Archive for February, 2017



Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is written in written in the same stream of consciousness style  as James Joyce’s Ulysses. This makes it  difficult, tedious, to read at times. However, if you can carry on you are rewarded with plenty of meaty issues, many of which are very relevant today. The big ones are mental illness, and what some people might want to call identity politics but i what would say is questions about ‘how does one live’? questions about class, love and sex.

The book has quite a bit of interest for literary types as well. It was 40th on this list of best books of all time, and this review points out that it is 50th in The Guardian’s list of best novels of all time, and its very autobiographical of Woolf’s life.

The blurb for the episode of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time podcast about Mrs Dalloway says

First published in 1925, it charts a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a prosperous member of London society, as she prepares to throw a party. Writing in her diary during the writing of the book, Woolf explained what she had set out to do: ‘I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity. I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work at its most intense.’ Celebrated for its innovative narrative technique and distillation of many of the preoccupations of 1920s Britain, Mrs Dalloway is now seen as a landmark of twentieth-century fiction, and one of the finest products of literary modernism.

The feedback from Bookgroupers was not quite so positive. Many struggled with the style style. Whilst the style may have been innovative for its time it is no longer innovative 100 years later, but it remains difficult to read. The sentences are rarely correct. They can be short or long, and the punctuation is eccentric or absent. However, one book grouper offered some good advice which is to read it all as if its all dialogue, because it is all dialogue. its all what psychologists today would call self talk, the characters talking to themselves inside their heads.

While it is difficult to read there are many many lines in it that are wonderful which definitely make it worth the effort. A couple of my favourites

hanging flower-baskets of vague impropriety.

As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing, Peter Walsh said to himself; feeling hollowed out, utterly empty within.

It is important to note that although it is a often compared to Ulysses due to the stream of consciousness style; it is set in a different class, different gender, different country and different sexuality. I feel this makes it very relevant to a present day reader because it deals with matters that are very real for present day urbanites in the well developed world.

In particular i think its very interesting because you can see it as a challenge to the identity politics of today, and also to our popular romantic notions about love conquering all and being true to oneself.

it is a challenge to these notions because the characters in this book do not make the same decisions that equivalent characters in present day hollywood films and sitcoms would. This challenge is all the more powerful because the novel is very autobiographical, that means it is being written by someone at the time they were actually facing these decisions, not someone just imagining what its like.

The story is essentially three middle aged, and well to do, brits in 1923 looking back at the way their lives have evolved following their teenage love triangle. Not a particularly steamy one, obviously, as they were upper class brits. Peter loved clarissa, but clarissa loved sally, and sally, kind of loved them both.

But unlike hollywood, clarissa did not marry either of them. Peter was all smart and head strong, impulsive, he wanted to change the world. Sally was shiny and smart, charismatic, and one night she kissed clarissa on the lips.

Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it–a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling

It was the best moment of Clarissa’s life but she still chose Richard. Both Sally and Peter thought he was a stupid non-entity, but she still chose him over peter. Likewise Peter went off to India and married other people and Sally married some lord or other and had ‘five enormous boys’.

The moral challenge in all this for the modern reader, if you think identity politics is a good idea, is that its hard to read the book and not agree that they actually made good decisions even if you want to think they are all traitors to themselves. Maybe love does not conquer all? Maybe being out and proud is not always the answer?

However, it may be that I am only seeing that in the book because i am reading it in middle age. Perhaps had I read it as a teenager I would have taken away a completely different message. Maybe I would have seen them all as looking back with regret? i doubt it though. It seems to me the book is saying they made the right choice.

This reading of the book is supported, kind of, by the real life version of the book. Clarissa can easily be read as Virginia Woolf herself and Sally Seton as her lover Vita Sackville-West, and Clarissa’s husband Richard Dalloway is Virgina’s husband and publisher Leonard Woolf. Although Virginia did kill herself in the end she left a note to Leonard which concludes ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been’

it seems to me there is a message to all teenagers, or wannabee teenagers, about that favourite teenage line – be true to yourself. It’s an argument against that line in that it says you can be true to yourself but you might still be unhappy and die, whereas perhaps the better choice is life. That’s the choice Clarissa made and it’s the choice Virginia made for a long time until she could not sustain it

Love destroyed too. Everything that was fine, everything that was true went. Take Peter Walsh now. There was a man, charming, clever, with ideas about everything. If you wanted to know about Pope, say, or Addison, or just to talk nonsense, what people were like, what things meant, Peter knew better than any one. It was Peter who had helped her; Peter who had lent her books. But look at the women he loved–vulgar, trivial, commonplace. Think of Peter in love–he came to see her after all these years, and what did he talk about? Himself. Horrible passion! she thought. Degrading passion! she thought,



February 18, 2017 at 9:40 am 1 comment



The Scarlet Letter by  Nathaniel Hawthorne is perhaps the most successful book I have ever read because I had heard the phrase the scarlet letter; i had heard the name Nathaniel Hawthorne; i am familiar with the idea that puritanical religion represses children and adults, and dispels joy from the lives of communities; I’m also familiar with the idea that there was a time when people said thee and thou a lot, and that a little later, in the 1800s, people went in for beautifully flowery and ornamental language, for people prior to the 20th century this was deemed literary, the longer your sentences and more complex their construction, the cleverer you were; but I had no idea that all of those things, the title, the name of the author, its message, and the language in which it is written, come from this book like ‘a glimmering light that comes we know not whence and goes we not wither’, to borrow a famous phrase from the book itself.

It is hard to imagine a greater success for a piece of art than this; for all its elements, the arguments, style, artist’s name, and work title; to become so pervasive in a culture that you do not even have to be aware of it, much less to have actually seen it, to be familiar with the world it created. That is the situation for me with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Scarlet Letter.

It is hard to believe a book published in 1850 could include so much that is so deeply relevant to our own time. Reading it brings revelation after revelation. The setting is a town of religious zealots, in a misogynist society, persecuting a young widow for having a child. The story is how that woman and her child, and all the different people in her community react to and deal with this persecution as it continues over the years.

Although it is written in the first half of the 1800s, a time that could be described as pre-modern, and tells a story set 200 years prior, in a almost medieval world, it does so in such a clever way that it creates in the mind of the reader, without the reader noticing, the modern world. It does not preach or speechify, it just tells the story, but nevertheless all the messages that we are familiar with from the post WW2 era of the 20th century, about individual rights and freedoms, are clear and loud.

The characters and all the interplay between them is so beautifully captured and articulated that it alone would be enough have me raving as i am. However there are two key elements of the book that make the book systematically subversive, whilst appearing outwardly to be upholding the Victorian values of the times in which it was published: these are the scarlet letter that the woman must wear as punishment, and the child that caused this brand of shame.

This scarlet letter is intended to be her punishment for life and the writer makes it clear that the character feels that. It is a bright red A, for adultery, that she must wear on her bosom for life. There are long passages about how she continues to be treated years later, how isolated she is day after day year after year. These passages make it clear she feels the letter is the ultimate punishment, because she is so alone even in the midst of people, however they have another impact on the reader: they make you hate the town; they make you understand the power of ostracism; and the barbarity of a legal system based on religion.

To me though that is only one subversive aspect of the scarlet A, and not the biggest. The truly subversive aspect is that she finds a way to use this instrument of punishment as her salvation. She embroiders the letter so beautifully it becomes not only her 24/7 brand of shame but her 24/7 brand. An advertisement of the quality of of her workmanship. She transforms her life sentence into a life long source of income. She achieves economic independence. Something no other woman in town enjoyed.

The Child of the story is also used in a thoroughly subversive way. She asks innocent child questions in an innocent child way about the treatment she receives from the town, including the towns’ children. This is a very clear device for getting the reader to ask those same questions, including the biggest question of all: what did this child do to be treated this way? Obviously there is only one answer: the child did nothing, and the treatment is immoral no matter in whose name, or by whom, it is done.

This is arguably the whole point of the book and one of many reasons why it is a very worthy member of many lists of the best books of all time, for example, it came in at 16 on Goodread’s list of the popular literary canon, and why I would highly recommended if you’re in the mood for a classic. As  this review in the atlantic it is ‘alive with the miraculous vitality of genius’.

There is one caveat to add though based on the experience of Bookgroup, which is that many book groupers struggled with the first chapter.  These bookgroupers made a good case that it is long, has no story, appears to have no discernible point, and is written in the archaic verbose style that i have emulated to some extent in this review. All that is true. In addition, the contents do not relate to or impact on the story, they just purport to tell the story of the circumstances under which the author found the old documents on which he based the story. As a result i would recommend that if readers have an edition that includes this introductory chapter that they skip it, and return to it if motivated to do so at the end.

I don’t think this would be contradicting the author’s intent as the introduction is actually called ‘introductory – customs house’ and is not numbered. The real first chapter, ‘the prison door’ comes after it. So its clearly a separate piece of writing.

However, for me personally this introductory chapter was a real delight. It purports to be written in early 1800s whereas the story that follows describes what took place in the same town, Salem, of witch hunt fame, two centuries earlier in the 1600s. The introductory chapter describes the author arriving back in his home town to take up what in a former time might have been an important role – head of the customs house down in the docks on the harbour. But times are changing, and the customs house is not what it used to be or will ever be again. He documents the occupants of the customs house and their customers, and puts it all in the context of the colonial past and the rise of the newly emerging systems of democracy law and trade in the US of the early 1800s, as they displace the old ways of tradition, seniority and customary practice. To me it felt like reading the birth of the modern world, like watching the election of 45th President felt like the end of the modern world, the end of science and democracy, and the return to the medieval order of superstition and unfettered power.

What ever your thoughts on the introduction, the real joy is the book itself.

February 12, 2017 at 4:33 am Leave a comment


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