Monday, October 31, 2016

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“MRS DALLOWAY” by Virginia Woolf (first published in 1925)

            I recently re-read Mrs Dalloway, one of the better-known novels of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and it brought back an odd memory.
Quite a few years ago, when I was about to teach the novel to a small class of seniors at a girls’ high school, I undertook to write a synopsis of it. This soon proved to be a hopeless task.
            With most other novels you can follow a “plot” of external action, and observe a developing story, which in some sense will have a beginning, middle and end. Of such are synopses made. But Mrs Dalloway, by a high priestess of literary modernism, has no such structure. Though told in the third person, it is a series of momentary observations, moods and memories, each sparked by some sensory impression of sight, sound or smell. It is stream-of-consciousness and yet it is not wholly stream-of-consciousness, because it runs according to the demands of the clock. The “action” (mainly internal or mental) begins in mid-morning and ends in the small hours of the following day, as a small group of characters wander about, and occasionally (but only occasionally) interact, mainly in the tone-ier parts of London.
            There are regular references to what time of day it is. And sometimes, time is “stopped” so that we can have a panoramic view of how a number of minds are reacting to the same event, such as the exploding of a car tyre heard early in the novel.
            I know this is very reductionist, and does not convey how the novel actually reads, but I can produce a coherent account of Mrs Dalloway only by explaining a few things. Mrs Clarissa Dalloway is a society hostess, the wife of the Tory MP Richard Dalloway. In the one June day of the novel’s “action”, Mrs Dalloway is going about her business organising a dinner party, and eventually hosting the party. Mrs Dalloway is usually, but not exclusively, the novel’s centre of consciousness. Being in the third person, the novel switches from mind to mind in a series of internal monologues, and in a few paragraphs here and a few paragraphs there, we sometimes see and feel what even very minor characters see and feel. But we are often in the consciousness of Mrs Dalloway’s friend Peter Walsh, who was once amorously attracted to her and who unsuccessfully proposed to her. Peter Walsh moves in the same social circles as Mrs Dalloway and is in the throes of getting a divorce in order to marry a younger woman. Peter Walsh therefore spends some of his day consulting lawyers. The novel’s third major centres of consciousness are really quite unrelated to the first two. They are the shell-shocked, depressive and clearly mentally unbalanced former soldier Septimus Warren Smith, and his foreign wife Lucrezia (“Rezia”). The only way Septimus Warren Smith comes into Mrs Dalloway’s orbit is when they both happen to be in the same street where a car tyre explodes, and Virginia Woolf therefore has an excuse to switch from Clarissa Dalloway’s mind to the minds of Septimus and Rezia as she gives us a panorama of reactions. While Mrs Dalloway’s day ends late in the night as her dinner party comes to an end, Septimus Warren Smith’s life ends when he commits suicide by jumping out a window as the clock is striking 6pm.
Now that is the “plot” of the novel as it has been neatly levelled out and explained by me. But the impact of the novel relies on floating from moment to moment of sensory experience, related to memory, in more-or-less chronological order. There are, through the novel, repeated emphases on the time of day, often signalled by the “leaden circles” of tolling Big Ben. And repeatedly in her imagery Virginia Woolf comes back to waves moving relentlessly towards the shore – a well-worn image of the ineluctability of time.
So my ham-fisted synopsis went something thus:
Between 9 and 11 am Mrs Dalloway wanders through St James Park and Bond Street, consults the florist and briefly meets some friends. A car tyre explodes. Many people project themselves onto the elegance of the car, including Septimus and Rezia. Many people also react to an aeroplane doing sky-writing.
Between 11am and midday Mrs Dalloway is at home, pondering on ageing and on the dress she will wear. In her mind she replays much of her youth, including her very close affection for the bohemian Sally Seton, whom she once kissed. (Sally Seton is now married to Lord Rosseter and has a large brood of children). Peter Walsh visits and explains his divorce situation. There are tears and memories. Clarissa Dalloway thinks of the past. Peter Walsh wanders off down Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and the Haymarket, idling before seeing lawyers and pondering on the past. He considers Clarissa Dalloway in detail. How has she become so conventional? He falls asleep in Regent’s Park, still pondering…. And as it happens Septimus and Rezia are also in Regent’s Park, about to see an “alienist” Sir William Bradshaw about Septimus’s psychological problems.
Between midday and 1:30pm Septimus and Rezia consult the alienist (we are given his class-conscious views, and those of his wife, about his clients). Sir William suggests rest in the country as a cure, really meaning that Septimus will be confined to a psychiatric hospital against his will. This leaves both Septimus and Rezia rather depressed as they wander back down Harley Street
Between 1:30pm and 3pm…at which time we cut back to Mrs Dalloway’s social set. Clarissa’s husband Richard Dalloway meets the pompous court official Hugh Whitbread at Lady Bruton’s luncheon. They gossip. Later they wander off to a jeweller’s and a florist’s to buy a necklace and flowers for their wives. Then Richard returns to Westminster.
Between 3pm and 6 pm. Mrs Dalloway receives her husband’s flowers, rests, thinks about the social purpose of her dinner parties as the servants are out buying the requisites. Meanwhile her adolescent daughter Elizabeth goes out to tea and shopping with her severe German teacher Miss Kilman, who later goes to pray in Westminster Abbey. (Being agnostic, Mrs Dalloway disapproves of all religion.) As Elizabeth walks home, pondering the mysteries of the clouds, the city and looming womanhood, we cut to Septimus and Rezia. Septimus seems briefly to have recovered his good spirits, but he panics when he thinks Rezia has deserted him and he fears incarceration in a mental institution. He jumps to his death.
Between 6pm and 3am the next morning. Peter Walsh happens to see the ambulance taking Septimus’s corpse away. He reflects on the difference between mature womanly Clarissa Dalloway, and the young woman he is about to marry. He proceeds to the Dalloways’ party and we have an evening of all the main mentioned characters in Clarissa Dalloway’s life (plus the prime minister) interacting and thinking about one another and making judgments on one another as Clarissa circulates and thinks. She particularly thinks about how time has passed and people have aged. When the alienist Sir William Bradshaw turns up, he mentions the “young man’s” suicide. At first shocked, Clarissa briefly thinks of suicide as something noble. Perhaps the young man has saved himself from the pain of ageing and regret? The novel ends as the party breaks up, with Peter Walsh and the former Sally Seton talking deprecatingly of their younger and more callow selves, but with Richard Dalloway admiring the budding womanhood of his daughter Elizabeth and Peter still recognising the power and presence of Clarissa Dalloway.
You can see at once, can’t you, what an appalling betrayal and travesty of this novel such a chronological synopsis is? While accurate as far as external details are concerned, it manages to miss how much the novel relies on the present scene to whisk characters back into memory and thus flesh out who or what they are. In a famous essay on modern fiction, Virginia Woolf said that life as it is really lived was not “a neat row of gig lamps”, that is, experienced as a linear progression, but was rather like a “halo”, where we experience each lived moment for the memories and associations it brings to mind. The present moment is always pregnant with the past.
In the desperate game (played by most critics) of finding “themes” in Woolf’s work, there is always this matter of the passing of time, ageing and the inevitability of death. Certainly it is there in Mrs Dalloway with the wistful “halo” of Clarissa Dalloway’s past relationships with Sally Seton and Peter Walsh inflecting her present experience.
This, I think, is most central to the novel – and “like as the waves make unto the pebbl’d shore” so does Time rush in imagery of waves in Woolf’s later novels The Waves and To The Lighthouse. But there are those who would see Mrs Dalloway more as a commentary of the place of women and on society’s strict social conventions. Is Clarissa Dalloway a thwarted lesbian in an undesired marriage? (Her most blissful memory is of kissing Sally Seton). For that matter, is Septimus Warren Smith a thwarted homosexual? In his hallucinations he obsesses about his comrade Evans, who was killed in the war and with whom he seems to have been closer than he is to his wife. And is Clarissa in fact the type of an intelligent society woman who knows her life is void of real meaning, and is confined to such trivial social arrangements as holding dinner parties? The novel appeared first in embryonic form in a number of short stories, which only later grew into a novel. It seems that at first Woolf’s intention was to have Clarissa Dalloway commit suicide, but she sidewound this despairing idea into the character of Septimus. Which, of course, raises the whole question of Virginia Woolf’s own chronic manic depression and eventual suicide. At its very least, the novel does express a very tentative and fragile mental state. But I prefer to not go down that path, which leads us into literary biography rather than a balanced view of this particular novel…. and which also underestimates the novelist’s self-awareness.
Time. Sexual identity. The role of women. Mental affliction and suicide. You see how easy it is to squeeze “themes” out of a novel and claim that they are both its impact and its purpose.
But though I see these things lurking here, in the end I believe none of them really characterises what the novel is as you are reading it. It is a series of descriptive evocations caught on the wing and linked to memory. It moves from moment to memory by means of image and as such is more of an extended prose-poem than a novel. As a prose-poem I greatly enjoy much of it – the streets and sights of this very limited and salubrious part of London as apprehended by very fine minds.
And yet… and yet…and yet. At a certain point in reading this novel I find exasperation setting in. I am sympathetic to Virginia Woolf as a person and a writer. The nerves. The manic-depressive hell. The suicide. The general unhappiness. And yet also the intelligence and briskness to write her clear and commonsensical Common Reader essays on modern writers, usually hitting the button in her judgments.
But the worm in the bud is the matter of social class.  Woolf may have believed she was reproducing the thoughts and sensations of “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day”, signalling that Clarissa Dalloway is not meant to be seen as a great intellectual. But the term “ordinary” can be used here only if one ignores the fact that Woolf’s protagonist belongs to a very small, unrepresentative, privileged group of upper-middle-class mandarins. Bloomsbury, in other words – the people who so often flattered themselves into believing that they were the enemies of convention, yet who would not in any way question the bases of their own privileges. And one of their privileges was to have the leisure to refine and stroke and over-analyse their feelings. This is the same reaction I often experience when reading Henry James. I am not barbarian enough to miss what is interesting about both writers, but I think the over-elaboration of a tender sensibility is pushed to extremes by Virginia Woolf. In the end, we ask, what is being protected in all Clarissa Dalloway’s anxiety about ageing or frankly mingling with others? Isn’t it an obsession with protecting an unsullied ego – the self being more important than interactions with others? Mrs Dalloway is one day in London just as James Joyce’s Ulysses is one day in Dublin, and for this reason the two novels have sometimes been compared. But it is interesting that – fellow Modernists though they were – Virginia Woolf loathed James Joyce’s novel and accused it of being crude and vulgar and clearly the work of somebody who wasn’t out of the top social drawer. There’s that matter of social class once again.
The Irish writer Sean O’Faolain once wrote that “Mrs Woolf’s meaning is constantly lost in the folds of her sensibility.” I think I understand what he means. You feel that nowhere does Virginia Woolf bite down on Clarissa Dalloway’s experience or make a stand of some sort or even make it coherent. Some regard this as a virtue in her writing – a refusal to point morals or polemicise. But after all the novel’s delicacy of sensibility, after all our sympathy for unhappy Virginia Woolf as a person, after all the evocativeness of the novel’s prose-poem, in the end there is something vapid and insubstantial about Mrs Dalloway.
Shell-shocked ex-soldier kills himself while MP’s wife delicately fingers her feelings, regrets the past and hosts a dinner party. Ah me!

Cinematic footnote: Mrs Dalloway has appeared twice on the screen, once respectably and once risibly.
In 1997 Marleen Gorris directed a perfectly decent film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway starring Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Dalloway, Rupert Graves as Septimus Warren Smith, Michael Kitchen as Peter Walsh and various familiar English worthies in lesser roles. It was scripted by Eileen Atkins, so both director and scriptwriter were women lest anyone carp at men meddling with a feminist classic. The film followed the outward events of the novel quite closely – but there’s the rub. Despite the use of flashbacks, there was no way the film could capture the novel’s inwardness. This meant that it became the same sort of period piece as the various films that were made from the novels of E.M.Forster – giving the audience the chance to enjoy the period clothes and settings and attitudes. It was what my years of film-reviewing lead me to think of as a perfect “opening-night-of-the-international-film-festival” film. On opening night, the international film festival usually chooses something safe, respectable and half-commercial, like the adaptation of a literary classic, to appeal to the (usually elderly) mainstream audience. I believe it was on a festival opening night that I saw Mrs Dalloway.
In 2002 there appeared the godawful cut-and-paste film The Hours, directed by Stephen Daldry, based on an opportunist (and therefore Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel by Michael Cunningham and purporting to chart the changes in sexual attitudes of women by telling three stories set in three widely-separated decades of the 20th century. The “modern” story had overtones of Mrs Dalloway while the 1920s story concerned Leonard and Virginia Woolf with Nicole Kidman wearing a prosthetic nose to look very vaguely like Virginia Woolf. The film was so pretentious and bad that a lot of critics loved it and it won an Academy Award for Nicole Kidman.

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