Thursday 26 July 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - Not Me!

Having spent more than 30 years avoiding Virginia Woolf (I read her as a teenager, but failed to understand her writing, and consequently didn't like it at all) I approached Mrs Dalloway with trepidation, but I needn't have worried – I loved it, and I can't believe I've spent so long being scared of Woolf. It was written, apparently, after she's read James Joyce's 'Ulysses', and took two years, which shows what a consummate artist she was, because it's a very slender novel (172 pages in my Vintage Classics edition), but every word counts. Nothing here is out of place or superfluous: it all meshes together to form a perfect seamless whole.

So, what's it about? It's set on a single day and night (a Wednesday) in London, during the summer of 1923, while Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party and thinks about the past, and how the choices she made shaped the present. Yet she never regrets the past, because life must lived as it is now. For her, as for all the characters who pass through through the story, it is the emotional response to events and actions is important, rather than the events and actions themselves. They are concerned with their own thoughts and feelings, but thoughts and feelings matter more than events and actions so, on the whole, they are curiously passive. These people don't make things happen - things happen to them, and they cope as best they can, which probably reflects the way life is for many us. And since life rarely works out as planned, they are left searching for identity.

Peter Walsh, Clarissa's first love, talks about the 'death of the soul', and this loss of identity is a theme which runs throughout the book, most obviously perhaps, with tortured Septimus Warren Smith, suffering from shell-shock, locked in his terrible memories of the First World War, and the futility of the death and slaughter. Septimus, says his wife, is no longer Septimus.

It is Peter's reappearance after years in India which prompts Mrs Dalloway's memories of her younger days, for close though they were she rejected him and settled for marriage to wealthy but dull politician Richard Dalloway. And, she says, she was right not to marry Peter.

For in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house; which Richard gave her, and she him.... But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable, and when it came to that scene in the little garden, by the fountain, she had to break with him or they would both have been destroyed, both of them ruined, she was convinced.

But even for her there are no certainties and the future is bleak. When she learns her husband is attending a lunch party to which she has not been invited, it highlights the passing of the years.

No vulgar jealousy could separate her from Richard. But she feared time itself, and read on Lady Bruton's face, as if it had been a dial cut in impassive stone, the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years, the colours, salts, tones of existence, so that she filled the room she entered, and felt often as she stood hesitating one moment on the threshold of her drawing-room, an exquisite suspense, such as might stay a diver before plunging while the sea darkens and brightens beneath him, and the waves which threaten to break, but only gently split their surface, roll and conceal and encrust as they just turn over the weeds with pearl.

Time, and the passing of time, is another theme running through the novel, inextricably linked to the loss of the self. Even 19-year-old Maisie Johnson, in London to take a post at her uncle's, thinks about the future, and imagines how, in 50 years time, she will look back on this day in Regent's Park, where she sees Septimus and his wife and thinks how strangely they are acting.
Characters pass each in the street or the park, seeing the same things, but leading very different lives, and never meeting. Woolf has the gift of brining all these people with just a few words – by-standers who we meet only once spring to life. Even if we are not sure what they look like, we feel we know them, because she lets us see inside their heads, and we feel we know them, because we know what they are thinking.

Woolf pioneered the technique of 'stream of consciousness' but Mrs Dalloway isn't just about feelings. There are some wonderful descriptions of London.

Bond Street fascinated her; Bond Street early in the morning in the season; its flags flying; its shops; no splash; no glitter; one roll of tweed in the shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years; a few pearls; salmon on an iceblock.

That conjures up a picture of old-established, exclusive shops, frequented by old-established families, with old-established wealth. These shops are not for the jumped-up nouveau riche, they are for people have superior taste and who know what is what.

And there are brief incidents, which lead nowhere, but underline the themes. Traffic is held up by a chauffeur-driven motor car. A hand is seen pulling the blind down, and everyone knows the vehicle is carrying some someone important, but no-one knows who it is – the Prince of Wales, the Queen, the Prime Minister perhaps. Speculation is rife, but the identity of the mysterious occupant is never revealed, and the car continues its journey through the streets, just as people continue their journey through life, and they soon ignore it, as their attention turns to a new sensation, an aeroplane, high above the crowds, moving round and round, up and down, spelling out a smoky message in the sky. But it offers no insight into life, for its simply a gimmick to advertise toffee.

Virginia Woolf (George Charles Beresford
 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Reading this through, it jumps around a lot, and doesn't really capture the flavour of the book, or the character of Clarissa, and there are all sorts of people and things that I've left out – and I haven't even begun to tell you what an incredible writer Woolf is. There is so much think about that it's difficult to know where to focus – it's a book that deserves to be explored and enjoyed through a slow read, and a proper analysis, and I am sorry I haven't done justice to it at all. I keep writing, and re-writing, and adding things in, and taking things out, and moving things around, and thinking 'oh what abut....' but if I don't stop now, I shall never, ever, finish.

Anyway, suffice to say I loved it, and I want my own copy (this was a library book) so I can read it again whenever the mood takes me. And finally, many thanks to Rachel, at Book Snob, ( ) because it was her post on ‘Between the Acts’, which gave me the courage to read Woolf – her experiences were similar to mine, but she found a re-read very rewarding, and recommended jumping straight in, and I am so glad I did. Just think what I would have missed! So, if there's anyone else out there who is scared to read Virginia Woolf I can only repeat that advice – jump straight in and give her a go, and I hope you enjoy her writing as much as I did.


  1. I read Orlando many years ago in college, and it didn't inspire me to read anything else of hers. Lately though I've been thinking that I should read more of her work.

    1. I'm not sure I am ready to cope with Orlando, but I want to read To The Lighthouse, The Waves, The Years, and Between the Acts. Her essays are wonderful, and I've dipped in and out of her letters and diaries and enjoyed them immensely.

  2. You HAVE done it justice. This is a wonderful review of one of my top favorite books. I've read it many times and each time I find something new. She is a marvel to me. Years ago when I just jotted down quick thoughts about a book, I wrote this:

    'This book feels like real life - the way we notice things during a day, and how they remind us of something, and then we think about that for a while. I think Virginia Woolf was the first author to really do this. This is such a good book. Clarissa is about my age, which makes it interesting to me. The last time I read this book, I was in my twenties. I loved it then, but
    this time it has a greater dimension.'

    1. Oh Nan, what a lovely comment - and I do agree with what you wrote. The book does feel like real life, and the way one thing thing leads to another, without there being any real connection, and being so much older now I think I am better able to relate to Clarissa and the way she feels. I know this will be one of the books that I can read and read, over and over again, and each time I will see something new and different.