Friday, April 1, 2016

Scenes from Mrs. Dalloway

I recently reread Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf for the first time since college.

First edition cover art by Vanessa Bell

That first exposure was in a terrific British lit class I took as a WSU freshman. In the intervening 14 years (yikes!), Woolf has become a favorite writer, her voice familiar and companionable (even haunting -- I hear it my head sometimes, for hours, after I've read her), but back then, she was brand new. I remember that I actually didn't finish Mrs. Dalloway in time for the class discussion about it (whoops!), but over the course of that conversation, I grew more and more intrigued. I think I went home that night and read the whole thing cover to cover (not a great accomplishment; it's not that long), and from then on, I was hooked.

I was thinking about Mrs. Dalloway these last months after catching a glimpse of President Obama in Detroit. He was visiting the neighborhood where I work, and several of us, hoping and straining, gathered outside in the snow and waited for him to come out of the restaurant where he was eating lunch. (I'm pretty sure I saw the back of his head.) The whole thing dimly reminded me of some event in the book, a moment near the beginning when a car drives down a crowded London street, bearing someone of national importance -- maybe the queen, prince, or prime minister. Only a hand is glimpsed, drawing down a shade, but the experience sends a kind of shudder through the crowd, impresses them in a profound way. Woolf is such a sensualist, and it was the feeling of the words I remembered that moved me to grab the book off the shelf and search out that passage. Just spending a few minutes with Mrs. Dalloway made me want to return to it, swim in it again, so I reread it, and was struck by how much I'd forgotten (or not picked up in the first place). It's so rich.

As I read, I marked passages that struck me, as I tend to (I've never been one to write in the margins -- I underline, asterisk, exclamation point, bracket), and I thought I'd go back through the book one more time to rediscover and share those words and passages that caught my interest. Sometimes it's just an exciting adverb, because that woman was not afraid of making up crazy adverbs; sometimes it's an especially beautiful assemblage of words; sometimes it's those incredible Woolfian shocks, those moments of truth, dropped; those luminous descriptions; those moments of interiority you read and say "Yes!" to. Yes! That's what it's like to be a person, locked inside, full of trouble and memory and sorrow and joy, bumping up against other people.

I don't know that there's any point to this. It's just an impulse I have, to pay tribute, to spend more time with her. The quoted passages go in order, so maybe it's interesting as a version of the novel in miniature, as a distillation of its themes. (Probably not.) Without further ado:

She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or they were that.
She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, far out to the sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.

The motor car with its blinds drawn and an air of inscrutable reserve proceeded toward Picadilly, still gazed at, still ruffling the faces on both sides of the street with the same dark breath of veneration whether for Queen, Prince, or Prime Minister, nobody knew. The face itself had been seen only once by three people for a few seconds. Even the sex was now in dispute. But there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within; greatness was passing, hidden, down Bond Street, removed only by a hand's-breadth from ordinary people who might now, for the first and last time, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time, when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth. The face in the motor car will then be known.

For she was a character, thought Clarissa, a real artist. She thought of little out-of-the-way things....

Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer's day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying "that is all" more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog parking; far away barking and barking.

...and [he] was overcome with his own grief, which rose like a moon looked at from a terrace, ghastly beautiful with light from the sunken day.

For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks, between her parents, and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, "This is what I have made of it. This!" And what had she made of it? What, indeed? sitting there sewing this morning with Peter.

The supreme secret must be told to the Cabinet; first that trees are alive; next there is no crime; next love, universal love....

He had only to open his eyes; but a weight was on them; a fear. He strained; he pushed; he looked; he saw Regent's Park before him. Long streamers of sunlight fawned at his feet. The trees waved, brandished. We welcome, the world seemed to say; we accept; we create. Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) where he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows scooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks--all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.

As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do out part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners...decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can.

...this atheist's religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.

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,--the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

...and his eyes (as eyes tend to be), eyes merely...

He watched her snip, shape, as one watches a bird hop, flit in the grass, without daring to move a finger. For the truth is (let her ignore it) that human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment. They hunt in packs. Their packs scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness. They desert the fallen. They are plastered over with grimaces. There was Brewer at the office, with his waxed mustache, coral tie-pin, white slip, and pleasurable emotions--all coldness and clamminess within,--his geraniums ruined in the War--his cook's nerves destroyed; or Amelia What'shername, handing round cups of tea punctually at five--a leering, sneering obscene little harpy; and the Toms and Berties in their starched shirt fronts oozing thick drops of vice. They never saw him drawing pictures of them naked at their antics in his notebook. In the street, vans roared past him; brutality blared out on placards; men were trapped in mines; women burnt alive; and once a maimed file of lunatics being exercised or displayed for the diversion of the populace (who laughed aloud), ambled and nodded and grinned past him, in the Tottenham Court Road, each half apologetically, yet triumphantly, inflicting his hopeless woe. And would he go mad?


But even Holmes himself could not touch this last relic straying on the edge of the world, this outcast, who gazed back at the inhabited regions, who lay, like a drowned sailor, on the shore of the world.

Her ladyship waited with the rugs about her knees an hour or more; leaning back, thinking sometimes of the patient, sometimes, excusably, of the wall of gold, mounting minute by minute while she waited; the wall of gold that was mounting between them and all shifts and anxieties (she had borne them bravely; they had had their struggles) until she felt wedged on a calm ocean, where only spice winds blow; respected, admired, envied, with scarcely anything left to wish for.... stamp indelibly in the sanctuaries of others the image of herself.

Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counseled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantage of a sense of proportion....

"The address?" murmured Hugh Whitbread; and there was at once a ripple in the grey tide of service which washed round Lady Bruton day in, day out, collecting, intercepting, enveloping her in a fine tissue which broke concussions, mitigated interruptions, and spread round the house in Brook Street a fine net where things lodged and were picked out accurately, instantly, by grey-haired Perkins, who had been with Lady Bruton these thirty years and now wrote down the address; handed it to Mr. Whitbread.... if one's friends were attached to one's body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread, which (as she dozed there) became hazy with the sound of bells....

But suppose Peter said to her, "Yes, yes, but your parties--what's the sense of your parties?" all she could say was (and nobody could be expected to understand): They're an offering....

But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgements, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom? An offering for the sake of an offering, perhaps.

And the supreme mystery which Kilman might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn't believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving, was simply this; here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?


Miss Kilman sat at the marble table among the eclairs, stricken once, twice, thrice by shocks of suffering.

The tower of Westminster Cathedral rose in front of her, the habitation of God. In the midst of the traffic, there was the habitation of God.

...and her fine eyes, having no eyes to meet, gazed ahead, blank, bright, with the staring incredible innocence of sculpture.

It looked so splendid, so serious, that great grey building. stimulate what lay slumbrous, clumsy, and shy on the mind's sandy floor to break surface, as a child suddenly stretches its arms.

Fixed though [the clouds] seemed at their posts, at rest in perfect unanimity, nothing could be fresher, freer, more sensitive superficially than the snow-white or gold-kindled surface; to change, to go, to dismantle the solemn assemblage was immediately possible; and in spite of the grave fixity, the accumulated robustness and solidity, now they struck light to the earth, now darkness.

Swiftly, cleanly the ambulance sped to the hospital, having picked up instantly, humanely, some poor devil; some one hit on the head, struck down by disease, knocked over perhaps a minute or so ago at one of these crossings, as might happen to oneself. That was civilisation. It struck him coming back from the East--the efficiency, the organisation, the communal spirit of London. Every cart or carriage of its own accord drew aside to let the ambulance pass. Perhaps it was morbid; or was it not touching rather, the respect which they showed this ambulance with its victim inside--busy men hurrying home yet instantly bethinking them as it passed of some wife; or presumably how easily it might have been them there, stretched on a shelf with a doctor and a nurse....

...the privilege of loneliness...

Clarissa had a theory in those days--they had heaps of theories, always theories, as young people have. It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other? You met every day; then not for six months, or years. It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not "here, here, here"; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter--even trees, or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death...perhaps--perhaps.

...Oh yes, and mere gossip. For this is the truth about our soul, he thought, our self, who fish-like inhabits deep seas and piles among obscurities threading her way between the boles of giant weeds, over sun-flickered spaces and on and on into gloom, gold, deep, inscrutable; suddenly she shoots to the surface and sports on the wind-wrinkled waves; that is, has a positive need to brush, scrape, kindling herself, gossiping.

The cold stream of visual impressions failed him now as if the eye were a cup that overflowed and let the rest run down its china walls unrecorded. The brain must wake now. The body must contract now, entering the house, the lighted house, where the door stood open, where the motor cars were standing, and bright women descending; the soul must brave itself to endure.

Why, after all, did she do these things? Why seek pinnacles and stand drenched in fire?

Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another. It was, she thought, partly their clothes, partly being taken out of their ordinary ways, partly the background, it was possible to say things yo couldn't say anyhow else, things that needed an effort; possible to go much deeper.

She had the simplest egotism, the most open desire to be thought first always....

And up came that wandering will-o'-the-wisp, that vagulous phosphorescence, old Mrs Hilbery, stretching her hands to the blaze of his laughter (and the Duke and the Lady), which, as she heard it across the room, seemed to reassure her on a point which sometimes bothered her if she woke early in the morning and did not like to call her maid for a cup of tea; how it is certain we must die.

Yet--what she felt was, one wouldn't like Sir William to see one unhappy. No; not that man.

Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here's death, she thought.

She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away. They went on living (she would have to go back; the rooms were still crowded; people kept on coming). They (all day she had been thinking of Bourton, or Peter, of Sally), they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the center which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

She parted the curtains; she looked. Oh, but how surprising!--in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her!...She was going to bed, in the room opposite. It was fascinating to watch her, moving about, that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. Could she see her? It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed.

He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.

For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying--what one felt. Cleverness was silly. One must simply say what one felt.
"But I do not know," said Peter Walsh, "what I feel."

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