Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.

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.

mrs-dalloway

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;

or

(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 . . .

Other reviews

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.

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34 Comments

Filed under Modernist Fiction, Woolf, Virginia

34 responses to “Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.

  1. “…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.”

    Doesn’t that idea and its polar opposite, that life is only as vital as it is due to its transience, inform all of literary fiction? Come to think of it – isn’t all modernist fiction wrought out of the disturbed apprehensions of the former? By the way, I’m not sure about this at all, just wondering…

  2. I don’t think I’d say it’s true of all literary fiction, but I think it is fairly central to modernist fiction. But then, this is the ur-source isn’t it? Or one of the ur-sources? This is Woolf part-creating what we now think of as modernism.

    Also, I do think she captures it particularly well in that quote. Based on having read only two of her novels what I would say of Woolf is she writes the most remarkably beautiful prose.

  3. I’d certainly agree. Brilliant stylist.

    You mention the ‘snobbish’ aspect of her prose. For years this idea, as had been emphasised time and again (by male critics) put me off, sadly.

    I mean, as you wryly mention:

    “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.”

    But I love all that! It’s the kind of element that draws me to these books.

  4. I think there is something to be said about the snobbery in a way making it more approachable. How terrifying it would be for it to be perfect. A very different kind of novelist, but Anthony Powell’s Dance sequence (which I loved) is snobbish as anything and yet it’s great (in a very different way to this). Snobbery is a flaw, but not a fatal flaw.

    Male critics is interesting. She does seem somehow sidelined. A name, but not a name constantly conjured as say Woolf or Beckett are, and yet surely no less important. It is sadly too easy to see what particular trait in her might result in her being somewhat marginalised, and it’s more about gender than class assumptions.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    “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.” Excellent review, and I think you get to the nub of things with this quote.

    And thank you for the kind comments! I actually reviewed Mrs. Dalloway here, if it’s ok to link: https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/leaden-circles-dissolve-in-the-air/

  6. I think the response to Woolf was partly encapsulated a few years ago by notorious feminist VS Naipaul, who suggested that women writers weren’t much cop etc. And this idea that they’re deeply insulated, fussy works, and that that makes them somehow ‘minor’. When, for me, it makes them more intriguing.

  7. I’m always fine for people to post links in the comments Kaggsy, particularly when it’s too as good a review as yours there was. Thanks, I’ve left a comment at yours.

    Lee, Naipaul, eh. I haven’t read and make no comment on his fiction, but as a critic he’s crippled by his misanthropy and sexism.

  8. I’ve not read anything by Woolf yet. I started To The Lighthouse, but abandoned it for some reason… think I might read this one. From your review, it sounds good..

  9. Jacob’s Room worked well for me as an entry point, but this probably would too. My first actual stab at Woolf was with her first novel, The Voyage Out, and for some reason I could never get past the first couple of pages. I’ll likely return to it at some point, but sometimes one just doesn’t connect with a writer on the first go.

  10. That’s a very good point you make: that Virginia Woolf can be fun as well, and that Mrs. Dalloway is not as difficult as people expect it to be (The Waves may be a different matter, although I personally love it). Orlando is another really entertaining read. And her essays often show her to be opinionated and funny.

  11. One of my most favourite novels in its scope and style.There’s a great Radio 4 adaptation (not available at the moment): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0078ryg
    And there are a couple of discussions about it:
    Nightwaves: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zt79p
    In OUr Time: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b048033q

  12. It is such a beautifully orchestrated novel and I’ll take Woolf’s depiction, particularly in the final scenes, of marriage over any number of more modern interpretations. Please do try again with The Voyage Out. Once you’ve read and got to know Mrs D., the thrill of encountering Woolf’s earlier but remarkably consistent Mrs D is very satisfying.

  13. I echo the sentiment that you might try The Voyage Out again.

  14. I just skimmed your review as I’m planning to read this in a few weeks. My first Woolf! I’ll come back to you when I’m done.

  15. Such an insightful review, Max. I love how you’ve likened Woolf’s prose style to a river “flowing and eddying and never quite repeating”. Yes, that’s it – a great description.

    You may have seen my comment at Grant’s…I read Mrs D many years ago, but as I was going through a difficult patch in life (my mother had just died), my memories of this novel are coloured by everything that was happening at the time. As such, I’m finding it difficult to think about this book (and To the Lighthouse, another read from the same period) without stirring up the past. I’m going to try to revisit Woolf this year…whether I can write about her though is another matter.

    Anyway, lovely review. You’re right about this novel – it’s a lot more accessible and lively than its reputation suggests!

  16. Marina, thanks, I don’t know which Woolf I’ll try next. Orlando is definitely on the list though. I do think that, perhaps unsurprisingly, a great many classics which seem daunting from a distance turn out in fact to be lively and engaging reads. Usually that’s of course why they became classics, then the reputation becomes a barrier to the reality.

    Steve, thanks, I’ll check those out (or the In our Time one anyway, another friend just pushed me towards that though a different episode). It is tremendous, I can easily see why it would be a favourite.

    Anthony and Guy, I shall I promise, but I shall give it a little time first so as to allow any initial impressions time to fade and to give it a fair shout.

    Cathy, I do the same when someone reviews something I’m reading or plan to read soon. I’ll look forward to your thoughts in due course.

    Jacqui, thank you. I understand what you mean regarding connections between books and times of ones life, and how that can sometimes colour the book. Perhaps try another one? Orlando perhaps as per Marina’s suggestion?

  17. A lovely review, Max. I love how you describe the novel as an ‘easy and effervescent read that brims with life’ – you’ve articulated exactly how I feel. I love the vitality in the prose and in the characters, there’s a real sense of life in the pages. The novel was the first classic I really connected with, so I will always have a soft spot for it. I’ve reread it a number of times and I always seem to discover something new.

    Out of interest, have you read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours? It tells the stories of three women who are all linked by Mrs Dalloway. It’s very interesting seeing the parallels between The Hours and Mrs Dalloway and I think you can see Cunningham paying homage to Woolf in the prose; in saying that, I think it’s a very good novel in its own right.

  18. I’m so delighted that you chose to use the exact same word I used for this – effervescent. Her best writing is always that.
    I’ve read all of her novels now but one. The Years. Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are the two of her modernist novels that are the most accessible, I’d say. The latter is slightly less flawed.
    I too think you’d appreciated The Voyage Out more after reading this.

  19. Like Marina, I think Orlando is a much better introduction to Woolf’s work than Mrs Dalloway, although Orlando is also a dense, challenging work. Woolf feels to me like she was separated at birth from Jeanette Winterson. It would be interesting to read her short novel Sexing the Cherry alongside Orlando, as the two books have a similar feel.
    I wonder if Mrs Dalloway’s reputation suffers from the fact that so many people encounter it at school? I studied it for A-level alongside The Waste Land and I found it very dull by comparison, and rather distant from my own experience at the time.

  20. Tredynas Days

    Wonderful review, as always, Max. Been meaning to comment all week, but been too busy. I enjoyed Mrs D immensely – and the film & book of The Hours much less. Coincidentally I read and wrote about Between the Acts over at my blog last week; as you said you don’t mind links here it is – bit.ly/1JRdpz4. I loved the first half of it, but the second half dragged. Mrs D, I recall, just rolled on superbly from the start. My favourite of hers by a long way.

  21. Tredynas Days

    That link doesn’t seem to work, so hope it’s ok to post the long version here:
    http://tredynasdays.co.uk/2016/01/virginia-woolf-between-the-acts/#comments. Thanks again for a fine review.

  22. Lovely. Those quotes are wonderful. I find Woolf endlessly quotable. I began my #Woolfalong with To the Lighthouse which blew me away. In the next few weeks I will re-read Mrs Dalloway. Thank you for joining in #Woolfalong

  23. Thanks for linking to my review. Like you, I found it very readable – her ability to orchestrate her characters’ voices is thrilling. I love your image of the skimming stone (a pastime I still can’t resist!) I certainly plan to read more Woolf now.
    As for it being ‘snobbish’, most literature is – at least Woolf articulates it reasonably consciously.

  24. Gemma, I can definitely see how it would repay rereading, and vitality is a good word for it. I don’t know the Cunningham, I’ll look it up.

    Alastair, Winterson does a foreword for the Vintage edition of Mrs Dalloway, which is the one I read. I can see a link, though I’d struggle to define it. Feel perhaps as you say.

    You could well be right about school, certainly I think most 16 year olds (including me then) would find this all a bit remote.

    Simon, links long or short always welcome. I’ll take a look. Dalloway is well paced (if that’s the right word), it never flags and doesn’t outstay its welcome even a moment.

    Heavenali, isn’t she just? I culled a great many quotes before finishing the piece. To the Lighthouse is one I plan to get to, either next or after Orlando.

    Grant, she is good on the voices, definitely. I’m not sure I agree all litfic is snobbish, and it felt here more a thing than it did say in Jacob’s Room where I didn’t really get that sense at all. It’s hardly a fatal flaw though, and it’s still by any definition a truly excellent book. It’s just the only criticism I make in what generally I think is a pretty positive piece on the book so it stands out a bit.

  25. Yes, I will try another as I’d like to revisit Woolf this year. Orlando doesn’t appeal to me for some reason (probably the historical context), but Jacob’s Room is a possibility especially given your previous review. I actually won a copy of To the Lighthouse in a Woolf giveaway in December, so I do feel impelled to go back to it. We’ll see how I get on.

  26. Lovely and insightful review. I like how you manage to convey the beauty of her style. I read this a long time ago, in French but I don’t think it’s a problem. From the quotes you included in your review, it seems to me that her prose suits the French language perfectly.
    You make me want to read it again.

    I read in the comments that some have read it in school. This is really not a book to read in high school with students who aren’t experienced readers. Sometimes I wonder if teachers want to put their students off reading for good.

    PS: I enjoyed The Hours by M Cunningham too.

  27. I doubt it’s that historical Jacqui, I was kind of assuming it was historical the same way Winterson is, which isn’t very much so at all. With Winterson it’s more a question of setting-style than period accuracy. Lighthouse though is supposed to be one of her greats I believe.

    Emma, thanks. I can easily see how this could translate well. I think it’s tricky for teachers. Either you give the kids great works showing them what literature can do, but risk putting them off those works for life, or you give them middling works and fail to inspire. I’m glad it’s not my job.

    I’ll look up the Cunningham… Did you review it?

  28. I have not yet read Virginia Woolf. It is my resolution that I should explore more of her books. Dalloway seems to be a great start. Or i dont know if I should start with To the Lighthouse. Great post.

  29. I haven’t read Lighthouse, my impression is that it may be more challenging so possibly not as good a starting point. Let me know what you try!

  30. Of the two, I would recommend starting with Mrs. Dalloway. Then one might consider Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, comprised of short stories that form sort of a constellation around the novel.
    A Room of One’s Own gives good insight into her thinking about what is required (by women) to be an artist.
    It’s been ages since I read Woolf, though I am just starting Jacob’s Room. My favorites are Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.

  31. I really appreciated this review for the emphasis on the pleasures that readers can get from this novel. If her reputation is that she is difficult to read you have done an excellent job of challenging that myth.
    I think her themes are very important too, not least mental health issues after the First World War.

  32. Caroline, thanks. It’s struck me with more than one classic, and particularly the Modernists. They have this daunting reputation, but these books didn’t always come with footnotes and afterwords. There was a time they were just novels, and it helps hugely to approach them again in that way.

    Agreed on the themes.

  33. Pingback: #Woolfalong phase one: Getting started with a famous Woolf novel – To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway | heavenali

  34. Pingback: He should have been a great philosopher, said Mrs. Ramsay, as they went down the road to the fishing village, but he had made an unfortunate marriage. | Pechorin's Journal

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