Saturday, July 03, 2004

She Was All That

Yesterday I talked about Mrs. Dalloway in terms of Keith Brown's TLS article. Today I just want to talk about Mrs. Dalloway on its own. I first read the book back in my college days, in an attempt to prepare for the Literature GRE test. It is dumb to read a book, especially this book, for a reason like that if you have never read it before. Because I rushed through it, not really understanding it, not really paying attention, but only looking for major themes and overall style in case I should be asked to identify the book or the author from a few sentences on the test. Now, all these years later, I have gotten to read it just for fun, at my leisure. And what a wonderful book it is. I think many people are afraid of Virginia Woolf (ha!), and think her difficult to read. But I think this, aside from her love letter novel to Vita Sackville-West, Orlando, is much more accessible than To the Lighthouse if you are a first time Woolf reader. There is so much in this short book which takes place over the course of a day. It is about life an death, and connection and division, communication and silence, integrity and giving in. It's about society, manners, culture and the things that happen because of them or in spite of them. It is about relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, women and women. It is about time and living life in moments, about beauty and feeling. It is such a rich book that if I read it again today it would be different than when I read it a few days ago. Yes, it is at times difficult to follow the narrative, but in the end it is a rewarding and satisfying gem. There are so many bits of this book that I liked I can't include them all, but I must tell you a few of my favorites. I liked the scene where Richard, Clarissa Dalloway's husband, a very upright, very English but good hearted gentleman, comes home from luncheon with Lady Bruton and brings Clarissa a bouquet of red and white roses. Richard planned on saying "I love you" to Clarissa, but sadly was not able to speak the words. Still, Clarissa knew what his gift of flowers meant and is caught gazing at the blooms several times throughout the rest of the book. It is such a touching scene. And since we are privileged to both Clarissa's and Richard's thoughts, we are able to understand that in spite of their differences, these two people love each other very much. Another moment I liked, which perhaps could be viewed as a foil to the one above, was a bittersweet scene between Septimus Smith and his wife, Rezia. Septimus fought in World War One and is suffering from what we would call today post-traumatic stress disorder, but what they called then shell shock. They have returned home from seeing the great Dr. Bradshaw, a man full of his own importance and who declared that husband and wife needed to be separated for several months while Septimus rested in one of Dr. Bradshaw's "homes." Septimus has a moment of lucidity and husband and wife playfully finish the design of the hat Rezia is making for someone. They are happy and in love, but the reader knows it will not last, it cannot last, and this glimpse of what they could have been and once were is heartbreaking. They are terrified of being separated by Dr. Bradshaw and Rezia tells Septimus that even if "they took him," she would go with him because "they could not separate them against their wills." And Septimus looks at his wife and sees her "as if all her petals were about her. She was a flowering tree; and through her branches looked out the face of a lawgiver, who had reached a sanctuary where she feared no one; not Holmes; not Bradshaw; a miracle, a triumph, the last and greatest....'Must' they said. Over them she triumphed." There is a wonderful tidal feeling to the book; it ebbs and flows, it builds to a wave and breaks and builds again. Some, like Septimus, are pulled under the waves; others, like Clarissa, seem to dance upon the foam. I leave you know with another of my favorite bits from the book, a memory from Peter Walsh who deeply loved Clarissa when they were young. The two of them are on a bus in London.

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.