Friday, January 15, 2010

Woolf in Winter: Thoughts on Mrs. Dalloway

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.


  1. Beautiful post. After reading your selected quotes, I can see why they blew you away. Have a great week and enjoy the rest of your book.

  2. Woolf's writing just begs to be read slowly doesn't it. If you're enjoying Woolf, don't hesitate to read Mrs Woolf & The Servants for an insight into her daily life.

  3. This is one of the best posts I've read so far this year :)

    I'm reading Mrs. Dalloway in a couple of weeks and I'm really looking forward to it after your review!

  4. I had to laugh! Yes, I had my years with Goodnight Moon and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (will there be enough room?). The best I could do was a fast-paced, brainless airplane novel. I totally intended to read this book with you all, but I lost track of time. Woolf intimidates me, but I need to at least try!

    Did not know you were in clinical pharmacy! My cousin works for Eli Lilly in R&D. She makes like 2 gazillion dollars, and is so smart she scares me. My BFF is also a pharmacist at Lincare Infusion. I don't know why I felt the need to give you all the information, but there you go!

  5. What a brilliant post, and wonderfully chosen quotes. It just goes to show how important being in the right 'place' to read a book is. I sometimes wonder whether books that have had little resonance with me might have been appreciated more if I was older/younger/more experienced/less stressed, etc. I'm glad Woolf worked for you this time.

  6. JoAnn -- I would say that your post was very profound --- and quite insightful. While my life is very crazy right now - it is a different kind of crazy than it was when I was trying to raise 3 little ones. I am hoping to find the time to read a bit of Ms. Woolf this winter, even if I can't take part in the challenge.

  7. It's much easier for age to understand youth, than for youth to understand age.

    I enjoyed your review.

    Wasn't it hard to choose just a few quotes?


  8. Great post! I've not tried Woolf, but there have been other classics that I started and gave up on that I loved when I read them later.

  9. So true about mindset, JoAnn. So true. Just loved this post! Also think that it will be an encouragement to others to give Woolf a try again even if it did not work out for them the first time around.

    You pulled some favorite passages too. Speak so much to the theme and imagery of time in the novel. Time not as a linear progression but as cyclical, coming round full circle like the hands of Big Ben.

    Can't wait to see what you think of To the Lighthouse.

  10. Congratulations on your first finish, and thanks for the great review.

    I found it a lot more challenging to read, and the first seventy pages seemed to take forever, as I had to re-read pages after pages. Once I got familiar with her writing though, it was easy!

  11. Great post. My thoughts exactly when you said " I'm not catching the full meaning of every single sentence". I seem to have caught less than most. Your point about timing may be the key for me-no one else has mentioned that. I need to read it again - when I'm not stressed. I can't imagine when that might be but I'll watch for it. lol And I'll read much more slowly. Thanks, I learned something from you today. My post is now up.

  12. Oh, the timing! I just got this book from the library, after being reminded of it here and there.

    When I read "The Hours" a couple of years ago—or maybe more!—I knew I wanted to read this book.

    Asking myself "why now?" would probably lead to the same answers that you came up's all about timing.

    I am so looking forward to it!

  13. Lovely post, JoAnn. You picked some of my favorite, favorite passages, and you really speak to the subjectivity of the novel and of the reader! I think, more than most books, that this is one for which the time must be right. But I'm glad you finally found that right time, and loved the novel this time around!

  14. Yay, I'm so glad you finished it! How immensely satisfying, and it's amazing how some books are just meant for certain times of your life. Lovely post.

  15. maybe there is hope for me--my first time reading Woolf and I didn't get it, I didn't like it.

  16. How wonderful that you were enthralled, JoAnn; I am so pleased that this was a positive experience for you.

    I first read Mrs Dalloway for University around eight years ago and it wasn't the right time but I persevered (as I had to "get" it for the course) and I grew to appreciate it then love it; reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham also helped and is a wonderful novel in its own right. I completely agree that we have to be in the right place to read things at times and I hope I'm there to read To the Lighthouse next week.

  17. I think Mrs D is one of those books that demands our full attention, and we have to allow ourselves to fall into the experience. It's interesting noting all the different responses on other people's posts. I'm glad you finally found the time and space to read it, and that you loved it.

  18. Lovely language, isn't it? I was enamoured too. So glad you were able to "fall" into it this time and thus read along with us, a pleasure! I believe there are books that wait for us to mature, not necessary intellectually, but even emotionally, until we can then appreciate them. But then also, there are the distractions. I can definitely see the pull between this and Goodnight MOon (And Chicka Chicka Boom Boom), haha.

  19. What a great post JoAnn - it sounds like we felt very similarly about the book. I think timing is so important in being able to read some books. I am so glad now that I didn't study Woolf at uni - I know I wouldn't have been in the right place to appreciate and love her writing if I had been trying to interpret and analyse the whole time!

  20. I think you've hit the nail right on the head when you speak of "timing." I tried her work a few times before I read it in University and had it "work" for me as well.

  21. I believe that because of our own life experiences some books are better and we can understand them better as we age. I haven't read this one but I am going to give it a try! I'll be 41 next month so I hope I've matured enough to understand it!!! LOL!!

  22. I had trouble with Woolf's novels when I was younger too..I was fascintaed with her life, and read the journals and letters, but somehow couldn't get a handle on the novels.

    Mrs. Dalloway really resonated with me this time, though. I wonder if it's because Clarissa and I are the same age?

    Glad you enjoyed it! On To the Lighthouse!

  23. I felt much more of a connection with Clarissa this time, too. Love the passages you quoted.

    And a decade-plus later I still can't get Chicka Chicka Boom Boom out of my head! (meet you at the top of the coconut tree?)

    Beautiful thoughts on Woolf. Thank you.

  24. What a lovely post. I like how you and Emily both chose to do personal essays for this book. With an author like Woolf, it's always interesting to read different people's reactions.

    I think I need to be a in a frame of mind to read Woolf too. I have the tendency to read novels very quickly, and I think to read Woolf you really need to slow down and take it all in.

  25. Thanks for sharing your journey as a reader. Certain books don't resonate because either we might not have accumulated experience enough to appreciate it. Thanks to Michael Cuuningham's The Hours, which piqued my interest in perusing Mrs. Dalloway, a book that has sit on the shelf for years and that I have never summoned enough interest to read.

  26. I LOVE having words flow and swirl around me! And I don't care if nothing much happens to a story as well. It's always the experience of a story that draws me to it.

    Oh, I'm really regretting I wasn't able to join the group for this book :(

  27. Kaye - Thank you. I wanted to go back and reread the book as soon as I'd finished.

    Darlene - I'll be adding Mrs. Woolf & The Servants to my list. Would really like to learn more about her life.

    Kals - Thank you so much. I'll be looking forward to hearing what you think of Mrs . Dalloway.

    Sandy - Yup, I didn't think I would ever get beyond the Goodnight Moon and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom years! I remember my class trip out to Eli Lilly when I was in pharmacy school. R&D must be a fascinating place to be right now.

    Rachel - If I ever had any doubts about being in the right place/right time to appreciate a book, my experience with Mrs. Dalloway has erased them.

    Molly - Nothing can compare to that 'craziness' of life with 3 little kids. I hope you can carve out a period of calm to give Woolf a try. I'm amazed at how profound some (most!) of her sentences are.

    Christy - Choosing the quotes was probably the hardest part of writing this. You'd laugh if you saw all the little post-it flags hanging out of my book!

    Stacybuckeye - This has happened to me with other authors, too. I'm so glad I didn't write Woolf off for good.

    Frances - That's precisely why I decided to include my past failures ... hope it will encourage others who have struggled with Woolf in the past.

    anothercookiecrumbles - It's amazing once you get into the 'zone' with Woolf's writing... time just fades away.

    Sandra - Thank you. I've been away all weekend and am overwhelmed with all the comments! I'll be spending the next couple of days reading everyone else's posts...can't wait!

  28. Laurel-Rain Snow - Can't wait to hear what you think of Mrs. D. The HOurs was one of my favorites in 2003 and I think it's time for a reread.

    Emily - Thank you for your comments. I've never had an experience like this with any other book... truly unique. I'm looking forward to trying To The Lighthouse!

    tuulenhaiven- This book was definitely meant for me at this time in my life. So glad Woolf in Winter gave me the push I needed. Thank you!

    Kaye - If I can do it, then there is hope for everyone ;-) I'm sure your 'right time' will come.

    Paperback Reader - I loved The Hours, and think I would appreciate it even more with Mrs. Dalloway fresh in my mind. Time for a reread. Hope you can join in for To the Lighthouse.

    Violet - This was definitely 'my time' for Mrs. Dalloway! I think Woolf must have been absolutely brilliant and am really looking forward to reading more.

    Claire - I'm still basking in the effects of this novel... can't wait to try To The Lighthouse!

    Karen - I very strongly believe that timing is everything when it comes to Woolf. I'm so glad I didn't abandon Woolf altogether after the failed attempts!

    Saveophelia - Glad I'm not the only one to think appreciating Woolf may be a question of timing. I'm also glad you didn't have to wait as long as I did;-)

  29. Staci - Choose your time to read it wisely. I don't know though... 41 sounds a little young to me ;-)

    Becca - I've heard others say they love her essays and nonfiction, but can't get into the novels. Maybe as I'm approaching Clarissa's age, I'm able to appreciate it more. Would love to read her journals and letters!

    DS - What is it about Chicka Chicka Boom Boom? LOL! I'm looking forward to exploring of Woolf's writing.

    E.L.Fay - A more personal essay seemed to be the only way I could go with this. There were so many other elements I wanted to mention that I became overwhelmed with it all. I feel like I could read the book again and again, and discover more each time.

    Matt - Something about Mrs. D has always appealed to me, and I felt that even more strongly after reading The Hours (which I want to reread now). I'm so glad to have finally read this beautiful book!

    Mark David - I've never felt so enveloped by a novel (if that makes any sense). The words and sentences were all so extraordinary! Maybe you could join in for one of the other 3 Woolf novels? I'm going to try To The Lighthouse, but doubt I can finish it by the 29th.

  30. Just wanted to say, I love the new picture on your header! It looks like my back yard right now- white!

  31. EXACTLY! great post. I'm pretty sure that I just rushed through my 1st reading MrsD and I think that it was ok to do so; and enjoyed this 2nd reading immensely. I also think it is more enjoyable knowing I don't have to 'get' it - only enjoy the pieces that speak to me. I was thinking, too, that I should re-read The Hours but I think I'll just rewatch the movie instead. AND I must read more Woolf. (and I'm requesting the movie Mrs D soon to see what they adapted to screen.)

  32. I can't imagine having tried to read Mrs. Dalloway when I was in college or when I had really young kids. Like you, my kids are teens, and definitely that makes it easier to concentrate, and I too love this book.

  33. Marie - Thanks. A little of the snow has melted since we were above freezing yesterday... but we're still white!

    Care - I'm really looking forward to my second reading of this book, and would also like to reread The Hours. Woolf was an amazingly gifted writer, and I'm so glad to have finally read her!

    Amy - It sure was a lot easier to focus on Mrs. D without the constant demands of young children... am so happy to finally be at a place where I can appreciate Woolf's writing. So glad to hear you loved it, too!

  34. Enjoyed your post, Joann, and your willingness to tackle why this book worked for you now when it hadn't before. While Mrs. Dalloway wouldn't have resonated for me nearly as much without the "tangential" Septimus Smith storyline, I too enjoyed Woolf's beautiful words and her conception of time. Heady stuff for this first-time Woolf reader! Cheers!

  35. Richard - Thanks so much for stopping by.Reading Mrs. D, and all the posts, has been an amazing experience. It's made me want to dive right back into it, but I'm going to start To The Lighthouse today instead.

  36. Awesome post!! It's true that some books require a particular frame of mind. I actually have a list of these books, books I really want to read but haven't been able to make my way through. I don't think I can read Virginia Woolf now, I probably need time and maturity to understand it.

  37. Hazra - If I ever had any doubts that you need to be at a certain time and place to appreciate some books, Mrs. Dalloway erased them! Your time for Mrs. D. will come and when it does, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


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