I’m going to re-read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf one day as I don’t think I ‘got’ the story during this first read.
I liked the first few sentences and was hopeful that Virginia Woolf and I would get along, but then came a long sentence which included six commas, two semicolons and two question marks. For the next thirty pages I was too distracted and intimidated by the author’s perfect use of punctuation to attend to the actual story. On reflection, I probably should have put the book aside and returned to it at a later date.
The story revolved around an English woman, Mrs Clarissa Dalloway and at various times followed her, several members of her family and various friends, as well as a couple who she did not know and never met over the course of a day. It began with Clarissa, whose hair had recently turned white after an illness which also affected her heart (her illness is said to have been the Spanish flu as the story was set in the early 1920s), going out to buy flowers for a party she was giving that night. Clarissa believed her life’s work was to host parties where people connected.
Clarissa was visited in the morning by an old friend, Peter Walsh, who had wanted to marry her when they were young. After she spurned him in favour of Richard Dalloway, Peter went to India and at the start of the book had only just returned to England to investigate how the woman he wanted to marry could divorce her present husband. Another character later commented that Peter was always in trouble one way or another with women.
The Dalloway’s beautiful but passive daughter Elizabeth had a friendship with her tutor which Clarissa resented, and in turn Miss Kilmore, an angry, poverty struck middle-aged woman disliked Clarissa because of her comfortable, easy life, which was facilitated by what Miss Kilmore perceived as Clarissa’s unearned social class and wealth.
Another set of characters, Septimus and Lucrezia Smith floated around the story throughout the day. Septimus had been a soldier during World War One and had been experiencing disturbing hallucinations about a friend he had loved who died during the war. During the afternoon Sir William Bradshaw, who had so badly underestimated Septimus’ condition that he seemed incompetent, committed Septimus to a psychiatric institution at which time Septimus suicided by jumping out of a window onto railings below.
Clarissa came to learn of Septimus’ suicide during a conversation with Sir William’s wife that night at her party. Although Clarissa did not know Septimus she empathised with him and felt he had acted truly by suiciding.
Other attendees at Clarissa’s party included the Prime Minister, Peter Walsh and the former wild-child but now sedate Sally Seton, who Clarissa had been in love with when they were girls.
All of these characters, plus a few others who I have not mentioned, had their turn at narrating this story at some point during the day. All of the characters were either generally dissatisfied with their lives, anxious, resentful or in the case of Septimus Smith, desperately troubled. Regardless of their social status or wealth, none of them knew perfect happiness. Even Clarissa, who superficially appeared to have everything she wanted, had given up Sally to become Mrs Dalloway.
Mrs Dalloway revolved around Clarissa, but the story was also about each of the main characters who appeared in it. I will re-read this book in future in order to learn what I missed on my first read.
Mrs Dalloway was book twenty five in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.