Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
I was eleven when the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours came out in 2002. Somehow, I ended up watching it—I vaguely remember air travel being involved. Y’all know how bad my memory is. My main impression of Mrs. Dalloway came from that film, to the point that I stupidly thought it was set a little later than it is and, most alarmingly, that Mrs. Dalloway commits suicide at the end. (She does not.) Casting around for some non-speculative fiction to maintain variety in my reading diet, I found a copy at my local library and brought it home.
Mrs. Dalloway follows Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party—as well as those she crosses paths with, from her daughter’s bitter tutor Miss Kilman to her spurned lover Peter Walsh to war veteran Septimus Smith, whose suffering is swiftly coming to an end. As she and those she meets go about their day, contemplations come and go, shedding a light on lives destroyed and lives declining.
Reading this book reminded me of a definition for “literary fiction” (how I loathe the term!) I found when I recorded a rant on the subject back in the spring—“In literary fiction the plot usually happens beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them”. Everything that happens in Mrs. Dalloway is under the surface. Even Septimus’ suffering and ultimate fate is very quiet. Their thoughts are louder, much louder, than their actions, as they contemplate life, love, aging, society, and each other. I have to admit, I was a little thrown by the way Woolf would hop into different people’s heads with little to no fanfare—I was expecting, for whatever reason, a very close focus on Clarissa. But the novel’s wide focus gives an interesting window into England in the 1920s and drives home what seems to be one of Woolf’s points here; an inability to communicate that derives from the fact that people don’t see the same things even when looking at the same object. For instance, early in the novel, a member of the royal family is sighted, but no one can agree which person it is as they gossip up and down the street.
I was the most surprised and the most taken with Septimus’ story, although I’d never even known he existed in Mrs. Dalloway. (This is what happens when you form a fourth-hand impression of a novel.) A veteran of World War I, Septimus returns to England with an Italian wife and thoroughly shaken, alternately numb to the world and alive with the feeling that he has all the answers. As he and Lucrezia (his wife, whose head we also get to peek into) struggle over his illness, which the medical establishment alternately treats as lethargy or mental illness that requires separating the couple, they ultimately grow closer together, leading up to an affecting and casually brutal scene. He and Clarissa never meet; his last doctor, the most patronizing and overpowering of the pair, is a guest at her party and tells her about Septimus. Interestingly enough, Woolf considered Septimus to be Clarissa’s double—in an early draft where Clarissa killed herself during her party, Septimus was completely absent.
I was pleasantly surprised by queer representation in Mrs. Dalloway. It’s implied that Septimus, whose PTSD is particularly fixated on the death of his friend Evans in the war, had more feelings for him than he could communicate; he grieves not just over Evans’ death, but the fact that he felt nothing when he died. Clarissa was in love with a girl named Sally Seton when they were young, and it’s a shock to everyone’s systems when Sally shows up again at the party. (I had to laugh at the Amazon page for this book, which describes Sally as a friend of Clarissa’s. Is that what we’re calling it nowadays?) In fact, it’s so upfront about this—in Clarissa and Sally’s case—that I’m curious about how the novel was received when it was published in 1925.
While I’ve read a handful of Woolf’s short pieces for class, this was the first time I’ve really sat down and paid attention to her writing. It’s elegant, dark, and melancholic, with particular attention to society—I think my favorite scene is when Clarissa’s husband and an equally bland friend go to lunch at Lady Bruton’s. Woolf’s description of the systems that prop Lady Bruton up are fascinating. This is a deeply unhappy text, although there are flashes of light here and there; Clarissa is a pleasant person, and it’s only today that she discovers that her usual love of bringing people together is no longer fulfilling to her. I’m looking forward to seeing how her style will translate in, say, Orlando, which is on my list, as is To the Lighthouse.
Bottom line: The deeply unhappy Mrs. Dalloway is dark, elegant, and melancholic. Come to think of it, it was a perfect Halloween read for me…
I rented this book from the public library.