“The World had raised its whip; where will it descend?”
- Mrs Dalloway
Mrs Dalloway is one of those rare books that I abandoned midway despite really wanting to read it. This was over three years ago when my son had just been born. Let me share some hard earned wisdom with you: Mrs Dalloway is not the best read when you’re wading through post partum depression. In fact, you may want to avoid Virginia Woolf entirely. Anyhow, now that I’m not perpetually sleep-deprived and cranky (much) I thought I’d give Mrs Dalloway another go. I was surprised at how much darker it had felt the first time I’d taken it up. Goes to show, doesn’t it, that a book can mean such different things depending on where you are in your life. Now, I’m not suggesting that this book is actually all bright and sunshiny, far from it, but it’s more thought-provoking than depressing.
Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party that evening and the book follows her and a few other characters around London during the hours preceding the party. The narrative zigzags between the past and the present, thoughts and words, but Woolf does this with such skill that you are never confused. Since there’s nothing here that can conventionally be termed a story, I’d like to examine some of the elements of the book that interested me.
Clarissa Dalloway: Woolf lived with Clarissa Dalloway for a long time before finally giving her a book of her own. The character first appears in the novel The Voyage Out and then in the short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street, before evolving into the woman we meet in Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa is a wonderfully multi-layered character. At first glance she’s just another charming, but shallow and self centred woman of privilege. But beneath the serene exterior, she has her own struggles with life, age, mortality and isolation, although her struggles aren’t dramatic or noisy.
Septimus Smith: Woolf intended Septimus to be another version of Clarissa. In her notes she refers to Septimus as Clarissa’s twin. Interestingly the two characters never meet or interact but it’s easy to see the link between them. Septimus suffers from post-war trauma and hallucinations. He is also convinced that humanity is innately cruel and therefore not worth being a part of.
“For the truth is (let her ignore it) that human beings have neither kindness nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment. They hunt in packs. Their packs scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness. They desert the fallen.”
Clarissa’s loves: Richard Dalloway, the very proper and safe man she married, loves Clarissa in his own measured way but one is never quite sure if Clarissa feels anything beyond affection for him. Peter Walsh is the romance of her girlhood whom she rejected because he unsettled her. Now he’s back and a lot of her feelings for him are probably because he represents her youth. However, Clarissa’s most passionate love is for Sally Seton, a radical and bold girl who visited Clarissa when they were both young.
Dr Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw: Woolf really spews venom at the medical community of her time through these two characters. They are perhaps the most caricature-like of all her characters. Dr Holmes, the family physician, is insufferably patronizing. He seems to think Septimus is just being a bother and there’s nothing wrong with him that a hobby and some distraction wouldn’t cure. Dr Bradshaw, the specialist, on the other hand, pretends to sympathise but his ‘cure’ is really just a way of shutting the mentally infirm out of society.
“Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views, until they too shared his sense of proportion.”
Woolf’s notes suggest that she intended this book to be a sort of juxtaposition of the sane and insane, the living and the dead, the past and the present. She succeeds quite spectacularly in this regard. Admittedly, Mrs Dalloway takes some effort to read despite being a very slim book. But don’t let this put you off. I know a lot of people who have read and hated it but I still suggest you give this a chance, possibly even a second chance. I think it’s worth the effort.