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.