“Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct…”

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Lord, what a fantastic opening line. I’ve had Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway sitting unread on my shelf for far too many years, so with all this unemployed time on my hands and a dear friend who references it with some frequency (Alex, of Town&Cooking fame – proving he has excellent taste in writing and also writes excellently about taste), I decided it was high time to get the damn book read.

All I knew going in was that it follows Clarissa Dalloway during a single day in June 1923, as she prepares for a party she’s to throw that evening. I was so surprised once I finally got into it to find that it is so, so much more than that (obviously that’s a lie – I’ve read other of Woolf’s books, so I knew what I was getting myself into, but… you know what I mean.)

Clarissa’s narrative is closely shadowed by that of Septimus Warren Smith, a decorated World War I veteran suffering severe shell shock, with their paths crossing throughout the day, both characters haunted by the same Shakespere quote from Cymbeline, their troubles with unarticulated homosexual desires, their mental health at serious stake.

Clarissa on p. 6 -“She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged… she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. … Did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?”

cf. Septimus on p. 81 – “The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he kill himself for their sakes? Food was pleasant; the sun hot; and this killing oneself, how does one set about it, with a table knife, uglily, with floods of blood, – by sucking a gaspipe?…Besides, now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about it die are alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know.”

I always try to read a handful of reviews or reflections on books as I finish them, and while I loved some of the tidbits on Mrs Dalloway at 88, I don’t think I agree with the claim that “[Woolf] shows us that Clarissa is a shallow, silly woman who has little to show for her fifty-two years,” – I think it’s quite a disservice to both Clarissa and Woolf to minimise and dismiss her at such.  Clarissa at the time of the book is deeply self-conscious of her social role, of her intellect, of both her public and self-image – but this self-consciousness is not a new thing, with her recalling, “…the perfect hostess [Peter] called her (she had cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of the perfect hostess, he said.” (p. 5). Clarissa is being treated for depression and dealing with unarticulated and unrequited love – for her husband, for the returned Peter Walsh, and “the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally… not like one’s feeling for a man.” (p. 28)

Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it – a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling! – when old Joseph and Peter faced them:
“Star-gazing?” said Peter.
It was like running one’s face against a granite wall in the darkness! (p. 30)

There’s very few breaks within the book, frustrating when trying to find a convenient spot to stop to go to sleep, but which make such delightful sense when you realise that the book is broken into 12 sections, one section for each hour of the day the book covers.

The book is written in seamless stream of consciousness, weaving the internal thoughts, reflection on past and present of about 20 characters. Internal speech interests me a lot, and Woolf does it very, very well. I love reading about projects on internal speech, so it was quite fun to find Mrs Dalloway referenced in this article about Andrew Irving’s internal speech projects.

The book is lovely, tense, nostalgic, frequently sad. In one introduction to the book, Carol Ann Duffy writes that “[Mrs Dalloway] is a vivid reminder to us, should we need one, that some of our best poets have written in prose.” Unnecessary, but wonderful to be reminded anyway.

One might fancy that day, the London day, was just beginning. Like a woman who had slipped off her print dress and white apron to array herself in blue and pearls, the day changed, put off stuff, too gauze, changed to evening , and with the same sigh of exhilaration that a woman breathes, tumbling petticoats on the floor, it too shed dust, heat, colour; the traffic thinned; motor cars, tinkling, darting, succeeding the lumber of vans; and here and there among the thick foliage of the squares an intense light hung. I resign, the evening seemed to say, as it paled and faded above the battlements and prominences, moulded, pointed, of hotel, flat, and block of shops, I fade, she was beginning, I disappear, but London would have none of it, and rushed her bayonets into the sky, pinioned her, constrained her to partnership in her revelry. (p. 143)

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