1925, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 216 pages
It is a June day in London in 1923, and the lovely Clarissa Dalloway is having a party. Whom will she see? Her friend Peter, back from India, who has never really stopped loving her? What about Sally, with whom Clarissa had her life’s happiest moment?
Meanwhile, the shell-shocked Septimus Smith is struggling with his life on the same London day.
Luminously beautiful, Mrs. Dalloway uses the internal monologues of the characters to tell a story of inter-war England. With this, Virginia Woolf changed the novel forever.
Mrs. Dalloway chronicles all of the innermost thoughts in the day of the life of middle-aged society lady Clarissa Dalloway as she goes about planning a dinner party.
“Clarissa had a theory in those days - they had heaps of theories, always theories, as young people have. It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other? You met every day; then not for six months, or years. It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not 'here, here, here'; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoke to, some women in the street, some man behind a counter - even trees, or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death. Perhaps - perhaps.”
Let's just say I did not find her mental landscape particularly fascinating. Virginia Woolf's continual stream-of-consciousness prose, while very cleverly composed with the sort of writing skill that one cannot help but admire, I found intensely annoying. I'm not sure which annoyed me more about this book: the style, or the essential vacuousness of most of these self-absorbed rich people.
I know, I know, I like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Anthony Powell, who also write about self-absorbed rich people. But Woolf reminded me more of Edith Wharton, another chronicler of the dissatisfactions of the very rich who writes very prettily about characters I couldn't care less about.
Clarissa Dalloway long ago had to choose between the dashing, somewhat feckless Peter Walsh and the staid, respectable Richard Dalloway. She went with staid and respectable, also tossing over her girlfriend Sally Seton, with whom a youthful lesbian relationship is very strongly implied. Now, as she plans her party, Peter is back from India, still feckless and still clearly carrying a torch for Clarissa. No, there isn't even a whisper of a hint that Clarissa might run off with him or do anything else interesting. He's just there so we can look inside their heads.
Intertwined with the thread about Mrs. Dalloway's dinner preparations is a secondary narrative focused on Septimus Warren Smith, a tragic, shell-shocked veteran of the Great War. For a woman writing in the 1920s, Virginia Woolf did very effectively capture the horror and pain of what we would now call PTSD, and did so in a fairly sympathetic manner. Septimus is a broken man, but he still wants to live life on his own terms, and the ineffectual efforts of his wife and his doctor to "help" him are the final indignity.
So he was deserted. 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? He was too weak; he could scarcely raise his hand. Besides, now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about to die are alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know.
So yes, I got what Woolf was doing, contrasting Septimus and Mrs. Dalloway, both of them trapped in their own way in the suffocating expectations of others, forever denied the true freedom they yearn for.
I still think her prose is annoying and her characters unbearable. I am not entirely sure why this gets classified as a "feminist" work — because it's (mostly) a woman's inner monologue, revealing between the lines how miserable marriage is? Because of the lesbian allusions? I mean, inasmuch as it's a woman writing from a woman's POV and a woman criticizing marriage and society, I guess it was feminist for 1925, but sheesh. I'd call Jane Austen just as feminist as Virginia Woolf.
Mrs. Dalloway (1997)
I didn't like the book, but I still followed my obsessive habit of watching all the films of books I read. And I was curious to see how you render a stream-of-consciousness monologue on film.
This 1997 movie, with Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Dalloway, was a pretty period piece that didn't really try to recreate Woolf's prose (an impossible task), just portrayed all the events as described (and reflected upon) in Woolf's novel. It's a faithful adaptation, nicely rendered, and like the book, the only remotely compelling part is Septimus Smith's subplot.
Have you read Mrs. Dalloway?
Have you read any other books by Virginia Woolf?
Verdict: Virginia Woolf writes pretty. She's deft and elegant and nuanced. And this book was boring and the prose was annoying. It may have been a landmark of 20th century literature, but I don't care about Mrs. Dalloway's dinner party, her old flame, or the fact that she once kissed a girl and liked it. Sorry, Virginia Woolf fans, but she struck out with me.
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