On Saturday night, a few dozen friends gathered in a friend’s apartment in Upper Manhattan for a party to celebrate the publication of Mrs. Dalloway. After working on this edition for eleven years, I knew there needed to be a publication party and I knew it had to be just right. It was perfect.
But what’s uncanny and wonderful about throwing a party in honor of a book about a woman throwing a party is all the echoes of the book that inevitably occur. A few moments, then, each with an echo, distant or close, to something in the book.
Oh, the nerves of a hostess throwing a party. It happens every time before I have guests over: I wake up and, thinking about all that needs to happen before the party, it feels like the party is a folly and the most appealing way to spend the evening is not with friends but alone, knitting and listening to some soothing classical music. The anxiety is so ridiculous and so profound and has no real connection to what needs to be done. In this case, the cheese (from Murrays) was going to be delivered, the wine (from Astor) was going to be delivered, the sparkling water (Costco!) was in the basement, my friend was getting her apartment ready. All I had to do was buy the flowers. So why was I thinking of Clarissa’s fear, “Why, after all, did she do these things? Why seek pinnacles and stand drenched in fire?”
I bought the flowers myself, of course.
I don’t know any Ellie Hendersons (she’s the poor aunt whom Clarissa invites only reluctantly), but the only people who get in touch with a hostess on the day of a party are the ones who have fallen sick or are snowed in. Oh, these messages make me so sad. My Miss Manners advice is to write those regrets in a message just as the party is beginning—then your regrets are first encountered in the afterglow I was so very grateful for the friend who left a voice mail telling me how excited she was to see me later and offering to bring something special. That was cheering.
My friend’s apartment had a real New York fire escape and peek-a-boo views of the George Washington Bridge. At one point, my younger daughter asked me to make an announcement about the lovely pink sunset because she was so little that no one paid attention to her.
We never envisioned dancing, but we did want music. After a little effort, we figured out how to get my friend’s turntable running and we put on a few records. The sound of classical music on vinyl coming out of an old hi-fi was perfect for a Woolf party.
I had wanted to give a toast, but there was never a moment when it seemed right to do so. If it had, I would have thanked my wonderful, and generous hostess, my family and all my friends, absent and present, who put up with my whining, my updates, my stress, my footnotes of the day, for all these years. I would also have thanked Virginia Woolf (born January 25, 1882) and my mother (also born January 25th, but more recently). Without them, no me.
But not finding the moment to give a toast is the equivalent of beating the curtains back: it means the party was a success—it didn’t need that structure for it to work. People ate and drank and were merry.
At one point someone looked over at my older daughter, did a double take, and then realized that that beautiful girl was not just another party guest, but my daughter. We called her over and made her blush at the compliment even as we laughed at how we’d Elizabeth Dalloway-ed her.
The Prime Minister did not come, but because of the snow in the morning, I wasn’t sure if many would make it at all. With each new face—colleagues, graduate students, friends, Woolf scholars from other schools in the city, novelists, and artists, I felt that delight: oh, it’s you! Wonderful!
For there they were. My friends. Such a treat. So grateful.