Book Review: “Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf

Well, I just finished crawling through the thorny rosebush of this book. Such pretty prose, but oh, so hard to push through…

I wanted to read this book because I want to read the Hours, since I heard that was a great success. I also read her short story “Mrs. Dalloway’s Party” and wanted to read this version of it. And everyone raves about Virginia Woolf, how she is the literary genius of her time. Mrs. Dalloway is supposed to be one of her best works. And I do have to say, yes, as far as her descriptions go, there are lots of of wonderful, brilliant phrases in this book that made me go, Wow!: “A charming woman, Scrope Purvis thought her…a touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue-green, light, vivacious…””a single figure against the appalling night, or rather, to be accurate, against the stare of this matter-of-fact June morning; soft with the glow of rose petals…” Now that’s some good writing.

But man! Too much!

Woolf writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that is considered avant-garde back then, and that’s what ultimately made me want to throw the book into the pond outside my house. It’s so hard separate what’s happening internally and what’s taking place externally. Thoughts and points of view jump here and there, people show up in the middle of a thought and whoops! Now we’re with so-and-so and Percy here just dined with the duchess and thought ah! what about those socks that I bought Mable and in the meantime a car passes just as Mrs Eleanor steps from the curb and she wonders who is in that car? perhaps the Prime Minister and Percy looked at the car and thought “who can that be? someone important” and he turns to exclaim to Bernice, look there’s a car, and Bernice is ever so unhappy because the socks he brought her are too big and when they were younger Percy always knew her foot size…and then the bells, bells, bells, bells…

Now imagine almost 200 pages of that.

It’s maddening to read. It’s like watching a Robert Altman movie–the camera spinning continually around a character before veering off to another one; characters vaguely step into each others lives and talk on and on about nothing. The literary nuggets pile so much that after page 50 it gets a bit too much. The prose feels bloated; I had to struggle to read through the latter end of the book. I had to read some passages several times to get the context, and even then it doesn’t make sense until you think about it some more (i.e. black statues).

The plot drove one mad: Clarissa Dalloway is preparing for a party, though the story wheels through several other characters, her old boyfriend, Peter, a whole bunch of other characters, and a thread about a dude named Septimus who is going insane. We bounce to Septimus and his wife Rezia a lot. And yes, I get what Woolf is trying to convey what goes on in someone’s mind, how thoughts can flit back and forth from the past, to fears about growing old (and I swear, each time Clarissa moans about growing old, I hear T.S Eliot echo “I shall wear my trousers rolled), but it is just too much. By the time the actual party happens, near the ending of the book, I no longer cared about Peter’s love affair with a married woman in India, or Rezia wishing she was back in Italy, or how Miss Kilman hates Mrs. Dalloway with a “steady & sinister serenity”. I just wanted to be done with the book.

To be fair, I did like the complexity of Clarissa Dalloway. On the surface, she seemed to be an airheaded party woman–much like a 1920s Paris Hilton. But her thoughts are surprisingly dark, introspective, which makes one wonder: what thoughts lurk behind Paris’s pretty face? I did like the passionate scene between her and Peter when he visits her again after coming back from India. And Septimus did grow on me, particularly Rezia’s despair as she goes from doctor to doctor to find out why her husband is mad.

But this book was way too hard to read. Maybe I need to be an Englishwoman to understand it better. Someone in my book club said it read like a neverending ‘run-on sentence’. Someone else said that in today’s world, it probably wouldn’t get printed. I see it more like this was Woolf’s first draft, like she freewrote the entire book and decided, okay, it’s done. In today’s world, someone will probably send it back to her, saying, “Clean this up. It jumps around too much.”

I almost wish I didn’t read it, and I was the one who suggested it for the book club! I think the short story based on this is better (though I have to go back and read it now). I’m almost afraid of Virginia Woolf now…not good considering I still want to read A Room of One’s Own . But if it was anything like this…

This book gets two omnibuses out of five. I understand that a movie was made of this, but I sure hope Robert Altman didn’t direct it.