I first read Mrs Dalloway in 1968 – the year, it will be remembered, when everything happened. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated; Paris saw barricades for the first time since the Revolution; in the autumn, Russian tanks rolled into Prague.
What I remember about that summer is much closer to home: a London heatwave; a grand house in Piccadilly occupied by squatters in a tamer version of les événements; and the terror that my mother was going to die. I was 21. I remember walking through the streets of central London on a burning afternoon on the way to visit her in hospital, and amidst my anxiety I remember thinking clearly: what a momentous day this is, and here I am, reading a novel set in London on a single day. What a chime, what an echo! These were not the words I used to myself, as I walked in the dazzling sun, but I now think they should have been, resonating as they do with the famous opening lines of Virginia Woolf ’s novel, when Clarissa Dalloway sets forth on a perfect June morning to buy the flowers for her party: ‘What a lark! What a plunge!’
But buoyant and inviting as these lines may be, they do not in truth connect at all with the great themes of Mrs Dalloway; nor did they reflect my state of mind in the summer I spent reading it. What I was connecting with – what made me cherish it – was the novel’s interiority, and its tension between life and death, as Clarissa prepares for her party and Septimus Warren Smith, the shell-shocked young man returned from the Front, retreats further and further into madness. ‘The world seen by the sane & insane side by side – something like that,’ Woolf wrote in her diary, as she planned it all out in the autumn of 1922. But though Clarissa, a Mayfair hostess married to a Tory MP, lives a world away from Septimus – a clerk married to a milliner – she has her own doubts, anxieties, sense of dread and failure: at the deepest level these two have a psychological connection which makes it somehow inevitable that in the middle of her party – ‘surrounded by an enchanted garden . . . Lights and trees and wonderful gleaming lakes and the sky’ – she should hear of this unknown young man’s suicide.
Mrs Dalloway was published by the Hogarth Press in 1925, with one of Vanessa Bell’s striking jacket designs, in black on yellow. Folds of curtain frame a stark and stylized bridge; roses and a fan lie below. It’s bold and uncompromising, both decorative and sombre. The Penguin edition which I read in 1968, now worn and yellowing, reproduced on the cover Vanessa Bell’s portrait of Virginia in a deckchair. Faceless, sunlit, framed by a dark straw hat, she stands for all that is unknown and hidden: the secret self which Woolf explored perhaps more brilliantly than any other twentieth-century writer. But the Penguin edition I bought in 2000, when I reread the novel for the third time, has on its cover quite a different painting, which encompasses many aspects of the novel: its interiority, the city in which it is set, and – especially – its narrative technique.
This is The Sensation of Crossing the Street, by Stanley Cursiter, painted in 1913. A Cubist rendering of that sensation, its imagery is broken, fragmented, colourful, full of light and shade. A woman seen in profile, with a dark and dreaming eye, is poised on the right of the picture, perhaps just stepping off the pavement. Behind her, also in profile, pieces of people hurry this way and that, dwarfed by bits of a city: a railway bridge, an omnibus; terraced houses, the bell tower of a church; a station clock. Here is the individual, set against the crowd, one of the novel’s most powerful themes; here is the passage of time. All through Mrs Dalloway (which Woolf originally called The Hours) come the chimes of clocks, and especially those of Big Ben, standing physically and metaphorically at the heart of everything.
There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air . . . in the swing, tramp and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men . . . [this] was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
These lines come near the opening, and Mrs Dalloway has one of the richest and most seductive openings of any twentieth-century novel. There is, first of all, its atmosphere: a fresh summer morning, recalling to Clarissa a string of such mornings at Bourton, the country home of her childhood: the place where everyone gathered as she grew up, and where, ‘in that scene in the little garden by the fountain’, she rejected Peter Walsh, her first lover. Now, at 50, she is ‘Mrs Richard Dalloway’, and has ‘the oddest sensation of being herself invisible . . . not even being Clarissa any more’ – introducing ideas of female identity which haunt the narrative. On this morning, as she walks to the flower shop in Bond Street (the book began as a short story, ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’, though there she buys gloves), many of the novel’s huge themes, so lightly but potently woven in, are foreshadowed. ‘I want to criticise the social system,’ Woolf wrote in her diary, ‘& to show it at work, at its most intense.’
So the quiet, shaded interior of Mulberry’s flower shop, where Clarissa stands breathing in ‘the earthy garden sweet smell’, is suddenly shaken by ‘a pistol shot’, as a motor car draws up opposite.
‘Passers-by who, of course, stopped and stared, had just time to see a face of the very greatest importance against the dove-grey upholstery, before a male hand drew the blind and there was nothing to be seen except a square of dove grey.’ And here, as ‘rumours were at once in circulation . . . about whose face had been seen’, Woolf makes the first of the many seamless shifts which distinguish her prose style, a filmic fluidity wherein she pans right away from Clarissa, moves through the crowd outside the shop, and closes in on our first sight of Septimus, whose mind has been shattered by gunfire, and who now feels ‘as if some horror had come almost to the surface . . . The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames.’
In entering the mind of Septimus Warren Smith, Woolf was – with courage, anguish and an extraordinary clear-sightedness – revisiting her own descents into madness, and the public/private contrasts of the novel are nowhere better explored than in the ways in which his suffering is bluffly ignored or mistreated by the medical profession. Nor can I think of more poignant scenes than those in which Rezia, his Italian wife, is baffled and embarrassed by him.
People must notice . . . She could stand it no longer . . . She could not sit beside him when he stared so and did not see her and made everything terrible . . . ‘Septimus has been working too hard,’ – that was all she could say, to her own mother. To love makes one solitary, she thought. She could tell no one, not even Septimus now, and looking back, she saw him sitting in his shabby overcoat alone, on the seat, hunched up, staring. And it was cowardly for a man to say he would kill himself, but Septimus had fought; he was brave; he was not Septimus now . . .
So the long interior stream of consciousness continues, in this passage in the park, moving from Rezia’s unspoken distress to the continual mad murmuring of her husband’s mind. High in the clouds is a sky-writing aeroplane, a marvellous symbol of modernity whose smoky letters are made into a different word by everyone. Septimus knows it is signalling to him, but we cut to its own indifferent perspective, flying right across London, ‘curving up and up . . . writing a T, an O, an F . . .’ And then we are reunited with Clarissa, asking her maid what everyone is looking at, as she returns with her flowers.
‘The hall of the house was as cool as a vault.’ For a dozen pages we stay within her mind, her party preparations, her memories of Bourton, until, as she mends her green silk dress in the drawing-room, the doorbell rings and Peter Walsh arrives. The past stands before her, and from this point the narrative moves in and out of the consciousness of half a dozen characters, as the day draws on, and Septimus and Rezia grow increasingly desperate, until he makes his dreadful leap from the window of their lodging-house, on to the railings far below.
When the party, at dusk, finally draws everyone together, Clarissa learns from the wife of the physician, Sir William Bradshaw – a man ‘obscurely evil’ – that one of his patients has killed himself. ‘Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.’ And she takes herself away from the party to a little room, to think about it all. ‘But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself . . . The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. But she must go back. She must assemble.’
Mrs Dalloway has been described as the first novel of Woolf ’s maturity. The controlled artistry of the free indirect style, wherein, as in a Cubist painting, we see everything from every angle; wherein, as in the cinema, we move fluidly in and out of time and space and character, has been celebrated as one of the few genuine innovations in the history of the novel. Woolf knew what she was doing: she wanted, as she said in two of her most famous essays, to make a decisive break with realism, and render ‘the myriad impressions’ that fall upon the individual mind – to make the novel into something where consciousness is all.
The influence of her work is everywhere in the twentieth-century novel, and Mrs Dalloway in particular has had homage paid to it. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998) moves between an American city haunted by AIDS, a Fifties housewife reading the novel, and Virginia writing it in Twenties London. Cunningham makes the ‘lark’ and ‘plunge’ of the opening ‘What a shock, what a thrill’ as Clarissa Dalloway, in twentieth-century New York, goes out to buy the flowers for her own party. Ali Smith’s acclaimed Hotel World (2001) opens with the death of a young woman falling through a lift shaft: ‘What a soar what a fall what a plummet what a dash into dark into light . . .’ And surely that fountain in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) where the lovers quarrel in the blinding sun, looks back to the fountain where Clarissa and Peter Walsh part for ever.
My mother did not die in 1968. She lived to a great age, and we loved one another to the end. Virginia Woolf lost her own mother, Julia Stephen, when she was only 13. It marked her for life. In To the Lighthouse (1927) she recreated her through the character of Mrs Ramsay, who suddenly, between one part and the next, is gone. In rereading Mrs Dalloway for the fourth time a line leapt out at me. Clarissa has moments of perfect clarity of recollection: one, very simple, is ‘My mother, walking in the garden’. It brought tears to my eyes, thinking of how – surely – this must be Virginia’s mother, subliminally brought to view; of the burning hot day forty years ago when I walked through London filled with fear; of the mysterious ways in which this line is timeless.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 18 © Sue Gee 2008