Mrs Dalloway and Mr Sponge

When a novel name-checks another novel, it’s usually for a purpose, so I’ve been wondering about Virginia Woolf. As Mrs Dalloway walks down Picadilly, she looks in Hatchard’s window:

There were Jorrocks’s Jaunts and Jollities; there were Soapy Sponge and Mrs Asquith’s Memoirs and Big Game Shooting in Nigeria, all spread open. Ever so many books there were; but none that seemed exactly right to take to Evelyn Whitbread in her nursing home.

Maybe Margot Asquith is there as a rival political hostess (and of the other party). As a politician’s wife she was very different from Mrs Dalloway, being known for her sharp tongue (She remarked that Kitchener was not a great man, but a great poster, for example. Some of the sayings attributed to her seem almost too good to be true; on one occasion, supposedly, when her name was mispronounced by the American actress Jean Harlow, Margot replied “The “t” is silent, as in ‘Harlow’.”)

But is there a significance to the two books by Surtees, and the Big Game book? Maybe they are there to suggest an aggressively male world, as in Woolf’s odd story, A Shooting Party?

The early version of this episode, in Mrs Dalloway’s Party has some unattributed memoirs open at a picture of a bright and demure young girl (“What a duck!”) looking like a painting by “Sir Joshua,perhaps, or Romney”:

…and there was that absurd book, Soapy Sponge, which Jum used to quote by the yard; and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. She knew them by heart. Phil and she had argued all day about the Dark Lady, and Dick had said straight out at dinner that night that he had never heard of her. Really, she had married him for that.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets have a subtler place in Mrs Dalloway, as expressions of private emotions that Richard thinks shouldn’t have been made public. Mr Sponge, on the other hand, is a very public book, to be quoted by the yard – and obviously known by everybody; Woolf does not need to explain that both Jorrocks and Soapy Sponge are by Surtees, and that the proper name of the latter is Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour. Everybody would know that.

Surtees is a public writer in another sense – he’s a great describer of externals, especially clothing. If you want to know exactly what the Victorians wore, read Mrs Oliphant for ladies’ fashions, and Surtees for menswear.

In Mrs Dalloway’s Party, Soapy Sponge is rejected in favour of Cranford, a book of the same period but by a woman. Surtees is a rather stereotypically male writer. Where Virginia Woolf is famous for her sensitivity to everything, Surtees is well-known for his insensitivity to the feelings of foxes.

Yet Mr Sponge and Mrs Dalloway have a few things in common. Both are episodic, driven much more, in their different ways, by character than by plot. Both also contrast the tedious run of everyday life with moments of glory; In Surtees, these moments are all on the hunting field, of course, where the posers and pretenders of everyday life can for a brief while attain a sort of epic glory.

Like Woolf, Surtees also starts his novel with his main character walking around the West End:

It was a murky October day that the hero of our tale, Mr. Sponge, or Soapey Sponge, as his good-natured friends call him, was seen mizzling along Oxford Street, wending his way to the West. Not that there was anything unusual in Sponge being seen in Oxford Street, for when in town his daily perambulations consist of a circuit, commencing from the Bantam Hotel in Bond Street into Piccadilly, through Leicester Square, and so on to Aldridge’s, in St. Martin’s Lane, thence by Moore’s sporting-print shop, and on through some of those ambiguous and tortuous streets that, appearing to lead all ways at once and none in particular, land the explorer, sooner or later, on the south side of Oxford Street.

Apart from that, the novels seem very different. Surtees tells a jolly story of swindlers, snobs and sportsmen, where personal feelings tend to be weaknesses (I only know of one venture by Woolf into this sort of territory, her late, very uncharacteristic and surprisingly anti-semitic story, The Duchess and the Jeweller, in which, like Surtees, she shows us a pair of rogues cheating each other.)

Yet both books are antidotes to Victorian fastidiousness in matters of sexual morality. The post-war Mrs Dalloway of the novel has grown up, we gather, since she was embarrassed by meeting the lower-class new wife of a neighbour, who had given birth before their marriage. And Surtees, in this respect, is the exception to most generalisations about moralistic Victorian novelists. He, after all, had created Lucy Sparkler, the jolliest and least repentant fallen woman in Victorian literature.

Here they’ve got something in common. Surtees conveys affection even for his most vulgar, crafty and dishonest characters, while Mrs Dalloway has gained the ability to love “this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab.”

Maybe this is a rather tenuous affinity, and I don’t think it impressed itself on Woolf’s more boisterous contemporaries. Richard Ingrams, in his biographical introduction to J.B.Morton tells an anecdote about some of J.C. Squire’s circle of hearty writers, who lived at Rodmell:

The village’s best-known inhabitant was Virginia Woolf, who lived there with her husband Leonard. The sensitive novelist, however, did not mix with her fellow writers. Once Wilkinson, who had a loud booming voice, shouted a jovial “Good Morning!”to her across the village street, which so startled her that she fainted.

I reckon that tale may have got exaggerated in the telling, but I think I do believe the story that some of the mischievous chaps left beer bottles on Virginia’s doorstep with the milk,

5 Comments

  1. Musetti
    Posted July 8, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Soapy sponges sporting tour a read for everybody who wants a good laugh at themselves and others in the field

  2. Attila the Pedant
    Posted July 11, 2012 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    ‘Lucy Sparkler, the jolliest and least repentant fallen woman in Victorian literature.’

    Lucy Glitters, surely, and not- very- fallen. She is described as ‘beautiful and tolerably virtuous’, which are virtues enough.

    • Posted July 11, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      Whoops! It’s definitely too long since I read any Surtees. But that will soon be remedied, as i’ve just bought myself a copy of ‘Ask Mamma’.
      Alas, Attila, I don’t think your relaxed and charitable view of Lucy’s moral character would have been shared by many respectable Victorians.

  3. Oliver Nicholson
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    “Surtees is well-known for his insensitivity to the feelings of foxes”:

    “I loves the Fox and I loves the ‘Ound, but mebbe I loves the ‘Ound a bit more”. That is not insensitivity, even if I am quoting Mr. Jorrock’s Sportin’ Lectors from memory.

  4. Oliver Nicholson
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    “I loves the Fox and I loves the ‘Ound, but mebbe I loves the ‘ound a bit more”. That is not insensitivy, surely, even if I am quoting Mr. Jorrocks’s Sportin’ Lectors from memory.


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