Dull account of one woman’s day or rich and resonant masterpiece? Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf has divided readers since it was published and continues to spark debate today.
In London, one day in June, 1923, society hostess Clarissa Dalloway sets out to buy flowers for a party she is giving that evening. Returning home later she is visited by an old friend, Peter Walsh, who rekindles memories and feelings from her youth. Meanwhile making his own path through London traumatised soldier, Septimus Smith, is finding everyday life a torment and his young Italian wife cannot help him. Although they never meet, the two stories interweave as Woolf captures her characters and London on the page.
Join Kate and special guest, reader and Instagram book reviewer par excellence Charles Pignal as they dive into Dalloway and debate the results. Could Woolf have used a few less semi-colons? Can Kate talk about the book without weeping? If you haven’t read it, should you read it? Listen in for the answers to all these questions plus some great follow-on recommendations from Charles and from Kate and Laura picking up on the London theme. Whether you’re wondering what to read next for book club or just want some good additions to your own reading pile we have the book for you.
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Have thoughts? Or a book recommendation for us? Let us know in the comments.
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust ‘The Way by Swann’s is one of the great novels of childhood, depicting the impressions of a sensitive boy of his family and neighbours, brought dazzlingly back to life by the famous taste of a madeleine. It contains the separate short novel, A Love of Swann’s, a study of sexual jealousy that forms a crucial part of the vast, unfolding structure of In Search of Lost Time. This book established Proust as one of the greatest voices of the modern age – satirical, sceptical, confiding and endlessly varied in his responses to the human condition.’ For Charles the gold-standard for an author exploring themes of memory full of immediacy and revelation
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman ‘Latticing one cherry pie after another, an Ohio housewife tries to bridge the gaps between reality and the torrent of meaningless info that is the United States of America. She worries about her children, her dead parents, African elephants, the bedroom rituals of “happy couples”, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and how to hatch an abandoned wood pigeon egg. Is there some trick to surviving survivalists? School shootings? Medical debts? Franks ’n’ beans? A scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, and a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster, Ducks, Newburyport is a heresy, a wonder—and a revolution in the novel. It’s also very, very funny.’ So say the publishers and for Charles it was the book that got him through Covid, and which he recommends highly.
The Waves by Virginia Woolf ‘Tracing the lives of a group of friends, The Waves follows their development from childhood to middle age. While social events, individual achievements and disappointments form its narrative, the novel is most remarkable for the rich poetic language that expresses the inner life of its characters: their aspirations, their triumphs and regrets, their awareness of unity and isolation, and their questioning of the meaning of life itself. Perhaps more than any of Woolf’s novels, The Waves conveys the endless complexities of human experience.’ Kate’s book club were defeated by this, one of Woolf’s more challenging works, but that’s not to say that you will be
Eliot After the Waste Land by Robert Crawford ‘In this compelling and meticulous portrait of the twentieth century’s most important poet, Robert Crawford completes the story he began in Young Eliot. Drawing on extensive new sources and letters, this is the first full-scale biography to make use of Eliot’s most significant surviving correspondence, including the archive of letters (unsealed for the first time in 2020) detailing his decades-long love affair with Emily Hale. This long-awaited second volume, Eliot After ‘The Waste Land’, tells the story of the mature Eliot, his years as a world-renowned writer and intellectual, and his troubled interior life.’ Charles loved Crawford’s first book, and is eagerly counting the days until he can read this follow-up.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel The second volume in the sequence that won Mantel two Booker Prizes. Volume 2 returns to the court of Henry VIII, to witness the irresistible rise of Thomas Cromwell as he contrives the destruction of Anne Boleyn. By 1535 Cromwell is Chief Minister to Henry, his fortunes having risen with those of Anne Boleyn. But the split from the Catholic Church has left England dangerously isolated, and Anne has failed to give the king an heir. Cromwell watches as Henry falls for plain Jane Seymour. Negotiating the politics of the court, Cromwell must find a solution that will satisfy Henry, safeguard the nation and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge unscathed from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.’ Charles is very happily back in Mantel’s world and recommends this to anyone who hasn’t yet experienced her vivid evocation of character and Tudor London.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith ‘One of the most talked about debut novels of all time, White Teeth is a funny, generous, big-hearted novel, adored by critics and readers alike. Dealing – among many other things – with friendship, love, war, three cultures and three families over three generations, one brown mouse, and the tricky way the past has of coming back and biting you on the ankle, it is a life-affirming, riotous must-read of a book.’ Reading it recently Charles was struck by what a vivid, fresh and relevant voice Smith has, even though the book is now over twenty years old. It brings 90’s London roaringly to life.
Intimations by Zadie Smith This short and perfect book of essays was written during the Covid Lockdown and is powerful and moving, Kate says. As with Virginia Woolf and her essays you feel Smith is next to you as you read them. You could read the whole book in half an hour but don’t, keep it instead somewhere like beside the kettle and dip in and savour each one. ‘Crafted with the sharp intelligence, wit and style that have won Zadie Smith millions of fans, and suffused with a profound intimacy and tenderness in response to these unprecedented times, Intimations is a vital work of art, a gesture of connection and an act of love – an essential book in extraordinary times.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson ‘Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists – he a photographer, she a dancer – trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence. At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.’ Kate loves the evocation of a London summer Nelson conjure into life with an expressive interplay of sights, sounds and feelings. His characters want to live and experience all aspects of life, but must live cautiously as to be young and black in London can also mean to be under threat. Powerful and rich the book won the Costa First Novel award.
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford ‘November 1944. A German rocket strikes London and five young children are atomised in an instant. Here are the futures they might have known, had they experienced the unimaginable changes of the twentieth century — futures that illuminate the miraculous in the everyday, and the preciousness of life itself.’ For Kate an interesting follow-on to Woolf as Spufford explores London from a working-class perspective. Like Woolf Spufford is interested in character, how lives and perspectives change over time. If you allow this book to work its magic on you, you may find yourself changed by reading it. A wonder.
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff ‘Nancy Mitford meets Nora Ephron in the pages of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene Hanff’s delightful travelogue about her “bucket list” trip to London. When devoted Anglophile Helene Hanff is invited to London for the English publication of 84, Charing Cross Road—in which she shares two decades of correspondence with Frank Doel, a British bookseller who became a dear friend—she can hardly believe her luck. Frank is no longer alive, but his widow and daughter, along with enthusiastic British fans from all walks of life, embrace Helene as an honored guest. Eager hosts, including a famous actress and a retired colonel, sweep her up in a whirlwind of plays and dinners, trips to Harrod’s, and wild jaunts to their favorite corners of the countryside.’ Hanff recounts her experiences with wit and verve. Give this book, one of Kate’s hidden gems, a try. She guarantees you will be charmed by Helene, and inspired by her passion for English literature.
A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks Laura isn’t wholly sure she’d recommend this early book from Faulks, but she did read it when she first came to London, so had it in mind for this pod. ‘Seven wintry days to track the lives of seven characters: a hedge fund manager trying to bring off the biggest trade of his career; a professional footballer recently arrived from Poland; a young lawyer with little work and too much time to speculate; a student who has been led astray by Islamist theory; a hack book-reviewer; a schoolboy hooked on skunk and reality TV; and a Tube driver whose Circle Line train joins these and countless other lives together in a daily loop. With daring skill, the novel pieces together the complex patterns and crossings of modern urban life, and the group is forced, one by one, to confront the true nature of the world they inhabit. Sweeping, satirical, Dickensian in scope, A Week in December is a thrilling state of the nation novel from a master of literary fiction.’
Queenie by Candice Carty Williams ‘Queenie Jenkins can’t cut a break. Well, apart from the one from her long term boyfriend, Tom. That’s definitely just a break though. Definitely not a break up. Then there’s her boss who doesn’t seem to see her and her Caribbean family who don’t seem to listen (if it’s not Jesus or water rates, they’re not interested). She’s trying to fit in two worlds that don’t really understand her. It’s no wonder she’s struggling. She was named to be queen of everything. So why is she finding it so hard to rule her own life?’ Laura loved this and recommends it highly; hear her talk about it in person on Episode #54 of the pod.
Also mentioned: Young Eliot by Robert Crawford, On Golden Hill by Francis Spufford and 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
But never mind about what we think of Mrs Dalloway, what does Jenny Offill think?
How about you? Love Woolf? What’s your favourite? And let us know a London book you love.