February 18, 2017 at 9:40 am 1 comment


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,



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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. SATURDAY by IAN McEWAN | Dave's Book Group  |  December 24, 2017 at 7:32 am

    […] business – James Joyce and Virginia Wolff. Like their acknowledged classics, Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway respectively, Saturday takes place in one 24 hour span, and is largely comprised of internal mental […]


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