Bleak House Classics Book Club #2: Mrs Dalloway

Last Sunday saw the second meeting of the Bleak House Classics Book Club. It was a slightly chaotic and distracted meeting with dogs and children scampering 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.

What we thought

We chose Virginia Woolf’s much-adored book 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 book is set on one day, a Wednesday in June, in 1923. The book follows Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party she is due to hold that evening. At the same time as Clarissa’s preparations are taking place, Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran of the First World War, is walking through London on the last day of his life.

The Structure

A few of us, including me, found Mrs Dalloway challenging to read at first. The book is not constructed in a way that is familiar – there are no chapters and only a handful of section breaks. It required a shift in attention and once I gave up trying to read a couple of pages at bedtime and sat down during the day to concentrate on it, I became completely absorbed in Woolf’s style of writing. I began to really enjoy the long sentences that often started off about one thing and ended on something quite different. 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. 

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 instead just going to write down the thoughts that are foremost in my head.

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 a story. 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 from what they are thinking about in the moment. We were tantalised about the references to the youthful times of Peter, Hugh, Sally and Clarissa at Clarissa’s childhood home of Bourton and felt that we wanted to know more.

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 how minor, is named. As a reader you are effortlessly 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.

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

Never had he seen London look so enchanting – the softness of the distances; the richness; the greenness; the civilisation… Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

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 I think she is right. Each of the principal character takes a journey

through the city 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’.

Have you read the book? What did you think? 

How to join the book club

The online Bleak House Book Club is open to everyone. Every six weeks or so we hold a meeting for the in-person book club and then discuss the book here on my blog so that anyone can join in, no matter where you live.

You can share your thoughts by commenting here or by posting a photo of the book your instagram account. If you post on your account or stories, do tag @bleakhouse.london and use the hashtag #bleakhousebookclub as I’d love to join the conversation.

The next book…

Book #3 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. 

Join me for the first ‘Love Letters to London’ walk

On the 23rd of March I will be running the first of my new series of Experiences, inspired by the writers who loved this city as much as I do. ‘Love Letters to London’ is a set of walks-and-lunches to celebrate the way London has been immortalised in print.

The first walk is in celebration of Mrs Dalloway, a walks in the footsteps of her mission to buy flowers for her party. There is no requirement to have read the book, but you may just be inspired to read it afterwards. More than anything, these new Experiences are a chance to have a beautiful wander around London, followed by a delicious lunch, all in the company of new friends and like minded people. You can find out more here.

 

Comments

I totally agree with everything you’ve said Debbie. Once you’ve got your head around it it just flows and the magic reveals itself. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I definitely want to read more of her books now xxx

Whew! What a relief to know that I wasn’t the only one feeling “intellectually lacking” (ouch!) when beginning to read this book. It does take a while to get into the language and pacing of this book. But that’s true of Dickens or Austen or…any number of other authors really. But her style is quite unique. Are all of her books written like this, or just Mrs. Dalloway? I have no idea. Once I understood that it’s really just a stream of consciousness, it was much easier to go with the flow, so to speak. And then it just became captivating, didn’t it? And I realized how like real life it was, and it made me more acutely aware of my own thoughts and how rapidly they flit from one topic to another and return full circle and veer off in one direction and go careening down rabbit holes. All the time. Every day.
I do like how you related it to London! That would’ve added another delightful dimension to the book!
I found it unique in its lack of a strong main character. And all the characters seem sort of neutral to me. There wasn’t really anyone she paints as someone you aren’t supposed to like. No one she shows as flawless. No one you love and adore above all the rest.
Thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts, Annabel!

Hi Mandy. Oh do read it again, you’ll love it. There is so much about middle age in their especially, about the choices we make that we may not necessarily regret but that make us sad at the options we had to let go. x

Fascinating. I read Mrs Daloway about 30 years ago when doing an English degree. I loved it then but you’ve really made me want to read it again. I’m very interested in the idea of books making a different impression at different stsges of our lives.

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