Mrs Dalloway: thoughts of a first-time Woolf reader

MrsDalloway2After my rather breathless reaction to the opening of Mrs Dalloway, I’m now in a position to write about the whole thing; and I can start by explaining why I’m reading it now in particular.

I saw last year that the blogger Heavenali was planning a Virginia Woolf readalong for 2016. Woolf is one of those authors who never made it to the top of my reading list without my being able to say why. I’ve had a copy of Orlando on the shelf for a few years, but it was never the right time to pick it up… And, of course, the ‘right time’ never came. So Heavenali’s #Woolfalong was the impetus I needed: read one Virginia Woolf book (more, if I choose) every two months, from a given selection. For Jan/Feb, it’s either Mrs Dalloway (1925) or To the Lighthouse (1927). I just decided to go for the earlier one, and here we are. (This is also why I put Mrs Dalloway on my Classics Club list and made it my first selection.)

It would be a little awkward, after all that, if I were sitting here about to tell you how much I hated the book. Thankfully it’s quite the opposite, and I wish I had read Woolf much sooner. Then again, it’s hard to know whether I would have taken to Mrs Dalloway in the same way, or whether I needed to be the reader I am now. One advantage of reading it now, though, is that I’m free to approach it however I wish; there’s no inner voice telling me (as it once might) that this book is too old, too ‘difficult’, its subject matter of no interest to me.

So: I was plunged headlong into the mind of Clarissa Dalloway, a lady of London society, as she prepares to host a party that evening. I’ve mentioned previously how the rush of Clarissa’s joy at living sidesteps into (brief, but pointed) acknowledgement that life ends, sometimes abruptly. Now I can see that the novel is made of such transitions: Woolf slides from viewpoint to viewpoint, like a tracking shot that follows a succession of people (the cinematic comparison seems a bit anachronistic, but this is what it felt like).

Woolf’s writing turns the city of London into a moving map of consciousness. There’s a scene early on in the novel where a motor car drives through the streets, and people wonder who might be within: the Prime Minister? the Queen? A subconscious ripple spreads out in the car’s wake:

For thirty seconds all heads were inclined the same way – to the window. Choosing a pair of gloves – should they be to the elbow or above it, lemon or pale grey? – ladies stopped; when the sentence was finished something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional; for in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire.

This is a tremor spreading through a psychic landscape, and a small example of how Woolf blurs the boundary between thought and event: the characters’ interior worlds become three-dimensional spaces which can be travelled through and acted upon. Clarissa Dallloway’s social circle revolves around the interior: reputations, or a well-composed letter to the editor (“one letter to the Times,” says one character, “cost her more than to organise an expedition to South Africa”); Woolf’s approach exposes all this to the open air.

There are several characters who disrupt Clarissa’s orderly world in the course of the novel; perhaps the one who does so most fundamentally is Septimus Warren Smith, a damaged soldier returned from the War. He hallucinates a dead comrade, and numbness has replaced sensation:

He put down his cup on the little marble table. He looked at people outside; happy they seemed, collecting in the middle of the street, shouting, laughing, squabbling over nothing. But he could not taste, he could not feel. In the tea-shop among the tables and the chattering waiters the appalling fear came over him – he could not feel.

Septimus’ hallucinations destabilize the perceptual ‘consensus’ established in the rest of the novel; and, as the quotation above suggests, he can’t delight in the sensations of living as the likes of Clarissa can. His psychological scars lie buried within the clamour of Clarissa’s polite society, and may emerge without warning.

Of course there’s no way I can hope to encompass this novel in one reading, one blog post. I can see myself returning to Mrs Dalloway again and again, finding something new each time. But there’s more Woolf to come before that, and I’m looking forward to it.

[EDIT 23/01/16: It has been suggested in the comments that my cinematic comparison above may not have been so anachronistic after all. On that note, I must also thank Geraldine Harcourt on Twitter for pointing me towards this 1926 essay of Woolf’s on the cinema. It’s fascinating reading, hinting at what it must have been like to experience film as a brand new medium, as Woolf ponders what artistic and expressive possibilities might be open to film-makers. I must make a point of reading more of her essays during my #Woolfalong year.]

Now read on…

There’s so much out there on Mrs Dalloway, where can I start? Perhaps with these three recent blog reviews: Heavenali; Pechorin’s Journal; 1streading.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Penguin Modern Classics paperback



  1. The tracking shot is at least a decade older than Woolf’s novel.

  2. It was the tracking shot that took my breath away when I read it at 20 and it got me hooked on Woolf. Others may have done it too, but her writing is sublime.

  3. You have written beautifully about this book. That tracking shot you talk about it wonderfully done. Woolf’s constantly shifting perspectives works so well that the reader becomes a part of the scene themselves as they enter the heads of mere bystanders.

  4. Beautifully written David. I have not yet read Woolf. (which I consider to be a shame and want to rectify this year). Hoping to pick a work by her this year.

  5. I was going to chime in to say that I don’t think your tracking shot analogy is at all anachronistic, but others have beaten me to the punch. My theory is that modernist fiction is heavily influenced by the advent of cinema, artistic innovation driven by technological innovation.

    Glad you loved it, and thanks for the link to mine. It’s extraordinary isn’t it? Nice review.

    Remind me, have you read much (any) Winterson?

    • Thank you Max; it is a wonderful book.

      Regarding the influence of cinema, Geraldine Harcourt on Twitter has pointed to me an essay by Woolf on the movies, and it’s fascinating in the light of a book like Mrs Dalloway.

      At first I thought I hadn’t read Winterson at all, butthinking about if further, I was wrong: I have read Weight, her entry in Canongate’s Myths series, but it was so long ago… is her work much like Woolf’s?

      • Not so much, no, but it is interesting in its own right. I’ve reviewed three of them at mine so far, and there’ll be more. I made the connection as she does the foreword for at least one of the Woolf’s I read last year.

        Thanks for the link to the essay. I’ll take a look at that.

  6. I love the “moving map of consciousness”! Thanks for the link – the great thing about these group reads is that you get so many points of view so quickly. I’m hoping to read To the Lighthouse in February.

    • Thanks Grant! It’s always good in blogging when you have a number of people writing about the same books at broadly the same time – seems to happen so rarely these days. I might leave To the Lighthouse for now, though: six Woolf books seems enough in one year when there’s other stuff I’d like to get to – but of course I may change my mind…

  7. Nice piece, which reminds me I should return to Woolf soon. It’s been five years since I read this but it remains fresh. I, too was impressed by the filmic references. My review is here – I read some of her other novels so long ago that it would be like reading them for the first time and most of them are somewhere on my shelves.

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