Mrs Dalloway—Virginia Woolf

[I’m reading this 1925 novel in four sections, and writing about each section before reading on. So far, I have read two sections.]

5 March 2019
The first three chapters—as far as Peter Walsh’s unexpected visit to Clarissa
There are no numbered chapters, but line breaks divide this first quarter into three. The style is a particularly intense version of third-person omniscient, as Virginia Woolf allows the narrative to swoop down into the consciousness first of one character, then another and another. Sometimes there’s an abrupt switch as another character muses on the appearance of the one we’re currently with, but we’re getting used to it now. What’s more harrowing is the amount of unhappiness, regret, pain…. In the narrow little world that Woolf has clearly chosen for its veneer of prosperity and contentment, some people are screaming inside.

The mismatch, I’m guessing, is the point. The upper-middle-class woman breezily decides she’s going to get the party flowers to save her maid the trouble, and eventually, we’ll follow her into an expensive florist’s shop in an upmarket street in London’s West End. Any contemporary reader would know exactly what milieu we’re in, a world designed for the comfort of the wealthy, in which working people see to their needs so they can believe everything is as easy as it looks. ‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. / For Lucy had her work cut out for her.  The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming.  And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach.’ And that last little image is perfect. This is what we’re probably thinking, as we read about her comfortable stroll through the green spaces—her life is like a child’s, with no worries beyond who’s going to choose the flowers.

Would Woolf’s readers in 1925 be expecting dark undercurrents as they read these opening sentences? They wouldn’t have had the benefit of having read To the Lighthouse, published two years later, a novel that takes place during two summers at the big holiday house of a comfortably-off family. In that novel a young boy fantasises about killing his father, an academic—whom we, and the son, eventually recognise to be a chronic depressive. How far into Mrs Dalloway does it seem to feel like this novel is a preparation for the later one? We don’t encounter the smashed-up psyche of Septimus Warren Smith until maybe a dozen pages in—his wife is embarrassed that someone might have overheard his threat to kill himself—but there are danger-signs in Mrs Dalloway’s own thought-stream long before this. The sound of a backfiring car had come at just the wrong time for her—‘oh! a pistol shot in the street outside!’—because until that moment she had been letting the scents and associations of the flowers carry her to a place of calm…

…where she had sorely needed to be. Inside the shop, she had let her mind wander here and there, and it had found itself settling on ‘Miss Kilman’, an unattractive and sanctimonious-sounding woman that Clarissa’s daughter seems to have a crush on. Her assessment of her starts off conventionally enough—‘she was never in the room five minutes without making you feel her superiority, your inferiority’—although even now we detect Clarissa’s sense of her own triviality. But later in the same long paragraph, things have become much darker: ‘the idea of her … undoubtedly had gathered in to itself a great deal that was not Miss Kilman; had become one of those spectres with which one battles in the night; one of those spectres who stand astride us and suck up half our life-blood, dominators and tyrants; for no doubt with another throw of the dice, had the black been uppermost and not the white, she would have loved Miss Kilman! But not in this world. No.’

These aren’t the first difficult thoughts she’s had in these few pages. When she chides herself out loud—‘Nonsense, nonsense!’—she might just as well be referring to her fretful thoughts about Peter Walsh, the man she decided not to marry a very long time ago. Her self-reproach sounds like a rallying-call to her own psyche, to turn her back on the dark places and let the flowers’ evocative scents do their work. Which is what they are doing, just, when that pesky car backfires. I haven’t mentioned Peter Walsh before, but Mrs Dalloway has been thinking about him off and on since page 1, and she seems thrown somewhat off-balance by the fact that he’s going to be back in England sometime this month or next…. I’ll come back to him because he comes back to the novel soon. She never reads his letter properly, so she hadn’t been expecting him to arrive on this of all days….

But that’s later. On the way to the florist’s from her Westminster home—she’s married to a career politician, apparently to Peter Walsh’s disgust—she’s met a different man from her past. He’s a seemingly harmless enough chap that even Clarissa can be patronising about—and don’t bother to ask what Peter Walsh always thought of him…. His wife is in a sanatorium, suffering from some unnamed complaint, and they’re often coming up to London to ‘see doctors.’ It’s the way of things in this novel that we don’t know whether the complaint is physical or mental, or a combination of the two. The same goes for Mrs Dalloway’s own illness some time back—we don’t know how long ago it was—that left her hair white and seems to have ended any thought of sex in the marriage. She sleeps in a single bed, often thinking of the tightness of the sheets during this morning, and… what? When she gets home at the beginning of the third chapter, he’s gone off to lunch with a Lady Bruton, who invited him but not her. She resents the invitation, and it makes her jealous.

There’s a sexual undertow to a lot of her thinking. We’ve witnessed how raw her feelings are for the woman her daughter has a crush on, and in the third chapter it’s her own first love she muses on. It isn’t Peter Walsh, but Sally Seton, someone who entered their sheltered little lives where Clarissa was brought up at ‘Bourton’. At the height of her love—she demands of herself what it was if not love—Clarissa had been left gasping at the idea that she was living under the very same roof as this startling young woman. Bourton had been the setting for the decisive moment of her life, and of Peter Walsh’s when, on the terrace one moonlit night (I think), she decided she wouldn’t be marrying him. We know it was the right decision because she keeps telling herself, and we know that Richard Dalloway had been a far better choice for the same reason. So that’s all right.

When Peter Walsh arrives on a rare visit from India, Clarissa is completely thrown. He comes straight up to her rooms, unannounced, and spends the next half-hour or so unsettling the hell out of her. He plays with his clasp-knife in that way he always used to, even rubbing his thumb along the blade at one point, and tells her, a propos of—what?—that he’s in love. Not with her, but with the wife of an army officer in India, and he’s in London to see lawyers about the divorce. This unknown woman, Daisy, suddenly takes on huge proportions in her mind, and she finds herself remembering the circumstances of his first marriage, to a woman he met on the ship to India. We don’t know whether she’s still alive, because… well, why would we? Why would Clarissa Dalloway concern herself with such details? Whatever, when he leaves in an unexpected hurry on the arrival of her daughter—we know he’s feeling as unsettled as she is, fretting about that moment on the terrace and wishing she hadn’t brought it up—she is overcome again. ‘“Peter! Peter!” cried Clarissa, following him out on to the landing, “My party! Remember my party tonight!” she cried….’ Unfinished business? I couldn’t possibly comment.

I’ve hinted that we get some of Peter’s thoughts during this conversation, and these aren’t the only people whose interior lives we witness in these chapters. After Clarissa’s self-reproaches in the flower-shop, Virginia Woolf presents us with a showpiece of a transition section from inside to outside as she moves into the second chapter. That backfiring car that had caused Clarissa to panic for a moment belongs to somebody very important indeed, and people out on the street speculate on whether it’s maybe the Queen or the Prince of Wales. Whoever it is, Woolf is able to unpack a very English moment as these ordinary people feel themselves close to something far more important to them than mere celebrity. This personage represents a link, not to be dismissed as trivial, to the divine. A member of the British royal family, as sanctioned by God and living in the palace behind Queen Victoria’s statue, is passing close by! The moment is imbued with a historical significance.

Or is it? Do I believe for a moment that this is what Woolf really thinks about these preening royals—or do I think that this is a satirical jab at the way people choose to bring meaning to their tiny lives? Woolf follows the car, or gets ahead of it to where a little crowd of London poor—she specifies that this is exactly who they are—wait for it to arrive at Buckingham Palace. It’s here! No it isn’t, and they wind back in the respect they’ve wasted on the car of a nobody, so that there’ll still be plenty left for the one carrying the Queen. If that’s who’s coming. And, when the right one does arrive, the attention of every last one of them is diverted away from it to an aeroplane writing messages in the sky. And it’s another jab: nobody can agree on what the message is—or, rather, everybody reads whatever they like into it. Human beings in this universe are clueless when it comes to reading any kind of sign.

But one man knows. He’s the one at the end of the transition, and he knows the message is for him alone. Poor Septimus Warren Smith, unlike all the other people in this part of London this morning, can’t hold his life together at all. He’s locked into what we have to assume is post-traumatic stress, shell-shock, and it is driving him completely mad. His Italian wife is living in her own hell, not objectively as bad as his, but as hard for her to cope with. Marriage to a man who seems to have been a hero, whom the doctor says would be perfectly well if he got out and found himself something to do instead of moping, is leaving her embarrassed by his outbursts and lost in a strange country. She finds herself wishing that if he really does mean to kill himself, he would get on with it. But that isn’t where the second chapter ends. We don’t know why we’re with the seedy-looking man with a suitcase of leaflets, who seems at the end of his tether as he contemplates entering St Paul’s to seek some kind of solace—until the plane swoops over the rooftops and spells out T-O-F…. So, the people who thought it was advertising toffee really do seem to have been right.

As I suggested at the beginning, Virginia Woolf is good at sniffing out the pain, wherever it might be hiding among the infantile consolations of contemporary life.

15 March
The next chapters—to about half-way through
Infantile consolations. Peter Walsh’s main solace is to follow young women, at a respectful distance, and imagine an affair with them. But, like all the other comforts, it isn’t fit for any sort of meaningful purpose. After leaving Clarissa, he follows a woman, pretending she could be the next big thing in his life—until she reaches her front door and ‘with one look in his direction, but not at him, one look that bade farewell, summed up the whole situation and dismissed it triumphantly, for ever, had fitted her key, opened the door, and gone! … It was over.’ What was over? Nothing at all. In his own way, Peter Walsh lives as much in his own imagination as Septimus Smith.

He is astonished, in retrospect, that he found himself in tears at Clarissa’s. He had assured her by then that he was in love, but not with her, and the reader hadn’t been fooled for a moment. For a lot of pages we are now following him and his thought-stream and, at times, he reaches a full understanding of the matter. He admits a painful truth to himself: ‘For hours at a time (pray God that one might say these things without being overheard!), for hours and days he never thought of Daisy.’ He admits just as forcefully that he is still as in love with Clarissa as he was when she—or, if his memory serves, he—brought their relationship to an end at Bourton. He is re-living those final few days or weeks 30 years ago as vividly as we have seen Clarissa doing, and it is making him just as unhappy.

Meanwhile, amongst all this turmoil, we are getting different views of characters we’ve only encountered from another person’s point of view—including Peter Walsh’s take on those personality traits of his own that Clarissa always found unsettling. It’s partly to do with nervousness, lack of self-belief, a sense of social inferiority that he knows he shouldn’t feel but does anyway. We’d seen in the early chapters how he regards the upper middle classes with disdain—we know he always considered Hugh to be a ‘block’, and now we learn how he considers Richard Dalloway to have been nothing more than the safest and dullest option when Clarissa chose him. But none of this helps. At the age of 53 he is without a job, might have to ask one of those fools to put a word in for him….

He blames himself for the break-up. When Dalloway had appeared on the scene, he is seized by a dull fatalism. He and Clarissa had gone through one of those sad little conversations in which they simply seem to be speaking at cross-purposes, and he has temporarily given up on her. He sees her self-protective reserve as woodenness and cruelty, and later behaves as though she isn’t even there. Then, ‘half-way through dinner he made himself look across at Clarissa for the first time. She was talking to a young man on her right. He had a sudden revelation. “She will marry that man,” he said to himself.’  Yep, that’s the way these things happen. Later, in desperation, he tries to retrieve things on a boat excursion on the lake, and ‘He had twenty minutes of perfect happiness.’ Followed by the certainty, again, that Dalloway would be the one to marry her. Later, he tells her it’s over between them. He blames her.

The other characters we follow in these chapters are Septimus and his wife Rezia. They are still in Regent’s Park, still locked in their own private agonies. We get a little more background, and even more painful insights into how his shell-shock all these years after the war—we discover it’s 1923—has developed into a full-blown psychosis. We also get more of an insight into Woolf’s view of the medical profession. We see not only the obtuseness of ‘Dr Holmes’, but hear his jaunty calls to Septimus to find something cheerful to do and start to behave more considerately to his lovely wife. It’s heart-breaking, because of the guilt that Holmes’s ineptitude leads him to. ‘So there was no excuse; nothing whatever the matter, except the sin for which human nature had condemned him to death; that he did not feel. He had not cared when Evans was killed; that was worst; but all the other crimes raised their heads and shook their fingers and jeered and sneered over the rail of the bed in the early hours of the morning at the prostrate body which lay realising its degradation; how he had married his wife without loving her; had lied to her.’

It’s torture. He now regularly hallucinates that the dead Evans, an officer of Septimus’s and his closest comrade, often comes to him now. Septimus had had a good war, had won ‘crosses,’ but by the time Evans was killed just before the armistice he was beyond feeling anything. There’s a terrible poignancy in the way that Woolf presents his response at the time: ‘Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognising that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably. The War had taught him. It was sublime. He had gone through the whole show, friendship, European War, death, had won promotion, was still under thirty and was bound to survive. He was right there.’

They have finally given up on Holmes, although Rezia seems to have no idea what is wrong with Septimus. She mourns that she is no longer in Italy, making hats with her sistrs, regrets ever coming to this country she hates. She becomes more and more embarrassed by having to be out with Septimus, whose behaviour is becoming ever more bizarre. She is on tenterhooks, it transpires, about the appointment they are hanging about for with Sir William Bradshaw, a famous specialist. ‘“The time, Septimus,” Rezia repeated. “What is the time?”’ But Septimus responds ‘very drowsily,’ too engaged with the strange people he’s seeing. ‘As he sat smiling at the dead man in the grey suit the quarter struck—the quarter to twelve.’

We’ve become familiar with the way the passage of time is marked, often quite ominously, by the booming hours and quarters tolled by Big Ben. For Clarissa earlier, the silence before they sound had been ‘a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense.’ Then ‘a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought….’ It’s nearly always like this and, very significantly I think, it doesn’t seem to matter who is doing the listening. Because while presenting us with a universe in which the only certainty is the separateness of every character from every other, Virginia Woolf is suggesting something more disturbing still. Everyone is somehow unmoored, no one immune from—what? Time’s arrow ending everyone’s hopes?

The complexity and ambiguity of this becomes really evident when the half-hour strikes. Peter Walsh is at Clarissa’s, and their conversation is interrupted at a crucial moment by the appearance of her daughter Elizabeth. I’m convinced that the perfect timing of the interruption is another of Woolf’s satirical digs, this time at the laziness of a novelistic trope like this. What had Peter just asked, as though leading up to something momentous in both their lives? Overwhelmed by memories, he sees how Clarissa ‘still had the power as she came across the room, to make the moon, which he detested, rise at Bourton on the terrace in the summer sky.’ But, this time, he isn’t going to just stand by and let things happen. ‘“Tell me,” he said, seizing her by the shoulders. “Are you happy, Clarissa? Does Richard —”’ Does Richard what? We’ll never know, because that long dash signifies the end of it, again. Enter Elizabeth, who is formally polite with him, and then: ‘The sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour struck out between them with extraordinary vigour, as if a young man, strong, indifferent, inconsiderate, were swinging dumb-bells this way and that.’

And off he goes (Peter Walsh, not the indifferent young man), not even looking at Clarissa as he says goodbye. She calls out a reminder about her party but, out on the street, all he can hear is ‘the sound of all the clocks striking.’ He can’t ignore them for a moment, whatever he tries: ‘Remember my party, remember my party, said Peter Walsh as he stepped down the street, speaking to himself rhythmically, in time with the flow of the sound, the direct downright sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour. (The leaden circles dissolved in the air.)’ The last time we heard about the leaden sound was in Clarissa’s thought-stream, but we can be sure the echo is deliberate. The narrative voice is not neutral, and it’s telling us something about forces that seem to be beyond the characters’ power to control. Elizabeth’s entrance might merely have been an inconvenience, but the tolling of the bell is doom-laden. Peter Walsh doesn’t even like her parties, and the people he has to meet there. I will be very surprised indeed if there will be any happy outcome from their meeting.

(I only know one other writer who attempts something similar, in a terrifying novel published 20 or so years later. In Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, the lives of several closely-linked characters unravel before our eyes during a single day. At the time I re-read it, I wrote this: ‘We don’t follow him into the next chapter. Instead, we’re with [another character] again – and it’s what made me finally realise that whoever’s head we’re inside, it’s the same story and, essentially, the same sensibility. I don’t mean this as a criticism: for Lowry the existential discontent, the sense of failure and the impossibility of relationships are as inevitable a feature of the human condition as our insurmountable separateness.’ I might have been writing about Mrs Dalloway. Lowry’s death, ten years after the novel’s publication, might well have been suicide. Woolf’s death certainly was.)

What else? In all of this, there’s room for an element of comedy about the ways we are locked into our own views of the world. The farcical responses to the skywriting plane early on, and different people’s interpretations are one example, but we get a much darker comic moment as Septimus sees ‘the man in the grey suit.’ It isn’t a dead man, but Peter Walsh—no comment—and, as Peter looks at Septimus and Rezia, he couldn’t be more wrong about the scene before his eyes: ‘that is being young, Peter Walsh thought as he passed them. To be having an awful scene — the poor girl looked absolutely desperate — in the middle of the morning.’ It sounds bad, but to Peter Walsh all it is, really, is an ‘amusing thing about coming back to England … lovers squabbling under a tree; the domestic family life of the parks.’ It isn’t comedy at all, of course—the desperation he’s witnessing is even worse than his own.

Then there’s a different kind of narrative complexity from what we’ve already had. We’ve seen how the point of view can sometimes become ambiguous, and it happens again after we’ve been following Peter Walsh for nearly ten pages as he seeks some kind of comfort from simply wandering about. We’re familiar with that from Clarissa—he decides on Regent’s Park, calling to mind her stroll through a different park earlier—and the fourth chapter ends as he muses on things and falls asleep on a park bench. Then, for a two-page chapter, we’re—where? ‘The grey nurse resumed her knitting’ as he snores beside her in the first sentence—but by the end of a short paragraph she, or some other figure in Peter Walsh’s dreams, has become first a ‘spectral presence’ and is now ‘the giant figure’ at the end of the traveller’s journey.

What’s going on? A two-page dream interlude? Maybe, but for a novelist like Virginia Woolf there must be compelling reasons for such a gear-change. One, perhaps, is to show that a trauma victim like Septimus isn’t he only one whose inner life is a long way from the average novel-reader’s comfort- zone. Peter is ‘an atheist perhaps,’ but he has ‘moments of extraordinary exaltation,’ when leaves blowing can ‘dispense charity, comprehension, absolution….’ Wouldn’t it be nice, I’m thinking, but this is only a couple of paragraphs into this short chapter, and there’s a long way to go yet. A momentary exaltation is all well and good, but by the end of the chapter it’s falling apart. The visionary figure has become a landlady now, talking to him. ‘There is nothing more tonight, sir?’ Where is he? ‘To whom does the solitary traveller reply?’ Moments later: ‘He awoke with extreme suddenness. “The death of the soul.”’

I’m beginning to think every character is as lost as the suicidal Septimus Smith.