Whether you love it or hate it, Love Actually shows the connections between a group of ostensibly independent Londoners. Liam Neeson’s wife just died; Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman’s marriage is on the rocks; Hugh Grant is the Prime Minister and lusting after his assistant. Three separate, distinct stories. But Liam and Emma are old friends; Emma and Hugh are actually siblings. Each story in Love Actually connects to another.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is Love Actually’s superior predecessor. In Woolf’s post-WWI London, a unified narrative voice swoops from the interiority of one character to another. How many thoughts do you have in a day? How many revelations? In a day, in a life, what stays the same? In a day, in a life, what can change? Slowly? Suddenly? Though Woolf’s narrative voice is consistent, Mrs. Dalloway illustrates how different people and their perspectives are. Ultimately, though, that consistent voice demonstrates an interconnectedness that transcends our differences.
This is not an easy read. Virginia Woolf writes some of the most beautiful, daring, and complex sentences in the English language. She writes how people think, not in the tidy subject-verb-object clauses which we inhale with the chalk dust as children. Her sentences are long, repetitive, technically a-grammatical in a whole manner of ways, but also perfect for her task of diving into the mind. Reading Mrs. Dalloway is like getting sucked in by the ocean current and ending up halfway around the world without an ounce of effort. You may never leave London, but a single day seems to encompass an entire universe or lifetime. Woolf’s prose is irresistible, at once difficult and revelatory.
One of the oddities of the novel, it that Mrs. Dalloway is not really about Mrs. Dalloway. Indeed, most of the time she is referred to informally, by her first name, Clarissa. The novel does revolve around Clarissa: it begins and ends at the beginning and ending of her day and Clarissa is the lynchpin in the novel’s web of relationships. But why title it Mrs. Dalloway and not Clarissa’s Party or Peter Walsh or anything else?
Ultimately, Mrs. Dalloway illustrates that interconnectedness and alienation are two sides of the same coin. Not even with the help of a unified narrative voice do these characters fully understand each other. Not Clarissa and her former flame Peter Walsh. Not Clarissa and her husband or daughter. Not anybody. To the world, Clarissa is Mrs. Dalloway, with all of the assumptions and status that title connotes. No matter how interconnected the world may seem, none of us can truly, completely know another.
Mrs. Dalloway, then, is the 20th century predecessor to your LinkedIn network: a whole city networked together, tangentially and superficially.
Up Next: A Woman of Means by Peter Taylor
Why? Ms. Holmes and I are going to attempt a book club kind of thing. She could get this one from her library.