It took a call-out from Penguin’s elegant ‘book club centred around a magazine’, The Happy Reader, to an evening discussing Mrs Dalloway that encouraged me to read Virginia Woolf’s novel. I confess: I’ve never attended a book group. But the occasion was a pleasure from start to finish.
We talked about the novel in its London, post-War setting, and Clarissa in her milieu as wife of a mid-ranking politician whom she does not love, aware of society’s expectations of her but attuned to her own, internal life.
And I had confirmed my suspicion while reading Mrs Dalloway that my own protagonist, Minna Jepson, 31 years old in 2014 (when I started the book), is actually 52-year-old Clarissa Dalloway in 1925.
‘It was to explain the theory they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other? You met every day; then not for six months, or years. It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not “here, here, here”; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or anyone, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter – even trees, or barns …’
Minna is both sustained by friendships near and far and diminished by them. Ready to Love follows her progress as she comes to rely less on what she thinks she feels (or what other people tell her) and more on her own conviction. It’s a process she manages herself, but other people nudge her towards it. Perhaps she couldn’t have done it by herself. Similarly, Clarissa puts herself through a great deal of anguish in her need to savour life.
We’ve already looked at how you don’t know what you’re doing till it’s done, but how did I manage to channel Virginia Woolf? Do I wish I’d read Woolf’s book sooner? I could have pitched Ready to Love as an homage, perhaps, and tagged publication to a Woolf anniversary – there’s always something. But I’m not a lifelong Woolf fan, I haven’t read enough of her books. I don’t want to rewrite other people’s books. I don’t really want to read other people’s pastiches.
I suppose, if I read Middlemarch, for instance, I might latch on to parallels with other characters. The point is this: whether we realise it or not, we don’t write in isolation. We don’t read in isolation, either, even if the act of doing so – curled up in a quiet room – is private. As Susan Hill once said, we read so that we don’t feel alone in the world.
I take comfort from that, as a reader and writer. I’m pleased too that I came to Mrs Dalloway without feeling any obligation to it. It’s fun to think of connections, and to feel that you have concerns in common with other writers and, by association, readers.
Is there a character in fiction about whom you think, ‘C’est moi!’? In a good or bad way? Or maybe there’s a character you’d like to be. Or marry. Or—well, or are you happy to let the exist only in the pages of fiction, and to close the covers, and return to your real world life?