Leather bags and broad minds: Thoughts so far on Mrs Dalloway

by Charlotte Reads Classics

 

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If I were to imagine the narrative of Mrs Dalloway, its long strings stretching through and across the streets of London, I would think of curling ribbon or ivy tendrils, something that could creep and swerve towards the skyline just as easily as it could crawl along the ground.

The reason I think of this novel as clambering upwards as much as reaching across is determined by the nature of Virginia Woolf’s writing. As her writing twirls and flits into one mind or the next, I pictured a London street scene; frozen in the midst of movement, as the author did nothing more than guide us to listen to one mind or the next. Reading stream of consciousness is fascinating whilst demanding of concentration. So far I am reminded of the challenges of Ulysses: How is it possible for me, the reader, to pick up on and understand every nuance in someone else’s mind? Their memories aren’t mine.

Early on in the novel, before Clarissa has even brought the flowers home, this quotation really caught my attention:

Then, while a seedy-looking nondescript man carrying a leather bag stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and hesitated, for within was what balm, how great a welcome, how many tombs with banners waving over them, tokens of victories not over armies, but over, he thought, that plaguy spirit of truth seeking which leaves me at present without a situation, and more than that, the cathedral offers company, he thought, invites you to membership of a society; great men belong to it; martyrs have died for it; why not enter in, he thought, put this leather bag stuffed with pamphlets before an altar, a cross, the symbol of something which has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words together and has become all spirit, disembodied, ghostly – why not enter in? he thought and while he hesitated out flew the aeroplane over Ludgate Circus.

This is why I have been thinking of Mrs Dalloway in terms of a full range of movement. As the story is firmly rooted in the human mind, so the narrative follows us. We all spend a lot of time thinking about day-to-day, mundane, low-level things. Occasionally something happens that makes us think about grander, higher concepts, like philosophy or art or religion. Not just that, these higher concepts are the things that connects one person to another, that forge ideas about what makes us human, or what is important in being human.

A man can be seedy-looking, carrying a leather bag whilst an aeroplane flies overhead and if you were a passer-by then perhaps that is all you would see. The greatness of Mrs Dalloway, in the first thirty pages and my humble opinion, is that Woolf makes the internal external. The seedy-looking man draws his conclusions about the power of religious imagery and we would have been none the wiser.

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