Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway

I realized after reading Mrs. Dalloway that I knew nothing about Virginia Woolf’s life except the bare facts of her marriage to Leonard Woolf and her suicide in 1941. Did everyone else know that she was raised in a fairly Brady Bunch style household? That both her parents were previously married, had children and then divorced, married each other, had more children and then raised eight children altogether in the same house? For some reason I had wrongly envisioned Woolf as having a lonely childhood. I figured she may have been the child of older or inattentive parents who was left to create her own colorful world, thus learning her skills for story and fiction at a young age. Of course then I realized that having seven siblings is not necessarily an immunization for loneliness. Nor does a bustling, people-filled world keep you from developing a passion for imaginative creation.  

Bustling is one of the first adjectives that comes to mind when I think of Mrs. Dalloway. Every one of the characters seems to be somehow speeding along in perpetual motion. They are all so physically and mentally busy – crashing from one thought to the next, hurrying headlong into the next action or event. The novel just steams forward, halfway out of breath but never once apologizing for its exhausting momentum. I realize this is all a function of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style but she just accomplishes it all so immaculately.  

Reading the book felt a bit like listening to a boisterous symphony, with all those instruments playing madly in the background while one violin (Peter Walsh, for example) or an alto flute (Clarissa might just have to be the flute) plays a theme in his or her particular voice just a bit louder than the rest. The music behind never quite vanishes and sometimes the soloists fight a bit for space. I quite like the idea of Peter as a violin, with a disturbing octaval range and the ability to play a few notes that are just a bit too high to be comfortable. The overall effect of this rambunctious orchestra is hectic and eventful but everything seems to blend perfectly in the end. 

The story itself is so wonderfully simple. A woman gets herself and home ready for a party, a man stops in to say hello to an old friend, some men eat lunch with a wealthy older woman, another man and his wife visit a doctor, a young girl and her tutor run to the shops, and so on and so forth from the morning all the way through the early evening of this significant day. Then everyone (minus one) comes together for a party. That’s pretty much it. But within all those little errands and conversations Woolf creates a series of fascinatingly full portraits combined with a healthy serving of social commentary. Each story and character explodes with their own past, with regrets and worries, with all those eccentric bits of real personality. 

Mrs. Dalloway is the kind of book that leaves me with the impression that I haven’t even scratched the surface of all that lies beneath its clever prose and brisk story. It isn’t difficult, that’s not what I mean. I just have the feeling that I could read this book once a year and find something new to admire or think about each and every time.   

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Published by

Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

14 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway”

  1. Virginia Woolf hardly had an idyllic childhood. In her essay “A Sketch of the Past” which can be found in the book “Moments of Being,” Woolf writes about enduring sexual abuse at the hand of one of her step-brothers. She also writes about the deaths of her mother and sister, both of which had a prfoound effect on her. If you enjoy Woolf and are interested in learning more about her life “Moments of Being” is a great place to start.

  2. Who said that all art aspires to the condition of music? I think you’ve described at least part of what that aphorism is getting at.

    You might enjoy Wolff’s early diaries and letter, especially her hilarious descriptions of her older brothers’ hopeless attempts to take Virginia and Vanessa to hip parties and introduce them to smart society. The sisters mostly sat in the corner, silent, waiting for someone to take them home.

  3. iread – Thank you for the suggestion. I am definitely set on reading more about her life now. Until now I have been so focused on her fiction and I often try to separate the work from the writer. I think with Woolf this is probably impossible.

    Amateur Reader – I can see that I have a lot of reading to do! But I can’t wait.

    Smithereens – Perfect. I will see if I can find a copy on bookmooch right away.

  4. I love Mrs Dalloway and I love how you decribe it as music, so well said! I’ve read the book a couple times now and I still feel I could read it again and find something new. The last time I read it, Septimus’s story broke my heart. If you want to read a good Woolf bio, I really enjoyed Hermione Lee’s. Quentin Bell (her nephew) wrote one too. It’s good, but he also neglects mentioning a few things that he and/or the family found uncomfortable.

  5. It’s so much fun reading your thoughts as you read Mrs Dalloway. I always did assume Woolf had an abusive or in other ways devastating childhood, and these tidbits in your comments make me want to find out more about her life, too.

  6. Stefanie – I was so involved in Septimus’s story, I could write an entire post on that. Thank you for the tip on the Hermione Lee biography, I’ve also heard good things about it, so will put it on my Christmas list!

    Dewey – I should have been more specific above. My Brady Bunch comment is a bit misplaced as it seems she didn’t have a very happy childhood, just a busy one. I’d had no idea she was raised in such a big household.

  7. It seems that Virginia was sexually abused by an older boy relative for a signifivant period of her youth – and some have seen that as responsible in part for her mental troubles. I loved your description of Mrs Dalloway. Septimus is fascinating (just been reading Stefanie’s comment) as he’s one of the rare examples of male hysteria in narrative.

  8. Verbivore, I know it’s a real commitment, but do read VW’s journals and letters, you will learn so much about her from her own words and it places the books in such a different context. I’m on my third read through now (last thing at night bedtime reading) and I still find more each time I read.

  9. Litlove – I hadn’t thought about that for Septimus, you are right. I found his story so compelling. And since I knew that she suffered from mental illness later on, I couldn’t help paying extra attention to how she portrayed someone with similar troubles.

    Ann – I do plan to do this. I love the idea of dipping into them slowly, like you mention. That is how I am reading Montaigne and I think it would be good to treat Woolf in a similar manner, slowly over a long time.

  10. That’s how I plan to read Woolf — slowly, over a long time. Perhaps I’ll have to hunt down the next volume of her diaries. Anyway, great review of the novel — I love it too and would be happy to read it many more times.

  11. Dorothy – I looked for her diaries yesterday and was surprised to see there were 5 volumes. Yes, that will be some long-term reading. 🙂

  12. I was just looking through your categories to see if you had read Richard Yates, which is my current obsession, and I clicked on your VW category and here I am. I was bitten by the VW bug and lifestory and family history a long time ago, and I’ve forgotten more about it than anybody ever really needs to know. Studying her father, Leslie Stephen, was my unfinished, largely unwritten dissertation topic. It’s all great stuff. I think I’ve done one post that covers a little bit of this over at my zhivblog. Brady Bunch, no. But older parents, yes–her father was 50 when she was born. And there was sadness and some Victorian gloom, because both mom and dad had lost their first spouses, so they were widow and widower. When mom Julia Stephen died early, dad Leslie was a grouchy shell and turned into something of a monster. But his literary parenting skills were off the charts.

    The family history is fascinating. There was a breakthrough article in the 50s by Noel Annan, the leading Stephen scholar, called “The Intellectual Aristocracy,” showing the close family interconnections of the Victorian intellectual world. Woolf’s grandfather was raised to abolish slavery in the British Empire as the secretary of the Home Office, which he did.

    I would say that the most satisfying family relationship to look at with Woolf is her closeness and alter-ego relationship with her sister. Very yin-yang, writer/artist, all of it quite extraordinary. Very deep waters, VW’s family life, with good biographies and tons of great material.

  13. Zhiv – your comments are always so long and thoughtful, I appreciate it. It must be a completely different experience reading Woolf with such solid knowledge of her life and background. I don’t usually like biography to inform my reading of a writer but for certain authors I think this actually enriches the experience and Woolf is definitely on that list.
    I would very much like to read Richard Yates, he’s been in the back of my mind for several years. I read your review of him the other day too quickly, have saved it in my bloglines account and plan to spend more time with it as soon as I can. And I will get a copy of Revolutionary Road soon and see what I make of it myself.

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