In the final days of 2011 I set out to read some short novels before embarking on my larger tomes in 2012. One of the novels I grabbed off of my shelf was Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. This work is on my 1001 novel list. She has nine novels on the list and I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read any of them.
Adeline Virginia Stephen, born in 1882, is an English author. Her parents brought her up in literate household located at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen was a critic, editor, and biographer. George Henry Lewes, Henry James, and James Russell Lowell were visitors to the family home. Virginia learned the classics and English literature during her childhood. At the age of thirteen, her mother died suddenly. Two years after this, her half-sister Stella died. These deaths caused Virginia’s first nervous breakdown. She would have several during her lifetime. Between 1897 and 1901 she took Greek, Latin, German, and history courses at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London. In 1904 her father died leading to one of her most serious collapses. She was institutionalized for a short period. Scholars believe that her periods of depression and breakdowns were also a result of the sexual abuse that she and her sister endured during their childhood. Their abusers were their half-brothers Gerald and George Duckworth.
In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf. They had a close bond during their marriage. However, Woolf had an affair with a woman, Vita Sackville-West, a writer. The affair ended, but they remained friends until Woolf’s death. Throughout her life, Woolf suffered from depression. Even though she suffered greatly she continued to write. On March 28, 1941, she filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse. They didn’t find her body until April 18, 1941.
Given her background I’m somewhat surprised that I didn’t think that her novel was overly depressing. There are sad parts to the novel to be sure, but I would have thought that the novel would have moved from one depressing act to another. The entire novel takes place on a June day in post-World War I England. The opening pages introduce Mrs. Dalloway who is running errands in preparation for a party she is hosting in the evening. Throughout the day, she remembers people from her past and present. She looks back on her life and wonders what would have happened if she did not marry her husband, but the impulsive Peter Walsh. Instead she chose the dependable Richard Dalloway. She also remembers Sally Seton, a childhood friend who was passionate and impulsive, who Mrs. Dalloway loved but could not be with. Her recollections are beautiful and insightful.
As Mrs. Dalloway is going through the motions of the day pondering her life decisions, there is Septimus Warren Smith. He and Mrs. Dalloway do not know each and never meet. However, this novel is just as much about Septimus as it is Mrs. Dalloway. Septimus is a veteran of World War I who is suffering from shell shock and hallucinations. His wife Lucrezia (Rezia), a woman he met in Italy, is beside herself since she thinks her husband is going mad.
When I started reading this novel I had no idea what I would think of it. It took me a few pages to get used to her writing style, which seems more like a stream of consciousness than a structured novel. To my knowledge, this is the first novel I’ve read that didn’t have any chapters. Woolf moves seamlessly from one character to another. And she sucked me in completely. In fact, I ended up staying up one night till midnight to finish this novel. And to add some ambiance, my neighbor was having a party and in the background I heard hear people talking, laughing, and holiday merriment. It was perfect.