Mrs. Dalloway: 100%

Photo by Ming Jun Tan on Unsplash

“…having done with the triumphs of youth, lost herself in the process of living, to find it, with a shock of delight, as the sun rose, as the day sank.”

— from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is my most engaging read yet this year. Out of the eighteen serials I’ve read on the Serial Reader app, it might be my favorite. Great Expectations comes close, but can’t match the synchronicity I experienced. I never recognized as much of myself in Pip as I did in Clarissa Dalloway. The fact that I’m the same age as Mrs. Dalloway in the novel certainly helped foster this feeling.

That can seem pretty loaded, to say that I identify with a privileged, middle-aged, woman living in excessive comfort in early 20th century London. But that’s not what I mean by stating “I see myself in Clarissa Dalloway.” And I’m pretty positive Virginia Woolf’s intention was not to glorify Mrs. Dalloway’s privilege.

To me, the whole point is that there is so much more to everything, and everyone, than the categories we put them in.

I had a similar experience many years ago when I read Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I remember strongly identifying with the protagonist, Anne Elliot. Not only did we share a name, we were the same age. Not yet 30 years old, I was at a point in my life where I wasn’t excited about my future prospects. Something needed to change — I needed to change — to course-correct my life. What I took from Persuasion was that if things could change for a 27-year-old woman in the Regency period, there was no reason why I couldn’t shake things up for myself at the fin de 20th siecle.

Clarissa Dalloway is at a different stage of her life, (as am I). Now it’s not so much about changing your life, as it is making sense of it. And what Virginia Woolf accomplished so masterfully in the novel is capturing the multi-facetedness of life, of perception, of everything. Reading Mrs. Dalloway was like being hit with, and comprehending, a brilliant stream from the multiverse. Not only do we understand how Clarissa Dalloway perceives things, we understand how she is perceived, chiefly through the characters of Richard Dalloway, Peter Walsh, and Sally Seton.

And what can I say about the other anchor for the story, the Great War veteran Septimus Warren Smith? Suffering from PTSD and rapidly losing his grip on reality, reading his scenes was difficult, to put it mildly. Clarissa Dalloway does not know him, but knows his doctor, Sir William Bradshaw. When she learns of Smith’s death from Bradshaw, she is profoundly affected, and the story comes back around to itself in the most amazing way. It was one of the most convincing depictions of humanity’s interconnectivity I’ve encountered.

I didn’t go into Mrs. Dalloway with high hopes. I read Woolf’s Night and Day first, and didn’t care much for it. There was only one character I really liked, Mary Datchet, and she kinda gets the narrative shaft. Night and Day was published six years before Mrs. Dalloway, so I guess it just goes to show how writers can develop. Something else I can hope to identify with.

To conclude: my recent interest in Virginia Woolf relates to her novel Orlando. I read it in college, and remember being very intrigued with how time is treated in the story. I plan to re-read it this year, and Night and Day and Mrs. Dalloway were a sort of grounding in Woolf. Tying it back to time, the striking clocks were another thing I loved about Mrs. Dalloway. So I’ll leave you with this, right after Clarissa learns about Septimus Warren Smith:

The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.

Chaucer and Virginia Woolf

London was one thing they had in common. Photo by Hugo Sousa on Unsplash

So, I finished all The Canterbury Tales. And I did watch A Knight’s Tale again. Here are a few concluding thoughts:

  • The paperback version of Canterbury Tales had the following comment from Virginia Woolf regarding Chaucer (she was the only female amongst 21 commenters): “Chaucer was a poet; but he never flinched from the life that was being lived at the moment before his eyes. A farmyard, with its straw, its dung, its cocks and its hens, is not (we have come to think) a poetic subject; poets seem either to rule out the farmyard entirely or to require that it shall be a farmyard in Thessaly and its pigs of mythological origin. . . . He will tell you what his characters wore, how they looked, what they ate and drank, as if poetry could handle the common facts of this very moment of Tuesday, the sixteenth day of April, 1387, without dirtying her hands.” (from The Common Reader)
  • I love this idea of poetry handling the everyday “without dirtying her hands.” It made me think of another quote from Virginia Woolf, one of my favorites: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” While I’m sure there are plenty of valid arguments to the contrary, I have found a certain personal truth to the statement. As long as writing fiction is not my sole livelihood, I feel a sense of freedom in it, whose absence might be suffocating.
  • Finally, in re-watching A Knight’s Tale, I had a better understanding of one of my favorite lines from the movie.┬áIt comes from Paul Bettany’s Chaucer: “I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every pimple, every character flaw. I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.” He says this to a pardoner and a summoner, neither of whom come off very well in the Tales.

All of this has had the effect of softening my memory of the experience of reading all The Canterbury Tales. Even if my only takeaway is a deeper knowledge of the state of our world over 600 years ago, I consider myself richer for that insight.