Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

mrs dallowayAfter the war is over…

🙂 🙂 😐

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.

 Vanessa Redgrave and John Standing in the 1997 movie of Mrs Dalloway.
Vanessa Redgrave and John Standing in the 1997 movie of Mrs Dalloway.

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.

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92 thoughts on “Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

  1. I like her diaries because they are more earthy and enjoyably bitchy at times! But I know what you mean about it all getting a bit highfalutin. She’s someone I definitely have to be in the mood for.

    • I haven’t read any of her factual stuff – I seldom read diaries, in fact. But I did find her language wearing – I don’t think I could cope with having eighteen ecstatic raptures in one day! 😉 But I did prefer her writing when she was dealing with the Septimus story – I just wished the rest of the book hadn’t been so shallow…

  2. You are forgiven, my dear – no author can please us all of the time. I do happen to like her writing, even if she can be quite ‘ivory tower’ at times. Perhaps my innate style veers towards hers…

    • I might have liked another book better, if she wasn’t writing in the stream of consciousness – certainly I preferred the bits that dealt with Septimus, where she seemed to tone her raptures down a bit. But oh, no! Haha – your writing style is far better than this!

  3. Brilliant! I love it when you don’t like a book. I have never taken to Woolfe either, I thought I perhaps wasn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate her. On a different note, I had to laugh at the mention of Ulysses as locally there is a group who every year on 16th June (Bloomsday!) recreate the entire book around village, locals dressing up as characters and whatnot. I just saw the main organiser this morning and now this second mention of that blasted book has me reaching for the chocolate (any excuse).

    • Secretly, I think a lot of these authors live on their reputation – people feel they must be missing something. I always feel reluctant to trash a classic that so many people love, but somehow it just seems to happen anyway! Haha! Are you in it then? Does this mean you’ve read Ulysses?? *mega impressed face* I got to about page 11, I think…

      • I thin you are right, you know. Not Agatha Christie, though. She was a genuine talent. Oh, no no no – I am not one of the people who dresses up and what have you. I have read Ulysses but don’t be impressed – I hadn’t a clue what was supposed to be going on. But it has put my off ‘lemony soap’ for life. I had a good crack at Finnegans Wake but my word – that book is crazy. If anyone claims to understand that they are either insane or lying. It supposedly has the longest palindrome in literature but personally I couldn’t be bothered to wade through it all.

        • Very true! Haha! Oh you should! That might even tempt me to try to read the book again… Hmm, now that you mention it, I’m wondering if it was Finnegan’s Wake I tried and not Ulysses. Either way, it defeated me – I didn’t even put up much of a fight… *ashamed* However, I do have Dubliners coming up soon on the TBR – but I believe it is supposed to actually make sense, which would be nice…

          • I would bet it was Finnegans Wake as that truly makes no sense at all. It ends in the middle of a sentence for goodness sake! Sort of tempted now to bag myself a role in this year’s Bloomsday celebrations. The best bit is right at the end where everyone ends up down the pub…
            I shall be most interested to see what Dubliners is like, I have never read it. The very best of luck with it, dear FF!

  4. An insightful review. Woolf does have her faults, there’s a book about here and her own servants which I keep meaning to read. I think one thing you can read this as is an attempt to get into the mind of someone pretty shallow like this: do they have an inner life and can it be portrayed? So a study or an exercise rather than approving of Mrs D. I agree with you in your assessment of poor Septimus’ wife (who I’d forgotten about since my last reading of this book), and it’s almost impossible to read Septimus without reading Woolf behind his mask, even if you try to forget the author when reading their books.

    • Thanks, Liz! I know that, unfashionably, I vastly prefer male writers to female writers when it comes to the classics. It’s a personal preference thing – I prefer books that look outwards to the world rather than inwards to the person on the whole. I do think Woolf gave a really credible character study of Mrs D – I just found her vapid and uninteresting. Whereas the Septimus story, with its more political element, worked much better for me. I don’t notice nearly so much difference between male and female writers in more contemporary fiction, as women have become more involved in the outside world. Of course, this is a sweeping generalisation, with many exceptions…

      • That is interesting. What about George Eliot, with her interest in politics, etc? Also I’d recommend not reading those Dorothy Richardsons I’m working my way through at the moment …!!

        • It’s so long since I read any Eliot that I barely remember anything about them to be honest, but I really must give her another try. Ha! Thanks for the warning! It’s only recently that I’ve actually worked out why I’m seldom inspired to read classic women writers, so now the quest is on to find some that work better for me. The black American women I’ve read recently – Hurston and Morrison – have both been great. They’re more recent, of course, but also I think the struggle of being black and American is more interesting to me than the middle or upper class white British woman’s story – maybe just because I’m so familiar with it. And I’ve just discovered Rumer Godden…

  5. Sorry to hear you were disappointed in this one, FIctionFan. And what an interesting (if ultimately disappointing) combination of those moments of sharp insight and excellent writing with, well, meandering. As to the snobbery, can’t say I disagree with you. It’s interesting how authors often reflect their times and upbringing, and the social mores of the day. Makes me wonder how such a book might be received today, were it written by an unknown author.

    • Interesting you should say that, Margot, since I was wondering exactly the same thing – would this book even get a publisher as it stands? I reckon a strong editor would have insisted on toning down the raptures at least. Of course, Woolf didn’t need to find a publishing house, since she and her husband owned their own. But then, so many people love her writing that perhaps the strong edit on this occasion would have done more harm than good. It’s an intriguing thing to speculate about. I’d love it if we could have some way of reading classics without knowing of their reputation and baggage in advance – it’s sometimes hard to know how much one’s own opinion is truly independent…

  6. Don’t apologize for a brilliant rip! Goody. Married for 30 years and still doubting things? Whoa. I wonder what she was about for those 30 years…

    You know, I thought Virginia Woolf was a poet…how horrible is that?

    • Haha! I tried so hard not to rip it too, but it just happened! Stream of consciousness, probably… *chuckles* Yeah, I kinda feel that after thirty years you should know whether it’s likely to work out…

      See how educational my blog is? You must be so glad to get the chance to read thousands of words about all these books… *laughs*

      • *laughs* A Stream of consciousness!! Nice. Yes, right! I mean, a marriage that’s lasted that long should be working out! Or the two people might not live together, I suppose.

        I am! I love it, in fact. Now I’ll know a bit about her. Besides the fact that she has a very strange name.

        • I’ve always felt marriages would stand a much greater chance of success if the two people didn’t live together… *chuckles*

          *laughs* See? You’re so sweet, and you can’t deny it! I love her name, actually – it has a poetic ring to it. Plus I adore the film of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf…’ with the violet-eyed Liz Taylor and the velvet-voiced Richard Burton…

          • Haha. Then it’s not a marriage at all! It’s more like…some sort of faraway agreement.

            Aha! It has a poetic ring to it, that’s it!! No wonder I thought she was a poet. *laughs* There you are with that funny looking chap again. *shakes head* And the funny eye colored girl. Or colored eye girl. Or something like that.

            • Like a peace treaty! *giggles* And we all know how well they usually work out…

              My Liz does not have funny colo(u)red eyes! She has the most beautiful eyes ever – even more beautiful than the Professor’s ruby red ones! And as for Richard – well, there’s only one word for him. Yummy!!

            • Peace is such an elusive beast at times… *shakes head*

              Yes, she definitely has more beautiful eyes than this professor, since my eyes are vicious eyes. Ever since I saw Burty in The Robe…I just can’t help it, see.

            • Oh, don’t pretend you’d like things to be peaceful, sir! We both know chaos is your natural environment…

              Well, they were, till I made them into earrings. Still, those replacement ones suit you – purple is an amazing colour! Can’t help what? Admiring him and practicing his voice? Understandable…

            • *laughs* Yes, that’s my natural environment. But I don’t wish that on everyone…wait. Maybe I do, haha.

              I do not have purple eyes, dadblameit, o eye thiever!! Have you ever seen The Robe? *laughs just thinking on it* No room to speak then!

            • *laughs* I’m glad you finally admit it!

              Don’t you? That’s a shame – think how stunningly unique you’d be… *thinks dreamily* No I haven’t – is it good? Why no room…?

            • Hmm… I’m oddly intrigued now…

              Oh, no, I’m not – just looked it up. “…flat, overly reverential and turgid piece of film making.” Perhaps I’ll pass…

  7. I love your rants! But this was way too insightful to truly qualify. I think many are clouded by the legacy of this book and author, but I can always count on you for a clear minded assessment! Full disclosure…You also validated my own eye rolling attempt at this novel years ago. 😄

    • Haha! Isn’t that kind of validation nice? I must admit I rushed off to Goodreads to see if I was alone and was reassured by the nearly 5000 1-star reviews. Admittedly it has 37,000 5-stars! Seriously, though, yes, I think people find it quite hard to criticise a book or author with such a reputation, and I suspect my own criticisms are actually harsher because of that too. If this hadn’t been Woolf, I’d have probably thought it was kinda OK, if a bit overblown, but because of her rep I expected so much more…

  8. “Hyperventilating hyperbole” just strikes me as a perfect summary for this one, FF!! I haven’t read it, of course, but other than the passing interest that Septimus’s story might entail, I’m sure I, too, would find myself yawning and bored silly!

    • Ha! She did sound in constant danger of exploding with ecstasy! 😉 I must admit this kind of character study of a character I find basically uninteresting is never going to hold my interest, even if it had been brilliantly written…

  9. I think Woolf is deliberately trying to contrast the depth of despair of the “Septimuses” of the time period with the rather airhead, meandering snobbery of the upper class which epitomizes the apathy toward mental illness and the desire to brush it under the rug. I think she captures that very well; so if it annoyed you, I think she achieved her purpose. It’s difficult from the 21st century to put yourself in the time and place of the aftermath of WWI. I enjoyed your point of view.

    • Interesting! I felt strongly that she wanted us to like Mrs D, which I think was the weakness of the book for me – I found her a vapid, uninteresting woman and, though I agree the contrast is pretty stark, I still found spending so much time reading about someone with so little to interest me tedious. I do think her character study of Mrs D was insightful though – just insight wasted on such an empty character. I could have coped better with the content if it hadn’t been for the style though! Thanks for commenting – food for thought!

  10. Virginia Woolf is an enigma. I love her writing, perhaps because I feel her struggle with depression and life and just being an odd-ball in there. I think most of her writing is brilliant. Thank you for a most interesting text.

    • Hello, Heartafire – welcome to the blog! 😀

      Yes, I felt the bits where we saw her personal anger seeping through over the way Septimus was treated were far stronger than the rest of the book, and I actually felt Mrs D’s story was a distraction from that. But I always have problems with books that are essentially about the hardships of the rich and feckless – and that’s just a personal preference thing. Some of her writing was undoubtedly excellent, though some of it left me wanting to edit out the most overblown passages. But the joy of reading is that we all react so differently to books – what a dull world it would be otherwise… 🙂

  11. Wow! don’t hold back on your feelings here! Hope the
    Virginia Woolf police don’t come looking for you! Ha!
    You need to borrow my picture of the little boy crying because
    of the frog in his soup! Read something settling next . . .

    • Fortunately, Woolf fans seem to be a particularly polite bunch – I can feel the disapproval burning from the screen though… 😉 Haha! Yes I should read something more profound – PG Wodehouse perhaps!

  12. It’s been a long time since I read this, and when I did, I recall pairing it with The Hours and loving it. Oh where is LF to weigh in on this one??? Your review made me grin. I believe that Woolf was intentionally making Mrs. Dalloway shallow, perhaps exposing the author’s own upbringing by shining a light on it. Mrs. Dalloway lives in a carefully constructed and sheltered world that hasn’t moved forward for years and years and years. She’s like that person who comes back for a high school reunion and tries to pick up where they left off, always regretting having missed the love boat with a different captain at the helm, denying the passing of years that should have deepened them, but didn’t. They are stunted and grotesque. Septimus, OTOH, has changed dramatically. Life/the war made it’s mark. I think that while Mrs. Dalloway has dithered away her upper class life, Septimus’ lower class life is in ruins due to the war. He CANNOT say “but it was over thank heaven. It was June.” It will never be over for him, while the upper class sighs in relief and passes the gin. Definitely a commentary on class—everywhere.

    • Haha! I suspect LF is trying to be tactful! She probably assumes the mob will be big enough already… 😉

      Yes, I can see that interpretation of it, for sure, but (for me) if that is what she was trying to do, she failed by making it feel as if we were supposed to like Mrs D. But I do know that my reaction is as much to do with my prejudices as Woolf’s – if there’s one thing I truly can’t be bothered reading about it’s the entirely worthless upper classes of the late nineteenth century and onwards, especially their love lives! Before then they had a significant role in society, but by then they were dying as a breed – unlamented by me and 99% of the rest of society. And to waste a whole book on her!! Haha! But it was the way Woolf talked about the servants, and maybe even worse, the office workers, being ‘dumbly’ thrilled (ecstatically and supremely, no doubt) at the honour in being allowed to walk the hallowed streets of the City – dumbly?!? What are they – donkeys?!? Honoured?!? What – honoured to be allowed to work for a living? She wasn’t the only one hyperventilating by that point, I assure you…!

      Oh dear! I must go for a lie down again… 😉

  13. It is decades since I read this and to be honest I don’t remember too much – despite or perhaps because of your (caustic?) comments your review has actually made me want to revisit the book to see how I take to it! And of course I know my interest will be directed towards Septimus before I start

  14. The only Woolf novel I’ve read is “Orlando” upon the recommendation of an acquaintance. I was not overly fond of it, despite the premise being quite fascinating. I’m just not into her, and generally I like contemporary writers, which doesn’t help her case. I’m glad I’m not the only one who isn’t in love with Woolf!

    • I do love classics, but generally slightly older than this – I’m not much of a fan of early twentieth century writing when they were all getting experimental. And as I was saying to you earlier, I tend to prefer male writers in the classics. But I really just didn’t get along with either her style or the subject matter in this one. Pity, but that’s how it goes sometimes…

  15. I don’t take it personally 😊 I’m so glad you joined in and read Mrs Dalloway. I understand your reservations. I agree Septimus’ story is a very powerful one and we can’t help but see some of VW’S problems with depression in the depiction of his character.

    • Ha, I’m glad! I know my own prejudices were getting in the way – both about snobbery and experimental style – so despite my own reaction, I can well see how other people would enjoy her far more. For me, I wish Septimus’ story had taken priority over Mrs D’s. Thanks for the tweet – I was going to tweet it to #Woolfalong myself, but given my reaction I wasn’t sure I should… 😉

      Thanks again, Ali – I shall try to ensure the book ends up in a loving home!

    • Oh, don’t let me put you off, Emma, please!! I’m really in the minority – most people seem to love this. I rarely enjoy these experimental writers of the early twentieth century, so my reaction would be coloured by that…

      I do hope you enjoy it! 😀

  16. My problem with this wasn’t the snobbishness, ol’ Ginny was what she was, but it was with the way the perspective jumped a mad amount of times. That kind of omnipotence makes it hard to get through a paragraph, I want to know what the main characters are thinking, not every person that walks past them. I was waiting for her to tell me what each pigeon and dog in the park scene with Septimus and his wife saw, too.
    I really loved Ulysses, and at least when James Joyce puts you in someone’s head, you get to stay there for a bit, which I vastly prefer, even if that does mean going with them into the loo.

    • Yes, indeed! I would have loved to have read Septimus’ story written in a more standard style. But half the time, I was going back re-reading sentences and getting annoyed, which really distracted me from getting fully involved. And I’m pretty sure it was my annoyance with the style that made me so critical of the rest.

      Haha! You nearly sold me on giving Ulysses another try until that last phrase… 😉 However, I’ll see how I get on with Dubliners first.

  17. I think this was a very balanced review. For each criticism you had, you gave evidence for what you felt. I, too, find the language tedious. In that block quote you provided, for instance, I have to really, really focus to understand it. Now, mind you, focusing isn’t the devil, but the fact that I have to read each clause–thank goodness she adds semi-colons to give me space to think!, though I feel they are used inappropriately–several times turns me off. I believe this book was assigned a few times when I was in college, and if I remember correctly, I finished it once. I’m not sure why professors love this book…

    I was also assigned another rather boring book in the same time period, the U.S.A. trilogy (that’s 1,312 pages) by John Dos Passos. *SPOILER* everyone is a drunk, has the clap, and dies.

    • Thank you! Yes, I found the sentence structure unnecessarily complicated, and was constantly having to re-read – which I hate! I don’t object to re-reading a sentence because it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful or deeply profound, but not just because it’s full of weirdly placed commas! I’ve never really understood Woolf’s reputation – that’s why I wanted to have another try, but honestly, I’m still baffled. Though the stuff about Septimus was very good…

      Hahaha! I had been thinking of adding Dos Passos to my GAN Quest – thanks for the warning!

      • I read the U.S.A. trilogy during my masters degree, went off to another school in a different state for an MFA, and what do I have to read? Manhattan Transfer, another Dos Passos novel. Might I recommend instead Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison or Native Son by Richard Wright instead?

  18. I read Mrs. Dalloway after I’d seen a movie called ‘The Hours’ and I really loved the movie so then I was a bit disappointed with the book. It was not bad…exactly but for me it was hard to follow stream of consciousness in the book.

    • I haven’t seen the movie – maybe one day! Yes, I don’t like stream of consciousness much at the best of times, and I honestly didn’t think she was very good at it. I kept having to re-read sentences. But I agree – not bad, just not as good as I expected.

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