In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
“Mrs Dalloway is a poet’s novel,” Carol Ann Duffy wrote in her introduction to the novel, “by which I mean that it speaks clearly to the poet in the reader.” Widely recognised as one of Virginia Woolf’s best works, this example of her stream-of-consciousness storytelling details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. The story ties together topics as broad as feminism, mental illness, the post-WW1 social structure, and perhaps more profoundly, the forever tension between the worldly and the poetic. Set in the summer of 1923, Clarissa’s preparation for an evening party is interrupted by an unexpected visit by her first lover, Peter Walsh, who she has not met for years. The visit disrupts Clarissa’s daily life as a ‘perfect hostess’ for parties catering to the English high society - a role she make-believes to be how best life could turn out - and causes her to reflect on her youth spent in the countryside. Meanwhile, the shell-shocked WW1 veteran Septimus Warren Smith is to kill himself by jumping out of a window. Having deemed genuine beauty and happiness lost forever to traumas of the war, he found the imposed sense of proportion in contemporary psychiatry viciously marginalising. Although the two characters never meet, Clarissa learns about Septimus’s death that evening at her party. She is deeply moved by the stranger’s fate, which is in many ways parallel to her own.
Woolf’s perspective as a female author is often embedded in her narrative voice. In Mrs Dalloway, she creates scenes that describe not only the outward appearances, but also the interior existence of her female protagonist.
Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.
Woolf’s fascination with gender identities and with women’s lives, histories and fictions shaped her writing profoundly. Her gently subverting feminist messages are a common thread found throughout Mrs Dalloway. The storytelling is sometimes armed with sarcasm:
Lady Bruton often suspended judgement upon men in deference to the mysterious accord in which they, but no woman, stoof to the laws of the universe; knew how to put things; knew what was said; so that if Richard advised her, and Hugh wrote for her, she was sure of being somehow right.
She speaks directly to the concerns of male gaze with her lyrical, poetic language, restoring autonomy to her female characters with a few simple brushstrokes:
People were beginning to compare her to poplar trees, early dawn, hyacinths, fawns, running water, and garden lilies; and it made her life a burden to her, for she so much preferred being left alone to do what she liked in the country, but they would compare her to lilies, and had to go to parties, and London was so dreary compared with being alone in the country with her father and the dogs.
Capturing emotions with a terrifying sensibility, her prose carries within them a vehement critique of society where a woman’s place is bounded by the four walls of a household:
…Sweet was her smile, swift her submission; dinner in Harley Street, numbering eight or nine courses, feeding ten or fifteen guests of the professional classes, was smooth and urbane. Only as the evening wore on a very slight dulness, or uneasiness perhaps, a nervous twitch, fumble, stumble and confusion indicated, what it was really painful to believe - that the poor lady lied. Once, long ago, she had caught salmon freely; now, quick to minister to the craving which lit her husband’s eye so oilily for dominion, for power, she cramped, squeezed, pared, pruned, drew back, peeped through, so that without knowing precisely what made the evening disagreeable, and caused this pressure on the top of the head, disagreeable it was.
Woolf’s depiction of the human condition - especially that of the female - is one that challenges, provokes, inspires and moves. This is perhaps why, after almost 100 years, her writing still resonates with us today.