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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy, Alymer Maude, Louise Maude

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf, Maureen Howard


Perhaps being a visual learner/thinker is just shorthand for being an aural idiot, but Ansel Adams' photograph captures how I see Mrs. Dalloway:



When I was reading the book, I kept thinking of splintered glass. What Virginia Woolf does so deftly here is move you from the mind of one character into the thoughts of another. There’s no discernible transition, and yet, as she focuses on another character it’s as though the light shifts slightly and a different shard is illuminated; the edges are sharp and distinct. You don’t mistake the thoughts of Clarissa (Mrs. Dalloway) for those of Richard or Peter or Septimus. Each of them thinks in a very different way and at a different tempo.

Clarissa is all movement and sensation, up and down, and unfiltered. Completely unfiltered. I envied Clarissa this ability to take in the world without reservation. Clarissa absorbs life with all her defenses down. One moment she sees something – a bird, some flowers perhaps – and her joy is absolute. In a moment or two, she’s crushed by an invitation she didn’t receive. Up. Down. Total immersion. Ostensibly, Clarissa might be seen as shallow. Her life revolving around getting flowers, wondering if her party will be a success, but from an interior angle, her mind is active. While the compass of her life might be small, her thoughts are rapid, often subtle:

But suppose Peter said to her, “Yes, yes, but your parties—what’s the sense of your parties? all she could say was (and nobody could be expected to understand): They’re an offering; which sounded horribly vague…She could not imagine Peter or Richard taking the trouble to give a party for no reason whatsoever.
But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgements, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?”

When the sun glints on a different shard, overlaying another one, the differences are both slight and distinct. Consider the slower, more plodding tempo of Richard’s mind, as he contemplates handing Clarissa flowers and telling her he loves her (which he is unable to do):

Here he was walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her. Which one never does say, he thought. Partly one’s lazy; partly one’s shy. And Clarissa—it was difficult to think of her; except in starts, as at luncheon, when he saw her quite distinctly, their whole life. He stopped at the crossing; and repeated—being simple by nature, and undebauched, because he had tramped and shot; being pertinacious and dogged, having championed the downtrodden and followed his instincts in the House of Commons; being preserved in his simplicity yet at the same time grown rather speechless, rather stiff…”

The primary action consists of Clarissa’s party, but bumping and jarring against that is the anguish of Septimus, suffering from the shocks of WWI and his wife, whose love conflicts with her hatred for what Septimus has become and what she must endure. Peter, a former suitor of Clarissa returns, and he thinks of Clarissa, nostalgically wondering what they could have been like and half hating Richard for the stolid security he represents.

Though Septimus’s story is perhaps the most dramatic, the book isn’t about action, but an interior world, the nuances that ripple below us. This book could be read again and again; like one’s fleeting thoughts, it is impossible to grasp the whole of it in one reading. Though often dark, this book embraces life, “What a lark! What a plunge!” even as Clarissa recognizes that she’s moving toward death – “Narrower and narrower would her bed be.”

I wallowed in this language…