“But she feared time itself, and read on Lady Bruton’s face as if it had been a dial cut in impassive stone, the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years, the colours, salts, tones of existence...”
In this passage from her 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf casts ahead (she was only 42) to a time when the share of life would have dwindled to a narrow slice. Rereading it in my own middle age, I see much more clearly than I did in my youth that Mrs Dalloway is a book about the purpose of our lives and the encroachment of death.
“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?”
I remember very clearly the moment when I knew I wouldn’t live forever. Lying on the couch reading, as much at peace as I ever was during my turbulent first marriage, it suddenly hit me I was already on the downslide to being 40 years old. My youth had gone – not in terms of my looks, which at that moment didn’t matter at all, but in terms of the number of years I had left to live. These moments are now an eddying stream of moments, as they are for Mrs Dalloway on the day she ventures out to buy the flowers for her party.
“Then (she had felt it only this morning) there was the terror; the overwhelming incapacity, one parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear.”
For those of us in middle age, time passes inexorably, however we may lean back against it, marked by the tolling of bells. “Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First, a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.”
Acknowledging, as we must, the fleeting nature of our existence, we tend to want our lives to have a purpose – whether to lead multitudes, right wrongs, or create a masterpiece – something significant to mark our passing between the cradle and the grave, to leave a handprint on the earth. Clarissa Dalloway frets about her own lack of purpose, fearing that her life has been frivolous, spent only in throwing parties and bringing people together for brief moments of pleasure. But then it occurs to her maybe that was precisely her gift, what she had been born to do.
“It was an offering; to combine; to create; but to whom? An offering for the sake of offering perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled the Armenians and the Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense: and to this day, ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know. All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!-that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all.”
So Mrs Dalloway gives her party. Doors are taken off their hinges, and Chinese lanterns are hung in the fragrant June garden. Rumpelmayer’s men bring the confiseries, while Mrs Walker, the cook, labors in the kitchen among “the plates, saucepans, cullenders, frying-pans, chicken in aspic, ice-cream freezers, pared crusts of bread, lemons, soup tureens, and pudding basins.” Lucy the maid runs into the drawing room to smooth a cover and straighten a chair. Gentlemen wait in the hall while ladies take their cloaks off in the room along the passage where Mrs Barnett (“old Ellen Barnet who had been with the family for forty years”) pins up their hair and helps Lady Lovejoy who is having “some trouble with her underbodice.” Bending and straightening himself at the drawing room door, Mr. Wilkins (“hired for parties”) announces the guests as they arrive, and Clarissa, in "ear-rings and a silver-green mermaid's dress" greets them all with the same effusive phrases, even the Prime Minister, “this majesty passing; this symbol of what they all stood for, English society” who withdraws into a little room with old Lady Bruton. The rooms are packed and the noise is tremendous, and yet Clarissa has been feeling in her bones that her party is going to be a failure, the parts not cohering into a natural flow. And then a yellow curtain covered with birds of Paradise billows at the open window and it seems "as if there were a flight of wings into the room, right out, and then sucked back.” As it bellies out again, Clarissa sees a guest beat it back with his hand and go right on talking, and she knows all will be well. “So it wasn’t a failure after all! It was going to be all right now – her party. It had begun. It had started.”