The Short Version: On a June day in the 1920s in London, Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party. From the morning to the evening, we follow her and several others about London through what is an ordinary – and completely extraordinary – day.
The Review: For the first time, I’ve re-read something that I’ve already reviewed on this blog. Mrs. Dalloway was one of the first books I read and reviewed here, way back in fall 2009. This gives me a remarkable opportunity to look back and see… well, frankly, how dumb I was.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration and an over-simplification – but the sentiment isn’t too far off. I liked the book back then (and later wrote one of the best papers I wrote in school, a paper that I hope to brush up and publish here as an ancillary essay about the joys of reading this book and loving London) but in something more of an abstract way; I was bowled over by it, bamboozled even. It was, perhaps, too much for me to understand even then.
Five and a half years later, I’m not sure what has changed except to say that something has: I now recognize this book’s beauty and wondrousness with a full and open heart. I was breathless while reading it, even over the most simple of moments. Septimus’ mania and eventual suicide struck me so much harder than they did once upon a time – I understood his depression a little better, saw in him echoes of the PTSD that ravages our troops today (or, switch that, I suppose – I see in them echoes of Septimus) as well as just knowing that sometimes it can be a hard world for a smart young man. The crystalline remembrances of Clarissa and Peter ring a little more richly now, now that I can look back on my time with a little more remove, instead of being right there in it.
I think about how… I don’t want to say brave, that sounds patronizing. How bold this book must’ve been. It is not as daring, stylistically, as some of her other books – but it is honest about love and emotion in a way that the English sure as hell weren’t comfortable with back then (and America might pretend, but we’re not too comfortable with it either). Clarissa’s relationship – her deep emotional love – for Sally Seton is the sort of thing that we only now, in 2015, are able to shrug at and say “sure, you love who you love”. Even six years ago, it wasn’t quite so easy.
But it’s not just that specific moment; it’s everything. I didn’t realize how melancholic Peter was – because I didn’t realize, then, that melancholy does not have to be soul-crushing sadness. It can be a sort of quiet, even content resignation. It’s like how I describe Damon Albarn’s solo album (“Everyday Robots”) as revealing the beauty in the grey: you can exist in the liminal space of being both sad and happy all at once. Woolf achieves that so well here, to consistently heartbreaking effect. When Richard (Mr. Dalloway) comes home from lunch with flowers and the intention to tell Clarissa that he loves her – and then can’t actually say the words, but feels so happy and content and so, too, does Clarissa. The beauty and heartbreak of this moment, for example:
But he stood for a moment as if he were about to say something; and she wondered what? Why? There were the roses.
Their relationship is perhaps not the very best match – Richard is no Peter, but then Peter is no Richard – but it is a very strong one. A good one. It goes beyond contentment; they are truly happy, I believe. And that nameless happy-sad thing is what I mean when I refer to the melancholy. It is simply the weight of having passed into middle age, of having lived a whole life so far and recognizing it.
I also do suppose that I’m more accustomed to the stylistic daring of this novel than I was back then. The stream of consciousness thing has been done again and again and I’m told that the other novels are tougher to get through; but I found this immensely enjoyable. I would sometimes be right there, following the entire train of thought… and sometimes, I’d slip off into a parallel train of thought of my own, but it would always dovetail back into the “main” plot(s). I wonder if Woolf hoped that would happen; if readers would, even as they read, take the moment to enjoy their surroundings and consider, as these characters do, the world around them, the thoughts in their brains. I felt richer for having the book to encourage such a thing, even as I fell back into the swelling heartburst of the pages themselves.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I find that, more than with many other re-reads, my response to this reading is not a critical one about the book but rather a reaction to the last time I read it. I want to upbraid my younger self and say, “no, you fool, this book is transcendent.” I wonder if, when I inevitably read this book again many years from now, I’ll look back at this review and say “you had no idea” or something like that. I hope so. The raw charge of this book is refreshing, revitalizing. It reminds me of London, of springtime, of late nights and happy lives and the knowledge that any human being contains untold and unplumbable multitudes. An ordinary day, every single one of them, is anything but – and it’s enough to make you cry, to cheer, to laugh, to gasp — for there she was.