Wednesday 30 December 2009

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
I have to tackle this now so that I can return the book to Julie tomorrow, she says she wants to try reading it again, having struggled with it in her 20's, and I agreed it was definitely not a book for a young woman. I can imagine that if I had tried reading it when younger it would have been very difficult to find a point of contact.

It was quite interesting to read on the wikipedia page that it was criticised initially for it's inaccessibility to ordinary readers, because my superficial reaction was exactly that. "Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself" is probably one of the most well known and quoted opening lines, but I got so bogged down in her unfathomable sentences that I was left wondering if she actually remembered to buy the damn things, and whether I cared at all. With many books the disclosure of the story is an essential element of the reading, making re-reading a marginally less satisfying experience. But in Mrs Dalloway nothing of any note happens, so I am hoping that I might follow the writing better second time around.

This was a very hard book to read. What it made me think of most was Olive Kitteridge (by Elizabeth Strout) and the way the story was not so much about Mrs Dalloway but that she was the glue that held it all together. And she was not a very sympathetic character, in fact I don't think I liked anyone very much. There is the stream-of-consciousness element to her writing, but it is all written in third person, so you still feel as if you are looking in from the outside. Woolf is like a bee with ADD, hopping from flower to flower, from character to character, absorbing their essence but flitting on as soon as something new appears. It follows Clarissa (Mrs Dalloway) on her shopping expedition, meeting an old friend, Hugh Whitbread but then the bee is distracted by the mysterious car that causes a crowd to gather and then the aeroplane skywriting and then the bee finds Septimus and Lucrezia sitting in Regents park, and then gets distracted again by Maisie Johnson, just walking past and asking them directions, and finding them both 'queer'. It pauses by each person, allowing us to get a moment inside their head, so by the time you are 40 pages in you are lost, having left Clarissa far behind and wondering just what this book is really about.

I did get to the stage when I began to read the writing in a stream-of-consciousness way, to stop trying to make sense of the sentences but just let them roll over me. I stopped expecting any progress in the story, though Big Ben strikes the hour at regular intervals through the book to mark the passage of time, almost to bring both the reader and the characters back to their senses, and remind them there is a party to go to. This quote below is a single sentence with Clarissa's thoughts and actions blended seamlessly, a good example of the way the book reads (and I just love the expression 'this secret deposit of exquisite moments'). Tish (who dictated it for me) said it reminded her of the way the bible is written.

"It was her life, and, bending her head over the hall table, she bowed beneath the influence, felt blessed and purified, saying to herself, as she took the pad with the telephone message on it, how moments like this are buds in the tree of life, flowers of darkness they are, she thought (as if some lovely rose had blossomed for her eyes only) ; not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more, she thought, taking up the pad, must one replay the daily life to servant, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it - of the gay sounds, of the green lights, of the cook even whistling, for Mrs Walker was Irish and whistled all day long - one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments, she thought, lifting the pad, while Lucy stood by her, trying to explain how
"Mr Dalloway, ma'am" -
Clarissa read on the telephone pad, "Lady Bruton wishes to know if Mr Dalloway will lunch with her today." (p.42-43)

Her other stylistic penchant is 'why use one adjective when six will do'. I think here she is describing love and religion, represented by the person of Miss Kilman (her dislike of whom you can well understand):
"The cruelest things in the world, she thought, seeing them clumsy, hot, domineering, hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel and unscrupulous, dressed in a macintosh coat, on the landing" (p.191)
Miss Kilman has an equally vehement disdain for Mrs Dalloway, and she regards her "with steady and sinister serenity" (p.198)
I find this is just the most marvellous selection and use of words, and this is what marks out Woolf's writing as above and beyond. It is the way that she can use the absurd description above, and yet really get to the root of Mrs Dalloway's feelings, and in other places use one word so deftly and precisely (here talking of Hugh's wife):
"She was one of those obscure mouse-like little women who admire big men. She was almost negligible." (p.112)

It is a book all about the writing. I could not tempt you to read it by describing the story or the characters, or even the sociology, for there is quite a bit of social commentary going on in the background. It is the words, that at first make it so difficult, but are in the end the thing worth reading. Most writers would just tell you the time if that was what the story required, but not Virginia Woolf:

"Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street, announced, genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs. Rigby and Lowndes to give the information gratis, that it was half-past one." (p.154-5)

Since I may have lost most readers by now I will stop quoting, though I have not even touched on the story of Septimus Warren Smith, a remnant of the Great War, suffering from the effects of his experiences, who's troubled life seems to be there as a sharp contrast and disruption to the comfort and control of Clarissa's. I am looking forward to reading more of Virginia Woolf because I hope they will be as challenging as this one.

It is funny how the mind makes it's own connections, (as an aside, an essential part of understanding the nature of human learning but I will leave the education debate for another time) and I found this tiny quote referring to old Miss Parry (Mrs Dalloway's aunt): "She would die like some bird in a frost gripping her perch." (p.247) and it reminded me so forcefully of a D.H. Lawrence poem that I had to go searching for our copy of The Rattle Bag to look it up. It is entitled Self Pity:

I never saw a wild thing
Sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.


  1. Woolf seems never easy to read, I struggled through The Waves and yet hidden amongst all the convuluted stream of conciousness was some wonderful writing, but I kept finding myself nodding off, so I could only read a few pages at a time, but despite that it was worth the effort.

  2. Oh dear ... I have this on my list to read in 2010 but now I'm getting nervous. I shall push through it though. I'm sure I'll be back to reread this once I finish.


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