“Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day…”
Last weekend, I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, our book selection for October. At first glance and after a few pages, the narrative style seemed impenetrable. I found the sentences ponderous and meandering. I struggled, annotating the narrative by making notes in the margins. Without warning, a multi-level puzzle of intertwined lives unfolded before my eyes. This happened at about midnight upon reaching page 43, when the words glimmered with penetrating eloquence and meaning. The long, winding sentences exposing the innermost thoughts of the characters became as beautiful as birds gliding effortlessly through the sky.
This novel may be hailed as a literary masterpiece, but I believe it’s first and foremost a tale of tangled and tragic love stories.
Let’s start with Peter. Newly returned from India, Peter is skirting about London, avoiding his stated reason for being there, and “seeing” his former love in every shop window. Clarissa Dalloway, who rejected Peter’s proposal thirty-four years earlier, is giving a party that night.
Meanwhile, a second love story is unraveling. Septimus Warren Smith, a war veteran, is going mad from PTSD. His young Italian wife, Lucrezia, doesn’t understand what is happening, but does wonder if her marriage is the way marriages are supposed to be. She would like a baby.
Then there is Richard, who married Clarissa, yet is jealous of Peter, and is unable to tell Clarissa that he loves her. He brings her roses.
We have a (sigh) love situation which involves a middle-aged, plain-looking woman who turned to religion for companionship but has fallen in love with her young student, Clarissa’s daughter.
Using little words and big words, Virginia Woolf creates this fabulous labyrinthian tale which takes place in a single day in the middle of June. The characters weave in and around each other throughout this day. We learn that many, as well, have a shared past, thirty-four years earlier in a small country estate called Bourton.
At the end of the day they all converge at Mrs. Dalloway’s party.
Big Ben is the unifying element. As it chimes, it slices and dices the character’s thoughts: past, present, and future. If you leave breadcrumbs for yourself as you are reading, it is easier to sort through the web of thoughts that the hours punctuate.
Book clubs: Fair warning. This may be a challenging read for members who are used to contemporary novels favored by book clubs. Don’t be daunted! It is well worth the read. In 1923, one-hundred years ago, Virginia Woolf bravely introduced new narrative techniques with this novel. It remains brilliant to this day and deserves a place on your bookshelf.
My favorite sentence:
“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!’”