I first encountered this wonderful Virginia Woolf quote - I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure - on a bookmark in the British Library in London. I had a little time between meetings while at a conference in the city, and decided to use the break to have a little look at books, because, well, books are great.
After fangirling over their collection of Stefan Zweig letters, and looking over a Russian literature collection - promoting an exhibition taking place at the time - at the front of the store, I picked up a copy of Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog and headed further in. It was here I came across the bookmark, and became instantly captivated by the beauty of the quote.
I think for any bibliophile, those words perfectly explain our feelings of being surrounded by books. Each bound volume is a new chest full of possibilities, filled to the brim with pure gold and jewels.
This bookmark has kept my place in more than a few books over the past year or two; it is currently set in Zweig's The World of Yesterday, and was recently used as I sat down to read my first book by Virginia Woolf; Mrs Dalloway.
Only a few months later I almost feel I need to read it again to truly get at the full depth of the novel, especially after reading around it a little. It's short, focusing on a single day in the life of a few varied characters, primarily our titular Clarissa Dalloway, but these facts belie its depth.
It is a modernist masterpiece delving into a time when, after the First World War, the place of women in society and age-old class structures are in flux. Clarissa is an ordinary women of her class and time, but currently finds her life lacking. Her identity is tied directly to her husband (the novel is titled 'Mrs Dalloway' and not 'Clarissa Dalloway'), an MP, and now in her 50s, she has little independence and nothing to occupy herself other than her role as a support to her husband. Her class is living on borrowed time, in an era when both women and the working class are fighting for greater rights.
As she prepares for a party to be held that night, she feels listless and she starts to wonder at the choices she has made in life, and how a different path in youth may have turned out.
Next to her ponderings, we find Septimus Warren Smith, a man suffering from shellshock and lost within his own mind. He is angry at society for what it has done to him and how it seems unwilling to help, and for how he is unable to take care of his wife. While the upper classes seem to have escaped the worst of the war, he, a working class man, has lost everything due to it, even his mind.
Woolf shows us how even these two very different figures, upper and working class, woman and man, can relate to one another, in this time of upheaval.
Parts of the novel can be a little bit of a mind twister owing to the stream of consciousness used to enter the minds of her characters. I did find myself getting lost on occasion in these parts where the character's ramble over their thoughts, and had to go back and read certain parts. So I'd say it's not a novel for a day when your head is having a bit of trouble concentrating, and has me thinking that maybe James Joyce's Ulysses is something I'll never attempt. (Although Woolf claimed to hate Ulysses, she used it as an inspiration for Mrs Dalloway.)
But if you are prepared to take your time with the novel, delve into the character's thoughts and picture the changing world they find themselves in, I think you'll find a lot within the pages of this book.
I'm currently mulling over which Woolf book I would like to tackle next. I absolutely love this colourful edition of Mrs Dalloway (shown in the photograph at the head of this review) and would love to collect all of this release of Woolf's books. I'm currently finding myself swayed towards A Room of One’s Own. What do you think?
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