Bi Book Club: Mrs. Dalloway

By Jennie Roberson

August 28, 2020

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Hello, my fellow bi bookworms! I was looking back at my last few book reviews and realized I’d gone through a spate of, well… not typical books. To be clear, I’m all for a good graphic novel or an insightful memoir— I’m not a book snob in any sense of the word. But sometimes it’s nice, when you have spare time, to dive into a great work of fiction. Even more so if you’re finally getting around to one of those (supposedly) heady tales deemed a “literary classic". And if we can find one written by an O.G. bicon focusing on complex bi lead characters? Well, that’s a win in my book. 

Heralded as one of the great novels of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway certainly had an impact on literary and popular culture. The story has been adapted into a major motion picture starring Vanessa Redgrave, as well served as the basis of the Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours by Michael Cunningham— which was later adapted into the Oscar-winning film of the same name. But moreover, it is a landmark piece of literature and an accessible triumph of stream-of-consciousness form.

Before I get too deep into this analysis, I should note that, as with all my reviews, there will be SPOILERS in this column about the 1925 book. I figure 95 years is long enough to go without spoilers, but still. You’ve been warned.

I first read Mrs. Dalloway back in college during a Modernism in Literature class. We had covered Joyce’s work ad nauseam, so to come across work from a major female voice, especially as a baby bi in search of relatable literature, brought me a feeling of existential relief I still remember to this day. 

I will be the first to admit Mrs. Dalloway is not heavy on plot, which can be frustrating for readers. The very basics of the story follow our title character, the socialite Clarissa Dalloway, on a June day in London in 1923, as she prepares to throw an elegant party. She spends her day prepping and musing on her own past. We also encounter Septimus, a WWI vet dealing with delayed PTSI, as he navigates his day while experiencing flashbacks of his time in the battlefield. But the novel is less an exercise in byzantine story twists than exploring the nature of emotion and memory within a person’s own timeline.

That said, bisexuality is still the emotional crux of at least one of the main characters. Clarissa (Dalloway) knows that, despite the happiness that comes from her attraction to (and kiss with) childhood chum Sally Seton, social restraints of her time make a relationship not an “option” for her. However, we also see Clarissa go through emotional choices between men she is attracted to as well, leaving us in little doubt as to her sexual orientation decades later. Even though I hadn’t read the novel for years, to this day I still remember the imagery of the “match burning in a crocus" not only as powerful, but incredibly potent in demonstrating sapphic arousal and passion Clarissa holds for Sally.

In contrast, while Septimus’ main emotional thrust is about his overlooked and misunderstood state of mental health, allusions to his sexual attraction to his wartime superior, the late Evans, are not to be overlooked. It’s no coincidence that, of all people, Evans is the image his hallucinations take on. While it seems like Septimus’ marriage to Lucrezia used to hold passion, that’s clearly waned as he finds himself more and more disgusted with heteronormative sexual encounters. I would still read him as a queer man— though a deeply troubled one.

Also, his unusual name holds an extra layer of foreshadowing for the close reader; Septimus is Latin for “seventh” (which Woolf knew and spoke about with her famous Bloomsbury Group— sometimes to the point of controversy). In Dante’s Inferno, the poet observes the seventh circle of hell is the destination for those who die by suicide— an etymological warning of Septimus’ ultimate fate. These are the types of Easter eggs Woolf loved to drop throughout her prose.

On a personal note, Mrs. Dalloway becomes a far more rich and poignant read as I’ve aged and loved— and loved some who have taken a different path. We like to think we have tons of original thoughts, but we all still have Proust-like flashbacks at the sight of something— or someone— triggering those memories. I don’t want to go too academic in breaking down this idea, so instead I’ve transcribed dialogue from Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything that gets at the heart of what I’m saying— and what is going through Clarissa’s mind:

LLOYD
All right, all right, calm down.
Nothing’s different.
COREY
Lloyd, listen to me: everything has changed. You’ve had sex.
No matter what you might think, nothing will ever be the same between you two. You might be sixty, you might be walking down the street, and you run into her and talk about something— whatever. But what you’ll really be thinking is:
“WE HAD SEX.”

Sure, Clarissa and Sally didn’t “do the deed," but the romantic encounter the two had holds the same potency for Clarissa’s mind.

No matter how delightful and vivid of a read Mrs. Dalloway is, it is not unlike reading an incredibly extended poem. The density of the imagery and literary colors Woolf throws onto the palette of her pages are immensely rewarding, but the book is not exactly a beach read. Still, it’s an immensely satisfying queer read— even outside of the circles of former English majors.

Ultimately, I was left with a feeling described as sonder. As overwhelming as that emotion is, the delight in the interconnection and how unknowable all of us are elevated my reading experience into an exquisite plane of appreciation that’s rarely reached.

No review can really do Mrs. Dalloway justice— honestly, I just tried to stick to the themes which are important for bi readers, but there are tons of other themes here worthy of your own exploration. Hopefully, like Clarissa with her flowers, you will decide to read it for yourself.

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