This is the first book in the Woolf in Winter read along. It’s also the first time I’ve personally read Virginia Woolf. I’m amazed that a book written in 1925 can have so much bearing on life today in 2010. 85 years have done little to lessen the grief people suffer from war, or the social status some try to achieve, or the way that we look back on our lives with a mixture of joy and regret.
Mrs. Dalloway is 52, I’m 48. I can relate to her almost perfectly as she remembers how she looked and what it felt like to be 18. I, too, look back on my life and wonder, “What if I’d married this person?” or “How would my life be different if I’d made that choice?” (I doubt that the loves of our lives are ever fully erased; even 30 years later Peter feels “extraordinary excitement” when he sees Clarissa at the end of her party.)
Her party is the vehicle for which the novel takes place. All day long she prepares for it, from stepping out early in the morning to buy the flowers herself, to meeting most of the people whom she had invited. My favorite of these characters happens to be Sally Seton:
But her voice was wrung of its old ravishing richness; her eyes not aglow as they used to be, when she smoked cigars, when she ran down the passage to fetch her sponge bag, without a stitch of clothing on her, and Ellen Atkins asked, What if the gentlemen had met her? But everybody forgave her. She stole a chicken from the larder because she was hungry in the night; she smoked cigars in her bedroom; she left a priceless book in the punt. But everybody adored her (except perhaps Papa). It was her warmth; her vitality-she would paint, she would write. (p. 181)
I don’t think I’m supposed to like Sally best; afterall, the novel isn’t entitled Mrs. Seton. But, Clarissa ended up irritating me. I found her too focused on the external, too intent on a good facade, too motivated by the demands of society.
In the end, I think Clarissa made peace with her choices. She finds great contentment in her party, in her guests, her daughter, her husband, her life. This is in high contrast to the tragedy of Septimus Warren Smith, who announces throughout the novel that he will kill himself, then succeeds by throwing himself out of a window.
What are we to make of this? Can we surmise that the lives we live are an indication of our spirits? I will be contemplating both of these characters for a long time: one takes his life, the other plans her party. It’s such a dichotomy.
Join in the discussion of Mrs. Dalloway with our fine hostess, Sarah.