A Review of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway
It’s not common that I get enthralled by a book, especially not these days. Most often this is not about plot, not about story, but about feelings, feelings and descriptions. This book took me on a very different journey than the last one I reviewed, which was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf certainly didn’t take me as long to read, and I am willing to extend it a much more favourable review. But I think I need to make some clarifications at first.
Well, you, dear reader, might come to this and ask, why the everloving fuck I’m writing a review of what is commonly considered to be among the canon of the so-called “Classics”. I can almost hear you scream: “Well, of course, it’s good; it’s a classic!”. And on some level, I’d have to agree with that yell of despair, but let me tell you why I chose to write this as a review when there would be so many reasons to make this a discussion:
- I think it’s funnier this way.
- I don’t think I possess the necessary qualification, the useful background knowledge on early 20th century English writing.
- I don’t want to make this a spoiler-heavy discussion of a book, I think is very much worth being read on its own merits.
- I don’t want to be forced to make this about anything but my own opinion. There’s a many good discussion of this book, citing sources, taking actual discourse into account, but I just want to have fun with this.
It’s weird that I come to read this book only now. My then-girlfriend gave me this little book for Christmas 2017 after all, almost exactly 2 years ago to this day. It was a wonderful gift, but as I am with books it usually takes a while till I get around to one even if I look forward to reading it.
The Physical Book
Its physical appearance is probably what intrigued me most about this little book when I unwrapped it on that Boxing Day in 2017. It was a small gift, and an impactful one even if its impact was delayed by two years. It’s a beautiful book, even if not a unique one in its styling. The edition I got is the one issued by the Macmillan Collector’s Library: a collection of small, little, truly pocket-sized editions of the classics of literature. Their dust-covers all held in a light pastel-blue and golden colour scheme, they hide even lighter blue thread-bound books, embossed with a floral pattern and Macmillan’s M in a square. The edges of the pages are covered in gold paint and a light blue ribbon cuts through the thin and narrowly printed pages full of text.
This book as a physical object feels like a treasure to me from appearance and feel alone. Its design is beautiful and every time I look at it there’s some little detail of mass.produced craftsmanship I failed to notice before. But what about its content?
The World & The Story Behind It
Mrs Dalloway is not set in an alternate reality, not in a different world. It’s very much grounded in real life. Characters walk and drive and wander through 1923, post-war London as they could have in real life. But London is not the setting as much as it is the backdrop for the real setting. The story of Mrs Dalloway unfolds entirely within the minds of its characters. In a way, it’s a dance through minds and London. London’s cityscape sets the beats of the characters’ minds. Big Ben signals the passing of time. The omnibus takes them through a journey in their mind.
The story of this book unfolds all within a single hot summers day, only interrupted by flashbacks through the memories of its characters. A relentless march of time set with Big Ben’s chimes at the midday mark of this novel.
Our view on the story unfolding is filtered and enriched through us gliding into the mind of this and that character, seamlessly slipping between them. Under this assumption, it might not surprise you to find, a pretty diverse set of characters for a novel essentially set in London’s upper society of the 1920s. Foremost, Virginia Woolf remains occupied with the fate of women in this society. Our main character Clarissa Dalloway is the knot that keeps all threads of the plot together and lends her name to the book itself.
Our main point of view characters are Clarissa Dalloway, Peter Walsh and to an extent Septimus Warren, a shellshocked veteran and his Italian wife Rezia. Clarissa’s point of view is marked by a ton of wit and nevertheless, her stability seems frail at points, she herself is plagued by emptiness and the dread of her greying years. She reminisces about her youth, love, and her age. Peter Walsh, her former suitor, is himself just back from India as he pays Clarissa a visit. He is reminded of the rejection he had experienced at her hand, while Clarissa had a lesbian love affair with their mutual friend Sally …
To love makes one solitary, she thought.Mrs Dalloway
I could talk much more about every single character, but I don’t think this would get to an end. The more striking fact is that Virginia Woolf managed to fit so many detailed characters into such a small book. In no small part, this is helped by her stream of consciousness style, that allows us to fly into the inner workings of so many characters.
In turn, it’s not easy to summarise the plot of Mrs Dalloway. With its many point-of-view characters and the recurrent shifting between them, it’s definitely not an easy task to find a short description or to even follow its storyline. Even calling it a storyline feels slightly inadequate.
As such this book is almost certainly one that benefits from a re-read. I would bet it is one that grows upon me with every subsequent read through, giving me only more opportunity to get swallowed in its depth and details.
If I had to try to summarise it I would probably flail my arms around and then settle on:
- On a hot summers day, Clarissa Dalloway is caught up in the preparations of a party she’s hosting that evening, as she gets visited by her former friend and suitor Peter Walsh just back from India and starts to reminisce about her youthful passions.
- At the same time, Septimus Warren falls deeper and deeper into the pit of his shellshocked mind, and through inadequate (to the point of absurdity) treatment by the renowned Sir William Bradshaw and Dr Holmes, Warren is pushed towards his suicide.
In itself the plot is short, but what this book accomplishes, is less the narration of a riveting story, but an impressionistic view of British society, and especially the life women can lead within it.
The Writing & Style
Virginia Woolf’s writing seems masterful. Her sleight of hand when switching from point of view to point of view, in between so starkly contrasted characters is often almost imperceptible. The wit she imbues Clarissa with and the poignant observation of subtleties she shows, speak of a great writer and mind.
Her stream of consciousness writing reminds of her contemporary James Joyce, but in its dancing lightness I found, this prose way more accessible to my distractible mind, than I ever thought, for example, Ulysses to be.
Woolf’s prose is imbued with lightness and an uncanny ability to convey the passing of time and the emptiness, so many of these characters feel. It’s hard to not get drawn in by the often fitting and sometimes humourous observations this book makes, and it’s very hard to not feel strong emotions with it. Of course, the elaborate style also takes its toll on the reader. At least for me, this book was not at all a quick read despite its size and relatively small length.
There’s more than one theme hiding within this dancing prose. I talked about many of them in my revue of characters already, but I don’t think it would be amiss, to point these themes out again. Mrs Dalloway is not an easy book at all. It’s ram-packed with heavy themes, hiding in so beautiful a prose.
There’s the theme of a troubled state of mental health. Almost certainly something Virginia Woolf felt very acutely herself. After all, she herself had a long history with depression. Mixed in is the trauma World War I left behind, most obviously manifest in the character of Septimus Warren. And at last, there’s Woolf’s unique perspective on women in early 20th-century society, with their lives and success, their relationship to their husbands, age, and not to forget outside of heterosexual love.
This book is, without question, worth reading. However, I do think it’s appropriate to warn any potential reader. First, on a mostly practical point, this book talks about mental health and suicide, not everyone will be able to stomach such topics. Second, I do think to enjoy this book, you have to like or at least be fine with stream-of-consciousness writing. It’s a masterful example, but nevertheless, it takes some getting used to stream-of-consciousness writing, and this book is definitely not an easy read.
I love the impressions this book has left behind and I loved the experience of bouncing from mind to mind from character to character. Its perspective gives a very unique look into British society. It’s definitely a book on my “Read-this-again!”-list.
My last book review was about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Next up: The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. You can check out my reviews of 1956 Eurovision here or read my serial fiction: Touching a Tree