Tag Archives: death

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I continue to reread many books, especially those by women from the C20th. This year is a bit of a Virginia Woolf year for me. In the summer I will be spending a week in Cambridge thinking about Virginia Woolf and her women. This means rereading four of her novels and other bits and pieces. It also means lots and lots of thinking and talking about her work, her life, her legacy and life between the wars. All this is completely to my taste.

In her diary as she was writing Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf expressed her ambitions for it.

In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense. [June 19th 1923, p57]

Mrs Dalloway

The events of this novel take place over a single day in the summer of 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a Conservative MP, living in Westminster London, is giving a party in the evening. It is June and the day is hot. She leaves her house to fetch some flowers for the party. 

She meets various acquaintances who reappear later, as well as passing close to a damaged First World War veteran who is waiting to see the nerve expert Sir William Bradshaw. Before the party she is visited by a man who she last saw when she was a young woman, having refused to marry him. Peter Walsh has been in India. 

Clarissa is concerned because her husband has accepted an invitation to lunch with Mrs Bruton. This formidable lady seeks his help with a eugenics programme to send good quality people to Canada. And she has dealings with her daughter’s tutor, Miss Kilman, an evangelist, who seems to Clarissa to have stolen Elizabeth. 

The story moves easily alongside Clarissa as well as among the points of view of these and other characters. Among the most striking characters is Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran who is suffering from what we would call PTSD. The doctors say all he needs is rest. Both he and his wife Rezia are made desperate by the absence of help from the medical profession. Septimus commits suicide as Dr Holmes arrives to take him away for his rest cure. 

In the party everything comes together. Clarissa entertains her guests, even the Prime Minister attends (I can’t resist mentioning that he is a figure of gravity, much revered by those attending). Also present are the people she has met during the day and from her past. Sir William Bradshaw arrives, bringing news of his patient’s suicide.

And I am completely wrong to say that the plot is contained within one day. For of course, all those lives have pasts, some interleaved with each other’s and Clarissa’s. And these too we enter to understand the events of the day and the characters. In her diary the author referred to

… how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters [30th August 1923, p60]

And a year later she used a different image to describe this feature of Mrs Dalloway:

… But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; … [August 15th 1924, p65]

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway and the women in the novel.

Clarissa Dalloway is the central character bringing everything together. As the title indicates she is married. Her decision to marry Richard Dalloway rather than Peter Walsh determined the direction of her mature life. We learn that she is frail, a victim and survivor of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that ravaged the country even as the First World War ended. For this reason I do not like the ruddy-faced portrait on the Oxford edition. Clarissa had slight, thin features.

As she neared the end of composing the book Virginia Woolf worried about Clarissa. She refers to the design she has for the novel and how well it is all progressing.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering and tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support. [October 15th 1923, p61]

While it does seem that the people in her circle see her as rather lightweight, Virginia Woolf shows that she has strong liberal values. The character of Miss Kilman (note the name) stands in complete opposition to Clarissa, with her certainties, especially in relation to love and religion. Clarissa reflects on the damage wrought by these things as she contemplates Miss Kilman.

The cruellest things in the world, she thought, seeing them clumsy, hot domineering, hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel and unscrupulous, dressed in a mackintosh coat, on the landing; love and religion. Had she ever tried to convert anyone herself? Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves? (p107)

Many of the characters are shown up by contrast to Clarissa. The odious Lady Bruton with her ideas about eugenics; Clarissa’s childhood acquaintances, one of whom has remained a mouse (Ellie Henderson) and the other despite great liveliness and unconventionality in her youth is now married to a rich farmer and has many sons (Sally Seton). One feels that Clarissa would have supported Rezia if they had met.

Life, death, sanity, insanity, the social system is all in Mrs Dalloway as Virginia Woolf intended. This novel also prompts us to think about time, its passage and effects, as Big Ben tolls throughout the day. And it is set in London, which despite later bomb damage is still recognisable today. The richness of this novel cannot be overpraised. I look forward to yet another rereading.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf published in 1925. I used the Oxford World’s Classics edition. 185 pp

Diary extracts from A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf published by Persephone Books (2012)

Previous posts on Mrs Dalloway

I have twice before written about Mrs Dalloway on Bookword.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing in July 2015

The second Mrs Dalloway in July 2019

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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

In December 2003 Joan Didion’s husband died of a heart attack. She had been married to John Gregory Dunne for forty years and had worked closely with him during that time. They had a daughter who was critically ill in hospital in New York. They had just been to visit her.

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.(3)

And so began Joan Didion’s year of magical thinking.

The Decades Project on Bookword has arrived at the 2000s. The project featured non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury until 2009. The Year of Magical Thinking  was published in 2005.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Joan Didion is a novelist and journalist. As a writer she finds her way to her subject through the experiences of the individual, in this book her reactions to her husband’s death was the focus.

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about life itself. (7)

Except, of course, none of it makes any sense; it is ‘the very opposite of meaning’ as she says later and hence this is her year of magical thinking.

Some examples of magical thinking: she cleared out his clothes as she knows one should but she could not give away his shoes. He would need them when he returned, even though she knows he is dead.

She believes that John’s death was her fault, and that it was his fault, and that she should have prevented her daughter’s illness, that she can fix all of this if she knew what to do.

She researches online, as a good journalist, seeks for what she should have done differently for her husband and instructs medical staff as a result of her knowledge.

She had worked very closely with John Gregory Dunne in their 40 years of marriage, and must find a way to write without him by her side. It is more difficult that she can imagine.

Time, especially anniversaries, takes on special significance, as do familiar places, and these carry her down into what she calls a vortex. Even the title of the book, the book’s subject matter, is shaped by a time limit, an anniversary.

I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.

Nor did I want to finish the year.

The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.

I look for resolution and find none. …

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. (224-6)

Death, grief and mourning

This was my second reading of her book. I had the same experience as ten years ago, that is I couldn’t stop reading it. But on re-reading I could see how she made this account so compelling. She writes with a kind of sparseness and with great precision. And she provides the voice of reason commenting on her ‘magical thinking’ and with a complete focus on herself, her husband and her daughter.

Her insights are stronger for this. For example she differentiates between grief and mourning; grief being passive, what happens. Mourning is the process of dealing with grief, and requires attention. It takes her some time to get to the mourning. And this book is part of that attention.

And here is her observation on grief and its effects:

Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. (189)

It is for such insights and for the strength of her writing that Robert McCrum placed this book second on his Guardian list of best 100 nonfiction books. Joan Didion adapted the book for the stage and the piece was directed by David Hare with Vanessa Redgrave in 2007.

The Year of Magical Thinkingby Joan Didion (2005). UK edition by Harper Perennial 227pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 for the Decades Project I featured non-fiction by women having focused on novels in 2017. I selected one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc) and will review the Project in December.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

The Vagina Monologuesby Eve Ensler (1998)

The March of Follyby Barbara W Tuchman (1984)

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff (1971)

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Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

Talking about death, thinking about death, reading about death, these are not morbid activities. Indeed, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes, (Benjamin Franklin, 1817) we may as well find out what we can about it. Perhaps we might find it easier to approach our own end if we consider what others say. As reading is my way into understanding the world and my life, it’s books I have gone to.

I belong to a group of wonderful women, originally eight of us, but Diana died a few years ago. Our group has been meeting for more than 12 years, exploring choices and possibilities in our lives, originally for retirement, but more recently about ageing and death. Some months ago we met to discuss our ideal death. Many of us referred to books in our contributions. I report on these before adding the results of further investigations.

The group’s recommendations

These books prompted us to think about death, good deaths, ideal deaths, and guided us in thinking about what we still needed to think about in relation to death. It was a session that contained as much laughter, as much encouragement and support, and as much help to look at our personal challenges as we always find from our group.

Salley Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel

Ann Cleves Cold Earth

We know that we cannot easily choose how we die, but these two novels described the quiet and unexpected deaths of characters who were unaware that they were going to die. One of our members hoped for this kind of death. Having one’s things is order was considered part of this ideal death.

Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers

This is a remarkable book, recommended by one group member who was asking the question ‘ideal for whom?’ reminding us that death affects more than the person who dies.

Another member frequently recommends poetry and she proposed the following:

Neil Astley Soul Food

Mary Oliver Wild Geese

Ruth Padel 52 ways of looking at a poem

In addition she recommended a book by Mark Doty, Dog Years, written by an American poet and telling of his experiences of deaths of partner and dogs.

We talked about people who choose suicide or assisted dying. Another reader mentioned Sweet Caress by William Boyd as it depicts the main character planning suicide but called back to life by suddenly realising she is thinking about what to have for breakfast next morning.

My own contribution was to read Canon Henry Scott-Holland’s Death is Nothing at All, frequently read at funerals.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened. …

I told the group that it irritates me because it promotes the idea that separation at death is not permanent. But on rereading I had also found that it captures the idea that the dead remain with us, having influenced our lives and we can hear their voices and still think about them.

We also mentioned in our discussion these three writers and their books.

Diana Athill Somewhere towards the End and Alive Alive Oh

Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death. Lecture on You Tube here.

Jenny Diski In Gratitude.

Books to read

Since then, and because I promised the group a list of books on the topic of death, I have noted these.

Before I say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie was published by Penguin Books in 1998. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth Picardie described the progress of her illness in a series of articles in the Observer. They are collected here together with emails to and from friends, and a foreword and afterword by her sister and husband.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor. Her memoir on dying is ‘a remarkable gift’ according to three of her friends, writing in the Guardian.

Margaret Drabble wrote The Dark Flood Rises. It is a novel about several older people who are trying to live well in their final years. She spoke about death in October 2016, in an article entitled I am not afraid of death. I worry about living.

Katie Roiphe has written The Violet Hour: great writers at the end, published in 2016 by Virago. She writes a piece in the Guardian about her own experiences, and those of great writers. It is moving.

A Reckoning is a novel by May Sarton. Laura is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and on learning this decides to make a good death on her own terms. This intention is thwarted by her increasing dependency upon others, but she finds much to be pleased with in her final weeks.

The novelist Helen Dunmore has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wrote about mortality and legacy in the Guardian in March 2017: Facing Mortality and What we leave behind.

Another resource

Dying Matters website, strapline ‘Let’s talk about it’. This is an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the end of life. Their site is a gateway to information and sources of support.

So let’s read about it, talk about it, plan for it. What do you think?

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