Personally I’m never very sure about parties – I often like the idea of them and then as the day comes closer I start to worry. What to wear? – who will be there that I know? should I drink? – or not risk making an idiot of myself, stick to soft drinks? Parties that have been anticipated so eagerly can often turn out to be disappointing and those dreaded for weeks unexpectedly wonderful evenings. Therefore I found myself particularly sympathetic with the poor souls whose vulnerabilities and anxieties are exposed by an invitation by Mrs Dalloway.
Mrs Dalloway’s Party is a short story sequence which was written in the same period as Virginia Woolf’s classic novel Mrs Dalloway. The opening story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street was originally intended as the first chapter of that novel. Each of these stories illustrates beautifully Virginia Woolf’s fascination with parties and the raft of emotions and difficulties such occasions may bring. In these stories Woolf shines a light on the society in which she had grown up – in her portrayal of the guests that attend Mrs Dalloway’s party Woolf presents us with the stories and voices of that society. In these stories Mrs Dalloway’s guests often appear isolated from the rest of the guests, middle aged, and upper middle class women anxious about their appearance, the antecedents of other guests, or their own reception by others at the party. Clarissa Dalloway, the indomitable hostess does her best to draw them out, introducing them to each other. Yet each of them has their own worries and concerns, so those who Clarissa tries to pair off – seem incapable of taking advantage of the chance she gives them.
“Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself. Big Ben was striking as she stepped out into the street. It was eleven o’clock and the unused hour was fresh as if issued to children on a beach. But there was something solemn in the deliberate swing of the repeated strokes; something stirring in the murmur of the wheels and the shuffle of footsteps.”
(from Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street)
So starts Mrs Dalloway in Bond street – and of course we instantly recall the opening of Mrs Dalloway. It is the morning of Clarissa’s party – and she has gloves to buy – her quest takes her to Bond Street. Just as we do at the start of Mrs Dalloway, here too we feel the hubbub of people and passing traffic, we experience that morning in June through the eyes of several people, a young man notices Mrs Dalloway with her strangely white hair and her pink cheeks, and Mrs Dalloway runs into High Whitbread who she remembers being so like one’s brother when he was at Oxford. Inspired by seeing Hugh Clarissa’s thoughts turn to Milly, who Hugh married reflecting that Milly and she must be about the same age. As she walks, Mrs Dalloway thinks about ageing, votes for woman and Cranford, the Queen and even Shakespeare – Clarissa enjoys walking in London – letting her thoughts flow as they will. The gloves are purchased and as the shop assistant apologises for the quality – remarking how gloves have not been the same since the war – Mrs Dalloway considers how so much has been sacrificed by young men so that things should carry on as normal.
While Mrs Dalloway is the main focus of this first story – she is more of a bit player in the following six stories in which the focus switches to her guests at the party.
Two stories; The Man who loved his Kind and Introduction concern the impressions of a lone guest at the party, their views of their fellow guests, their feelings about the party they are attending. Prickett Ellis compares the chattering idle spoilt people he sees around him to the decent people whose case he has been fighting in court, who spent £5 of their hard won sum of money on a clock for him in gratitude of all he had done. He meets Miss O’Keefe who demands he get her an ice – she tries to talk to him about The Tempest, about poetry, with little success and instead Prickett Ellis tells her about his work and the places it had taken him to that day. Lily Everit meanwhile sees Mrs Dalloway coming towards her – it is Lily’s first party and she realises that her hostess will want to draw her out into the room. However Lily has her own small secret success that she hugs to herself as the party goes on around her. That morning her professor had praised her essay – marked it with three red stars as first rate!
“Lily Everit saw Mrs Dalloway bearing down on her from the other side of the room, and could have prayed her not to come and disturb her; and yet, as Mrs Dalloway approached with her right hand raised and a smile which Lily knew (though this was her first party) meant: ‘But you’ve got to come out of your corner and talk,’ a smile at once benevolent and drastic. She felt the strangest mixture of excitement and fear, of desire to be left alone and of longing to be taken out and thrown into the boiling depths.”
(from The Introduction)
Mrs Vallance in Ancestors can only see those around her as a bright, chattering crowd, these people don’t live up to her expectation of society as it once was. She contrasts Clarissa’s guests with her own family in Scotland – people now dead – who had truly known and understood her. Mrs Dalloway does her best to bring together two of her guests – in Together Apart, Miss Anning and Mr Serle can only really relate to one another within the context of the party they are both attending – after which they will part and continue their separate existences. Mabel who we meet in The New Dress had hoped her new yellow silk dress will be a success or a least not embarrass her. Yet the poor woman realises as soon as she takes off the cloak she has worn for twenty years that it is a mistake. I really felt for Mabel – haven’t we all taken our coat off and instantly regretted our choice of attire (ok just me then). Mabel comes to see the absurdity in worrying what others think – I loved her for that.
“And now the whole thing had vanished. The dress, the room, the love, the pity, the scrolloping looking-glass, and the canary’s cage – all had vanished, and here she was in a corner of Mrs Dalloway’s drawing-room suffering tortures, woken wide awake to realtiy.
But it was all so paltry, weak-bloodied, and petty-minded to care so much at her age with two children, to be still so utterly dependent on people’s opinions and not have principles or convictions, not to be able to say as other people did, ‘There’s Shakespeare! There’s death! We’re all weevils in a captain’s biscuit’ – or whatever it was that people did say.”
(from The New Dress)
A Summing Up – is perfectly titled – as it seems to do just that. Sasha Latham is led outside by Mr Bertram Pritchard as the room inside had grown so hot. Here Mrs Latham reflects on Mrs Dalloway’s party and her social achievement. She contrasts the country where she lives to London with its pubs, backstreets and the sudden country scents of Mrs Dalloway’s back garden.
I loved every bit of this tiny little collection – which is far too short in my opinion. It has a much lighter feel than Mrs Dalloway – but the prose is exquisite. In this sequence Woolf examines the psychology of the party creating a sense of shared consciousness.