When I was 16, I fell in love for the first time.
Like so many readers, I was spellbound by “Mrs. Dalloway,” the groundbreaking novel by the queer, gender-bending, British author Virginia Woolf.
Today, during the pandemic, along with many other aficionados, I’m turning to “Mrs. Dalloway” for beauty, consolation, and hope. Clarissa Dalloway, the book’s main character, is a Twitter star, complete with memes and followers.
“Mrs. Dalloway,” which went into public domain this year, was first published in 1925 – nearly a century ago. You might well wonder: why, after all these years, are so many so taken with “Mrs. Dalloway?”
“Mrs. Dalloway,” with its breathtaking sentences and astounding, inventive style has always had its fervent admirers (mostly women) and detractors (mostly men). Today, many of its devotees are turning to it with fresh eyes. Set in London, five years after World War I ended and in the aftermath of the 1918 flu pandemic, the novel offers insights and parallels to our time.
The novel has a thrilling same-sex kiss, post-traumatic stress, taxi cabs, airplanes and a sighting of the king and queen. It’s the bagel with everything!
But, at first glance, you wouldn’t think this at all. Not only Mrs. Dalloway herself, but the plot of the novel, would seem to spark no connection with readers in our time.
What happens in “Mrs. Dalloway?” If you read a plot summary, you easily could think “not much.”
The novel takes place in London on a June day in 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, a society woman, wife of a member of parliament and mother is giving a party that evening. During the day, she walks in London, doing errands. She buys flowers and runs into her old friend Hugh. She stands on a street corner next to Septimus, a shell-shocked World War I vet and his wife. Clarissa and Septimus don’t know each other. Septimus suffers from what we’d now call post-traumatic stress. But his pompous, bumbling psychiatrist turns up as a guest at her party. At the gathering, Clarissa learns that Septimus has killed himself.
After she returns home from her errands, Clarissa chats with her husband Richard, mends a tear in her party dress, is surprised when Peter, an old flame, comes to visit and, with her maid Lucy, makes sure that everything’s ready for the gathering. She remembers how much, as a girl, she loved her friend Sally, and how exciting it was when they kissed.
This synopsis might seem dull as dishwater. Yet, “Mrs. Dalloway” isn’t a conventional or superficial novel and neither Clarissa nor the other characters are shallow or insignificant.
Woolf, influenced by Marcel Proust, another queer writer, pioneered what has been called stream of consciousness in fiction. In “Mrs. Dalloway,” the reader learns what Clarissa, Peter and the other characters think as they shop, visit, dine, work, ride buses and drink and talk at Clarissa’s party. Their thoughts shift from the present to the past and back again. While taking a nap or fiddling with a pocketknife, they’re musing about love, death, marriage, their youth, getting old – about time itself.
Yet now, when more than 400,000 in the United States have died from the coronavirus, life and death mean more to us than ever before. Since the Capitol siege, it feels as if we’re living in a war. “Mrs. Dalloway,” set when many were wounded by war or damaged by influenza (the flu had weakened Clarissa’s heart) offers hope that life will return.
“She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day,” Woolf writes of Clarissa.
Yet, Clarissa loves life! “What a lark!” she says as she buys flowers.
“Mrs. Dalloway” “makes us feel what it is to be one vivid consciousness in the world but for only a relative short time,” Sheila Black, author of the poetry collection “All the Sleep in the World,” emailed me.
Check out “Mrs. Dalloway.” It gives us hope that one day we, too, will be out and about in our city – buying flowers, meeting old lovers, musing about death, yet loving life.
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