Saturday, January 04, 2020

Fiction Review: Mrs. Dalloway

My last book of 2019 was also one last classic for my 2019 Back to the Classics challenge: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. This was one of my Christmas gifts from last year, and an author I have been wanting to try for years. I struggled with the writing style but ultimately found it to be an interesting, if somewhat sluggish, story.

The entire novel takes place on a single day in post-World War I London. Clarissa Dalloway, the title character, is an upper-class woman preparing to host a party that evening. The novel begins with her going out for flowers in the morning and ends as the guests are leaving her party late at night. Written in the third-person, the narrative follows not only Clarissa on this beautiful June day in London but also many of her neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. There is Peter Walsh, an old friend who wanted to marry Clarissa when they were young and just returned from India, after being gone for decades. Septimus Warren Smith, accompanied by his lovely Italian wife, seems to be losing his mind, mired in obsessive thoughts and paranoia after his service in the war, in what today would be called PTSD. Lady Bruton, an older and much-admired society dame, invites Clarissa's husband, Richard, to lunch to help her craft a letter to the editor. Even Clarissa's own daughter, Elizabeth, gets her few pages of thoughtful observation. Many of the characters are not only describing the present day but also thinking back to their pasts, forming a fuller picture of their lives. The narrative moves from one character to another, as the day moves forward into night and the much-anticipated party.

Sounds intriguing, right? My problem wasn't with the content of the novel but with the writing. This is the first Woolf book I have read, so I don't know whether this is typical, but the novel is filled with extra-long sentences, long paragraphs, very few section breaks, and no chapter breaks at all. I often found it difficult to follow and had to re-read. In one sentence, I counted seven semi-colons (Woolf seems to have a special affinity for them) and eight commas! Some paragraphs wandered on for 2-3 pages. This made it difficult to keep my attention, especially since the narrative was often meandering from one character to another. I didn't dislike it--the day-in-the-life of an early twentieth-century society and historical perspective were certainly interesting--but it took a lot of concentration and effort for me to follow. Apparently, Woolf's focus on the everyday trivialities of everyday lives was something entirely new at the time of its writing (1925) that became common eventually in novels, so it was also interesting to read something that was ground-breaking for its time. It is certainly a thoughtful novel, and I am glad to have read it, though I prefer novels with a faster pace and a more straightforward writing style. I am very interested to hear what Woolf's other novels and her memoirs are like and wondering if I might like a different book of hers more.

194 pages, Harcourt

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Listen to a sampleof the audio book here, read by British actress Anne Flosnick, and/or download it from Audible. I wonder if this novel would be easier to follow on audio?

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  1. Yes, well... lots of people thought she was a genius and innovative, while an equal number thought she was annoying. I tried to read her stuff and failed, so I'm with you and the latter here!

  2. I just can't do long meandering writing. I realize that indents for paragraphs and dialogue really help the flow of a book.

    1. Not to mention some section and chapter breaks now And then!