Thursday, 14 October 2010

Streams of time - Mrs Dalloway review

My first completed book of my 40s and an appropriately brilliant one. Originally inspired to delve into after watching the Hours earlier this year.
The movie (and novel) bases itself around the themes, structure and indeed the author of Mrs Dalloway. Death, suicide, trauma, marriage and the role of women are a number of the themes which were explored. I later then saw the movie adaptation of this book starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Those cinematic depictions of the book obviously had enough in them to make me want to read it but nothing really prepared me for the unique and groundbreaking nature of the fiction.

Essentially a novel bound by time - over the course of one day (a similar structure used by Joyce) it nominally covers an upper middle class woman preparing for an ornate party in the 1920s. Except it doesnt really - it is a stream of conciousness work of sorts but the consciousness is passed from one character to another like a baton.
One of the brilliant things this book does is write in the way that people actually think so events from long ago pop up alongside inappropriate feelings and banal conversation. It shows that humans are creatures of the present but their mind contains so much background and history. In a sense it reminds me of Becket's fiction which I enjoy but is very difficult as it burrows down to almost the very inner core of what it means to be human. Mrs Dalloway does not go as far as this which makes it easier though not easy to read.
It actually does much more though as it is a contemporary novel of the 20s - it explores women's roles through time. There are significant female characters at all age of life including Clarissa Dalloway in her mid 50s. It examines class, political stagnation and the insidious affect of the war (First World) which had ended a few years before but whose impact society could (and arguably never has) escape. This is personified in the character of Septimus suffering from severe mental illness/shell shock from the trenches whose tragic arc lies in parallel to Clarissa's "privileged" life.
But what I was really struck by was the sense that this is a novel about change and response to that. The late 19th century is constantly compared with the modern era and the endemic social changes - women for example were just about to get the vote. But also in personal life how mortality is a constant burden we must carry as Clarissa says " the middle of my party, here's death she thought"!
In some ways similar to Mme Bovary as it depicts the essential shallowness of upper class life it actually is much more.
An amazing piece of work with so much in it and will definitely read more of Ms Woolf.