This classic novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1925, has been sitting on my shelves for something close to ten years. Perhaps it's being close in age to Clarissa Dalloway, or the mention of flowers in the middle of our winter, that made me feel it was the right time to read this book.
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself....
Taking place over a single day the reader is presented with the details of Clarissa's preparations for a party. Her errands take her through busy streets of central London, and the chiming of Big Ben constantly reminds citizens that time is running out.
As Clarissa goes about her day her thoughts float through the guest list. Among them is Peter Walsh, a past lover, who is currently in love with a married woman planning a divorce. A habit of flicking his penknife open and closed when agitated belies Peter's well-presented smooth exterior. Another guest is Hugh Whitbread, a former valet...'He was the perfect specimen of the public school type, she said. No country but England could have produced him'. Married to the Honourable Evelyn, theirs is a life lived in a grand home filled with oak furniture and pillowcases fringed with lace. Sally Seton is to arrive soon and will add sparkle to the event. In early adulthood she was quite vocal about socialist causes and the two friends felt an intimate attraction toward each other. Eventually though, Sally goes on to marry a wealthy man, live an aristocratic lifestyle and bears five sons. Sally and Hugh have been acquainted for many years and are therefore well-informed of each other's humble beginnings and the status to which they've risen.
While certainly not guests, Clarissa's husband Richard, and her seventeen year-old daughter Elizabeth are scrutinized by others. In fact, Richard catches a glimpse of his daughter from across the room and hardly recognizes her as it seems in that moment she has gone from being a girl to a woman.
One of my favourite guests is Lady Bruton who 'detested illness in the wives of politicians'. I especially like the image of her conjured up by Woolf as a 'spectral grenadier, draped in black'.
'...if ever a woman could have worn the helmet and shot the arrow, could have led troops to attach, ruled with indomitable justive barbarian hordes and lain under a shield noseless in a church, or made a green grass mound on some primeval hillside, that woman was Millicent Bruton.'
While preparations are under way for Clarissa's party, another character struggles with post-traumatic stress after witnessing the death of a friend on the battlefield during the Great War. Septimus Warren Smith is a tragic figure who is so badly affected by what he has experienced that he thinks birds are singing in Greek and he frequently sees a wall of flames before him. Moments of lucidity bring joy to his young Italian wife, Rezia, but they are too few and there seems to be little help from the doctors. One even suggests, whether through condescension or ignorance, two bromide tablets should do the trick. Virginia Woolf's struggles with her own mental illness and frustration with the medical world's lack of understanding are clearly evident.
Septimus and Clarissa never meet but we are reminded that for every festivity taking place in a corner of the world there is also suffering, and sometimes not so very far away. Through Woolf's keenly observed characters we see a brilliant portrayal of the breadth of difference that often exists between persona and person.
The iconic opening line of Mrs Dalloway is the equivalent of a first bolt in the construction of a space shuttle. Such a humble and unassuming beginning to something so powerful in its end product. This is definitely a novel to return to as I'm sure further readings will reveal many more facets of the characters in this stunning book.