‘What a lark! What a plunge!’ Sally Minogue looks at Mrs Dalloway

Sally Minogue dives below the surface of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, published 94 years ago this month.

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The famous opening sentence of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between kept stubbornly inserting itself into my mind as I turned it to Mrs Dalloway. On the face of it the two novels couldn’t be more different. Woolf’s, written between 1922 and 1924, and published in 1925, in the full flood of modernism, is narratively, linguistically and thematically experimental. Hartley’s, though written a good 25 years later, is closer to the mode of those well-constructed novels Woolf laid into in ‘Modern Fiction’. And even their common interest in the past is refracted differently: for Woolf, there are no barriers between past and present, while for Hartley the distinction is as clear as could be: ‘the past is a foreign country’. Nonetheless, both writers are deeply concerned with the way past events determine subsequent ones – if that key event had not happened thus, the subsequent lives of key characters would have been different. The shade of what might have been and a pervasive air of regret and longing cling to both works.

That is not how Mrs Dalloway begins, however. Rather it’s opening, disarmingly domestic and pedestrian in the first few sentences, suddenly plunges us as readers, first into ‘a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach’ (much like the sparkling morning on which I’m writing this), and then directly into another morning many years past:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this, of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen;

I had to stop this quotation somewhere; it’s not surprising that it is on a semi-colon. Woolf’s sentences are often long and allusive, creating connections which are not drawn to our attention but which we absorb as we are drawn along by the rhythm of the prose. Nothing is explained; Bourton is thrown in as though we know what, where and when it is. And this is Woolf bringing her free indirect style to full fruition, allowing us to inhabit Clarissa Dalloway’s consciousness whilst always making clear that the narrative is at a remove (hence the ‘indirect’). This is not first-person writing, it is as at were third person inhabits the first person, as though Clarissa were commenting on her own consciousness even as she experiences it. This is of course an illusion: Woolf remains the author, there is always an outside view as well as an inside. Yet remarkably this method feels as though it gives us greater access to the character because we are also alongside her, plunged not only into the brilliance of the new day but at the same time into Clarissa’s past – a past where being ‘Mrs Dalloway’ lies a long way into the future. As she plumbs her own memory, we too are transported there, in the few strokes of a pen. For remember, Woolf would have been writing this in her own hand.[1]

With this, Woolf can explore time in a new way. And we, instead of thinking as rational readers, “Hang on a minute – what happened to London and Rumpelmeyer’s men? What’s Bourton? How can we hear the squeak of hinges from several decades ago?” – we accept that we are moving through time with Clarissa’s memory. We accept it because we are familiar with that process in our own minds. Woolf’s genius was to find a narrative method that reflected this and made it somehow normal and knowable on the page. That artful creation is deliberately eclipsed, so that we feel as though we are in the moment, experiencing that immediate, overwhelming sense of the past occupying the present. Once the method is in place, established on the first page of the novel, the narrative can move freely back and forth between ‘life; London; this moment in June’ and significant moments many years in the past.

When Woolf began writing the first version of this novel in 1922, initially in the form of short stories, she was already immersed in modernist explorations of time and consciousness by some powerful literary contemporaries. The greatest of these was Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, which accompanied her throughout this period of writing, and which she read in French, believing that this would help to distance her from its influence. Of the first volume, she said simply (writing to Roger Fry in October 1922): ‘Well – what remains to be written after that? … [It is] as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.’ In the same year, T. S. Eliot visited expressly to read to her and Leonard The Waste Land only months before its publication. As early as 1918, she and Leonard had been shown early chapters of Joyce’s Ulysses, with a mind that the Hogarth Press might publish it (they turned it down). But in 1922 she is reading Ulysses on its first publication as a complete novel, at the very time she is hatching her own new one. Her obeisance to Proust is evident, and as a poet, Eliot wasn’t in the same business. But her dislike of Joyce’s novel, expressed in quite vile class-bound terms, perhaps indicates precisely her sense of him as a competitor and a threat. Certainly, Mrs Dalloway can be seen as a riposte to Ulysses.[2] The action takes place on one day in June, as in Joyce’s novel. It takes a central consciousness, but that of a woman rather than a man. It is set in London rather than Dublin. There is a sense here of a novelist shouldering arms.

What is genuinely new in this novel is the parallel Woolf creates between Mrs Dalloway and Septimus Smith. Septimus enters her head in October 1922: ‘Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book; & I adumbrate here a study of insanity & suicide: the world seen by the sane & the insane side by side – something like that. Septimus Smith? – is that a good name?’ (Diary, October 14th, 1922) Septimus’ consciousness is on a continuum with Clarissa’s. His drives him mad, i.e. to the point where he is out of touch with generally perceived reality. She, still in touch with that perceived reality, is on the brink of understanding the abyss into which he has already fallen. It lurks there for her, even in such ordinary, even bathetic, moments as her discovering that Lady Bruton has asked her husband Richard to lunch without her. Stricken, Clarissa sees ‘herself suddenly shrivelled, aged, breastless’ and retreats upstairs ‘like a nun withdrawing’: ‘there was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room.’ This bleak vision then transforms into an extended account first of ‘this falling in love with women’, and then of the significant event in Clarissa’s past which underlies that:

Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally.

We are back at Bourton, and ‘What a lark! What a plunge!’ Though not in love with Peter, but with Sally. There is in this passage both the gladsome immediacy of the rapturous moment, and the contemporaneous awareness that it is in and of the past. Then there is also the barren context of the metaphorical attic room. Sally, we learn later at the party, has ‘five enormous boys’. How stupid those five strapping sons are made to seem! Sally’s reappearance at the party, ‘older, happier, less lovely’, doesn’t wipe out the kiss, but it places it.

Then we have Septimus. For him there is no discontinuity whatsoever between past and present. It is not a matter of narrative method; for him, that continuity is absolute and real. ‘Evans was behind the railings!’ Though Septimus is a casualty of the First World War, and his dead comrade Evans appears to him as a living being, Woolf emphasises that Septimus and Clarissa have the same awareness of death lurking in life, of the void below the ‘narrow strip of pavement’ (Diary). Glittering party-giver she may be, but ‘Fear no more’ from the funeral song in Cymbeline is the motif which recurs to Clarissa and which signifies death, the deep undertow of Mrs Dalloway. ‘Golden lads and girls all must/ As chimney-sweepers come to dust’. And death does come, suddenly and shockingly, to Septimus – or he comes to it. Hearing about it from her guest, Septimus’s psychiatrist, the appallingly smug Sir William Bradshaw, ‘Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought’. But death has been there all along.

Virginia began 1923, at the age of forty, with a ‘turn of the year’ diary entry – a summing up of where she has been, where she is, and where she will be. It is nakedly honest. She has just come back from visiting Vanessa and her family ‘and am in one of my moods … And what is it & why? A desire for children, I suppose; for Nessa’s life; for the sense of flowers breaking all around me involuntarily. … They make my life seem a little bare sometimes; and then my inveterate romanticism suggests an image of forging ahead, alone, through the night: of suffering inward, stoically; of blazing my way through to the end – & so forth. The truth is that the sails flap about me for a day or two on coming back.’ Noting that ‘it is all temporary’, she nevertheless goes on to remember earlier advice she gave to herself: ‘Never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having; good advice I think. At least it often comes back to me. Never pretend that children, for example, can be replaced by other things. And then I went on … to say to myself that one must (put all one’s weight upon) (how am I to convey it?) like things for themselves … & venture on to the things that exist independently of oneself’. I quote this at length because it is one of the few places where Woolf talks about her childlessness, and because it shows her moral and emotional bravery – to see that one thing can’t stand in the stead of another. In this light, it is all the more satisfying to read her penultimate diary entry for 1924 (December 13th), when she has been:

galloping over Mrs Dalloway, re-typing it entirely from the start. … Really & honestly I think it is the most satisfactory of my novels. … Is it mere accomplishment? I think not. And as I think I said before, it seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write & write & write now: the happiest feeling in the world.

Further Reading

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (Fourth Estate, 1999) derives its inspiration from Mrs Dalloway but is a brilliant novel in itself. A film version, The Hours, 2002, gives a rare cinematic depiction of Woolf. Critics were divided about Nicole Kidman’s casting (and her nose), but I thought she captured Woolf’s spirit remarkably.

The critical material one might read on Virginia Woolf is unending. Her fiction as a body is really the best way to her, all available from Wordsworth Editions. The Diary, in 5 volumes, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, Penguin, 1981 is also wonderfully interesting, though be prepared for some unpalatable views at times. Woolf’s essays are also widely available. Her seminal long essay A Room of One’s Own is published by Wordsworth Editions.

Several good biographies:

Lyndall Gordon, Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, OUP, 1986

Alexandra Harris, Virginia Woolf, Thames and Hudson, 2011

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf, Vintage Books, 1997

The notebooks in which Woolf drafted Mrs Dalloway can be viewed at www.bl.uk.

My blog on Woolf Works, a Wayne MacGregor ballet based in part on Mrs Dalloway, can be found in the Wordsworth blog archive here

[1] She seems to have used a typewriter for her final revision, but the draft novel is handwritten in three notebooks, now held in the British Library. For an enjoyable passage on nibs and fountain pens, see Woolf’s Diary for September 3rd 1922.

[2] Alexandra Harris suggests this in her recent biography of Woolf.