Why Mrs Dalloway?

Brocco, 'Virginia Woolf',En la calle Augusta, en el mismo muro que George Sand, São Paulo, Brasil

It’s an obvious choice, isn’t it?

If we are going to start a journey through the literary labyrinth that is London writing, why not start with Mrs Dalloway’s own perambulations through the city’s West End? In its dynamically vibrant celebration of the city and its modernity, Virginia Woolf’s novel strikes us for its sensuous reading of the urban space, captured as it is in its inability to stay still. Woolf’s narrative weaves in and out of Clarissa’s consciousness, as her thoughts are indissolubly married to the city space which generates them. Even though a significant part of Clarissa’s musings travels back, with longing nostalgia, to her past and her previous life outside of London, Clarissa herself admits that ‘walking in London […] [i]s better than walking in the country.’ This may just read like small talk; Clarissa is, after all, trying to get out of an awkward bit of conversation with Hugh Whitbread. But later on, and throughout the book, there is a growing sense of vitality, a deep understanding of the powerful energy oozing out of the city, its crowded streets, its tempting shops, its monumental architecture: ‘Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lifts its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved’. In a narrative which is, in more than one way, haunted by the spectres of the past war, illness and death hover on each page, and particularly in the passages following the nervous steps of Septimus Smith, whose London is not a source of relief, but of painful and traumatic associations. Yet, in spite of the looming tragedy – which is somehow too easily dismissed as something inevitable at the end of the novel – the predominant mood is one of celebration. The relentless carnival of the metropolis, the visual spectacle, the polyphony of its sounds, the cornucopia of transgressive pleasures – think, for example, of the omnibus journey that Elizabeth undertakes, thrilled and unchaperoned – somehow minimises even further the insignificant impact of an individual life, its happiness and its sorrows too small to become visible against the colossal backdrop of the urban canvas. Woolf’s stream of consciousness, of course, makes this point rather more poignantly than my brief review:

‘Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? But that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.’

In transcending the limits of human mortality, the city becomes palimpsest, its geological strata made of the lives of its people who walk its streets every day, brushing past each other, not knowing that, somehow, their journeys have converged, even if just instantaneously, and been part of London’s immortal magic.


About Monica Germana

Monica Germanà was born in Sicily and moved to Scotland in 1997. After spending seven magical years in Glasgow, she decided that the Scottish winters were too dark for her Mediterranean soul and, after a spell in the Midlands is now lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Westminster, in London. She is currently writing ‘Ghost Trains’, a stage-play set in a ghostly underground system parallel to the Tube, and ‘Off-Peak’, a novella set in contemporary London.
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12 Responses to Why Mrs Dalloway?

  1. betsy kamali says:

    For me, the book resembled D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I felt for Septimus and his sorrow world of fear and paranoia. I felt for his wife, Lucrezia, for she longed sooo much to be loved and embraced. She felt so lonely to be in a country so far from her beloved Italy and a feeling of such tremendous loss of power and loss of identity. I feel there is a bit of Woolf in Rezia. I think she is a character that can be explored much more then Woolf has given her.

  2. I wonder if anyone has read Woolf’s shorter piece ‘Street Haunting’? It’s also about wandering through London, but it has a fiendishly clever premise: the wanderer in question is in search of a pencil. It’s such a neat idea I think – the writer, looking for something to write with, discovers the story in the act of the journey itself…

  3. amaranthye says:

    Springboarding off of Betsy, I think that the two most poignant characters in the book are Rezia and Sally. In a way they are polar opposites, one woman clearly cannot get what she wants no matter how hard she tries, and the other is popular, a bit daring, and ends up marrying money and is perceived to have the perfect life. Most of this book is centered on the women, and is written from the perspectives of different women. Occasionally when a man’s opinion is thrown in it is almost comes as a shock to the reader, and upon closer inspection, women remain part of the main focus. Peter sits and thinks about the various women in his life and how Clarissa and he used to be. Septimus sits and wishes he was free from Lucrezia, and thinks how once he is he will be more powerful and lead a better life. Women are summed up in this book as the makers and breakers of their men and their community.

  4. betsy kamali says:

    How clever of Woolf! I MUST read this..such a simple task bringing us on a journey throughout London! Thank you Matt I will check it out!

  5. betsy kamali says:

    I absolutely agree. It seems to me that this isn’t Clarissa, yet Virginia and her female role in a male dominated London of the early 20s. I find myself in a love/hate relationship with Clarissa and so much resembles the life and writings of Sylvia Plath and woman so ahead of her time that no ne seem to understand her. Woolf and Plath are two peas in the same complex and life altering pod.

  6. Yes, thank you, Matt, for reminding us of this evocative piece. And if anyone is interested, the full text of Woolf’s essay is available online:

  7. betsy kamali says:

    The part that grasped my attention the most in this movel was a line that Clarissa said after finding out about a man who killed himself. “Death was difiance. Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death.” This is a very poignant of the novel, for me, because this read into Woolf’s character and questioning her own mortality.

  8. Peter Raynard says:

    The aptly named Francine Prose says, as a writer one must read slowly (which used to be called ‘close reading’), in order to understand why the author structured the narrative to best convey the story (Reading Like a Writer). So in the London Reading Club I am interested to understand, if we should be reading differently as writers and if so, how.

    Ironically, whether a writer or not, I found no other way to read Mrs Dalloway, other than slowly. In David Edgar’s book, How Plays Work, he cites Peter Brooks (from The Shifting Point, 1987), who said that the elements of any work of art include concentration; an artist reduces the chaos and redundancy of everyday life to what interests us. I certainly feel that is what Woolf has done with Mrs Dalloway; a short book packed with the manicured meanderings of an array of characters during a single day. This is compounded by the tight juxtaposition of viewpoints as well as the observations of unconnected characters in the London setting (e.g. Peter Walsh observing Rezia and Septimus in the park, then later the body of Septimus in the ambulance). I think this stream of consciousness works particularly well when portraying Septimus’ descent into madness, the effect on Rezia, and Clarissa’s musings on suicide. I wonder if this approach is sustained in today’s contemporary fiction, as I haven’t read it myself.

    The most striking sentence which I feel sums up the style of the book comes from Rezia when realising the extent of Septimus’ madness, she says: “She could say whatever came into her head.”

    But there is also humour in the book: the description of the king, “He looked so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits – poor chap.” Or the mocking of Miss Kilman, who didn’t dress to please as she was over forty, or when speaking of her conversion to the Lord: “and here she always bowed her head,” and my favourite, “she liked people who were ill.”

    However, the danger I feel of reading a book as a writer is that you lose the basic enjoyment of the story. Maybe the trick is to learn to enjoy the content of the book whilst at the same time understanding how it was written. But that’s a trick I haven’t yet mastered.

  9. Anne Reynolds says:

    I was in Fleet Street yesterday and passed The Cock Tavern where Virginia Woolf dined regularly with Leonard. A small, insignificant fact from her life maybe but I’m sure a faint echo of her started walking in brisk step with me for a while as I passed by. In re-reading ‘Mrs Dalloway’ I was certainly very aware of the author’s presence as Sally Seton reminded me of Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West, and her own depression seems to inform the inner turmoil experienced by Septimus.

    The plane flying overhead in the cloud-filled sky with its tantalising, but oddly indecipherable slogan, is visible by people in The Mall, Green Park, Piccadilly, Regent Street and Regent’s Park and yet everyone sees something different. Perhaps this lack of consensus reflects the fact that postwar London (WWI) was a place where established solidity had given way to flux and uncertainty. Or does it suggest the complicated inner thoughts of the characters, which are not always matched by the faces they present to the world? Certainly the characters do appear to have problems with expressing their emotions – the flowers Richard gives to Clarissa have to say ‘I love you’ on his behalf.

    But there is always the reliable chiming of Big Ben to remind you of the seconds ticking away… Just one day in Clarissa’s life with a multitude of thoughts swirling in her head, and relatively few of them actually spoken out loud. The apparent contradiction of the charming hostess who prefers her nun-like cell in the attic reflects the reality of how we all live. It is easy to forget what an unconventional mode of writing this was at the time and what a shock it was to her readers – although much of this shock I would attribute to guilt that someone had seen inside their heads. How many of us would want a digital stream of consciousness feeding into our twitter accounts from our thoughts?

  10. betsy kamali says:

    I msut say Peter, I absolutely agree with you. One of problems of being a writer is that when you’re reading you become so ingrossed in the technicalities of the author you are reading that a clear sense of enjoyment is thrown out the window. I found Clarissa’s redundacy to be soo over-powering and frankly, annoying. I couldn’t figure out who was talking at some points Dalloway or Woolf. The complexity and the sheer chaotic mind of both individuals left little to the imagination. I love what you called it, “manicured meanderings” it is by far the best I can describe Woolf and Dalloway. The monotonous of the writing and the rhythm of the tone by which Clarissa spoke was almost obvious. The moment of enlightenment was, for the first time, for me, when Clarissa looked out the window and saw the old lady across the street settling in bed. I felt for the first time she didnt’t feel a need to keep herself busy with everyday mundane chorus. I think if one met such a character such as Dalloway, one would find a dear friend in her as Sally did.

  11. Pingback: The ‘Writer Reader’ | The London Reading Club

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