Every morning these days, I stay in bed and stare at the green walls of my current bedroom. Outside, friends and strangers are protesting their right to live safely, wearing masks and gloves, and carrying disinfectants. Every morning I wonder who chose the green paint of my bedroom walls and why — an easier question to ask myself than the others that surface to my consciousness. How will this end — the virus, the protests? Will I lose anyone, anything, everything, as so many already have?
My partner gets out of bed quickly, shaming me into doing the same, and I remember that I hate getting out of bed not only because nothing is better than sleep, but also because this particular bed has a massive, ugly, ornate, wooden frame that you cannot see if you’re in it. Just like the walls, the frame came with the house, a rental we’d not expected to spend long, anxious days in.
Although we were moving cities, we’d assumed sameness when we signed the lease. Nothing in our routine was to change: a life lived in offices, libraries, restaurants, bars, trains, buses, taxis, the occasional park. We’d hoped to make new friends to share these spaces with and reminded one another that if we wished to spend our days at home, we would’ve made different decisions: moved to the country, started a family, improved our cooking skills.
As Clarissa Dalloway’s aunt says of her niece in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway — a novel that takes place over the course of one day: June 13th, 1923 — the city is for those who are “fond of society.” While for Clarissa, “society” means the long list of potential invitees to her parties (like the one she throws at the end of the novel to which the prime minister himself shows up), other characters in Woolf’s novel are less sure of the term’s implications. Woolf’s reader cannot but ask, too, what “society” means to different people at different times.
If reading Mrs. Dalloway has become as much a pandemic trend among certain demographics as baking and photographing one’s bread, it may well be because of Woolf’s irresistible portrayal of urban life and the allusions to the 1918 flu she incorporates into her characters’ thoughts. Yet other reasons have earned Woolf’s novel a place in the growing catalogue of popular lockdown reads, not least of them, her search for a language of interiority.
“It is strange,” Woolf writes in another essay that has been dubbed apt for understanding our current moment, that literature so often fails to describe “the daily drama of the body,” the astonishing “spiritual change” that illness and the fear of illness bring about. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf plagues her eponymous protagonist with perpetual anxiety: Clarissa is always on the verge of sickness, waking up on a sunny morning with a feeling of “terror,” “overwhelming incapacity,” “awful fear.” The cause being life itself, “one’s parents giving it into one’s hands” with few instructions or assurances. Out in the city or in “society,” Clarissa feels better, but resting midday in her big and comfortable townhouse, the bed itself becomes narrower and narrower. Is it safer outside, or at home, inside one’s thoughts?
Woolf’s novel was written as part of a broader intellectual quest, around a century ago, for the right words and metaphors to account for inner life, the conscious and unconscious mind as shaped by all kinds of others: people, cities, furniture, cauliflowers. “I prefer men to cauliflowers,” Clarissa’s first love tells her after she goes out for a walk in a vegetable garden to avoid another conversation about “the state of the world.” Her avoidance gets her nowhere, the intersecting traumas of friends and strangers invading her domestic and mental spaces. The Great War, the influenza pandemic, the witnessing of the violence inflicted by the colonizers on the colonized in India. All these things enter her daily stream of thoughts and the streams of others around her.
So, if reading Woolf’s work tells us anything about the new rules of social distancing —the ones that protesters and mourners are particularly struggling to observe — it’s that the mind can never distance itself from others completely. In her essay “Street Haunting,” Woolf describes the drive to go out of one’s room and see strangers, only to admit that even on the street the soul loses itself in reverie. Walking fast to battle the chill of a winter’s evening, she is transported to a mild night in June: “Am I here, or am I there?”
Still, the city streets offer more than “the solitude of one’s own room.” The room is where we sit surrounded by objects that “express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.” The sight of a bowl on the mantelpiece reminds Woolf of a windy day in Italy and the moment in which an old woman thrust the bowl into her hands. Then there was that man who fought with his wife at her inn’s courtyard. Unbearable tones. But to be reminded of others is not like sharing a space with them, not like climbing out of “the shells we house ourselves in.”
Like other artists in her Bloomsbury set, Woolf was interested not only in the mind as a shell, but also in literal houses and rooms and the distribution of their ownership. Francesca Wade points out in the recent Square Haunting how striking it is that Woolf chose the room as her metaphor for the liberating potential of women’s intellectual work. One of the more difficult questions A Room of One’s Own raises is whether the domestic space could be as freeing as it can be oppressive. Is it better to be a nursemaid or to raise eight children than it is to be a coal-heaver or a lawyer? Woolf herself deems this query “useless,” as the value of specific occupations — of working indoors or outdoors, of working at all — has always been socially contingent. The London that Woolf and the Bloomsbury set often depicted contained far more difference than the art they made about it, but one still learns from her work that there is no escaping from our personal and collective histories.
Here’s another reason to revisit Woolf’s work today: it makes clear that “home,” like “society,” means different things to different people at different times. It remains relevant for understanding the ways in which we divide labor indoors and outdoors, and the ways in which we keep a record of this division. If the homes we inhabit have equal potential to suffocate and protect us, then imperatives like “stay at home,” “keep working from home,” or “work in/for the home,” have an unstable meaning. To revisit Woolf’s work is to acknowledge the class, race and gender struggles underlying such imperatives and recognize the tension between those for whom working from home is a viable and welcome possibility and those who must, or simply cannot wait to, be out.