On the front cover of my (lightly annotated) Wordsworth edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, is an image of a party. A cartoon still of people with carefully slicked down ‘20s hairstyles and beautiful formal clothing, standing and sitting, smoking cigars and playing cards, existing just to be in each other’s company. However, when I first read Mrs Dalloway, the elegance of this image and the enduring genius of Woolf’s prose were entirely lost on me. As an ever-proud and easily distracted seventeen year old, I didn’t finish it because I didn’t understand it. Now, I look back and revere it for its density, its ability to refract so many different perspectives and make me feel seen at the same time. And, in my current severely socially deprived state, as our worlds slowly start to wake up from what seemed like indefinite hibernation, the daring modernist novel once again springs to mind. People are again finding the courage to dream of the warmth of human touch, of events, of making up for lost time, and especially of parties; the strangest and most eclectic of social phenomena. People have been partying forever: in celebration, commemoration, or just for the fun of it, and I can’t help but feel like Mrs Dalloway captures the essence of ‘the party’ (an event, a notion, a feeling?) like no other text I have read. With a distinctive sense of humanity and sympathy, the text unearths the ineffable result of what happens when humans come together and share a space for no reason other than to enjoy each other. In Dalloway, Woolf shows us a timeless exploration of what parties can be and represent, and in the wake of a waning lockdown, its teachings are especially resonant.
I am struggling to give any kind of comprehensive synopsis for this text. What springs to mind is a memory of studying Mrs Dalloway at A-level and learning that Virginia Woolf intended the novel to be ‘about life’. Painfully abstract but so, so true. It is about a woman called Clarissa Dalloway and her feelings, emotions and identity, but it is also about everyone she encounters and remembers, and the things they feel and think. It supposedly spans just a day in Clarissa’s life, but breaks down conventional temporal boundaries so that the past, present and possibly even an ominous future all flood the pages at once.
What the text is undeniably about, however, is a party! Critic Merry M. Pawlowski in her introduction to the novel reflects that, ‘A woman’s party, and the preparations which go with it, provide the perfect vehicle for her [Woolf’s] purpose.’ And whatever this purpose may be, it illuminates parties with a renewed significance, where social life and connection, often easily taken for granted, take on a heightened importance. Woolf herself stated, ‘I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect & each comes to daylight at the present moment.’ Parties are a beautiful culmination of personalities, of presence and memory, where paths meet and caves of personal history intersect.
The timelessness of the party in Mrs Dalloway is found primarily in its focus on building complex characters and character-spaces. Clarissa is a Tory hostess and tries to make the most of her confinement to the social sphere by pouring herself into her party. Careful preparation is given ‘to straighten a chair, to pause a moment and feel whoever came in must think how clean, how bright, how beautifully cared for’. While we may not all be able to relate to the excess of ‘chicken in aspic, ice cream freezers, pared crusts of bread, lemons, soup tureens and pudding basins’, we can relate to that buzz, that feeling of anticipation, absentmindedly fluffling up or ‘sleeking down’ our hair, the unconscious performance of it all. Clarissa’s position as the wife of a politician only contributes to the sense of filtered presentation, aided by the looming presence of the Prime Minister.
Underneath this performance however, is an enduring and sympathetic humanity. The characters make their impersonal ‘rounds’, yes, but the narrative voice selects new perspectives without warning. Like a panning camera, it gives us snippets of thoughts and feelings that aren’t too far from what a university student might be thinking and feeling at a house party in 2021, a century after the novel is set. The party scenes serve to capture the fertile potential of things left unspoken, people talking about the weather and acknowledging friends they have drifted away from. We are sucked into tumultuous and dissonant feelings, self doubt and self consciousness, such as when Clarissa cannot shake the feeling that Peter is judging her, and even passing petty thoughts. Aided by Proustian interruptions, internal thought and external description, memory and the present, opinion and observation are all blurred, communicating the true potential of what a party is and might be. It acknowledges something that perhaps lockdown nostalgia blinds us to; the concomitant discomfort that parties can bring and our tendency to inflate them in our minds. What Woolf does so expertly is validate these thoughts and micro-dealings by simply mentioning them. She casts her narrative eye, but does not seek to make any moral judgements.
What I particularly like is the exploration of Clarissa herself. As the hostess, the party is essentially an extension of her, a combination of all her social spheres, yet she finds that at points ‘she was not enjoying’ herself. In fact, she finds it somewhat destabilising to confront people from her past and maintain her persona. In the same way that the coalescing perspectives give a fullness to the event, they also give a complex view of their hostess: she is charming, yet wooden. With a ‘damnable, difficult, upper class refinement’, she is ‘fond of society’ but simultaneously fiercely guards her privacy. This complex presentation is especially ruminative. Do we not all behave differently around different people? Do parties not encourage us to project the most palatable versions of ourselves?
Clarissa is absent from the final section of the novel until the very end, but the power of her party remains. Ultimately, parties are self defined, and for some it may take some adjusting and a recharging of social batteries to fully enjoy the illustrious, sometimes uncomfortable exchanges that parties can bring. What Dalloway teaches us is the potential of ‘the party’ to explore emotion, a microcosm of life in which we can learn infinite things from the smallest facial expression, a stifled laugh or an exchanged glance, yet also feel the mystery of people’s true feelings, those that remain forever hidden. Re-reading Mrs Dalloway reminded me of the dynamism and complexity of in-person parties and renewed my excitement. Whether it’s a small get-together or a grand Oxford ball you miss the most, we are reminded to enjoy the ‘intoxication of the moment’. And, after over a year of uncertainty and isolation, we can be certain of one thing: it’s going to be so sweet.