Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Mrs Dalloway ~ by Virginia Woolf

Mrs DallowayGuest review by Sam Ruddock.

Sam very kindly came to our rescue a little while ago when he agreed to let us reprint a review from his own blog, Books, Time and Silence in order to fill a last minute gap in our schedule.  We liked his writing so much that we asked him to come back, with a review written specially for us – of the book of his choice.  He came back with two … and this is the first.

—o—

“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 of June.”

There is a passage in Dave Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in which Dave and his thirteen year old brother drive a convertible through the hills around San Francisco; young, alive, and spectacularly free. It captures something of those fleeting moments when, regardless of anything else going on, the beauty of life is impossible to ignore.

But nowhere is this achieved more expertly than in Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway steps out of her house on an ordinary sunny morning in June 1923 and feels her senses attuned to the world around her, as though time has slowed down to make this wondrous morning last forever. She is hosting a party this evening, and needs to buy flowers. Throughout that single day her life, and those of the people she passes, are brought alive by the exact, dreamlike, and sensuous prose of Virginia Woolf.

It is not only Clarissa who is enamoured with the fleeting beauty of life. Across town Clarissa’s husband Richard Dalloway, is suddenly struck by the strength of love he feels for his wife and rushes home with a bouquet of roses to tell her so. In another part of London Peter Walsh has just arrived back in England from India and having visited with Clarissa, takes an afternoon walk through Regents Park. And then there is Septimus Warren Smith, shell-shocked and on the verge of madness, spending the day in the park with his wife, overcome with the beauty in the world, but fearful that people, without honesty or kindness in them, cannot perceive it as he does. He has been numbed by the war, and now lives inside his head, hearing his dead friend call to him from behind screens in his room. The doctors are about to put him in an institution and so he makes one last, desperate, bid for freedom.

For it is not simply the beauty of moments in life which Mrs Dalloway seeks to portray, but the loneliness of these moments, for they can so rarely be shared with others. This is a novel of insular delights, of the joys shared with ones self alone, when all around the world is rushed off its feet. And, perhaps most powerful of all, it is about the irrevocable march of time; for these moments never last. Woolf’s working title was The Hours and it is a sense that nothing is set in stone, that everything in life will fade, which underpins all the beauty. There is a wonderful phrase which characterises this relentless march of time. So powerful is it that Woolf uses it twice, once from Clarissa’s point of view, later through Richard. “Big Ben was beginning to strike, first the warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.”

This steady ticking away of time is the subtext for everything which takes place. Each of the characters struggles, at some point, with the terror of ageing and death. It is on Peter Walsh’s mind as he walks through Regents Park, and Clarissa muses upon it repeatedly, staring into the chamber of an old woman next door. She cannot believe that these wonderful moments of life will end, and that when they do “no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant…”

When the party arrives, after she has seen her rambunctious old friend Sally Seton for the first time in many years, transformed now into a happy old housewife with five children, after she has feared that the party will be a huge failure, it is actually the news that Septimus has committed suicide which resurrects her mood, for she sees it as a powerful effort to preserve the purity of his own happiness.

“She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.”

Mrs Dalloway is a work of interlocking stream of consciousness internal monologues, of the hopes and dreams and fears of more than twenty characters whose minds we pass through during the course of that one day in June 1923. Virginia Woolf possesses a startling ability to find strength and originality in each of her characters, to cut right to the heart of their being and enunciate their thoughts and feelings as if you were sitting inside their head listening to them directly. Put together, these lives build a patchwork of society and experience, each in their own way troublesome, and yet filled with these moments of rare beauty.

So key are these brief snippets of beauty to Mrs Dalloway that they not only constitute its major theme, but also, somehow also reflect the experience of reading it. There are passages, frequent and profound, which leave one breathless. But these are sandwiched within dense and complex prose. It is over-punctuated to the point of truncation. Never have my eyes seen such a feast of semicolons and commas; or my mind reeled when faced with so many extended sentences, sub-clauses, and tangent thoughts. This creates a style so unlike anything else that it took me almost seventy pages before I was able to find the rhythm and flow of its cadence. That it took me two weeks to read a book which is only 213 pages also perhaps reflects its density. It is not a book to lose ones self in. Not for me, anyway. It is one of those books which might be better to listen on audiobook first, to sit back in a field in the middle of the afternoon, or else put on in a darkened room and let the words wash over you in that rhythm and pace which is all their own. For the prose is beautiful, often startling so. It is just that the density, page after page after page, is not easy to read. If you want a book to read once and enjoy throughout then this is probably not it.

However, if you enjoy books which gains with every reading, which can be studied and considered and delved into repeatedly, then Mrs Dalloway is one of the most rewarding novels you could find. From the way in which the women’s clothing is coloured in earthy tones of green and described as though it is a living thing growing from their bodies, to the subtlety of the title which creates the impression that Clarissa is defined by her marriage rather than the experiences and thoughts which make her individual, Mrs Dalloway is a veritable melting pot of ideas, structural invention, and stylistic originality. The more I think about it, the more I read and reread passages from it, the more I fall in love with it. Woolf possesses supreme linguistic ability and the power of her observation is second to none.

There will be a time while reading Mrs Dalloway when you draw in a breath and read on, spellbound, scared to release it lest the magic be broken and the beauty disappear like a droplet of dew brushed from a single stem of grass. Few books are so ripe with fantastic passages, few authors so talented as to capture such depth of feeling so consistently. It is one thing to recreate sadness, desperation, paranoia, hundreds of books have done so. But to capture fleeting moments of happiness so magnificently is something I have never seen done so well before. Mrs Dalloway is a book to make aspiring writers weep at the futility of ever possessing the skill to compete with a writer as skilled as Virginia Woolf. For those who do persist, however, it offers inspiration of what can be achieved in a novel. I will leave you now with one final phrase which sums it all up, though it would be a joy to share so many, many more.

“To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tingling divinely on the grass stalks – all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.”

Edition shown: Penguin Modern Classics. 2000.  ISBN: 978-0141-182490.  288pp.

—o—

You can find Sam’s review of The Hours HERE.

17 comments on “Mrs Dalloway ~ by Virginia Woolf

  1. Lisa
    May 29, 2009

    Gorgeous quotation at the end and really excellent review. You make me want to rush out and buy this immediately. I know what you mean in regards to the skill required to capture fleeting moments of happiness.

    Thank you, Sam. Really enjoyed that.

  2. Jackie
    May 29, 2009

    Like Lisa, I really enjoyed this review, the effusiveness & descriptions makes it very enticing. Though I’ve read other of Woolf’s books, for some reason, “Mrs. Dalloway” intimidated me & I’ve never tried it. Now I shall. Thank you.

  3. RosyB
    May 29, 2009

    I absolutely couldn’t bear Mrs Dalloway when I read it, I’m afraid. So you don’t have another convert here. I haven’t read The Hours, however, I did like the film – despite many around me not liking it. So I’ll be interested to see what you say about the book.

  4. Moira
    May 29, 2009

    I thought this was a really lovely review. Thanks, Sam. I’m looking forward to hearing what you made of The Hours.

    I have to be in the right frame of mind for Woolf … and that’s a sort indolent, slow-reading frame of mind – so that you can more or less absorb her slowly. She isn’t someone you can read in a hurry – you have to savour every word.

  5. Sam Ruddock
    May 30, 2009

    I coudn’t agree more. Virginia Woolf is one of the most challenging reads you can find. She has a rhythm all of her own which can be arduous to say the least.

    When I first proposed to myself the idea of writing comparison reviews of The Hours and Mrs Dalloway it was intended as a clash betweeen an overly complex, slightly pretentious work and its superior modern comparison. I had been struggling for a week or so with Mrs Dalloway and couldn’t make sense of the strange puctuation.

    Then I caught a train between Norwich and Cambridge, spent an hour reading, and found myself utterly beguiled. It was like stumbling upon a great new club and being invited to join. The clouds parted and there it was, this sensuous living prose every line of which was as finely crafted and carefully observed as most other novels. There is an appreciation of beauty at the heart of Mrs Dalloway which I have never found anywhere else.

    For all its difficulties (and there are many and they shouldn’t be overlooked) I cannot help but smile when I think back to the experience of reading Mrs Dalloway. I feel very privileged to have got through the complexity and glimpsed the wonders inside.

  6. annebrooke
    May 30, 2009

    I’ve always enjoyed Virginia Woolf, and Mrs Dalloway is, I think, one of her best – great to see it here.

    🙂

    Axxx

  7. RosyB
    May 30, 2009

    I’m not sure I found this difficult to read as such. But I did find it deadly dull. And I’m not sure what I got from it at the end of the day in terms of ideas and themes…what do you think yourself about those Sam?

    Unlike The Sound and The Fury which is a tough read in places but is so alive with themes, ideas, sense of place, tragedy, ambiguous sexuality, very strong voices and an interesting mysterious narrative…

    I think – for me – that Faulkner creates incredibly strong voices and different stylistic sections which are very interesting in themselves. Whereas Mrs Dalloway seems stylistically all the same and the voices of the characters do not seem to be so differentiated in terms of sound and style.

    It’s a long time since I read it though. But I never enjoyed any Woolf. It always feels like it has that stodgy character to the prose… I don’t really get what is wonderful about her prose I suppose.

  8. RosyB
    May 30, 2009

    thinking about it, it would be interesting to revisit some of these books and see if I got more out of them now or not. It can be interesting how life experience changes what you get from reading…

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  10. Katherine Howell
    May 31, 2009

    I got goosebumps reading that quote at the end!
    Thanks for a great review, Sam. I will be buying this today.

  11. Sam Ruddock
    June 1, 2009

    Thank you to everyone who has been generous with your comments. I hope those of you who are planning to read it find something to love. One of the best things about this website is the debate and discussion that review engender, and I am particularly grateful to RosyB for making me think hard about exactly what I wanted to convey in my review.

    My conclusion is, I think, that while I completely agree that taken as a whole the prose is often stodgy (or dense as I would term it), it has gorgeous moments of honey running through it, and when you get a taste of that honey it overwhelms everything else in your mouth and you cannot help but smile.

    There are many important themes within Mrs Dalloway which I did not cover in my review. From homosexuality to mental illness, parenting to the trappings of privilege, Woolf certainly seeks to critique the prevailing social mores. She is particularly virulent in her criticism of mental health care, and throughout dismissive of the vacuousness of wealth. But what she does so well is portray these in their human incarnation so that they are personal and character based rather than narratorial intrusions.

    However, I have to admit that I am not fundamentally concerned with themes and ideas in novels. Don’t get me wrong, I understand their importance and when a book really gets into a detailed idea I love it, but for me what distinguishes a book I love from one I don’t is the lyrical progression of word after word. If there is a beauty in the words and images they create, no matter whether that is discussing the application of make-up, waste disposal, or the nature of existence, then I am happy. I think that mentality is at the heart of all I think about books, and what I write about them. I try to capture something of the experience of reading them, rather than what they mean, for there is enough out there which covers that side of things.

    I look forward to further debate on The Hours tomorrow!

  12. Pingback: The Hours ~ by Michael Cunningham « Vulpes Libris

  13. Elena
    July 29, 2010

    Sam, just came across this review while I was researching Woolf-inspired tattoos of all things.

    Thank you for articulating what I couldn’t in your appreciation of her prose. I can never find the right words to express why I’m in love with Woolf’s writing.

    I realise I’m commenting over a year late, but have you by chance reviewed To The Lighthouse? Would love to read your thoughts on it.

  14. SamRuddock
    August 1, 2010

    Thanks for your lovely comments, Elena. Are you getting a Wolf-inspired tattoo then? What is it going to be?

    Unfortunately, Mrs Dalloway is the only Wolf I have read so no other reviews around but I do have To The Lighthouse in my to-read pile so it may not be too long before another one is done.

  15. Elena
    August 1, 2010

    I’m getting the words “someone had blundered” on my calf. It’s quoted excessively by Mr Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, but comes originally from Lord Tennyson’s poem Charge of the Light Brigade.

    I’m not sure what my next Woolf will be but I know I’m hooked after these two novels. (Although I’ve been warned to avoid her short stories.)

  16. Pingback: Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf | Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on May 29, 2009 by in Fiction: 20th Century.

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