- Red Flowers and a Shabby Coat: Russian Literature and the Presentation of ‘Madness’ in Virginia Woolf ’s Mrs Dalloway
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Great Britain experienced a very peculiar form of ‘folly’ commonly referred to as the ‘Russian fever’ or ‘Russian craze’.1 Russian writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Lev Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Nikolay Gogol and Vsevolod Garshin were very popular both with the reading public and with major British writers. Virginia Woolf, for example, states in her groundbreaking essay ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919/1925): ‘The most elementary remarks upon modern English fiction can hardly avoid some mention of the Russian influence, and if the Russians are mentioned one runs the risk of feeling that to write of any fiction save theirs is a waste of time [. . . ].’2 While most of her contemporaries must have been primarily fascinated by the exotic quality of Russian literature, Virginia Woolf admired above all its superior aesthetic merits. In the novels of Dostoevsky – whom she once called ‘the greatest writer ever born’3 – for instance, she praised the author’s gift of presenting states of consciousness in all their complexity, while Chekhov’s stories impressed her with their superior aesthetic unity disguised as inconclusiveness.4
At the same time, Virginia Woolf was acutely conscious of the dangers involved in the intensive reception of other writers’ works. According to Woolf, the Russians did not just provide English authors with inspiration, they also represented a threat to their creative integrity. In ‘Re-Reading Meredith’ she at once applauds and regrets the innovative power of the ‘Russian influence’: ‘The Russians might well overcome us, for they seemed to possess an entirely new conception of the novel and one that was larger, saner and much more profound than ours. [. . . ] Could any English novel survive in the furnace [End Page 289] of that overpowering sincerity?’5 While she praised the innovative potential of Russian literature, Virginia Woolf thus also confirmed the need of remaining true to her own literary tradition, underlining the vital differences between Russian and English literature. As she humorously puts it: ‘[I]t is not the samovar but the teapot that rules in England [. . . ].’6
Virginia Woolf’s own work bears witness to the creative possibilities provided by the ‘Russian influence’. Over the past few years, this issue has increasingly attracted the attention of scholars, but so far only a few of its aspects have been explored.7 Significantly, the years in which Woolf dealt most intensively with Russian literature are also those in which she forged her own modernist aesthetics.8 Apart from techniques concerned with the presentation of consciousness, Woolf drew inspiration from Russian writers in many other ways. A prominent example is the madness of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway, which is modelled on Russian forerunners. Set in June 1923, Mrs Dalloway is built around roughly one day in the life of its eponymous protagonist Clarissa Dalloway, a socialite married to a Conservative politician. In a parallel plot, the novel depicts the same day in the life of shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith, who commits suicide towards the end of the novel. Most interpretations of Septimus’s alleged madness focus on parallels with Woolf’s own medical history. In contrast to this somewhat narrow point of view, considerations of the ‘Russian influence’ foster a more comprehensive interpretation of the novel.
The issue of ‘folly’ or ‘madness’ in its various forms constitutes a prominent theme in Russian literature throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly in the works of Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Vsevolod Garshin, Anton Chekhov, Anna Akhmatova, Fyodor Sologub, Venedikt Erofeev and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya. In all these cases, the topic of madness is inextricably linked to a fatal clash between the individual – frequently an artist figure – and society. More often than not, the character is by no means intrinsically mad, but thought to be mad or driven to madness by society. In this article, I shall explore how Virginia Woolf blends her own discourse of ‘madness’ in Mrs Dalloway with references to two famous nineteenth century Russian novellas, Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ (‘Shinel’, 1842) and Vsevolod Garshin’s ‘The Scarlet Flower’ (‘Krasny...