Learning to read again (Mrs Dalloway)

Evelyn was a good deal out of sorts, said Hugh, intimating by a kind of pout or swell of his very well-covered, manly, extremely handsome, perfectly upholstered body (he was almost too well dressed always, but presumably had to be, with his little job at Court) that his wife had some internal ailment, nothing serious, which, as an old friend, Clarissa Dalloway would quite understand without requiring him to specify.

For many years I had a fairly steady reading habit, but the past few months—hectic, split between several large activities, emotional—I ended up with a kind of Internet addiction, incessantly e-mailing, checking e-mails. As my life is calming down, I would like to get back to reading, and to put my electronic life back in its place. (N.B.: I write this on a computer and to post in an online journal.)

Portrait of Miss Sinclair, Sir William Orpen. Irish (1878 - 1931)The first book I picked was Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. It was one of many books that, in the midst of the emotional disorder, had fallen with one of my bookshelves onto the rug in my bedroom. And it was short and not the kind of book I normally read. This is what got me started.

I have been reading even more slowly than I normally do. I am doubling back to make sure I understand what’s being described and from whose point of view. It will surprise no reader of Woolf that I have often stopped—at times to admire, at times to wonder at or about—some of the long phrases. Michael Cunningham, who based his novel The Hours on this Woolf novel, has proposed that Mrs Dalloway “contains some of the most beautiful, complex, incisive, and idiosyncratic sentences ever written in English, and that alone would be reason enough to read it.”

There is the sentence reproduced at the top of this piece in which the phrase “intimating that his wife had some internal ailment” is broken by the long description of Hugh’s appearance. And this long one below, which initially hooked me with its “bouncing ponies, whose forefeet just struck the ground and up they sprung”. Indeed the complete filet (netting) of phrases from the “soft mesh” to the “absurd woolly dogs” is wonderful. But I wonder if, after all, and on re-reading, the whole does not feel too precious, self-involved-writerly, overworked? [Btw: Lords, Ascot, and Ranelagh are places where well-to-do Londoners have done their sporting—cricket, horse-racing, polo.]

And everywhere, though it was still so early, there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats; Lords, Ascot, Ranelagh and all the rest of it; wrapped in the soft mesh of the grey-blue morning air, which, as the day wore on, would unwind them, and set down on their lawns and pitches the bouncing ponies, whose forefeet just struck the ground and up they sprung, the whirling young men, and laughing girls in their transparent muslins who, even now, after dancing all night, were taking their absurd woolly dogs for a run; and even now, at this hour, discreet old dowagers were shooting out in their motor cars on errands of mystery; and the shopkeepers were fidgeting in their windows with their paste and diamonds, their lovely old sea-green brooches in eighteenth-century settings to tempt Americans (but one must economise, not buy things rashly for Elizabeth), and she, too, loving it as she did with an absurd and faithful passion, being part of it, since her people were courtiers once in the time of the Georges, she, too, was going that very night to kindle and illuminate; to give her party.

I used the French word “filet” above, because in a French translation by one Pascale Michon, Woolf’s soft mesh becomes “un doux filet”—a soft netting or net, as to catch fish in. It might be said that in this way the French is editorializing a little, or underscoring the extent to which the novel, Mrs Dalloway herself, and Woolf herself are, or were, trapped, as in a soft net.

— Wm. Eaton

William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, will be published by Serving House Books. For more, see Surviving the website.


Mrs._Dalloway_coverCredit & Links

Image is from “Miss Sinclair,” a portrait by Sir William Orpen (1878-1931). Private collection. Taylor Gallery, London. The Bridgeman Art Library.

Image at right is Vanessa Bell’s jacket design for the original, Hogarth Press edition.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway. First published in 1925 (and without the period after Mrs).

Michael Cunningham, The Hours. I do not know where Cunningham’s comments about Mrs Dalloway were made, but the comments—much reproduced on the Web—include this:

Mrs. Dalloway was the first novel to split the atom. If the novel before Mrs. Dalloway aspired to immensities of scope and scale, to heroic journeys across vast landscapes, with Mrs. Dalloway Virginia Woolf insisted that it could also locate the enormous within the everyday; that a life of errands and party-giving was every bit as viable a subject as any life lived anywhere; and that should any human act in any novel seem unimportant, it has merely been inadequately observed. The novel as an art form has not been the same since.

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