I think Virginia Woolf was a truly talented prose-artist. Even in her private diaries there is a publishable wit, insight and grace that is so tender and beautiful, at times darkly beautiful, but always composure and fineness. Her books, however, somehow always leave me a little cold, and I think it must be a fault in me, because really I think she is talented, and really I think her books are lovely, but I finish them and I do not love them. Mrs. Dalloway
is one of those books, and while, as a prose-lover and word-hoarder, I loved reading it and discovering her power of nuance and tone and diction and melody, I finished it detached. I could pore over Woolf's sentences for days, but together they seem a bit impotent, but afterall, that is only speaking for myself, and I will certainly re-read this.
And now Clarissa escorted her Prime Minister down the room, prancing, sparkling, with the stateliness of her grey hair. She wore ear-rings, and a silver-green mermaid’s dress. Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed; turned, caught her scarf in some other woman’s dress, unhitched it, laughed, all with the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element.
This day-in-the-life of Clarissa Dalloway, the day of her party, is, like Joyce's Ulysses
(which Woolf railed against, but remains the obvious impetus of her own book), peppered with small errands and dalliances which cover up a deeper psychological horror, a personal terror which trembles throughout the novel. Flitting between the consciousnesses and memories, daydreams and worries, of a few characters in London on a sunny say in early summer, Woolf paints a small panorama of post-war London society, though particularly the milk-and-honey upper-crust thereof. Mrs. Dalloway
carries a strange aloofness: perhaps it would be more successful in the first person, as The Waves
is, or her diaries; but more than the personality of the narrator, the sad story of Clarissa Dalloway seems to me less sad than it should.
But—but—why did she suddenly feel, for no reason that she could discover, desperately unhappy? As a person who has dropped some grain of pearl or diamond into the grass and parts the tall blades very carefully, this way and that, and searches here and there vainly, and at last spies it there at the roots, so she went through one thing and another...
At many times, Clarrisa's worries seem to be just like this: losing a perhaps expensive or sentimental bauble in the grass, and not being able to find it. In the grand scheme of literature she is not especially sympathetic: she is well-to-do, she has a loveliness of her own, though she is past the age of full-bloom beauty of girlhood; but she is unhappy. Like Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House
, she feels belittled by her station as housewife, caressed with porcelain doll fragility, and cooed into submission. Unlike Nora, her dissatisfaction feels a but hollower, she is not a brave woman, she does not break her mold, but ultimately resigns to it. She does not run away, convention wins the day. Like so many modern novelists, Woolf issues her protagonist a warm passion for her past, which has become a warm phantom which haunts her present-day. Her lost love, her girlhood friends. Her grand passions of the past have been replaced by idle inconveniences, like getting the flowers, herself.
In defense of this novel, it is exceedingly modern in character and scope. It's stream-of-consciousness effect seems a bit mishandled, and I think very few people think in quite the coherence of Woolf's heroine, an effect more successfully pulled-off by Faulkner and Joyce, though perhaps less jarringly-so here by Woolf, and also in The Waves
. Mrs. Dalloway
stands at the proscenium of the modern era: fallen and dead behind her is the golden-age of ormolu furniture and ballroom parties, grandfather clocks and palanquin-coupes, the picturesque loveliness of futile wealth and the brutal beauty of Dickensian working class, romantic suicides and revolutions; ahead of her is the strange world of aeroplanes and telephones, cars and the rising middle-class and street-corner ice-cream parlors, and soda fountains and playgrounds, inner-city crime and suburban sprawl. The crumbling center of society's elite. Mrs. Dalloway, greyed with age, grown up in a world gone-with-the-wind, is as much a heroine of that time past as she is of the time to come.
The modern novel has become increasingly individual. The panoramic society novels of yore (Dickens, Zola, Balzac, Tolstoy) have mostly yielded to the first-person or highly individualistic narrative of today, and in many ways that pivot is visible in Woolf's fiction, and particularly Mrs. Dalloway
where we drift along dreamily with the jetsam and flotsam of her whim and worry. The innocuous dangers in modern life originate in the self, not in society, not in war or in dangerous working conditions, or even much in crime, but rather in the desperate loneliness and estrangedness from the world.
She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.
Without the dangers of cholera or war or revolution or disaster, foreign invasion or domestic oppression, the tiny dangers of daily life take on excess proportions. Clarissa's depression, which begins as an unidentifiable discomfort, like a pea beneath her princess-plush mattress, grows and takes on the proportions of suicide-tempting depression and despair. Her yearning for the bygone era of her girlhood, and her slighted feeling of being a party-thrower, a housewife, become a life-threatening despair.
I am glad to have read Mrs. Dalloway
, and I think that she is a tremendous writer with a poetic sensibility and a critical pen, an instinct for words and a natural perfection in composition. However, something in her perfection, and maybe it is that cold precision exactly, still leaves me distant. Mrs. Dalloway
is mostly humorless, and very gravely toned. She is an unhappy woman in an unhappy world: King Lear without his life-breathing fool.