Tag Archives: Mrs Dalloway

What I learned by writing a critical history of Mrs Dalloway

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was ninety years old this May, and in its lifetime it has been approached from a wide range of critical angles.  My Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway in Palgrave’s Readers’ Guide to Essential Criticism series aims to provide a road map to the criticism and summaries of the most important works from various eras and schools. It also aims to place the critics’ works in the context of the literary criticism of their time. I also try to draw some larger conclusions, and I speculate a little about what might happen next.  This blog is more about what I learned about the history of criticism and about Mrs Dalloway in the process of researching and writing the guide.


(1) Critical histories don’t align neatly with decades

Some of the earlier guides in the series (when it began as the Icon Critical Guides) tidied up their works’ critical histories on a decade-by-decade basis, but even my earliest examination of the key critical texts suggested this wasn’t feasible.  A critic who learned his or her trade in the 1950s when the New Criticism was at its peak might write an insightful book twenty years later, and might have grown bold enough to break with some orthodoxies, but in many cases their work will still embody many of the assumptions that they began with.  I’m thinking here primarily of Avrom Fleishman’s 1977 book on Woolf, but also, more subtly, of Emily Jensen’s “Clarissa Dalloway’s Respectable Suicide”.  I place Jensen’s article on the chapter on sexuality, and it was first published in one of Jane Marcus’s pioneering collections of essays; but some of the critical language that Jensen uses harks back to the New Criticism.  At any given moment criticism might contain dominant, residual, and emergent elements (to borrow Raymond Williams’s terminology).  The chapters of the guide follow a broadly chronological pattern, but there are long overlaps.

(2) No-one can agree how many main characters there are

Mrs Dalloway is full of minor characters, some of them little more than names, but how many central characters are there?  The easiest answer is that there’s one, Clarissa Dalloway.  But to view the novel that way relegates Septimus’s story to being what one critic called a ‘grotesque … episode’.  If we see Septimus as a major character, then the novel has a different centre of gravity, and might even be said to have a different form.  What if we also see Peter Walsh as a significant character? And what if we see Elizabeth Dalloway and her relationship with her mother as important, as marking the presence of a future form of social organization?  As critics promote or demote different characters, the emphasis falls differently; the novel takes a different shape and means something subtly different.

(3) Interesting critical articles sometimes dissolve on closer examination

When Palgrave initially approached me about writing this book, the model for the series was closer to that of a critical anthology: long extracts (1000-2000 words) with generous framing commentaries and critical contextualisation. By the time I’d submitted a proposal, the model had changed, presumably because Palgrave were being asked to pay copyright fees. The change in model was good; it allows for a survey that is more generous in its range and that gives a better indication of the variety of criticism, both the big differences and the subtle.  It also changes the emphasis of the author’s task from being an anthologist to being a summariser, though of course in both models the author has to contextualise the pieces and indicate their strengths and limitations. The problem with being a summariser is that works of criticism in styles that are more performative or associative  don’t survive well.  They can be immensely stimulating, they can present fascinating neglected primary texts or cultural contexts, they can be full of brilliant generalisations, but if at the end the reader is left asking ‘What was the argument?’ or ‘Why was that worth saying?’, it’s much harder to find a place for them in a guide like this one.

(4) Interesting criticism on Michael Cunningham’s The Hours doesn’t always yield new insights into Mrs Dalloway

In writing my Virginia Woolf (2005) for the OUP Authors in Context series, I greatly enjoyed thinking about how adaptations (both filmic and textual) recontextualise the original work and might be taken as a form of criticism.  It seemed logical therefore, in writing this book, to include a chapter on criticism of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.  But fairly early on I set myself the criterion that I wasn’t going to write about all criticism on The Hours: it had to be criticism that also looked at Mrs Dalloway, and in which The Hours cast Woolf’s novel in a new light and allowed us to see something about it more clearly. And when you do that, the number of eligible pieces of criticism reduces drastically. It must be said that some of what remains is among the best formalist criticism that I’ve read on Woolf’s novel: reading the two works side by side allows critics to bring out the brilliance of Woolf’s narrative form. I’m not sure I’d have read Kate Haffey’s ‘Exquisite Moments and the Temporality of the Kiss’ if I hadn’t been writing this book, and I’m glad I did.

(5) Mrs Dalloway looks different with different partner texts

One of the biggest struggles Mrs Dalloway had in the early years of its critical reception was the struggle to escape the shadow of Joyce’s Ulysses, a work crucial to the Kenner & Co. construction of modernism. But there were other, subtler influences. For a long time, To the Lighthouse was deemed to be Woolf’s supreme achievement, and it was the only one of her novels that Leavisite critics would give any time to. If you read Mrs Dalloway under the influence of To the Lighthouse, then it can easily  look like a knowledge about marriage — though a less perfect novel than its successor — and the main characters become Clarissa and Richard, with Septimus and Rezia as their parallels. I don’t give much space to this version of Mrs Dalloway in my book, but it was definitely present in the work of some critics.  Another way of partnering Mrs Dalloway is to find an essay by Woolf to read it with. For the decades where formalist concerns predominated, the obvious partners were ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ and the closely related ‘Character in Fiction’. What’s interesting to observe is how in recent years those essays have come to be taken as read, and with the rise of a more politically focused Woolf, ‘Thunder at Wembley’ has become interesting to several critics.

(6) Sometimes you can’t include interesting and important critics

I found that writing a critical survey of a single novel inevitably foregrounded a certain kind of criticism, one which culminates in, or at least dances around, a ‘reading’ of the novel.  In other words, the ghost of New Criticism can’t quite be laid to rest.  This problem was at its most acute when dealing with critics who wrote about Woolf’s philosophy, or Woolf’s relation to other philosophies.  Such work often involves connecting together a web of references across several different works. The weaving can build a substantial structure, but doesn’t necessarily have anything substantial to say about any single work. The same can also be true for some kinds of cultural materialist work. Inevitably, if a critical article has ‘Mrs Dalloway‘ in its title, it’s more likely to be considered for inclusion than if it doesn’t; if a book has a substantial section on the novel, rather than a generous scattering of references, it’s more likely to have caught my attention. A critical history of Woolf criticism in general — an immense undertaking — would give greater prominence to certain critics who feature here not at all, or who appear only as editors of volumes in which other interesting work was published.

(7) Where now for Mrs Dalloway criticism?

My approach throughout is historicist: how Mrs Dalloway has been approached has been influenced by institutional histories of literary criticism, and sometimes more directly by social and political movements outside the academy. Feminism most obviously: it’s impossible to tell the story of Woolf criticism without telling the story of feminist criticism, and later the story of theories of sexuality. Pacifism is important too: Mrs Dalloway, I suspect, became more prominent in Woolf’s oeuvre than To the Lighthouse because of the Vietnam War and the response to it.  But seeing criticism as historically determined makes it hard to identify future trends  While we can make a guess at trends in literary criticism that will be relevant to Woolf — eco-criticism, let’s say, and comparativism in the new guise of transnational criticism — it’s harder to know exactly how they will play out in the specific case of Mrs Dalloway.  I hope I’ve provided a useful road map, but we’re travelling through time, not space, and the edge of the map is inevitably hazy.


Five Bells, by Gail Jones

Five Bells, by Gail Jones

Five Bells, Gail Jones’s 2011 novel of four characters in one day in Sydney, first came to my attention through Jem Poster’s review for The Guardian, which made much of its similarities to Mrs Dalloway. My 2005 Authors in Context book on Virginia Woolf had included a chapter on the ways in which Woolf’s work is recontextualized by film adaptation and by the kinds of rewriting we find in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Robin Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway, so I was naturally interested to hear of another what might be another such work.  More recently I’ve been working on a reader’s guide to criticism of Mrs Dalloway, and thinking about what creative adaptations (principally The Hours) mean for our understanding of the original novel.  Critical articles that purport to be about both Mrs Dalloway and The Hours are often really only about the latter; they’re uninterested in how Cunningham’s adaptation might make us see the 1925 novel in a new light, or might simply remind us of its strengths.  (Seymour Chatman’s 2005 narratological comparison of the two is the most impressive exception to this rule.)

Jones Gail Five Bells

The novel concerns four characters on a January day in Sydney, all converging on the Circular Quay, from which the Sydney Opera House is visible. Two, Ellie and James, are Australian born (though James’s Italian ancestry is something he is particularly conscious of), and they were friends and lovers as teenagers. Now in their thirties (I think it’s set in 2010 or 2011), they have come to Circular Quay to meet again after many years; it slowly emerges that James, who for many years has been in poor mental health, has recently been involved in a tragic incident and wishes to tell Ellie about it.  The other two characters are Pei Xing, a Chinese-born woman who has settled in Australia, and Catherine, a young Irish woman who is there on holiday.  Each is preoccupied by memories: Pei Xing by her family’s persecution in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and by her father’s work as a translator of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago; Catherine by  the death of her sparky, iconoclastic brother; James by a succession of traumatic incidents; Ellie, by less conspicuously painful memories of her teenage years.  In among these, several of them remember other bits and pieces, phrases from poems and novel and songs, so that when ‘No direction home’ turns up (p.174), you don’t doubt that ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is being invoked.  (I can’t think of another novel that’s as relaxed as this one about popular song being part of the fabric of people’s emotional lives.)  Thematically, Five Bells is about the way we hold memories and that memories hold us; it’s about healthy and unhealthy relationships with the past; it’s about the value of re-engaging with the past, but also the value of detachment and disengagement.

On a first reading, prompted by Jem Poster’s comparison to Mrs Dalloway, it seems as if James is going to be an equivalent to Septimus Warren Smith, but this isn’t The Hours, and Jones isn’t attempting any straightforward mapping of Woolf’s characters on to her own.  Most importantly, there isn’t a Clarissa, no sane truth to set alongside James’s insane truth, no upper middle-class woman whose power contrasts with that of the lower middle-class male, no hostess of parties who might be seen (rightly or wrongly) as a redemptive figure. James is mentally unwell and taking medication, but his illness is nothing like as severe as Septimus’s.  Ellie is predisposed to happiness (I’m paraphrasing), but that attitude is significantly different from Clarissa’s more self-conscious and artificial celebratory trait.

Poster’s comparison is more relevant to what the characters (and Jones’s prose) register as they wander round central Sydney.  Five Bells is particularly good at noticing the urban soundscape:

[Ellie] was filled with corny delight and ordinary elation. Behind her, raddled train-noise reverberated up high, and the didgeridoo, now barely audible, continued its low soft moaning.  A child sounded a squeal. A ferry churned away.  From another came the clang of a falling gang-plank and the sound of passengers embarking (pp.3-4)

There’s an echo here of one of the passages early in Mrs Dalloway that defines Clarissa’s outlook:

In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

But it doesn’t feel like Jones is following Woolf slavishly; more that she’s selected the same palate, but modernised it and transposed it to contemporary Australia.  (The next thing we hear in the passage from Five Bells is ‘Jumping Jack Flash’.)

It’s modernised too in that eventually, but with an impressive inevitability, CCTV and contemporary surveillance culture comes into play.  Quite how Jones hints that this will be so, I’ve not determined, having read it only once, but halfway through I found myself wondering who or what was watching the four characters, and then, in the sixth and final chapter, there it was: a CCTV image capturing two of them.  It may be these expectations came from a recollection of Woolf’s plans for Mrs Dalloway, in which sketchy version Septimus would attempt assassinate the Prime Minister; that led me to wondering what James or another character might do, and how quickly they’d be spotted in a modern city centre.  Perhaps also a hazy recollection of Barbara Vine’s King Solomon’s Carpet, in which I think there might have been a terrorist. But it might simply come from the opening account of the four characters passing through a train station, talk of glimpses and ‘blurred partial vision’, and from Ellie’s reflections in chapter two about this being an age of mediation, and ‘relentless repetition’ of generic images of death and grief in newspapers and on TV. (It’s great though, that alongside those relatively conventional accounts of surveillance culture we can have Ellie’s recollection of her father’s word for old-fashioned aimless people-watching: lollygagging.)

What Five Bells illuminates about Mrs Dalloway is the way that Woolf’s novel relates the extraordinary to the everyday, the epoch-making to the quotidian.  Woolf’s account of Septimus’s insanity is intensely sympathetic, but Five Bells leads to the reflection that there’s something unfortunate about the way that Septimus’s illness has to be yoked to and derived from the Great War; the fact that the novel hints at other aetiologies (above all, Septimus’s sexuality) doesn’t diminish the problem.  Five Bells never really commits to an explanation of James’s illness. There is an early incident involving the slaughter of a chicken, which seems to have become a traumatic memory in the sense of a memory that can’t be assimilated into the main life narrative.  (The grammar describing it is tellingly ambiguous: ‘all of them caught in this drama with the headless chicken that would not do the right thing and straightaway, as it should, just lie down and die’ [p.61].  Is it the memory or the chicken that refuses to die?) But there are other factors for James — his family history, his mother’s own mental illness, the recent tragic incident — and the novel doesn’t want to place them in any kind of hierarchy.  In Catherine’s life, the epoch-changing event is the murder of the Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, but when we eventually learn about the cause of her brother’s death, it has no meaning on a worldwide scale.  (It’s interesting that we’re told Catherine adored U2 from an early age, as their songs so revel in the epic and the epoch-making, whether Bloody Sunday or Martin Luther King, but haven’t found much space for the everyday.  That preference, and the repeated references to Guerin, leave us expecting a more significant death for her brother.)  Its not that Five Bells doesn’t include the Significant Events of History — most obviously it does so in Pei XIng’s experience of the Cultural Revolution — but rather that it refuses to subordinate the everyday to those events.  By contrast, Mrs Dalloway‘s focus on the everyday is always overshadowed by the Great War: the aeroplanes refers back to it; the car backfiring refers back to the trenches and the assassination of the Archduke.  Recently, Elyse Graham and Pericles Lewis have questioned whether Woolf really believes in the sacrificial-redemptive logic that might seem to be implied by Septimus’s suicide and Clarissa’s response to it, and Five Bells also seems to distance itself from that aspect of Woolf’s novel.

A novel as deeply committed to the everyday as Five Bells necessarily has some trouble reaching a conclusion, and the solution that Jones has found in the final chapter involves a modulation into a slightly different style of narrative, a more dramatic one that we aren’t fully prepared for.  (I don’t want to say too much, for the sake of those who haven’t read it yet.)  There’s a kind of Thomas Hardy-like bitter irony about the conclusion, where trivial causes and a failure to communicate have terrible consequences.

#bookadayUK (29): Most re-read

Mrs Dalloway or Scrambled Eggs Super!?  I was on the verge of choosing the former, when I saw someone else tweet Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea, and realised that across six months or so last year and earlier this year, I read Dr Seuss’s egg-collecting romance epic pretty much every night to our three/four-year-old.  And although my re-readings of Mrs Dalloway may stretch into the dozens, I’ve no reason to think that they run over a hundred.


But there’s a respect in which I have genuinely re-read Mrs Dalloway more often than Scrambled Eggs Super. When I’m reading the latter, I’m scarcely little more than a vocalisation machine for Dr Seuss’s words. I tried, for the sake of my own sanity, to find minor variations in rhythm and intonation each time I read it: sometimes running one line into another, sometimes emphasising line-endings and rhymes; sometimes accelerating and decelerating.  But for all that I tried, it’s not particularly flexible verse for a reader; it’s got its own insistent rhythms and it doesn’t want to allow you much leeway.  And as for interpretation at a semantic level, if there is scope for that, I’ve not risen to the challenge.

Whereas with Mrs Dalloway, each re-reading has brought new emphases, has found new images emerging, or new interconnections, or new questions as to why Woolf does what she does.  Although I have re-read it cover-to-cover many times, I’ve also re-read selected scenes and episodes far more often, sometimes with a view to an impending class or tutorial, sometimes with a view to writing a lecture or seminar paper. I first read it in an unannotated Grafton paperback in 1987, as one of several novels by Woolf for one of my first-year tutorials;  that was the copy I was still using when I decided that Woolf would form part of my doctorate, probably sometime in 1991 or 1992.  When I started teaching Woolf for a module at Bangor (1996 or 1997) I insisted that everyone use the Oxford World’s Classics editions, but soon after had to obtain the Penguin Classics ones for writing a chapter in the Cambridge Companion.  Then in 2000 David Bradshaw did an excellent new edition for Oxford World’s Classics and I had to learn to find my way around yet another pagination. As I’ve become more familiar with it, re-reading a small part reactivates memories of the whole; also, as I’ve become familiar with the various copies I’ve owned, I’ve learned to find passages quickly, in spite of the lack of chapter divisions.

Mrs Dalloway teaches its reader about the power of repetition and echo from the very start: everyone notices Big Ben and the leaden circles dissolving in air, and many readers must be grateful to have Big Ben’s chimes as a substitute for chapter divisions, as a fixed reference point in the text in the absence of chapter divisions, even while the text reminds us that there’s a kind of violence in such divisions and subdivisions, through the clocks of Harley Street slicing and shredding the day.  Once you’ve followed that cue, there are plenty of others: those shaped around the parallelism between Septimus and Clarissa, especially, but also others that are more elusively riddling such as Peter Walsh’s image of himself as a buccaneer being echoed in Elizabeth Dalloway’s idea of the omnibus being a pirate ship.  Mrs Dalloway has rhythms: not — or not only — prose rhythms, but structural rhythms.  Unlike Dr Seuss’s verse rhythms, they’re subtle and they allow the reader great flexibility about where to place the emphasis.  As Woolf said in her often-quoted essay ‘Modern Fiction’, ‘the accent falls differently from of old.’