Beyond the Mortal Stain: Cyclothymia, Mrs. Dalloway_ and "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street"

by Tina Dyer

September 21, 2005


Mrs. Dalloway is perhaps Woolf’s best known work, and its seed was the short story “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street”. Less than seven months elapsed between the completion of the short story and the commencement of the novel. At first glance, the first chapter of the novel appears to have been lifted whole-cloth from the short story. Yet upon comparison, it comes to light that many of the sexual motives integral to the meaning of the short story have been gutted, rendered impotent, or removed completely from the longer work. In this essay, I examine these changes in light of Peter Daly’s provocative analysis of Woolf’s manic depressive disorder, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." My goal is by no means to impugn Woolf’s genius instead, I model here a cross-disciplinary approach, interpreting literature through the lens of psychobiology.


In recent years, biographers have developed a fascination for posthumous diagnosis of the maladies of the famous. It is now quite common, for instance, to speculate on the nature of Oscar Wilde’s earaches and whether his recurrent itchy rash constituted a tertiary symptom of syphilis. We talk about Henry VIII’s infertility as if he were a patient on the examining table rather than an English monarch 450 years dead. We look askance at reports of Shakespeare’s death from a fever; the more fanciful among us look to implicate his Dark Lady. In a similar move, critics, looking for new insights into well-worn texts, have seized upon biography as one of the many feasible context-based approaches to interpretation, poring over an author’s oeuvre for evidence corroborating sexual orientation, proclivity, abuse, or some other "concealed" attribute.


Yet we rarely ever conflate the two approaches, interpreting an author’s work in light of his or her known symptomology. As critics, we seem to want to maintain some invisible boundary between the idea of authorial genius and the mechanics of the mind from which such genius arises. Yet this may not always be a valid distinction. In a recent inquiry into the work of Virginia Woolf--in particular, the novel Mrs. Dallowayand the short story which acted as its seed, "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street"--I had occasion to turn to psychobiological theories regarding the characteristics of Woolf’s manic depression, and found there a potentially plausible explanation for certain textual differences between the two works. In his controversial book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Peter Dally emphasizes the seasonality of Woolf’s depressive symptoms, diagnosing cyclothymia rather than the more generalized manic depression. He further ascribes particular attributes and preoccupations to the seasons of her illness, attributes that dovetail with the appearance and disappearance of sexual and fertility themes in the Dalloway stories. I propose that these connections in timing and preoccupation between Woolf’s illness and her work are not coincidental, but that Woolf’s psychobiology was a driving factor in the construction of her work. To make my case, I begin with a brief examination of the sexual themes in the short story, demonstrate their absence in the first chapter of the novel, and then summarize Dally’s main points, consulting Woolf’s own diary for corroboration along the way.


As in the first chapter of the novel, the short story "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street" showcases a shopping trip. Clarissa Dalloway is in Bond Street to buy a pair of gloves. She is thinking about the past, about childhood trips to the sea with her father, when she runs into an old friend, Hugh Whitbread, who has come up from the country to take his wife to the doctor. Clarissa commiserates, thinking all the while of Hugh as a young man. She moves on, passing Hatchard’s the bookshop, where she is struck by a picture in a frontispiece, muses over the books of her childhood, and finds herself quoting from Shelley’s "Adonais". Then she is on to the glove shop, in search of the perfect pair of gloves--French, tight, white, and buttoned.


The peculiar thing about the fertility references in the short story is how many of them remain unspoken--particularly references to menstrual blood. In those instances where the image is invoked, it is only referred to obliquely, even though, as a mother, Clarissa Dalloway ought to be sufficiently familiar with the messy business of female fertility to name menses in the privacy of her own thoughts. Yet when speaking to Hugh Whitbread about his wife’s visit to the doctor, Clarissa’s mental speculations only identify the malady as "that," that being something from which women of the age of about 52 are likely to suffer (147). Left at "that," the condition could be almost anything: menopause, perhaps; depression; dementia; cancer--the list is endless. But Clarissa’s train of thought spirals into that past episode when Hugh had visited Burton as a young man and "perhaps one of them (drat the thing) couldn’t ride." The reader is led to ask who they are, and what it is that prevents them. This same unidentified impediment leads her to ask "[h]ow could women sit in Parliament? How could they do things with men?" (147). Logically,it must refer to some relatively universal affliction of women that prevents them from onerous pursuits like riding and politics. Is this the ubiquitous "female trouble"? The scene in the glove shop gives more indication.


There, Clarissa succeeds in her quest to purchase particular French gloves, no doubt pre-war, with pearl buttons. She is again empathetic, this time with a shop girl, on her feet "perhaps [on] the one day of the month… when it’s an agony to stand" (151). To what day of the month is Clarissa referring? The initial days of the female period are sometimes characterized by edema and cramping, and could be the agony of which she is thinking. But why bother thinking of it at all? It would be perfectly reasonable to empathize with a salesgirl strictly on the basis of the tiring nature of her work--she is, after all, on her feet all day, every day-- yet Clarissa makes a point of attributing the girl’s fatigue to a particular (and perhaps proverbial) time of the month. Perhaps it is already on Clarissa‘s mind, raised by the discussion with Hugh about his wife‘s illness.


If menstruation is, in fact, the unnamable thing that Clarissa dances around in her thoughts, then it clarifies the meaning of other obscure statements buried in the story. In the passage about Hugh, Clarissa says of him "how shy, like a brother – one would rather die than speak to one’s brother…"(147). On first inspection, this is nonsensical – in Western culture, at least, there is no social stigma attached to talking to one’s brother. However, if what Clarissa really means to say is that one would rather die than speak of it – one’s period as the reason one cannot ride – to a brother, then the embarrassment makes sense. Menstruation also adds another layer of meaning to the "contagion of the world’s slow stain" quote from Shelley’s "Adonais" (148). Though open to political and moral interpretations as a judgment on the modern world, the quotation also invokes the image of slowly spreading blood, inspiring in Clarissa a train of thought that encompasses war, motherhood, the death of sons, and ultimately, the question of whether God exists. Judith Saunders, in her analysis "Mortal Stain: Literary Allusion and Female Sexuality in ‘Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street’," finds this line from "Adonais" to be an organizing metaphor for the story, and concludes that Clarissa "views the monthly changes in her body as an effectual barrier between her and any kind of higher striving… the ‘great things’ which lend consolation to mortal existence," reinforcing the pervading notion of the futility of existence in a Godless, postwar society (142).


But it is curious, considering her oblique handling of female biology, that Clarissa Dalloway can leave the reader in no doubt of her disdain for female sexuality. Passing the park, she remarks on "[t]he mothers of Westminster with mottled breasts [giving] suck to their young," and "respectable girls stretched on the grass," the former bovine, the latter unusually wanton ("Bond Street" 147-8). In traffic, she spies a girl in an open car, "up till four, her feet tingling, I know…washed out, half asleep, in the corner of the car after the dance" (149). Clarissa is nearly empathetic again with her "I know," but her phrasing draws attention to both the girl’s late evening and the implied question of what the girl got up to in the hours since four in the morning. Others are in for less charitable treatment – the young girl in too much makeup, and the girl accompanied by a man at what Clarissa deems an unseemly hour (149). The only young woman encountered that Clarissa has a good word for is actually a frontispiece in a memoir at Hatchard’s – "arch, bright, demure; the sort of girl--like her own Elizabeth--the only real sort of girl" (148-9). Two-dimensional portraits seem all the youthful womanhood Clarissa is prepared to deal with.


And then there is that matter of the gloves. "A lady is known by her gloves and her shoes" (151), and Clarissa has come to replace her loose grey gloves with tight white ones. She tries several pair before she finds the gloves that are long enough to suit her. In the end, she acquires an acceptable pair – white, above the elbow, with pearl buttons to ensure a tight enough fit. Her object seems to be to obtain the most restrictive garments she can find. Saunders reads this as an attempt to "hide the staining of her flesh; in fact, the whole glove-buying expedition reflects her special obligations as a woman to cover up the process of aging in her all too earthly self" (143). While I agree that aging is certainly an issue for Clarissa, it seems to me there is also a sexual implication to the purchase--the gloves seem to be about restriction and covering up, their color indicative of revirginization--Clarissa distancing herself from the decadent sexuality of the world. Those gloves identify Clarissa as a lady, rather than a woman, like the strong, regal Lady Bexborough, who wears white gloves, "loose at the wrist"(150), and so stoically took the news of her son’s death, or Miss Anstruther, "elderly… sensual, clever, like a Sargent drawing," who steps into the shop to buy her own white gloves while Clarissa is there (152). The gloves seem to signify the successful subordination of sexuality to respectability in women of an age to recall prewar social values, women who are done with the business of childbearing.


Judging from the frequency of repetition, the blood, the gloves, and the images of female sexuality appear to be central symbols in the lexicon of "Mrs. Dalloway on Bond Street." It is therefore peculiar that they disappear almost entirely from Mrs. Dalloway, the novel which was begun less than six months later. (The Bond Street short story was written in April; Woolf expands the story into a novel beginning around October.) In the novel, Mrs. Whitbread’s malady is no longer the mysterious "that"; it is instead one of a string of minor illnesses, "some internal ailment, nothing serious, which, as an old friend, Clarissa Dalloway would quite understand without requiring him [Hugh Whitbread] to specify" (Dalloway 6). Hypochondria is suggested, both by Hugh’s manner and by Clarissa’s preoccupation with her hat rather than the invalid’s condition. The train of thought beginning with her inability to ride and ending with the fitness of women to enter Parliament never occurs here; it is replaced by memories of Peter and Hugh going head to head when all were young at Bourton. The mothers of Westminster are now the mothers of Pimlico, and do their mothering in a far more positive context, where the summer air is composed of "waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved"(7). There is no specific mention of breasts, mottled or otherwise. Immediately after the park, Clarissa extols "[t]o dance, to ride, she had loved all that"(7), neatly conflating the inability to ride memory from the short story with the speculation about the girl half-asleep in a car, robbing both of their sexual significance. Her encounters with various other young women in traffic never occur; the roadside vignette is displaced to a time after her shopping is complete, and she is only concerned with the identity of the occupant of one mysterious and regal vehicle at that time (17). Perhaps most importantly, the object of Clarissa’s shopping expedition changes completely. She pauses for only a moment before the window of the glove shop "where, before the war, you could buy almost perfect gloves"(11). She does not go in. There is no exchange with an aging, footsore shop girl about the appropriate length, color or quality of gloves. Clarissa goes instead to buy flowers for her party.


At this level of detailed examination, it almost appears that Virginia Woolf scrapped "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street" entirely and commenced her novel afresh. But the bones of the short story are still visible beneath the skin of the book – Clarissa still thinks of children playing as she leaves her home to run errands, Big Ben still tolls, she again encounters Hugh Whitbread, she envies Lady Bexborough her strength, she window-shops at Hatchard’s, and she finishes her shopping. It is the radical alteration of the themes that flesh out the plot – the way the revolting business of female fertility as a bar to feminine achievement is transformed into a benign and romantic view of motherhood – that suggests an equally radical alteration of outlook on the part of the author.


Nothing particularly momentous happens to Woolf in the summer of 1922 – she describes it as "a good summer; by which I mean that pleasures – dining out, seeing people,--were rather successfully combined with reading & writing & staying at home" (Diary 187). She was having some trouble with her health; her diary records the removal of three teeth in hopes of curing a mysterious fever (176), and a doctor believing her "right lung is wrong," suspecting pneumonia (185). She vows to not take her temperature again until the first of October (189). In the meantime, she is writing furiously:


For my own part I am laboriously dredging my mind for Mrs [sic] Dalloway & bringing up light buckets. I don’t like the feeling I’m writing too quickly. I must press it together. I wrote 4 thousand words of reading in record time, 10 days…[n]ow I break off, according to my quick change theory, to write Mrs D… then I do Chaucer… By that time, I have my Greek beginning perhaps, in my head… (189)


But in October, Kitty Maxse--a friend, considered by some to be the inspiration for the novel--dies, and Woolf remarks, "here I am thinking of my book." In the same entry, she complains, "Lytton [Strachey] praises me too highly for it to give me exquisite pleasure; or perhaps that nerve grows dulled. I want to be through the splash & swimming in calm water again. Mrs [sic] Dalloway has branched into a book…"(207)


Peter Dally contends that the persistent fever and the furious pace of her writing are among the symptoms of her hypomania, the "up" phase of cyclothymia , and the curious detachment that descends upon her in October signifies the transition into depression (190-191). He generalizes the connection between writing and mood this way:


[M]ild hypomania can be very productive; the hypomaniac’s business thrives, the scientist designs new research, paintings, music, books pour forth, fresh and original. But more than hypomania alone is needed for great originality or what may be called genius. That is something provided, paradoxically, by depression… During the depressive process long-established patterns of thought and behaviour are shaken and sometimes broken down, old beliefs and habits are lost, and for a space a kind of mental vacuum exists. At the same time manic ideas swirl through the mind, thoughts which are perhaps foreign to that person in his normal state, and some of these may replace or combine with the original patterns and ideas. A way of thinking is changed and a solution to a seemingly impossible problem follows. (193)


The hypomanic Woolf "saw herself in a confident, positive light. Gone was the fear of failure, envy of her sister, desire for children. Books were her children… [she] accepted every invitation to luncheon and dinner with her intimates…" (192). Her depressions "could be prolonged by stressful situations into many weeks… more severe episodes often fluctuated up and down before finally resolving. Then followed a period of calm until the hypomanic phase occurred" (191). Cyclothymia is characterized by regular, repeatable cycles of mania and depression; for Woolf, late winter typically brought on depression, and the early summer months induced hypomania (196). Therefore, "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street" would have been written at the beginning of a manic swing, and Mrs. Dalloway begun in earnest after it had subsided. Dally provides us with a solid biochemical explanation for the radical differences between the two texts; Woolf’s own personality had altered radically between the completion of one and the commencement of the other.


If Dally is correct, then a woman preoccupied with power at the expense of sexuality wrote "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street". Woolf had never found femininity conducive to a successful writing career; Alma Bond quotes Woolf’s description of the battles waged with an "Angel of the House" – a selfless, flattering, artful phantom reminiscent of Julia Stephen, Woolf’s mother – in these terms: "you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women…"(56). Bond maintains that Julia Stephen’s narcissism crippled Woolf’s early childhood development, preventing the formation of a functional independent female identity, and that Woolf’s manic depression was an attempt to turn the rage she must have felt at her mother inward, so as not to lose what mother-love she did receive (44). Bond also hypothesizes that Woolf might have kept her marriage sexless for fear of compromising the separateness of her fragile identity (96), and that Leonard Woolf may have equated sexual function with excretory function, and thus found sex an unclean act (85). Shirley Panken chimes in with her own speculations about Woolf’s issues with sexuality:


Could Woolf be protesting too much, denying, because she felt deprived of having children, that childbirth can be lusty, sexual, indeed a peak experience? Or, because of the fear of masculine intrusiveness or penetration and her conflict concerning homosexual feelings, does she in panic turn off her sexuality in general? (127)


Panken’s conjectures about sexual fear are more likely applicable to Clarissa’s virginal bed as described in the novel than Clarissa’s sneers at breastfeeding mothers and sexualized young women in the short story. (Leonard’s sexual issues may be played out in the mottling, blots and stains associated with these women.) The sneering instead suggests that power is the short story’s holy grail, and the women capable of achieving it are those, like Lady Bexborough, beyond the motherhood stage. Menstruation, pregnancy, and the business of being female handicap a woman in the acquisition of power and independent identity, signified in Woolf’s case by a successful writing career.


The gloves, then, may be a symbol of that power. Withheld sexuality implies powerful self-control, an asceticism that could extend to other pleasures of the body like eating. Anorexia was often a complication of Woolf’s mental breakdowns, and Dally suggests that it was, in part, a power play. Speaking of her 1913 breakdown, he notes that Woolf refused to eat unless Leonard (her newly-wedded husband) spoon fed her. She would lie "passively resistant, taking up to two hours to eat a small meal." This wore Leonard out, but he purportedly took to his role as mother bird uncomplainingly (102). As a mechanism of control, anorexia worked. Recall Clarissa’s purpose in shopping – she needs to find gloves that fit her thin wrists. Strong Lady Bexborough is also too thin for her gloves. Is she, like Woolf, anorectic? Perhaps the message here is that in withholding, there is strength. Other power games are played out in the glove shop as well. Clarissa is tempted to do the shop-girl a favor, to "send her to Mrs. Lumley’s right in the country," but then she recalls how her husband "had shown her the folly of giving impulsively" and stays silent (Bond Street 151). She withholds her favor, maintaining her superiority and the customer-retailer relationship. Each insistence on a particular fit, a particular length, on prewar-quality buttoned-up French gloves, is a flexing of her consumer power; in spite of empathetic speculations about the shop-girl’s age and physical infirmity, Clarissa has no trouble asking her to fetch and fetch again. Consider also the admiration in her description of elderly Miss Anstruther, a woman whose voice demonstrates so clearly that she is in the habit of issuing orders and having them obeyed (152). This struggle for ascendance observes strict class boundaries, and may easily be interpreted in a Marxist manner; however, the "here today, gone tomorrow" aspect suggests that this was not an intentional theme, but a product of the author’s temporary psychological state.


If the short story is about power, the novel is about children. (Death, as well, and love, but the Septimus Smith and Peter Walsh subplots are external to the tale of the shopping trip, and outside the scope of this essay.) A single, powerful image demonstrates this almost incontrovertibly – when Clarissa walks past the glove shop, her gladiatorial arena, and enters Mulberry’s, the florist. The significance of flowers is detailed in a diary entry Woolf dates 2 January, 1923. Keep in mind that winter normally heralded deep and persistent depression for Virginia, a state that comes through in the following passage:


I am in one of my moods, as the nurses used to call it, today. And what is it & why? A desire for children, I suppose; for Nessa’s life [Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister]; for the sense of flowers breaking all round me involuntarily… I pluck what I call flowers at random. They make my life seem a little bare sometimes; & then my inveterate romanticism suggests an image of forging ahead, alone, through the night: of suffering inwardly, stoically; of blazing my way through to the end -& so forth… I said to myself, walking up a hill at Beireuth, never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having; good advice, I think. At least it often comes back to me. Never pretend that children, for instance, can be replaced by other things. (221)


At this moment, Woolf longed for a richness of life she did not possess, an opulence she found in her sister’s household, populated by her sister’s children. Dally writes that Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell in 1907 wrought quite a change in the bride – "she became noticeably bawdy, often shocking more conventional acquaintances, as though she needed to assert her new-found sexuality" (59). Affairs conducted within the confines of her marriage imply a self-indulgent nature; paradoxically, successful mothering of her children suggests a degree of selflessness. Vanessa had it all – artistic success, love, sexual freedom, children – and Virginia wanted it. Children were the only things openly denied her. So Clarissa Dalloway participates in a little scene of authorial wish fulfillment when she enters Mulberry’s and revels in the variety and beauty of the blooms, for the diary entry makes clear that Woolf associated flowers with children. And even though interrupted by a backfire from the street, Clarissa leaves with an armful of sweet peas, her quest (and perhaps, temporarily, the author’s desire) fulfilled. Woolf’s change in motivations allows Clarissa Dalloway to be nicer about the mothers of Pimlico than she was of the mothers of Westminster, and to approach Miss Pym, the florist, in a spirit of friendship rather than superiority (Dalloway 13).


To recap: in the short story, written in the spring, at the beginning of one of Woolf’s hypomanic stages, Clarissa Dalloway is openly derisive about sexuality, revolted by fertility, and admiring of power. In the novel, begun about the time of Woolf’s descent into depression, Clarissa is sentimental about motherhood, and perhaps even acquisitive--if you accept that the flowers are a metaphor--of children. Clarissa’s outlook at each stage mirrors Woolf’s own, at least as Dally interprets it. I do not mean to imply that there was no writerly craft involved in this transformation of the Dalloway character, or that Woolf’s literary genius was somehow solely a manifestation of her madness. Unfortunately Woolf was not the type of writer to discuss her intentions for a work, either in her diary or her letters, so any speculation about why a particular theme or trope appears in her work can never be definitively confirmed. Of course, she may not have had intentions per se; the diary entries quoted here suggests that she was the "carried away by inspiration" variety of writer rather than the careful planner type. And this unusual situation--two stories, written in quick succession, which share both character and plot, yet diverge radically in theme--demands the question, why does Woolf abandon so much thematic material between the original and the rewrite? Why does any writer’s work transform itself from first draft to final product? Correlation between Dally’s research into Woolf and analysis of these texts suggest that there may be more than just conscious processes at work in writing, that the cyclothymia might have been both a precipitating factor in Woolf’s creative expression and an influence in her thematic choices, and that there may be still be room, in contextual criticism, for the application of just a little biology.


Works Cited


Bond, Alma Halbert Ph.D. Who Killed Virginia Woolf? A Psychobiography. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1989.


Dally, Peter. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.


Panken, Shirley. Virginia Woolf and the "Lust of Creation." Albany: SUNY Press, 1987.


Saunders, Judith. "Mortal Stain: Literary Allusion and Female Sexuality in ‘Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street’." Studies in Short Fiction 15 (1978), 139-44.


Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1925.


Woolf, Virginia. "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street." The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, Susan Dick, ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.



Woolf, Virgina. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 1920-1924, Anne Oliver Bell, ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Tina Dyer "Beyond the Mortal Stain: Cyclothymia, Mrs. Dalloway_ and "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street"". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available December 5, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: September 21, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Tina Dyer