Re-reading “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf

As I’ve mentioned before, way back in the early 1980s, in my early days of exploratory reading, I stumbled across the book “Literary Women” by Ellen Moers. It became a book that shaped my life in many ways, because it sent me off in pursuit of a number of women writers including Colette, Simone de Beauvoir (and then Sartre) and of course Virginia Woolf. The first book of Woolf’s that I read was “Mrs. Dalloway”, simply I think because it was the only one in the bookshop. It was pivotal to my reading, however, as it set me off down a road of reading and loving Woolf, including all her published diaries and letters; a love which has remained with me to this day.

So approaching “Mrs. Dalloway” for a re-read was always going to be a tense business, particularly bearing how many books I’d read in the interim years. I’m not the same reader I was then, so I did wonder what my reaction would be. But I needn’t have worried….

dalloway

On the surface, the plot of the book is quite simple – a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, as she prepares for an evening party at her home. She buys flowers, mends a dress, meets an old flame and gets ready for the evening. Around her is the ebb and flow of her life, but also of London. But it’s soon clear to the reader that this book will focus on much more than just the narrow confines of Clarissa’s existence, as the story starts to range over all those people she meets, the individuals whose lives are touched by hers. Running parallel to her story is that of Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked war veteran whose life is unravelling around him. Watched over and cared for by his wife Lucrezia, Septimus is losing his grip on reality by the minute, and as the couple visit a Harley Street specialist, it seems as if this will be their last hope of finding help for him.

The two strands of the story run together and then apart as the book goes on, ending up with both reaching a climax. Although the connections are not obvious they become clearer as the end approaches and the fates of the two protagonists meet finally and impact.

Published in 1924 at height of modernism, comparisons are often made between “Mrs. Dalloway” and Joyce’s “Ulysses”, particularly as both books concern a day in the life of a person in a great city – Leopold Bloom in Dublin and Clarissa Dalloway in London. Having not (yet) read “Ulysses”, I would still argue that Woolf’s achievement is greater in that she compresses so much of her protagonist’s lives so brilliantly into a short book, which nevertheless covers all the people and places Clarissa’s life touches during that day. Comparisons are odious, however, as they say – and “Ulysses” can also be read as something of a quest I believe, so it’s probably best to move away from such resemblances.

Man Ray, Virginia Woolf, Museum Ludwig, ML/F 1977/0618

I’ve heard it said that Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith represent the two flipsides of Woolf’s personality; the social animal, enjoying mixing with the friends and family members that made up her circle and with an intense relationship with London around which she constantly walked; and the struggling human being, touched by madness and failed by the medical profession. Their lives touch, as the two parts of her personality met, but one side is lost in the book and the other reborn. The detached Clarissa, with a strange coldness about her, is shown gathering the threads of her past around her, as one part of her dies and the shell continues to take part in the social whirl. During the book her past is gradually revealed, particularly moments of her youth when she was fascinated by the unconventional Sally Seton, and refused Peter Walsh’s proposal, instead marrying the duller, steadier Richard Dalloway. It’s clear that her nature could not handle the reality of life which would have existed if she’d married Walsh, and he’s never really recovered from loving her.

“As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing, Peter Walsh said to himself; feeling hollowed out, utterly empty within. Clarissa refused me, he thought. He stood there thinking, Clarissa refused me.”

The party brings a kind of resolution for Clarissa, meeting figures from her past and trying to come to terms with it. She’s a strange, somewhat remote figure, alienated in many ways from her husband and daughter (who are portrayed as having a close relationship which almost doesn’t involve her); but the thing that matters most to her, the bringing off of a successful party, is not denied to her.

The portrait of the suffering Septimus Smith is moving and heartfelt, leading to quite an attack on the medical profession – portrayed here as bumbling GPs who don’t understand that Septimus is ill, or detached uncaring specialists who have no real understanding of his needs. As poor Septimus worsens and looses his grip on reality, it is clear that there is no-one in that particular world who can save him.

“Mrs. Dalloway” is in my mind a work of genius. On my first read I was simply dazzled, but second time around the book is just as stunning but I can appreciate her artistry more. She captures brilliantly that heightened state of reality when you have a sudden surge of wonder at the world, that feeling of the intensity of living, the very dance of live. Woolf brilliantly intertwines her protagonists’ lives and actions, showing just how many other people’s lives we touch during one day without even knowing it, and all in the most intoxicating prose.

“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.”

Re-reading “Mrs.Dalloway” reconfirms for me what a magnificent and important writer Virginia Woolf. Knowing of her struggles with her health (physical and mental) we can only wonder that she managed to wrest so many amazing pieces of work out of her psyche during her too-short life. This book is where Woolf’s writing really took flight and it has just the same spine-tingling effect on me as it did all those years ago!