For the past five years the Royal Society of Literature has celebrated the writings of Virginia Woolf on a Wednesday in June. Today is that Wednesday. Interesting that this society has chosen the short novel Mrs Dalloway for the festival name. As much as I appreciate Mrs Dalloway, and have read it twice, of Woolf’s oeuvre, To the Lighthouse is a richer story, one that had me up until 3 am to finish it, and it remains at the top of my list.
I appreciate that Mrs Dalloway is more accessible than some of Woolf’s other books. It has also benefitted from an excellent film adaption (1997), with Vanessa Redgrave in the lead role. Written in a third-person omniscient narration as if in the mind of Clarissa Dalloway, the story takes place in London over a 24-hour period soon after the end of the First World war, moving continuously between the past and the present as remembered and interpreted by Clarissa. The intensity of the drama unfolds in otherwise mundane circumstances as Clarissa prepares for a party at her home, which she shares with her husband, a wealthy politician. Depicting an era full of hope and a renewed sense of freedom mixed with the unhealed wounds in the aftermath of war, one of key subplots involves a veteran suffering from what was then called shell shock (PTSD).
Stylistically, Mrs Dalloway is well worth reading. The dreamy stream-of-conscientiousness style with calculated repetitions weaves together emotions, actions and dialogues. While the book has many quotable lines, I’ll just give you this to savour:
‘She belonged to a different age, but being so entire, so complete, would always stand up on the horizon, stone-white, eminent, like a lighthouse marking some past stage on this adventurous, long, long voyage, this interminable—this interminable life.’
But is this enough to justify a day to celebrate the writings of Virginia Woolf? I think so for the simple reason that in modern parlance, she is an influencer. Her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own is an often-quoted title, edging on the verge of cliché. Mrs Dalloway served as the premise to the point of modern-day-rewrite for Michael Cunningham’s brilliant The Hours. Taking a somewhat cynical look at Woolf worship combined with social satire on reality television, I flagrantly purloined from the author’s life and works in my stage play Virginia Woolf Get a Makeover. This list of borrowings probably has no end.
Dare I say that people who have never read Woolf’s work know of her, and I’d like to think that this virtual holiday encourages more people to read one of the English language’s greatest writers.