When I finished Mrs Dalloway, I did something I rarely do. I went right back to the beginning and started reading it all over again. I have a feeling that this is a book I will be returning to regularly.
Virginia Woolf’s classic takes place in London, on a warm day in June 1923. The plot is slight. Clarissa Dalloway is hosting a party that evening and is making the necessary preparations. An old love visits her and comes later to her party, which is a wonderful success and is attended by the Prime Minister. It is a slim premise, but, as with the greatest novels, the simple structure opens out to explore love; death; the nature of time and the heart of humanity.
Mrs Dalloway opens with Clarissa going to buy the flowers for her party. She is the perfect hostess, known for her parties and her impeccable taste, but as her day unfolds, we discover that below the surface, all is not so perfect. Clarissa is being treated for depression and her past is a troubled one, with her lost love Peter Walsh and a previous lesbian relationship playing on her mind.
Equally troubled is Septimus Warren Smyth, who acts as Clarissa’s double in the novel, a Great War veteran who is suffering from shell shock and is being treated by Clarissa’s own doctor. Unable to cope with reality, Septimus commits suicide by jumping from a window and the story of his death affects Clarissa greatly when she hears of it in passing later at her party.
The story is told in a stream of consciousness, with the perspective shifting from character to character throughout the novel. As we glimpse into the minds of Clarissa, Septimus and the characters around them, Woolf creates a real sense of commonality, of people being concerned with the same issues and there is a striking sense that we are all existing in the same moment, past and present forever linked.
As the characters interact, or simply pass on the street, we are given a sense that they are all, to differing degrees, hiding their true selves from the world, unable to truly express what they feel. Their lives are a surface, but there are darker currents underneath. Clarissa is unhappy with life, but hides behind the veneer of a well-respected society lady, throwing parties to bring people to her even when they don’t satisfy her inner needs.
She sliced a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.
Her husband Richard is overcome by an urge to bring Clarissa a gift in the middle of the day and tell her he loves her, but when he is face to face with her, the words do not come. Septimus is trying to maintain a façade of sanity, but ultimately, for him, this cannot hold and he eventually chooses death over the danger of living even one more day.
Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame
As Big Ben tolls out the hours, both Septimus and Clarissa thinks of a line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages.” and this line from a funeral song reminds them both that even in the midst of life, death is ever present and that within life, beauty and pain co-exist.
What is this terror? What is this ecstasy?
Clarissa both fears and welcomes death and in Septimus’s suicide, she recognises a legitimate attempt at communication.
A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.
The scene near the end of the novel, when Clarissa retreats to her room to muse on the death of Septimus is very beautifully written and seems to me to be the heart of this novel. In my mind, Septimus is a symbol of what Clarissa could have, or may still become. So too, the old woman living in the house opposite, whom Clarissa watches going about her life, is both an image of independence and privacy as well as symbolising our ultimate isolation from others. While Septimus looks for peace through suicide, Clarissa takes comfort from his act and finds what she needs to go on living. In their depression, Septimus and Clarissa are asking the same question – what is their purpose in life? They both find solace in the beauty of life, but for Septimus this very beauty becomes too much to bear.
Woolf’s writing about the interior of the mind and of depression is fascinating and complex and her treatment of Septimus, as a character, is sympathetic and probably ahead of its time. He entered the Great War for simple reasons and cannot marry his ideals with what he has experienced.
Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.
Woolf seems to be asking whether or not the loss of someone like Septimus is a valid price to pay for the living to go on living and explores how the post-war society that Clarissa is in the centre of must recognise his sacrifice in the name of their civilisation.
I had anticipated Mrs Dalloway being a difficult book to read, and while it is necessary to read slowly and with attention, there is a beautiful flow to the prose as the reader passes from one character to another, drifting between thoughts and musings with an ease that highlights human commonality. There is a sense of time passing – not only on this day, as Big Ben strikes each hour from morning to evening, but across lives and across generations. The writing is complex but it is also incredibly beautiful, particularly the descriptions of nature.
Speaking of clouds, Woolf writes;
Fixed though they seemed at their posts, at rest in perfect unanimity, nothing could be fresher, freer, more sensitive superficially than the snow-white or gold-kindled surface; to change, to go, to dismantle the solemn assemblage was immediately possible; and in spite of the grave fixity, the accumulated robustness and solidity, now they struck light to the earth, now darkness
By suffusing one seemingly ordinary day with such depth, significance and resonance, Woolf has created a novel that transcends its setting and its characters and becomes about what it means to be alive and how we reconcile the beauty and joy of life with the knowledge that death is always close by.
I really wish I had read Virginia Woolf when I was younger and this novel really resonated with me. I feel that this review doesn’t do the book justice at all and I would urge you to read it, particularly if, like me, you have never read Woolf before. It is beautifully written, perfectly formed and lingers in the mind long after the last page has been turned.
I have to thank the wonderful Heaven Ali for her fantastic Woolfalong – without it I may have let this wonderful book languish on the shelves for another few years. I’m looking forward to reading A Room of One’s Own in September and think I will be returning to Mrs Dalloway sooner rather than later.
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