Apr 23, 2010

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway takes place in a single day in June, and famously begins with Clarissa Dalloway, who is hosting a party that evening, deciding that she will get the flowers herself. We follow her through the streets of London as she runs her errands and we accompany her inner-monologue – as well as that of several other characters, in and out of whose minds the narration jumps. Though the story covers only one day, there are also flashbacks to Clarissa’s youth, which cast light on her present life as well as on the lives of several of the other characters.

I think Virginia Woolf and I can really be friends now. I wish my first introduction to her fiction hadn’t been her short stories, as they made me dread her for years with no good reason at all. Woolf herself referred to her short stories as exercises in style, and I suspect that was part of the reason why I couldn’t connect with most of them: I felt that technique was their point (though you’re free to argue with me here, of course). In Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, the style she was trying out has been perfected, and she uses it masterfully. She uses her narrative technique to communicate something – to build something which is as innovative as it is beautiful, personal, and perceptive.

I understand now why this novel is so widely beloved. I have always appreciated Woolf on a literary level: her historical significance, her inventiveness, her role as an early feminist, and so on. But I think that in a way, knowing all these things about her, being surrounded by professors and colleagues who revere her, got in the way of my establishing a personal connection with her writing. I couldn’t just sit alone in a room with her books without being haunted by the Spectres of Cultural Relevance. Does this make sense? What I mean to say is that I feel that personal connection I craved at last – this book spoke to me just like any of the books I love does. I felt completely at home in it; I didn’t struggle for one moment. And I suspect this changed how I see her forever. I have the Woolf in Winter hosts and participants to thank here, because reading about what her novels personally meant to each of you opened me up to her work like nothing had before.

Mrs Dalloway uses stream-of-consciousness better than any other novel I’d read before. This is because Woolf sprinkles her characters’ inner monologues with just enough sensory details to make what’s happening feel real to the reader. These little touches, often offered between parentheses, conjure the physical reality in which the characters are moving very vividly, and this is a needed addition to their stream of private thoughts. I could feel London as Clarissa, Peter Walsh, Reeza or Septimus moved through it. This gives Mrs Dalloway a cinematic quality – and yet not, of course, as this is a book about people’s inner lives and private experiences, which are things you cannot show from the outside. But the sensory details ground it and keep it from ever becoming impenetrable or chaotic.

The London we see here (or the several Londons) is remarkably full of life. There are many passages that illustrate this, but the imagery on this one spoke to me in particular:
(June had drawn out every leaf on the trees. The mothers of Pimlico gave suck to their young. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To dance, to ride, she had adored all that.)
This “divine vitality which Clarissa love[s]” is one of the things that makes Mrs Dalloway feel like one of those novels into which the whole of life seems to fit. Many of its themes are dark: this is a book about the passing of time and the impermanence of life; about shell shock, mental illness, the inadequacy of most societal responses to it, and the scars the Great War left on many lives; about repressed homosexuality; about regret, lost chances, moments that won’t ever come back. And yet that vitality permeates everything: that’s what I most loved about the novel as a whole as well as about Clarissa Dalloway herself. Clarissa wants to live – not because she’s unaware of life’s dark side, of everything she has lost and of everything there is to lose, but exactly because she knows it so well. This is an existential stance, certainly, and it’s one that very much resonates with me.

Much has been said about the fact that reading a modernist novel is an experience almost designed to make some readers feel excluded: these novels tend to assume foreknowledge, a certain type or level of education, and often also that their readers will be from a uniform cultural and ethnic background. I mean this more as a comment than as a judgement, and yes, I do realise that this has to do with their historical context. But the fact remains that some readers will inevitably feel pushed out of these narratives – for an example, I recommend reading Richard’s post on his less than pleasant experience with Orlando.

However, the thing about Mrs Dalloway, the thing that surprised me, is that it doesn’t feel that way at all. On the contrary: it’s a profoundly humane novel, and therefore much more inclusive almost be definition. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that her goal was to “…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.” The caves do connect, and they do so beautifully.

You know how it can be difficult to truly dislike a person you know very well, no matter how much they exasperate you, simply because you’re too aware of their humanity? This has always been the case with me, at least. And I felt that in Mrs Dalloway, all the characters are easy to empathise with – regardless of their class or background, of their gender or nationality, of their private triumphs and defeats, of their petty and ugly moments, of their very kindness – simply because Woolf strips them too bare. They’re shown from the inside, and this humanises them all. It’s difficult, when we see them so naked, to think of them as “them”. They’re us, and we’re all real and flawed and fragile and alive.

Mrs Dalloway is, among other things, a novel about the validity and importance of individuality, of one’s own private experiences of the world no matter how distant they may be from the consensus. It’s a novel about the fact that each and every one of the human beings you walk past every day is every bit as real as you are. And though it might sound so, this is no small or trivial thing. To The Lighthouse next, I think. I also think it’s time for a re-read of Michael Cunningham’s brilliant The Hours, which I’m sure I’ll appreciate even more now.

Favourite passages:
But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.

So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.

“It is time,” said Rezia.
The word “time” split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard, white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time. He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself--
“For God's sake don't come!” Septimus cried out. For he could not look upon the dead.

Oddly enough, she was one of the most thoroughgoing sceptics he had ever met, and possibly (this was a theory he used to make up to account for her, so transparent in some ways, so inscrutable in others), possibly she said to herself, as we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favourite reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners (Huxley again); decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can. Those ruffians, the Gods, shan’t have it all their own way,--her notion being that the Gods, who never lost a chance of hurting, thwarting and spoiling human lives were seriously put out if, all the same, you behaved like a lady. That phase came directly after Sylvia’s death--that horrible affair. To see your own sister killed by a falling tree (all Justin Parry’s fault--all his carelessness) before your very eyes, a girl too on the verge of life, the most gifted of them, Clarissa always said, was enough to turn one bitter. Later she wasn’t so positive perhaps; she thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.
Other opinions: A Literary Odyssey, Still Life With Books, Notes From the North, third-storey window, Save Ophelia, Caravana de Recuerdos, Nonsuch Book, Regular Ruminations, Rebecca Reads, Moored at Sea, Dolce Bellezza, Lost in a Good Story, Just Add Books, Fizzy Thoughts, Book-a-Rama, Book Addiction, Rhinoa’s Ramblings, Stella Matutina, Vulpe Libris, A Striped Armchair, 1morechapter, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Into the Wardrobe, Bibliographing, Incurable Logophilia, Kiss a Cloud, Another Cookie Crumbles, Shona’s Bookshelves, Lakeside Musings, Evening All Afternoon

(Yes, that’s a ridiculously long link list, but I suspect it’s not all. Please let me know if I missed yours.)

49 comments:

  1. Excellent review, Ana! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. I bought this book last week thanks to all the wonderful reviews so I really look forward to reading it.

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  2. I really enjoyed your review. I read this last year but was so overwhelmed by it that I couldn't properly articulate how it made me feel. I do highly recommend To The Lighthouse (it has inspired a literary tattoo for me).

    Woolf's exploration of humanity at its basic, unadorned core is what keeps me reading her long stream-of-consciousness paragrahps (among other things I love about her writing).

    Not sure which one of hers to read next, but I'm sure I'll avoid the short stories :P

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  3. I love your reviews and this was so much more eloquent than mine - lol.

    And I'm so glad you loved Mrs Dalloway. It's one of my favourites :)

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  4. So glad to hear that you enjoyed this novel so much - it was my first Woolf read and I felt really connected to it too.

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  5. I've never read any Woolf, something I really must rectify at some point. And I've been put off this because I found the film interpretation The Hours so dreadfully boring. I know that wasn't just based on Mrs Dalloway but still...
    I think this review has made me rethink that gut dislike :)

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  6. I had the exact same journey with Woolf. I *thought* I didn't like her because she put me off with her ICON OF LITERATURE status but once I got to read "Orlando" and "Mrs Dalloway" I realized it was just my prejudices - her prose was actually exactly my kind of thing. Poor Virginia, I wonder how many readers have had the same trouble with her.

    Excellent review.

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  7. Great review! I haven´t read a lot of Woolf, but I really liked Mrs Dalloway. I think it helped that I had heard lots of people say that it was very difficult and that I was somewhat familiar with the modernists (uni, so I think you´re right with "a certain level of education"). I expected it to be draining and perhaps even boring but still I was curious and ended up really enjoying the book.

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  8. I tried reading Mrs. Dalloway once, but I was distracted and I stopped reading after a while. Lately I've been thinking that I really need to try again. Maybe Mrs. Dalloway is the best place to start? I'm glad to hear you 3enjoyed reading it so much, it makes me less nervous to try again.

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  9. I'm glad to hear that you loved it. I have yet to try any Woolf so perhaps I will be on the lookout for this one - it does sound good.

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  10. Well I must confess that I too have been "haunted by the Spectres of Cultural Relevance" :-) and I haven't had the courage to read anything by Woolf since high school English, which I hated. But I loved reading your review just now and I think you might have inspired me to try her again.

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  11. Excellent review, I think you captured the essence of 'Mrs Dalloway' beautifully. I'm rather mixed about the book - it's beautifully written and it shows how very skilled Virginia Woolf was and yet, I didn't enjoy it. I can't even pinpoint why not - maybe it was because I had a hard time warming up to Clarissa. But It's good to hear that you enjoyed it so much.

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  12. Ooh, yes, do reread The Hours now. =) I love this book, it's one of my favourites. As always you pretty much nailed everything I love about it. I especially appreciate how Woolf really does convey so much life in so few pages.

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  13. "Mrs Dalloway uses stream-of-consciousness better than any other novel I’d read before. This is because Woolf sprinkles her characters’ inner monologues with just enough sensory details to make what’s happening feel real to the reader." This is EXACTLY what I love about this novel, and why I tell everyone who has never read Woolf before to read this first. I had read To the Lighthouse and Orlando and her essays before this, and this remains my favorite. Lovely review!

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  14. Interesting comment that "Much has been said about the fact that reading a modernist novel is an experience almost designed to make some readers feel excluded." I find that stream-of-consciousness in a modernist novel does that to me more than the assumption of a certain cultural and ethnic background. One would think it would work out the opposite, that you would feel closer because you are inside the mind, but it doesn't work that way for me at least.

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  15. This is my favorite Woolf book to date. I've read it twice, and both times I feel like there is so much I still don't understand from it, but I also feel like I can keep learning from it, which is lovely.

    And speaking of lovely, that cover is awesome! :)

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  16. I feared Woolf for an entirely unclear reason prior to reading A Room of One's Own just a few months ago. I think the thought of Woolf, the constant hearing about her in school, made me believe that reading her books would be difficult, an intellectual challenge rather than entertainment. A Room of One's Own didn't exactly dissuade me from that notion; although I did enjoy reading it immensely.

    You've definitely changed my mind here, so perhaps I'll finally pick up one of the fiction books by Woolf sitting on my shelf. A friend of mine bought me like 6 Woolf books for Christmas one year - since I'm a professor I must like Woolf was her reasoning I think. They've been sitting there untouched for years...

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  17. Woolf is one author I've faked reading...and one of these days I've got to get over my block and just read her. I'm sorta known for taking my unconventional beach reading, so maybe this one should be it.

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  18. Wonderful review, Nymeth. I must admit that I haven't read this one yet. I only read some of her short stories at my uni, and since then I wanted to read more, but never had the chance to. But I know that someday, I will:)

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  19. Oh, brava, Nymeth! Brava!! You have seen so deeply into this novel, and described it so well, it's as though you had Woolf herself sitting at your hand, dictating. (I had forgotten the part about Clarissa's sister) How wonderful to start my day with this review. Thank you!

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  20. I am so super intimidated by Woolfe, and had little success with Orlando a few years ago. I do think that after reading your review I might be able to learn to appreciate her writing, and might have to try this one. Glad you loved it Nymeth!

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  21. This is the first Woolf I ever tried - first in highschool, then again about 5 years later... and it just does nothing for me. Well, that's not true, it totally confuses and frustrates me. I never make it more than 30 pages in... which seems to be what happens with me with all Woolf novels. I guess she's just an author who I don't jive with. I'm slowly trying to make my peace with that...

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  22. My memory of reading Mrs. Dalloway and seeing that other people are "every bit as real" is what gets me through lines with irritating people who have too many items or crying babies they seem to be ignoring. Who says literature isn't relevant to real life?

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  23. I'm so happy that Woolf in Winter motivated you to give Mrs. Dalloway a shot! I said in one post that I think it has transcended "favorite novel" status for me & become something more like a "sacred text," so I'm obviously biased, but I completely agree with everything you say here. I feel so lucky that I kind of stumbled into reading her novels before professors, history books, etc. had the chance to teach me how Important she was, as I do relate to your points about that.

    My post is here, with links to the rest of the Woolf-in-Winter-ites who posted on Mrs. Dalloway. I won't take offense if you don't want to add ALL our posts, though! :-)

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  24. You write the most beautiful reviews. I mean between you and Jason I realize I'm going to have to read some Woolf.

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  25. Wow, the descriptions of London were beautiful and they made me homesick for London Town. I am only a little familiar with this story as I read The Hours last year. I really would like to read this, as the passages you wrote from it swept me away.

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  26. I know exactly what you mean about being haunted by the specters of cultural relevance. Sometimes it really gets in the way. I feel that with a lot of classics. It was a great way of putting it.

    This is a great review!

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  27. I know I need to read some of Woolf's work, but I am totally intimidated by it. I just don't think I'm smart enough.

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  28. What a beautiful review, Ana. I've only had one experience with Woolf's work (To the Lighthouse) and that was years ago. I do remember really connecting with her writing though. She is on my list of authors to read SOON!

    "It’s a novel about the fact that each and every one of the human beings you walk past every day is every bit as real as you are." I love the way you put this theme in the novel :o)

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  29. Loved your review and found many similarities between our experiences of Woolf. I think I had to read Mrs. Dalloway maybe twice in college, plus To the Lighthouse, and I loathed them. I decided to give Mrs. D another chance last year and absolutely loved it. Yes, this time there was not the weight of the "Spectre of Cultural Relevance" that you described, and I think that helped me experience it on more personal terms. But more importantly, I have so much more life experience now with which to interpret Mrs. D (college was 25 years ago.) I'm left wondering whether any 19- or 20-year-old can fairly be expected to appreciate a novel like this. I think my experience also is a testament to the value of re-reading books during the course of one's life.

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  30. Oh wow, this sounds excellent. I don't actually hear much about this author or her books these days, but I definitely should become more familiar with them. Gorgeous review!

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  31. I love this cover, and I love your observations.

    Mrs Dalloway was the first Woolf I read. Ever after, I found myself watching for the people who move their lips slightly when they're walking and thinking to themelves, and noticing when I do it myself.

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  32. Everyone else is right: you do write the most beautiful reviews. You've made me want to reread this.

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  33. I don't know why I am so intimidated by Virginia Woolf! I feel like I have her somewhat mixed up with Sylvia Plath, who REALLY intimidates me (though Eva and I plan to read Bell Jar together!). I was told this would be a good starting point, but I got Orlando for myself instead as that one just sounded SO GOOD when you and others reviewed it.

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  34. I am extremely intimidated by Woolf so I'm not sure if I'll ever read this one...maybe if you held my hand and walked me through it while I was reading it!

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  35. I LITERALLY just picked this up today. So I skimmed the review. But now I have the excitements.

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  36. It’s a novel about the fact that each and every one of the human beings you walk past every day is every bit as real as you are. And though it might sound so, this is no small or trivial thing.

    So well put! I thought I would have the same trouble with Woolf you did before, and this was my first attempt with her and I was just amazed at how human it is. Not some cold piece of "serious" art at all. And yet so formally impressive as well. Ah, just thinking about it makes me want to read more of her work!

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  37. I wondered what you'd make of this! I found a bit too hard-going... I wanted to like it, but I think it was too 'intellectual' for me! :-) Although I did like the stream-of-consciousness style. And I did like The Hours which was based on a love of this. Go figure.

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  38. Great post! Glad you enjoyed Mrs D. It's such a complex novel, open to many interpretations. I love all the symbolism and undercurrents...

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  39. This is one of my all time favorites, I’m so glad you reviewed it...
    “Mrs Dalloway uses stream-of-consciousness better than any other novel I’d read before”
    I couldn’t agree more… It may be a little difficult to read but it is so worth the trouble!

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  40. Nymeth this is such a great review!! I have wanted to read this for ages now, but I think I've also always been a bit wary about it, again due to the 'Spectres of Cultural Relevance'!! I think you've convinced me to movie it up the pile. Thanks!

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  41. Great review as always Nymeth. I have this book in my TBR.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  42. I love that line about "digging beautiful caves" behind the characters! And I relish your gorgeous writing, Ana. Your reviews are among my favorites anywhere, in or out of cyberspace.

    I read this novel many years ago. It must have been the wrong time in my life to read it, because it didn't stick with me. You've made me want to try again.

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  43. Dear Ms Nymeth -

    Sometimes when I'm reading a review on Things Mean a Lot, I stop, and I think "wait this was written by a person, like a real one", like for a moment I can actually imagine what your hands must feel like on a keyboard, and the look of a room I imagine your computer must be in, and it's all very vivid. I don't do that with any other bloggers, I don't think, (I mean, I think of people as human, just not so vividly) and I don't know exactly what that means, but there is somethign very dear in reading your reviews, and I just wanted to tell you, because this review tickled me that way, and I don't think I've ever mentioned it.

    Sincerely,

    Jason Gignac

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  44. Ive never read any of Virginia Woolf's books but I think you may have convinced me!

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  45. I need to read this. I think I have it in my TBR somewhere. Or Kindle. (That's the problem when you have too many books all over the place...) Thanks for your wonderful review, as always!

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  46. Wow. What a deep and thought-provoking blog post. I've been meaning to reread Mrs. Dalloway! And The Hours is one of my absolute favorite novels ever!

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  47. I'm sad after reading your post that I was foolish enough to see the movie before I read the book. I hate when I do that but based on your review I think I will love the book so it will be okay!

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  48. You write about it so well. I'm very glad you didn't struggle at all with it. I did struggle in the beginning -- I hadn't know exactly what to expect -- but I do hope to reread it some day and fully appreciate it once again.

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  49. Another perspective, if you care to read. I found it a flawed masterpiece, but then everything is flawed. Enjoyed your review.
    http://theknockingshop.blogspot.com/2011/06/mrs-dalloway.html

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.