Difficult Books by Difficult Women: Mrs Dalloway
Issue 1: Meg Mason explores Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf in her inaugural column Difficult Books for Difficult Women for Dispatcher's Digest.
by Meg Mason
Ask a friend who reads the plot of Mrs Dalloway and their answer, I almost promise, will be a variation on the following: It’s all set in one day. It’s sort of a stream of consciousness. It starts with Clarissa Dalloway going out to buy flowers because she’s having a party later.
They’ll never give you a bit from the middle or bring you in on a dramatic plot twist because if pressed, they’ll have to admit they conked out at page 12, and there is no plot. Clarissa paying for the flowers is the last concrete event for the next 192 pages. From there, she mostly wanders the streets ruminating on the human condition, so presumably she’s not doing school pick up.
For years, it’s been my secret literary shame that, despite studying literature at university, despite quoting from Dalloway in my own novel, I’d never read it. The same way I’ve never managed Middlemarch or Ulysses, or those 4,000 pages of Proust, getting by at dinner parties only on the knowledge it’s got quite a lot about biscuits in it.
Then a friend gave me a pretty purse-size copy for my birthday, with the inscription “It’s about friendship and the passing of time (leaden circles), and even if you never read it, it’s such a beautiful cover” and I felt I had to try, out of politeness.
Virginia Woolf killed herself by filling her pockets with stones and wading into the River Ouse, and as I rounded page 13, I developed similar urges. But since the nearest body of water to me is a municipal aquatic centre and I’d only get rescued by a man with a fanny pack, I tapped out a desperate dispatch to my friend Emma, who teaches English at a private school: “What is it? I don’t understand. Why does nothing happen?” I asked, signing off with the bathtub emoji, the three-pin plug and a whole row of coffins.
“There isn’t one. Just let the language wash over you,” she wrote back, advice I was so grateful for because I felt that was something I could do in bed, with my eyes a bit closed.
At one point, Clarissa does run into a past flame called Peter Walsh whose main character trait is opening and closing a pocketknife all the time. She didn’t marry him, she married a Dick instead, and also had a dalliance with a woman called Sally Seeton.
Much is made of the who-knows-what-bian themes in the book but it turns out the Sapphic encounter I was so looking forward to is just some meaningful sideways-looking in the drawing room.
I read on SparkNotes.com later that another a character called Septimus kills himself by jumping out the window, because of having a bad war. However, because I was using the language-washing method, I missed that, the same way I missed the rape in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and couldn’t figure out how she suddenly had a baby in Part II.
After six weeks and flinging it at the wall twice, I arrived at the party, which starts with Clarissa panicking because no one’s getting into it. That, I found so relatable since the best bit of a party, to me, is sending out the invitations and it’s essentially downhill from there. If only you could just have the middle minute of your own do, when everyone’s arrived, is the right amount drunk, and the French exits haven’t started.
“’Oh dear.’” Clarissa thinks. “’It was going to be a failure; a complete failure, Clarissa felt it in her bones as dear old Lord Lexham stood there apologising for his wife who had caught cold at the Buckingham Palace garden party. She could see Peter out of the tail of her eye, criticising her, there, in that corner.”
There was also, somewhere, a line about man’s socks being “without exception the most beautiful she had ever seen,” and the sentence “Lady Lovejoy stiffened,” which I enjoyed for having all the economy of “Jesus Wept.”
The promise of nuggets, hidden in so much language, got me to the end and then guess what! Peter isn’t criticising Clarissa from his alcove. He still loves her! The very last line: “It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was.” So it was a love story this entire time! If you ever asked what’s Dalloway’s about, say that and the thing about the socks and they’ll never know you haven’t read it.
I would rather read; Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offil. Dalloway for those of us who’s attention spans have been broken by Instagram.
Other Choice Nuggets from Mrs Dalloway:
"As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship… as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners; decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can."
"She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, sayings things she didn't mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination."
"His wife was crying, and he felt nothing; only each time she sobbed in this profound, this silent, this hopeless way, he descended another step into the pit."
Meg Mason is a Sydney-based journalist and author. She writes monthly for ELLE, is the Ask Megsy columnist for InsideOut and was GQ’s female-affairs correspondent for five years. Her career began the Financial Times and The Times of London, and her work has since appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Stellar, Russh, Grazia and Cosmopolitan. She has also served as the managing editor of Sunday magazine.
Her first book, a memoir of motherhood called Say It Again in a Nice Voice (HarperCollins) was published in 2012. Her second book, a novel called You Be Mother (HarperCollins) was published in August 2017.
Find her on Instagram @_meg_mason_