Saturday, April 07, 2007

Mrs. Filmer’s Married Daughter’s Hat

In Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), right before Septimus commits suicide, he helps his wife, an Italian hat-maker, make a hat for “Mrs. Filmer’s married daughter.” I love that name--the complexity and formality of it, the reminder of the name changes for married women, in a novel in which the protagonist, Mrs. Dalloway, thinks about how she’s not Clarrisa anymore (let alone still a Parry). Mrs. Filmer once had a Christian name, a maiden name; her daughter, once a Miss Filmer, is now married with a new surname. Who is she? Who are these women?

Here, then is a bit of the scene for your weekend pleasure--a delightful and happy scene of hat-making just in time for you to don your Easter bonnet, a scene made poignant--perhaps melodramatic--by the impending suicide of a good, shell-shocked man. The scene makes me as happy as Rezia is in the moment--perhaps it will you, too:
He took it out of her hands. He said it was an organ grinder's monkey's hat.

How it rejoiced her that! Not for weeks had they laughed like this together, poking fun privately like married people. What she meant was that if Mrs. Filmer had come in, or Mrs. Peters or anybody, they would not have understood what she and Septimus were laughing at.

"There," she said, pinning a rose to one side of the hat. Never had she felt so happy! Never in her life!

But that was still more ridiculous, Septimus said. Now the poor woman looked like a pig at a fair. (Nobody ever made her laugh as Septimus did.) What had she got in her work-box? She had ribbons and beads, tassels, artificial flowers. She tumbled them out on the table. He began putting odd colours together--for though he had no fingers, could not even do up a parcel, he had a wonderful eye, and often he was right, sometimes absurd, of course, but sometimes wonderfully right.

"She shall have a beautiful hat! " he murmured, taking up this and that, … But she must be very, very careful, he said, to keep it just as he had made it.


It was wonderful. Never had he done anything which made him feel so proud. It was so real, it was so substantial, Mrs. Peters' hat.
“Just look at it," he said.

Yes, it would always make her happy to see that hat.

It’s the end of this scene that’s so devastating and poignant. The long-suffering Rezia, in her happiness, knows to expect hard times to come and so she saves up the memory of the hat as a memory of what it was like to be a normal married couple with Septimus.

Moments later, he kills himself.

I wonder what she thinks of the hat then.

But in the midst of the scene, none of that is prefigures. Instead, without heavy-handedness, Woolf gives us a joyous glimpse of what we’ve only seen in memory up to now: two people who love each other working together, sharing private jokes and appreciating each other’s strengths. It’s a gorgeous portrait easy marital harmony.

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