READING: Virginia Woolf’s, Mrs Dalloway

Some relationships require a lot, don’t you think? There is no timely and gentle unveiling of our interior or a patient knock on the door from which we can turn away. No, no, these relationships are an invasion, a real pirate-boarding with swashbuckling and cannon. There is no rest even in the corners of our minds. I’ve been thinking about these differing kinds of relationships, the gentle ones where the two are side-by-side, where the internal voice is louder and has more room and then the relationship where the two are facing, asking questions and answering back, delving into all there is.

It is Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, which presses me to consider these differences. This is something Mrs Dalloway herself, has already done so many years before as a young woman. She chose her husband, Richard, a simple, quieter man of good social standing, over Peter Walsh, a flightier, less socially acceptable and altogether more demanding proposition. And these are real decisions to be made, even if we prise away the snobbery from another time. After all, a life with a calmer sort, a less urgent more encapsulated individual can be very different from a life with someone of vigour, passing witty judgment on everyone and everything. Not only are we less sure of how we are coming across, we are required to ‘come across’. That is the thing. One might give us peace, but another might make us live.

We readers meet Clarissa Dalloway on the day of a party she is to host. Woolf places us inside her head using a stream of consciousness style. To be her and not be her is the reader’s role and at such a short distance we soon learn much. Woolf introduces us to her as she leaves the house on a June morning sometime in the 1920’s to buy flowers from a London shop and almost immediately she is reminded of Bourton, her uncle’s estate, where she spent a memorable summer long ago.  We also hear of Peter Walsh very quickly, the young man whose proposal she refused at the time.

“‘I prefer men to cauliflowers” – was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out onto the terrace — Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and when millions of things had utterly vanished – how strange it was! – a few sayings like this about cabbages.”

Woolf’s novel is full of echoes from the past. It is possible to believe Clarissa Dalloway is merely musing and happily diffident to Peter Walsh and perhaps she thinks she is, but later in his presence we know she is greatly disturbed. Peter’s ready opinions, his disdain of class, and of her when she plays her role as ‘the perfect hostess’, leave their mark.

We don’t stay only in Clarissa’s head though. Woolf places us inside up to twenty characters. Some are fleeting and some we return to. We step inside Peter Walsh and know he still loves Clarissa, even though he says he loves another.

“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.”

It is beautiful writing. Woolf shows us disappointment and makes us feel it to an almost uncomfortable degree, damn her.

We also meet Richard, her husband:
“Here he was walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her. Which one never does say, he thought. Partly one’s lazy; partly one’s shy.”

And how true this is. Woolf nails that point when our courage leaves us.

There is Sally Seaton, an old friend of Clarissa’s, who pushed boundaries and whose kiss left a young Clarissa spellbound:”But the charm was overpowering, to her at least, so that she could remember standing in her bedroom at the top of the house holding the hot-water can in her hand and saying aloud, ‘She is beneath this roof…She is beneath this roof!'”

Woolf also serves us up the parallel storyline of Septimus Warren Smith, who suffers from shell shock from his time as a soldier in WW1. Septimus lives very much within himself, traumatised as he is by war and the hallucinations of his lost friend to a point where he knows he feels nothing. His Italian wife, Lucrezia, tries to engage him in the world, but fails. In Septimus, we see a character, who struggles with his own madness and the expectations of the external world.

The two story lines of Clarissa and Septimus are skilfully woven together by Woolf, with scenes from both occurring simultaneously in the public gardens. The brutish psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw, who tries to commit Septimus, is also a guest at the Dalloway party at the very end of the novel. That’s where it all comes to a head, but I don’t want to ruin it for you because its all too good.

So I’ll give you a little background. I read this novel in response to reading James Joyce’s Ulysses (You can find the review here). It was impossible not to considering Woolf’s open dislike of Joyce’s acclaimed work. Perhaps it was natural to throw these two authors in a room and have them duke it out. They were contemporaries who were both at the forefront of stream of consciousness writing, the art of dipping in and out of people’s thoughts with little exposition. Also both Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway take place over the course of single day, and so give a richness to the lives of their characters not often found in fiction.

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