Woolf’s great novel makes a day of party preparations the canvas for themes of lost love, life choices and mental illness
In the spring of 1924, Virginia Woolf, then in her 40s, gave a famous lecture, later published as the essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, in which she declared that “we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature”. She might have been speaking about herself. In the next 15-odd years, before her suicide, Woolf would transform the English literary landscape forever. She would innovate (To the Lighthouse); she would flirt (Orlando); she would provoke (A Room of One’s Own) and, privately, would dazzle herself and her friends with a stream of letters (and diaries), all of which reveal a writer’s mind at full tilt.
Woolf is one of the giants of this series, andMrs Dalloway, her fourth novel, is one of her greatest achievements, a book whose afterlife continues to inspire new generations of writers and readers. Like Ulysses (no 46 in this series), it takes place in the course of a single day, probably 13 June 1923. Unlike Joyce’s masterpiece, Woolf’s female protagonist is an upper-class English woman living in Westminster who is planning a party for her husband, a mid-level Tory politician.
As Clarissa Dalloway’s day unfolds, in and around Mayfair, we discover that not only is she being treated in Harley Street for severe depression, a familiar subject to Woolf, but she also conceals a troubled past replete with unarticulated love and suggestions of lesbianism. Equally troubled is the novel’s second main character, explicitly a “double”, a Great War veteran who fought in France “to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays”. Septimus Warren Smith is suffering from shell shock and is on his way to a consultation with Clarissa’s psychiatrist. Mingled with the preparations for the party, the stream-of-consciousness exploration of Mrs Dalloway’s inner state is broken by an irruption of senseless violence when Septimus, who is waiting to be taken to an asylum, throws himself out of a window. News of Septimus’s suicide becomes a topic of conversation at Mrs Dalloway’s party, where Woolf indicates Clarissa’s deep sympathy for the dead man’s suffering. The novel ends unresolved, but on a note of suspenseful menace. “What is this terror?” writes Woolf. “What is this ecstasy?” Her mature work would be devoted to exploring these questions.