramatize this attempt to escape from the order of monumental time. To do so, they challenge its flow and its significance. A case in point, in Lawrence’s later novel The Plumed Serpent, is the stopping of the clock: “The church remained shut up, and dumb. The clock didn’t go. Time suddenly fell off, the days walked naked and timeless, in the old uncounted manner of the past. The strange, old, uncounted, unregistered, unreckoning days of the ancient heathen world” (PS 288).1

8Woolf structures both Orlando and The Years through a series of precise references to monumental time. However the two works do so only better to foreground the realm of private time. The character Orlando transcends monumental time, with each century he/she witnesses corresponding to a moment in his/her life, in a forward movement of narrative time and narrated time culminating in the moment when Orlando achieves a fulfillment coinciding with the moment of narration:

Orlando leapt as if she had been violently struck on the head. Ten times she was struck. In fact it was ten o’clock in the morning. It was the eleventh of October. It was 1928. It was the present moment. No one need wonder that Orlando started, pressed her hand to her heart, and turned pale. For what more terrifying revelation can there be than it is the present moment? (Orl 147)

9In similar fashion, The Years ends with a section entitled “The Present Day” where the family’s experience of time conflates with the moment of the narration. In her study of the novel, Françoise Pellan argues that the years selected for each chapter carry no explicit or “monumental” historical significance, nor any reference to significant moments in Woolf’s life, and that the sections entitled 1914, 1917 and 1918 only vaguely allude to the war, an air raid at dinner time being the major event. She concludes that Woolf was striving to break loose from the hold of monumental time by way of the creation of a “no man’s land” where time becomes meaningful only by way of its fictional value (Pellan 168).

10In Jacob’s Room, by contrast, escape proves impossible. The character is depicted in terms of his profound interest in Greek texts and monuments, to the point where his own life seems to be swallowed up by monumental time through his death in the war. When his shoes and his letters are found in his room by his mother and his friend Bonamy, monumental time is made to intrude on what is a poignant, private scene, through a casual remark about the house: “The eighteenth century has its distinction” (JR 246). The contrast between the scattered personal effects and the banal platitude of the statement points all the more painfully to Jacob’s absence. Ironically enough, his very name, Flanders, foreshadows his plight by way of the hindsight that is available to the post-war reader, sharer in the knowledge of a monumental history of which the narrator cannot be disburdened.

11As a collectively attested set of time-coordinates, the war years tend to be condensed as the narrative unfolds. In To the Lighthouse, the war operates as a divide between past and present in the chapter duly entitled “Time Passes,” located at the very centre of the book. The chapter’s first line, “Well, we must wait for the future to show” (TtL 119), indicates that a parenthesis has opened. The reader becomes aware that what should read as the night following the day which has just ended in fact actually mutates into a caesura lasting a decade that will span the war years. The story of the actual trip to the lighthouse is subsequently resumed, at a point when “indeed peace had come. Messages of peace breathed from the sea to the shore” (TtL 135). With this comes to an end the parenthesis during which holidays in the house had been suspended, as monumental time takes hold of the characters’ destinies, the years during which Andrew Ramsay - the reader is casually told - has been killed by a shell (TtL 127). In similar fashion, in Kangaroo the war is said to have “come as a temporary frost” (151), suggesting not only that the lives of individuals have been suspended, but also that the flow of time has subjectively frozen up, because of a shift in the perception of time in the trenches or at home for the duration of the war effort.

12Events are thus distributed on either side of the dividing line set by the conflict, a line which neither narrator, character nor reader can ignore, in what is thus an interrupted, syncopated flow from past to present. Aaron’s Rod opens seven weeks after the Armistice, on Christmas Eve 1918, the narratorial voice stressing that “The war was over, nothing was changed. Yet everything changed” (11). From the beginning, the comment thus foregrounds the irremediably changed nature of the subjective relationship to events. Numerous comparisons between life before and after the war are inserted into the narrative, where the temporal notation “after the war” designates the present of the narration. The novel’s depiction of this present “after the war” thus focuses on the ongoing economic restrictions in Britain, (“The war had killed the little market of the town,” AR 17) or in Italy, where Aaron finds that “Most of the shops were shut. It was too soon after the war for life to be flowing very fast. The feeling of emptiness, of neglect, of lack of supplies was evident everywhere” (AR 152). An allusion to the end of the blackout points to this same hiatus in time: “Lights twinkled freely here and there, though forlornly, now that the war-time restrictions were removed” (AR 15). The particular, trauma-laden modality of the subjective relation to the postwar situation, even expressed through internal focalization, is intrinsically bound up with the perception of time itself, as Aaron comes to the conclusion that, in order to find personal fulfillment, he should “go far away, far back, perhaps, to where life was all different and time passed otherwise than time passes now” (AR 265).

  • 2 The disruption of time is also experimentally dramatized in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (19 (...)

13These changed modalities for the apprehension of time require profound changes in the aesthetic rendering of the experience of time, and in particular of the subjective experience and recollection of the ordeal of the war. Along with the shifts in focalization which underscore the divergence between the various individual experiences of the ordeal of the war, private time is concealed or locked into a series of narrative ellipses, whose varying length creates “time scales,” a term I borrow from Michael Bell’s work on The Rainbow (LB 69). These are consequently superimposed on monumental time, according to the specific, non-commensurable personal experience of the conflict that is harbored by the various characters. The time scales reveal the innumerable private ways through which, as the subject of experience, the characters strive to overcome bereavement, shock, and the sense of chaos which was to prevail after the war.2 There is, for instance, the sense of the painful suspension of time that is felt by families which have suffered the loss of a loved one. Mrs Dalloway thinks that “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” (4). Here the suspension is what I have termed private time, while other times scales continue to move on, as is the case for the forward unfolding of Clarissa Dalloway’s day leading up to the party. As exemplified by Mrs Foxcroft and Mrs Dalloway, for there to be an apprehension and a just appreciation of the time scales, the latter must be set not only against the common scale of monumental time, but also against one another. We can also point to the disruption of grammatical paradigms, motivated by the multiplicity of co-existing private times in the novel. In the example quoted above, we can note the use of the lapidary simple past tense, “that nice boy was killed,” in lieu of “had been killed,” which the codes of grammatical time/tense might lead us to expect.

14In describing the ellipses which she was experimenting with in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf compared her technique to “tunnelling,” saying that “[i]t took me a year’s groping to discover what I call my tunnelling process, by which I tell the past by installments. […] The idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment” (WD 60, 59). The underlying structure of Mrs Dalloway is organized by way of the chiming of Big Ben, which brings to an end the successive ellipses of private time, as the hours inexorably pass. Moreover as the sound of the hour striking is heard by several of the novel’s characters, the chime of the clock announces a further shift in focalization and the opening of a new ellipsis, comprising a different time scale. Clocks thus appear to have the narrative function of ensuring that the various characters do not become lost and absorbed in their private time; they act as a check on the characters, summoning them back to a public or “common” time, away from their reminiscences or even from their discussions of the conflict, so that they can appear to move forward.

15The Lawrencian character Aaron, while debating politics and the war with his acquaintances at the local pub, comes to the conclusion that good-will is only “self-righteous bullying, like poison gas” (AR 25). In his study of War Trauma and English Modernism, Carl Krockel identifies this comparison as evidence of the enduring and pervasive cultural repercussions of war in the trenches. He argues that “where previously violence could be located, or projected onto, the battlefield, now it only exists within individuals like a mustard gas” (Krockel 132). I would add to Krockel’s identification of these forms of spatial displacement the contention that both the discussion and the dissemination of the war imagery are arrested and checked in the narrative by the restoration of monumental time: “The landlady looked at the clock. ‘Ten minutes to, gentlemen,’ she said coldly” (AR 25).

  • 3 For a further study of time and point of view. See Ricoeur 94-96.

16In sum, while the time scales which are specific to the various narrative ellipses foreground the manifestations of alterity and subjective isolation, they also enlarge the scope and the in-depth penetration of the modernist techniques of focalization, thereby accentuating the reader’s experience of the characters’ inner psychological depth.3 I would therefore suggest that the dramatization of private time involves a profound mutation in the aesthetic rendering of the in-depth interiority of perception and memory and that such an inward “tunneling” that is at the heart of the modernist project is the concomitant of the more externalized, expansive effects of a Bakhtinian plurivocity. Thus the multiplicity of experiences, comprising those of the war veterans and also of civilians who did not experience war at first hand, voice the new realities of the post-1918 world. The collision of non-congruent time scales, set one against the other and against monumental time, thus becomes the means through which to articulate the extremes of the trauma.

Memory and trauma

17The first clinical attempts to identify the mechanisms of trauma were conducted on patients recovering from railway accidents. In England, John Erichsen coined the term “railway spine” to designate the pathology. His intention was to avoid the word “hysteria,” so insistently associated with women. In France, Jean Martin Charcot resorted to hypnosis to help patients come to terms with their symptoms. Freud, one of his students, drew on these theories when, in association with Joseph Breuer, he published his groundbreaking findings about trauma victims in Studies of Hysteria (1895), highlighting the disruption of the patient’s notion of time when the traumatic experience returned as intrusive memories. Freud, who was to develop a growing interest in shell shock victims after the First World War, argues, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), that the memories turn into an ever repeated present, thus closing off for the patient the possibility of a way forward and of a way-out of the consequent psychic aporia.

18In the novels under study, some of the returned service men do manage “to make up for lost time” (AR 193), although they feel themselves to be “shattered old men – just prewar babies” (AR 193). Others find themselves trapped in their war memories. The shifts in focalization and the pervasive use of the stream of consciousness technique are part of the quest by modernist writers for an effective mimetic mode through which to convey the symptoms of trauma. This implies their confrontation, in the organization of their writing, with issues of narrative aporia that mirror the predicaments of psychic aporia which they are trying to address. The narratological techniques they adopt involve the disruption of the linearity of a chronological unfolding of events. The presentation of nightmares, which operate as an entry point into the temporal realm of the flashbacks, points to a general logic of a fragmented, disjointed temporality. The effect is a collision between a variety of jarring, shattered time scales. The cumulative effect of these analeptic ellipses, repetitions, coupled with the figuring of a distorted vision of the future, is to constitute the defining components of the modernist war narrative.

19Woolf’s emblematic veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, is trapped in his traumatic memories. This entrapment is all the more acute as he has come to the conclusion that “it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning” (Mrs D 75). In a scene set in Regent’s Park, where different characters cross ways without knowing each other, the ellipses intended to convey his condition are juxtaposed to those providing access to the memories of Peter Walsh and, and more significantly, to those of his wife (Mrs D 55-60). As the hallucinations experienced by Septimus impede the onward progression of the narrative as such, the ellipsis depicts the character’s stalled, frozen sense of time, as his dead friend Evans speaks to him from behind the bushes. The ellipsis is in turn interrupted by a reaffirmation of the coercive powers of monumental time, through the mention of his appointment with Doctor Bradshaw. Ironically, Septimus feels he is “interrupted again! [His wife] was always interrupting” (Mrs D 21). The magnitude of the veteran’s private trauma can be measured by way of the discrepancy between his sense of time and the conventional coordinates of monumental time.

“The time, Septimus,” Rezia repeated. “What is the time?”

He was talking, he was starting, this man must notice him. He was looking at them.

“I will tell you the time,” said Septimus, very slowly, very drowsily, smiling mysteriously. As he sat smiling at the dead man in the grey suit the quarter struck ‒ the quarter to twelve. (Mrs D 60).

20As Lucrezia reminisces about their weeks of courting, the juxtaposition of their distinct time scales foregrounds the discordant workings of memory. Lucrezia, distinguishes between past, present and future, while her husband confuses these components of the habitual organization of time. By linking the suspension of the present to the ordeal of war, the word “Time,” as spoken by Lucrezia, conflates the realm of immortality and the imagery of war haunting the veteran’s thoughts, when “from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard, white, imperishable, words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time” (Mrs D 59). For Septimus, even the prospect of going to see Doctor Bradshaw is experienced as an unthinkable submission to monumental time, to a present that is beyond himself.

21The “tunneling” process which Woolf worked on in this novel is aimed at the connecting up of all the caves. This climatic moment occurs when Clarissa learns the news of Septimus’s death. The distressed hostess is immediately reminded of her worldly duties, as the clock strikes the hour. Thanks to the hold she has got on herself, she remains here, the epitome of submission to the demands of monumental time, a participant in the social order of which Doctor Bradshaw, through his authority and rationality, is the emblem. In its dramatization of private time as the modality through which full recognition is given to trauma, Woolf’s novel stands both as a symbolic tribute paid to the suffering veterans and to their families and as a plea for a fuller recognition of the enduring disorders of the aftermath of war.

22In contrast to Woolf’s novel, the narrative disruptions in Lawrence’s story are primarily by way of its prolonged interruptions, as in Kangaroo. George Becker has argued that the chapter entitled “The Nightmare” comprises “abundant undigested material that throws the whole work out of balance,” dismissing it as being “clumsy” (106). If, however, in our reading we bear in mind the disruptions stemming from trauma, the significance of the passage becomes more evident. The story’s analeptic ellipsis is introduced by way of volcanic imagery which brackets the interruption, thus providing a metaphorical counterpoint to the underlying thrust of the passage, which is that the burden of a submerged, unreleased experience must of necessity be expelled from memory, just as lava pours from a volcano. The narration of the war experience can thus be understood as an act of expulsion that is both inevitable and necessary, and is therefore therapeutic. Carl Krockel dwells on this interpretation of the passage, calling it “self-therapy,” insofar as “Lawrence-as-Somers’ trauma lies in a repressed sense of helplessness and guilt from not being able to contribute to the war effort – the inverse trauma of the soldier’s on the front” (144). He therefore puts the question: “Could an actual flashback of Lawrence’s be triggered by the imaginary experiences of Somers?” (Krockel 141). The biographical elements certainly hint at the possibility that Lawrence had through his fiction found a means to assuage his feelings about the war, with the structural discrepancy introduced in this particular chapter mirroring the intrusiveness of such memories.

23Aaron’s Rod provides an instance of dramatized repetition, through Captain Herbertson’s recounting of his horrific experiences on the front. In his study of the novel, Graham Hough seems to regard the episode as a loss of narrative coherence, introducing it with a warning that “a diversion follows” (98). I would suggest that the title of the chapter provides the key to a different reading. For in the title, “War Again,” the adverb does not refer back to a previous chapter in the narrative. “Again” carries the intimation that, while they are being disclosed to the reader for the first time, these intrusive memories are in fact being re-formulated and that, in doing so, Herbertson’s aims is to cope with them. The text prosaically spells out his therapeutic goal:

[Herbertson] had come, unconsciously, for this and only this: to talk war to Lilly: or at Lilly. For the latter listened and watched, and said nothing. As a man at night helplessly takes a taxi to find some woman, some prostitute, Herbertson had almost unthinkingly got into a taxi and come battering at the door in Covent Garden, only to talk war to Lilly, whom he knew very little. But it was a driving instinct – to come and get it off his chest. (AR 113-114)

24The phrase “to Lilly: or at Lilly” recalls Lawrence’s wording in relation to his childhood experience at Sunday school, of which he said : “I was always having the Bible read at me or to me. I did not even listen attentively,” with the result that since then biblical “language ha[d] a power of echoing and re-echoing in my unconscious mind” (Phoenix 301-302).

25Narrative repetition is thus induced through the recurrence of memories which open an ellipsis of private time. In the memories themselves, insofar as these horrific events are no longer affected by the forward movement of time, the disruption is further magnified. Indeed the events of this “hell on earth” that is recalled by Herbertson are (literally) disjointed and absurd: a beheaded soldier is still running around (AR 115), a fatally wounded soldier is chatting away (AR 116), a dead soldier’s body does not stiffen after a couple of days (AR 117). In this analeptic ellipsis, time and its effects seem to stand still, to have been suspended.

26While Herbertson tries to find solace through his engagement with the force of his unsolicited memories, he testifies to the fact that, on the front, his sense of the future had also been distorted. Indeed, he regards the premonitions which soldiers had nurtured concerning their deaths as the actual cause of their deaths: “Herbertson implied every time, that you’d never get killed if you could keep yourself from having a presentiment,” which makes Lilly wonder “why he made the presentiment responsible for the death – which he obviously did – and not vice versa” (AR 116). The premonition – or its absence – provides the character with an illusory, but maybe salutary, hold over his own future or over his life and death.

27With the termination of the long ellipsis narrating Somers’ nightmare precisely at the moment when he believes that “its hour is over” (K 268), the order of monumental time is reassuringly reestablished, as Herbertson leaves Lilly: “It was nearly two o’clock” (AR 118). The other characters can move on.

The aestheticization of war in contemporary novels

28As our public, monumental time brings us to the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the war, I have attempted to assess briefly the legacy of the Modernist exploration of time in the works of two contemporary writers who seek to renew the symbolic grammar and codes through which an aesthetic response to the conflict can be attempted.

29To begin, I wish to dwell on Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration (1991), written as the first part of a trilogy broaching the issue of traumatic experiences. Set in 1917 in Craiglokhart War Hospital, Scotland, the novel draws on various biographical strands, since the characters include the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and the renowned army psychiatrist, William Rivers.

30The patients in the war hospital, all of them officers, are prone to nightmares and to uncontrollable frights which cause them to mistake the intrusive memory for a repetition of the original traumatic experience. As in Woolf and Lawrence’s works, the depiction of trauma coincides with a series of ellipses which are devised as a way to convey the particular tenor of private time, whose singular significance is enhanced insofar as each of its moments is set apart and made absolute, distinct both from other such moments and from the overall fabric of monumental time. One dominant feature the novel shares with Mrs Dalloway is the absence of any warning to the reader that the narrative is about to be stalled by the exploration of private time. But where the Woolfian doctors proved to be little acquainted with shell shock, Barker’s novel introduces more abundant data about the therapeutic methods of the time.

31Doctor Rivers’ appointments and rounds form the basis of the everyday temporal bearings of the narrative. His interviews with the patients are conducted with the intention of enabling them to locate the traumatic memories in their own past. In fact he is striving to reconstruct their “narrative memory,” which Pierre Janet, a contemporary of Freud, distinguished from traumatic memory. Rivers’ questions bear on the timing of events. They take the following form: “Date?” “Then?” “How did you feel at that moment?” “So that leaves us with nine days unaccounted for” (Barker 71). Rivers epitomizes the future, since he is burdened with the painful task of assessing whether the officers are fit for service, i.e. to be sent back to the front. It is the reader’s hindsight knowledge of Owen’s death on 4th November 1918 which endows the task with its poignancy and cruelty.

32The paradigms of war narrative are however brought even more into play through the novel’s acute portrayal of the workings of trauma on Rivers himself. Indeed, as he is brought to listen over and over to the gruesome details of his patients’ experiences, he will eventually break down, in turn suffering from the recurrence of nightmares which disrupt both his sleep and the narrative flow of events. In The Eye in the Door, the sequel to Regeneration, Rivers dreams of mud that “gathered itself into the shape of a man, faster and faster until it seemed the whole night was full of such creatures, creatures composed of Flanders mud and nothing else, moving their grotesque limbs in the direction of home” (Barker 398). In her contribution to the study of Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction, Lena Steveker argues that “Rivers’ dream further implies that England is confronted with traumatized soldiers returning home from the war. […] The mud creatures Rivers dreams of represent the Other of British wartime society” (34). An “Other,” I would add, that Woolf and Lawrence had also fictionalized in their works.

33Also set during the First World War, Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong, written in 1993, spans three time periods, before, during, and after the conflict. The reader is first introduced to two lovers who split up on the eve of the war. The subsequent focus is mostly on the young man, Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford, who, after enrolling, is sent to the front to survey the digging of tunnels. Ellipses in the narrative, hinging on the shifts in internal focalization from one soldier to another, convey the particular burden of men’s relation to time, as they bravely dig the tunnels for six hours on end, their ultimate goal being to plant mines under the German trenches. The soldiers’ relation to monumental time has entirely collapsed, with the result that, as the tunnels come to epitomize the ellipses of private time, the overall effect of the narrative is to underscore the suffering of the men and the symptoms of their condition of shell shock.

34The second part of the war sequence is in turn interrupted by the frequent moves forward to the late 1970s, followed by a return to the war years. Indeed Stephen Wraysford’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, as she confronts issues and choices concerning the appropriateness of having a child, in the awareness that her biological clock is running down, embarks on a remembrance quest, as she sets out to know more about her grandfather. Remembrance, or the process of bringing this particular past into the present, proves to be impeded since her grandfather’s diaries are coded. The code acts as a seal on the past and on the traumatic experience which it bore, just as the memory of the patient suffering from trauma is sealed. The progress which Elizabeth does make is recounted through a series of flashbacks to the lieutenant’s time in the tunnels. Mirroring the coding process as a means to protect oneself from the trauma, there is thus the complementary, therapeutic property of her belated work of decoding.

35Structurally, we can therefore argue that a tunneling process akin to Woolf’s is under way here. The narrative caves connect figuratively. When Elizabeth eventually manages to achieve a full remembrance, so that she can thus discovers the truth about her grandmother, we can say that the narrative caves at last achieve a figurative interconnection. On the wartime front, the tunnels literally do connect, when the British officer whose possible return to the British side has been cut off by an explosion, is met by a German rescue party that has gone to search for their own men in their own counter tunnel. As this encounter poignantly takes place on Armistice day, it is the order of monumental time which here salvages the men, after “four years that had lasted so long that time had stopped” (Faulks 484).

36In conclusion , we can argue that in their endeavor to devise a set of mimetic strategies through which to give voice to the private experience of those who were marked by the conflict, Woolf and Lawrence contributed to the establishment of the modernist paradigms of the war narrative. Furthermore, the unwavering authority that is conferred on monumental time seems ironically to suggest the inevitable misunderstanding or evasion of the trauma which the victims or the returned service men at large had to cope with, while the aesthetic organization of these works, in which a sphere of private, subjective time stands as a vital retreat from the order of monumental time points to the way forward and to the way out of the impasse or aporia.

37The link between a community and its history was to be further explored in Woolf’s last novel, aptly called Between the Acts, which she wrote while the Second World War loomed ahead, as “the future shadowed their present” (70). In our “present day,” the paradigmatic legacy that has been reworked in these recently published novels mirrors the moment of stark temporal rupture that was addressed by Lawrence and Woolf. Novelists continue to address the temporal ruptures faced by Lawrence and Woolf, in their turn confronting the tensions between a given past and its future function, in an attempt to dramatize the ethics of collective and individual remembrance as “time passes.”

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1 For more on the absence of clock time in The Plumed Serpent. See Prim 37.

2 The disruption of time is also experimentally dramatized in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (1922) by Francis Scott Fitzgerald, who was attempting to overcome personal issues related to the birth of his child.

3 For a further study of time and point of view. See Ricoeur 94-96.

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Shirley Bricout, « War through the Prism of Time in the Post-war Novels of Woolf and Lawrence »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 46 | 2015, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2015, consulté le 03 décembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Shirley Bricout

Université Montpellier 3 Paul Valéry / EMMA

Shirley Bricout's field of research is D.H. Lawrence and the Bible. Her Ph.D. dissertation entitled « The Bible and D.H. Lawrence's political thought in Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo and The Plumed Serpent » was published by Les Presses Universitaires Méditerranéennes in 2008 and its translation into English was released under the title Politics and the Bible in D. H. Lawrence's Leadership Novels at the Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée (2014). Shirley Bricout has contributed articles and book reviews to Etudes lawrenciennes (Paris X), Etudes britanniques contemporaines (Montpellier III) and to The Journal of D. H. Lawrence Studies (Nottingham, UK).

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