Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf.

Woolf V. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt Harvest (paper) 2005, first published 1925. F;9/13.

I read this after being strongly impressed by Cunningham’s The Hours.  Access to the the emotion of that recent book felt effortless, but squeezing the juice from this one required a bit more presence of mind. What did I expect? I am reminded of what familiar music feels like as distinct from how little moved one may be by something complicated and beautiful like say La Traviata, the first time it’s heard. A comfortably familiar affective idiom does wonders.

Famously, this is a one-day slice in the life of the lady.  In a dynamic that itself is pretty familiar to me, I started out critical and even a bit annoyed by what I perceived as awkward figurative language.  Mrs. D. opens the window in the setting of just being left out of an invitation that included her husband, and the window “… let(s) in the grinding, blowing, flowering of the day …” Flowering? Is this jarring juxtaposition supposed to pull us back from her seeing herself shriveled, aged, and breathless? Too sharp a corner, I complained. I was naïvely looking to be carried into the world of a hundred years ago with Cunningham’s contemporary charm, but it’s not that easy. A lot has happened in those hundred years.

So it takes some reorientation to to appreciate Ms. Woolf’s point of view like it took for me to sit down beside contemporary Lawrence criticizing classic American fiction.  The entitled 1920s London la-de-dah and how special the character feels about herself  is affectation I have to work a bit to get through.  Not being familiar with the conventions of the day make it more difficult than usual to see how much Virginia Woolf there is in Clarissa Dalloway.  But working away at that sort of thing ends up being well worth the trouble.  And directly after a page packed with exaggerated bohemian self-consciousness suddenly with loaded reflection (especially on this topic bearing in mind the inconceivable differences of a century) she senses the narrowing of her bed and sees it with a man’s vision.

And how much more surprising and original the perfectly balanced feminine emotional infatuation with Sally Seton was in 1925 than it would be today. But the clear writing reaches beyond the custom of the times and reading her description of adolescent sensuality we get to feel it ourselves for the first time, all over again. From the point of view of being 13 in 1960 somehow I’d rather see it from 1925 than from this year, when every seven-year-old is not only prepared “intellectually” for all future eventualities parental imagination can get its grip on, but sees raw sex straight in front of his face on any computer screen whenever he wants.  Poor kid has had the thrill and mystery of discovery already stolen from him and isn’t likely to to be able to escape seeing his own experiences in as an inferior version of the idealized ritual on the video screen.

Later when I was in high school in the 1960s there were still echoes of early-century bohemianism at the start of the hippie era. But whereas the influence of Virginia Woolf’s elite circle persisted for many decades, our sixties bohemianism withered pretty quickly. I remember talking to another guy still wearing his hair long in about 1975 asking one another where it went.  The wheel seeming to turn faster and faster and now… my god.

Old language, attitude, and customary thinking pleasantly occupied my mind for the better part of an hour after each session reading Mrs. Dalloway. I tried on elegant inner turns of phrase and a decorous stance. So often I’m tempted to take a book up and just read the whole thing again. I’ve never done that, and I’m sure I won’t. Well, maybe I will. This book won’t go away and it’s comforting to think I can get back into it any time. 9.1/9.6.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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