4 February 2016

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

My new job placement, through a rotation, is in a high school.  While of the teacher librarians were putting together a display last week I was asked about books I've abandoned (Villette by Charlotte Bronte at page 364) and books that intimidate.  Being in the midst of Mrs Dalloway I mentioned that I shied away from Virginia Woolf's writings for years.  I've read a few essays and Between the Acts but in Mrs Dalloway any feelings of trepidation have melted away.

This classic novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1925, has been sitting on my shelves for something close to ten years.  Perhaps it's being close in age to Clarissa Dalloway, or the mention of flowers in the middle of our winter, that made me feel it was the right time to read this book.

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself....

Taking place over a single day the reader is presented with the details of Clarissa's preparations for a party.  Her errands take her through busy streets of central London, and the chiming of Big Ben constantly reminds citizens that time is running out.

As Clarissa goes about her day her thoughts float through the guest list.  Among them is Peter Walsh, a past lover, who is currently in love with a married woman planning a divorce.  A habit of flicking his penknife open and closed when agitated belies Peter's well-presented smooth exterior.  Another guest is Hugh Whitbread, a former valet...'He was the perfect specimen of the public school type, she said.  No country but England could have produced him'.  Married to the Honourable Evelyn, theirs is a life lived in a grand home filled with oak furniture and pillowcases fringed with lace.  Sally Seton is to arrive soon and will add sparkle to the event.  In early adulthood she was quite vocal about socialist causes and the two friends felt an intimate attraction toward each other.   Eventually though, Sally goes on to marry a wealthy man, live an aristocratic lifestyle and bears five sons.  Sally and Hugh have been acquainted for many years and are therefore well-informed of each other's humble beginnings and the status to which they've risen.

While certainly not guests, Clarissa's husband Richard, and her seventeen year-old daughter Elizabeth are scrutinized by others.  In fact, Richard catches a glimpse of his daughter from across the room and hardly recognizes her as it seems in that moment she has gone from being a girl to a woman.

One of my favourite guests is Lady Bruton who 'detested illness in the wives of politicians'.  I especially like the image of her conjured up by Woolf as a 'spectral grenadier, draped in black'.

'...if ever a woman could have worn the helmet and shot the arrow, could have led troops to attach, ruled with indomitable justive barbarian hordes and lain under a shield noseless in a church, or made a green grass mound on some primeval hillside, that woman was Millicent Bruton.'

While preparations are under way for Clarissa's party, another character struggles with post-traumatic stress after witnessing the death of a friend on the battlefield during the Great War.  Septimus Warren Smith is a tragic figure who is so badly affected by what he has experienced that he thinks birds are singing in Greek and he frequently sees a wall of flames before him.  Moments of lucidity bring joy to his young Italian wife, Rezia, but they are too few and there seems to be little help from the doctors.  One even suggests, whether through condescension or ignorance, two bromide tablets should do the trick.  Virginia Woolf's struggles with her own mental illness and frustration with the medical world's lack of understanding are clearly evident.  

Septimus and Clarissa never meet but we are reminded that for every festivity taking place in a corner of the world there is also suffering, and sometimes not so very far away.  Through Woolf's keenly observed characters we see a brilliant portrayal of the breadth of difference that often exists between persona and person.

The iconic opening line of Mrs Dalloway is the equivalent of a first bolt in the construction of a space shuttle.  Such a humble and unassuming beginning to something so powerful in its end product.  This is definitely a novel to return to as I'm sure further readings will reveal many more facets of the characters in this stunning book.

11 comments:

  1. I think Mrs Dalloway gets better each time you read it. So did Villette - I abandoned it the first time I read it, but when I picked it up again many years later, it was like reading a different book - probably because I was a different reader!

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    1. Well, I'm counting on being a different reader when I pick Villette up again...oh, in ten years or so. Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, is one of those books I could have happily turned right back to page one and read all over again. It was nice to be able to picture Regent's Park thanks to our visit last May - minus the roses.

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  2. This is on deck for me alongside our Maisie, and I am definitely intimidated. But I don't think I should be, after loving To The Lighthouse. You've made me even less so!

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    1. If you don't enjoy Mrs Dalloway I'll eat my hat, Audrey. My copy of Between the Acts comes with the added bonus of The Years so I took a look the other day - it looks quite good! As for Maisie...the poor thing.

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  3. I've never been a big fan of Virginia Woolf but I read this a few years ago and liked it. You have reminded me to revisit it. (Not keen on Villette either, but love Jane Eyre!)

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    1. Villette is supposed to be the better book but...well, perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind. Glad to hear you feel the same way - Jane Eyre is wonderful!

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  4. After struggling through To the Lighthouse, I've been afraid to attempt any more Virginia Woolf, but this review makes me want to give Mrs. Dalloway a chance.

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    1. I hope you do! It seemed to do the trick for me but mood so often comes into it and a book that just doesn't sit well one day can click at another time. Don't give up!

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  5. So pleased you got round to Mrs Dalloway after ten years. You have picked out some lovely details, especially Lady Bruton. Are you joining in the #Woolfalong? Or is one enough for now?

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    1. Usually it's all about reading on a whim but I'm keen to read more Woolf. A few of us are reading What Maisie Knew and I'm looking forward to a few books on hold at the library, but I'll certainly be watching woolfalong from the sidelines! The Years is also on my shelf and looks quite good...

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