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 belo
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