‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged’ but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? (Virginia Woolf in the essay ‘Modern Fiction’)
I normally start my blog entries with an introductory quote from the text, but in this case I felt it necessary to let Virginia Woolf speak for herself. As you enter this novel, forget straight lines and total traditional narrative arcs. Think more of entering a bubble or a ‘luminous halo,’ in the words of the author. Reflect on the myriad thoughts that seem to appear in our minds during the course of a day, as we interact with our perceived external world. This is what is dramatised, in scintillating style, in ‘Mrs Dalloway;’ we each live in a self-contained ‘halo.’ So what do we do from here?
The novel does have a carefully worked structure, based on the immortal chiming of Big Ben, during the course of one London day in 1923. This fluid movement between internal and external experiences was Woolf’s attempt to more authentically record the experience of people, in the dislocated atmosphere of post war London. Any sense that we all live in a common perceptual world, which was underpinned by the social building blocks of the Church, the Houses of Parliament, traditional Educational Institutions and the Class Structure, was shattered forever by the cataclysmic events of World War One and the Influenza Pandemic which followed. This novel is set literally and metaphorically, in the still smoking ruins of the War. As embodied in the character of Septimus Warren Smith and the frail sensibility of Clarrissa Dalloway, the aftermath of the War is still in progress. Yet Woolf’s focus is absolutely on the consciousness of each character; how and what they experience on a moment to moment basis. Does this sound claustrophobic and insular? It may do, but Woolf balances her inward focus with a sparkling sensitivity to a profusion of sensory details
‘June had drawn out every leaf on the trees. The mothers of Pimlico gave suck to their young. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To dance, to ride, she had adored all that.’
The plot of the novel is effectively just a light skeleton for the intimate observations of character, social context, thematic exposition and personal exploration. Clarissa Dalloway is in the early stages of preparing for one of her regular parties, for a museum of wealthy and influential socialites, to be held that evening at her elegant London house. Septimus Smith is a young war veteran who is suffering a form of delayed shell shock, from the traumatic events of the War, especially involving the death of Evans, his former lover. Septimus and Clarissa never meet, but have social and coincidental links. They have a great deal in common in the pattern of their thoughts and their emotional crises. As the day develops, the reader is carried rapidly through the past and present of a varied collection of London society. This gradually builds an increasingly sharper view of each character, in a process of rapid accretion. This is a new technique in the construction of character. As a result partly of the events of the previous decade, and dissatisfaction with the representations of character of writers, such as Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and H.G. Wells, traditional characterisations became unsatisfactory for a number of artists. Combined with Woolf’s self-declared uncertain experience of a ‘perceived reality’, the main characters in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ embody a fluidity of sense of self. They need to reconstruct themselves each day, a task that for Septimus, and eventually the author herself, proved overwhelming. These characters appear and disappear with ease, unlike the stolid fixity of representation of the late Victorian novelists. This is only one element of this novel which gives it a contemporary freshness and energy. It feels like a 21st century narrative. Notice the sense of evanescence as Clarissa surveys both her party and herself.
And yet for her own part, it was too much of an effort. She was not enjoying it. It was too much like being – just anybody, standing there; anybody could do it; yet this anybody she did a little admire, couldn’t help feeling that she had, anyhow, made this happen, that it marked a stage, this post that she felt herself to have become, for oddly enough she had quite forgotten what she looked like, but felt herself a stake driven in at the top of her stairs. Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that everyone was unreal in one way; much more real in another’
This is a novel that has deservedly become a classic due to its narrative innovations, a new paradigm of the construction and representation of character, the authentic beauty of writing, and the personal courage of Virginia Woolf in revealing her internal patterns of thought, through both the major and minor characters. She is able to convincingly integrate the internal experiences of each character, into the events of a single day and the extended recollections and reflections of the past. The reading experience is sometimes one of breathlessly keeping up with the relentless, rhythmic forward motion of the hyper realised narrative voice. Also the constant internal referencing and the dynamic interplay between perception and response, enacts another element of the scintillating, sometimes manic energy of Clarissa’s sensibility. For those like myself who love stories written with poetic intensity, this is certainly one of the best. Why is it a classic? Please savour, slowly, for yourself.
‘The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.’