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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 12 September 2016

"Mrs Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

This stream of consciousness novel (is it a novel?) is a sort of halfway house between the extremely poetic but fiendishly difficult to read The Waves and the much easier to follow and slightly more structured To The Lighthouse, both by Woolf. In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge points out that Mrs Dalloway herself appears also in Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out in which "a traditional authorial narrative method is used to give a very satirical and prejudicial portrait of Clarissa Dalloway"; the stream of consciousness creates more sympathy with the character.

The activity of following a hero through the hours as she wandered round London reminded me of Leopold Bloom's journey around Dublin in Ulysses a book which Woolf had read but thought was "An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating.". Comments like this suggest that Woolf was a massive snob; isolated from reality by her privileged upbringing in Bloomsbury. But she attempts to empathise with the working class in the tragic arc of Septimus Smith, the shell-shocked war hero whose day intersects and contrasts with Mrs Dalloway's.

The major difference between the telling of Bloom's journey through Dublin and Dalloway's through London is that Woolf keeps shifting her focus, frequently introducing a character only for that character to become the narrator, as though we were all somehow telepathically linked; not so much a stream as an ocean of consciousness in which we all swim.

There are themes that run through the book. The most obvious is the hours struck by Big Ben and other church clocks("The leaden circles dissolved in the air)", a repeated motif. Peter Walsh hears them on page 36 and thinks of this image. Clarissa hears clocks striking and has exactly the same thought on page 135, having heard of the death of Septimus, as she watches the old lady in the window opposite preparing for bed ("Fear no more the heat of the sun"; quoting Cymbeline). Other motifs include:

  • Hats: On page 5 Clarissa Dalloway "felt very sisterly and at the same time oddly conscious of her hat" whilst Septimus Smith's wife Rezia makes hats for people: "'It is the hat that matters most,' she would say" (p 65). When she first met Septimus "his hat had fallen when he hung it up" (p 106): forecasting doom! And after Septimus has died, as she is in shock, sipping sherry , Rezia has a memory of when "she put on her hat, and ran through cornfields" (p 109) Peter Walsh, in his hotel room, thinks "Any number of people had hung up their hats on those pegs" (p 112). 
  • Gloves: Clarissa has "a passion for gloves" (p 8); Hugh and Richard collect "yellow gloves from the bowl on the malachite table" after visiting Lady Bruton on page 81; Elizabeth, Mrs Dalloway's daughter, who doesn't care for gloves on page 8, runs back upstairs because she has forgotten them on page 91.
  • Self consciousness: as with the hat on page 5, Clarissa realises on p 8 that "half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew ... for no one was ever for a second taken in" On the other hand Rezia hears an old woman singing for money in the street: "And if someone should see, what matter they?" (p 62)
  • Caring "not a straw"; On page 8 Elizabeth, Clarissa's almost-adult daughter "cared not a straw for either" gloves or hats. Peter Walsh "cared not a straw - not a straw" for what the Dalloways and others think of him on page 37. Richard "didn't care a straw what became of Emigration" on page 83. 
  • Horror: Maisie Johnson, observing Septimus and Rezia, thinks "Horror, horror!" on page 20; Mrs Dalloway says to herself "Oh this horror!" on page 27; both are a clear reference to Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
  • Peter Walsh's motif is to play with a pocket knife
  • Shakespeare: The England of Septimus seemed to be very Shakespearean.
    • Shakespeare and sex: Richard Dalloway believes that "no decent man ought to read Shakespeare's sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes (besides, the relationship was not one that he approved)." (p 56) But Septimus Smith went to France as a soldier "to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays" (p 64); it is not until he is mad, presumably with some sort of PTSD following his experiences in the trenches, that he decides that "Love between a man and woman was repulsive to Shakespeare. The business of copulation was filth to him before the end." (p 66). Does this mean Septimus is gay? He hero-worshipped his commanding officer Evans; they used to "share with each other" which I have been told was code for homosexual behaviour in the 1920s (E M Forster used 'share' in this sense in Maurice). There is also a clear hint of lesbianism in Clarissa's relationship at school with Sally. 
    • Shakespeare and death: There are two key quotes:
      • "if it were now to die 'twere now to be most happy", a line from Othello is remembered by Mrs Dalloway on page 26; she remembers it again on page 134 when she hears that Septimus has killed himself.
      • "Fear no more the heat of the sun" which Clarissa reads in the window of the bookshop at the start of the book and remembers them in the last paragraph; Septimus also thinks how hot the sun is just before killing himslef. These words are from the funeral song in Cymbeline; the refrain of the song is "Golden lads and girls all must/ Like chimney sweepers come to dust" which is also yet another reference to clocks and time because 'chimney sweepers' were another name for dandelion clocks in Shakespeare's days.
  • Thread. Is this a reference to the Fates, Clotho who spun, Lachesis who measured and Atropos who severed the thread of a human's life? On page 83 Millicent Bruton "let the thread snap"; Richard imagines a "spider's thread of attachment between himself and Clarissa" on page 84. Rezia, making a hat, puts down her scissors on page 103, minutes before her husband ends his life. 
  • Time. We hear the clocks striking at regular intervals throughout the book (Big Ben often, St Margaret's two minutes afterwards). Mrs Dalloway "feared time itself ... the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced ; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching ... Narrower and narrower would her bed be." (p 23) Though "Life had a way of adding day to day" (p 49), one day it will all end and then "how unbelievable death was! - that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant ..." (p 89). One day far into the future archaeologist will start digging through the ruins of what was once London, finding nothing "but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth." (p 13) (Smith already thinks of his wife as "a piece of bone"; p 12). Woolf uses this image of the archaeologists to suggest that "greatness was passing" (p 14); the "sick transit of Gloria Monday" as Stephen Fry puts it in The Ode Less Travelled
  • Religion: "Religious ecstasy made people callous (so did causes); dulled their feelings" (p 9) thinks Mrs Calloway but shell-shocked Septimus Smith has a religious mania which has set his nerves on edge (though he is self-obsessed and blind or indifferent to the suffering of his wife). But Mrs D too can feel like a religious: "as the maid shut the door to, and she heard the swish of Lucy's skirts, she felt like a nun who has left the world and feels fold round her the familiar veils and the response to old devotions." (p 22) though "not for a moment did she believe in God" (p 22)  Mrs Dalloway doesn't like religion: "Love and religion! thought Clarissa ... how detestable they are! ... Love destroyed too. Everything that was fine, everything that was true went." (p 92) The soul is described as "This leaf-encumbered forest, the soul" (p 9)

Woolf uses these motifs to show how feelings are shared between all of us, and she uses the run-on stream-of-consciousness technique, with the point-of-view flowing from one person to the next, as if her characters can somehow understand what others are thinking. Because feelings, she asserts, can be passed on from one person to another: Septimus Warren Smith has "eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too." (p 11)

There are other moments of magic, of poetry, of acute observation:

  • And sometimes, through some accident, "like a faint scent, or a violin next door ... she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt ... the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores." (p 24)
  • "She made as if to hide her dress, like a virgin protecting chastity, respecting privacy." (p 30)
  • Mrs Dalloway thinks of "a Queen whose guards have fallen asleep and left her unprotected ... so that anyone can stroll in and have a look at her where she lies with the brambles curving over her" (p 32) in an obvious reference to Sleeping Beauty.
  • Egotism is "the river which says on, on, on; even though, it admits, there may be no goal for us whatever, still on, on" (p 33) Septimus Smith, of course, decides to kill himself.
  • Sycophantic Hugh goes "snuffing round the precincts of the great" (p 125)
This book is harder to read than most but the insights into the human condition, the acuteness of the observations and the poetry of the prose make it worth the effort.

Septmeber 2017; 141 pages

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