Chances lost; dreams unfulfilled; expectations diminished: virtually all the characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway seemed to me to be failures in many ways.
It’s evident in even the minor characters. Rebellious natures like those of Sally Seton have been suppressed by marriage to a bald manufacturer with £10,000 a year and “myriad of servants, miles of conservatories”. Intellect has turned into a form of religious fanaticism and resentment for all the things that Doris Kilman, a tutor employed by the Dalloway family, could not have or could not be. And Hugh Whitbread, a friend of the Dalloways has opted for a life of little consequence as a minor court official, merely touching the surface of life and attracting sniggers from acquaintances.
He did not go deeply. He brushed surfaces; the dead languages, the living, life in Constantinople, Paris, Rome; riding, shooting, tennis, it had been once. The malicious asserted that he now kept guard at Buckingham Palace, over what nobody knew. But he did it extremely efficiency… And if it were true that he had not taken part in any of the great movements of the time or held important office, one or two humble reforms stood this credit…
Of course Woolf reserves her deepest analysis of a life unfulfilled for the woman whose search for her true self lies at the heart of the novel, Mrs Clarissa Dalloway. This is the portrait of a woman uncertain about her life and her identity. Walking in London early in the novel, she experiences a feeling that her life is defined by her marital status; that she herself has disappeared.
She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen, unknown; …. this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs.Richard Dalloway.
The outside world sees her very differently. To them she is a successful hostess and wife of an important man. Chic and financially secure she moves in a world of fine fashion, parties and high society. But it’s a world Clarissa herself has come to realise is frivolous and her life superficial and passionless. Years previously she’d been offered a different life with Peter Walsh, one with lower social status and comfort levels but full of emotion and excitement. She turned down his offer of marriage, settling for the safer option of life with Richard Dalloway, a man who seemed destined for high political office. Richard never fulfilled that early promise however. Though a good man, capable of thoughtfulness and good deeds, he never did become a Cabinet member or Minister of State.
On the day in 1923 on which Mrs Dalloway takes place, Clarissa discovers that Peter Walsh has returned from India after many years. Throughout the day as she prepares for the party she will give that evening, she thinks about the past, about what might have been and whether life is now all over for her. Woolf apparently intended Mrs Dalloway to end with Clarissa’s death, potentially at her own hand. In the event it’s another death that Clarissa hears about during the party. Although she has no knowledge of the dead man, nor even his name she identifies strongly with him and his dramatic action. By the end of the novel she has come, if only for a fleeting moment, to accept the past is past and to prepare for the next stage of her life.
There is no such moment of peace for her former adorer. Peter has his own reasons to regret the passing years. All his ambitions for a glittering literary career came to nothing. Neither has he found happiness in love. Having married simply to fill the void left by Clarissa’s rejection of his proposal he is now a widower planning to marry the woman half his age with whom he’s been having an affair. He doesn’t recognise his own failings but is quick to see them in others, including the Dalloways whose English bourgeois lifestyle he detests.While Clarissa comes to terms with her own mortality, Peter becomes frantic at the thought of death, following a young woman through the London streets to smother his thoughts of death with a fantasy of life and adventure.
I know I’m making it sound as if Mrs Dalloway is a linear narrative but of course that’s far from being the case. It’s a novel that doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense; it’s a collection of scenes which reveal information about the characters, how they relate to each other and how they think and feel. It jumps without warning from one character to another, and from outside to inside the character’s head. At times the narrative seems to use a cinematic technique, pinpointing a character the midst of a crowd, tracking them as they progressed along a street and then zooming in on them for a close up. This is how she introduces us to Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome whose death will so affect Clarissa. We spot him outside the florist’s where Clarissa buys her flowers for the party, watch him and his wife begin to walk arm and arm to St James Park and then to settled on a park bench watching the trail of a plane through the sky. And at that moment Woolf delivers an example of what she once described as “moments of being” a time where just for a moment the individual isn’t only aware of himself but gets a glimpse of his connection to a larger pattern hidden behind the opaque surface of daily life. For Septimus the moment begins with the leaves in the trees.
…leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern; … All taken together meant the birth of a new religion…
Woolf isn’t someone whose writing can be skimmed or read at speed. It requires full concentration and an alertness to the fact that even in one sentence, we can encounter multiple ideas, multiple voices, multiple tones. Complex indeed but so rich and incredibly rewarding even if you only feel you’re understanding a tenth of it.