Bleak House Classics Book Club #2: Mrs Dalloway
On Sunday we had the second meeting of the Bleak House Classics Book Club. We decided to create this in-person book club when we were in Devon, on the first ever Bleak House Experience. We had bonded over the books we'd read and loved, and the ones we wanted to read. I have always felt that, above all, my Experiences are about friendship and as well as helping us become better read, the book club provides the opportunity for us to get together and continue the friendships formed in Devon.
The in-person book club meets in London every six weeks or so and is open to anyone who has booked onto an Experience. Do get in touch if you’d like to join. The books we choose are by women writers, are written before the year 2000 and are considered to be classics. After we meet I share our thoughts here on my blog so that anyone can join in the online strand to the club.
Sunday was a slightly chaotic and distracted meeting with dogs and children happily running around Kelly’s gorgeous house in Hertfordshire and us staring in wonder at the muntjac deer prancing around the garden. Dom very kindly cooked us a Sunday roast and we settled down in front of the fire to discuss the book.
ABOUT MRS DALLOWAY
We chose Mrs Dalloway because both Jenna and Lauren had talked in Devon about how much they loved it and so the rest of us were really keen to read it. Other than Jenna and Lauren none of us had read any of Virginia Woolf's books and so it was the obvious choice for our second book. Here is what we thought.
The first thing to note is that at first most of us found Mrs Dalloway really hard to read. I felt intellectually lacking, which is a feeling I do not enjoy. But perhaps it’s hard not to feel a bit dumb when you are reading a book by such a formidably talented writer. Virginia Woolf was clearly intimidatingly clever.
Mrs Dalloway was so worth the initial effort. It’s not how I expected it to be and it surprised me in a hundred different ways. The structure, the incredibly beautiful language, the way Woolf knits pretty words together (‘snow blanket smitten’ being my favourite daisy chain) and the vividness of the characters. I think I could talk about this book for a week, but I am still feeling a bit of an intellectual minnow so I am instead just going to write down the thoughts that are foremost in my head.
Nat wished she’d read the book in French (because she’s French, not because she wanted to make things harder on herself) and I had to stop trying to read a couple of pages at bedtime and sit down properly during the day and tackle the book. Helen read the book in one go on a long train journey and we all agreed that this was the best way to approach it.
The reason for this is that there are no chapters and only a handful of section headings. Once we’d got our heads around this it was fine, even enjoyable, but it is so different to how books are usually laid it it really required a shift in attention. I actually really liked this way of writing once I’d got used to the the long sentences that often started off about one thing and ended on something quite different.
IT FEELS LIKE REAL LIFE
Once I’d got used to it I really liked the way the narrative flows from one character to another during the same paragraph as it made the scenes very lifelike. I had the real sense during this book that I was inside a real London day and not inside a story being written about a day. If that makes any sense at all. This sense of reality was heightened by the fact that characters never gave their backstories, as a reader you are left to piece their memories together. This is of course what real life is like, we don’t think about context when we are remembering times in our past. In particular we were tantalised about the references to the youthful times of Peter, Hugh, Sally and Clarissa at Clarissa’s childhood home of Bourton. It feels very much to me akin to meeting a fascinating person in real life, they may tell you some snippets of where they grew up and you are left wanting to know more, and wanting detail that you are never given.
We loved the detailed descriptions of the array of characters that wander in and out of the pages of Mrs Dalloway. Every character in the book, no matter who minor, is named. As a reader you are effortless are carried from thoughts in one character’s heads across to another’s, never really knowing who is going to be a mere passer-by in the story and who will become an instrumental character to the plot. Again this felt very much like real life, we can have many conversations with people on a typical day and the length or intensity may bear no relation to their importance in our lives.
The book felt to me strangely plotless. It is set on an ordinary London day and focuses in on the thoughts and wanderings of a tiny handful its residents. This book could almost have been written on any other day in time, including today, and with any other set of randomly selected people. I had the real sense of everything that happened to the characters being essentially unimportant in the grand scheme of two thousand years of London, like studying the minutiae of life in a rock pool on a five mile beach.
Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925 and we were all struck by the description of the social and political landscape in which it was written, particularly the contrast of Clarissa’s frivolous party with Septimus’ struggles with what we would now identify as PTSD after his experiences of fighting during the first world war. After having read a little about Virginia Woolf before I started Mrs Dalloway I could really feel her grappling with her thoughts towards her own mental illnesses in Septimus’ plight.
A LOVE LETTER TO LONDON
Lauren had told me before I started the book that the main character in the book is not Clarissa Dalloway, it is in fact London. And she was right. Each of the principal character takes a walk and the way Woolf describes these insignificant wanderings means I could pinpoint often exactly where the character was, right down to the exact bench in Regents Park where Peter watches the squirrels and the route Septimus and Rezia take around the zoo. As someone who lives in London I could see so clearly many of the places Woolf describes and I found it immensely comforting that in many ways London has hardly changed at all in the 95 years since the book was written.
I loved Mrs Dalloway and I’m so glad I stuck with it. It’s definitely a book that will stay with me forever and that I know I will read again. I feel I barely skimmed the surface with the messages in this book and I think it’s one to read in every stage of one's life as there will always be something new to take out of it. Virginia Woolf’s love of wandering London streets comes through so strongly in Mrs Dalloway and I think forever more I will think of her when I wander through St James’ Park and up Bond Street on one of her quoted ‘errands of mystery’.
JOIN US FOR A MRS DALLOWAY WALK
In a very odd coincidence, Lauren Keim, who first suggested I read this book, had her book club in Virginia on Mrs Dalloway on the exact same day. We have been hatching some plans and I’m excited to tell you that we are planning a very special Bleak House Experience on 23rd March for us to walk in Mrs Dalloway's footsteps in search of flowers and stop in Mayfair for lunch. I'm hoping to release the places next week and so do sign up to my email list if you'd like more information when I have finished planning the finer details.
You are very welcome to join the online Bleak House Classic a Book Club. We choose one book every six weeks or so and discuss it here on my blog. You can also share your thoughts by commenting here or by posting a photo of the book on your instagram account. If you post on your account or stories, do tag @bleakhouse.london and use the hashtag #bleakhousebookclub so that I can join the conversation.
The next book is Iris Murdoch’s Booker prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea. We will be talking about this on or after 1st April 2019. I hope you join us.