Birds and the Breeze

Midnight: we’re in the final throes of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, at the end of the protagonist’s journey from the Elizabethan era to what was then the present, Thursday 11 October, 1928. The first chime of the new day brings with it an interesting sensation: ‘the first stroke of midnight sounded. The cold breeze of the present brushed her face with its little breath of fear’. It’s an intriguing and uneasy moment – the breeze’s touch of Orlando’s cheek combines frisson with foreboding, stimulating the skin while perturbing the mind.

To call something ‘cold’ is to invoke a medley of objects and associations, from ice ages to ice lollies. Cold can both deaden and refresh: it can be a delicious private treat or make the world a frozen wasteland. Warm-blooded creatures that we are, cold provides us with a vital metaphor for our encounters with that which is not us: cold is ravishing, both thrilling and traumatising.

There was something in the air of the early 20th century. It was an era that made an idol of, in D.H. Lawrence’s words, ‘the perfect, inhuman machine’, an era in which the rise of mechanical reproduction numbed humanity’s sense of itself, valuing the external over the internal, prosthetic over aesthetic. ‘LET US ONCE MORE WEAR THE ERMINE OF THE NORTH’ roared Wyndham Lewis in Blast (1914), appealing for ‘some vulgarly inventive, but useful person, [to] arise, and restore to us the necessary BLIZZARDS’. Lewis’ bombastic proclamation seems to have more in common with the wintry blasts of Game of Thrones than with Woolf’s delicate draughts, but both authors are responding to a change in the period’s atmosphere. Low temperatures produced an interconnected excitation of mind and body that goosebumped what is broadly classified as the ‘modernist’ period.

Leonard Woolf’s novel The Wise Virgins (1914) demonstrates this dip in Britain’s cultural temperature. In this book, to be modern is to be cold: both of its principal characters, the middle-class Jewish hero Harry Davis and the refined, artistic Camilla Lawrence, approach life with an abstracted intensity that manifests itself in pervadingly icy metaphors. On a sunny outing to the Sussex countryside, Camilla’s ‘attitude [is] one of sadness, coldness and reflection’; she feels a ‘curious sense of coldness and hardness and concentration’ about Harry, and in a climactic (and climatic) declaration, she writes to him that ‘I can’t give myself; passion leaves me cold’. This frostiness is double-edged, affording both clarity of thought and an unsentimentality that threatens to extinguish human warmth. Harry begins the novel by ‘coldly’ examining the face of the suburban Gwen Garland, and his seduction of her later in the novel (partly achieved by lending her Ibsen) elicits an unsettling feeling of lust and modernist detachment: 

It was as if she had suddenly slipped off a safe bank into an icy cold stream, to be swept away immediately. Only she wasn’t cold; her face was burning, the blood throbbed in her temples.

Even Gwen’s mother, the complacent Mrs Garland, senses a change in the air by the end of the novel. Although the story closes with her daughter and Harry safely and respectably married, she is ruffled by an unfamiliar and unpleasant feeling: ‘[s]omething had passed very close to, had touched Mrs Garland, something which she did not understand – a deadly cold little wind which, sweeping over her, as she sat derelict half-way up the shore of life, made her shiver and very afraid’.

The alienated, analytical coolness that occupies The Wise Virgins is one symptom of the early 20th century’s interest in cold, but the prevalence of conceptual cold as a metaphor for disaffected rationality should not obscure the fact that the same period saw a revolution in what people felt about – and how they felt – low temperature in the flesh. The cold snap that abstracted modernist understanding of the self was accompanied by the subtler shift in temperament that resulted from improvements in insulation and infrastructure, making wintry weather less of a threat. It’s important not to overstate the pace of these changes – even by the middle of the century access to piped hot water was by no means universal, let alone electricity – but the period unquestionably saw significant advances in domestic technology that rendered a newly comfortable society more open to ‘the cold breeze of the present’. ‘Preserve me, above all, from central heating’, implored W.H. Auden in 1937, a plea that illustrates the degree to which low temperatures had become optional.

The ability to control one’s own atmosphere marked a decisive break with the earlier periods. In Orlando, Woolf depicts the Victorians attempting to barricade themselves against the ‘blustering gales’ of their century with a profusion of objects, ‘innumerable little dogs, mats, and china ornaments’. Their muffling of themselves against ‘the chill in their hearts, the damp in their minds’ extends to their literature, which now comes ‘swaddled in a variety of fine phrases’: ‘sentences swelled, adjectives multiplied’.

Woolf conducts her meteorological history with tongue in cheek – the muffin and the crumpet were not, as her narrator claims, invented as an insulation against the rawness of the 19th century – but it is true that, as she put it in an early essay, ‘all through the mid-Victorian age the house was necessarily a battlefield where daily […] mistress fought against dirt and cold for cleanliness and warmth’. Woolf describes Victorian life as a suffocating closet crying out for a breath of fresh air; once advances in medicine and architecture had ensured that cold was no longer an immediate danger to health, spaces could be sparer and more open. Reviewing her sometime adversary Arnold Bennett’s novel Clayhanger (1910), Woolf disapproved of its solid construction, with ‘not so much as a draught between the frames of the windows, or a crack in the boards’. At Monk’s House, the Woolfs’ home in Sussex, the growing success of Virginia’s career gave them greater and greater control over their own climate. In 1922 (a year that brought predominantly chilly weather to Sussex), the death of Ernest Shackleton ended the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration; it was also the year that Woolf began Mrs Dalloway, the novel whose success would enable Virginia and Leonard to install central heating. Cold, in its airborne form at least, was no longer a menace to be kept out: it could instead provide a refreshing alternative to the stifling atmosphere that lingered after the dismantling of the Victorian hearth.

Virginia Woolf is herself one of the most interesting examples of the way that cold, both as sensation and as metaphor, could modulate mood and tone in modernist literature. ‘[T]ossed up and down by the body’ as she was, Woolf was acutely aware of her physical environment – in her diaries she often complains of being ‘frozen like a small sparrow’, or ‘so cold I can hardly hold the pen’ – and her somatic perception of heat would often bleed into her assessment of her writing or emotions. Cold could invigorate (in 1923 she recommended a figurative ‘cold douche’ before beginning a book), but could also connote numbed separation: her periods of depression or despair would often take wintry form. In her diaries one finds a striking coincidence of frosty weather and personal gloom. 29 October 1929 (glossed by Woolf as ‘First day of winter time’) brought with it a perception of life as ‘tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss’. Likewise, 27 June 1925 was a ‘bitter cold day, succeeding a windy chilly night, in which were lit all the Chinese lanterns of Roger [Fry]’s garden party. And I do not love my kind. I detest them’.

At the core of Mrs Dalloway (1924) is a contrast of the different ways of feeling cold in the early 20th century, an assaying of the balance between cold as a sensation intimately experienced and a state detachedly inhabited. Although the book’s events take place on an exceptionally hot day in June, we are made aware of Clarissa Dalloway’s coldness from the outset. The novel begins with her relishing the cool of the morning, ‘chill and sharp’ as the sea. ‘What a lark! What a plunge!’ she thinks, as if excited by the prospect of a dip. The reader is given a similarly bracing experience as she joins Clarissa’s window-shopping: ‘a roll of tweed [and] a few pearls’ are followed by a slap in the face with a wet fish: ‘a salmon on an iceblock’. Mrs Dalloway is full of references to its heroine’s lack of warmth, whether from Walsh, her former suitor (‘There was always something cold in Clarissa’, he thinks; and later, ‘Clarissa was cold as an icicle’) or in the sensations felt by Clarissa herself. She feels ‘icy claws’ of anxiety, and is nonplussed by the fur-clad middle class women on the bus (‘[they] were, she thought, more ridiculous, more unlike anything there has ever been than one could conceive’).

Septimus Smith, whose experiences in the novel mirror those of Clarissa, shares her thermometric disposition. He is a shell-shocked veteran of the First World War, a conflict that Wilfred Owen more than once called ‘the winter of the world’: the War’s banishment of spring and plenty is made clear in the novel when its ‘prying and insidious fingers [smash] a plaster cast of Ceres’ in the establishment of Septimus’ employer, Mr Brewster. Smith meets his wife Lucrezia while soldiering in Italy, which implies that he was fighting in the ‘White War’ in the snows of the Italian Alps. What makes both Septimus and Clarissa most modern, though, is their oppression by – and resistance to – heat. Clarissa scorns the ‘clumsy, hot, domineering’ forces of ‘love and religion’, embodied in the ‘[b]itter and burning’ Doris Kilman (who tellingly ‘live[s] for […] her hot-water bottle at night’), while Septimus’ mental trauma manifests itself as a scorching conflagration: ‘[t]he world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames’. Excruciated, Septimus becomes ‘a snow-blanket smitten only by the sun’; ‘human nature had condemned him to death’ because ‘he did not feel’. Numbly unable to either to mourn his dead comrades or love his wife, he throws himself out of a window onto the railings in the street below in an effort to escape the hot pursuit of ‘human nature […] the repulsive brute, with the blood-red nostrils’, personified in the heavy-handed doctors Holmes and Bradshaw.

At the party she gives later that night, Clarissa performs an act of renunciation that is less violent but equally illustrative of Woolf’s complex braiding of sensibility and the sensuous. Early on in the book, Clarissa recalls her adolescent fascination with Sally Seton: ‘she could remember standing in her bedroom at the top of the house holding the hot-water can in her hands and saying aloud, “She is beneath this roof … She is beneath this roof!”’. For years, she has brooded over a kiss they once shared. After a long separation, Sally appears at the party ‘older, happier, less lovely’, married to a millionaire in Manchester and mother to ‘five enormous boys’. Clarissa’s reaction combines disappointment and relief: ‘[o]ne could put down the hot-water can quite composedly’.

In the case of both Clarissa and Septimus, cold becomes an expression of emotional autonomy, an important topic for Woolf. She wrote to Gwen Raverat that her portrayal of Septimus’ madness

was a subject that I have kept cooling in my mind until I felt I could touch it without bursting into flame all over. You can’t think what a raging furnace it is still to me – madness and doctors and being forced.

A line from Cymbeline, ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’, runs through Mrs Dalloway, promising cool respite from the smothering obligations of society. When she is informed of Septimus’ suicide, Clarissa is flushed with sympathetic heat (‘her dress flamed, her body burnt’) as she imagines the young man’s death. Her phrasing (‘had he plunged holding his treasure?’) echoes Clarissa’s own sensations at the beginning of the novel. An episode shortly beforehand supplies an exaltation of larks to accompany that plunge, although in this incident they imply not flightiness but flight, both as escape and as ascension: 

Gently the yellow curtain with all the birds of Paradise blew out and it seemed as if there were a flight of wings into the room, right out, then sucked back. (For the windows were open.) 

The open window suggests Septimus’ final moments, while the ingress of wings foreshadows his arrival as a topic of conversation. Septimus attends the party as a creature of the air, a perturbing (‘Was it draughty, Ellie Henderson wondered? She was subject to chills’) reminder of the ambiguous status of modern cold as provider of both connection and isolation, stimulation and anaesthetic. Ellie, one of Clarissa’s poor relations, remarks to Richard Dalloway that ‘many people really felt the heat more than the cold’: Mrs Dalloway alerts us to the fact that that even – perhaps especially – in the hugger-mugger of a summer party, there is a cold breeze present.