“Mrs. Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence.”

JMRL Brown Baggers met to discuss Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway August 18th at the Central Library.  Written in 1925, the book takes place over one day in June, 1923, London. Clarissa Dalloway is buying the flowers herself for a party she is throwing that evening. In a stream of consciousness style, readers are “put in the picture” as Clarissa goes through her day, meeting the various characters whose paths she crosses and her remembrances of times past. The other significant character in the story is Septimus Smith, a shell shocked WWI veteran.

Our readers either really liked or disliked this particular Woolf title (though we had one reader who “thought the writing was brilliant, but hated the book”).  Some felt that To the Lighthouse is a better choice if you are only going to read one Woolf title.

Debates in our discussion included whether Mrs. Dalloway had regrets about her life choices; did she waste her life? Mrs. Dalloway herself states that “she knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book…Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct, she thought…”    This is her talent; she connects people.

Was Mrs Dalloway a feminist?                                                  

Female characters were more fleshed out and included more of a cross section of the period’s society and classes. Who was the male lead?  Peter Walsh? Septimus Smith or Richard Dalloway? Our readers agreed that the male characters were all of the same general class/kind. 

Themes and symbolism included the passage of time, with Big Ben tolling throughout the day, and a fear of death.  “She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”  In addition to the aftermath and devastation of WWI, Woolf herself and Mrs. Dalloway, the character, were both survivors of the Spanish Flu of 1919.  Life is continually passing and we are nearing death.

Apparently there are alternate ending/versions of Mrs. Dalloway and our group found it remarkable that we’ve read two books this summer that reference suicide by jumping out a window. (See Passing by Nelle Larsen).

Related articles:

Virginia Woolf: writing death and illness into the national story of post first World War Britain

Why Anxious Readers Under Quarantine Turn to “Mrs. Dalloway”

Additional titles mentioned:

Mrs Dalloway film

The Hours book & film

Ulysses by James Joyce

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Upcoming titles:

“If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and then the world would be a more peaceful place.”

Central library Brown Baggers book group met in person on Thursday, July 21st to discuss
News of the World by Paulette Jiles.  

Set in post Civil War Texas, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels from town to town reading the news from around the country and the world to citizens eager and willing to pay to listen.  In a town near Indian territory, Capt. Kidd becomes bound by duty to return 10 yr. old Johanna to her biological relatives.  Joanna had been captured and held captive by the Kiowa Indians after her parents were murdered.  Having been with the Kiowas for 5 years, Johanna does not long for her birth family, but wants to run back to her Kiowa family. However, she does form a bond with Capt. Kidd and the Capt. works hard to re-civilize her and teach her how to speak English.  They become close, depending on one another through various perils they encounter on their journey.  

“News of the World”  was believable and seemed to be an accurate representation of life at that time.  The relationship between the Capt. and Johanna is symbiotic, but our readers pointed out that the Capt. had options and resources, while Johanna really had none. Our readers enjoyed the story, but some felt the ending might have been too neatly wrapped up and sugar coated. 

There was much discussion of non-formulaic Westerns and the Western genre with many additional authors and titles suggested.

Finally for those interested, Tom Hanks portrays Capt. Kidd in the 2020 film version of News of the World which can be borrowed from JMRL.

Other titles/authors mentioned:

Simon the Fiddler – Paulette Jiles

True Grit – Charle Portis

The Light in the Forest – Conrad Richter

The Heart of Everything That Is – Bob Drury and Thomas Clavin

The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier – Scott Zesch

Empire of the Summer Moon – S.C. Gwynne

Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry

Shane – Jack Schaefer

Riders of the Purple Sage – Zane Grey

Ivan Doig

Wallace Stegner

Join the Brown Baggers on Thursday, Aug. 18th to discuss Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. 

Upcoming titles:

“Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away.”

Brown Baggers book club met on Thursday, June 16th to discuss Passing by Nella Larsen. This classic work was originally published in 1929. Larsen, a mixed race woman herself, was the first black woman to graduate from New York Public Library’s library school and was the first black woman to win a Guggenheim Award for creative writing (1930). 

The novel focuses on two childhood friends, reuniting after many years of living completely different lives. One friend, Clare, chose to pass for white, and the other friend, Irene, became an integral part of her black community. According to our book club members, this topic was considered sensationally popular to write about back in the 1920s, and remained through the years a topic that intrigued consumers of books, television, movies, and other media. 

When it was first published, people did not respond favorably to the work. We discussed that this was likely because it revealed that racial “trickery” is possible, which would have made white readers very uncomfortable. In addition, the erotic subtext between Clare and Irene is another instance of passing presented (very subtly) in the novel; it can be argued that the women pass as heteronormative, when in fact, sexual ambiguity may be at play. 

One of our most interesting discussions revolved around how the movie, released in 2021 and currently available to watch on Netflix, differs from the book. Readers noted that in the book, all the information presented comes straight from Irene’s head – there is no omniscient narrator here, much to the displeasure of some readers, who wanted more from Clare. To me it almost sounds like Larsen has written the book in a way that pushes readers to pine for Clare’s point of view more…intimately. Maybe in the way Irene secretly pines for more intimacy with Clare? 

In the movie, this isn’t possible in the same way. So much of the ambiguity from the book is lost (although the ambiguous ending remains intact). In the book, Irene is a classic unreliable narrator. There is so much at stake for her as her suspicions surrounding her husband’s fidelity and even his sexuality mount – her social status, even her homeland. Readers also noted that the movie doesn’t hint at a potential lesbian attraction between the women. 

For our readers wondering why the movie was shot in black and white: for director Rebecca Hall, “shooting Passing in black and white was a non-negotiable request from her end” as a “black-and-white filming approach would blur these lines [of the segregated society], strengthening its intended message…” Hall also added, “The irony of black-and-white films is they’re gray, there’s nothing black or white about it, ever.” Black-and-white filming places more emphasis on light, shadow, and camera exposure; the screen becomes more textured, creating more depth. This depth mirrors the heaviness of life as a black, non-heterosexual in America in the 1920s….and even today. 

To read more about the movie, check out this article

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, July 21st at noon to discuss News of the World by Paulette Jiles. 

Other books: 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson 

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Jeffers

My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson 

Blindness by José Saramago

Show Boat by Edna Ferber 

A Chosen Exile by Allyson Hobbs 

The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher