I have just finished reading Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf… and oh I am swept away. I hadn’t actually sat down to read Woolf since studying her at university when we read The Waves and To The Lighthouse for a course on Modernism and the concept of time (I forget the official course title), and that was, well… two years ago (ish). I LOVED To The Lighthouse, and found The Waves a bit impenetrable – but I suppose that is meant to happen. It is a novel that isn’t really a novel but a ‘playpoem’, and is meant to be hard. I still think it’s brilliant and ingenious though. Of course. I even wrote about it here.
My older sister once recommended Orlando to me. I read half of it, and got so fed up I gave up on it. It is incredibly dense and longwinded, and frankly, a bit self indulgent. Sorry. Luckily, my reading of Woolf at university, and a brilliant lecturer, means I love her now. The film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s beautiful novel The Hours was on TV the other night and I caught the last 40 minutes or so. As per, I cried at the end. Oh Meryl! And Julianne Moore… Also I could look at Claire Danes’ face forever.
What Michael Cunningham does is so beautiful; he clearly adores Mrs Dalloway, and in The Hours (named after an early title for Mrs D) he translates the story of that day in June 1923 into the lives of women outside the novel, including Woolf herself. He makes the lives of Mrs Dalloway, her friends, and that of Septimus Smith and his wife Rezia, universal – he demonstrates that the same feelings and thoughts, the same issues, and the same problems, permeate life beyond the pages of Mrs Dalloway. While Woolf’s novel has a wide wingspan, covering all these experiences across London in one day, it is limited by time and place. Cunningham takes us to America, and through the twentieth century, to his world and the possible people within it. The Hours moves us because we recognise elements from Mrs Dalloway; because the stories of Virginia, and of Richard and his mother, are so incredibly sad; but also because we can all relate to something we see in the story, in some small way.
Watching the wonderful film adaptation reminded me that I had a long unread copy of Mrs Dalloway in my bookshelf. Having just finished the unsatisfying This Is Paradise, I was unsure of what to read next, and read Elaine Showalter’s introduction to the 2000 Penguin Modern Classics version of Mrs D that I own. I just simply had to keep reading. Showalter’s introduction reintroduced me to Henri Bergson’s theory of human or physical time, as opposed to clock time, and also the feminist issues within the novel. My academic mind was given a prod and I was reassured that literature is wonderful and important. Woolf is simply brilliant at capturing all the little things that fill our lives everyday, that seem insignificant but often mean so much more. Nothing is washed over or forgotten; but then I think she does not over-think things or overanalyse things – she simply pays more attention to what really can make us happy or unhappy.
I recently also bought myself a copy of Selected Essays by Virginia Woolf, as I have never read them. It was her birthday on 25th January, and this piece on For Books’ Sake about two of her essays, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, has made me want to read her non-fiction even more. I’ve decided to read more non-fiction this year, and started with Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, and am looking forward to VW’s essays immensely.
I am very glad to have ‘rediscovered’ Virginia. What do you love about her? What other writers like her do you love?