Life, London, this Moment | Daily News

Life, London, this Moment

Natascha McElhone as Clarissa Parry (young Mrs. Dalloway) and Robert Portal as young Richard Dalloway
Natascha McElhone as Clarissa Parry (young Mrs. Dalloway) and Robert Portal as young Richard Dalloway

I have always loved Virginia Woolf. Not only because of the books she wrote and definitely not because she was married to Leonard Woolf, but because I read once long ago, and came across it again, recently, in a Paris Review article that Virginia Woolf had a special connection with the sea and the waves. Having spent the best years of my childhood in Galle, with the Indian ocean for a playmate, I knew exactly what she meant when she wrote her most important memory of growing up was of lying in bed in a house in Cornwall listening to waves break on the beach as sunlight pressed against a yellow blind. It was “of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.” This radiance and the connection with water appears in several of her novels; Jacob’s Room, The Waves, and To the Lighthouse. As Hermione Lee notes in her biography of Woolf, “Happiness is always measured for her against the memory of being a child in that house,” and let me add, listening to the waves, for if you live near the sea it’s impossible not to hear them.

But in ‘Mrs. Dalloway,’ things are different. Naturally. After all, the entire story lasts only for 24 hours and describes a day in the life of 52-year-old Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway, wife to Richard and mother to teenage daughter Elizabeth She runs a few errands, sees an old suitor and gives a dull party. And yet, the book is considered a masterpiece, a revolutionary novel of profound scope and depth, a story told brilliantly, so thoroughly and documented so absolutely that Woolf’s book, in the words of Constantin Stanislavsky, might be said to have been written ‘’inviolably and for all time.”


Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway

The brilliance of the story lies in the fact that it was created out of the humblest narrative materials. Clarissa, is a society hostess, well-heeled and gracious, a little false, no longer young, as she walks through London on a balmy day in June. Like Clarissa herself, neither the day’s tasks nor the evening’s party is particularly remarkable. London, after all, produces 30 June days every year, and you could say that for Clarissa, the wife of a Conservative member of Parliament, giving parties is simply part of her job description. Yet, as Michael Cunningham claims in his article in the New York Times, in “Mrs. Dalloway,” Woolf insists that a single, outwardly ordinary day in the life of a woman named Clarissa Dalloway, an outwardly rather ordinary person, contains just about everything one needs to know about human life, in more or less the way nearly every cell contains the entirety of an organism’s DNA.”

“Still. If in “Mrs. Dalloway” there’s no such thing as an insignificant person, there is, as well, no such thing as a usual day,” writes Cunningham. “Clarissa’s pleasant but seemingly normal day is nevertheless infused with “life; London; this moment of June.” And one ignores the marvels of all three, in their lyrically descending order, at risk to one’s soul.”

Cunningham narrates that the book wasn’t always called ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’ When she first started to work on the manuscript it was called ‘The Hours.’ In an early draft, Woolf opened the book with Peter Walsh walking among the still-intact steeples and statues of central London as a troop of soldiers marched by to lay a memorial wreath in Trafalgar Square. Peter, musing on his own failures and frailties, thought of a woman he had once loved, named Clarissa.

And, at that moment, a book titled “The Hours” became one called “Mrs. Dalloway.” At that moment a book that had opened with the line “In Westminster, where temples, meeting houses, conventicles, & steeples of all kinds are congregated together, there is at all hours & half hours, a round of bells, correcting each other, asseverating that time has come a little earlier, or stayed a little later, here or here,” became a book that opened with the line “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Yet “Mrs. Dalloway” is considerably more than an ode to the celebration of normal life. It is also a dark and disquieting book. For one thing,critics point out, “Mrs. Dalloway” is haunted by the restless ghosts of the living. One such is Peter Walsh, the man Clarissa might have married but didn’t; Sally Seton, the woman with whom she might have allowed herself to fall in love (but didn’t); and Septimus Warren Smith, a delusional, shellshocked veteran of World War I, who walks through London on the same day, in the same neighbourhood and who might have exchanged the time of day with Classira (but didn’t).

Not surprisingly, therefore, “Mrs. Dalloway” is almost as densely populated as a novel by Charles Dickens. This is because Woolf makes consciousness pass from one character to another in more or less the same way electricity flows through metal. So when a young Scottish woman, newly arrived in London, wanders lost and disconsolate through Regent’s Park, we briefly enter her mind, and feel her unhappiness (“the stone basins, the prim flowers … all seemed, after Edinburgh, so queer. … She had left her people; they had warned her what would happen”) until she is noticed by an older woman, at which moment we switch to the consciousness of the old woman, who, envying the first woman’s youth, mourns the loss of her own (“it’s been a hard life. … What hadn’t she given to it? Roses; figure; her feet too.”) until we are snapped back to Clarissa, as she returns home to her husband will be dining out, invited by a woman and that she herself was excluded from the invitation.

Thus, in spite of its outward appearance the world of “Mrs. Dalloway” is not in any way a simple, or simplified, world. If, as Henry James put it, a writer is someone “on whom nothing is lost,” one might presume to add, in Woolf’s name, that a writer is also someone on whom no one is lost.

The book also encompasses, almost infinite shades and degrees of happiness, loss, satisfaction, regret and tragedy. It invokes, over and over, the choices we make, those that are made for us by others, and their sometimes lifelong consequences, many of which we could not possibly have imagined at the time.

And it is a book about growing old. Peter Walsh, describes how getting older has changed him. He talks about how it is a relief to retreat from the obsessiveness of his youthful passions:

“A terrible confession it was (he put his hat on again), but now, at the age of fifty-three, one scarcely needed people any more. Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough. Too much, indeed. A whole lifetime was too short to bring out, now that one had acquired the power, the full flavour; to extract every ounce of pleasure, every shade of meaning; which both were so much more solid than they used to.”

The crucial words here are, ‘So much less personal!’ This is almost the same kind of detachment we come across in the Buddha Dhamma. And it is disturbing, especially if like Clarissa, you have never been good at detachment. If your own relationships are opposite of detachment. If they are like those described by Gary Lutz in a short story. “Are you involved with anyone?” a character is asked. “Everybody,” he answers.

As Jenny Offill writes in the New Yorker, to become less personal is a terrible fate, though Peter Walsh speaks of it calmly, as if it is a pleasant thing. “But how could it be pleasant to withdraw from this blooming, buzzing world of people? Woolf seems to imply that this desire for distance grows gradually, almost imperceptibly, as you get older—until, one day, you find yourself noticing the petals of the flowers instead of the person holding the bouquet.”

I wonder if you agree. When you reach your fifties and beyond, will you see only the petals and not the hand holding the flowers? Perhaps ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ will tell you.

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