Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway is perhaps the poster-child for high modernism and stream of consciousness fiction. As a result, for years I had the impression it was an austere and technically demanding novel.
The reality is quite different. Mrs Dalloway is an easy and effervescent read that brims with life. Better yet, it’s not perfect. It’s a snobbish book which is a definite flaw, but which here is no bad thing because it would be terribly off-putting if it actually were flawless.
Clarissa Dalloway is an upper middle class society hostess. She’s married to a slightly dull and only moderately successful cabinet minister whose career has reached its peak and who will never see truly high office. On one level the entire novel takes place within a single day as Clarissa prepares for a party she’s hosting that evening. On another level it ranges across time, because while our bodies can only exist in the present our minds are constantly travelling to remembered pasts and imagined futures.
The novel opens with Clarissa’s viewpoint, but skips effortlessly to other characters’ perspectives – like a skimming stone on a sea of consciousness. Clarissa is concerned with the party and with old memories stirred by the unexpected visit of an old suitor, Peter. He’s in London to arrange a divorce so he can remarry, but seeing Clarissa opens old doors for him too and invites comparisons between his new love and his old.
The story spirals out. Septimus Smith is a shell-shocked war veteran hallucinating dead friends to the dismay of his young Italian wife Lucrezia. She does her best to calm him, but his experiences and terrors are utterly beyond her experience. Meanwhile Sally Seton, Clarissa’s girlhood friend, is in town. She’s no longer the daring and unconventional free-spirit Clarissa once knew but now a settled mother of five. Their various ages, genders and social positions differ; the connecting thread is life.
Here’s Clarissa in Bond Street near the start of the novel:
Bond Street fascinated her; Bond Street early in the morning in the season; its flags flying; its shops; no splash; no glitter; one roll of tweed in the shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years; a few pearls; salmon on an iceblock. “That is all,” she said, looking at the fishmonger’s. “That is all,” she repeated, pausing for a moment at the window of a glove shop where, before the War, you could buy almost perfect gloves. And her old Uncle William used to say a lady is known by her shoes and her gloves. He had turned on his bed one morning in the middle of the War. He had said, “I have had enough.” Gloves and shoes; she had a passion for gloves; but her own daughter, her Elizabeth, cared not a straw for either of them.
For me, there’s both a truth and an elegance to that prose. Clarissa’s attention moves seamlessly from a glove shop to Uncle William to Uncle William’s death back to gloves and then on to her daughter Elizabeth. It’s thought as river, flowing and eddying and never quite repeating.
Clarissa, who “knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed;” is full of life and fascination with the world “to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing;” but she has little outlet for any of it and it’s not clear now if she’d even want one. It’s evident that she once loved Sally Seton, and there’s no sign she felt anything like the same emotional pull to either her husband or Peter (or any other man), but her only choice was between the men on offer.
Sally Seton’s choices weren’t much better, and while she seems happy enough the contrast between the freedom she once embodied and the respectability she’s since embraced is a painful one. Nobody here has quite captured their youthful dreams, but then again who does?
Septimus too seems closer to his dead friend Evan than to his living wife. The past overwhelms him; the choices not taken or denied by circumstance. Better to be Richard Dalloway whose career may not be what he’d once hoped but who has done his best and is content with the now and not the then.
Existence here is a brief but blazing thing; we are most alive when we let the world in raw and immanent. In one of the novel’s most dazzling sequences Clarissa’s daughter rides on the top deck of a bus feeling a sense of liberation after a stultifying lunch – it’s an entirely quotidian experience yet here vibrant and real because of the directness with which she lives it free as she is of the weight of recollection that holds down her elders.
Where the book works less well is in its slight sense of superiority. Woolf is often very funny; it’s hard not to love lines like:
He thought her beautiful, believed her impeccably wise; dreamed of her, wrote poems to her, which, ignoring the subject, she corrected in red ink;
(she herself when alone in the evening found comfort in a violin; but the sound was excruciating; she had no ear)
However, at times there’s a definite air of condescension. Septimus reflects, “it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning”, but for Woolf that doesn’t appear to justify a poor choice of wallpaper. Status is among the book’s concerns and within the fiction it’s clear both that Clarissa is a snob and that other characters see her that way, but that doesn’t innoculate the wider novel from sharing its primary character’s chief flaw. Mrs Dalloway is a snob, and Mrs Dalloway is a snobbish novel.
Still, it’s also a brilliant novel and it deserves a better reputation than the one it has. Better not because it has a bad reputation (it obviously doesn’t), but because it’s not widely seen as the entertaining,engaging and thought-provoking novel that it actually is. Clarissa’s situation – society wife of an Edwardian government minister – may be highly specific but her sense of the vitality of life and the incredibility that it must end is something I’ve certainly felt myself and that I suspect most others have:
All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was ! – that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant . . .
Grant of 1streadingblog just reviewed this himself, which is very timely. His excellent review is here. Otherwise, Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings (a lovely blog name by the way) reviewed Mrs Dalloway’s Party which is a related collection of short stories including the original first chapter of this novel and viewpoints of other characters on the party itself. That review is here.
I’m sure there are many more out there, so as ever please let me know what I’ve missed in the comments.
Edit: I meant to link to my own previous Woolf review, of her Jacob’s Room. My review of that is here.