Originally I had intended to read Mrs Dalloway in February as part of my #Woolfalong reading – but I found I couldn’t wait till then. I first read Mrs Dalloway about eight years ago – and while I liked it I did feel I had missed something and it was a book I really needed to read again. I was right – I had forgotten so much of it – but I found I really liked the shifting perspectives, particularly those stories told in flashback. Time is very important throughout the novel and so there’s a lovely sense of the passing of time, of the past and present being forever linked.
Like To the Lighthouse – my first read of 2016 – Mrs Dalloway is one of Virginia Woolf’s best known novels, written in a stream of consciousness, its perspective shifts from character to character throughout the novel.
Apart from flashback reminiscences – the action takes place on one hot day in June a few years after the Great War has ended. Clarissa Dalloway is preparing for her party that evening – and as the day starts Clarissa leaves the house to begin her preparations. As Mrs Dalloway walks through the sunny London streets she is enveloped by the world around her, Big Ben strikes, she notices the shop keepers and the people in the streets. As we get a glimpse into the minds of those around her there is a wonderful sense of everyone being part of the same moment – how no one exists in complete isolation.
“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 before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.”
The loveliness of the day reminds Mrs Dalloway of the past, her life in her family home of Bourton. As a young woman – Clarissa had been drawn to Sally Seton – who she couldn’t help but think of as ‘not an option’. In those far off days Sally was unconventional, smoking cigars, running naked down a corridor at Bourton, she appeared the epitome of the independent young woman. A kiss that Clarissa once shared with Sally; seen now as the one truly happy moment in Clarissa’s life. The complex, enigmatic Peter Walsh was a frequent visitor at Bourton in those days – whose marriage proposal Clarissa turned down. Instead Clarissa married the reliable Richard Dalloway. Later in the day the past is brought back even more forcibly with the arrival of Peter Walsh after an absence of some years in India. Delighted by the life that she sees around her that morning, Clarissa Dalloway ponders the inevitability of death.
“Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely? All this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?”
In Regents Park close to where Clarissa lives we find Septimus Warren Smith, and his Italian born wife Lucrezia. Peter Walsh sees them too – as he walks away from Mrs Dalloway’s house. Septimus is suffering from shell shock, and like Clarissa his mind is stuck in the past. Throughout the day Septimus is subject to various hallucinations, particularly of Evans a friend lost in the war. Septimus and Lucrezia consult Sir William Bradshaw, a psychiatrist on the advice of their doctor Dr Holmes. We will meet Sir William Bradshaw again at Clarissa Dalloway’s party. Septimus has been irrevocably damaged by the war – suffering from what today we would no doubt call post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. They scour the desert. They fly screaming into the wilderness. The rack and the thumbscrew are applied. Human nature is remorseless.”
In the afternoon while Clarissa takes a rest, her daughter Elizabeth, seventeen and beautiful, goes out to do some shopping at the army and navy stores with Miss Kilman – her history teacher. In two glorious paragraphs Virginia Woolf tells us so much about Miss Kilman, born into a German family – originally with the name Kiehlman, she was fired from her teaching job because of it. Miss Kilman despises Clarissa Dalloway – pities her – but she adores Elizabeth.
The party begins – and it is an undoubted social success – most of the people who we have met in the novel appear. During the party Clarissa comes to hear the story of Septimus Smith. Clarissa is conscious of her position in society – she can’t help but be delighted when the Prime minister arrives.
Virginia Woolf’s writing takes considered reading – but the reader is richly rewarded, the prose is wonderfully lyrical – and she explores her characters brilliantly. I find it difficult to write about Virginia Woolf’s writing – daunted perhaps, a little over whelmed. It is complex – Woolf’s genius lies within that complexity, but also her ability to present multiple points of view – weaving their narratives in and out of each other to create a sort of tapestry of one hot day in June a few years after the end of the Great War.