The book is a close examination of Mrs. Dalloway, a wealthy London socialite widely admired for her grace and finesse in social circles, and Peter Walsh, her unrequited lover who has just returned from his lacklustre stint in India. Parallely, the book also portrays Septimus Warren Smith, a young war hero (First World War), his dementia and his ultimate suicide. There is no connection between Clarissa Dalloway and SWS, except at the end, when she hears of his death (without knowing his name or whereabouts) rather casually from the doctor treating SWS.
Clarissa Dalloway is the archetype socialite, of exquisite manners and elevated connexions, the latter largely due to her influential husband Richard. Richard and their daughter Elizabeth are not fond of her parties and societal bonhomies, finding them rather tedious. This is also true of Peter Walsh, who pooh poohs such courtesies, but harbours a love for Mrs. Dalloway, after so many years and failed relationships. He finds Clarissa cold, as he had before. Nonetheless, he attends her party, which is the crux of the book.
SWS, quite the antithesis of Clarissa Dalloway, has returned a war hero, but is in fact a victim of its cruelties, having witnessed his friend’s demise. His Italian wife, Lucrezia (Rezia, for short), takes care of him during his mental illness, during which his speech is alternately wise and incoherent to her. SWS has talked of killing himself, but Rezia is heedless of the physician’s advice of isolation to diminish such tendencies in SWS. Eventually, SWS jumps out of his upstairs window.
The book is extremely long winded and very dense, perhaps the effect of what has been termed in literary jargon as Stream of Consciousness writing. The two hundred odd pages felt like three times its size. Sentences are frequently wound up in several stages with multiple punctuations, hurting fluidity and pace. But now and then, absolutely brilliant passages and descriptions keep coming up, a reason why I managed to finish the book. Here’s a piece:
Through all ages – when the pavement was grass, when it was swamp, through the age of tusk and mammoth, through the age of silent sunrise, the battered woman – for she wore a skirt – with her right hand exposed, her left clutching at her side, stood singing of love – love which has lasted a million years, she sang, love which prevails, and millions of years ago, her lover, who had been dead these centuries, had walked, she crooned, with her in May; but in the course of ages, long as summer days, and flaming, she remembered, with nothing but red asters, he had gone; death’s enormous sickle had swept those tremendous hills, and when at last she laid her hoary and immensely aged head on the earth, now become a mere cinder of ice, she implored the Gods to lay by her side a bunch of purple heather, there on her high burial place which the last rays of the last sun caressed; for then the pageant of the universe would be over.
Intensely beautiful at times, immensely tedious for the rest – is how I would sum up my experience.