Why does Clarissa Dalloway want to buy the flowers herself? In the famous opening sentence of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), the society hostess declares her intention to embark on a simple errand. Her joy cannot be contained: “What a lark! What a plunge!” It is easy to miss the clue, embedded parenthetically a few pages on: “One feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes”. She is delighted to go out, even if only to buy flowers, because she has been ill. Recovered, she is rejoining the living, plunging back into the “swing, tramp and trudge” of the city even as the memory of “influenza” hovers – the tolling of Big Ben recalling the constant ringing of bells for the dead.
A century after the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed between 50 and 100 million people, this context has been almost lost. “We are trained in modernism to see the trauma of war but not the trauma of the pandemic”, observes the scholar Elizabeth Outka in her recent book, Viral Modernism: The influenza pandemic and interwar literature. The pandemic did not exactly spare the literary world, though. It killed Guillaume Apollinaire and nearly killed D. H. Lawrence, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Katherine Anne Porter, who was left with a mane of stark white hair. (“I was in some strange way altered”, she later said. “It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really ‘alienated,’ in the pure sense.”) Meanwhile, W. B. Yeats nursed his infected, pregnant wife through the illness, and T. S. Eliot fretted that the flu had damaged his mind.