Ever-mindful of the gender imbalance on my reading list, I decided it was high time for a feminist writer to teach me some shit. My next selection was Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
The first edition of Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925 by Hogarth Press… which was founded, owned and operated by Virginia Woolf and her husband. That’s one way to get published, I suppose!
Woolf was reportedly inspired by reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, though she wasn’t a fan of his notoriously unreadable tome. Writing Mrs Dalloway was really Woolf’s way of saying “Look, mate, here’s how you do it right!”. She mirrors the format of Ulysses, with both books taking place over the course of a single day, but in this case it’s a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an aging Pommy socialite.
Having read the two introductions to Mrs Dalloway (two! plus a foreword!), going in I knew I could safely assume that (1) Virginia Woolf was brilliant, (2) Virginia Woolf was bonkers, and (3) this was going to be a really heavy read.
And holy smokes – “heavy” might not be the right word, but it sure was something. I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing around the inside of Woolf’s skull. It’s a “stream of consciousness” suitable for white water rafting. Woolf has us saying hello to a childhood frien-NOPE, we’re admiring a tree-NO WAIT, we’re reminiscing about a past lov-HANG ON, we’re buying flowers… on and on it goes.
I had no idea what the fuck was happening, not for a single moment. I re-read every sentence three times, and still couldn’t follow it at all. What I did manage to absorb I can summarise here in the form of a few Mrs Dalloway Fast Facts:
- Mrs D is throwing a party
- She feels old
- She likes reading memoirs
- She’s maybe a little bit queer…
There’s some peripheral guy she walks by in the park, Septimus. He’s shell shocked out the wazoo and it’s making his foreign wife miserable. He decides he loves life but hates doctors, so he throws himself out the window. Not a great end, all told. Septimus and Mrs D are the two primary characters, but they never actually meet – his suicide just features in the party gossip she hears later.
Yeah, it’s that kind of book – the kind that makes me feel extremely stupid. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was Missing The Point the whole time I was reading it. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like watching an episode of Seinfeld, but harder: you keep waiting for there to be a point or a plot, but none materialises. There’s no literal interpretation, it’s just layer upon layer of metaphor until you’re buried so deep you can’t breathe.
And the best part is: according to the critiques I read online afterwards, Mrs Dalloway is a “much more accessible” version of Ulysses. So that’s the story of how Ulysses got demoted to the very bottom of my to-be-read list 😉
If I had to say what I got out Mrs Dalloway, it would probably boil down to the following: everyone is bonkers. You shouldn’t get married out of obligation. London is pretty. Women are brave to write letters without the help of a man. Teenaged daughters are annoying. Young women who wear party dresses that stop above the ankle will get called slutty behind their backs. Hosting a party is hard, especially when your girl crush shows up unexpectedly and the talk of the night is the shell-shocked veteran who topped himself. So, I guess, do with all of that what you will…
I would recommend Mrs Dalloway, wholeheartedly, to anyone who is far, far smarter than me.
You can read my review of Michael Cunningham’s 1991 adaptation of Mrs Dalloway, called The Hours, here.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Mrs Dalloway:
- “This book was drier than a popcorn fart. What happened in it? It’s hard to say. A veteran killed himself and a bunch of stuffy old English people had a party. That’s the whole story in a nutshell…” – Harmony
- “Self loathing non sense.” – Richard Gianelli
- “Catcher In The Rye… as told by middle-aged English farts. The party! The party! Let us listen to an old farty woman stream her consciousness to us to hear, pointless thoughts that go nowhere. That’s pretty much this book in a nutshell. Very boring. Mrs Dalloway whines about not marrying Peter Clark, but Pete’s been in India for five years. I’m sure she would have been unhappy either way, marrying him or not, him leaving or not; all she does is party, chill with friends, and rinse & repeat. Ughhh.” – Allen
April 3, 2018 at 8:45 PM
Though the book was not to your liking your review is very articulate and amusing as always.
I liked this book. I think that it is not a matter of being smart. When it comes to stream of consciousness books I think that having read a lot of them practice helps a lot. I also find that, though I try to not read comments on a book until I have finished the book and written about it, I make an exception for these wierd, experimental styles. I find reader’s guides can be very helpful with these books. With that, it is a lot of effort that may take years of practice. I am not sure if it is worth it in the end.
Ulyesses is absolutely insane. Even with a line by line reader’s guide I was lucky if I understood 70% of what was going on.,
April 4, 2018 at 11:05 AM
Hahaha cheers, Brian! I’m exactly the same – I try not to look at any commentary prior to reading (so most books are an unknown quantity when I start them – I don’t look any further than the blurb on the back and the introduction, if there is one), but I think it would have been a good idea with Mrs Dalloway. I’d like to revisit it at some point down the line, when I’ve done some more modernist reading, and see if I get something more out of it. I did hear someone say once that Woolf is a writer that she loves to read about, but the writing itself is not for her – I fear I might be in the same boat! Wish me luck with Ulysses, I’m going to need it 😉
April 4, 2018 at 5:52 PM
love the idea of buying the publishing house in order to get yourself published, now all I need is a few million…
April 5, 2018 at 1:55 PM
Hahahaha don’t we all! 😉
April 5, 2018 at 10:26 PM
Isn’t it funny that even after reading how bonkers and challenging this book is, all I keep thinking is… I should read this. Lol! Guess I want to see if I speak crazy as fluently as I think I do! 😉
April 6, 2018 at 11:28 AM
Hahahaha I do the same thing! Give it a shot, I’d love to hear what you think (well, more accurately, I’d love to hear that I’m right and this book is crazy hard lol).
June 22, 2022 at 10:48 PM
Thank GOODNESS! I’m reading this right now and definitely have no clue about it most of the time. Sometimes I don’t even know which character I’m currently reading about. I keep likening it to that character in Finding Nemo – Dory. Constantly off in a new, and utterly aimless, direction.
June 25, 2022 at 7:10 PM
Ahahaha it’s DEFINITELY not just you! I felt EXACTLY like Dory too!