On Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway
Mrs Dalloway (1925) was Virginia Woolf‘s fourth novel. The original title for the novel wasn’t, in fact, Mrs Dalloway but ‘The Hours’, a title that Michael Cunningham would retrieve and use for his 1998 novel about Mrs Dalloway and Woolf’s own life (this would in turn be adapted for the 2002 film starring Nicole Kidman in a prosthetic nose).
‘The Hours’, of course, was only a working title and eventually Woolf renamed the novel after her female protagonist. But Mrs Dalloway didn’t make her debut in Mrs Dalloway. She’d first appeared in print a decade before, in Woolf’s first ever published novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. (This was a very conventional novel in comparison with Woolf’s later novels such as Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves.) The Clarissa Dalloway who appears in the 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway – complete with husband Richard, who had also featured in The Voyage Out – is a somewhat different character from the one who is among the passengers on the boat travelling to the Americas in Woolf’s debut novel.
The first line of Mrs Dalloway is perhaps the most famous opening line in all of Woolf’s fiction: ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’ What is encoded in this sentence, as the ensuing paragraph of the novel makes clear, is the fact that Clarissa Dalloway is organising a party but won’t send out her servant for the flowers for the party (so the line reveals something of the Dalloways’ class and social position, as well as suggesting something of Mrs Dalloway’s own character). But in the original sketch which Woolf wrote, which later became the opening section of the novel, Woolf had offered a slightly different opening line: ‘Mrs Dalloway had said she would buy the gloves herself.’ The change to ‘flowers’ introduces a whole bouquet of flower-imagery that will adorn the novel.
Virginia Woolf’s novel was inspired by her reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses – which was published in book form in 1922 but had been appearing in the Little Review since 1918. Woolf liked the idea of writing a novel set over the course of just one day. Like Joyce, she chose a day in June (June 1923 in Woolf’s novel; Joyce’s novel takes place in June 1904). But Woolf had her reservations about Joyce’s obsession with what she saw as the more squalid side of life – sex and bodily functions – and went as far as to describe Ulysses as ‘a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. Her approach to the ‘one-day novel’, then, would be different.
If you were to ask ‘What is Mrs Dalloway about?’ you would have to make do with some pretty unsatisfying responses. ‘A woman throwing a party.’ ‘A response to the First World War.’ The first of these is a (very crude) summary of the main ‘plot’ of the book (or at least its culmination), in so far as the book has a plot; the second points up an important context for the novel. But Mrs Dalloway touches upon a host of themes, from depression (which Woolf had experienced first-hand) to lost love to regret to joy and everything in between.
‘Subjectivity’ – the importance of personal response to the world around us – is the watchword for Mrs Dalloway, which follows a number of characters through the course of their day (that ‘moment of June’ which the novel takes as its narrow time-frame). This is perhaps most neatly exemplified by the sky-writing scene, in which an aeroplane soars over the London skyline, inscribing mysterious and transitory letters on the heavens. Woolf was inspired to write this scene after the Daily Mail first used sky-writing to advertise their newspaper in 1922. But what this aeroplane is advertising – if it is advertising something – remains a mystery until one character believes she has it: it’s toffee. But the meaningless sequence of letters – A C E L K E Y – doesn’t provide much help. Different characters draw different conclusions as to what the odd message represents, but Woolf doesn’t provide an objective answer alongside which we might situate the characters’ subjective impressions.
Septimus Smith, the war veteran who is afflicted by shell-shock and depression (his marriage, too, is falling down around him), interprets the sky-writing as a quasi-divine message from the heavens, somehow meant for him and him alone. It is a message of beauty and grace, whereas we know it’s a corporate advertising campaign run by a large company.
Indeed, if we were to attempt a comprehensive answer to the question, ‘What is Mrs Dalloway about?’, one could do worse than to answer, ‘The struggle to stand out as a meaningful individual in a world of fast-moving, faceless, and crowded modernity.’ This is the world not only of the aeroplane but of the motorcar, which calls up Henry Ford, that pioneer of the production line and the man who (apocryphally) said that you can have his Model-T Ford car in any colour so long as it’s black. Modernity, the novel seems to say, has rendered us like those production-line cars: we have lost our individuality and it has become more difficult to stand out. Of course, human beings had recently been treated like assembly-line objects in the first mass industrial war: the First World War, in which Septimus Smith had fought, was the war of the Ford motorcar generation, assembly-line slaughter.
News of Septimus’ suicide – he throws himself out of the window to escape his doctors, Holmes and Bradshaw, who have failed to treat him – reaches Clarissa Dalloway’s party. Clarissa herself has been dogged by her own past all day, struggling to find meaning, to matter – especially since being reunited with her old love, Peter Walsh, the man she rejected in favour of marrying Richard Dalloway. Her less-than-satisfactory marriage adds another knife-twist to that title: it is Mrs Dalloway, not Clarissa Dalloway, and she is marked by her decision to marry Richard and become Mrs Dalloway. Walsh himself, something of a ladies’ man, likes to wander the streets of London fingering his pocket knife and imagining that pretty women have singled him out – again, the individual’s struggle to stand out from the crowd. This is perhaps the clearest ‘message’ we get about modern life from Mrs Dalloway – but even that is as wispy and evanescent as the message in the sky left by that aeroplane.
If you enjoyed these interesting facts about Mrs Dalloway, you might also enjoy our list of the best Virginia Woolf novels everyone should read and our summary and analysis of Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse.
Image: Mrs Dalloway, London, Hogarth Press, 1925; Wikimedia Commons; public domain.