Friday, April 27, 2007

Beginning Mrs Dalloway

I first read Mrs Dalloway when I was at university and my memory of it is pretty hazy. I think I enjoyed it but it didn't make a big impression on me. Now that I'm re-reading it I think that I was just too young to appreciate Virginia Woolf first time around. This time I am reading slowly, allowing time for Woolf's gorgeous writing to sink in. The novel is so dense with imagery that I want to let myself think about the words, not race through.

The opening pages of Mrs Dalloway are just stunning. The way Woolf captures the sensations of a summer morning in London, the way she switches between different thoughts and perspectives, seems to capture more vividly the processes of thinking than any other writer I have read. She allows the reader glimpses into the minds of various characters in the scene, always finding fresh ways of describing their experiences. There is such vitality to the scene, such liveliness:
In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
In a few words she can give more depth to a minor character than some novelists achieve over hundreds of pages. A crowd has gathered outside Buckingham Palace to hopefully catch a glimpse of the royal family. Woolf describes one of the onlookers:
Little Mr Bowley, who had rooms in the Albany and was sealed with wax over the deeper sources of life but could be unsealed suddenly, inappropriately, sentimentally, by this sort of thing...
Darker thoughts intrude into Clarissa's mind, despite the cheerful morning scene:
It rasped her, though, to have stirring about in her this brutal monster! to hear twigs cracking and feel hooves planted down in the depths of that leaf-encumbered forest, the soul...
In the next moment Clarissa is admonishing herself for these thoughts ('Nonsense, nonsense!') and entering the florist to choose flowers for her party. This switching between despair and joy gives the scene a psychological realism, reflecting the way minds (well, mine at least, and I suspect others') jump from impression to impression in sometimes contradictory ways.

I only 50 pages into Mrs Dalloway, and there is already so much to think about. I'm so glad to be rediscovering Woolf!


missv said...

I love Mrs Dalloway which I also first read at university. It's my favourite Virginia Woolf title thus far. Have you read The Hours? It's an interesting accompaniment.

jess said...

No, I haven't read The Hours, but I did see the film, which I enjoyed. I'll have to look out for the book.

meli said...

Hello! Nice blog! Just had to leave a comment cos I really love Mrs Dallaway. I tried Towards the Lighthouse when I was 18 and got nowhere with it, but I had to teach Mrs D to some first year English students last year, and was so glad I had to read it! I just thought it was incredibly beautiful - the language, the structure, and Mrs D's character - how she is not extraordinary in any way but has a very unique perspective on the world. I love the last sentence, too. My students struggled with it though, so I agree with you that it is better to read it when you're a bit older.

jess said...

Thanks Meli! Glad you like Mrs Dalloway too. I've stalled in my reading of it over the past week but am hoping to get back into it today.