Mrs. Dalloway’s Party by Virginia Woolf
Nowadays I do tend to try to only read one book at a time; but as Sunday 25th was Virginia Woolf’s birthday I decided to celebrate by casting aside my current read and dipping into the slim volume I picked up in London, “Mrs. Dalloway’s Party.”
The book brings together seven short stories which all centre around the Dalloways and the party they’re holding at their house (which of course features in the climax of the novel “Mrs. Dalloway”). However, just to clarify (because I needed to clarify this for myself!) all of these stories are available in the Collected Shorter Fiction; but when “Mrs. Dalloway’s Party” was first published in 1973, not all of them were. It’s a minor point, but one which the publishers could perhaps make clearer, rather than just leaving the first pages of the introduction to state badly that two of the stories are not available elsewhere when in fact they are.
Putting that aside, however, there’s a great deal of sense in collecting these tales together in a sequence. The first story “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street”, was originally the opening chapter of the novel “Mrs. Dalloway”, but was replaced by the later version. However, if you’ve read the novel there will be recognisable elements in this original, as we follow Clarissa walking through London to buy gloves for her party. The rest of the stories are focussed on guests at the gathering, from a slightly embittered ex-school chum of Richard Dalloway, to a young mother in an inappropriate dress and a Scots woman missing the country. The Dalloways make fleeting appearances in these tales, and instead we see the party (and the whole experience of party-going) from this variety of different viewpoints, and it’s quite fascinating.
Woolf, of course, has a wonderful way of getting inside the heads of her characters, portraying their thought-processes and interactions quite brilliantly. As the guests flit around the party, mingling and misunderstanding each other, we can see the effect something like this kind of event can have – the exhilaration, the disappointments, the highs and the lows.
The excellent introduction by Stella McNichol puts the stories in context, with biographical background, and it seems that Woolf was drawn to compose many of these stories after having completed “Mrs. Dalloway” – an unusual event in itself, as she pretty much always wanted to move away rapidly from a novel when it was completed and work on something completely different.
Needless to say, these stories are quite brilliant. If you have the complete collection of shorter works you don’t need to buy them in a separate volume (although it is lovely to own them like this), but I’d highly recommend reading the sequence in order – it certainly gives you a special insight into Woolf’s writing, and even if you haven’t read “Mrs. Dalloway” they’re still very special stories! Once more, I’ve returned to Virginia Woolf and found that I still love her work just as much as I ever did – the journals and essays are definitely calling to me… 🙂
(Just for information, the story sequence runs:
Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street
The Man Who Loved His Kind
Together and Apart
The New Dress
A Summing Up)