Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This week I read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I have read this before, in college. After enjoying Woolf’s writing in To The Lighthouse I figured I’d give Dalloway another shot. (If you click the link and read the first paragraph, you will note how I avoided Woolf because I originally did not like Mrs. Dalloway. Or you can rest secure in the knowledge of this without clicking the link since I just told you.)

The following authors listed Mrs. Dalloway in their top ten lists: Robb Forman Dew, Karen Joy Fowler, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Elizabeth Hay, Thomas Kenneally, Lydia Millet, Vendela Vida and Susan Vreeland.

The writing in Mrs. Dalloway is beautiful, much like To The Lighthouse. I loved how Woolf captured how we often live both in the moment, but in past moments at the same time. I find myself suddenly barraged sometimes by a random image of something that happened 20 years before and it’s so vivid. I’m not there, like in a flashback sense, but the memory has a texture to it that is more than just the random stories that we tell other people about our pasts. Those told memories seem pallid in comparison to the flash memories I am speaking of.

She even shows someone who is making one of those flash memories, just a bit character who wanders through the park in the beginning.

“Both seemed queer, Maisie Johnson thought. Everything seemed very queer. In London for the first time, come to take up a post at her uncle’s in Leadenhall Street, and now walking through Regent’s Park in the morning, this couple on the chairs gave her quite a turn; the young woman seeming foreign, the man looking queer; so that should she be very old she would still remember and make it jangle again among her memories how she had walked through Regent’s Park on a fine summer’s morning fifty years ago. For she was only nineteen and had got her way at last, to come to London; and now how queer it was, this couple she asked the way of, and the girl started and jerked her hand, and the man-he seemed awfully odd; quarrelling perhaps; parting for ever, perhaps; something was up, she knew; and now all these people (for she returned to the Broad Walk), the stone basins, the prim flowers, the old men and women, invalids most of them in Bath chairs-all seemed after Edinburgh, so queer.”

And you can tell, that 50 years from now, whether Maisie Johnson is in London or Edinburgh or India, she would have a flash of the couple every time she thought of when she first came to London.

The theme of Mrs. Dalloway is a day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway who is planning a party for that evening, or rather most plans have been made, she is preparing for the party. The book traverses her inner monologue, and others random monologues as they either pass Mrs. Dalloway, come into contact with her, or come into contact with someone that she came into contact with.

One of the characters is a returned soldier (the book takes place in approximately 1924) from the first World War. From today’s perspective, it is obvious that he is suffering from PTSD, which back then was called “shell shock” and not always necessarily even believed in. Woolf describes his madness beautifully and even captures the attitude(s) of some of the doctors of the day. Which, sadly, in some cases hasn’t changed much in the last century.

“The word “time” split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard, white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time. He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself–
‘For God’s sake don’t come!’ Septimus cried out. For he could not look upon the dead.”

The above is from Septimus Smith, the ex soldier suffering. The following is from Rezia, his Italian wife whom he married at the end of the war and brought back to London with him.

“He had grown stranger and stranger. He said people were talking behind the bedroom walls. Mrs. Filmer thought it odd. He saw things too-he had seen an old woman’s head in the middle of a fern. Yet he could be happy when he chose. They went to Hampton Court on top of a bus, and they were perfectly happy. All the little red and yellow flowers were out on the grass, like floating lamps he said, and talked and chattered and laughed, making up stories. Suddenly he said, “Now we will kill ourselves,” when they were standing by the river, and he looked at it with a look which she had seen in his eyes when a train went by, or an omnibus-a look as if something fascinated him; and she felt he was going from her and she caught him by the arm. But going home he was perfectly quiet-perfectly reasonable. He would argue with her about killing themselves; and explain how wicked people were; how he could see them making up lies as they passed in the street. He knew all their thoughts, he said, he knew everything. He knew the meaning of the world, he said.”

He is being treated originally by a Dr. Holmes.

“Dr. Holmes came again. Large, fresh coloured, handsome, flicking his boots, looking in the glass, he brushed it all aside-headaches, sleeplessness, fears, dreams-nerve symptoms and nothing more, he said. If Dr. Holmes found himself even half a pound below eleven stone six, he asked his wife for another plate of porridge at breakfast. (Rezia would learn to cook porridge.) But he continued, health is largely a matter in our own control. Throw yourself into outside interests; take up some hobby. He o9pened Shakespeare-Antony and Cleopatra; pushed Shakespeare aside. Some hobby, said Dr. Holmes, for did he not owe his own excellent health (and he worked as hard as any man in London) to the fact that he could always switch off from his patients on to old furniture? And what a very pretty comb, if he might say so, Mrs. Warren Smith was wearing!”

Even the way Woolf structured the novel fit what she was doing, switching between people’s internal monologues. There are absolutely no chapters in the book. It is all one stream from beginning to end. The external time is linear as well. She doesn’t take us from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. then back to 10 a.m. But, the internal time can be anywhere from 30 years ago to current time, to a hour previous.

But. I just couldn’t find myself actually caring about any of the characters. None of them, absolutely none, were happy. All of them seemed discontent and unhappy with where life had taken them, where they themselves fit into society. And while I definitely don’t mind depressed characters, angry characters, psychotic characters, it just seemed like a completely negatively slanted one way to look at people in this world. Virginia Woolf eventually committed suicide, and by the time she wrote Mrs. Dalloway had already suffered from mental illness, hence probably why she wrote so well about Mr. Smith. So, I can see why the book is the way it is. I also evaluated if it was a historical thing that kept me from caring about these characters, and again, I love historical novels, and historical memoirs. I have read a lot of books that cover Britain from 1850 or so to 1950 or so, and mostly loved them.

I just couldn’t connect. I could adore the way Woolf wrote it, could adore some of the techniques she used and the poetry she infused into the prose, but I just…couldn’t get into it.

So, most of the time, I completely change my opinion on a book when I read one, don’t like it and years later re-read it. This time, I didn’t. Except I think I enjoyed the beauty of it more and could appreciate it.

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