After listening to the wonderful audiobook narrator Juliet Stevenson read Mrs. Dalloway, I checked out the print version. Though I found listening to the stream-of-consciousness novel to be an appropriate way to experience this book, I wanted to read parts of it too.
Although summarizing this book reduces it to dry ideas, still I must. The events take place within the course of a day, beginning with Clarissa Dalloway, a 51-year-old society matron going out on a beautiful day in London in 1923 to buy flowers for her party that night. Her old love Peter Walsh turns up at her house, then walks in Regent’s Park where he spots the unhappy young couple Septimus and Rezia. Septimus is suffering from shell shock and Rezia has made an appointment for him to see a new doctor Sir William Bradshaw. Richard Dalloway has been invited to lunch at Lady Bruton’s to discuss and help her achieve her political goals. The party begins slowly (Clarissa worries it is a failure), but ultimately is a success. She is deeply affected hearing from the gauche Bradshaws about a young veteran (Septimus) who had killed himself that day.
The wonder of the book is the “self talk” of various characters as they go through this day, thinking about their experiences of the moment and reaching into the distant past. Sometimes it’s clear what they are thinking and who the pronouns refer to and sometimes it is not. These thoughts are mingled seamlessly with dialogue between characters and the author’s narrative.
Clarissa is the main focus as she thinks about her life, her choice of Richard over Peter Walsh, her feeling of coldness, her happiest moment being a kiss with Sally Seton. The thinness of her life, of the life of women is clearly one of ideas Woolf wants to portray. Another important message concerns mental illness. The lack of knowledge of two doctors who “treat” poor Septimus is not surprising, but their lack of human feeling is. Woolf herself had bipolar disorder and eventually committed suicide by drowning.
I love this passage which occurs when Clarissa is reminiscing with Peter Walsh about Bourton where her family lived.
“Do you remember the lake?” she said, in an abrupt voice, under the pressure of an emotion which caught her heart, made the muscles of her throat stiff, and contracted her lips in a spasm as she said “lake.” For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks, between her parents, and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, “This is what I have made of it! This!” And what had she made of it? What, indeed? sitting there sewing this morning with Peter.
What a beautiful experience is this book.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, Harcourt, 1925, 194 pages (I listened to the audiobook and read parts of the print version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.