instagram, @beth.bonini

It is undeniable that Virgina Woolf had an admirable way with words. She had a magnificent capability to turn words into thoughts, and thoughts into bubbling, shifting scenes of life. Woolf also had the extraordinary power to write about human consciousness in its sporadic, often irrational, and always deeply honest form. No frills attached.

However, it is also undeniable that Virginia Woolf’s novels can be difficult to read – Mrs Dalloway is no exception to this. On first reading, I felt somewhat confounded and bewildered by its fragmented and disjointed nature. Readers are introduced to a number of different people and places within the space of a few pages, whilst explanations of their characters and stories are unravelled throughout the book. At first, then, their lives remain a mystery, and their thoughts have no grounding in a concrete reality for the reader. Granted, that is probably the point; Woolf often wrote abstractly and without reference to the tangible and material matters of life – this was all part of her craft. Even so, Mrs Dalloway did require a considerable level of patience on my behalf. I just wanted things to make sense straight away, whilst Woolf didn’t really have that in mind.

"Discussions of depression, suicide and psychiatry, ‘an exacting science’ in the book are particularly interesting given Woolf’s own struggles"

The novel follows the lives of a number of people within the timeframe of a day, all connected in a complex tangle of emotions and thoughts (though they may not know it). There is Clarissa Dalloway, the protagonist, who is depressed and weary, always putting on a ‘wonderful energy’ for others, but feeling quite empty beneath it all. Then there is her husband Richard, a sensible sort of gentleman heavily involved in politics, but arguably less sensitive to his wife’s condition. Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s ex-lover, is also on the scene. He has just returned from India and is in love with a married woman, although there is evidently still some unwavering connection between him and Clarissa. Both spend a lot of time reminiscing on their past together, despite knowing that their separation was probably for the best.

We also meet Miss Kilman, the teacher of the Dalloway’s daughter Elizabeth and a devoted Christian who suffers from serious agitation at society in general and especially towards Mrs Dalloway. Central to the novel are Rezia and Septimus Warren Smith, the latter struggles from post traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the Great War and believes he is seeing his dead friend Evans a lot of the time. Rezia, his wife is deeply miserable, being trapped in a cheerless marriage and greatly perturbed by Septimus’s condition. On hearing his doctor Holmes who he is frightened of entering his house, Septimus flung himself onto the railings below and killed himself. On top of all of this, Woolf also discusses a number of sub-characters, who are also inherently relevant to the whole story line. So in terms of general clarity and chronology, the novel scores lowly. Though as mentioned above, it is hardly fair to criticise Woolf for lacking something which she never aimed to achieve in her novel.

"Septimus’s mind is very cruel to him"

Discussions of depression, suicide and psychiatry, ‘an exacting science’ in the book are particularly interesting given Woolf’s own struggles. Following her mother’s death, Woolf suffered with depression and had a nervous breakdown after her father died nine years later. Aged 59, she killed herself in the River Ouse. In a suicide letter to her husband Leonard, she wrote that ‘I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate’. Though Mrs Dalloway was written well before Woolf tragically took her own life, Septimus seems to share in her struggle. For example, at one point he felt that ‘The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes.’ Septimus’s mind is very cruel to him.

One can also see Woolf in Clarissa who at one point questions why she suddenly felt ‘for no reason she could discover, desperately unhappy?’. Her life in theory should be one of bliss; high society, high status, wife of a respected gentleman. And yet instead, she feels so detached from everything. Without intending to read something in everything, Woolf could have been criticising the exclusion of most women from the public sphere through Mrs Dalloway’s characterization. As a housewife, she is left alone at home most days with only her troubling thoughts for company. As an avid feminist thinker, Woolf no doubt saw the inherent cheerlessness to Mrs Dalloway’s predicament.

Indeed, at the novel’s close, Clarissa seems to contemplate suicide herself on hearing about Septimus’s death. Though Clarissa does not end her life within the novel, I couldn’t help but feel that the day may happen when she feels that she cannot exist in her melancholy, repetitive life anymore. At points in the story, I couldn’t help but feel that I was an intruder, as though I were reading Woolf’s own stream of consciousness on paper. After all, Mrs Dalloway and Septimus’s conditions share many traits in common with Woolf’s own experiences in life


READ MORE

Mountain View

Chronicling coronavirus: Who will we want to pen the pandemic?

On a more light hearted note if I may, the novel is home to a delightful array of descriptions which provide momentary distraction from its sorrows. For instance, we are told that Lady Bruton, a friend of Richard’s ‘had the reputation of being more interested in politics than people’ which is quite a marvellous little summary. Meanwhile, reflecting on a season assigned to history, Peter thinks that ‘It was an extraordinary summer – all letters, scenes, telegrams’ making me wish I could live in it myself. And Peter thinks about the ‘inexplicable niceness of his [Richard’s] type’ – words which I will certainly be adopting in the future. Richard further contemplates that ‘it is a thousand pities never to say what one feels’, an agreeable saying.

 I could write all day about the charm of Woolf. I still can’t forget her description of the ‘oceans of nonsense’ spoken in parliament; but nor can I forget Septimus’s considerations of human society – ‘Their packs scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness’. The novel is often an unsettling, intensely uncomfortable read. I am grateful for that – Woolf does not shy away from the perturbing, unnerving and perplexing sides of the human mind. It is complicated and blurry, least of all because it is often hard to understand. However, Woolf’s descriptions are also often filled with a sense of vividness and vibrancy which add fleeting clarity to the confusion.

All in all, Mrs Dalloway is a curious, evocative read: it is at once beautiful and desolate – brimming with palpable life and yet strangely empty (and eerie at points). The novel helps to show how loneliness rears its face in the midst of company, and how depression takes control of the mind. So though it may not be a light hearted and entertaining read, it is most certainly an important one.

Sponsored links

Partner links