Mrs. Dalloway's Party by Virginia Woolf, adapted by Miranda Davies and Lucy Collingwood

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BBC Radio 4, 15-17 February 2011
This series of three short stories in the Afternoon Reading slot ("Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street," "Together and Apart," and "The New Dress") were set in London society in the early twentieth century, and involved the experiences of shopping, meeting a man and going to a society party. Read by Sylvestra le Touzel, Emma Fielding and Amanda Root, the stories had a quasi-hypnotic quality, with their long sentences comprised of multiple subordinate clauses, words repeated close together (often in the same phrase), and words used as much for their sound as their sense. Woolf's writing might be considered pretentious by some critics, but I believe that she is deliberately employing the stream-of-consciousness technique to recreate as far as possible the workings of the human mind ranging across a variety of topics in a short space of time. She is interested in how her protagonists react to different situations; how their imaginations oscillate between past, present, and future, often within one paragraph. In "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street" we learn something of what it feels like for Mrs. Dalloway to enter a shop and find herself unable to remember the name of someone familiar sitting opposite her. In "Together and Apart" two complete strangers are introduced at Mrs. Dalloway's party, and the woman finds herself unable to respond coherently to the man's entreaties. In "The New Dress" Mabel arrives at the party in her new yellow dress, of which she is particularly proud; when she sees the other guests, however, she wishes she hadn't worn it at all. The stories demonstrate Woolf's sympathy for her protagonists' plight; rather than judging them she tries to communicate their feelings to her readers. I had never thought of her as a humanist before; these stories persuaded me otherwise.
On the other hand the stories revealed Woolf's preoccupation with class and social status. She frequently looked down on those less fortunate than herself: while the stories do not betray much snobbery, they show the protagonists yearning to improve themselves, or speculating on why members of their respective families have endangered their social prospects by marrying beneath them. The suggestion is obvious: emotional fulfilment can only be achieved if you pursue the kind of life appropriate to your social status, or your social aspirations. Such concerns might have seemed significant in early twentieth century London; but they appear a little outmoded in today's more egalitarian world, where status depends on money rather than one's social background. I am not suggesting that Woolf's work is out of date; but rather like Evelyn Waugh she reflects the mores of the period in which she lived. On this view the trilogy of tales can be viewed as an analysis of middle or upper-middle class attitudes and how they affected women's perceptions of the world around them. The producer was Lucy Collingwood.