Modernists on Reading

by Charlotte Reads Classics

“The hall of the house was as cool as a vault. Mrs. Dalloway raised her hand to her eyes, and, as the maid shut the door to, and she heard the swish of Lucy’s skirts, she felt like a nun who has left the world and feels fold round her the familiar veils and the response to old devotions. The cook whistled in the kitchen. She heard the click of the typewriter. It was her life …”

It has been months and months since my last Classics Club read – but at last the wait is over. I have read book number twenty-one and it was Mrs Dalloway. There is a lot to say. Virginia Woolf as usual, has provided me with heart burstingly beautiful writing, depths that cannot be explored and yet more observations on the broader issues of reading. Well done.

The quotation at the start of this post is composed of my favourite sentences, those that really show how I felt about reading Mrs Dalloway. The writing is beautiful and so human – we can all identify with the comforts of home. We all have unique soundscapes and familiar images that we think of in a golden dappled sunlit sort of way. However what is an old devotion to one person is voyeurism to another. A recurring theme with the modernists (hello, Joyce) is that whilst you can experience the world through the eyes of a character, it is impossible to completely understand every nuance of another person’s life. This is as true of the characters in Mrs Dalloway as it is of Woolf.

“Through all ages – when the pavement was grass, when it was swamp, through the age of tusk and mammoth, through the age of silent sunrise – the battered woman – for she wore a skirt – with her right hand exposed, her left clutching at her side, stood singing of love – love which has lasted a million years”

I loved this section, the imagery of the ancients brought to life in 1920s London, the persistent spirit of humanity. I loved it more when I read the notes and saw that this imagery comes from a song from All Souls’ Day, traditionally when dead lovers return to life. If I hadn’t known this, I wouldn’t have made the connection with Peter, Clarissa’s former flame, returning from India back into her life.

In this way, Mrs Dalloway wasn’t always an easy read. There were parts I didn’t properly appreciate until I went back and read the Introduction. Mrs Dalloway herself, being the major one. As a title character I thought she was very weak, ultimately shallow and toying with people. But this is just one (shallow) reaction. She is also a woman living in a time where marital status defined women – the book isn’t Clarissa Dalloway, after all. She is embedded in society and convention and about to be eclipsed by her daughter. She is thinking about her life constantly, as we all do – people from her past reappearing make her think about how people change. So maybe what is important about Clarissa is not who she is, but that she is human. The change of heart I had towards her made me think, is it a plus or a minus when books need to be explained? It is a different kind of reading that looks to interpret literary devices and intentions, rather than something that grabs your attention and has you reading until dawn. Is one more valuable than the other? What do you think?

Looking at Mrs Dalloway with a bit more distance, it is set in one day just as Ulysses is, although the ordinariness of life is very differently portrayed. No classical allusions here, Woolf is very concretely fixed in a specific space and time. However she does get to explore more abstract concepts in Septimus Smith, a young man suffering from what now seems like PTSD after the war. Exploring the psychology of characters like this must be a real challenge for any writer: Are writers at their best when writing about aspects of themselves? Can you ever really write as someone else? Truly? Even authors are tinged by their own subjectivity. Sadness, death and war are hard to escape from:

“Outside the trees dragged their leaves like nets through the depths of the air; the sound of water was in the room, and through the waves came the voice of birds singing. Every power poured its treasures on his head, and his hand lay on the back of the sofa, as he had seen his hand lie when he was bathing, floating, on top of the waves, while far away on the shore he heard dogs barking and barking far away.”

Even as a troubled young man, this is no voice other than Virginia Woolf. As the two arcs of the novel intersect at Mrs Dalloway’s party and the events of the day come to a close, she (Woolf) is still thinking about death:

“… a point which sometimes bothered her if she woke early in the morning and did not like to call her maid for a cup of tea: how it is certain we must die.”

So, a thought-provoking, complicated read. You could read this book several times and each time glimpse something different. That is the nature of realistic, fractured, complex characters. I’m always going to side with the writing, so I’ll end the post with this:

“It was a splendid morning too. Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

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