I’ve been curious about participating in the #WoolfAlong on Twitter, but hesitant about joining in Jan/Feb because I’ve already read Mrs. Dalloway five times and To the Lighthouse three times. While I could read and enjoy them both every year, I don’t want to dull their impact. I value the ability to come to them in fresh delight and wonder over parsing them in a deeper, more academic understanding.
I decided instead to read Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, a series of seven stories written around the same period as Mrs. Dalloway. The stories begin before the party starts, with Mrs. Dalloway buying gloves in Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street (indeed, Woolf originally intended this to be the first chapter in Mrs. Dalloway) and Richard Dalloway inviting an old friend he bumps into in Deans Yard to the party that night (The Man who Loved His Kind).
These two stories are fine, but it’s in the next five stories, which take place at Clarissa’s famous party, that Woolf’s genius most shines through. Each story pins and dissects the psyche of a different guests, laying bare their vulnerabilities and desires.
- In The Introduction, Lily Everit, proud of the high marks on her essay on Jonathan Swift, watches her achievement dissipate when faced with the arrogance of the insolent Bob Brinsley.
- In Ancestors, Mrs. Vallance compares the partygoers to her beloved family and comes away enraged by their superficiality.
- In Together and Apart, a Mr. Serle and Miss Anning momentarily connect when they realize they share a similar warmth and nostalgia for Canterbury:
Their eyes met; collided rather, for each felt that behind the eyes the secluded being, who sits in darkness while his shallow agile companion does all the tumbling and beckoning, and keeps the show going, suddenly stood erect; flung off his cloak; confronted the other. It was alarming; it was terrific.
- In The New Dress, Mabel arrives at the party only to realize the dress that she’d had specially made is wrong, all wrong, and can’t overcome her humiliation. “She felt like a dressmaker’s dummy standing there, for young people to stick pins into,” Woolf writes. But Mabel isn’t all self-pity, as when she thinks of her dressmaker, Miss Milan:
… Miss Milan pulling the cover over the canary’s cage, or letting him pick a hemp-seed from between her lips, and the thought of it, of this side of human nature and its patience and its endurance and its being content with such miserable, scanty, sordid little pleasures filled her eyes with tears.
- Sasha Latham of A Summing Up, the final story in the collection, is a different kind of guest:
She walked rather like a stag, with a little give of the ankles, fanning herself, majestic, silent, with all her senses roused, her ears pricked, snuffing the air, as if she had been some wild, but perfectly controlled creature taking its pleasure by night.
But even Sasha is a traditional Woolfian character, subject to insecurities and the wax and wane of her moods, as we watch her heart overflow with love and humanity one minute, then her vision crash to despair the next.
I’d read Mrs. Dalloway’s Party as a substitute for Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, but these stories just reminded me of the brilliance of the novels themselves. Perhaps it’s time to revisit To the Lighthouse, after all.