"Mrs Dalloway said she'd buy the flowers herself:" this sentence, long before I ever read Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, informed my opinion of the novel. I assumed it was a novel about a woman planning for a party and all the preparations involved, and that the story would fall into the realm of a novel of manners. While not entirely inaccurate this statement undermines the brilliance of the novel as it is more than a woman buying flowers. It is about memory, and how the past can haunt your present. It is about a post-WWI British society and how poetry at the end of the day will give way to functionality. And while a party is the thread that holds the characters together, it acts more as a catalyst for what comes next. Knowing Virginia Woolf as I do, I should have trusted her style instead of passing assumptions on what the book would be after only hearing the opening line in passing. Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are two of the titles most often associated with Woolf, though until February I had yet to read either. (I could have read To the Lighthouse as part of my AP English course but I believe I chose to read The Grapes of Wrath instead, if my memory serves me.) Instead, my entryway into her language and history was through her essays.
Virginia and I first properly met in 2011 when I stood on the King’s College grass as the bells tolled overhead, drinking a pint with two friends, one of whom lovingly referred to Virginia as Ginny. A name of affection that I find myself calling her too, like when I’m browsing bookshelves and find her novels on the bottom shelf near Edith Wharton and Tom Wolfe, I'll find myself sometimes saying, “Oh hello, Ginny.” I had read A Room of One’s Own early in my college career and found myself drawn to the idea of making a space for my creative voice. It is imperative that a woman have money and a space of her own if she is to write fiction, says Woolf. Freedom of the mind is what we should strive for, and I found myself nodding in agreement about how the locks standing in one's way should be broken, and while this was less of an issue during my academic years as women were permitted to enter higher education, unlike when she was alive, it still resonated. Her famous quote from A Room of One's Own sums up her thoughts quite nicely: "Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” I thought I knew her, yet there was something in the air as I walked through the landscapes she used to inhabit that made her words come alive in a way they didn't before. I would sneak up to the stacks during my senior year when I needed a break and pull down one of the many volumes of her essays. Then situated between the other literary titles on the third floor, I would sit and allow her language to wash over me. Books of all shapes, sizes, and subjects have always been a refuge for me, and during the most stressful times of university life that was no exception.
In the introduction to my edition, Carol Ann Duffy opens by connecting Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses, which served as an inspiration for Woolf. Woolf wrote Mrs Dalloway “between 1922 and 1924, after she […] had returned from Leafy Richmond to live in Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury" (xi). Like Ulysses, the events of Mrs Dalloway take place in a single day. We follow the characters as they navigate their lives across 1923 London, and as the reader, we can feel Woolf’s presence in the city she's capturing. The chimes of Big Ben alert us to the time throughout the novel but it is not succinct. Hours will pass before we are reminded of the time, and just like life, the characters' thoughts have the ability to span time and space without leaving the park bench where they are sat, and it is the arrival of something immediate in the physical space that alerts them back to their surroundings. London is the setting of the novel but is also a character itself. It existed before Mrs Dalloway and will continue to exist after she’s gone. The city takes on its own life when our main characters are not around, and much like any city, it’s survival depends on the people who inhabit its streets and provide its color. Yet it will evolve and grow as new life enters its space. The traces of those who came before will be etched on the pavement and buildings, as the new life hustles and bustles.
Duffy goes on to say, “We carry poetry, even if we do not write it or read it, inside us and Woolf is a writer who can remind us of this or show us for the first time. She is able, through the suffered brilliance of her writing, to unlock for us what we mutely know” (xiii). I think this is a central point to understanding Woolf’s treatment of language. She writes in descriptions and ideas. That is to say, much of the book deals with the characters' memories and remembrances of the past. Woolf fluidly moves from one character's thoughts to another as they physically move through and interact with London. For anyone who is familiar with Ulysses, the similarities will be apparent as both are written in the modernist style. Modernist literature came out of industrialization and the post-WWI period. It was often concerned with the inner self and consciousness, and tended to break away from the 19th century style of writing. Literature from this time is often more experimental in nature, but it also grapples with how the world has changed since the Great War.
Through my reading experience, I was often blown away by Woolf’s descriptions and the way she connected ideas and characters together. I was very much reminded of my natural writing style, which often combines images and contrasting thoughts through the use of many adjectives, and I felt at home in Woolf’s language. I like to find an image that represents the whole of an idea and then jump between these images as I describe my subject, which is something Woolf also does in Mrs Dalloway. It also reminded me that owning one’s style in writing is tremendously important. Her combination of poetry and prose is awe-inspiring and inspirational. I've been told that I'm too focused on what the atmosphere of a forest looks like rather than focusing on the individual tress, especially in fiction writing, and yet I find myself dancing in this space where the atmosphere is just as important to me as the details. A problem I think Joyce and Woolf would recognize, if their writings are any indication.
At this point, you may be asking, what is Mrs Dalloway about anyway? The novel centers on Mrs Clarissa Dalloway, a woman in her fifties and a perfect hostess, who is throwing a lavish party and is preoccupied with the last minute details. However, her thoughts continue to drift away from her preparations and back to the summer she was eighteen at her family house in Bourton before she married Richard Dalloway, who has grown into a respectable politician. During this summer, it is alluded to that Clarissa fell in love with her friend Sally, though she never told her nor have they seen each other since. Clarissa was also the subject of Peter Walsh's love. Peter wanted to marry Clarissa, yet when Richard appeared, he was all Clarissa could see and she rejected Peter. Peter has been in India for the past years, yet today on the morning of her party, he appears out of the blue, standing on her front doorstep. He still remembers her as the woman from that fateful summer, standing in the garden with the cauliflower. He remembers how Clarissa and Sally were inseparable, and his debriefs with Sally in the evenings as they compared notes on Clarissa's situation. Peter’s sudden appearance spins Clarissa’s mind as she imagines what her life would have been like had she chosen differently. We see little of Richard throughout the novel; however, in one section we follow his thoughts as he makes his way home to Clarissa. It becomes clear to the reader how much Richard does in fact love Clarissa and though he has difficulty saying it to out loud, he shows his emotions for her through his actions. And to her, she doesn’t need to hear the words because she already knows his feelings and the roses he brings say it for him in spades. Peter does not see these intimate moments between Clarissa and Richard, and even if he did, it wouldn't deter his feelings.
Navigating the streets alongside this trio is Septimus Warren Smith and his wife, Rezia. Septimus is suffering from what could be named as shellshock and is unable to feel anything. He describes the doctors hired to help him, as “human nature,” and believes they are there to harm him. He believes killing himself would free his wife and is the best thing for their sakes. It is the only thing that will release him from this binding that he feels closing in around him. He was not always like this, as the narrator and Septimus explains, he used to be able to read Antony and Cleopatra and feel the poetry, but then the war came and yet survived.
Septimus like many men never recovered. He is spoken of as an embarrassment, as mad, as depressed. But there is a calmness that settles over him as well, which the others can't see. He is one of the lost generation to have survived and he carries the weight of watching his best friend get blown up and the weight of no longer being able to feel anything. As readers, we are given a look into his mind, and while I read, I often wondered if this was Virginia translating what was often described as her madness to the page. Was this a way to describe what it felt like to be trapped inside her mind as translated through a character that feels the same? Or is this taking the reading too far? As Septimus’s condition worsens, and those around him begin to take charge, the sentences describing him begin to shorten and constrict. The urgency of finding a cure becomes more pressing. We find ourselves strictly in the world of prose, no longer in the lyrical world of Clarissa’s search to buy the flowers herself. Then as we shift away from Septimus and back to the party, we are welcomed again into the realm of the poetry that Septimus can no longer access.
Other characters we meet along the way are friends of Clarissa’s from that summer at Burton, Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth and her companion, the doctors attending to Septimus who are part of the Dalloway’s inner circle, and politicians who enter at the novel's end once the party is in full swing, though we don’t stay with them long. The novel moves through time by starting with one character and then transitioning to another character either by both being in the same location or through a page break. For example: Peter thinks about his and Clarissa’s lives on a park bench only to become absorbed with a couple across the park, who we know are Septimus and Rezia. As Peter goes to leave, we stay with Septimus. Later we move from Septimus to his doctor's wife who is having lunch with Richard, and through Richard are passed back to Clarissa. Sometimes we'll stay with a character for ten pages or more, and other times, we'll stay with them for a few paragraphs.
One aspect of the novel that I found the most entertaining was that multiple characters would have the same experiences without knowing their friend or husband or mother had had an identical experience earlier that day. Two examples come to mind: one, was when each member of the Dalloway family had other people tell them they'd be most happy in the country, away from city life; and the second example is when Clarissa watches the King's or maybe it's the Queen's car, no one is quite sure, enter Buckingham Palace and she marvels at the way the public stops and stares. Then later in the afternoon, as Richard walks home with flowers in tow, he notices the King's car leaving Buckingham Palace, except this time the public doesn't stop. They keep on walking and the King slips out unseen.
A central theme to Mrs Dalloway is the idea of doing what one want versus what one should do. The novel explores the implications of doing both, though I think only Septimus succeeds in doing what he wants, regardless of the consequences. Choice is what makes one’s life and it is through these choices that the characters define who they will become. Sometimes by a singular event, other times by the accumulation of all their small choices added together. I won’t say that Woolf has an answer for this predicament, though my guess is that she would say that the only way to make sense of it all is to keep moving forward. Yet all her characters descend into a retrospective mindset before being drawn back to the present. They all reflect on how the past led them to this summer day; and as the poetry and prose reflect on the past, the way it is remembered changes with each recollection, just like our actual memories. Each time we recall a memory, our brains can remember it differently, and as details change, new neuro-pathways will be written in our brains and will alter how we remember a particular moment. Yet each time, there tends to be a clear image that stands out, like Peter remembering the cauliflower in the garden or Septimus remembering how Rezia was so focused on making a hat the first time they met.
This is a novel that I fully expect to stay with me as time moves on. I was not expecting to like it as much as I did, nor to be so moved by Woolf's passages. I would pause from time to time and remark on how she was able to describe the city with such accuracy that I could see it the way she saw it. No doubt London has changed over the years but the way she saw it is preserved. On one page I wrote in the margins, "Oh, Hatchards my love. Now I know where Clarissa is." I have a good mental map of London's geography but as soon as I could latch onto a landmark I knew, in this case Hatchards which continues to stand on Piccadilly next to Fortnum and Mason, I was able to orient myself to where in the city we were. It is a fun game to map out where the characters travel throughout their days. Mrs Dalloway is worth the time and effort you put in to read and digest it. Take a few hours to sit with it and I promise something new will present itself on each page. I am still wrapping my head around what the book means and how all the details fit together because they do, and with time, I suspect, these connections will become more clear. Maybe after reading, you too will be inspired to go out and buy the flowers yourself.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. London: Vintage Publishing, 2006. Print.