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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 70… plus #Woolfalong!

Episode 70


The new resolutions are well under way – which makes it surprising, if not baffling, why the TBR has actually gone up 1, to 161! Mind you, I’m writing this on Sunday – by the time your read it on Thursday, I’m sure things will be headed in the right direction… (update – Thursday: 162)

Last year I discovered that I really don’t enjoy challenges – I never succeed and hate to fail! So this year I’ve only signed up for one, so far…

The #Woolfalong


This is a read-along set up by Ali at Heavenaliread her post for more details of what’s involved. What I like about it is the relaxed feel – Ali has made it clear she’s happy for people to only do the bits that appeal to them.

I tried Virginia Woolf many years ago and wasn’t overly thrilled by her. However there’s no doubt my tastes have changed a lot since then, so this event is a good incentive to try again. I’ll be joining in with phase 1 – to read either Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse during Jan/Feb 2016 – and then deciding whether to go any further depending on how I get along. And just to start the challenge off with a swing, I was a lucky winner in Ali’s generous giveaway, so am now the proud owner of…

mrs dallowayThe Blurb says “Mrs. Dalloway is a novel by Virginia Woolf that details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional high-society woman in post-World War I England. It is one of Woolf’s best-known novels.

Created from two short stories, Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street and the unfinished The Prime Minister, the novel addresses Clarissa’s preparations for a party she will host that evening. With an interior perspective, the story travels forwards and back in time and in and out of the characters’ minds to construct an image of Clarissa’s life and of the inter-war social structure. In October 2005, Mrs. Dalloway was included on TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.

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I must admit to also being severely tempted to join in with the Victorian Bingo Card, which I spotted on Margaret’s blog, BooksPlease, and which is hosted by Becky’s Book Reviews. To achieve this one, you only need to complete one line (horizontal, vertical or diagonal), but there’s nothing to stop you from going for the whole card! (Bwahaha! That’s why I’m psychologically unfitted to do challenges…). However, rather than trying to gear my reading towards it, I think I might do this one as a retrospective at the end of the year and see if I can complete any of the boxes…


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And meantime, here are a few more that are getting close to the top of the pile…



henry ivCourtesy of NetGalley and my favourite publisher of historical biography, Yale University Press. Part of their English Monarchs series, this is a massive tome that should keep me occupied for some weeks to come…

The Blurb says Henry IV (1399–1413), the son of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, seized the English throne at the age of thirty-two from his cousin Richard II and held it until his death, aged forty-five, when he was succeeded by his son, Henry V. This comprehensive and nuanced biography restores to his rightful place a king often overlooked in favor of his illustrious progeny.

Henry faced the usual problems of usurpers: foreign wars, rebellions, and plots, as well as the ambitions and demands of the Lancastrian retainers who had helped him win the throne. By 1406 his rule was broadly established, and although he became ill shortly after this and never fully recovered, he retained ultimate power until his death. Using a wide variety of previously untapped archival materials, Chris Given-Wilson reveals a cultured, extravagant, and skeptical monarch who crushed opposition ruthlessly but never quite succeeded in satisfying the expectations of his own supporters.

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black narcissusCourtesy of Santa Claus, who gave me this and the film because, having enjoyed a few ‘books of the film’ and ‘films of the book’ last year, I’m going to do a little more of that this year. This one looks like fun, since I’ve neither read the book nor seen the film before…

The Blurb says High in the Himalayas, the old mountaintop palace shines like a jewel. Built for the General’s harem, laughter and music once floated out over the gorge. But now it sits abandoned; windswept and haunting.

The General’s son bestows the palace to the Sisters of Mary, and ‘the House of Women’, as it was once known, becomes the Convent of St Faith. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and hospital. But the isolation and emptiness of the mountain become increasingly unsettling, and passions long repressed emerge with tragic consequences…”

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even the deadCourtesy of NetGalley. Having loved John Banville’s writing in The Blue Guitar, I’m keen to see how it translates to crime under his pen-name Benjamin Black…

The Blurb says “Two victims – one dead, one missing. Even the Dead is a visceral, gritty and cinematic thriller from Benjamin Black. Every web has a spider sitting at the centre of it.

Pathologist Quirke is back working in the city morgue, watching over Dublin’s dead. When a body is found in a burnt-out car, Quirke is called in to verify the apparent suicide of an up-and-coming civil servant. But Quirke can’t shake a suspicion of foul play. The only witness has vanished, every trace of her wiped away. Piecing together her disappearance, Quirke finds himself drawn into the shadowy world of Dublin’s elite – secret societies and high church politics, corrupt politicians and men with money to lose. When the trail eventually leads to Quirke’s own family, the past and present collide. But crimes of the past are supposed to stay hidden, and Quirke has shaken the web.”

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the woman in blueCourtesy of NetGalley. It’s make or break time for the Ruth Galloway series. I thought the last one was frankly poor and it may be time to lay the series to rest. But I’ll give it one last chance… plus, isn’t that just such a great cover?

The Blurb saysIn the next Ruth Galloway mystery, a vision of the Virgin Mary foreshadows a string of cold-blooded murders, revealing a dark current of religious fanaticism in an old medieval town.

Known as England’s Nazareth, the medieval town of Little Walsingham is famous for religious apparitions. So when Ruth Galloway’s druid friend Cathbad sees a woman in a white dress and a dark blue cloak standing alone in the local cemetery one night, he takes her as a vision of the Virgin Mary. But then a woman wrapped in blue cloth is found dead the next day, and Ruth’s old friend Hilary, an Anglican priest, receives a series of hateful, threatening letters. Could these crimes be connected? When one of Hilary’s fellow female priests is murdered just before Little Walsingham’s annual Good Friday Passion Play, Ruth, Cathbad, and DCI Harry Nelson must team up to find the killer before he strikes again. 

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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I think these should start the year off brilliantly!

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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