“Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall”
I always seem to be harping on about the fact that I can’t finish To The Lighthouse. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed what I’ve read of it, not at all, but on each of the four occasions I’ve tried I’ve inevitably lost my way and given up, probably way too soon. I’ve come to regard this book, or possibly just Virginia Woolf, as something like my very own, personal literary nemesis (alongside James Joyce and Henry James). Back last year I added it to a Top Ten Tuesday list of books I’ve never been able to finish and one commenter kindly recommended Mrs Dalloway as a more accessible introduction to Virginia Woolf for a beginner like me. I promptly added it to my mental TBR list, forgot about it for a year, and then was delighted to receive it for Christmas. What a nice surprise.
Wishfulpennywell was absolutely right to recommend this as a more suitable introduction to Woolf than TTL; it’s a gentler, more forgiving read and for me at least it didn’t seem to require the same sort of agonised perseverance necessary just to keep up with the plot. In fact – and I don’t want to sound too gushy here– I think I might be in love with Mrs. Dalloway. Like, really. I often say that a particular book has me hooked but this didn’t have me hooked exactly, it was more akin to being spellbound. I knew within the first paragraph that I wouldn’t just read it all the way to the very end but I’d take my time and savour the experience as I went along. To this end I started avoiding all my lunchtime reading haunts in favour of quieter spots (my car, stationery cupboards and so on) where I’d be able to read undisturbed for an hour. I was obsessed.
Mrs Dalloway is a surprisingly simple novel, which I think is probably part of its charm. Set on one June day in 1923, it follows Clarissa Dalloway as she makes preparations for a party she’s throwing that evening. She buys flowers, mends her dress, sees an old friend, frets about her daughter. And all the while the reader is there, party to all her thoughts and feelings as she goes about her day, as she wonders at the passing of the years, the choices she has made and how life might have been different. Her thoughts often dwell on the happiest years of her youth, before her marriage, on her dearest friend Sally Seton with whom she once shared a kiss and a doomed relationship with the intensely enigmatic Peter Walsh. The narrative frequently shifts away from Clarissa so we have a chance to observe her from the point of view of those around her but it never stays with any of them for very long. The only other character whom we have chance to study in any detail initially appears to be unconnected to Clarissa; Septimus Warren Smith is an ex-soldier suffering from shell shock, depression and paranoia and while Clarissa is preparing for her party his wife is taking him to doctors and wondering at some of her own past decisions.
It’s all beautifully, mesmerizingly written and there were some sentences I read three or four or more times just to savour them. I love the way it flits from one thing to the next, never settling on anything for long, but landing just long enough for you to learn everything you need to learn. One of the things that I worried about was that I might feel overwhelmed by this stream of consciousness, that I’d get left behind, but really it wasn’t as bad as all that; in some ways it almost feels like a lazy read because once you’re into it you can almost lay back and let the words flow over you. There’s something effortless and graceful about the way Woolf can do this. It drives home a strange sense of how fragile everything is and how quickly, how unnoticeably, time can pass. It’s been two weeks since I turned the last page and I’m still marvelling over this, still keenly reading Goodreads reviews to see if other readers wonder at the same things.
I haven’t bumped To The Lighthouse immediately to the top of my To Read list but it has leapfrogged several places up off the back of Mrs Dalloway. I feel much more prepared for it now, and much more eager to read other works by Woolf. I think this might be the start of my latest literary obsession.