Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Virginia Woolf? Virginia Woolf?
I don’t know where I first got the impression that Virginia Woolf was a difficult author. Perhaps it was Edward Albee’s fault? Bastard. (But a fucking good play!) So this weekend while I was reading Mrs. Dalloway I couldn’t help but hearing this refrain in my head on repeat.
To be honest I should have read this book and other Virginia Woolf novels decades ago. I took a Modernism class at UCSB, and this novel as well as To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own were on the syllabus. I didn’t get to any of them because my attendance in my classes during my college years was sporadic at best. I’m not going to dwell on the reasons for this since I don’t know what they are. I could guess what they are, but I’d rather not. Too much self-reflection that just might put me over the edge.
Mrs. Dalloway is a shortie, under 200 pages and about several people in London on a warm June day in 1923 (or thereabouts.) There is Clarissa Dalloway getting ready to throw a party. There is Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Rezia dealing with his “shellshock” after the War. There is Peter Walsh who goes here and there and everywhere and had just come back from India. There is Elizabeth Dalloway who hates her mom’s parties and all it entails. There is Hugh Whitbread who is an unbearable pompous cunt.
All of this unfolds in a stream of conscious narrative that really reminds me of James Joyce’s Ulysses but less obtuse. It’s not to say this is a fast read, but I did not sit there looking at the words and retrace the pages to figure out what the fuck is going on.
I think it’s good that I waited until now to read this. I’m a decade younger than Clarissa and Peter, so I understand their anxiety about time and aging. The words hit like a knife, “Still, life had a way of adding day to day.” “As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame.” Ten years ago, I would probably have no patience for 50-year olds bemoaning the passage of time. But here I am wondering where it’s gone.
Nonetheless Clarissa is really a stuck up bitch. All those years ago she spurned the passion she had for Peter and opted for comfort and stability in Richard Dalloway. And of course she couldn’t follow through on her love for Sally Seton, what ever would the Victorians think? After the losses of the War and the loss of her youth, all she has are these upper crust parties she throws and her bitchiness towards those in a lower class than her.
I will need to reread this a few more times. There are tons of things I missed. But I’m glad over 20 years later to have finally read this.