My rating: 4 stars
Stream of consciousness is not always the most appealing of writing styles. When authors are not successful in captivating readers from the outset, our attention can irredeemably drift away. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is a good example of how to employ such a challenging writing style to good effect. The third-person narration of the characters’ thoughts and interactions with those around them mirrors closely our intimate daily contemplations, while also painting an enthralling picture of London and its inhabitants.
On a warm day in the month of June, 52-year-old Clarissa Dalloway goes out to buy flowers. She is going to host a party that same night. When she returns home, she learns that her husband, Richard Dalloway, has been invited to lunch with Lady Bruton. That leads to a reflection on how she once fell in love with Sally Seton and on how she chose to marry her husband, with whom she has a daughter called Elizabeth, instead of Peter Walsh.
The book is not only about Mrs Dalloway, who is not as content as she once was. Something is missing in her life. It also focuses on what is happening around her, her friends and some of the people she crosses paths with, while she is concerned about her party. Peter Walsh, who was once in love with Clarissa and may well still be, has just returned from India. Septimus Warren Smith, who fought in the First World War, is showing worrying signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Their emotions come to life seemingly without effort and their gestures are easy to imagine, thanks to a precise choice of words, which are put together in sentences that play with rhythm.
“But the indomitable egotism which for ever rides down the hosts opposed to it, the river which says on, on, on; even though it admits, there may be no goal for us whatever, still on, on; this indomitable egotism charged her cheeks with colour; made her look very young; very pink; very bright-eyed as she sat with her dress upon her knee, and her needle held to the end of green silk trembling a little.”
Since readers are presented with the perspectives of various characters, we get more than just one stance on their lives. Clarissa’s past is not only recalled by herself, but also by Peter and Sally, for example, as they used to be very close. What they choose to remember and give importance to influences their opinions on each other, giving readers a wide-ranging perception about their experiences.
“(…) for, she admitted, she knew nothing about them, only jumped to conclusions, as one does, for what can one know even of the people one lives with every day?”
As the characters walk around London, all they witness comes to life – the sounds, the smells, the conversations and behaviours of other people. Virginia Woolf didn’t focus only on portraying what happens on London’s streets. She also created an authentic sense of time and of the socio-economic conditions of the population. There are remarks about international relations, the economic difficulties of poor women, mental health problems and women’s rights. All things considered, it leads readers to contrast the almost shallowness of rich people’s lives with the serious struggles that others are facing.
Mrs Dalloway is a book with no intermissions. As life, it carries on. In order to fully understand the complexity of the characters, I would have had to analyse it and not merely read it. For such a small book, it has a lot to dissect. As occasionally the change of setting feels too abrupt, it could have benefited from being divided in a couple of chapters.