Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf – a review

Mrs Dalloway is an odd book for me; it’s a sort of novel that I think one ought to read (and I think this rarely about books), rather than a novel one might enjoy. On the other hand, I really like it, but I can’t exactly say why.

Virginia Woolf

The reason for my ambiguity about this particular novel is due to Woolf’s writing style for it, which is highly unusual. It is a sort of stream of conscious narrative mixed with free indirect discourse, so that the narrative voice, remaining in the third person, can enter into and out of memories and thoughts without a pause. I’m aware this has become a bit technical, and very likely I have got it wrong somewhere, so here’s the opening of the novel so you can see what I mean:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.

The actual plot of Mrs Dalloway is one that is largely focused on Clarissa’s domestic matters: she is organising a party. At the same time, Woolf tells the story of Septimus Warren Smith, an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD. The novel rests on the inner workings of the characters we meet, their thoughts and memories, and the things that they generally are not saying to each other.

It’s odd: I feel that usually I would be depressed by a book like Mrs Dalloway, with Septimus’s plot about mental illness and Clarrisa’s thoughts being largely about the various disappointments, little and big, that life holds. There is something about the book, though, that, through showing the internal loneliness of others, makes me feel somewhat less isolated.

Mrs Dalloway is a beautifully written book, and the reason I think everyone should read it is simply because the style is so interesting, and the scenes she describes are so vibrant and realistic (from the point of view of the characters witnessing said scenes) that it provides an entirely different outlook on what literature can be, and can be used for. It is also interesting in that it addresses issues of mental health and some queer issues, although I should add as a small warning that it might be triggering for people with PTSD and similar mental health problems. It is a short book, one that might be read in a few afternoons, and I believe that it is definitely worth that time.

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