Mrs Dalloway is the Virginia Woolf novel for our time, before and after the pandemic

Mica Murphy/Penguin

Lately, I can’t stop thinking about Mrs DallowayVirginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece, which follows 51-year-old Clarissa Dalloway through 1923 London as she prepares to throw a party, reveals – via her interactions with those around her and the memories they provoke – a lifetime in just a single day.

It’s been nearly a century since its 1925 publication, yet the novel’s resonance – and its literary reputation – have only grown. I’d be lying if I said the Covid-19 lockdown hasn't played a part in why the novel has been on my mind so much. In self-isolation, the repetitive cycle of preparing meals, eating them, and washing the dishes, of days spent indoors until the sun sets, only to wake up and start again – all while thoughts of illness, death, loneliness intrude – can feel like an age. It’s a concept with which Woolf is well-acquainted.

Mrs Dalloway captures the way life can sometimes feel as though it spools from a single, frozen moment – as it does in the mere minute or so while Peter Walsh, whose marriage proposal Clarissa turned down decades ago in favour of the more staid Richard Dalloway, visits her in her drawing-room the morning of her party. In just moments her thoughts flicker from “how impossible it was to ever make up my mind – and why did I make up my mind – not to marry him”, and imagining an entire lifetime with Walsh, to how impossibly irritating he is. Clarissa’s feelings of resentment and jealousy, countless memories of intense love and regret, and impulses of right and wrong commingle in a minute that contains a life’s worth of emotion.

Yet, in many ways, Mrs Dalloway’s curent ubiquity feels like it’s been a long time coming – much further back than the start of lockdown.

For most of the past few decades, it felt widely accepted that Woolf’s masterpiece was To the Lighthouse. Modern Library placed Lighthouse at number 15 in their 1998 list of the 100 Best Novels (a list that Dalloway didn’t crack), and while both made TIME’s similar (though unranked) 2010 list, author Lev Grossman wrote that after Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse “raised the stakes and broadened her focus”.

I disagree. Told across a 10-year span, To the Lighthouse explicitly posits time as a linear force that, with its never-ending passage, exalts or buries everything in its wake. That’s not the way life has felt in the decades since 1927.

Rather, as the world seems to spin faster – as globalisation and the news cycle and even the patterns of nostalgia and history speed up – time becomes, to quote True Crime’s Rustin Cohle (who is himself paraphrasing Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return), a “flat circle”. Everything happens at once, memory and experience and meaning colliding until truth itself becomes harder to parse.

“She would not say of any one in the world now,” narrates Dalloway early on, “that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on."

Woolf conveys a sense of time’s flatness over and over throughout Mrs Dalloway, thought and expression and action all happening at once, particularly in Clarissa’s drawing-room where, both before and after Peter’s visit, her thoughts are intruded upon persistently by “Lady Bruton not asking her to lunch; which, she thought (combing her hair finally), is utterly base! Now where was her dress?”

Who hasn’t experienced a intrusive thought like this during a rare moment of focus? Replace “dress” with “phone” and Woolf’s depiction of thought and memory feels as modern as books written this year.

So while it’s true that Mrs Dalloway feels resonant with lockdown, we are not, I don’t think, “all Mrs. Dalloway now” as The New Yorker posited in their April essay, ‘Why Anxious Readers Under Quarantine Turn to Mrs. Dalloway’; not suddenly, anyway. We have all been Mrs Dalloway, increasingly, for decades.

Nor have our ordinary acts “come to seem momentous, a matter of life or death” only during lockdown. Mrs Dalloway is a momentous novel, but the fictional day across which it takes place is not; it’s just a day. It could be a day spent in lockdown, a day on which carbon emissions are finally and rigorously regulated, or a day when statues are pulled to the ground. Clarissa Dalloway, writes Woolf, “always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day”. A day, after all, might as well be a lifetime.

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