Seeing Old Friends in a Different Light

One of the interesting aspects of re-reading a text is that it throws one’s position as a reader into perspective. “Mrs Dalloway” is a case in point. When I first read it, in the 1980s, the discovery of a modernist writer previously neglected in my undergraduate studies was an insight for me into the ways in which the canon of English Literature is – yes – shaped by considerations of literary merit but it is also – and often – influenced by other non-literary considerations. Bluntly, working class people, women and people of colour were much less likely to make into the club.

Re-reading the book after learning more about Virginia Woolf raised a whole series of questions about mental health and dis-ease and my focus of attention shifted again.

And now. All of those hints and asides about Clarissa Dalloway’s illness and her damaged recovery loom in ways I’d not – to be open – noticed before. And the novel became an account of the long aftermath of World War 1; of the effects of the slaughter and the post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by so many veterans, and of the impact of the until now much less regarded and noticed pandemic.

Which led me to two thoughts. First, and most obviously, why is it that we as a society are so willing to remember the impact of warfare and yet apparently reluctant to remember the impact of a pandemic that killed many more people? Secondly, is there other literature – either neglected or still remembered – in which the 1918-1920 pandemic features more than we’ve previously realised? The thinking and the research on this is still in its early stages but it looks as though it may open up some other ways of thinking about the writing of the years between the two world wars.

And I have a question for you. Have you come across works of ‘pandemic literature’ or ‘viral modernism’? If you have, please do let me know what they are. There’s always time for more reading!

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