[The Little Mirror Anna Airy (1882 - the year of Woolf's birth-1964)]
I shall re-read Jacob's Room, but I won't be reading Mrs Dalloway again.
I've read it at least once before, maybe twice, and this time will be the last. What astonishes me is that it's generally talked about as a day in the life of a rich, elegant society hostess who is having a party that evening and goes to buy the flowers herself.
[Old Regent's Street (1924), John Kirby]
Usually, but - incredibly - not always (eg here), there is the mention of the second story of 'poor Septimus Warren Smith', a shell-shocked war veteran, who has visions and in the evening kills himself. Yet in essence, and my re-reading confirmed this most uncomfortably, Mrs Dalloway is a thoroughly harrowing portrayal and description of insanity that also suggests that we all of us have only a tenuous grasp on sanity. It's as much about a man shattered by the war and about a society desperate to rebuild, to cover over the deep cracks and chasms that have been both caused and revealed by this terrible experience, as it is about Mrs D..
I find that if I read any book about madness and mental instability closely and carefully, I get easily sucked into the hallucinatory, febrile mental atmopshere, and to begin to feel utterly uncomfortable and unsettled. It's for this reason that I can't read any more Dostoevsky, Katharine Mansfield or Sylvia Plath; I start to feel the tremors, fevers, and sweats of the author/character(s) and begin to experience the clutches of something horribly manic. It happened again with Mrs D. and this time I saw just how much of the book is taken up with wanderings - of the mind and body - which all ultimately lead to death. Strip away the society gloss, the flowers, the silks, the titles and positions, and you are left with vulnerable human beings who don't communicate well with or understand each other.
The descriptions of Smith's mania are terrifying. The behaviour and advice of the doctors are terrifying. The human condition is terrifying. But there is Mrs D. with her lovely flowers, her perfectly organised house, her love of life, apparently saving the novel and the reader from a complete descent into hell, yet she is also questioning her life, her choices, her memories, her diminished sexuality.
['Map Reading' mural at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Stanley Spencer]
Mrs Dalloway is also a book of revelations. Call them visions or moments of clarity, but at times they are quasi-religious in nature. This is an ordinary day in June in London, yet people in parks and on buses are having momentous revelations, and make me think of the paintings of Stanley Spencer (who had terrible experiences in the First World War) and the images he created of religious visions and ecstasy in everyday Cookham.
It's a tragic and, for me, ulitmately depressing book. I don't know how anyone can follow the trails of Smith's mind which are like the evanescent cloud-words of plane that flies over the capital without getting lost in some circle of hell, but I can appreciate the mastery of language, the poetry of the prose*, and the wonderfully modernistic cinematic view Woolf creates of London as seen from the sky. It's a masterpiece, but it's back on the shelf for good.
*Once again, I wondered why VW didn't write as a poet. So much of Mrs D. is a prose poem, and I marked section after section as potential free verse. Then I found that someone has actually set out a section (by coincidence, one of those I'd highlighted) as a prose poem. The question of whether she was a poet or a novelist was also addressed in an illuminating way by Winifred Holtby in her excellent book on Woolf. (Thanks to the person who emailed me to tell me about this book - the email has been lost and I've been unable to thank you for the recommendation.)