I was supposed to read this book for English a while ago. Fine, in May. But, when I started reading it, I was really tired, and wasn’t concentrating very hard, so I put it down in the ‘too hard’ pile. Now that uni is over, however, I decided to revisit it. Also, I have a copy of The Hours in my pile, that I refuse to read without having read this book.
One summer day in June 1923, two very different people are contemplating their lives. Clarissa Dalloway, a member of the social elite of London, is hosting a big party that night, but has errands to run first. Meanwhile Septimus Warren Smith, a soldier of the First World War, is spending in the day in Hyde Park with his deeply unhappy wife, Rezia. As the day unfolds, it turns out that these two people have far more in common that one might first see.
I’m going to be honest – I really had to concentrate to properly read this novel. The whole stream of consciousness thing is, when done well, a pretty amazing literary technique, but it also has the tendency to be pretty rubbish, because no one can do it that well. Except, clearly, Virginia Woolf. This is a brilliant example of this done right – it’s just one stream of words (no chapters, almost no section breaks) that meander along the street, stopping at characters that might seem interesting. If it were a film shot, it would be one long sweeping shot that just focused on the people it met. Woolf manages to make it not seem forced or contrived – you can truly believe these little connections that these people have, which makes the jump from one character’s story to another that much easier.
While there are two main characters, it is the secondary characters that really help make this novel what it is. In particular, Septimus’ wife, Rezia, is an excellent creation. Her desire and need to understand what has happened to her husband is so real, you understand exactly what she is going through. At the same time, you feel for her because, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, you know exactly what is wrong with Septimus, and what kind of help he needs. Which is not the help he gets in the end. Peter Walsh is also worth a mention – as an outsider to Clarissa’s world, he tries desperately to fit in and understand, despite still being hung up on Clarissa, who married Richard Dalloway instead of himself all those years ago.
It is interesting, then, that while there is a huge cast of characters that populate this book, Clarissa Dalloway herself is not in focus the entire time, despite her being the titular character. She, too, is concerned with events from her past, including a kiss with another woman, as well as worrying about her party. She represents the ultimate in upper class – tonight, she will host a party which will be attended by the best of society (including the Prime Minister), and yet, somehow, we know so little about her. We know that she is not happy with her husband, who would prefer to lunch with another important woman, we know that she is on good terms with her servants, and we know who she is in society. But there is something that is fundamentally missing from Clarissa, which is ironic, considering just how much this novel focuses on the interiority of its characters. Perhaps Mrs Dalloway is just unknowable.
I don’t think I’ve respected a book as much as I have Mrs Dalloway. There’s a lot to take in here, and I’m pretty sure I’ll need to read it again to more fully understand what is going on. But, I endured, and I really was rewarded – this is a pretty amazing book. I don’t think that Virginia Woolf is underrated in any way, and this novel proves it in so many ways. I’m always cautious about reviewing ‘classic’ novels, but in this case, the label is most certainly earned.