Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: First Impressions

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‘Mrs Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf, follows a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, middle aged, graying wife of eminent British politician, Richard Dalloway. It is no ordinary day, however. It is the day on which Clarissa will host a glittering evening party, where the creme-de-la-creme of British high society, including the Prime Minister himself, will grace the Dalloway’s Westminster residence.

The novel in its most simplistic form can be viewed as a day in the life of a lonely, married woman but it is so much more than that. It is a novel dealing with many topics of far-reaching significance, not limited to mental illness, the aftermath of the First World War, class structure and homoerotic love.

The narrative structure switches fluidly from the third person to the first person, giving the reader an intimate view of the external and internal worlds of the characters in the novel. The use of free indirect discourse makes us privy to moments of flawless and breathtaking intimacy.

The novel (originally called ‘The Hours’) is leant great structure by the division of the hours of the day by the regular, metallic intonations of Big Ben’s chimes. The regular reverberations help to provide pause to a novel, otherwise lacking in chapters or page breaks- ‘the leaden circles dissolved in the air’.

Despite the novel covering the incidents encompassing a single day, we find time expands and we effortlessly dip into Clarissa Dalloway’s past- her memories at Bourton and the friends she had in her youth. We meet her childhood sweetheart Peter Walsh and also the love of her life Sally Seton. We also meet Richard Dalloway, whom she eventually decides to marry.

The plot of the novel is rather loose but it holds the threads of the stories of several individuals who are directly or indirectly related to one another.

There is the thread of former sweetheart Peter Walsh, freshly returned from India, and trying to secure the divorce of a fresh flame- a married woman in India. He briefly visits Clarissa on the morning of her party and is struck with how much he still loves her.

There is the thread of Richard Dalloway, who shares a sterile yet companionable relationship with his wife of many years. There is a memorable moment when he spontaneously decides to bring Clarissa flowers in the afternoon but despite exerting considerable effort, finds himself unable to tell her that he loves her.

Then there is the thread of daughter Elizabeth Dalloway and her relationship with tutor Miss Kilman. Clarissa finds herself disturbed with their close relationship whereas staid Richard Dalloway brushes it off as being nothing.

Most importantly there is the thread of Septimus Warren Smith, war veteran, victim of shell shock and his Italian wife Lucrezia Warren-Smith. Theirs is a poignant story, where the wife recognizing signs that her husband has lost the will to live, battles to secure his mental well-being and lives in constant fear that he will take his own life.

The collective threads of the story are brought together in climax at Clarissa’s evening party, when Peter Walsh, Sally Seton, other friends, family and members of the Dalloway social circle (including Septimus’ physician Sir William Bradshaw) congregate at their home. It is here that the news of Septimus Warren-Smith’s death by suicide  reaches the ears of Clarissa. Her spontaneous reaction to the news is one of annoyance that the Bradshaws should sully the mood of her party with this unwanted piece of information. By being privy to Clarissa’s inner thoughts we witness her raw, self-centred but honest reaction to the death of a man she never knew. Despite her jarring initial reaction, we later find Clarissa, drawing away from the party and musing privately about the life of the man and the circumstances of his death.

In a way Woolf uses ‘Mrs Dalloway’ as a medium to criticize the treatment and understanding of mental health issues, a subject that was very near to her heart.

Perhaps parts of Woolf herself are strewn in bits and pieces across the broad scope of the novel. She inhabits the personas of many of her main characters but it is evident that she doesn’t wholly inhabit any of them. She and Leonard Woolf are not as upper middle class as the Dalloways, neither is she the slightly mindless socialite that is Clarissa Dalloway. Woolf does share the mental issues of Septimus Warren- Smith ,however, and traces of her relationships with men and women are to be found in ‘Mrs Dalloway’.

‘Mrs Dalloway’ is a book that I have a feeling I will read many times, to distill further insights and information upon successive  readings. Moreover, delving into that beautiful prose is a treat unto itself, even though the reading experience is not the easiest.

Title: Mrs Dalloway

Author: Virginia Woolf

First published: 1925

Characters: Clarissa Dalloway, Richard Dalloway, Peter Walsh, Sally Seton, Septimus Warren-Smith

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The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield-Fisher

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In her 1924 novel, The Home-Maker, Canfield-Fisher targets the issue of gender roles in society.
In the novel, a middle-class American couple, a victim of circumstances, are forced to switch their working roles. The husband, suffering from paralysis takes up the mantle of duty in the home, while his wife goes to work in a departmental store. It is here that she flourishes and in many ways finds an outlet for her more creative and innovative ideas. The husband fulfills a more nurturing, patient role with their children in the household. The entire family finds a balance that was hitherto unknown to them.

 

In this book, far ahead of its times, Canfield-Fisher raises awareness, that it is not gender but personality that predisposes men and women to roles in the work sphere, be it inside or outside the home.

 

About Dorothy Canfield-Fisher

Dorothy Canfield-Fisher, whom Eleanor Roosevelt named: one of the ten most influential women in the US, was one of the forerunners of American literature, who as early as the first decades of the twentieth century spoke up for racial equality and female rights.

 

#femmemarch

This post was in celebration of the #femmemarch that Resh @thebooksatchel has created to honour the power of women in literature.

 

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

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Young Mary Preston has been invited to spend the summer at the sprawling country estate of  Rushwater, belonging to Lady Emily Leslie. ‘Wild Strawberries’ is the story of that very idyllic time, Mary Preston’s romantic entanglements and the summertime activities of the landed country gentry.

Rather than being made to feel like the poor relation, down and out on her luck, Mary is welcomed by her Aunt Agnes (Aunt by marriage) and Aunt Agnes’ mother- the very vague but likable character of Lady Emily. Aunt Agnes and Lady Emily have secret plans to forge a match between Mary and the widowed second son of Lady Emily- John Leslie. Despite John cutting a very tragic figure, there are more Mr Leslies’ for Mary to contend with. There’s the youngest son- David Leslie, charming but rather unreliable. Will Mary be able to follow the true callings of her heart during this glorious summer at Rushwater?

‘Wild Strawberries’ was a beautiful, bucolic summer read.  What really endeared this book to me were its host of rather wonderful characters: the vague Lady Emily forever looking for something, the doting young mother Agnes, always making excuses for her children’s behaviour and flitting about without a care in the world, the charming self-centred playboy David Leslie and the mature, thoughtful mannered widower John Leslie.

Throw in the French neighbours, the pompous figure of Mr Holt, a few midnight balls, summer walks and shopping trips down to London and you have the makings of yet another stellar read from the very funny Angela Thirkell.

As with other Thirkell novels, the beauty of the novels don’t lie in the weak plots but in the rather full bodied, lovable characters. They have mannerisms and flaws in their characters but they are always very believable. Thirkell imparts to them such well timed, comedic humour that these books are a joy to read.

Title: Wild Strawberries

Author: Angela Thirkell

Published: 1934

Setting: Rushwater Estate, Barsetshire, England

Characters: Mary Preston, Aunt Agnes, Lady Emily, John Leslie, David Leslie, Madame Boulle, Joan Stevenson, Gudgeon.

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The Ghost of Tennyson in Monica Dickens’ ‘Mariana’

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Mariana by Monica Dickens

Mariana‘ by Monica Dickens is a coming of age novel about a young girl, striving her whole life, to find the perfect love. It’s a story that has great depth and one of the most striking endings I have read in the longest time.

Mary lives with her working mother and uncle in a small flat in London. She remains disconnected to her everyday life in London but highly anticipates the time that she can spend during the holidays, with her extended paternal family in the countryside. Her first love is for her cousin. But the love is rather one sided.

We witness Mary’s emotional awakening as a young child, besotted with cousin Denys. Later as a young woman, we find her engaged to a young Frenchman in Paris, called Pierre. Though Pierre helps her to overcome her loneliness in a foreign city, Mary knows that the relationship is tinged with her doubts. Later, when she is working in England, she finds love in the most unexpected way. Sam, a young architect is everything she has always, unknowingly been looking for. With Sam there are no doubts, no fears or insecurities. But with the outset of the Second World War, lives fall into jeopardy. Can Mary’s love survive the ordeal?

While Mary is enrolled in drama school as a young girl, she is asked to recite Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana’. As revealed later in the novel, this is quite a pivotal moment in the novel. Mariana is a poem about a woman who is disconnected from society and despondently awaits the return of her love. The poem is laced with doubt and desolation. There is an absence of a conclusive ending in the poem, just as there is in the story by Dickens. But there is a faint whisper or a premonition of what may come to pass. Some endings are best left unsaid.

It is only at the end of the novel that we fully realize that Dickens’ Mary is Tennyson’s Mariana and the full force of Dickens’ genius strikes us.

  • Title: Mariana
  • Author: Monica Dickens
  • Publisher: Persephone Books
  • Year of Publication: 1940
  • Setting: Somerset, England, London and Paris

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

image.jpegStartlingly, ahead  of the time, this is a story dealing with the themes of drunkenness and debauchery and the strong will of a Victorian woman, determined to change her fate.

Anne Brontë’s writing deviates from both her sisters, in having an air of realism in it’s narrative  The style is wonderfully lucid and the storytelling very proficient.

The Plot of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The ‘Tenant of Wildfell Hall‘ tells of the story of a young mother, Helen Graham and her small son, who quite mysteriously come to live one day at the quite dilapidated Wildfell Hall. The neighborhood is thrown into quite a tumult and everyone is quite curious to know more about Helen Graham’s personal history and how she came to be alone.

Helen’s reclusive air and dislike for company, added to the resemblance of her son Arthur to the local Mr Lawrence, further fuels nasty rumors. The gossip reaches the ears of landowner and farmer Gilbert Markham.

Gilbert forms a close friendship with Helen Graham. The friendship threatens to assume a more romantic turn and Helen tries to discourage Gilbert’s amorous efforts. However, one day she is compelled to reveal the mystery of her past by letting him read her lengthy diary entries.

Upon reading the diary, Gilbert comes to know of her tragic married history. Married to an alcoholic and abusive husband named Arthur Huntingdon, Helen is forced to flee from the persecution of her husband in order to protect her son.

It is quite a modern story and I imagine, must have shocked Victorian audiences when it was published in 1848. To have a woman, openly resisting her husband’s torture, trying to live separately and capable of acquiring an independent means of income, was certainly ground-breaking for the time.

I enjoyed the story overall but had a minor quibble with the weak narrative device- that of a letter written by Markham to a friend describing all events and including the lengthy diary.

One can’t help wondering, with the literary genius that Anne Brontë and her sisters had, what kind of works they would have produced in later life, if they had been permitted to live longer.

  • Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  • Author: Anne Brontë
  • Date published: 1848
  • Setting: Yorkshire, England, 1827.
  • Characters: Helen Graham, Gilbert Markham, Arthur Huntingdon.

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Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

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The Charming  and Unusual Story of Cluny Brown

‘Cluny Brown’ by Margery Sharp was just as quirky, just as delightful and just as thoughtful as Sharp’s other books. The book leads us through the life of an unusual girl who prefers to tread down the unconventional path in life.

In the story we are introduced to an orphaned young lady called Cluny Brown. She’s quite an interesting character, memorable, like Sharp’s other protagonists.

But she has one serious fault- she doesn’t seem to know her ‘place’ in the world- at least according to her Uncle, Mr Porritt and her interfering Aunt Addie. Just as an example, she’s been known to have had tea at the Ritz, which according to them, is seen to be vastly above her station.

She works as a phone receptionist of sorts for her plumber-uncle. And though she gets into a few scrapes along the way, things come to a serious head when she actually goes to visit one of her uncle’s clients, tries to fix the plumbing herself, and is discovered in a compromising position by who else than her uncle.

Her Uncle and Aunt Addie decide that enough is enough and Cluny must go into some sort of service and find her own way in the world. And so when the position of a house maid comes up in a respectable, rich household in the country, Cluny is sent on her way without giving her a chance to demur.

It seems Cluny has (according to the employment bureau) all the attributes of the perfect parlour-maid – ‘height, plainness and a perfectly blank expression.’ What they don’t account for is her personality!

So Cluny arrives at the expansive Devonshire estate of Friars Carmel. There’s a Lord Carmel of course, a Lady Carmel, a privileged only son, Andrew, recently down from Cambridge and to provide variety, a Polish man of letters called Adam Belinski, who is seeking cover from the Nazis and a guest of the family.

Cluny Brown’s Life at Friars Carmel

Cluny arrives at Friars Carmel, quite by chance, in a Rolls-Royce. The gardener fails to pick her up in the station wagon and it is left to kind and neighbourly Colonel Duff-Graham (who is informed by telephone by the station master) who is at the station to pick up his new Labrador to ‘drop anything for Friars Carmel’. He doesn’t really count on dropping home the new parlour-maid but of course he obliges.

Cluny befriends the new Labrador and is invited to take him out on walks on her afternoons off. On these afternoons of sheer freedom she also stumbles upon the local village pharmacist, his cozy dwelling behind the shop and his heartwarming mother.

The pharamacist’s friendship seems to provide Cluny with everything her life has been missing- order, security and companionship. And when Cluny is confronted with making a serious decision in her life, she doesn’t hesitate to make the decision which is right for her.

Why Margery Sharp’s Cluny Brown is so Unique

Margery Sharp’s Cluny is truly memorable. She’s slightly ‘off’ just like Sharp’s Martha of the ‘Martha trilogy ‘ and that makes her totally endearing to me. She doesn’t follow societal norms but does follow her instincts. And if that means that she will never know her place in life, then so be it.

 

It does make one think: what truly is a person’s place in society? Who decides it? What controls it? How can birth decide a person’s position? Haven’t we seen innumerable examples in history where people have changed their situation through hard work and initiative?

 

All food for thought.

 

 

This blogpost is in honour of Margery Sharp’s birthday hosted by Jane from Beyond Eden Rock.

 

A big thank you to Open Road Media for kindly sending me an e-book of Cluny Brown. As always , all opinions regarding the book are entirely my own. 

 

10 Classics for 2017

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The Ten Classics I Want to Read in 2017

I started seriously reading the classics again in 2016. This year I’ve joined the Classics Club and made a list of 50 books I plan to read in the foreseeable future.

I ended 2015 with a plan to read 12 Classics. I ended up only reading about half that number of books, but the books I read were incredibly enriching and rewarding. And I’m excited to read more classic literature (I classify this as having been published pre-1900) in 2017.

 

My list of Classics

Charles Dickens:

To Be Read:

A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield – last year I started to make a dent in my Dickens’ bibliography. I started with the rather chubby Bleak House and since then I’ve added Great Expectations to the ‘read’ list. Reading Dickens gives me a wonderful insight into Victorian England. Social classes, poverty, moral issues- glimpses of London and wonderful, wonderful language. Dickens’ characters are so memorable too!

Anthony Trollope:

To Be Read: Framley Parsonage

-last year I started reading the Barchester Chronicles with a group of lovely people over at Instagram. I’ve found Trollope’s writing style to be quite witty and descriptive, even if his stories (like Dickens) could do with a shortening edit at times. Framley Parsonage is next on the list and who knows? We may carry on from there to continue the series next year. I’ve found that, so far, the books in the Barchester series can be read as standalones.

Elizabeth Gaskell

To Be Read: Ruth and Cranford

-the high point of my classic’s reading last year was discovering Elizabeth Gaskell, namely, her novel ‘North and South’. I waxed lyrically about the romance and delicate detail in this lovely novel over on Instagram and our group read was made so much nicer through splendid direction from Gaskell enthusiast, Shelbi, from the blog ‘The Nobby Life’. I hope to read ‘Cranford’ next year as it’s a short one and I love the TV adaptation starting Dame Judy Dench.

Anne Bronte:

To Be Read: Tenant of Wildefell Hall

-the neglected Brontë in my life. I hope to rectify this. I have a gorgeous Penguin English Library edition crying out to be read on my shelf too!

Wilkie Collins:

To Be Read: Woman in White

-how can I read Dickens without reading the works of his compatriot and contemporary, Collins. Eager to read this book and ‘The Moonstone’ soon.

Charlotte Bronte:

To Be Read:Villette

-Jane Eyre is perhaps my favourite Classic novel to date. I’m eager to discover ‘Villette’- slated as the author’s personal favourite.

Thomas Hardy:

To Be Read: Tess of the D’Urbervilles

-I’m a big fan of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ so having read that and also ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ I look forward to delving into ‘Tess’. I do enjoy the BBC dramatization too.

George Eliot:

To Be Read: Middlemarch

-I feel a tad sheepish about this one. It was on my TBR for 2016 and somehow I never got to it. Hoping 2017 will see me reacquainted with this much-loved classic.

 

Concluding Thoughts About My Classics List for 2017

So that’s me done for planning classics reading next year. Who knows what might happen? Perhaps I will read exclusively Gaskell. But I always like to start off with a plan?

How about you?