Monday, 6 June 2011

Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf

Quotes from Virginia Woolfs' diary in 1922 while she read Ulysses:
"I have read 200 pages so far," 
 "amused, stimulated, charmed, interested ... to the end of the Cemetery scene." 
 "puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned" "by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples." 
 "illiterate, underbred book ... of a self taught working man
 "we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating

These, and other quotes pepper the internet and because of them and the obvious similarities between Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses, it is hard to think of Mrs Dalloway completely separately from Joyces' magnum opus. Both are narrated through internal voices and both take place over the course of a single day. 
I couldn't help seeing the following quote as referring (less than) obliquely to Joyce. "Now for instance, there was a man writing quite openly in one of the respectable weeklies about water closets."

And this piece, from the most 'common' of the narrators, Septimus Smith (alliterative name, as J.J.), a man suffering from shellshock: "Why then, rage and prophesy? Why fly scourged and outcast? Why be made to tremble and cry by  the clouds? Why seek truths and deliver messages when  Reiza sat sticking pins into the front of her dress and Mrs Peters was in Hull? Miracles, revelations, agonies, loneliness, falling through the sea, down, down into the flame, all were burnt out..."
There seems a deliberate echo of the Icarus story in his story, both in this quote and overall. Woolf seems to come down on the side of decorum. However, as with many great writers, her creations can both espouse and contradict the views they seem to espouse.
The novel can be seen as much as a response to the Impressionists as to Joyce. Has Impressionism ever been better described than in the phrase "as if the eye were a cup that overflowed". The writing is almost feverish throughout and the images are (largely) of the middle and upper classes at play. The following passage, early in the novel seems to me to assert this tone and style. It is a recognisable England, with the whirl of social life centered round the monarchy and other bucolic certainties of English life.
"The King and Queen were at the Palace. And everywhere, though it was still so early, there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats; Lords, Ascot, Ranelagh and all the rest of it; wrapped in the soft mesh of the grey-blue morning air, which, as the day wore on, would unwind them, and set down on their lawns and pitches the bouncing ponies, whose forefeet just struck the ground and up they sprung, the whirling young men, and laughing girls in their transparent muslins who, even now, after dancing all night, were taking their absurd wooly dogs for a run; and even now, at this hour, discreet old dowagers were shooting out in their motor cars on errands of mystery; and the shopkeepers were fidgeting in their windows with their paste and diamonds, their lovely old sea-green brooches in eighteenth century  settings to tempt the Americans (but one must economise, not buy things rashly for Elizabeth), and she, too, loving it as she did with an absurd and faithful passion, being part of it, since her people were courtiers once in the time of the Georges, she, too, was going that very night to kindle and illuminate; to give her party."
The rush of impressions, the whirl of social life, the pastimes, these and a form of decorum seem to be presented as what gives life meaning. There is also the passport of class, the connection to the royals. At its worst this can be seen as Peter Walsh's description of Richard Dalloway: "he had no heart, no brain, nothing but the manners and breeding of an English gentle man". Clarissa's life is reduced to the whirl of impression and intrigue and all forms of belief are dismissed "to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that." This can also be seen as  positive as he remains open to what might happen and who we might be.
All beliefs are challenged:  "As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favourite reading as  a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part, mitigate the suffering of our fellow prisoners.."
Belief and judgement are seen as often being blind and calcified. Mrs Kilman, a poor tutor who discovers religion and seems to be pulling Clarissa Dalloway's daughter Elizabeth into her gravitational field is seen as tied to her beliefs as a way of revenging herself on a world that has not provided her with what she wants. Mrs Dalloway thinks "that the religious ecstasy made people callous (so did causes).."
When she feels her feelings towards Mrs Kilman turning to jealousy and even hatred, she finds that the overwhelming feeling challenges the very basis of her life:  "any moment the brute would be stirring, this hatred, which, especially since her illness, had power to make her feel scraped, hurt in her spine; gave her physical pain, and made all pleasure in beauty, in friendship, in being well, in being loved and making her home delightful, rock, quiver, and bend as if indeed there were a monster grubbing at the roots, as if the whole panoply of content were nothing but self love! this hatred!"
Is it simply a refusal to look too closely at the world and her own life that gives Mrs Dalloway's life meaning.  It is as if she has navigated the vagaries of life but remained somewhat untouched: "she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet." This is in contrast to Septimus Smith who has been shattered by his experiences in the war. There are suggestions as well that both may be homosexual and that this has left them living lives that are, to a degree, emptied of meaning.
Her early friendship with Sally Seton is a clue to Mrs Dalloways orientation. As well as a kiss between them representing the high water mark of her happiness their relationship had been marked by a degree of envy as Sally had been prepared to be outrageous and had "a sort of abandonment, as if she could say anything, do anything; a quality much commoner in foreigners than in Englishwomen. Sally always said she had French blood in her veins, an ancestor had been with Marie Antoinette, had his head cut off, left a ruby ring." (Is it too much to see an emasculation and representation of the female genetalia in this passage - and being homosexual was often viewed as a continental "affliction")
There is also Woolf's feminism, Clarissa is defined by her husband and his success or lack of it: "this being Mrs Dalloway, not even Clarissa any more" The dreams of youth play a big part in the novel and there is a sense that neither Peter or Clarissa have fulfilled their early potential or lived up to their ideals. It is not made obvious however if this is to be seen as a failure of age or of the greater wisdom and perspective of age. 
Such opportunities to play with meaning are not allowed the proletariat and as Peter Walsh is passed by a column of soldiers he thinks about this: "on they marched, past him, past every one, in their steady way, as if one will worked legs and arms uniformly, and life with its varieties, its irreticences, had been laid under a pavement of monuments and wreaths and drugged into a stiff yet staring corpse by discipline. One had to respect it; one might laugh; but one had to respect it.." In this famously internal book it seems to me that those who are not part of the social whirl remain, as it were seen through a reversed telescope while it is those who are similar in class who come into greater focus. The internal voice, particularly when it is  the thoughts of commoners, doesn't convince, but the sheer vitality of the writing makes this a book well worth reading and with much to give. 
Some of the set pieces will remain long after the faults are forgotten. There are pieces which are like virtuoso crane shots, the London streets whirling past as a waves and eddies of thought rise from the people.
Some parts remind me of Dickens' famous evocation of the London fog at the opening of Bleak House, particularly a description of a derelict old woman singing almost wordlessly: 
"still the old bubbling burbling song, soaking through the knotted roots of infinite ages, and skeletons and treasure, streamed away in rivulets over the pavement and all along the Marleybone Road, and down towards Euston, fertilising, leaving a damp stain."

No comments:

Post a Comment