Wednesday, July 31, 2019


“Oh, Mrs. Dalloway…always giving parties to cover the silence.”
The Hours - the 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham

When I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s celebrated 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway, the first thing that occurred to me was how remarkable it is that someone had actually found a way of committing to the printed page that restless state of lying in bed, wanting to sleep, but being unable to because one’s brain will simply not turn off. I never would have imagined the rules of grammar could accommodate such an accurate depiction of the way the busy mind, stimulated by darkness and silence, sets about the delicate balancing act of entertaining several simultaneous, often contradictory, thoughts while erasing the distinctions between past and present. All in a manner so emotionally vivid that it feels as though an entire lifetime has been lived in one’s mind while lying in a state of turbulent calm during the wee small hours of a sleepless night.

I was also struck by the canny way Woolf’s not-so-easy-to-grasp stream of consciousness prose—communicating the myriad thoughts, impressions, and reactions of her characters by way of free-form, intermingled, inner monologues—so poetically captured a personal trait of my own that has plagued me for as long as I can remember: the habit of overthinking everything. A tiresome habit that grants equally weighty consideration to all experience, trivial to significant, till even the smallest activity or interaction occasions an "off to the races!" mental barrage of feelings, rear-view ruminations, and emotional responses.
Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway
Michael Kitchen as Peter Walsh
Sarah Badel as Lady Sally Seton Rosseter
John Standing as Richard Dalloway
In the shifting-time format of Mrs. Dalloway, which concerns itself with the dark/light duality of life, throughout her novel Woolf reveals a profound understanding of how mental multi-tasking is not only a natural way for individuals to process experience (although rarely spoken of), but an exasperatingly easy habit to fall into when working, carrying out menial tasks, or while tending to the maintenance of an appropriately serene outward appearance. One fine-tuned to accommodate the expectations of others: i.e., society, family, friends, and random strangers.
These days, technology—by way of smartphones, earbuds, and the like—does its part in making easy-access distraction the preferred method by which individuals can readily seal up the cracks of silence that would otherwise allow for the painful intrusion of introspection and self-confrontation. But back in Virginia Woolf’s post-war London of 1923, particularly as it applies to one Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway of Westminster, one had to make do with throwing parties. 
Natascha McElhone as Clarissa Parry (young Mrs. Dalloway)
Alex Cox as young Peter Walsh
Lena Headey as young Sally Seton
Robert Portal as young Richard Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of a single day in June. A day in which middle-aged socialite Clarissa Dalloway is to give one of her celebrated soirées. In a life of hemmed-in privilege and limited usefulness, giving parties is Mrs. Dalloway's "gift" to herself and others: "It's all I can do. Give people one night in which everything seems enchanted."  As she goes about the business of preparing for the event—her outward excitement betraying hints of inner desperation—Mrs. Dalloway’s slightly distracted demeanor leaves one the impression of watching an individual trying very hard not to think about something, yet finding at every instance they’re unable to do anything but.

Advancing age and illness have conspired to make Clarissa sensitive to her isolation and loneliness (her daughter's nearly grown, she and her husband sleep apart) fueling her barely acknowledged depression and fostering within her a sense of futility of purpose. Though she largely succeeds in valiantly suppressing these emotions through an obstinate refusal to let the Gods "have their own way," and a staunch adherence to the social norms befitting her wealth and status as the wife of a member of Parliament, Mrs. Dalloway nevertheless remains haunted by echoes of her youth; a time when life held for her the potential of a more vital existence.
The reappearance of a past suitor (the unmoored Peter Walsh, whose proposal of marriage Clarissa rejected to wed the more dependable Richard Dalloway) trigger memories of the impossible but very real love she felt for her cigar-smoking, free-thinking friend Sally Seton. A mutual spiritual and sexual attraction whose repressed passion now challenges Mrs. Dalloway’s fragile sense of happiness.
Rupert Graves as Septimus Warren Smith
Amelia Bullmore as Lucrezia (Rezia) Warren Smith

Running concurrent to Clarissa Dalloway’s story is a parallel, mirroring narrative involving the tortured Septimus Warren Smith and his desolate wife Rezia. Septimus is a shell-shocked WWI veteran whose mental deterioration and difficulty in readjusting to postwar life reflect Clarissa’s depression and isolation…only rendered in stark, bas-relief.
Septimus’ mental illness (manifest in trauma-induced hallucinations and suicidal thoughts tied to suppressed feelings for a fellow soldier whose death he witnessed) is of the unruly, socially-unacceptable kind, while Clarissa, forearmed by years of aristocracy-born training in learning how to stifle emotions, is able to channel her own mental illness (depression and a melancholy fixation on death) into socially-acceptable, gender-mandated pursuits like hostessing.

Yet in spite of their differences and never meeting (the film devises a moment, not in the book, where each catches a glimpse of the other in a moment of vulnerable recognition), Clarissa and Septimus have much in common. Principally, an intense guardianship of the soul, a love of poetry, an appreciation of nature, and a sense of life’s beauty even when overwhelmed by the fear of never being able to feel anything.
Connected by duality, their fates take tragically different paths, but each, in their way, succeeds in the determined resistance to surrendering their private selves and falling under the control of others. A small victory perhaps, but for each, a distinct act of courageousness. In a world of you must and you should, the fight to preserve the privacy of one’s soul is the ultimate triumph of self-ownership.
Virginia Woolf’s interpersonal stream-of-consciousness narrative is transferred to the screen with a conventional Masterpiece Theater/ Merchant-Ivory fidelity that I nonetheless found to be deeply affecting and superbly realized in its casting and the depth of its performances. Relying on voiceovers and flashbacks, Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris (director of 1989s Best Foreign film Oscar winner Antonia’s Line) and screenwriter Dame Eileen Atkins (co-creator of the 1971 BBC series Upstairs, Downstairs) may not have been able to come up with a cinematic style equivalent to Woolf’s distinctively fluid, intimate prose, but the relatively straightforward approach given the material achieves a kind of melancholy poetry.
A product of both her upbringing and her time, Mrs. Dalloway is fearful that age brings the end of sensation. Vaguely sensing that it is precisely her fearfulness which has brought her to a life of the structured, organized sensation of giving parties and playing hostess.

I came around to reading Mrs. Dalloway by a somewhat circuitous route. A few months ago, my partner, knowing I’d never read any Virginia Woolf at all, by way of an introduction to the author gave me a copy of the 1975 short story collection Mrs. Dalloway’s Party: A Short Story Sequence. The accessibility of this introduction into the world of Clarissa Dalloway led me to seek out the movie adaptation, which then made me feel I was at last ready to tackle the novel itself.
I absolutely adored the book, so much so that I’m glad I saw the film first. I would have come to it with far too many impossible-to-meet expectations. As it is, the film was able to enchant me on its own merits, the novel serving to inform the screen characters with greater depth. And finally, upon rewatching, the film version and the book worked in concert to give me a greater understanding of Woolf’s themes and a richer experience than I believe I would have had with either the book or the film individually.
"It's so very dangerous to live for only one day."
Clarissa and her “double” Septimus both suffer from depression. English society’s rigidity is reflected in the manner in which doctors (William Bradshaw) and friends (Lady Bruton) display an impatience with and indifference to mental illness. Deeming emotional health to largely be a matter of personal rectitude, this (still pervasive) attitude reminds me of the scene in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) where the strict headmistress Miss Mackay dismisses the notion that the heroine of Verdi’s La Traviata could actually die of a broken heart: “Violetta did not expire for love of Alfredo. Violetta was a thoroughly silly woman with diseased lungs. If she’d been properly brought up, she’d have been out on the hockey field breathing deeply.”

"They were meant to be red."

It's a great gift when a film can make me cry, and at times Mrs. Dalloway achieves moments of such heartbreaking beauty and sensitivity, the waterworks dam overflows. Nothing but praise for the luminous color cinematography by Sue Gibson and the delicate, affecting musical score by Ilona Sekacz.

As a story about a woman hemmed in by the gender limitations of the time and her social status, Mrs. Dalloway shares several of the themes found in one of my all-time favorite plays (and Glenda Jackson movies): Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. For starters, the title of each work conveys the central conflict of self-identification facing the characters. The lack of a first name in Virginia Woolf’s book reflects the heroine’s sense of the loss of her individuality in marriage (“Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway. I’m not even Clarissa anymore”). On the opposite spectrum, the maiden name emphasis of Ibsen’s title stresses how little his anti-heroine identifies with her married name of Hedda Tesman.
The solitary Peter Walsh haunted by his love for Clarissa 
"She broke my heart. And you can't love like that twice."

In terms of character, Clarissa and Hedda are not at all alike, yet both struggle with depression and feelings of isolated powerlessness within their marriages. Victims of their aristocratic upbringings, the women may chafe at the constraints of their social class, but both are, in their hearts, snobs who place great stock in their position and how they are perceived. The latter leaving them fearful and paralyzed when it comes to taking any real action towards achieving the liberation they crave. The one area of true defiance they share is in refusing to allow themselves to fall under the power of another; a theme which in both works, leads to an act of suicide as an act of self-possession.

"Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life...."

The filmed Mrs. Dalloway never replicates the "busy mind" sensation I got from reading the book, but in its place, via the elegant soulfulness of so many of the performances, I found a stronger emotional empathy with its characters. Simply gorgeous how the film reflects on the pain of repressing one's sexuality, the fluidity of love, and the fleeting elusiveness of happiness. 

When I think of Mrs. Dalloway, what lingers in my mind are Vanessa Redgrave’s sad, haunted eyes; Natascha McElhone’s heartbreaking youthful exuberance; and the rawness of Michael Kitchen’s wounded romantic spirit. Superb performances abound, but Vanessa Redgrave's Clarissa touches my heart and Natascha McElhone is incandescent. Together, their performances bring Clarissa Dalloway to vivid life and bring a tender cohesion to the spirit of the novel’s theme of a life lived in one day.
“I remember thinking: ‘She’s abandoned me.’ And then, all of a sudden, she was there with her hand stretched out…looking utterly beautiful, saying: ‘Come on, come on. They’re all waiting.’”

Like Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf; Mrs. Dalloway is a work I don’t think I could have appreciated, let alone understood, had I come across it in my youth. A person needs a few years on them to recognize that it is far too easy in life to take joy for granted, and one needs a lifetime’s worth of losses and regrets to appreciate the truth that pursuing happiness is never a superficial goal or waste of time. What trivializes it is when it's used as a numbing retreat from life's struggles, or as a means of blotting out the sound of life’s silences.
Mrs. Dalloway's Party

Dame Eileen Atkins in The Hours
Mrs. Dalloway marks the screenwriting debut of actress Dame Eileen Atkins (Gosford Park) and she does a marvelous job. Atkins appeared as the flower shop merchant in the Mrs. Dalloway-linked film The Hours (2002), and in 1991 she starred Off-Broadway as Virginia Woolf in the one-woman show A Room of One's Own.

Fear no more the heat o' the sun. Nor the furious winter's rages.
Cymbeline - William Shakespeare

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Your opening paragraph was worth the price of admission! I've enjoyed your writing over the years and you just keep getting better and better. I just watched this film (currently on Amazon Prime) and noticed the contrast between the calm, well-ordered life of the upper-middle class protagonist and her buried, repressed emotional life. If only Mrs. Dalloway had been a member of the aristocracy, she would have been less bound by societal conventions and more like the devil-may-care characters in Evelyn Waugh's novels of the same time period. Everything about this film comes together so well: the casting, the direction, the sets, the costumes, and the dialogue. Thank you for all the work you put into writing these reviews for all of us to enjoy!

    1. Hi Robb
      I’m glad to know “Mrs. Dalloway” is available on Amazon Prime! I agree with you that so much of the film comes together so well. Not only in the handsome production values which manage to capture something of the novel’s contrasting themes of nature (the orderly, manicured nature of English parks and gardens) and confinement (the small, overly decorated rooms and all those tall spiky fences surrounding the posh residences of Westminster), but in the crafting of a very sensitive film out of a novel most still likely consider to be unfilmable. (The book is so beloved, I can’t imagine any film wouldn’t disappoint, hence my gratitude that I saw the movie first.)
      And I like the observation you make about the less concerned with convention characters in Evelyn Waugh novels. Sadly, it seems Mrs. Dalloway’s upbringing is firmly rooted in the world of, say, Edith Wharton. But I’d like to think her daughter Elizabeth, or maybe all those sons of Sally Seton, grow up to be more in line with the bright young things of Evelyn Waugh.
      I thank you for reading this post and commenting, and indeed, reading this blog (for years, yet!)
      I’m humbled by your kind words. Much appreciated.

  2. Another great review/analysis! I wasn't sure I would like this film when I sat down to watch it some years ago but I'm grateful I did. It's not perfect (I think something is inevitably lost in translation) but I really enjoyed Vanessa Redgrave's performance. She created a character that reminded me of the nice middle-aged women I grew up around. The notion that any of these pleasant, sedate women had an inner life of passion and pain is almost shocking. Yet I'm a man in his fifties who younger people probably (and mistakenly) write off as having few passions and little pain. I guess at some point in our lives, we all turn into "Mrs. Dalloway" to some degree. If you haven't seen it, the filmed version of James Joyce's "The Dead" is a great companion piece to "Mrs. Dalloway."

  3. Hi Ron
    You’ve expressed such a marvelous take-away from seeing the film. I’m always thinking how, when I was young, I always just assumed my parents and their friends were “done” –“fully cooked” – that I alone as a teenager had cornered the market on angst, passion, depression, and pain. Adulthood was a point of arrival that saw all youthful maladies calmed and solved.
    In my opinion, Woolf’s novel is overall too psychologically/sociologically complex and layered for a film to fully do it justice. But this elegant adaptation succeeds in striking many grace notes that resonate through the performances. Chiefly that quality you cite in Redgrave’s performance that suggests a great deal of life still yet to be lived behind the calm facades of people we as a culture then to not really see.

    Nothing has surprised me more about getting older than my remaining so much ME throughout the whole journey! I always thought I would morph into some sort of middle-age respectability or sedateness as I aged. Nope. Still feel pretty much like the same guy who lost his shit when Jane Fonda did her anti-gravity striptease at the beginning of “Barbarella.”
    I haven’t seen the film version of “The Dead” but I will seek it out. Thanks for the complimentary words, and for reading this and taking the time to comment.