Every decade or so I reread Mrs. Dalloway, the stunning 1925 novel by Virginia Woolf. Each time I find something new to admire and appreciate.
The novel takes place in London, during a single June day in 1923. World War One is over, but its impact can be felt everywhere. Clarissa Dalloway, an upper class woman in her 50’s, is preparing to throw a party. Peter Walsh, who once loved her and whom she rejected for the more predictable Richard Dalloway, has just returned to London after five years in India. A veteran is going mad in a way that makes perfect sense after the horrors of the war, and his immigrant wife is growing desperate. All of these people, and more, connect and intertwine and pull apart in unexpected ways as Clarissa Dalloway’s past and present collide.
A book for the ages – my ages
I first encountered Mrs. Dalloway when I was in college. I was intoxicated by the novel’s glittering, faceted language, its swirling points of view, its complex sentences and circuitous paragraphs.
I was also struck at 19 or 20 by the fact that this acclaimed novel dealt with something I was just beginning to discover myself: that women of all kinds sometimes fall in love with other women – intense and romantic, even when utterly chaste. The long-married Mrs. Dalloway, looking back on her years, considers the moment at 18 when Sally Seton kissed her as one of the happiest of her life. “Had that not, after all, been love?”
The first time I read the book, Clarissa Dalloway was older than my mother. Today I am older than Clarissa Dalloway, and I understand and appreciate her character in ways that were unavailable to me earlier. The discursive, stream of consciousness inner monologue; the way Clarissa’s thoughts swoop like birds through time, alighting briefly on instants in her youth, then the present day, then back to childhood; the power and presence in her daily life of people long gone – all of these are familiar to me now.
Laughing out loud
For such a serious book, which broke all kinds of narrative conventions and introduced new ways of creating character, the novel is full of wit. I laughed out loud at this caricature of myself and my activist friends, people whose “causes” had “made them callous”:
Miss Kilman would do anything for the Russians, starved herself for the Austrians, but in private inflicted positive torture, so insensible was she…[S]he was never in the room five minutes without making you feel her superiority, your inferiority; how poor she was; how rich you were; how she lived in a slum without a cushion or a bed or a rug or whatever it might be, all her soul rusted with that grievance sticking in it…
Keeping some secrets
Despite many readings, the book has yet to yield all its secrets. For instance, why is the phrase “very upright” repeated so often and in so many contexts, starting with a description of Mrs. Dalloway herself? What is the purpose of the roses that appear in so many scenes?
Of course, there is a tremendous amount of scholarship on Virginia Woolf’s work, and it’s likely I could find the answers to my questions there. But for now I prefer to mine the novel’s meaning myself, through the slow pleasure of reading and rereading.
After all, it is not the book that changes over the years, but the reader.