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

Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 09.19.15Shelf of Shame Week 2

I find I can relate somewhat to Bookfox Moira’s experience here, except that the person most strongly nagging me to read Mrs Dalloway was my good self. But I had been daunted by its reputation as a triumph of modernist writing, and have never successfully got beyond the first handful of pages. Until now, when, having had the prompt to read it (thank you, Simon, Shelf Of Shame is a vital public service) I find myself wishing that I’d tackled it sooner. Or maybe I’m berating myself for no good reason: only now am I ready to appreciate it.

There have always been two reasons in my mind why I decided that life was too short to worry about reading it: the novel seemed to be about nothing in particular and the protagonist was not someone whose life interested me; secondly, I found putting it down and picking it up again a huge problem. The thread was so easily lost, and after spending a short, frustrating time in the groundhog day of the opening pages, as I forgot whose head we were in and had to go back, I decided that this was not the book for me. Reading it was rather like sewing back-stitch.

Then a few weeks ago I was half-reading the paper, half-listening (as is my bad habit) to In Our Time Melvyn Bragg’s Thursday morning treat on Radio 4. The subject was Mrs Dalloway. Even though Melvyn and his three academic conversation partners are known to get animated over any subject from Neo-platonism to String Theory, it dawned on me that everyone was particularly excited about this one. So I tuned in, learnt more about the novel and its context, its place in Virginia Woolf’s writing career and some very, very helpful observations on its themes and on the deceptive simplicity of its narrative flow masking the technical brilliance of its structure. All this intrigued me, as well as helping to explain the groundhog day effect I’d experienced, and made me determined to give it another try. So, thank you too, Melvyn and friends (Hermione Lee, Jane Goldman and Kathryn Simpson).

So – what happens in Mrs Dalloway? Clarissa Dalloway, a rich politician’s wife, throws a party for friends, family and important people (including a shadowy Prime Minister) in her London town house. We encounter her first sallying forth to buy flowers, her head full of hostess-y details, then sidetracked by the sights and people that catch her eye. A number of her guests live their lives during that day and converge on the party. Her daughter Elizabeth ventures out into London with an ‘unsuitable’ companion and returns for the party. Two of Clarissa’s former lovers will be there: Peter Walsh, home from an unsatisfactory career in India, and gate-crashing Sally Seton, now Lady Rosseter with her cotton lord husband and five sons. Intersecting all these pathways to the party, shell-shocked war veteran Septimus Warren Smith and his bewildered wife seek healing and comfort in an indifferent city, and as they traverse London they cross the paths of her guests in various different ways. His life story casts a shadow on the party, and we are invited to consider Clarissa’s reaction to this.

One thing that In Our Time taught me was no longer to be frightened by the novel’s Stream of Consciousness method; I am to be frightened by its unique brand of Free Indirect Discourse instead. The narrative flows from the mind of the person currently in Woolf’s lighthouse beam, but the syntax can swing from inside the person’s head (first person) to outside omniscient narrator (third person) without warning. There is much direct speech, but not many inverted commas – hardly any at all, generally only when we are inside the head of one character being addressed by another, whose spoken words intersect with his/her thought processes. Once alerted to all that, difficult reading is made simpler, and the fear that Stream of Consciousness is even more confusing than I thought possible is allayed (because that’s not strictly what it is. I Love Literary Criticism – in emergency, break glass!). I think I must sound very naive, like someone who rushes into the house to announce that the sky is blue and isn’t it pretty – but I really needed a prod in the right direction, and once I got it I was off and away, and just loving the experience of such mastery of form, alternately smiling and gasping in delight at the sheer brilliance of this shimmering, shifting point of view.

Then, the character in focus can change from one paragraph to the next – no chapter headings, very few section breaks, just hang on tight. It is difficult to put it down and pick it up later – but going back a few paragraphs to the last change of character is a small matter once immersed in the novel, I found. There is generally a link, however tenuous – one character is thinking of another; one passes another in the park and notes his or her behaviour; and the focus shifts. The characters strike out into the city, loop round and rejoin the magnetic draw to Clarissa’s party. It is like a stately dance of Strip-the-willow.

Finally (I promise), the other reason that now is the right time for me and Mrs Dalloway is that I have learnt to love London. I spend so much more time there now, pleasing myself, riding on buses and walking, rather than on the tube dashing to get to appointments. I look up in the streets, notice upper stories and door-cases, read blue plaques, see traces of older existences. When Clarissa walks out into Bond Street I can follow her (marvelling though at the thought that there were florists and fish-shops there once). When Septimus walks in Bloomsbury at around 7pm and sees all the doors opening to let dinner guests out dressed up for their evening parties, I am there. It is a classic novel of London, written by someone who had the city in her bones. Now, I am ready to love the novel for that too.

This novel is a textile, where life and death, happiness and depression, success and failure, comfort and hardship are in the warp and weft. What happens? Nothing much, and everything there is. So – better late than never, I have tackled Mrs Dalloway and discovered what I was missing. But I do contend that this has been the right time for me, and all those false starts were a sub-conscious reaction to all those previous wrong times. Hermione Lee, Jane Goldman, Kathryn Simpson and Melvyn Bragg turned up for me in the nick of time.  

Having promised to read Mrs Dalloway for Shelf of Shame Week, I discovered that I am not the first to review it – Bookfox Sam Ruddock wrote a wonderfully perceptive and affectionate review of it back in 2009.  So I diffidently present my more awkward, personal review as a confessional contribution to the Shelf of Shame.  This is about my own path to reading the novel.

Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway (1925)
There are numerous editions listed by online booksellers. I read the Harper Perennial ebook edition (2013 ASIN: B00EHH68Z8) 231pp. (Gloomy cover art above.)
In Our Time on Mrs Dalloway: BBC Radio 4 3rd July 2014. Podcast available from this site.

9 comments on “Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

  1. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book)
    August 29, 2014

    Lovely piece, Hilary! And I’m so glad that you love the novel this time around. It was my first Woolf novel, and I’ve not looked back – and I don’t like London at all!

  2. Carol S
    August 29, 2014

    Great read, great In Our Time listen, great jump to Simon’s response to Jacob’s Room, great morning’s adventure. Thank you.

  3. boatsagainstthecurrent2014
    August 29, 2014

    I recently read this for university and I did initially find it pretty hard going, and it seemed like nothing was actually happening. However, as you said, once you know a little more about the themes and its context, you start to notice the significance of all the little events, and how they tie together.
    Great piece!

  4. gertloveday
    August 30, 2014

    Lovely review. I’m not a great Woolf fan because i find her such a repellent person (I know, I know…) but Ive always liked this. it is so immensely sad and musical.

  5. sallydugan
    September 3, 2014

    I don’t know if you know George Simmers’s wonderful Great War Fiction blog, but you might enjoy the Mrs Dalloway walk he describes in this post:

  6. AlisonP
    September 3, 2014

    Mrs Dalloway is one of the books featured in the BBC4 series The Secret Life of Books, produced in association with the Open University. There is a clip from the programme here;

  7. Leena
    September 5, 2014

    Have you read Woolf’s The Common Reader? If not, I think you’d enjoy them…

  8. Hilary
    September 8, 2014

    Many thanks for the comments, the sympathy, the restraint you’ve all shown in not judging me for shunning Mrs Dalloway for so long. Thanks especially for George Simmers’ Mrs Dalloway Walk! I will take it very soon.

  9. sshaver
    September 9, 2014

    And such a right-on but compassionate portrayal of the fragility of the mind.

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