[I read this 1925 novel in four sections, and wrote about each section before reading on.]
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.
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.”’
The next long chapter—the afternoon, as far as Septimus’s jump
Maybe not everyone is quite as lost—so far, Septimus is the only one to have thrown himself from a high window—but Miss Kilman, for instance, far from being the arrogant arbiter of all morality that Clarissa Dalloway presents, comes pretty close. In fact, Clarissa had got it right in considering her a ‘poor embittered unfortunate creature,’ but as I mentioned already, ‘the idea of her … 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.’ That might well be so, but the embittered creature we meet properly in this section is as needy as anyone. I’ll come back to Miss Kilman.
This section is bookended by Septimus and the doctors. Woolf begins by focusing on the comfortable life Bradshaw has achieved through his complacent self-certainty. The grey Rolls Royce, the grey furs inside, used by the wife who, we later learn, has been comforted and calmed into a kind of desperate submission by her husband. Woolf must hate them all, and their ten thousand a year, a sum she specifies, and she has Holmes’s arrival at the Warren Smith’s flat some hours later bring about Septimus’s leap on to the railings below. We don’t know yet whether his attempted suicide has been successful.
Septimus and Rezia arrive outside Bradshaw’s to the inevitable tolling of Big Ben. ‘The leaden circles dissolved in the air,’ and this is the third time Woolf has used this exact form of words. This isn’t the perception of any one character, but all of them (or none). This is how it is in this universe, and I’ll be surprised if we don’t hear about those leaden circles again before the end. Inside Bradshaw’s office, it all goes as badly as we might expect. He isn’t obtuse like Holmes—in fact, he sees exactly what Septimus’s problem is, and confirms how wrong Holmes had got it by asking Rezia about him. His reaction is like our own: ‘those general practitioners! thought Sir William. It took half his time to undo their blunders. Some were irreparable.’ If that sounds ominous, it ought to, but not for the reasons Bradshaw imagines. The problem is to do with the solution he always comes up with: months of rest at the sanatorium run by a friend of his.
Rezia is appalled at the idea of months of separation. Septimus is appalled by the sense that his own human nature has doomed him: ‘Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. They scour the desert. They fly screaming into the wilderness. The rack and the thumbscrew are applied. Human nature is remorseless.’ And it doesn’t help that Bradshaw, son of a tradesman, has ‘a natural respect for breeding and clothing, which shabbiness nettled.’ Rezia inevitably picks up on the class snobbery. She does not like the world that Septimus’s illness has brought them into… and Bradshaw behaves as though all’s well. Which it is, for him. ‘Proportion, divine proportion, Sir William’s goddess, was acquired by Sir William walking hospitals, catching salmon, begetting one son in Harley Street by Lady Bradshaw…’ and so on. Woolf’s contempt is almost palpable.
Fast-forward a few hours, to where Rezia and Septimus wait for the doctor’s verdict, and the atmosphere is as edgy as usual between them. But, unexpectedly, things take a more hopeful turn as Septimus seems to relax into some of his old ways of speaking and joking. We know it can only be temporary, but Rezia seems determined to believe that this sudden turn for the better actually means something. ‘How it rejoiced her that! Not for weeks had they laughed like this together, poking fun privately like married people.’ We know it’s another of those moments of wilful self-deception that we get in this novel, and Septimus’s own childish optimism adds to that sense. He has suggested some improvements to a hat she is making, she has liked what he’s said, and he is simply too overjoyed: ‘It was wonderful. Never had he done anything which made him feel so proud. It was so real, it was so substantial, Mrs. Peters’ hat.’
It ends as quickly as it began. Mrs Peters is the landlady, and when her granddaughter brings in the evening paper Rezia plays little games with her. Septimus feels safe. ‘He was very tired. He was very happy. He would sleep. He shut his eyes.’ Four short sentences, which are all it takes to end it all. ‘But directly he saw nothing, the sounds of the game became fainter and stranger and sounded like the cries of people seeking and not finding, and passing further and further away. They had lost him!’ They a have a caller and, knowing it is one of the doctors—it’s Holmes, in fact—Septimus is thrown into a moment of psychotic panic. Alone, as Rezia tries to stop Holmes from coming up, Septimus thinks fast. He’s too polite to spoil the breadknife he sees, so… ‘The gas fire? But it was too late now. Holmes was coming. Razors he might have got, but Rezia, who always did that sort of thing, had packed them. There remained only the window.’
Holmes is too late, of course. ‘And why the devil he did it, Dr. Holmes could not conceive.’ Of course not. The chapter ends with him hoping that Rezia will sleep, but she is troubled. ‘She saw the large outline of his body standing dark against the window. So that was Dr. Holmes.’ He’s enough to stop anybody sleeping.
We follow all the other main characters except Peter Walsh in the pages between these two scenes and, among other things, Woolf seems to have in mind the upper middle-class certainties that make outsiders of everybody else. This isn’t Bradshaw and what he would see as his hard-won place among the neurotic rich. This is Lady Bruton, able to call up influential men in order to bring her latest hobby-horse to the national consciousness. The men are Richard Dalloway—there really, really wasn’t anything Clarissa needed to be jealous of when she hears of the invitation—and Hugh Whitbread, the one everyone is patronising about. As Richard remembers the working lunch later, with Clarissa, he had been ‘writing a letter to the Times for Millicent Bruton. That was about all Hugh was fit for.’ He might have no ideas of his own, but Hugh knows how to take the ideas of people like Richard, prompted by Lady Bruton, and turn them into perfectly-formed letters to the Times. They are almost always published.
There’s no great torment on show during the lunch, only insecurities. Lady Bruton knows she couldn’t do any of it on her own, and she doesn’t only blame the prejudices of the men in charge. Hugh uses what limited resources he has at his command to make a life for himself on the peripheries of power—he has a role ‘at court’—and he always makes sure he looks the part. He had struck Clarissa as ‘well-upholstered’ in the first chapter, and he would be fine with that description. It’s what he needs to be, like all the other furnishings deemed necessary for the comfort of the powerful. As for Richard…
…what? He’s the perfect career politician, admired by everyone—including Clarissa—for the tireless committee work he’s known for. But, before going back to it this afternoon, he follows Hugh to an expensive jeweller’s. He marvels that Hugh would contemplate buying something pointless for his sickly wife, and wonders whether he ought ever to do something like that for Clarissa. He opts for flowers instead, and goes home in the middle of the afternoon—something he never does—to give them to her and tell her he loves her. This is also something he never does, and… nor does he this afternoon. After a few minutes with her, discussing her day (including her dissatisfaction concerning Miss Kilman), the moment has never quite arisen. ‘He had not said “I love you”; but he held her hand. Happiness is this, is this, he thought.’ That repetition of ‘is this’ comes about because he wants to emphasise something. He had had almost the same thought a minute or so before: ‘he could not tell her he loved her. He held her hand. Happiness is this, he thought.’ So this is the second time, and maybe he needs more convincing.
Almost immediately after this, he goes back to something that he has been thinking about occasionally. Maybe it was Hugh’s mentioning of Peter Walsh’s presence in London that made him think of flowers…? Whether it is or not, the thought persists. Until it doesn’t. ‘Did she wish she had married Peter? But he must go. / He must be off, he said, getting up. But he stood for a moment as if he were about to say something; and she wondered what? Why? There were the roses.’ And she asks him about the particular committee meeting he has to return to. It isn’t tortured, or agonising. It’s just the way this particular class operates in the Virginia Woolf universe, and we might wonder how any of them can possibly bear it.
And then we get Miss Kilman. We’ve already encountered her in this section, in fact, before Richard Dalloway’s arrival home, when she and Elizabeth prepare to go out into town. Clarissa really, really can’t make herself like this woman her daughter seems so interested in… and, as the point of view alters, we realise Miss Kilman really, really hates Clarissa. Later, as she thinks about this encounter, and others she has had with Clarissa, Miss Kilman tries to persuade herself that there is no hatred in her now that she has found God. But it’s a recent conversion, quite clearly based on her own neediness, and she is unmistakably the same mess of resentment and self-loathing that she was before. She tries to turn the self-loathing outwards, to focus it on Clarissa, her current hate figure, but it just keeps coming at her.
Like Septimus and Rezia, she doesn’t belong in the comfortable world of the Dalloways and Bradshaws. Class isn’t the main issue with the Warren Smiths, but Miss Kilman’s mackintosh is an almost deliberate marker of her own relative poverty and pretended contempt for wealth. Clarissa had thought of it in that early chapter as she worries away at Elizabeth’s supposed attraction to her, and it is mentioned seven times as we follow her in this section. As she stands before Clarissa wearing it on a hot day in June, we find out that she ‘had her reasons. First, it was cheap; second, she was over forty; and did not, after all, dress to please. She was poor, moreover; degradingly poor. Otherwise she would not be taking jobs from people like the Dalloways; from rich people, who liked to be kind. Mr. Dalloway, to do him justice, had been kind. But Mrs. Dalloway had not. She had been merely condescending. She came from the most worthless of all classes….’ We get the picture.
In fact, Elizabeth is no more attracted to her than Clarissa is. As she accompanies her on a trip to buy practical underclothes from the Army and Navy Stores—I’m not making it up—she frets away at how mind-numbingly dull she finds Miss Kilman’s company. But, like her mother, she wants to be kind. She stays to have tea at the store, trying not to make it obvious that she can’t wait to get away. Which she does, as soon as she can, and Miss Kilman can’t hide the truth from herself. We’re following both their thought-streams, and Doris Kilman’s are as troubled as Septimus’s. Woolf has created a character it’s impossible to like, but who isn’t to blame for her own unattractiveness. She just doesn’t know what to do with it.
We see this before they make their way to the Army and Navy. ‘It was the flesh that she must control. Clarissa Dalloway had insulted her. That she expected. But she had not triumphed; she had not mastered the flesh. … Yet Doris Kilman had been overcome. She had, as a matter of fact, very nearly burst into tears when Clarissa Dalloway laughed at her. “It is the flesh, it is the flesh,” she muttered (it being her habit to talk aloud) trying to subdue this turbulent and painful feeling as she walked down Victoria Street. She prayed to God. She could not help being ugly; she could not afford to buy pretty clothes.’
It gets worse. As they finish their tea—the mutual embarrassment has been excruciating—she contemplates the inevitable parting. ‘She was about to split asunder, she felt. The agony was so terrific. If she could grasp her, if she could clasp her, if she could make her hers absolutely and forever and then die; that was all she wanted. But to sit here, unable to think of anything to say; to see Elizabeth turning against her; to be felt repulsive even by her….’ It’s heart-breaking. The physicality of her self-consciousness and self-disgust isn’t her fault any more than the rest of it. And it comes as no surprise that here is another character, stuck in an unbearable situation over which she has no control, who longs for her own death.
After she and Elizabeth part company, Elizabeth to drift aimlessly in her pre-adult, uncertain way and Doris Kilman to find her way into Westminster Abbey, her new-found Christianity can do nothing for her. She is trapped irrevocably inside the person she has become at forty, and this is the physical truth of her that Woolf ends on. A fellow-worshipper waits for her to let him pass: ‘her largeness, robustness, and power as she sat there shifting her knees from time to time (it was so rough the approach to her God — so tough her desires) impressed him, as they had impressed Mrs. Dalloway (she could not get the thought of her out of her mind that afternoon), the Rev. Edward Whittaker, and Elizabeth too.’ The Rev. Edward Whittaker had been the one to welcome her into his church a couple of years previously, and we know the relationship won’t last. She alienates everybody in the end.
The final three chapters
For the first of these chapters we’re with the drifting lost soul that is Peter Walsh. And then we’re at Clarissa’s party, where nothing is resolved or confirmed except that not the tiniest scrap of it has any point at all. I don’t mean the novel, I mean the party. I’ll come back to that, but it’s the ending I want to think about just now. Until the last sentence, I was assuming Peter Walsh would leave without seeing Clarissa again after the briefest of encounters shortly after his arrival. He and Sally Seton had been wondering where she’s got to, and it’s getting late. Sally makes to leave. ‘“I will come,” said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? / It is Clarissa, he said. / For there she was.’
So, not a lost soul then? He’s found the centre of his world, the one love of his life, as he’s just been confirming to Sally Seton—because how could he possibly not tell the truth to her of all people, after all these years? Except, of course, those ambiguous final sentences mean nothing of the sort. The party is a kind of abridged version, for one night only, of what all these people’s lives have come to be. Here is the stately, implacably humanitarian and charitable Lady Bruton, as preposterous as one of Dickens’s full-time philanthropist women, impressing everyone and fretting inside about how badly she writes letters. Here is the ancient woman, present in body only, who will only engage with these people she might only vaguely recognise if they want to talk about the orchids of India. Her book about them reached a third edition, you know. And here is the stuffed shirt who is the Prime Minister, the famous mind doctor everyone finds vaguely distasteful—his wife is rather common, you know—and the rather ludicrous civil servant who’s easy to mock. Everyday life in this narrow little stratum of London society.
This evening is Peter Walsh’s life too, from before his slow, drifting decision, not a decision at all really, to attend the party to that final moment of seeing Clarissa properly. He’s always seen her properly, never doubted that she was the only love of his life. His mix-ups with women ever since his disastrous, tearful breakup with Clarissa—his tears are mentioned in his thought-stream this evening, and he worries about how close they always are to the surface—are, according to somebody or other at the party, what has stopped him from getting on in the world. It’s as though he has never been able to make a good decision again, having made the worst decision of his life a long time ago.
So the climactic truth that is no climax at all, stated in the final sentences, is yet another of the novel’s tragedies. ‘For there she was,’ as she’s always been, and nothing is going to change now. It’s just struck me that Woolf might be offering what Charlotte Bronte offered her readers at the end of Villette, the option of believing, if we want to, that there can be a happy ending for that novel’s central couple. I called Woolf’s ending ambiguous, but only because she doesn’t spell out the truth. She has composed these final chapters very carefully, and there are three or four crucial pages, just before the final chapter spent with Peter and Sally, that change everything for Clarissa. And change everything for the reader, because they go some way towards explaining what the novel has been about from the start.
Woolf carefully manages things so that Bradshaw and his wife arrive at the party very late. Their news of a death knocks Clarissa so thoroughly off-balance—‘Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought’—that we inevitably conclude that these pointless parties of hers, the ones she never quite knows why she keeps having, are her way of keeping death from the door. Woolf never lets us, or her characters, forget how old each one of them is. This is a novel about people near the end of their careers, if not the end of their lives, always looking back. A few pages in, we hear that Clarissa is ‘light, vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness.’ Vivacity yes, but also white-haired mortality at the door.
After her brush with death, or with the idea of death brought in by the Bradshaws, the party changes for her. She goes into where the Prime Minister had been—nothing there but the ‘impress’ of his presence and Lady Bruton’s on the chair seats… and from now on, over three pages or more, we see her speaking to nobody else. The party is beginning to wind down and she doesn’t even try to seek anyone out. Bizarrely—or not so bizarrely, we know—Clarissa had already been thinking of death when musing about Sally Seton’s life: ‘her recklessness, her melodramatic love of being the centre of everything and creating scenes, [were] bound, Clarissa used to think, to end in some awful tragedy; her death; her martyrdom; instead of which…’ what? Something far more ordinary.
Now, Clarissa can’t get death out of her head. She ponders on the details of the suicide, although the Bradshaws hadn’t mentioned how he died: ‘Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it. But why had he done it? And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party!’ Woolf, as narrator, hadn’t described Septimus’s last moments… but Clarissa’s imagination fills the narrative gap. She becomes—what? Not exactly a messenger of death, but the one person in this universe capable of presenting it in all its immensity. ‘Death was defiance. 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.’
A coda to all this begins when she looks out of the window to see the old woman opposite—she’s mentioned her before—looking straight at her. ‘It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed.’ She’s still thinking about the suicide, as the woman pulls the blind and—guess—Big Ben starts to strike. She ‘did not pity him,’ the suicide victim, and—‘There! The old lady had put out her light.’ For the fourth and final time in the novel, ‘The leaden circles dissolved in the air.’ Meanwhile, running in parallel, are the lines that have been repeated all through the novel—Clarissa had seen the quotation displayed in a bookshop window on her way to buy flowers—‘Fear no more the heat of the sun.’ It’s always Clarissa who thinks of these lines—or, rather, it’s always in her thought-stream that they are quoted—except…
…except when it isn’t. During that short time of apparent hope earlier in the evening, just before his final crisis, Septimus gets this: ‘Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more.’ He’s feeling calm, just before he closes his eyes and everything begins to topple out of his control again. We’ve heard this sentence before, with only slight variations, in Clarissa’s thought-stream: ‘Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea….’ This is in a calm moment, following her crisis over Richard’s lunch invitation, just moments before the unexpected arrival of Peter. The comforts of death are everywhere, and it seems that Clarissa shares the knowledge of it with Septimus. Woolf is doing something inexplicable here, and I haven’t forgotten what I was saying much earlier: ‘whoever’s head we’re inside, it’s the same story and, essentially, the same sensibility.’ And, I would add now, the same view of death.
And then we get that final chapter. Have I said enough about it? Sally, remembered by both Clarissa and Peter as easily the most interesting person they knew in their younger days, isn’t interesting any more. Clarissa had entirely lost touch with her because—why? Clarissa’s marriage to the worthy but dull Richard Dalloway put an end to something very important in both their lives. We remember the frank memory of the love for Sally that Clarissa had once felt, yet now Sally is only at the party by chance, having heard of it while travelling through London. She has married a Manchester mill-owner, so beyond the pale that the only person at the party who has any interest in talking to her is Peter.
He is disappointed by the 55-year-old Sally—Woolf mentions her age more than once—and we can tell why. Despite the dullness of her life—‘She had done things too! / “I have five sons!” she told him’—she is still the only person in the world who understands him. ‘Poor Peter, thought Sally. Why did not Clarissa come and talk to them? That was what he was longing for. She knew it. All the time he was thinking only of Clarissa, and was fidgeting with his knife.’ That knife, mentioned what seems like dozens of times throughout this novel, is his only talisman against the world, and she is able to see this in a way that Clarissa never could. (I bet doctoral theses have been written about it, and the phallic and lethal subtexts it carries.) He isn’t as perceptive about Sally. ‘Lord, Lord, what a change had come over her!’ I’m convinced that Woolf is holding her up as an example of another inevitable truth in her implacable universe. She’s as clever as she’s ever been, but clever women with no money haven’t got a chance.
However. What we’re left with, after Clarissa’s long contemplation of death but before the novel’s closing lines, is the insuperable distance between us all. Peter has been explaining his impulsive marriage—‘a perfect goose she was … but … we had a splendid time of it’—but it doesn’t satisfy Sally: ‘how could that be? Sally wondered; what did he mean? and how odd it was to know him and yet not know a single thing that had happened to him.’ That isn’t all she doesn’t know. Her appraisal of why the Dalloways have never come to visit can be explained by bitterness that is all too easy to understand: ‘Clarissa was at heart a snob — one had to admit it, a snob. And it was that that was between them, she was convinced.’ As they wait for Clarissa to appear, Sally thinks she knows, but she doesn’t, not really. ‘Sally supposed, and so did Peter for the matter of that, that there were people of importance, politicians, whom neither of them knew unless by sight in the picture papers, whom Clarissa had to be nice to, had to talk to. She was with them.’
I’m not pretending that Sally is doing Clarissa a disservice. For most of the party, that’s exactly what she, as the hostess, has been having to do and Sally can see that. But she sounds put-out, when what she’s actually describing is the moment-by-moment pointlessness of it all. Clarissa, without being able to accept the thought, knows it perfectly well. And by this time in the novel, so do we. Maybe Clarissa really does appear at the end—‘For there she was’—but it’s just as possible that she’s only present in Peter’s mind. Whether she’s there or not, and even if we could imagine a future in which they acknowledge their love—and I don’t think we should—we know exactly how much meaning it would carry at this point in their lives, in this universe. Woolf doesn’t do happy endings because, she’s convinced us by now, they don’t exist.
I’m beginning to think every character is as lost as the suicidal Septimus Smith.