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Virginia Woolf’s Description of the Personality of Sally Seton as Depicted in Her Book, Mrs. Dalloway

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Sally Seton

“But this question of love, this falling in love with women. Take Sally Seton; her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?”

-Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is perhaps one of the most seminal texts in the genre of Modern English Literature. Woolf is known for her brilliant narrative technique and intriguing characterisation. One such important and amusing character in Mrs. Dalloway is Sally Seton. This short note would attempt to explore the character of Sally Seton and look at the aspects of homosexuality and love, the notion of age and time, Post World War hues, femininity, the capitalist angle, and the modernist technique in the book with relation to Seton’s character.

Sally is introduced in the book in a flashback of Clarissa recounting her time in summer at Bourton with Sally, Peter, and Richard around 1903. Clarissa says the following about Sally at that time:

…she sat on the floor with her arms around her knees, smoking a cigarette…she (Clarissa) could not take her eyes off Sally… She (Sally) literally hadn’t a penny that night when she came to them … Sally it was who made her feel, for the first time, how sheltered the life at Bourton was. She knew nothing about sex—nothing about social problems…Sally gave her William Morris…they sat…talking in her bedroom…about life, how they were to reform the world. They meant to found a society to abolish private property…The ideas were Sally’s… Sally went out…picked flowers that had never been seen together—cut their heads off, made them swim on top of water in bowls…Then she forgot her sponge, and ran along the passage naked…(they spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe)…. then came the most exquisite moment of her (Clarissa’) whole life…Sally stopped…kissed her on the lips. (MD, p.27-29)

These lines from Clarissa’s past emphasises the significance of Sally in her life and in the book. Firstly, the underpinnings of homosexual attraction between Sally and Clarissa are found. Clarissa’s words resound her attraction and love towards Sally in her past which is juxtaposed against her lack of any such desire presently towards her husband Richard Dalloway. Ann Ronchetti even goes as far as to say that perhaps “Clarissa Dalloway is a repressed homosexual victimized by patriarchal cultural” (p. 164) It can be thus noted that Sally Seton becomes the identifying marker of Clarissa’s homosexuality who further reflects on her feelings for women because of her relationship with Seton, saying:Clarissa’s attraction to women extend beyond Sally Seton and stretch beyond the years they shared as young women:

It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of woman together. For that she could dimly perceive. She resented it, had a scruple picked up heaven knows where, or, she felt, sent by Nature (who is invariably wise); yet she could not resist sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman, not a girl, of a woman confessing, as to her they often did, some scrape, some folly. And whether it was pity, or their beauty, or that she was older, or some accident…she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. (DM. p.26)

Furthermore, Clarissa’s relationship with Seton is often recounted as “representing a period of girlhood innocence that is sharply contrasted with the adult self who remembers this love.” (p.139). Clarissa and Sally relationship is often posited to be just an instance of childhood friendship that is pure and innocent in terms of its love or it is presented as the unruly phase of adolescence. Kate Haffey presents various critical approaches to their relationship:

Sally Seton is positioned as “the widely charming and reckless friend of (Clarissa’s) youth (Transue 69). And the love between the two women is described as “girlhood fascination” (Showalter 144), as “romantic idealism” (Transue 69), as a “love that may leave virginity and…purity intact”(Raphael 138), and as “unclouded by sexual masks and societal roles that often muddle heterosexual relationships” (Henke 135)… As Judith Halberstam states, “in Western cultures, we chart the emergence of the adult from the dangerous and unruly period of adolescence as a desired period of maturation (4)” (p. 139)

It is of import here to emphasise the theme of age and maturation from adolescence to adulthood that is reflected in the character relation of Sally and Clarissa. Both the women, had very different ideals and ambitions in their adolescence. Sally was a rebel and very progressive in her thought and she further inspired Clarissa to be the same, and they “they spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe”. Yet, both the women get married and assume socially acceptable positions in life in their adulthood. Sally becomes Lady Rosseter, wife of a wealthy man with five sons and Clarissa becomes Mrs. Dalloway.

This significance of passing of time and leading to a present that is juxtaposed with a past that was more idyllic, and Sally becomes the representative of Clarissa’s idyllic past. As Wang and Xiao Li purport in their essay “ Time and Love in Mrs. Dalloway” :

The passing of time is the central concern of Woolf…Big Ben is a hint of the significance of time all over the novel…Clarissa…and other characters are in the grip of time and as they age they evaluate hoe they have spent their lives. Clarissa…senses the passage of time, and the appearance of Sally and Peter, friends from her past, emphasises how much time has gone by…Clarissa sometimes wants the happiness of the past to continues, but she can’t reject the reality of the present. (p. 6-7)

Another reading given to the relationship of Sally and Clarissa is the aspect of Post World War England intrinsically works in Woolf’s narratives. The homosociality of Sally and Clarissa is seen to be an outcome of the time when the World War that lasted for five years obviously bought men closer to other men who they fought the war with alongside and also women closer to women who were left behind to take care of domestic issues. Certainly, “these two scenarios would have enhanced the complex bonding between man and man and woman and woman… Woolf … targeted readers who are post world war one survivors and they would have felt personal and emotional while reading this novel and Woolf has beautifully crafted this idea and splendidly portrayed it without any glitch” (p. 9) in the relationship of Sally and Clarissa.

In so far as femininity is concerned, in The Psychic Life of Power , Judith Butler argued a woman “accomplishes” normative femininity by rejecting same-sex pleasure. Butler further argues that normative femininity is maintained by emulating, without fully embodying, cultural ideals of femininity. In Sally Seton’s character this adhering to normative femininity can be seen. As her past self and present self are juxtaposed through the eyes of Clarissa and Sally becomes Lady Rosseter, Sally effectively forecloses her same-sex desire, fully “accomplishing” heterosexuality and consolidating normative femininity. This normalisation of her radicalism could also be seen as a result of how patriarchy forces women to adhere to societal norms of femininity. In the text, Hugh Whitbread, who can be seen as a patriarch for “he represented all that was most detestable in British middle-class life” (MD,p.59), forcefully kisses Sally when she has an argument with him over women’s rights and “insulted her”.

It is significant to also realise that Sally came from a relatively poorer background as Clarissa says that “she had not a single penny when she came to them”. Yet, Sally’s past showed how progressive her mindset was as compared to the upper middle class people and even in her present, at the party of Mrs. Dalloway, Sally is seen critiquing and demystifying the lot that was present around. Perhaps here Woolf presents a critique of the upper middle class British of her time as well. Also, the fact that Sally marries a wealthy man and presents herself to be the most happiest at Clarissa’s party could also indicate towards her being a victim of the capitalism that was taking over Britain and the world around this time.

Finally, this stark contrast in Sally’s past and present self could also be read as the unpredictability of human character and the not in that one could never fully understand a human mind. These issues were major concerns for the Modernist writers who grappled with the psyche of human beings and the elusive, nebulous nature of it, of ‘that’ which was beyond the comprehension of others . As Woolf says, the modernists “…has to have the courage to say that what interests him is no longer ‘this’ but ‘that’: out of ‘that’ alone must he construct his work. For the moderns ‘that’ the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology”

Thus, in Sally Seton’s character there is an amalgamation of various issues that Woolf’s narrative deals with. Woolf brilliantly portrays a character that acts as a foil too that of the main protagonist, Clarissa, both in the past and the present narrative of the book, which enriches the quality of the narrative.

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