Woolf’s novels once left me cold. A new book on ‘Mrs Dalloway’ changed my mind
THE WASHINGTON POST — Almost every reader keeps a mental list of books everyone apparently loves, but they themselves — secretly with their heads bowed in shame — have never really understood. I, for example, enjoy exceptionally, perhaps immensely, canonical and genre classics, but until last week I had never even opened Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece of 1925.
In fact, I had never read any fiction by Woolf. From various surveys of 20th-century literature, I knew that Woolf’s books, including Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves, were lyrically written and intensely concerned with character delineation.
I also knew the general facts of his life from enjoying the works of and about his gossip friends from Bloomsbury, Lytton Strachey, Desmond MacCarthy and David Garnett, among others.
Yet, even if I occasionally drew on his numerous collections of essays, the fiction remained terra incognita. I once tried Orlando and gave up after about a dozen pages. It just didn’t catch fire for me.
But a few days ago I retrieved an old edition from Mrs. Dalloway’s Modern Library and, as I should have known, I discovered a marvel. As they say, better to be late to the party – it’s a joke for those who know the novel – than never to have been there.
I had finally broken the ice because I wanted to revisit Merve Emre’s The Annotated Mrs Dalloway, and it seemed like a good idea to approach Woolf’s book directly rather than as an ornate monument.
Like similar volumes, The Annotated Mrs Dalloway provides a scholarly and biographical introduction, extensive illustrations, and numerous marginalia that explain obscurities, identify people and places, and provide interpretive commentary. Emre, however, is not critically neutral; she draws primarily on the work of her teachers and contemporaries, while largely ignoring Woolf’s former scholarship.
More surprisingly, there is no appendix reprinting the story of Seeds, Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” or the introduction that Woolf contributed to my 1928 Modern Library hardcover. Emre prefers a relatively lean but elegant annotated edition, firmly focused on explaining the meaning and mysteries of the work.
“Mrs. Dalloway,” she begins, “charts a single summer day in the lives of two people whose paths never cross: Clarissa Dalloway, just over 50, elegant, charming and self-confident. she, the wife of Richard Dalloway, a Conservative Member of Parliament, and Septimus Warren Smith, a lone ex-soldier, a prophetic man haunted by visions he cannot explain to his anguished wife Lucrezia. Emre then quickly sketches the minimal plot, culminating in the fancy dinner party at which Mrs. Dalloway learns of Smith’s suicide.
Throughout, the novel satirizes the English upper classes as shallow and antiquated, vividly evokes post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the bloodshed of World War I, reminisces about an Edenic past of rose gardens and golden afternoons, and probes, from multiple vantage points, the enigmatic essence of Clarissa Dalloway.
Woolf organizes the action around certain symbolic objects and events – an expensive automobile backfire, a plane writing in the sky, the crowded shopping streets of fashionable London, the Dalloway party – and passes effortlessly from consciousness from character to character in a series of subtly interconnected interior monologues.
As befits an Oxford professor, Emre’s commentary on all of this is both scholarly and lucidly expressed. She accurately points out, for example, the parallels between an author structuring a book and a hostess planning a successful party.
Yet Woolf’s characters remain problematic and endlessly enticing. Emre sees Mrs Dalloway and Septimus as kindred spirits, celebrating and embracing life, albeit in different ways: “He kills himself”, she points out, “not because life is unbearable, but because it is good and he doesn’t want it any other way. .”
Yet how are we to judge Clarissa’s former suitor Peter Walsh, her carefree friend Sally Seton, and everyone else from her present and past, many of whom gather at her party? Woolf, according to Emre, wants us to see most of them as failed human beings, selfish, and proponents of a social order based on lies and facade.
No doubt she is right. And yet, I find this judgment harsh, because I can’t help but admire their stoicism and the orderly world they served and believed in. Richard Dalloway may be a little stiff, but he deeply loves and provides for his wife and their teenage daughter.