A blog for everything bookish

Saturday 15 November 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway

When I was a child, I longed to like yoghurt. I would see those tempting pots and pots of yoghurt in the chilled foods aisle, with their tempting flavours: strawberry, vanilla, raspberry, caramel. My mouth would slaver at the idea of yoghurt, but as soon as I spooned some into my mouth the sourness turned the temptation into disgust and I learned, eventually, that no matter how I desired it I would never like yoghurt.

I share this flash from my childhood to illustrate how I feel about Mrs Dalloway. It is a book I would love to like, but somehow can’t. This is the second time I’ve read it, and I still find it a strangely difficult and unhappy read. Of course it is a difficult read, though most rewarding reads generally are, but there is something about this book which is particularly difficult and which I struggle to get over.

Mrs Dalloway is a stream of consciousness novel, quite ground-breaking for its time. It follows a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway (who appeared, you may recall, in Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out). It is a day on which Mrs Dalloway is having a party and it opens with this breathtakingly famous line:

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

One of those lines that sticks in the brain, a perfect composition of form and rhythm. Never let it be said that Woolf wrote bad sentences. From there we follow Clarissa as she travels across London to find flowers and prepare for her party. Along the way we see, close hand, Clarissa’s observations – switching from her mind to the minds of others that she encounters. This technique is not surprising, having been used to great effect in Woolf’s latter novel Jacob’s Room.

The novel focuses on three key characters. Clarissa Dalloway – wife of Richard Dalloway Conservative MP, the ‘perfect hostess’ (not entirely a compliment) who is preparing for an important (or is it?) party. Peter Walsh, Clarissa Dalloway’s former lover who she rejected and left for Richard Dalloway and who never quite got over it (or did she? It is a question unanswered). Finally Septimus Smith, a tragic character, former solider suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, whose plight is the most compelling and whose story is, perhaps, the most visceral of the novel. Without the Smith character, I think this novel would carry much less of a punch and would be a lot less interesting.

The stream of consciousness approach is what I think makes this a difficult novel and perhaps is what I don’t really enjoy about it. It is hard work being inside someone’s mind, their observations and fidgeting, all the time. This is also what makes the novel such a success and there’s no doubting Woolf’s skill at maintaining the flittering to and fro nature of being inside a human consciousness – the way we spin from observation to reflection to self absorption, the way the mind spins back to events which we have not reconciled. Like here, as Clarissa rests before the party:

“How like him! He would go on saying ‘An hour’s complete rest after luncheon’ to the end of time, because a doctor ordered it once. It was like him to take what doctors said literally; part of his adorable divine simplicity, which no one had to the same extent; which made him go and do the thing while she and Peter frittered their time away bickering. He was already half-way to the House of Commons to his Armenians, his Albaniand, having settled her on the sofa, looking at his roses. And people would say, ‘Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt.’ She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again) – no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? but she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?) – the only flowers she could bear to see cut. But Richard was already at the House of Commons; at his Committee, having settled all her difficulties. But no; alas that was not true. He did not see the reasons against asking Ellie Henderson. She would do it, of course, as he wished it. Since he had brought the pillow, she would lie down…But – but – why did she suddenly feel, for no reason that she could discover, desperately unhappy? As a person who has dropped some grain of pearl or diamond into the grass and parts the tall blades very carefully, this way and that, and searches here and there vainly, and at last spies it there at the roots, so she went through one thing and another; no, it was not Sally Seton saying that Richard would never be in the Cabinet because he had a second class brain (it came back to her); no, she did not mind that; nor was it to do with Elizabeth either and Doris Kilman; those were facts. It was a feeling, some unpleasant feeling, earlier in the day perhaps; something that Peter had said, combined with some depression of her own, in her bedroom, taking off her hat; and what Richard had said added to it, but what had he said? There were his roses. Her parties! That was it! Her parties! Both of them criticised her very unfairly, laughed at her very unjustly, for her parties. That was it! That was it!”

Woolf perfectly captures the effervescence of the mind, the preoccupation with failure, its wanderings, its distractions. Yet again she shows incredible skills in characterisation, in capturing in few words the essence of a person or a scene. She captures and shines a light on the horrors of war and the terrible toll it paid upon the young men that fought it, highlighting the very real but misunderstood character of post traumatic stress disorder and its affect on both the individual and on people around them who can’t understand what they’ve suffered ot how they continue to suffer, as Septimus Smith’s long suffering wife Lucrezia (Rezia) shows:

“But Lucrezia Warren Smith was saying to herself, It’s wicked; why should I suffer? she was asking, as she walked down the broad path. No; I can’t stand it any longer, she was saying, having left Septimus, who wasn’t Septimus any longer, to say hard, cruel, wicked things, to talk to himself, to talk to a dead man, on the seat over there; when the child ran full tilt into her, fell flat, and burst out crying.
That was comforting rather. She stood her upright, dusted her frock, kissed her.
But for herself she had done nothing wrong, she had loved Septimus; she had been happy; she had had a beautiful home, and there her sisters lived still, making hats. Why should she suffer?
The child ran straight back to its nurse, and Rezia saw her scolded, comforted, taken up by the nurse who put down her knitting, and the kind looking man gave her his watch to blow open and comfort her – but why she she be exposed? Why not left in Milan? Why tortured? Why?”

Mrs Dalloway is an excellent novel. It is dense and complex, it is imaginative and experimental. The Septimus Smith sections are soul destroying in their impact and perceptiveness. It is a testament to Woolf’s skill as a writer. It is bold, it is difficult and rewarding. It is everything a great novel should be. Yet despite all this, all its merits and complexities, I just can’t take to it. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that what makes it so supremely successful as  novel, as a work of art, is the very thing I dislike about it, a stream of consciousness that is just too much for me.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. As it happens, despite everything I thought as a child I now love yoghurt. I especially love natural yoghurt, with its palate-stripping sourness spiked with sweeter fruit and a dash of honey. So perhaps there is a future for me and Mrs Dalloway after all.

Mrs Dalloway receives an undecided 9 out of 10 Biis for skill and 5 out of 10 Biis for enjoyment. 

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