(NOTE: There is really only one 'spoiler' I imagine in Mrs Dalloway, but really, the spoilers in my opinion aren't the point. Said spoiler will be referred to throughout this review)
(NOTE 2: I'm not an expert on Virginia Woolf, so I quite possibly have no idea what I'm talking about.)
(NOTE 3: I use the word God in this review as a genderless word, neither male nor female)
A woman wakes up and prepares for a party. A man meets with his old friends. A former soldier struggles with (what we would now call, I imagine) PTSD. Much walking about the streets of London ensues. The woman's party goes off well. The man learns, more or less, absolutely nothing despite having the opportunity to do so. The soldier kills himself.
That's about it, that's the lump sum plot of Mrs Dalloway (OK, there's a few other small plots as well). The narrative voice maintains the same quiet distance from each of these threads of narrative, calmly switching between flowers and suicidal thoughts, between old memories and morning traffic.
If this sounds boring, or trite, please try the book anyway. If, like me, you don't 'get it' the first time you read it, try it again. If you persist in not understanding or missing the point, wait a few years, read lots of other books, and try it again. Reading Mrs Dalloway and having it 'click' for you is a transcendant, holy literary experience.
Septimus half rose from his chair... and with legions of men prostrate behind him he, the giant mourner, receives for one moment on his face the whole... The millions lamented; for ages they had sorrowed. HE would turn round, he would tell them in a few moments, only a few moments more, of this relief, of this joy, of this astonishing revelation--
With most authors who write deeply, humanly charactered books, one senses the author hiding just behind at least one of the many masks scattered across the pages. In Hemingway, you feel him just behind the lead male, in pretty much every book. James Joyce is autobiographical to a fault. Dickens lies in the voice of his narrator - no matter who said narrator might be (even in Great Expectations where Pip really doesn't seem much like Charles Dickens, you still feel Charles inside Pip's first person narration).
In fact, Joyce is a particularly powerful comparison, because this is the powerful myopia of his work, for me - I wrote about this, in fact, a little bit in my review of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man last year, how one is so intimately engaged inside the narrator's skin that one feels in it the contours of one's own skin, one sees clearly things about themselves, without the protective displacement that fiction usually gives. Virginia Woolf, in a sense, is just the opposite: In a Virginia Woolf novel, one feels the author dissolve from the book, and the world - as small and 'petty' as that world might be - blooms into an existence with no lifelines, no points of reference, no escape into the author's life. Virginia Woolf does not write her soul into her characters because, with the true godlike power of the creator, she creates souls, free and independent of her own, then lets them into a world to live (and die) in.
Elizabeth rather wondered whether Miss Kilman could be hungry. IT was her way of eating, eating with intensity, then looking, again and again, at a plate of sugared cakes on the table next theml then, when a lady and a child sat down and the child took the cake, could Miss Kilman really mind it? Yes... She had wanted that cake -- the pink one. The pleasure of eating was almost the only pure pleasure left her, and then to be baffled even in that!
This was disorienting the first time I read the book, this dizzying feeling of continuously moving from one soul to another, from one internal world to another. You feel a sort of motion sickness, like you want to find that 'one character', the soul that is the voice of the book. Only there isn't one. Like life itself, the book exists without a central thread. It's messy, powerfully messy, and unresolvable. This is not an immediately gratifying experience - for me, it was easy to feel a certain... coldness I guess, the first time I read a Woolf novel, a certain sense that there is a God here, but the God simply does not care a straw what happens to her children.
I began to unravel this when I first read Eliot's 'Middlemarch', which Woolf famously described as the first book ever written for grownup people. At first blush I simply took this as a bit of snobbery (honestly, I imagine there IS a BIT of snobbery to the comment. Virginia was never a PERFECT person). But there is a certain truth behind the snobbery, because Eliot, in some ways, does this same thing - she creates a world, and populates with souls, whole, free souls, and then draws them out through simple mundanities to an inconclusive point of finishing.
And that's it to me. Reading, say, Wives and Daughters - a beautiful novel mind you, and I'm not saying this is a bad thing - one feels as if Mrs Gaskell is trying to teach us and help us, to guide us to her truth. Like a mother. Like we are her children, and she is teaching us. Dickens is this to the Nth degree - I love the guy, but he's a wee bit paternal...
Woolf is not. Woolf speaks to us as an equal. I think this is why I found her so intimidating, because she refuses to speak down to me, even though I'm not at her level. She simply tells the truth, the messy, nonsensical, irritating truth. Then, she steps back, and lets me build my own faiths inside of her truth. More than any other I've read, and in spite of the fact that I don't deserve it, I feel that Ms Woolf trusts me with her book. She allows me to make it what I will, not what she will.
The clock was striking -- one, two, three: how sensible the sound was; compared with all this thumping and whispering; like Septimus himself. She was falling asleep. But the lock went on striking, four, five, six and Mrs Filmer waving her apron... seemed part of that garden; or a flag. She had once seen a flag slowly rippling out from a mast... Men killed in battle were thus saluted, and Septimus had been through the War. Of her memories, most were happy. She put on her hat, and ran through cornfields -- where could it have been? -- on to some hill, somewhere near the sea...
And so, I am not obliged to love or unlove, to hope or despair. I am simply given souls, and left withe only one instruction: to decide what I think of them. This is powerful for me in a very simple way - that because the author does not exist in the story, she does not obscure it. Dalloway is almost like journalism, only more perfect. It is like being able to, for a short time, see much more clearly than I am normally capable of. So, the characters shine with a vividity and clarity that few authors ever approach. The quote about Miss Kilman above typifies this for me, for example.
On the other hand, for me (and this, I suppose, may be my attempts to build a faith inside of the truth), because I am not told to be any certain soul as I read, but instead must be each soul, in turn, I feel, in a very sacred way, a soul not of any certain soul, but of a community. Where reading Joyce is a walk as deep into one's self as one can go, reading Woolf is a walk as far out of one's self as one can go, until you enter a sort of Nirvana, where you can, for just tiny glimpses of moments, feel what it is to be a world of souls. And, for me, it is there that I finally DO meet Virginia Woolf, the great creator, who stands above her creations with the cold, loving heart of a god.