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Mrs Dalloway

Diary, Ulysses, The Voyage Out

clarissa peter septimus novel

a novel by V. Woolf, published in 1925. A day in the life of a middle-aged upper-class London woman planning her party is Woolf's first completely successful modernist novel, and one of her finest books. She arrived at it through experimenting with new forms of narrative in her earlier novels and through what she called her ‘tunnelling process’ (Diary, 15 Oct. 1923), digging out ‘beautiful caves’ (Diary, 30 Aug. 1923) behind her characters. The fluid narrative moves between different minds and memories and times, using a rhythmical, patterned prose, structured by connecting images and repeated strikings of ‘the hours’ (the book's working title). The technique owes something to J. Joyce's Ulysses. Clarissa Dalloway, wife of the MP Richard Dalloway (they appeared in The Voyage Out) walks up Bond Street on a post-war June morning (‘What a lark! What a plunge!’), buys her flowers, goes home, is jealous that Richard has been invited out to lunch, sews her dress, is visited unexpectedly by her old lover Peter Walsh, back from India and about to be married, remembers their painful courtship at her family home, Bourton, and her passionate friendship with Sally Seton, and is jealous of her daughter Elizabeth's friendship with the religious, oppressive Miss Kilman. Richard lunches with Lady Bruton and takes Clarissa some flowers. Peter, much moved by seeing Clarissa, walks through London, follows a beautiful girl, and sleeps in the park. Elizabeth sheds Doris Kilman and takes a pioneering omnibus ride up Fleet Street. This narrative is adjacent to the agonizing story of Septimus Warren Smith and his Italian wife Lucrezia. He is ‘insane’, a shell-shock victim, hallucinating the return of his dead friend Evans. The couple are observed by Peter Walsh. Rezia takes Septimus to see the hateful Harley Street doctor Sir William Bradshaw. In the late afternoon, after a moment's tranquillity together, they are visited by the bullying Dr Holmes, and Septimus jumps out of the window. Peter Walsh sees the ambulance. The two stories join at the party, when Clarissa's social ambitions (the Prime Minister is a guest) and her past (Sally Seton arrives, disappointingly changed) seem insignificant beside the news of the young man who has killed himself. Woolf was anxious that Clarissa might seem too ‘stiff, too glittering and tinselly’ and that the novel would seem ‘disjointed because of the mad scenes not connecting with the Dalloway scenes’. This difficult structural problem is resolved through the politics of the novel, in that Clarissa and Septimus both want to resist ‘coercion’, and both are, differently, outsiders in society.

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