Mrs Dalloway

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What better way to begin the New Year than by reading Britain’s third greatest novel, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway? (There are obviously two better ways, I hear you say, but that would then leave nothing to look forward to). Now approaching its hundredth anniversary (it was published in 1925), Mrs Dalloway feels remarkably fresh in its execution, if dated in its preponderance of upper-class characters. Perhaps even that isn’t true: the corridors of power, as represented by Clarissa Dalloway’s guest list (featuring a cameo from the then prime minister), are no doubt as narrow as ever, and the suggestion that her husband, Richard, is not bright enough to make the cabinet suggests that the right background gets you rather further today.

Woolf’s novel, however, is not celebrated for its insight into the workings of the state in any case, but the workings of the human mind. Within a sentence we realise that the novel is not going to allow us to observe. If the word “for” (“For Lucy had her work cut out for her”) hadn’t convinced us we had somehow, within the confines of a third person narrative, slipped into Clarissa’s thoughts, the opening of paragraph three is unmistakeable:

“What a lark! What a plunge!”

Even more impressively, as Clarissa’s thoughts seem to wander, she in fact focuses on the defining moment of her life (her decision not to marry Peter Walsh), and foreshadows one of the novel’s two central events (Peter’s return from India). Let’s be honest, though, despite Peter’s continued fascination, a whole novel of Clarissa might be less than riveting. Clearly Woolf thought so too, and within ten pages we have moved onto another character. This takes place without a change of scene, however, in a way which anachronistically makes me think of a director moving character within a single shot:

“The violent explosion which made Mrs Dalloway jump and Miss Pym go to the window and apologise came from a motor car which had drawn to the side of the pavement precisely opposite Mulberry’s shop window.”

Septimus Smith is momentarily frozen to the spot, presumably by the First World War memories which haunt him as a result of the sudden explosion: “The world has raised its whip: where will it descend?” Smith is the character through which Woolf will channel what are presumably her own feelings of depression, clinging to sanity with a white-knuckle determination:

“But he would not go mad. He would shut his eyes; he would see no more.”

Smith’s depression is perhaps best seen through the thoughts of his wife, Rezia, as Woolf begins to move from character to character in a stream-of-consciousness version of netball:

“For she could stand it no longer. Dr Holmes might say there was nothing the matter. Far rather would she that he were dead! She could not sit beside him when he stared so and did not see her and made everything terrible.”

It is the lack of understanding of others, at a time when suicide was seen as “cowardly”, that consigns Smith to his fate, not only from his wife, who loves him, but from the medical profession, who first dismiss his feelings and then seek to have him committed. This in stark contrast to the compassion of Woolf’s narrative which finds sympathy and understanding for every character.

In is a novel which is superficially quiet, like a flat sea, violent tides seethe beneath as Woolf rejects traditional notions of character by revealing the ever-changing feelings below the surface: in his despair, Smith is not without moments of happiness; Clarissa, in her happiness, is not free from doubt and anxiety. Is Woolf critiquing that famous English upper-middle class reserve? Clarissa rejects Peter because “with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into.” Smith’s suffering seems to originate from a lack of emotion during the war:

“…when Evans was killed, just before the Armistice, in Italy, Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognizing that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little…”

Her very narrative style makes clear that what we see superficially bears little resemblance to ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ – as Thoreau said, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.”

Whether Mrs Dalloway is the third greatest British novel or not, it is certainly a great novel, and a revitalising read for the New Year. Plans to read To the Lighthouse (number two) are now firmly in place.

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20 Responses to “Mrs Dalloway”

  1. heavenali Says:

    Lovely review. I will probably read Mrs D for #Woolfalong and my review of To the Lighthouse comes out tomorrow. I found writing about it so hard.

  2. Cathy746books Says:

    I don’t know whether to start with this, or with To the Lighthouse, both of which are in the TBR…

  3. hastanton Says:

    I so love this book . Did a Virginia W course last year at Waterstones Piccadilly which helped me appreciate it all the more . Saw the Woolf ballet too which had a Mrs D section ……will reread it again this year.

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    I read this book at a difficult time in my life (during my mid-twenties), and while I liked it very much, my memories are coloured by other events that were happening at the time. It is a very impressive novel, and it’s good to see your perspective on it. I particularly like your commentary on the change in focus from one character to another – I see what you mean about the comparison with a film director’s technique!

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I could almost imagine the camera roving through the crowd from one character to the next – though, of course, Woolf gives us the inner life in a way no film-maker can.

  5. Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought. | Pechorin's Journal Says:

    […] 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 […]

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Nicely done. I just wrote this up myself and linked back here. I think you’re spot on with your filmic reference. When I wrote up Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz I commented on how the writing seemed to reflect then contemporary new film techniques. I think cinema had a big impact on modernism, to me it often seems a literary form that is in part responding to technological developments.

  7. Mytwostotinki Says:

    Woolf has a reputation to be a “difficult” author – a reputation that I found is probably more based on rumors than on evidence. I read To the Lighthouse recently and was pleasantly surprised; after your appealing review I will also consider now reading Mrs Dalloway as well.

  8. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel Says:

    I have not yet read Virginia Woolf. It is my resolution that I should explore more of her works. Great post. Loved it.

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

    […] David Liz  Grant and Leah read Mrs Dalloway  Rachel, listened to Mrs Dalloway on audio book while Val read Mrs […]

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