Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I wanted to post some mid-read thoughts on Mrs. Dalloway this morning. This is my second time reading the book but after quite a long time so much of the text strikes me as though I am reading it for the first time. I might not wait so long for my next reread. Dorothy has some interesting comments on the question of when we reread something and how the proximity of the two readings affects our understanding of it. I like looking at this question, especially after reading Nabokov’s opinion that we never actually read a book, we can only reread it. 

The first read of a wonderful book is quite special, isn’t it? So consuming and intense. New ideas to mull over. New people to wonder about. A new place to investigate. But a second or third read can be an altogether delightful experience as well. A bit like seeing an old friend after several years’ absence – there is the first rush of excitement when you must get all the details out of the way, but then you settle in to a more leisurely moment of appreciation and sharing.  

That’s a bit how I feel reading Mrs. Dalloway this week. What I love most about the book is the way everything seems to just zoom along from one moment to the next. Each page has so much energy. Woolf’s prose has so much force, so much vigor. I get the sense that every little action or event is spectacular, or laced with emotion and meaning. Yet she manages to do this without coming across as overblown. I admit that reading Mrs. Dalloway is, at times, somewhat exhausting. But a very good exhausting.  

Away and away the aeroplane shot, till it was nothing but a bright spark; an aspiration; a concentration; a symbol (so it seemed to Mr. Bentley, vigorously rolling his strip of turn at Greenwich) of man’s soul; of his determination, thought Mr. Bentley, sweeping round the cedar tree, to get outside his body, beyond his house, by means of thought, Einstein, speculation, mathematics, the Mendeliean theory – away the aeroplane shot. 

Is it possible to put more humanity into a single paragraph? The entire book is like this – each new scene pregnant with ideas and ruminations that go beyond the specific instant described. Where Woolf really gets me is with the details, the splendid and unique reflections that she settles upon the most ordinary moments: 

…could not help wishing to whisper a word to Maisie Johnson; to feel on the creased pouch of her worn old face the kiss of pity. 

Mrs. Dalloway raised her hand to her eyes, and, as the maid shut the door to, and she heard the swish of Lucy’s skirts, she felt like a nun who has left the world and feels fold round her the familiar veils and the response to old devotions. 

A book like this makes me want it to go on forever. A huge volume I could read slowly for the rest of my life, paragraph after paragraph, line by line. Always a new surprise, another flash of genius, on the next page. I am halfway finished and already sad that I will eventually reach the last page. This time around, I don’t think I will be waiting very long before I pick it up again and start all over again. 

6 Responses to “mid-read thoughts on Mrs. Dalloway”

  1. dew

    I really love this book, too, and I’ve reread it a few times myself. I love what Nabakov said.

  2. Dorothy W.

    I love this book too, and I will definitely re-read it at some point. As I’ve begun working my way through Woolf’s novels I’ll get there eventually — my pace is slow (about a book a year), but that’s okay!

  3. Juliette

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts – I often feel the wish to record my thoughts, puzzles and refkections as I go along and so use a journal. Somehow, when I look back on a passage say for a reading group the immediacy of my thoughts are lost if I have not captured them the first time.
    Coincidentally, I was in Blackwells, Oxford today and saw a wonderful edition. Your piece has inspired me to go back and get it. Thanks. I am wondering if you have read The Hours …..

  4. verbivore

    Dewey – Such a good one isn’t it? I am almost finished and keep putting off those last pages because I don’t want it to end.

    Dorothy – Still, one book a year sounds great. I should try that.

    Juliette – I also try and write down my thoughts while I’m still reading. Sometimes I don’t have the patience for it – I just want to keep reading. I have read The Hours but I am going to re-read it when I finish Mrs. Dalloway. I’ve been wanting to read the two side by side for awhile now.

  5. Ann Darnton

    I have real problems with Woolf’s novels. I keep trying and trying to read and enjoy them but I simply can’t find a way to connect. I’ve read Mrs Dalloway twice, but I can’t feel any sympathy with the writing. On the other hand I am never without her journals, letters and essays. I just can’t seem to make a connection between the two. Help!

  6. verbivore

    Ann – I wish I knew how to convince you. Is it how she writes her fiction? I’d love to hear you explain why you don’t like her in more detail. I should spend more time with her journals, letters and essays. Although part of me wants to get through all of her fiction, get to know her only as a writer, and then spend time getting to know her as a person.

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