The lustre had gone out of her

“And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it⎯a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!” ⎯Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

It was like sleepaway camp, and just as at camp, the friendships flared fast, intense, and brief. The conference site, a large “country hall” about 200 miles northwest of London on vast ancestral grounds, looked like something out of a fairy tale:

Gregynog exterior2.JPG

It was improbable that I was there at all; even more improbably, although I heard others grousing about their cramped accommodations and shared bathrooms, I had somehow been assigned a spacious suite, complete with a fireplace, a writing desk, a huge bed, and an incomparable view.


Somewhere on the train between St. Pancras and the Welsh border, my life had become enchanted.

Maybe that’s why when I saw her, it was easy to walk right up and introduce myself. Or why it didn’t feel strange to talk for hours with a girl I barely knew, heads bent together over glasses of Irish whiskey in the hall’s after-hours bar. Or why after the first day I was imagining us returning together to that way-too-big suite. Isn’t that how a fairy tale should end?

This last idea stretched far beyond the merely improbable, and I knew it. Still, the whole environment was so magical, so romantic, that it seemed a shame to let reality intrude. In the mornings, all the conference-goers took breakfast in the communal dining area. The rest of the day we shared our scholarship in long-windowed rooms, the presenters’ talks occasionally interrupted by the bleats of sheep grazing nearby. Regular tea breaks in the library⎯the essence of British civility, with shortbread, scones and clotted cream⎯punctuated the days with elemental pleasure. And in the evenings she and I went for walks on the cool wooded paths surrounding the hall.

Nothing happened, and nothing was going to happen: I was attached (albeit to a woman over 3000 miles away), and she, I was nearly certain, was straight. But rather than deflating the fantasy, these simple facts held it aloft. We were suspended in a state of pure possibility, and neither of us was willing to draw it to a close. No obligation, no rush, just a long look or a head resting on a shoulder.

Until the conference ended, and we went our very separate ways. There was no love affair, but it was no less ardent for that. After all, if the topography of our mental world is determined by thoughts and memories, dreams are the deep oceans that cover the other seventy percent.

As time has passed and my life has evolved into something even better than fantasy⎯a tangible happiness⎯I’ve lost the need to be sustained by such blatant flights of imagination. But those days at the country hall, so vivid and exceptional, have occupied a singular place in my emotions, like Clarissa Dalloway’s “infinitely precious” memory of being kissed by Sally Seton, which she keeps wrapped up and tucked deep in her heart as the years tick away.


Cut to ten years later, last weekend: another conference, this one at a generic American hotel. As I stood at the metro station waiting for a cab, a chance meeting with Helen, an old grad school classmate: “My god, you look exactly the same!” she said. “You haven’t changed at all.”

I happened to be walking with Helen the next day, when in the corridor between sessions I saw the girl from my dream⎯or, at least, a version of her. In the intervening years she had landed a great job, become the second wife of a gray eminence in our profession (a man who puts the “senior” in “senior scholar”), and⎯perhaps in an effort to be taken seriously⎯adopted the air of a settled, rather smug, matron. Where was the goddess of my mind’s eye⎯her flaxen hair, her flashing blue eyes? This woman was fast approaching full-blown middle age. Carrying the glowing coal of her memory for all these years suddenly seemed ridiculous.

Toward the end of Woolf’s novel, an uninvited guest, “Lady Rosseter,” arrives at Mrs. Dalloway’s party. For a moment, Clarissa doesn’t recognize her⎯the aristocratic name, the air of respectability. Then, in the very next moment, she is overwhelmed by a tumble of feelings: realization, surprise, disappointment, acceptance. It is her own Sally Seton.

“The lustre had gone out of her. Yet it was extraordinary to see her again, older, happier, less lovely.”

(skip to 7:30-8:05)

Back to the hotel corridor, the thickening matron. “My God, I almost didn’t recognize you,” she said to me. “You look so different!” As she spoke, I realized she was having a Sally Seton moment, too.

12 responses to “The lustre had gone out of her”

  1. ScottyGee says:

    Is it empowering, cynical, depressing to conclude that the people in our romantic minds really only exist as our own creations, and only continue on in our minds through our careful grooming and upkeep? Either way, I loved your post.

  2. Tim says:

    Does she have five enormous boys?

  3. Tim says:

    I just had to let my first comment stand on its own, unsullied by anything else.

    I really enjoyed this meditation on the allure and memory of unfulfilled desire. How strange it is to meet someone from one’s past by chance under changed circumstances and realize the role she has played in your memory in no way matches up with her current reality. The disappointment is hard to put aside entirely, but the memories remain. Treasure them.

  4. Rachel says:

    No enormous boys, as far as I know, unless you count books and articles.

    The site is unbelievably quiet today. Where are all you modernists?

  5. Dis-Couraged says:

    I was hiding the light of my modernist passion inside a bureaucratic faculty meeting and a stack of Shakespeare papers like a match in a crocus, unfortunately, while you were all blackberrying in the sun. The sheet was stretched and the bed narrow, trust me. But this is gorgeous. I read it before my meeting, practically drooling, and savored it all day.

  6. swells says:

    Sorry, that was me, but at the risk of revealing someone’s identity, I must insist that I am NOT Dis-Couraged, and can’t imagine who is.

  7. Andrea E says:

    Rachel, I just read (and watched) your post and had a beautiful moment of time standing still amidst the blather of my office. thank you thankyou I will savor it too.

  8. Rachel says:

    Thanks for commenting, Andrea (and everyone). It was very strange to write this–like smashing up antique furniture to throw on the fire.

    swells, you’re brilliant. Your allusion to Woolf’s description of others “blackberrying in the sun” while Clarissa is up in her tower is magnificent. (I think you’ll find, though, that most of this crowd uses iPhones instead.)

  9. J-Man says:

    8. I second that emotion of the second paragraph.

    To Swells I say (and to quote an oft maligned, but beautifully photographed movie) “Now why don’t she write?”

  10. Stella says:

    I loved this so much, it’s brilliant. The promise is often so much greater than the fulfillment. And the memory of the promise is the greatest of all.

    But I have to say I loathed the film clips, well the first one, I couldn’t bring myself to the second. Clarissa is so much more than that silly portrayal. And isn’t she small? Birdlike?

  11. Rachel says:

    I agree with you somewhat re: the movie clips, Stella. Vanessa Redgrave makes a persuasive enough Clarissa Dalloway in the second clip, but she is 5’9″ (and was once 5’11”!), after all. Natascha McElhone is gorgeous, but not birdlike in the least, and didn’t quite have the acting chops for the role when this film was made.

    Is Woolf even filmable?

  12. Tim says:

    “Is Woolf even filmable?”

    I have never seen this film and didn’t watch the clips, for the very reason that I don’t think that Mrs. Dalloway is filmable at all.