Saturday, 25 January 2014

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf.

I put Mrs. Dalloway on my 25 re-reads list, but it was Cleo's recent post that spurned me on to read it this week. And, today is Virginia Woolf's birthday - she was born 132 years ago today, on the 25th January 1882. It's a good time to write about one of my favourite books by her.

Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925, Virginia Woolf's fourth novel. It tells the story of a day of Clarissa Dalloway, a character who first appears in The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf's first novel (1915), and is again seen in various short stories: Mrs. Dalloway's Party, Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street, The Prime Minster, The New Dress, The Introduction, Together and Apart, The Man Who Loved His Kind, and A Summing Up. It is a modernist novel, which would ordinarily strike fear into my heart, but not so with Woolf.

Yes, Mrs. Dalloway, like a lot of her novels, owe a lot to James Joyce, as Cleo points out, and also to Marcel Proust and various Russian authors and their perception of the 'soul'. In fact, whilst she disliked Joyce (Ulysses, in her eyes, was like a "queasy under-graduate scratching his pimples"), Marcel Proust could have ultimately silenced Virginia. The New York Times writes that she felt "swamped by his genius", and yes, as she herself wrote to Roger Fry having finished À la recherche du temps perdu, "Oh if I could write like that! I cry... what remains to be written after that?" In her diary, she noted, "It makes me suicidal. Nothing seems left to do. All seems insipid and worthless." Fortunately, she moved forward. She went on to write Mrs. Dalloway.

How is it that Proust, and Joyce, and many Russian authors fill me with fear, and yet Virginia Woolf, a modernist, an absolute genius, is perfectly accessible? (Because she is an absolute genius is the obvious answer). I am not saying Mrs. Dalloway is easy, but it is not hard to read. It doesn't require a build-up of any kind, and there is no need to have a grip on Virginia Woolf, her life and times (although I love finding Woolf hidden away in her own passages) to appreciate her work. Although, obviously, it can and is studied, for the casual reader there is no need to sit with a notebook and pen, or to try and get a hold of an annotated copy. It is a pleasure to read, Woolf doesn't try to trip up her reader (nor does she, although I will confess I struggled greatly with The Waves). There is great beauty in her simplicity, and, such is her insight, these streams of consciousness ebb and flow quite naturally. Of course there may be jumps and flits of thought that perhaps knock us about a bit at times, but we are not her character. This is natural. The only solution is to go with it, and with Woolf leading us, it is, as I say, simple and beautiful. She writes of the simmering of internal activity set against the backdrop of London: she intended to explore 'the self', or I should say 'a self', because perception and imagination is what preoccupies Virginia in Mrs. Dalloway and there is more than one character. For all, the self appears to be fluid and free: water and bird images pervade Mrs. Dalloway:
For this is the truth about our soul, he thought, our self, who fish-like inhabits deep seas and plies among obscurities threading her way between the boles of giant weeds, over sun-flecked spaces on and on into gloom, cold, deep, inscrutable; suddenly she shoots to the surface and spots on the wind-wrinkled waves; that is, has a positive need to brush, scrape, kindle herself, gossiping.
The 'truth', as postmodernists know, is relative. There is no one truth, as Virginia shows in the early part of Mrs. Dalloway when a car backfires. It is the Queen, it is the Prime Minister, it is the Prince of Wales - imagination influences perception. A little while later, an aeroplane catches everyone's attention, an aeroplane appearing to be writing out words in smoke, "But what letters?" "Glaxo", "Kreemo", "Toffee" - each person has a different idea of what the truth is.

And it is this scene that leads us to our first meeting with Septimus Warren Smith, crossing paths with Clarissa Dalloway, a man struggling with shell shock, or post traumatic stress disorder. His 'self' is deeply unstable; he is anxious and paranoid, and Woolf writes so well on this I feel the reader should be warned. He panics at the car back-firing.
Everyone looked at the motor car. Septimus looked. Boys in bicycles sprang off. Traffic accumulated. And there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree, Septimus thoughts, and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought. Was he not being looked at and pointed at; was he not weighted there, rooted to the pavement, for a purpose? But for what purpose?
His treatment, those consultations with doctors, was useless. After all that terror, and preceding his paranoia of the messages he believed the aeroplane was sending him, and in awful brackets too, Woolf writes,
For Dr. Holmes had told her [his wife] to make her husband (who had nothing whatever seriously the matter with him but was a little out of sorts) take an interest in things outside himself.
Readers of To the Lighthouse will already know that Virginia Woolf says great things in and with brackets. This is another example. And Woolf has sympathy with Septimus, there are shades of her in him. Like him, she heard, during her own breakdown, birds singing in Greek. She too was subject to useless treatment (the removal of three teeth, for example, to cure her mental instability). Her psychiatrist Dr. Savage, aptly named, was surely the inspiration for Dr. Holmes.

And then, back to Clarissa Dalloway. The book flits between characters, first Clarissa (that unforgettable first line, "Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself"), then Peter Walsh, then Elise Mitchell, now Septimus, now Hugo Whitbread... It goes on, but it isn't the dizzying experience I'm suggesting. It simply just moves, it flows: I keep repeating these words, but they are the words for it. As with James Joyce's Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway has a set time frame, Big Ben punctuates the passage of time unnecessarily but definitively all the same (I say "unnecessarily" because there is already a constant sense of moving forward, but at the same time moving back: here is the impact of Einstein's theory of relativity on Virginia).

In Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, Lyndall Gordon writes,
Composing Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf resolved in a process of 'tunnelling'. She wanted to dig 'caves' behind her characters, to enter that silent life that the first three novels [The Voyage Out, Night and Day, and Jacob's Rooom] circle as unknown...
And so she does, and in these caves sexuality too is explored: Clarissa, in her youth, had a crush on Sally, and she thinks of the excitement of their kiss, "most exquisite moment of her whole life", never to be repeated, the kiss or the thrill of it: Mrs Dalloway feels no such passion for her husband, he who loves her but is unable to say the words. There is much going on in this short novel (much more than I've written about), but she writes so well the thought process of each character, this stream of consciousness, is on the whole very natural. There are surprises, there are twists and sharp turns as there is with life.

As Virginia wrote in 'Modern Fiction' (an essay in The Common Reader First Series),
Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.
In short, then, Virginia rises to her challenge, and achieves her goal in Mrs. Dalloway. No one should be afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Further reading
Virginia Woolf: A Study of Her Novels, by T. E. Apter
'Virginia Woolf's Strange Treatment to Cure Her Mental Illness', by Rebecca Beatrice Brooks
Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, by Lyndall Gorgon.
'Modern Fiction' by Virginia Woolf


  1. What an absolutely wonderful review! I had missed Woolf's emphasis on the truth, but now it seems so obvious. Woolf packs so much into her novels you always feel like you've missed something. Perhaps this is a good thing because you can read them over and over again and be amazed each time.

    I like that you brought up how Woolf engages with her reader. She is not alarming at all, you just sink in and go along for the ride. Septimus was my favourite character and I connected with him most of all (should I be scared about this ;-) ). I still think he was quite sane and simply reacting to a world turned upside down.

    I love the last quote. Woolf's way with words is stunning.

    You say that I've now made you want to read To The Lighthouse, but you've also inspired me to read this novel again. Oh, and thanks for you kind references to me. If you don't mind, I'm going to link your post to the Goodreads group who is reading Mrs. Dalloway. I think they'll really appreciate it!

    1. Thanks, Cleo. And I think there's plenty I missed - there's the other characters I didn't write about, what they revealed - so much is going on, but that's the beauty of it as you say, one can always return to it and find yet more!

      I like what you say about Septimus - a normal reaction to an abnormal world. Something to think about :)

  2. I read Mrs. Dalloway in high school. I remember being surprised that I could understand the book since she was a modernist. I really enjoyed it, and hope to reread it soon. The Lighthouse is also on my list of books I haven't read yet but want to read.

    1. I'm always surprised as well, how easy her novels are to read when compared to other modernists. This is why I think she is the best! :)

  3. This post was an absolute joy to read! I was terrified of Woolf until I first read (and fell in love with) To the Lighthouse. Since then I've not looked back. I must admit though, I did struggle with Mrs Dalloway and I think it probably needs a re-read. I remember being particularly drawn to the Septimus sections and I think Woolf's ability to portray mental instability is worryingly brilliant. I have Mrs Dalloway's Party on my shelf waiting patiently for me to read it so perhaps I'll read that and then revisit the novel. Whatever I decide, I definitely need to return to Woolf this year.

    1. Thank you :)

      I'll be interested to see what you think of Mrs Dalloway's Party - I've not read that yet, not entirely sure I have a copy but I'll check. :)

  4. Love the way you described her inner struggles with being a writer and comparing herself to Proust. I guess that love of literature can become an all consuming obsession and she definitely had that. I agree with the simplicity of is just natural. I always imagined her pen like a river or a tree that just grows naturally. Yes, there is more to writing than that (including re-writing) but for me that was her.

    She also was very aware of issues such as identity and sexuality and how gender and attraction and other things are not as fixed and rigid as we think even today. I remember reading Orlando (my first Woolf) at 16 or 17 and being transfixed by her genius.

    I returned to my hometown yesterday and found my complete Virginia Woolf. I ask a question and open the book at random and whatever is written is her answer. Well, it just happened to be a passage from Mrs Dalloway.

    'Since she was so unhappy, for weeks and weeks now, Rezia had given meanings to things that happened, almost felt sometimes that she must stop people in the street, if they looked good, kind people, just to say to them "I am unhappy"; and this old woman singing in the street "if some one should see, what matter they?" made her suddenly quite sure that everything was going to be right.'

    She always has the right answers!

    1. She does indeed :) And - "I always imagined her pen like a river or a tree that just grows naturally" - perfectly put!

  5. Thank you.
    I have been afraid of Virginia Woolf.
    Your post has given me heart...maybe it's time to pull her off my TBR pile :-)

    1. It is time! :) What do you think you'll read first? Looking forward to see what you make of her.


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