A novel life in a day…

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I’ve been meaning to read Mrs Dalloway for years and years. It’s one of those novels that has influenced so many others that I feel I should read it. However, I will admit I find the idea of Woolf challenging, (only having previous toyed with Orlando).  What made me finally read it now was twofold:

  1. I just read Release by Patrick Ness – and in his acknowledgements, he says his book is suffused with the spirit of Mrs Dalloway.
  2. My friend Ben, who is doing English Studies at Malmo University has been studying it.

*** There may be spoilers ahead ***  also apologies for writing a post that’s probably sub A-level essay standard!

Written in the years immediately following the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses which Woolf reportedly read, (another book I feel I ought to read but am resisting), Mrs Dalloway is another novel that takes part during one day – with flashbacks. Somehow, apart from the famous first line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” and an inkling that someone dies in it, I came to the story fresh:

It’s five years after WWII has ended. Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa, a society housewife, will hold a party that evening, and as it begins she is setting out from Westminster where she resides to walk to Bond Street in the West End to buy flowers for the party. As she walks, she reminisces about her younger days at Bourton, when Peter Walsh was there. She could have married Walsh, but chose dependable Richard Dalloway instead.

She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, not only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.

Woolf doesn’t stay with Clarissa though. A large part of Mrs. Dalloway is seen from the point of view of other characters, notably Peter Walsh, who is back in London from India. He calls on Clarissa, who invites him to her party. Peter has a weird habit of playing with a pocket knife – this worried me from the start. I wondered whether there would be an accident – or even a fight or stabbing over Clarissa perhaps…

“How heavenly it is to see you again!” she exclaimed. He had his knife out. That’s so like him, she thought.

There’s no doubt that Clarissa still thinks of Peter fondly and often, but is she still in love with him? I wasn’t sure. Of course, calling on Clarissa only reawakens old emotions for Peter who never really got over being turned down – he’s definitely still in love with her. He slopes off to the park, where he muses and snoozes. He awakes and sees a young woman and he entertains a creepy little fantasy:

She moved; she crossed; he followed her. To embarrass her was the last thing he wished. Still if she stopped he would say “Come and have an ice,” he would say, and she would answer, perfectly simply, “Oh yes.”

Also in London, and initially walking in the park, are Septimus and Lucretia Warren Harding. They are awaiting an appointment with Sir William Bradshaw, a noted psychiatrist. Septimus has PTSD – shell shock, from his service during the war during which his friend Evans died – Septimus is suicidal.  Later at home, Septimus will help Rezia trim a hat while they wait for him to be taken to Bradshaw’s asylum – one last moment of normality – but he chooses to throw himself out of the window instead. Their part in this novel is just so sad, but all too common in the men returning from the war, haunted by the carnage.

Meanwhile: Richard returns from his luncheon with a bunch of roses for Clarissa. He wants to tell her he loves her – but can’t say it, he’s got too used to not saying it and is full of guilt. He represents tradition, steadfastness and compromise – old school British Empire and stiff upper lip.

Eventually, it’s time for the party, and almost all of the characters who have passed through the novel arrive at the Dalloway’s house, including Dr Bradshaw. Clarissa flits from guest to guest (including the Prime Minister – a symbol of the circles they move in),  but can’t enjoy her own party – ain’t that always the way. So she goes alone into a small room having heard about Septimus’ suicide and ponders her own life – or death!

There are so many themes in this novel – but for me the most prevalent one was death in all its guises: from old age (there are various old women who effectively show the future); there are references to Shakespearean deaths (Othello and Cymbeline for instance); there is Septimus’ actual death; Clarissa and Peter are afraid of mortality – although Clarissa is able to come to terms with it.  Unexpectedly, there are many violent underlying emotions, and everyday objects from womens’ lives take on a more macabre threatening feel – scissors, needles, pins – against them is Peter’s knife, and Septimus’ fate.

Contrasting with this is Woolf’s wonder at the beauty of London and its parks with lyrical passages about nature.  Views from assorted windows abound too and these are also beautifully written – I loved these aspects and the paragraphs read like prose poetry. I didn’t do so well with the more stream of consciousness sentences that carried on and on, clause after clause, being the outpourings of whomever’s mind was currently in charge of the text. Woolf’s longest sentences are a real challenge when you’re not used to them – for a sub-200 page novel, it took me 4 days to read!

I also took a real dislike to Peter Walsh, I couldn’t even pity him in the way I could with Richard. As a result, I’m not sure whether I enjoyed this novel or not. It was profoundly depressing, and I had been expecting more of Mrs Dalloway – I would have like less Peter!

I am glad I finally read this book. I’ve probably missed so much in it – but don’t have time to analyse it further at the moment. Although I can’t say I loved it, I certainly appreciated it and will keep my copy to refer to in future. (7.5/10)


 Source: Own copy

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)

8 thoughts on “A novel life in a day…

  1. Woolf’s prose certainly can be a bit of a shock to the system if you aren’t used to it. I was fortunate in that this was the first of hers I read, and I was 21 and in a flush of discovering new kinds of writing. My mind was young and flexible enough to just absorb her books. I read more critically now and I do wonder how I would find her books if I was reading for the first time nowadays!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      She’s as bad as Anthony Powell for those long rambling sentences! Some lovely lyrical bits though.I’m not sure what I expected from this book, but am so glad I read it as it’ll inform my reading in the same way as I discovered with Moby Dick.

  2. Such an interesting comment from Kaggsy. I came to Woolf late and struggled with her writing although this is one I did manage to read all the way through along, coincidentally, with Orlando. I’m afraid, *whisper it*, I enjoyed Sally Potter’s film (with the wonderful Tilda Swinton) much more than the book.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Yes, the Sally Potter film is great as I remember (as is everything with Swinton in). I do plan to re-read Orlando some time though.

  3. Lovely review. It’s a wonderful novel and so memorable. The early part of the novel out in the street is so evocative. I certainly got more from it when I read it a second time.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Ali. I loved the first part too. It was once Peter took over that I enjoyed it less. I can see that a second reading would yield a lot more – one day maybe!

  4. A lovely review – but I’m sure we ALL give you permission not to read Ulysses! I read a lot of Woolf early on, like Kaggsy, but very much enjoyed going through a lot of her with Ali’s readalong last year. This does inform a lot of books, so it’s a good one to have read. Mrs Dalloway’s Party is a lovely book of short stories linked to this, by the way …

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I do feel I’d learn a lot if I did read Joyce. When I read Moby Dick, it was an epiphany of sorts, and I think Joyce would be the same. One day, ha ha!

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