Grafton Books, 1976.
Virginia Woolf was very bright but she led a very tough life, which she ended herself. How much of her found its way into Mrs Dalloway?
Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct, she thought, walking on. If you put her in a room with some one, up went her back like a cat’s; or she purred. Devonshire House, Bath House, the house with the china cockatoo, she had seen them all lit up once; and remembered Sylvia, Fred, Sally Seton — such hosts of people; and dancing all night; and the waggons plodding past to market; and driving home across the Park. She remembered once throwing a shilling into the Serpentine. But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?
Reading Virginia Woolf is like reading poetry in prose – the stream of consciousness of Joyce wrought by the acrid chisel of T S Eliot. This book came out in 1925. (Ulysses and The Waste Land were both published in 1922.) All three flourished at the same time, although hardly with a hymn to happiness.
A car carrying a very important person behind blinds passes before Mrs Dalloway and her florist on the day she is giving a party.
Gliding across Piccadilly, the car turned down St. James’s Street. Tall men, men of robust physique, well-dressed men with their tail-coats and their white slips and their hair raked back who, for reasons difficult to discriminate, were standing in the bow window of Brooks’s with their hands behind the tails of their coats, looking out, perceived instinctively that greatness was passing, and the pale light of the immortal presence fell upon them as it had fallen upon Clarissa Dalloway. At once they stood even straighter, and removed their hands, and seemed ready to attend their Sovereign, if need be, to the cannon’s mouth, as their ancestors had done before them. The white busts and the little tables in the background covered with copies of the Tatler and syphons of soda water seemed to approve; seemed to indicate the flowing corn and the manor houses of England; and to return the frail hum of the motor wheels as the walls of a whispering gallery return a single voice expanded and made sonorous by the might of a whole cathedral. Shawled Moll Pratt with her flowers on the pavement wished the dear boy well (it was the Prince of Wales for certain) and would have tossed the price of a pot of beer — a bunch of roses — into St. James’s Street out of sheer light-heartedness and contempt of poverty had she not seen the constable’s eye upon her, discouraging an old Irishwoman’s loyalty. The sentries at St. James’s saluted; Queen Alexandra’s policeman approved.
My edition has White’s, not Brooks’s. No matter – any writer who knows either knows the English upper class. I have never been invited to either (and an American spell-check questioned this rendition of the latter.)
This is a curious novel. It is a sustained meditation on the state of England after the Great War. We see the nation through the eyes of many people other than Mrs Dalloway – whose lot does not appear to be any more happy or defined than that of her nation.
The author may or may not have been assured socially, but she was not shy politically. The ‘rights of women’ (‘that antediluvian topic’) were right in vogue just then. I remarked elsewhere on the consequences of the German execution of Edith Cavell.
Now, here you had a hero, a real hero, the kind of hero that a nation can sustain its faith on. It was open to the Germans to say to Edith Cavell that if it was good enough for you to aid our enemy then it is good enough for you to be executed under the laws of war. So could the women of England say to their government that if it is good enough for us to die to see that the country is run properly, it is good enough for us to vote to see that the country is run properly? That argument is unanswerable; it was unanswerable even by those inbred fops out of Eton who had been sheltered from girls by mummy and daddy, but to whom exclusion came naturally, and who believed that old fairy tale about the battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton.
That aside, it was the girls who armed the nation. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf said:
When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
This book is great read, but it can be dense as well as dark, and I was reminded that someone said of Paradise Lost that no one ever wished that it was longer. And is it possible to be a little too clever? Sensible lawyers say that it is.