And now for something
For fans of Virginia Woolf, and particularly her novel Mrs. Dalloway, you might like my own stream-of-consciousness extended essay and commentary: Reading Mrs. Dalloway. It’s a deep and broad look into this classic novel of poetic consciousness, revealing allusions, prompting musings, deepening thought and exploring hidden treasures as we accompany Clarissa Dalloway during her famous Hours. Here’s the opening paragraph:
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
You read the first sentence, and you’re in. In the midst of things; in medias res. A classic, and classical, element of literature. Recall The Iliad, which begins so famously in medias res: “Sing, O Muse, the wrath of Achilles.” You are thrown onto the battlefield, the Greeks and Trojans weary, heartbroken, nearing the fate that will send Odysseus on his arduous journey and Agamemnon home to horror and doom. How different from the opening lines of that other ancient book, “At the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste…” which declares forthrightly that it will start you “here” and take you on a journey to “there.” The origin and the endpoint, causality and teleology are paramount for religion and science; the messiness and unpredictability of daily living, the “middle part” between beginning and end—and what we humans do with it—belong to philosophy and literature. Medieval classical literature’s meta-example of in medias res, the opening lines that will bring us back to modern Mrs. Dalloway, are from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.”
Review for “Reading Mrs. Dalloway” — Elise Frances Miller
5.0 out of 5 stars
Getting personal with Mary F Burns’ essay on a classic!
Reviewed in the United States on June 18, 2020
Mary F. Burns’s volume, Reading Mrs. Dalloway, may be regarded as a personal memoir: it is the “story” of Burns’s reading of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 celebrated, complex and masterful contribution to the British literary canon. It is difficult to follow in Woolf’s footsteps, but Burns, also a novelist, proves to be an essayist with her own delightful command of language. As expected in any literary essay, Burns makes references to classical works, other literature that would have been available to Woolf, and to Woolf’s own life. These references are specific to the section-by-section analysis. I felt as though I were peeking over the Woolf’s shoulder as she considered her images and references, and shaped this timeless work and it’s especially engaging central character, Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway.
However, Burns’ primary and original contribution here is to make us relate to Mrs. Dalloway, both the novel and the character, in such a personal way. To think, as Burns says, “…if I had known such-and-such, I would never have…? How differently we might have lived, or loved!” This is only one example of many where I found myself pausing to consider, as both authors would have wanted me to, what this situation, in this book, might teach me. How does my life relate to the character’s, the author’s, and ultimately, to the literary essayist’s?
If you haven’t yet read Mrs. Dalloway, I recommend reading it section by section, with Burns’ volume on your desk right next to Woolf’s. If you have read it recently enough to recall its characters and its trajectory, then this essay will certainly send you to the library or your shelves, to re-read it with a whole new perspective.
As always, please use the links on this website on the BOOK LIST page to get directed to the correct edition of any of my books (there have been past editions by other publishers which say “Out of Print”). Thanks!
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