Clarissa Dalloway spends much of the novel reminiscing about one eventful summer at Bourton—her childhood country home—when she was a teenager. It was here that the most significant characters in the novel (Peter, Clarissa, Richard Dalloway, and Sally Seton) spent time together. In many ways, the novel asks and answers the question: to what extent is who we are as adults determined by who we were as children? Woolf introduces Bourton with nostalgia and foreboding, as early as the first page:
For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen.
There is loaded language here that suggests beauty, innocence, and danger.
The essential tension at the summer home is that between tradition and change. Sally Seton embodies a new, bohemian, liberal freedom, while Clarissa's family represents traditional mores. Like Sally, Peter challenges Clarissa, asking her to think deeply, to question, and to rebel against snobbery and rigidity. However, the calm, certain, stable, comfortable future promised by Richard Dalloway proves to be the better choice to her.
Years later, of course, Clarissa still thinks about this choice. She has deep, complicated feelings for Peter but suggests that he would have loved her too intensely for the marriage to be a success.
So she would still find herself arguing in St. James’s Park, still making out that she had been right—and she had too—not to marry [Peter]. For in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house; which Richard gave her, and she him. (Where was [Richard] this morning for instance? Some committee, she never asked what.) But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into.
She feared the prospect of a relationship with Peter due to the ardency of their connection, but Richard is also the safer bet financially. Peter never finished college and has been less stable—and certainly less rich—which matters to Clarissa (even if she would struggle to admit it). Peter's critique that she is a "perfect hostess" cuts to the bone because he's so right. Clarissa is most comfortable with gaiety, frivolity, enjoyment, and superficiality. A relationship with Peter would have been a passionate disaster.