I’ve noted before that I’m a sucker for free Kindle books from Amazon. And happily, many of the works of Modernism that I’m rediscovering forty years after first reading them as an undergraduate are now available that way, or else at prices that rival what I originally paid for paperback editions of them nearly half a century ago. In preparation for my recent trip abroad, I was packing the iPad with things to read on planes and trains and in hotels when the adventures of sight-seeing required replenishment.
If I had to pick a single title out of all the novels I’ve read in my life and nominate it as my “favorite book of all time,” I’m pretty sure that I’d choose Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. I’d been told, of course, that To the Lighthouse was the masterpiece, the one to read, but after half a dozen fruitless attempts to penetrate the action of the novel, let alone the minds of the characters, I decided a strategic retreat was in order. I needed to hone my Woolfian sensibilities, learn my way into her prose. (I’d had a similar experience with Joyce, having plunged straight into Ulysses and then realizing that maybe I ought to start with Dubliners instead.) And so I picked up Mrs Dalloway. I was charmed from the opening sentence, and although I still found it a challenging lesson, I persisted and felt that I’d gained access to a pair of exquisite minds—Woolf’s and Clarissa’s—by the time I was done.
I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve reread the novel since then: enough though to appreciate its structure and language more and more as the shape and sensibility of its words have been imprinted ever more deeply in my mind. I’ve lost my youthful illusions that all its characters ought to be noble and intelligent and happy, have come to understand how memory brings both pleasure and pain, have learned to see the story as another chapter in England’s attempt to come to terms with the aftermath of the Great War and the raveling of certainty. I’ve grown to appreciate how it takes the Aristotelian unities (it takes place on a single day in a single place—London) and plays with them, turning memory into a chorus that supplies the background that is needed to locate the action in a particular moment of time. How the Aristotelian proprieties regarding violence are honored in the same manner, and how they are similarly honored in the way in which the death of Septimus Smith is handled. I’m delighted by a comparable delicacy in the book’s final sentences when Peter realizes that Clarissa’s presence fills him with a sort of ecstasy. It’s as feminine and life-affirming as Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, yet understated and refined in a way that probably would have been appalled Joyce.
In fact, I’ve come to identify with Peter, to feel that same mysterious, insupportable fascination with Clarissa, to love her and all her faults. That’s probably one of the reasons that I wept at the end of the brilliant film adaptation of the novel (that and Vanessa Redgrave, I’m sure), even though I am not one who cries while watching movies. Well, not frequently.
I went on to conquer To the Lighthouse, many years later. When I began teaching expository writing to freshmen at the university during my graduate student days, I read vast quantities of Woolf’s essays after stumbling across “The Death of a Moth” in a textbook we were assigned to use. But I never got much farther with any of the other novels Woolf wrote and so (returning now by a commodious virus of recirculation to where I began), as I was loading up the iPad a couple of months ago, I downloaded a collection of her early novels. The first book in package was The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first published novel, dating from 1915, a decade before Mrs Dalloway.
The novel tells the story of a young woman, Rachel Vinrace, who sails from England for a South American country that is vaguely Amazonian in character. Once ensconced there under the protection of her Aunt Helen, she lives among a cast of Edwardian gentry, most of whom frustrate her yearnings to move beyond the strictures of proper English custom. But she is a spirited girl, and her appetite to experience and understand the world, which here is both familiar and strange, takes her up mountains and downriver. Her companion on these journeys is Terence Hewet, and the pair inevitably fall in love. I was expecting the novel to develop its themes of initiation into life’s mysteries to a conclusion that brought Rachel to a deeper level of self-understanding, and perhaps even an approach to liberation.
I was forgetting that the setting is a jungle, and for English novelists of the early twentieth century, the jungle is a formidable enemy. Where in earlier centuries the English forest had been the site of dangerous passions and mysterious elfin spirits, often malicious in nature, the nineteenth century changed all that. Woodlands became the focus of nostalgia for an England that was rapidly disappearing, threshed in the gears of industrialization. At the same time, the expansion of the Empire brought the English imagination into contact with a far more malevolent arboreal domain, and the jungles of the Empire’s outposts were places fraught.
And so, finally, Rachel succumbs to a fever and dies. There is the promise of fulfillment, the reach that is not quite a grasp, but in the end the hand must relinquish the prize. I should have known better than to expect a happy ending from Woolf, even this early in her career. Or perhaps especially this early in her career, when she herself was still trying to find a voice that could stand against the din of her times, a place where a woman could achieve independence, could speak with a voice unencumbered by convention.
What does all this have to do with Clarissa Dalloway, to whom I have devoted so much space here? Well, the Dalloways, Mr and Mrs, appear briefly in the early pages of the book, and my delight at the opportunity to know Clarissa a little more, even at an earlier stage of her life, was the gravitational force that impelled me into the book’s heart. Unfortunately, it’s a brief and sad encounter for the most part. Clarissa herself is often unsympathetic, both in her attitudes towards her fellow shipmates and in the character she presents to the reader. She is an English woman of a certain class, and she fulfills that role brilliantly.
Richard is at first harder to assess. Rachel is struck, perhaps even overcome by him: by his rank, his erudition, his manners, his simple presence. He is a man of the world, and Rachel desperately wants to enter into and explore a larger world than the one she knows. Richard represents a chance; but he also represents the social forces that will deny her dreams. After a dockside conversation in which Richard lays out the story of his life to Rachel, she confesses her confusion, her inability to grasp the scope of such a life. “It’s far better that you should know nothing,” Richard replies. The Dalloways foreshadow the sad fate that will ultimately overtake Rachel.
This cameo by Clarissa and Richard nonetheless cheers me in an odd way. As much as I wanted to like them, I couldn’t. Clarissa is a snob, and Richard comes dangerously close to being a lout. They are harbingers of Rachel’s doom.
But I can’t help but find some odd sense of reassurance in knowing that a decade later Woolf would return to this couple, with all their faults and blindness, and construct a novel on their shoulders that somehow manages to affirm life, even in the wake of a war that hasn’t even begun at the time of The Voyage Out but dominates Mrs Dalloway.
Much literature offers us a portrait of learning, education, growth, maturity. It is the essence of the Bildungsroman. And it is deeply satisfying to vicariously partake in that education. I think I project my own hopes onto those striving young men, and they are men for the most part. A great deal of Woolf’s achievement is simply to present a woman in the protagonist’s role, even if she is fatalistic about Rachel’s chances. The Voyage Out is a testing ground, not just for Rachel, but for Clarissa as well. And, of course, for Virginia.