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2016 – the year of the #Woolfalong!

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I suppose Virginia Woolf is not going to need any introduction to those pass by the Ramblings – I’ve written about her several times, and my love of all things Bloomsbury is well-known. So I was very excited when I heard that lovely blogger HeavenAli was planning a year-long read of Woolf’s works, which she’s titled #Woolfalong.

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Ali has a separate page on her blog here with a nice schedule for the year, and the first two months are concentrating on the seminal works “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse”. As I’ve read both of these relatively recently, I shan’t re-read (though I am looking forward to joining in later in the year). However, I thought I would do a short post linking to my reviews of these two books and I’d encourage everyone to join in with the #Woolfalong – it promises to be a wonderful event and thoroughly enjoyable!

“Mrs. Dalloway”

dallowayI re-read this wonderful book and reviewed it a year or so ago, and concluded: “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.

My full review is here.

 

 

“To The Lighthouse”

lighthouseI took the opportunity to revisit TTL while Youngest Child was studying it, and at the time I thought: “No short review or summary can really do justice to this rich and complex novel.”

Further thoughts here.

Partygoing Tales

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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.”

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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.

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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
The Introduction
Ancestors
Together and Apart
The New Dress
A Summing Up)

Leaden circles dissolve in the air

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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….

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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!

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