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Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

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.

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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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…

That’s it.

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

The Hours – Michael Cunningham

Did you know that Virginia Woolf’s working title for Mrs Dalloway was originally The Hours? And that’s where Michael Cunningham got the name for his 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which “recasts the classic story of Mrs Dalloway in a startling new light”.

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The Hours revolves around three generations of women living in different time periods and circumstances, each of whom has some kind of connection with Mrs Dalloway. There’s Virginia Woolf herself, in 1920s England. There’s also Laura, a Los Angeles housewife in the 1940s, who yearns to escape her life and wonders if she has the brilliance of the mind that produced Mrs Dalloway. And there’s Clarissa, in 1990s New York, whose brilliant best friend is dying of AIDS-related illness.

“Mrs Woolf”, “Mrs Brown”, and “Mrs Dalloway” (Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa, respectively) are all equally interesting, well-drawn, and complex. That’s unusual for a story with multiple protagonists, in my experience – usually, I find I’m more drawn to one over the others.

The story is told over the course of a single day, in the tradition of Mrs Dalloway – and, in that spirit, I read The Hours in a single sitting. It’s short enough to make that not-too-onerous an undertaking, and I reckon it’s the best way to do it, if you have the time and capacity.

The Hours parallels Mrs Dalloway in several other ways, too. There’s the stream-of-consciousness style, where the protagonists’ thoughts bounce around all willy-nilly, a very tricky literary technique that mirrors free association. There’s also the LGBTIQ+ themes, where each of the protagonists is some variety of queer. Cunningham quite neatly shows, across the successive generations, how queerness and queer relationships become less shameful and more open: from Virginia’s internal torment, to Laura’s clandestine kiss, to Clarissa’s long-term “out” partnership.

One other thing that’s important to note, if you’re considering picking up The Hours, is that Cunningham also explores mental illness, as a form of expression and a legitimate perspective on the world. That means some trigger warnings are necessary: The Hours opens with a scene of Woolf’s suicide in the prologue, and there are other instances of suicide, suicidal ideation, and depression throughout.

So, it’s kind of a bummer, but The Hours is still a good read – I enjoyed it more than the O.G. Mrs Dalloway (and, for sure, I understood a lot more of it!). It also made for a really good movie, starring Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep. I wondered whether Streep was specifically cast for the project, or whether she sought it out specially, because she’s evoked as a character in The Hours with a minor off-page role in the early chapters. She said, on the DVD commentary (remember DVD commentary? how quaint!), that a friend’s daughter sent her a copy of the book, thinking she’d get a kick out of it. It would seem that she did, and I did too.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Hours here:

  • “I cannot believe that this book won a Pulitzer Prize! It was so incredibly tedious and an orgiastic dive into depression. Main lining on melodrama! Tennessee Williams on steroids!” – Don McPheeters
  • “I’m not going to comment on it winning the Pulitzer. I don’t like a lot of the winners. Mostly because this is a puffed up university award given to literary favorites who stick around long enough.” – Los Angeles Swinger
  • “If you can get past the idea that life is futile, and if you like homosexuality, you’d probably like this book.” – Dale Lund
  • “Just cause you won a Pulitzer Prize don’t mean you can lay down heavy pipe in your old lady’s aqueduct for hours and hours without missing a beat. Respect yourself.” – Patrick Resing

My Ultimate Lock-Down Author Share-House

One of the things that’s been bringing me joy during, y’know, all of this is The To-Read List podcast. Today, I’m drawing inspiration from one of their episodes (which, in turn, was inspired by a Tweet from LitHub). The idea is to come up with a list of authors you’d want to be in lock-down with, or in quarantine with. You might love Virginia Woolf’s writing, but could you really stand living with her 24 hours-a-day for weeks on end? Ernest Hemingway might be brilliant, but what would it be like to share a bathroom with him? I put my thinking cap on and came up with my very own list (technically two, one for living authors a la The To Read List and one for dead authors a la LitHub): my ultimate lock-down author share-house.

Ultimate Lock-Down Author Share-House - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Important note: this isn’t about the authors whose work I love the most. I had to scratch a whole bunch of brilliant writers for various reasons: I’d be too nervous to talk in front of Helen Garner, I’d be too intimidated by Sally Rooney (and only a little bit sour that we’re the same age), I figured I’d be cheating if I chose Elena Ferrante so that I could be one of the select few who know her secret identity, and I’d be scared of distracting Carmen Maria Machado or Roxane Gay from writing their next book. This is about the authors I reckon I could live with for an extended period under share-house circumstances.

Living Author Lock-Down Share-House

First thing’s first: I’m going to want someone around who can make me laugh. Someone who can find the funny in the mundane, someone who can make fun without being cruel, someone who will regale me with entertaining anecdotes when the days get too long. I can’t think of anyone who fits the bill better than David Sedaris. Read my full review of his essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Next up: I’m going to need somebody who won’t judge me if cocktail hour comes early. No one likes to drink alone, and I’m no exception! I reckon Susan Orlean and I would make for brilliant drinking buddies (if her Twitter feed is anything to go by). Plus, we could discuss niche true crime to our heart’s content, even if the others got sick of us. Read my full review of her investigation into the Los Angeles Central Library fire, The Library Book.

I’d also want someone around who can teach me some stuff, and I reckon Colson Whitehead fits the bill. The guy didn’t get the MacArthur Genius Grant for nothing! He’s written about everything from history to Harlem to politics to poker. If we were in lock-down together, I’d struggle not to constantly pepper him with questions… Read my full review of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Obama-recommended book The Underground Railroad here.

It can’t all be work and no play, though. We’d need someone with some aesthetic sensibilities to brighten up the place – and maybe draw us, just for lols. That’s why I’d call Mira Jacob up to the plate. I never thought of myself as a graphic novel reader until I read Good Talk. I’d happily take all of her dish-washing and laundry duties if she captured our lock-down conversations in return. Read my full review of Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir, Good Talk, here.

Dead Author Lock-Down Share-House

Whenever something crappy happens in my life (and I reckon getting locked down in a share-house during a global pandemic would count), I hear Nora Ephron‘s voice in my head, saying: “Everything’s copy”. I reckon she’d be the queen of making the best of a bad situation, and she’d get us all working on collaborative creative projects to release once regular business resumed.

And, it’s a combo deal: I’d love to have Anita Loos (sans her shit-head husband) in my author lock-down share-house, because I’m sure she and Nora would get along. Sure, I’d probably end up the odd-one-out, watching them write brilliant screenplays while I sipped my wine in the corner, but it’d be worth it to get them in the same room and watch the magic happen. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Speaking of entertainment: I reckon Anaïs Nin would be captivating. She was adventurous, generous, and by all accounts, fun! I mean, anyone willing to write gloriously literary smut on commission has got to be worth talking to. And, if we didn’t get along, I’d feel less guilty about sneaking into her room and reading her diary… (I mean, I’d never do that. Ahem. Probably.) Read my full review of Delta Of Venus here.

And, finally, I’d want George Eliot in the share-house, and I’d want to ask all manner of questions, about writing and politics and life… but the one that’s front-and-center in my mind at the moment is: have we been mis-gendering George all this time? This has come up as a result of the “Reclaim Her Name” project, for which Baileys (the major sponsors of the Women’s Prize) is re-publishing a collection of works they’ve determined were written by women under masculine pseudonyms, including Middlemarch. In the (inevitable) backlash that ensued, I came across a couple of accounts that suggest George might have adopted the name that more accurately reflected their identity, rather than purely bowing to the patriarchal constraints of the time for publishing writers. Essentially, I’d want George to have the opportunity to decide for themselves, with today’s sensibilities and understanding, how they wish to identify. And then I’d start digging for dirt, like the gossip-hound I am deep down, on all their high-falootin’ Victorian friends… Read my full review of Middlemarch here.

Who would you want in your lock-down author share-house? Living or dead, dream big! Let me know in the comments below.

10 Novels That Take Place In A Single Day

It’s mostly subconscious, but I think we kind of expect the length of a story’s timeline to reflect its format. A short story, for instance, would normally take place over a short period – minutes or hours or days. It would feel weird for a short story to stretch over a century, wouldn’t it? But there are novels that defy this expectation, novels that take place in a single day. Here’s a list of these convention-busters.

10 Novels That Take Place In A Single Day - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s begin with one of the definitive modernist novels that take place in a single day. Ulysses begins at at 8AM on 16 June 1904, and follows the protagonist Leopold Bloom (and some of his friends) across the course of the day in Dublin. It’s not exactly linear, skipping back and forth a few times, but what else would you expect for such a long and famously complicated novel? Some parts are really fragmented and disjointed, and not all of Joyce’s language experiments make for fun reading – but I promise you, it’s not the nightmare reading experience you’re expecting. It wasn’t for me when I finally got around to it, anyway! Read my full review of Ulysses here.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Of course, we can’t talk about Ulysses without talking about another one of the definitive modernist novels that takes place in a single day: Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf wasn’t a fan of Joyce’s work, so she decided to write her own version, and show him how it should be done. Her story follows two main characters, the upper-crusty party thrower Mrs Dalloway and the shell-shocked veteran Septimus Smith. It starts with Mrs D deciding she will buy the flowers herself, and ends with her hearing about Septimus’s suicide at the party that evening. Like a lot of Woolf’s work (and life), it’s not an easy or uplifting read, but it’s considered one of the classic feminist texts for a reason. Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m noticing a theme: a lot of novels that take place in a single day are real bummers. A Single Man is another great example. The titular man George is “single” because he was secretly, unofficially widowed when his ‘life companion’ Jim passed away. George is despondent, bereaved, mourning a lover he couldn’t publicly declare (remember, back in the day, even being “out” wasn’t being out). And yet, Isherwood writes in such a cool and dispassionate way that George’s bitterness and misanthropy comes across as hilarious and matter-of-fact. This heart-wrenching novel reads beautifully and quickly, with a surprisingly contemporary sensibility. Read my full review of A Single Man here.

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep - Philip K Dick - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The timeline of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is a little murky, but it still counts as one of the novels that take place in a single day (in my opinion, and it’s my list, so there). The confusion comes about for a few reasons. First, a LOT happens in this novel – it’s an action-packed day for bounty hunter Rick Deckard, to say the least. Second, later editions of the novel have shifted dates around. Originally, the book was set in 1992, but later editions have updated that year to 2021, and there’s a movie set in 2049, and… Publishers and script-writers have tried really hard to make it feel like the story is set in the “future” which (obviously) shifts. Whichever edition you get your hands on, though, it’s still worth a read!

They Both Die At The End by Adam Silvera

They Both Die At The End - Adam Silvera - Keeping Up With The Penguins

They Both Die At The End takes place over the course of a single day – and it’s a day we would all dread if we were living in the world of this story. At midnight on September 5, Mateo and Rufus both get horrible news. It’s the day they’re going to die. (It’s hardly a shock – I mean, look at that title!) They both decide to use an app that matches up people who receive that notification on the same day – that’s how they find each other, and how this short-lived friendship begins. They join forces for one final adventure, and attempt to live a lifelong friendship in a single day. It’s an inventive premise, and heart-breaking as all heck.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner - Herman Koch - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Dinner isn’t just one of the novels that takes place in a single day – it’s one of the (very few) novels that takes place in a single meal. On a summer’s night in The Netherlands, two couples meet at a restaurant for dinner. Nothing particularly compelling about that, is there? Wait until you hear the reason they’ve come together: their fifteen-year-old sons are implicated in a horrific crime, and the resulting police investigation has torn apart their refined suburban lives. Over the course of this novel, the facades of polite company are stripped away and both couples are forced to confront what they must do to protect their children.

If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things - Jon McGregor - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things is one of the most – sorry in advance – remarkable novels that take place in a single day. It’s a true slice of life, examining the lives of residents on a quiet street in suburban England. There’s the single father with scars on his hands, the hungover youths back from a night of partying, the man caught in the grip of unrequited love… all of them have hopes, fears, desires, and demons that McGregor brings into focus in turn. They’re brought together by a single event, one that shatters the tranquility of their street and upends their ordinary everyday troubles.

Party Going by Henry Green

Party Going - Henry Green - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think we all know by now that if you take a handful of privileged, beautiful people and put them in a confined space, you’re going to get some good drama. It’s a formula that’s worked for reality TV for years, and before that, Henry Green used it as the premise for one of his novels that takes place in a single day, Party Going. Max, Amabel, Angela, Julia, Evelyn, and Claire all gather at a train station en route to a house party in France. They find that all the trains are delayed due to severe fog, so they take rooms in the adjacent railway hotel (rather than linger on the platform with the unwashed masses). That’s about all of the action, really; the rest of the story plays out in their relationships and gossiping, and Green tells different versions of it simultaneously. Read my full review of Party Going here.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy - Tracy Chevalier - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I love a good literary adaptation, and New Boy is a brilliant one from the Hogarth Press series (not to mention it’s one of the most interesting novels that takes place in a single day). Tracy Chevalier takes the harrowing story of Shakespeare’s Othello and places it in the most terrifying setting you can imagine: a child’s playground. Osei Kokote is the new kid at school (again), and he knows he needs to find an ally quickly. Enter Dee, the popular girl with a golden shine. But the other kids aren’t happy about the new budding friendship, and a powerful drama about racism, bullying, and betrayal begins.

Like Mother by Cassandra Austin

Like Mother - Cassandra Austin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Is it possible to be too tired to remember where you put your infant daughter down to sleep? If the stories I hear of new parenthood are true, abso-freakin’-lootly. That’s the disturbing premise of Like Mother, a domestic noir novel set in small-town Australia in 1969. Over the course of a single day in the life of sleep-deprived Louise, it interrogates the role of women in the world and in the home, and how far the apple really falls from the tree. This book made me so impatient, I just wanted to shake it and scream “what is happening?!”, right up until the final chapter. Read my full review of Like Mother here.

Middlemarch – George Eliot

Curse the TBR jar! When I set up my low-tech book selection system for what I’m going to read this year, Middlemarch was the one book I really dreaded picking. After I facepalmed a few times, though, I had a thought: hey, at least I’m getting it out of the way early!

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Middlemarch (subtitle: A Study of Provincial Life) is widely regarded as one of the Great Novels of English Literature. It was first published in eight volumes over the course of 1871 and 1872. Virginia Woolf described it, in 1919, as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” but she was one of the very few people actually reading it at the time. It didn’t really make an impact on the literati until a book by F.R. Leavis in 1948, The Great Tradition, “rediscovered” it.

Now, before we get started on Middlemarch itself, here’s a note on the author. George Eliot is a pen name, taken by Mary Ann Evans. It wasn’t unusual for women authors to take masculine or androgynous names at the time, given the pervasive patriarchal bias in publishing at the time (ahem), but there has been particular attention paid to this author’s choice. I’ve tried to find a bunch of fancy diplomatic ways to say this, but the hell with it: basically, there’s good reason to suspect that Eliot was a trans man (or would have been, had Eliot lived in a more progressive time), and TERFs super-hate anyone pointing that out. I’ll use feminine pronouns (she/her) for Eliot throughout this review, though, for a couple of reasons. First, it will make this review consistent with all the Official(TM) sources about Eliot’s work and identity, and second, we really can’t know what Eliot would have chosen. But I want it to be clear that I’m totally open to the idea that Eliot was in fact a man (which trans men are, by the way), and I wholeheartedly support academic endeavours to uncover more about Eliot’s true identity, as best we can.

Okay, with that out of the way, here we go! Believe it or not, Middlemarch is actually a historical novel – the action takes place about forty years or so before it was published. The fictional town for which the novel takes its name was likely based on Coventry, an area where Eliot lived before she moved to London.

It doesn’t so much have a “plot” as it does a series of interweaving and interconnected stories about various residents of Middlemarch. The main players are Dorothea Brooke (who loves cottages and is disillusioned by her marriage to an older dude), Tertius Lydgate (a doctor with crazy ideas about how medicine should be a science), Fred Vincy (a privileged gambler who swears he’ll grow up if Mary Garth agrees to marry him), and Nicholas Bulstrode (a banker with a sordid past).

So, Middlemarch makes for 900 pages of who’s going to marry whom, who’s going to inherit, who’s in debt, who’s on which side of a political divide… and none of it works out the ways characters would hope. Their marriages suck, their inheritances are poisoned chalices, their debts won’t let them buy nice food, and the politics of the 1832 Reform Act tear the town in two. It all sounds very exciting, but it’s so dragged out and the characters so wooden, it’s hard to pluck out a storyline that really moves the reader. There’s a marked absence of the emotion or passion you see with other 19th century writers – certainly no tears for the reader in this bad boy.

Oh, and if you’re picking up Middlemarch for the first time, steel yourself for some anti-Semitism and racism – yeah, yeah, it’s “of the time”, but it’s still yucky.

On the upside, though, Middlemarch has a lot of really sick burns. I would’ve hated to come up against Eliot in a Twitter beef, but I would’ve loved to have sat next to her in an office.

Mr Rigg Featherstone’s low characteristics were all of the sober, water-drinking kind. From the earliest to the latest hour of the day he was always as sleek, neat, and cool as the frog he resembled.


I feel a bit blasphemous saying this, but it’s true: it’s enough to get the “gist” of what’s going on in Middlemarch. I didn’t feel the need to absorb every single nuance or pore over every word. Maybe I would’ve got more out of it if I did, but a skim here and there made for a much easier read. Come at me if you must!

Initial reviews of Middlemarch were mixed, but now they’re wholly gushing. I feel like a lone reed, buffeted by the wind but rooted firm in my conviction that – like Anna Karenina – it’s just okay. I’m sure studying the novel would illuminate more of it, make it feel richer and more engaging, but as a casual reader… *shrug*. I didn’t hate it, but I’m glad to have put it behind me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Middlemarch:

  • “Hard ole English to understand. Bla, bla, bla, bla.and, yada,yada, yada.Did have some antagonist and vllians to like and hate.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Pay attention to the dimensions. It’s made for tiny hands and tiny eyes. It’s the size of a graham cracker. Great story” – Victor Gloria IV
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