🙂 🙂 😐
There are two stories going on simultaneously in this short novel. First we have Mrs Dalloway preparing for a party and reminiscing about her life and past love. And, secondly, we have the tale of Septimus Smith, a veteran of the First World War, suffering from what we would now call PTSD, and suicidal. I wish I was about to join the legions of Woolf fans, but I fear not, so people who would prefer not to see their icon criticised should look away now.
The book has many strengths. Some of the use of language is beautiful, lyrical even. When Woolf focuses on an incident or character, she is incisive and insightful, and this shows through most clearly in the story of Septimus. Written in1923, the horrors of WW1 would have been as fresh in the minds of readers as in Woolf’s own mind and, though our present generation has been engulfed over the last century with stories relating to the impact and aftermath of that most terrible of all wars, Woolf must have been one of the first to discuss the devastating effect of the experience on those who survived apparently intact.
For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for someone like Mrs Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven – over. It was June.
Septimus is not a member of the upper-class ‘lost generation’, drinking his way to oblivion. He is instead more realistic in that he came home and tried to resume some kind of normal life, working and marrying. But increasingly haunted by the things he witnessed and especially by the death of his friend, he has decided that suicide is the best option. His wife Rezia is beautifully depicted as a woman struggling to go on loving a man whom she no longer understands, and whose depression is making life intolerable for them both.
I try hard to know almost nothing about authors when I can, believing firmly that books should stand or fall on their own merits. However, it is impossible not to see Septimus’ story as partly autobiographical. Woolf too suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies, tragically fulfilled in the end, and Septimus’ experiences with the medical profession can’t help but feel as if they may be based on her own. From the callous ‘pull yourself together’ attitude of Septimus’ own doctor, to the specialist whose response is to lock Septimus away, thus removing any level of choice or control from him, her depiction feels angry, and realistic for a period when mental health issues were seen as a form of weakness or aberration, and when suicide was considered as much sinful as tragic. In Septimus’ story, Woolf creates something moving, intelligent and rather shocking.
What a pity then that the rest of the book is taken up with a lightweight ramble about middle-aged rich people ruminating over their teen love affairs. I understand from the foreword that Woolf decided to write the book after reading Joyce’s Ulysses (which I haven’t read). Hence her use of the stream of consciousness technique and her attempt to take a panoramic view of London life on a single day. But, in fact, apart from Septimus, her panorama only takes in the world of the rich and privileged – a group who, since they don’t have to worry about the material things of life, apparently fill up their yawning empty days with self-created angst over such things as what dress to wear for a party, will my old lover of thirty years ago still fancy me, etc., etc. Actually Mrs Dalloway and her ex-lover’s story feels like something out of a YA romance, but without the emotional depth. If, after thirty years of marriage, one is still wondering if one has made the right decision, then perhaps one should attempt to find something more important to think about.
There is a built-in snobbery in her writing that made me cringe several times, the more so because I felt she was actually trying to suppress it. On the rare occasion she speaks of the ‘lower’ classes, it’s with the condescending air of an owner discussing a favourite pet, or perhaps an Imperialist discussing a ‘native’. Woolf’s depiction of a move towards a more egalitarian society can be summed up by Mrs Dalloway deciding to mend her own ballgown rather than making her servants do it. Practically Communist, isn’t it? And Woolf’s rather nauseating description of the faithful love and devotion her servants feel for Mrs D smacks of wishful thinking at best, deliberate blindness at worst, written as it was at the very time that new opportunities were allowing the servant class to abandon their overlords in droves, which they promptly did. I’ve often seen Woolf lauded as a feminist icon, but between her empty-headed, party-hostess, love-lorn heroine and her downtrodden but devoted little servant-girls, I couldn’t quite see it myself. Perhaps it’s something she developed later.
“Mr Dalloway, ma’am, told me to tell you he would be lunching out.”
“Dear!” said Clarissa, and Lucy shared as she meant her to her disappointment (but not the pang); felt the concord between them; took the hint; thought how the gentry love; gilded her own future with calm; and, taking Mrs Dalloway’s parasol, handled it like a sacred weapon which a Goddess, having acquitted herself honourably in the field of battle, sheds, and placed it in the umbrella stand.
All these attitudes arise from her time and class, of course, and in another book by another author I might pass them by. It’s the reverence with which Woolf is treated that led me to expect something more. And the same applies to her writing. When she is writing an incident in standard style, she does it excellently. But when she wanders off into her stream of consciousness, I’m afraid I simply don’t think she’s very good at it. I’m not a fan of stream of consciousness in general, but coincidentally I’ve read a few books recently where skilful authors have used long, digressive, run-on sentences, where each time I’ve commented in my review that they manage to do it without losing the reader along the way – Chabon, Rushdie, Flanery. With Woolf, I found I was repeatedly having to re-read sentences to make sense of them, sometimes just even to know which character was being discussed.
And I tired very quickly of her almost manic use of superlatives – ecstatic, exquisite raptures, supreme, superb, exhilarating intensities. It reads more like the language a teenage girl might use in her private diary than the polished prose of a mature author or, indeed, the inner emotions of a mature woman. In the foreword, Carol Ann Duffy describes her writing as ‘suffered brilliance’ and ‘lyric intensity’, both of which sound better than the expression that was running through my own mind – ‘hyperventilating hyperbole’. I found all this made it a tedious read – the style taking away from the already fairly shallow content.
Oh dear! I really tried to make this review as balanced as I could but it’s turned into a bit of a rant after all. I tried reading Woolf when I was young and didn’t take to her, but hoped that perhaps my tastes had changed enough to allow me to appreciate her better now. And I could see some good things in this – specifically Septimus’ story, which will linger in my mind – but I’m left with very little desire to investigate her further.
Many thanks again to Heavenali, who gave me this book as part of her #Woolfalong giveaway, and my apologies for not appreciating it more.