After three attempts spaced over 25 years, I've finally managed to finish a Virginia Woolf novel. And not only did I finish it, I liked it. I really liked it.
While there's no way I can offer any profound literary interpretation of Mrs. Dalloway, many insightful posts can be found on Sarah's blog today as she hosts the Woolf in Winter discussion of this novel.
Instead, I've spent some time thinking about "why now". What has made this particular experience different from the others? Why did Virginia Woolf 'work' for me this time, but leave me unwilling to turn another page in my thirties? Obviously Mrs. Dalloway hasn't changed; it must be me.
The book, originally published in 1925, follows the thoughts and actions of Clarissa Dalloway over the course of a single day as she prepares to host a party. Peter Walsh, just returned from years in India, visits Clarissa before the party. We're also privy to his thoughts. A tangential story line follows Septimus Smith, a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress and descending into madness. As the day progresses, clocks chime as the hours pass, yet the two story lines never directly intersect.
English was always my favorite subject in high school, but a very science-oriented pharmacy curriculum never allowed for lit electives. Graduation meant time to read for pleasure again, and Virginia Woolf was one of my first choices. It was an epic failure. I doubt I read more than 20 pages. Clinical pharmacy is a very concrete field - blood levels, half-life, dosage, etc. Woolf's long sentences and nebulous prose didn't fit with that mindset.
Fast-forward to 1995... Stressed to the max at-home Mom, with a 5 year old in half-day kindergarten and 2 year old twins. Virginia Woolf failure number two. My ability to concentrate on more than Goodnight Moon or Chicka Chicka Boom Boom suffered during those years.
Finally... the day after Christmas 2009. A lovely stack of books sits under the tree but, for some reason, I'm drawn to Virginia Woolf. I'm feeling absolutely stress-free, relaxed, and calm; the kids, now all in their late teens, will sleep until noon or beyond. This is it!
The words are beautiful. They flow over me and swirl around me. Maybe I'm not catching the full meaning of every single sentence, but it doesn't matter. I'm in a zone. Not much is actually "happening", but I'm enthralled. Before I know it, I've read 75 pages. There are no breaks. No chapters, just sentences.
A few passages that stopped me in my tracks:
"She would not say of anyone in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time she was outside, looking in. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day." (page 8)
"The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent's Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained - at last! - the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, of turning it round slowly, in the light." (page 79)
"People were beginning to compare her to poplar trees, early dawn, hyacinths, fawns, running water, and garden lilies, and it made her life a burden to her, for she so much preferred being left alone to do what she liked in the country, but they would compare her to lilies, and she had to go to parties, and London was so dreary compared with being alone in the country with her father and the dogs." (page 134-135)
As Violet at Still Life With Books says in this excellent post, reading Virginia Woolf's novels requires a "slight shift of consciousness". I believe she's got it exactly right. You must carefully choose your time to read Woolf but, if you get it right, the rewards are great.
I want to reread Mrs. Dalloway - immediately - but I'm also anxious to explore more of Woolf's novels. The Woolf in Winter discussion continues January 29 as Emily hosts a discussion of To The Lighthouse.
Remember to visit Sarah (what we have here is a failure to communicate) for more views on Mrs. Dalloway.