from the introduction to walking with mrs dalloway
The opening lines of Mrs Dalloway pitch us directly into the moment, ‘this moment in June,’ the day on which the entire novel is set, with Clarissa Dalloway on her way out of the house to buy flowers.
But in an unbroken flow the ‘little squeak of the hinges’ casts her mind, and the narrative, back to a much earlier morning, when Clarissa was 18 (roughly the age Elizabeth, her daughter, is now) and had just thrown open the French windows at the family’s country house at Bourton.
Standing at the open door, on the threshold of her adult life, in the still and fresh morning air she feels ‘that something awful was about to happen.’ In the midst of life, fear and dread.
The beginning of the book neatly yet unobtrusively sets out the arc of the narrative and the central themes within this novel which is at one and the same time full of darkness, and yet also of celebration. It is an exploration of choices made and their consequences which reverberate down through the years; of joy and sadness, light and shadow - the two balanced precariously, moment by moment over the hours of the day.
Mrs Dalloway is a book full of acute perception and vibrant lyrical evocation of the beauty, the sheer miracle of being alive. Virginia Woolf brings to the book all her longing for the city from which she was on enforced sabbatical, Leonard having insisted they move out to Richmond so that she might lead a quieter life.
L [Leonard]… has the old rigid obstacle – my health. And I can’t sacrifice his peace of mind, yet the obstacle is surely now a dead hand, which one should no longer let dominate our short years of life – oh to dwindle them out here, with all these gaps, & abbreviations! Always to catch trains, always to waste time, to sit here & wait for Leonard to come in, to spend hours standing at the box of type … when, alternatively, I might go & hear a tune, or have a look at a picture, or find out something at the British Museum, or go adventuring among human beings. Sometimes I should merely walk down Cheapside. But now I’m tied, imprisoned, inhibited … But then, Lord! … what I owe to him! What he gives me! Still, I say, surely we could get more from life than we do.
[Virginia Woolf, Diaries, 28 June 1923]
The topography of the city propels the narrative of Mrs Dalloway and helps to define the characters, as the characters in turn help to define the city. Few other books manage to convey the sheer wonder of being alive, here, now, in the city. A miracle in the face of which God and even death seem unreal, unimportant. It’s the living that matter, that are the miracle:
‘Why creeds and prayers and mackintoshes? When, thought Clarissa, that’s the miracle, that’s the mystery; that old lady, she meant, whom she could see going from chest of drawers to dressing-table. She could still see her. And the supreme mystery that Kilman might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn’t believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving, was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?’
Love; that’s the question on which the book turns, and is never quite resolved. After all, is it ever?