The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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March 6, 2016

Mrs. Dalloway

I think, though I'm not sure, that this was my second time reading Mrs Dalloway I'm remembering that it might have been one of the books that we read in a great British novel class I took in college (it's something about her mermaid-green dress that's making me think so}. If this is so, it was so long ago, and it's only the dress, and the outline of the story, and some of the characters' names that seemed familiar, and there's so much more that will stay with me this time.

First and most of all, I think the structure {though that's not quite the right word} of this novel is brilliant. On the surface, we follow Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged wife woman, wife to Richard, mother to Elizabeth, as she goes through her day, preparing for a party she will give in the evening. The events of her day are ordinary -- she buys flowers, meets an old friend while she is out, repairs a dress. She is affected most strongly by a visit from difficult, critical Peter Walsh, who has just returned from an unsuccessful time in India, a friend from their youth who has never forgiven her for choosing a conventional marriage with solid, conventional, neglectful Richard Dalloway.  There's a second story, separate but connected, of Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked war veteran who commits suicide late in the afternoon, a tragedy there to remind us that all is not flowers and parties, that the world has been irrevocably changed.

What seems so brilliant to me is that we experience this day {Clarissa's, and Peter's, and Septimus', and more briefly, Richard's and Elizabeth's)  in a flow of sounds, and thoughts, and chance meetings, and unintended connections, that seem so true to the way minds work, and to how our thoughts flow from what we say or do to where our thoughts go next, and to how our thoughts race and skip and then grow quiet until they race agan, and how they shift from the ordinary things in front of us to intense memories, and then snap back again.

      'But thank you, Lucy, oh, thank you' said Mrs, Dalloway, and thank you, thank you, she went on saying (sitting down on the sofa with her dress over her knees, her scissors, her silks), thank you,  thank you, she went on saying in gratitude to her servants generally for helping her to be like this, to be who she wanted, gentle, generous-hearted.  Her servants liked here. And then this dress of hers -- where was the tear? and now her needle to be threaded.This was a favorite dress, one of Sally Parker's, the last almost she ever made, alas, for Sally had now retired, living at Ealing, and if ever I have a moment, thought Clarissa (but never would she have a moment any more), I shall go and see her at Ealing. For she was a character, thought Clarissa, a real artist. She thought of little out-of-the-way things, yet her dresses were  never queer. You could wear them at Hatfield; at Buckingham Palace. She had worn them a Hatfield; at Buckingham Palace.
      Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer's day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying 'that is all' more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart, Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.
      'Heavens! The front-door bell! exclaimed Clarissa, staying her needle. Roused, she listened.

There's so much more to notice... the London setting, and the gentle humor that peeks through,  And {maybe this is something that would naturally resonate with me more now than 35 years ago} the theme of becoming older. We learn over and over again that Clarissa and Peter are stricken with this {'She was not old yet. She had just broken into her fifty-second year. Months and months of it were still untouched. June, July, August! Each still remaining almost whole...'} But I also loved the Miss Bates-esque moment at the party, with we sit with Clarissa's unfortunate cousin.

It was the girls she thought of, the young girls with their bare shoulders, she herself having always been a wisp of a creature, with her thin hair and meagre profile; though now, past fifty, there was beginning to shine through some mild beam, something purified into distinction by years of self-abnegation, but obscured again, perpetually, by her distressing gentility, her panic fear, which arose three hundred pounds' income and her weaponless state (she could not earn a penny) and it made her timid, and more and more disqualified year by year to meet well-dressed people who did this sort of thing every night of the season, merely telling their maids 'I'll wear so-and-so.' whereas Ellie Henderson ran out nervously and bought cheap pink flowers, half a dozen, and then threw a shawl over her old black dress, For her invitation to Clarissa's party had come at the last moment. She was not quite happy about it. She had a sort of feeling that Clarissa had not meant to ask her this year.

I was curious, so I looked it up...Virginia Woolf began Mrs. Dalloway, her fourth novel, in 1922, when she was 40.  It was also interesting to read that she had already written several short stories about Mrs. Dalloway and her party, before she finished this version.

And the writing, as before, is just so beautiful,  I have the audiobook of Juliet Stephenson reading Mrs. Dalloway, and now I can't wait to listen to it.

Thanks again to Ali for organizing the #woolfalong; I'm just a little late with this January-February installment but I'll be reading Night and Day, one of her two earliest novels, next.

1 comment:

Sunday Taylor said...

I loved reading your thoughts about Mrs. Dalloway. They reminded me of why I love this book. Thanks so much!

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