Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

One of my resolutions this year was that I wouldn’t join any challenges. I had however already signed up to taking part with ‘Woolf in Winter’ before 2009 ended. I joined as I had never read any Virginia Woolf before and yet owned a lot of her works, which actually works with my resolutions this year to get through more of the books I have owned for ages too. So how would my first journey into the world of Virginia Woolf with ‘Mrs Dalloway’ be, would I want to read more Woolf afterwards?

‘Mrs Dalloway’ is the story of a single day in London through the eyes of several people. I know all the synopses say that it’s just through one woman but actually there are three main characters, or I felt there were. For Clarissa Dalloway wife of the Prime Minister it is a very important day as she is throwing a party. Peter Walsh has just arrived back from India and has decided to visit Clarissa the woman he was once deeply enamoured with. The other character is Septimus who passes both Peter and Clarissa in the morning in separate spots after having announced to his wife he wants to kill himself. Through these three people we see how one day can differ so much for three separate people.

Also Virginia Woolf takes us into the minds of people that these three characters pass by. So what you get is one day with three main tales that intertwine and then random thoughts as they pass. To write like this in such a short book is quite some feat and I think it’s remarkably done. However respecting that someone has written something clever, unusual and interesting doesn’t mean that I actually liked the book and sadly I wasn’t a huge fan. I found all of the characters bar Septimus quite dull and one dimensional. I did find the passages about Septimus and the way his mind was working utterly fascinating and that and Clarissa looking back on her past and the love she felt for Sally Seton which again was written perfectly. Bar that slightly interesting point I found Clarissa needed a bit of a ‘good wake up shake’ and really I would have liked to have sympathised with her instead of just thinking ‘get a grip’. I am sure I will be outraging many Woolfites saying that, but it’s the truth.

Oddly this hasn’t put me off Woolf at all as I did find her writing wonderful and the way she described London was really atmospheric so I felt like I was with the characters even if I didn’t care for them. It was just that as an all-round book I ended up feeling very 50/50 about it and I don’t really like it when that happens. To the future though, I am looking forward to reading The Lighthouse in a few weeks and seeing just how that pans out. You can see a discussion about this book on Sarah’s blog later today should you wish to pop by.

Have I committed some kind of sacrilege by saying that? What are your thoughts on this novel? What are your thoughts on Virginia Woolf and which ones would you most recommend?

I am pleased to note both my mother (an avid book reader and Classics and English teacher) and the infamous Granny Savidge Reads aren’t great fans of this book but do love ‘To The Lighthouse’ and ‘Orlando’.


Filed under Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review, Virginia Woolf

64 responses to “Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

  1. I haven’t actually read any Virginia Woolf and am always in two minds whether I want to or not. If I do decide to read one of her books I think I might try something other than this.

    • I think this book is wonderfully written Jessica, it just didnt quite work for me, I would much rather have had a whole book of Septimus than I would of Clarissa ha. You might love it, many people do. She is definitley a wonderful writer.

  2. I think Mrs. Dalloway is actually my favourite Woolf novel, but it goes back and forth between several… I mostly love her books for the writing, rather than the characters, but I think they come together beautifully in To The Lighthouse, so you might prefer that. A great thing with Woolf is, because her novels are more about writing than plot, I can read them again and again and always find something new.

    Oddly, I loved Orlando the first time I read it, and each subsequent time liked it rather less!

    • I want to read it again in a few years Simon in all honesty. I think its a book the more I read it the more I will enjoy it. I didnt really gel with it this time and wanted a whole book of Septimus.

      There is no doubt that she is an incredible writer and also I am not someone who normally only likes plot or character as I am a huge fan of prose and indeed Woolf’s from this novel. I just didn’t get into at any point despire the wonderful writing. Odd.

  3. I didn’t “get” Mrs Dalloway the first time I read it (my first Woolf) but persevered -I was studying it at the time- and appreciated it on the second read and am very fond of it now (although it has been many years since I read it). I found that it helped me greatly to read The Hours by Michael Cunningham; if you haven’t read that/watched the movie then I recommend it, as I think you will enjoy it.

    Septimus’s shell-shock is by far the most fascinating part of the novel and I also enjoyed the Clarissa/Sally friendship.

    I’m reading To the Lighthouse for the first time this month – very excited! I’ve been on one side rationing it and on the other never seeming to have the chance to read it.

    I loved Orlando but now somewhat scared to reread it reading the other SImon’s comment! I recommend it, Jacob’s Room and Between the Acts (as well as Woolf’s short stories and essays – oh, that reminds me, Hesperus publish volumes of VW short stories so those are ones to look out for) but doubt you’d like The Waves. See what you think of To the Lighthouse and then seek out the Hesperus short stories – like Simon I read Woolf for the writing and her short stories are perfect examples. I’m all for combining a few resolutions and short stories is another one of yours this year!

    • I saw The Hours and I think partly that didnt help with reading this after having seen that wonderful film so many times. (I still havent read the book, but think the film is too vivid.) I kept comparing it to Clarissa’s story in The Hours and so Meryl Streep kept popping in my head, normally this would be lovely this time it felt a bit like it broke the spell. I think I need to read it a second time in a few years to appreciate it more.

      I have had my eyes on Hesperus’s Woolf stories at my library and hope they are there tomorrow when I go.

      I totally get what you and Simon mean about Woolf being read for that writing and agree with Mrs Dalloway it just didnt click with me, the book not the prose which sort of doesnt make any sense haha.

      Looking forward to The Lighthouse, let’s see how I do with that one.

  4. I know I have to be in the right mood to read Woolf, otherwise I just get frustrated and give up. She’s not my favourite writer, and I don’t think she’s as great a genius as others do, but I think there is a lot of beauty in what she writes, and you can get a lot from her work if you approach it from the right frame of mind. You might get on better with her more traditional early novels – The Voyage Out is very good.

    • I think she is clearly a talented writer I just didn’t really gel with the people in the book even though I loved the writing. Am looking forward to reading more of her work so all your recommendations are really helpful, this is part fo why I love blogging!

  5. Although a fan of VW now, this wasn’t always so – and I still feel as you did on reading ‘Mrs D’ that while liking Clarissa you still feel like giving her a good shake: “get a grip, woman!” I agree with Simon T that ‘To the Lighthouse’ is the better novel. But perhaps you’d like ‘Orlando’ – it’s an extraordinary achievement and very entertaining (as long as you don’t see Sally Potter’s dire film of the book first!).
    Arrived via one of your blogging friends: greetings from France.

    • Greetings to you in France Minnie and thank you for the lovely comment and the tips. Glad to see I am not the only person who found this daunting. Another reason blogging is great, you don’t feel like the odd one out. I am definitely going to keep trying with Woolf.

  6. I had every intention of giving Woolf a try and reading with you all, but time got away from me. Maybe another. I fully admit, she intimidates me.

  7. Mrs Dalloway is the first, last, and only Woolf that I’ve ever read. I studied it back in college, and it just didn’t click with me. I have a feeling I was too young and inexperienced with this kind of writing at the time and that I might appreciate it more now. I may give it another try one day, but I’ll probably try some other Woolf first.

    • I have to say I am quite grateful we didnt study her at school as that seems to be a killer for any author I read then. Forster and Shakespeare have been killed for me by school sadly!

  8. novelinsights

    I started this morning…wooo! I am enjoying the writing as you say, but time will tell about the rest. I get annoyed by the continuous asterisks denoting that there is a useful note at the back explaining things like what Big Ben is though.

  9. Lu

    I loved this book, but still felt the same way you did about Clarissa! I wanted to shake her as well and I was confused by the Clarissa of The Hours being flattered by being called Mrs. Dalloway. She’s not really someone I’d want to be! But that actually made me love the novel more, because she seemed like a very real person and I don’t necessarily think Woolf intended for us to like her, perhaps just sympathize with her a little bit. I loved Septimus as well, the descriptions that came along with his part of the novel are just astounding.

    • I think this is a book that I will have to read again in a few years when I have forgotten some of the intricacies again.

      I by no means hated the book and really dont want readers thinking that. I just didnt love it as much as I had hoped that I would. I did love her writing, stunning is the only word. I would have loved a book just about Septimus.

  10. Like your point about appreciating something clever versus actually enjoying it. Actually, Woolf felt that way about Joyce, thinking he was a bit of a show off. Ah, the things geniuses will say about one another!

    Listen to your mother and Granny and keep going though? I think you may enjoy To the Lighthouse a bit more, and KNOW that you will like Orlando. It is on one level a tremendous view of biography and on a more important and engaging level, it is Virginia’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West. My favorite Woolf. And the movie is not bad either if you want a highly stylized, visual treat of a version.

    The Woolves are not out to get you yet, Simon!

    • Oh Frances you make me chuckle. I hope she isn’t out to get me as I love her prose.

      I am definately listening to you all and keeping going, I am already looking forward to, what lots have people have said is wonderful, To The Lighthouse.

      Glad you appreciated I wasnt slagging it and that while I respect Woolfs words in this novel I wasnt quite a fan, I am very much prepared to become one though!

  11. Bellezza

    I loved this line in your post: “However respecting that someone has written something clever, unusual and interesting doesn’t mean that I actually liked the book and sadly I wasn’t a huge fan.” I so agree! I wanted to like this book, a lot, but sadly, I didn’t. I’m glad I read it, I’m glad for othe opportunity to discuss it with everyone, and I’m getting a lot out of other’s thoughts. But, a tremendous, earth shaking novel? Not to me. I wanted to shake Clarissa too, so maybe we can each grab an end. 😉

    • Hahahaha ‘maybe we could each grab an end’ that has made me laugh, its been a very funny set of comments today.

      I am excited about reading more of her work with all of you, its been a blast so far and its only the first one.

  12. I found Clarissa to be an absolutely fascinating character, right from the opening line. Yes, she’s more or less a socialite, and yes, she comes across as fairly superficial, but, I did find something endearing about her, specially the moment of introspection when she’s lying in her bed, thinking about what kind of a day it has been until that point.

    Septimus, unsurprisingly, was the character with the most depth, and I found that his character offset Mrs. Dalloway very well, despite both being oblivious to the existence of the other.

    Mrs. Dalloway’s the only book I’m reading as part of Woolf In Winter. Do hope you enjoy To The Lighthouse.

    • She is definitley fascinating, and also incredibly irritating hahaha. I dont dispute Woolf has created a complex character, I just really didnt get her. I maybe needed to know her more.

      I completely agree that those two particular characters offset each other and that works very well.

  13. I loved this book, but I can see how you might think that C needed to “get a grip,” as you say. I just loved reading about her thoughts and really liked feeling how her mind worked.

    That being said, I did enjoy To the Lighthouse more than Mrs D.

  14. Well I feel better now. Clair admits she didn’t get it the time reading it, and you understand the quality of the writing but the story wasn’t exactly thrilling for you. After reading a dozen glowing reviews of the book this morning I was feeling intimidated about my post. I feel about like you did about the story. I love Woolf’s non fiction, what an intelligent woman. I enjoyed Orlando, and Jacob’s Room to some degree. I clearly need a second read and with all these wonderful reviews under my belt I expect to enjoy it more. Thanks for an honest and enlightening review. I look forward to your thoughts on the next book.

    • I am glad that I could make someone feel bettre Sandra. I thought the writing was superb, I just didnt get something and I think that is why one day in the future I will open the pages of Mrs Dalloway again and see how Clarissa and I get on then. Maybe I wasnt quite in the mood for it? Oooh I don’t know!

      Lets see how we both get on with To The Lighthouse.

  15. Simon, while I’m a rabid Mrs. Dalloway fan, I certainly don’t find it sacrilegious for other people to hold different opinions! This is not a universally loved novel by any means – in fact, most of the time when I tell people Woolf is my favorite author, the response I get is “You mean that depressing British woman who killed herself?” Dunh-dunh-dhunnnn.

    I think it’s interesting (as I’ve said to a couple of other people) that different readers find different characters to be central to the story – that you found Septimus the most interesting, for example, when another person was really only interested in Clarissa, and yet another most identified with Peter Walsh. Two of Woolf’s friends wrote her almost simultaneous letters after this book came out: one said “I think you should cut Clarissa – the story is with Septimus,” and the other said “I think you should cut Septimus – the story is with Clarissa.” So it’s got a history in that regard.

    Anyway, thanks for reading along despite your lukewarm reception. I’ll be curious to read your impressions of To the Lighthouse and, especially, Orlando.

    • Hahahaha thank you Emily I wouldnt want to offend any Woolf lovers as I am very hopeful that myself and Virginia will become much better companions than myself and Clarissa were.

      I can understand why she might be some peoples favourite authors from the prose alone, and I am hoping she becomes an author that I am very fond of… or who knows someone that I could love to spend time with.

      I like what you have said about the book without either one of the characters. I don’t think the book would have much less in it without Peter in it! I wonder if reading some of these sort of letters would add to my Woolf experience.

  16. Here’s part of what reading Mrs Dalloway prompted me to write over on Librarything:

    Without doubt a classic, which may leave you wondering why this reviewer has awarded it a mere three stars: well, first, I ought to say that I do not regard three stars as “mere”; for me three stars is good, just not so good as to get me really excited; by the way, did I mention that I also get excited about cabbages, actually I don’t – get excited by cabbages, that is – but what I am attempting to do here, no doubt extremely badly, not to say ungrammatically, is to mirror Woolf’s long, rambling sentences that frequently go off at tangents. Having spend a long time in one character’s head, you can suddenly find yourself inside anothers. If you don’t keep your wits about you then you might miss the switch from one to the other.

    I seem to have been sitting on the fence when I wrote that. I wasn’t enchanted by it, but at least I stuck with it, unlike when I attempted to read To the Lighthouse about fifteen years ago.

    • Oh no, don’t say that about To The Lighthouse. Ha. Will see how I get on with that.

      If I had been giving it stars then I would have given it three out of five too (as I did on Amazon) your summing up of it articulates just how I felt in a lot less words, am envious I can’t whittle my thoughts down like that.

  17. Eva

    Awww-I love Clarissa. You haven’t outraged me, I just find it amusing. 🙂 But then, to me Clarissa seemed happy with her life, so I don’t think she needed to get a grip! Of course, she sounds self-absorbed, but I think that’s because we’re privy to her thoughts. I think everyone’s the hero of their own internal monologue! 😉

    I found it difficult to connect with Septimus…I felt sorry for him, of course, but I didn’t really care that much about how his day ended. That’s awful, isn’t it? hehe

    • Oh I sadly didn’t maybe I will if I read it again. I think it was all so much to take in that I couldn’t really concentrate on her. I mean I did in terms of her background and the now… Oh I dunno I just wanted her to buck up her ideas I think.

      Oh dear Eva how could you not care about Septimus hahaha.

  18. I like what Eva said, that “everyone’s the hero of their own internal monologue.” This makes me understand Clarissa more, as I also didn’t like her so much. But I did love the book, but in a confused and dazzled way, as I have yet to understand everything. Everyone’s posts are a big help!

    And of course your thoughts are understandable. I wasn’t wild about the book, I just loved its flow, but can definitely see why you feel the way you do. Am quite excited about TTL and hopefully you become a fan then. *fingers crossed* 🙂

    • I like what Eva said too, which I didn’t say to Eva and should have oops.

      Confused and dazzled loving for a book is just a wonderful sentence in fact thats possibly my favourite comment of the day!

      I am looking forward to TTL and all the others aswell of course as I know you are hosting one!

      • Haha! Yes, I’m hosting The Waves, which they say is the most difficult, yikes! Don’t expect so much from my post. My duty will just be to round up everyone’s posts! 😀

  19. Just to add in agreement with Claire, I think you’d like The Hours. It’s my favourite film, but the book is also great – I re-read it last year, and was a little worried in case it didn’t live up to my memory of it, but it really did! I wrote about the book here:

    • This does sound wonderful and it is a book that I own so I am more than happy to pop that up the TBR from you and Claire and Rachel’s rave reviews of it! I wish mine didnt have the film cover though! Tut ha!

  20. tuulenhaiven

    I LOVE the fact that everyone here has such different opinions about who their favorite character is, or who the identified best with at least. It seems like most books have one or two clearly worked out characters – Woolf’s genius lies in the fact that each person who approaches her work seems to find a different thing in it. Pretty cool. I’m eager to see what her other books are like – even willing to like them better than Mrs. Dalloway, but we’ll see!

    • It has been really interesting seeing so many peoples thoughts and reactions to all these characters you are spot on and what a lovely way for me to start my Woolf reading with such splendid company!

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  22. Although I enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway quite a bit more than you, Simon, I can totally relate to your feelings about Clarissa and some of the other characters. Without Septimus’ story providing the grounding so to speak, I’m not sure that the novel would have been all that moving to me. The prose, of course, was wonderful throughout. See you for To the Lighthouse!

    • Looking forward to comparing notes on To The Lighthouse with you too Richard, I am very hopeful about that book.

      I think has Septimus not been in this book then it wouldnt have worked as you had no life to contrast Clarissas with really.

  23. This was my first ever reading of a VW novel Simon and I definitely enjoyed it a lot more than you from the sound of things! I actually don’t think I took the time to appreciate Woolf’s writing enough – I was so caught up in the character’s thoughts that I got swept away a bit! This is quite unusual for me as I usually need to stop and understand everything that is going on before I can love a book so this caught me completely by surprise.
    I can understand your frustrations with Clarissa but I thought of her as a woman of her time – I had a real sympathy for her in how she was feeling about the stage of life she was entering and also the fondness she felt for moments of her past while at the same time realising she could never have those times back. Looking forward to To The Lighthouse!

    • I didn’t dislike it, I was just left a bit cold to some of it. I am very hot on her porse though its utterly wonderful. I didn’t really feel Clarissa was a woman of her time, I did think some of the other women were in all their stereotypes. Its a book I will without a doubt read again though.

  24. lena

    I’m not surprised to see your reaction to it, actually. There are quite a lot of people who still question Mrs. Dalloway’s right to be called a “classic,” arguing that has only reached fame do to the author’s sexuality and the feminist wave that championed literature by women.

    I know those aren’t your reasons but many agree with you nonetheless. I would be very curious to see you re-read this one in 10 or so years to see how you feel it about it.

    • I think maybe thats the aim, I will re-read this in 2020 and see how I get on with it then hahaha. I would definately call it a classic no question, its just not a classic I was completely enamoured with. That might be me though as I do have a problem with classics hence wanting to try and read more ha.

  25. I just picked this book up yesterday from a man selling second hand books on the pavements of Colombo. I have read one other Woolf book apart from books by her husband Leonard Woolf (which incidentally is an O level text book here in Sri Lanka) Loved your review before I read the book .

  26. This is my favourite Virginia Woolf. Atmospheric is right, I love the way she uses her words! I always think that her great gift is that knows just how to create the immediacy of the scene. Mrs Dalloway is total escapism for me – flawed definitely, but I still love it.

    • I think it might be a book that I come to love in time. I am slightly worried people think I loathed it which isn’t the case at all. I enjoyed it, I just didn’t love it first time round.

  27. I don’t do challenges either. I much prefer these read-alongs, with multiple bloggers all reading one book. It’s more like a book club.

    I had trouble getting into Mrs. Dalloway so I can understand your lukewarm reaction even though I ended up loving it. I don’t think you’re committing any kind of “sacrilege” at all. I think everyone has read a “great book” they either didn’t like or were so-so towards. Me, I don’t like Harry Potter. At all. It was silly.

    • Not liking Harry Potter now that is sacrilege, ha! No I can understand people not liking any book and have no issue as long as they have given something a try and explain why they didnt like it and hopefully I explained enough why I wasnt really a fan.

  28. hi savage reads
    I did enjoy your thoughts, it was good to find someone who was not just gushing about how wonderful the book and VW is. I had no preconceptions about the book and found the writing really hard to get in to, by which time we had moved on from Clarissa and I was a bit lost. The sentences are so convoluted you forget what she was starting to say by the time you reach the end. Wikipedia says how it was considered rather inaccessible when first published and I think that is quite a fair assessment. As a writer she was not interested in opening her thought up to people but sees to delight (not the right word) in being esoteric. She is accused of being a literary elitist and I think her writing demonstrates that,
    thanks for sharing

    • Hi Martine, I wouldnt describe her as elitist I think I would say that she maybe writes what she writes and because she has written it it must be good. Thats the sort of feeling I got with this book. I think the train of thought writing broke new ground though and you have to hand it to her for doing that.

  29. Amy

    I think one of the reasons I love it is because I’m about Clarissa’s age, and there are times I could be written off as shallow; for me, maybe because I empathize, I felt that Clarissa had more going on than most of the people around her understood. But–no sacrilege in being honest about your opinion! Let’s face it, the most interesting works of literature are the ones that generate the widest range of opinions.

    • Despite not being its biggest fan myself (though I believe that will change on a second read) I can perfectly see why many people would love it and as you say thats what makes a good book when it can create a lot of wide based discussion.

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