Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
Virginia Woolf is one of those authors I think I was simply too young to appreciate at first encounter. I was baffled by and uninterested in To the Lighthouse when made to read it in school, and so I avoided Woolf for decades. But trying to read and blog more about the classics has inspired me to look again at some of those authors I never gave a second chance, and Mrs. Dalloway went on my list.
When I started it, Woolf’s mannered language still baffled and annoyed me somewhat. I wondered: is it really necessary to write so flamboyantly about such trivial things as buying flowers for a party, pedestrians gawking on the pavement, old friends meeting? Though brief in page count, the novel’s dense and intricate structure makes it an exercise in concentration — it needs to be read slowly and sometimes repeatedly to understand what character or event is being talked about. This is no nineteenth-century narrative that leads one by the hand and presents neatly staged tableaux. It swoops and darts about in unexpected and disorienting ways.
So at first this annoyed me, and distanced me from the reading. But then suddenly something clicked and I found myself drawn in by Woolf’s playful and supple use of words to try to approach that ineffable thing, the human soul. In any ordinary cluster of city streets there are countless human beings suffering and loving and dying, with their memories and fears and hopes mostly completely uncomprehended by one another and often even themselves. How to articulate that? It can’t be with ordinary language, and Woolf turns to a prose that approaches poetry in her attempt to break through the ordinariness that hides our true selves.
I do like her writing best when it’s more pared down and less fanciful. There are times when one has to suspect her of showing off a bit, which is distracting. But then there are passages like this:
All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was! — that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant…
The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light.
For such revelations, so musically expressed, I came to appreciate and even love Mrs. Dalloway. I’m so glad I gave Virginia Woolf another look, and know that I’ll be coming back for more.