Virginia Woolf: “Mrs. Dalloway”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Has there ever been a more graceful first line of a novel than that? Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway, is graceful and poised, like her title character, ever one to have things “just so.” Her dinner party – toward which the whole novel rushes – is sumptuous, elegant, and in every possible way, “just so.”

But of course, there’s much more here than meets the eye. Old bonds as well as old rifts and hurts swirl through the party as Clarissa Dalloway confronts Sally Seton (with whom she’d had a flirtation in her youth) and Peter Walsh (whose marriage proposal she had rejected in that same youth). In this modernist novel, all time is present at once, and as Clarissa, Sally, and Peter meet at the dinner party, they’re each – individually – transported three decades into the past, reliving the scintillating and very nearly risqué time at the country estate of Bourton when Clarissa kissed Sally, broke Peter’s heart, and met her future husband, Richard Dalloway.

And yet there is even more seething underneath the surface of these upper-middle-class concerns. For this is London, 1923, post-World War I, a devastated London trying to pick up its bombed-out shards and rebuild itself. Running parallel to Clarissa, Sally, Peter, and Richard’s story is the plotline belonging to Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked veteran. His Italian wife, Lucrezia, takes him on quiet walks in London parks and tries to soothe him. But Septimus won’t be soothed – just as Woolf seems to be saying that London, Europe, indeed the entire world won’t be soothed. As Septimus’s story makes abundantly clear, Septimus and his fellow veterans are not the walking wounded. They are very nearly the hobbling dead, passing time in a twilight evening.

Woolf’s ability to pull Clarissa Dalloway together with Septimus Warren Smith is nothing short of miraculous. These two worlds – that of the privileged, moneyed class and that of the barely surviving veterans, the fodder for the aristocracy’s war – weave in and out of each other’s lives.

Mrs. Dalloway is definitely worth reading – both on its own merits and as a way into American novelist Michael Cunningham’s 1998 retelling of it in The Hours. Clarissa Dalloway is a character you will not soon forget, whether you meet her as she was first conceived in the pages of Woolf’s novel or on the screen in Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of her or whether you meet permutations of Clarissa in Cunningham’s The Hours or watch Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman present their own takes on shades of Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf herself.

If this is your first time reading Virginia Woolf, be gently forewarned. She is every bit the stream-of-consciousness modernist, playing, as she did, a central role in dismantling the traditional novel and then completely reinventing it. As Woolf said, “[It is] precisely the task of the writer to go beyond the ‘formal railway line of sentence’ and to show how people ‘feel or think or dream . . . all over the place.’” British novelist E.M. Forster, a contemporary of Woolf’s, agreed with her description of what she was trying to do in Mrs. Dalloway. He said, “It is easy for a novelist to describe what a character thinks of. . . . But to convey the actual process of thinking is a creative feat, and I know of no one except Virginia Woolf who has accomplished it.”

Given Woolf’s startling, groundbreaking, narrative-shattering approach to fiction, how does one actually set about reading Mrs. Dalloway? My advice is much the same as the advice I offered for reading William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: simply let Woolf’s prose wash over you. Little by little, you’ll begin to grasp the story. And if you’re wondering what Woolf had in mind as she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, read excerpts from her diary!

Much of the novel focuses on London walks taken by various characters. The Mrs. Dalloway Mapping Project is an excellent website, as is Clarissa Dalloway’s London. And if you ever find yourself in London and wish to retrace Mrs. Dalloway’s steps on her famous walk, use this handy walking tour guide or this audio walking tour. You’ll also want to have with you Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s indispensable volume, Virginia Woolf’s London: A Guide to Bloomsbury and Beyond. Numerous other resources tracing Woolf’s relationship to London and its outskirts can be found at the Blogging Woolf website. Learn more about Virginia Woolf by visiting the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain’s website. The Virginia Woolf Blog features an interactive timeline of Woolf’s life, complete with links to information about important people and events in her life. The New York Times also has a treasure trove of archived articles about Woolf.

Of course, Woolf was a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group, which also had a country home in Charleston. A key part of Bloomsbury was Hogarth Press, which Woolf and her husband, Leonard, established as a vehicle for publishing modernist literature, including the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Learn more about the press at Yale University’s Modernism Lab website.

In addition to her outstanding collection of writing, Virginia Woolf is also well known for her profound struggles with mental illness, which led her to commit suicide in 1941. An excellent multimedia website – Woolf, Creativity, and Madness – provides deep insight into this aspect of Woolf’s life.

Ready to read Mrs. Dalloway? You’ll definitely want a hard copy of this complex novel (and besides, since the novel is still under copyright in the United States, there are no legal, free online versions). You might also find it interesting to read more of Woolf’s work. I recommend The Virginia Woolf Reader, edited by Mitchell A. Leaska.

Whether you read the novel or not, you’ll definitely want to watch the outstanding film based on it. Vanessa Redgrave plays Mrs. Dalloway, and screenplay writer Eileen Atkins is known for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in British theatrical productions. She has played Woolf in the one-woman show, A Room of One’s Own, and she also played Woolf in Vita and Virginia, a play which Atkins herself wrote. In the New York production of Vita and Virginia, Redgrave played Vita Sackville-West opposite Atkins’s Woolf.

Tune in next week, when StoryWeb will feature Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours and the film based on it. The Hours will shift and deepen your understanding of Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway.

Watch and Listen:Watch an excerpt from the film. This clip features Clarissa and Peter at Bourton and moves ahead thirty years as Clarissa, Peter, and Sally reflect on that summer during Clarissa’s dinner party. Then listen to the only known recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice. Recorded in 1937 as part of a BBC radio broadcast, the 7.5-minute clip features Woolf’s thoughts on craftsmanship and language.


Image Credit: Virginia Woolf, 1902, public domain,