Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

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.


Virginia Woolf in recent novels

26 March 2015 was the centenary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out.  That’s an extraordinary and disconcerting fact for me.  In so many ways she still feels so in touch with modernity, and not just an abstract ‘modernity’ that you might read about in a textbook on modernism, but our observable, lived modernity.  But at the same time, there are things in her novels that feels as if they come from another world.  Her works are not unique in this: modernist writing and culture can seem simultaneously contemporary and antiquated.  Daring adventures in fragmentation and self-consciousness: contemporary.  Hierarchical ideas about race, class, and gender: antiquated.  A conception of modernity and the modern city as an endless flux of bodies, vehicles, and information: contemporary.  Actual pictures of London in 1922: horse-drawn carriages and men loafing in straw boaters.

Two recent novels take Virginia Woolf as a central character, and this, along with other novels that adapt her work — Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Robin Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway, and Gail Jones’s Five Bells — suggests that there might be a continuing relevance in her works, or a continuing viability in the tradition that she represents, or something about the woman herself that is interesting.  What might it be?  The two recent novels are Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhattan and Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and her Sister.

Gee Maggie jacketParmar P jacket

The scenarios of both are relatively simple to describe; the interest lies in their tone and in other aspects of their handling.  In Maggie Gee’s novel, Virginia Woolf reappears in the present day, in the Berg Collection of New York Public Library (where many of Woolf’s diaries, letters, and manuscripts are held), and latches on to Angela Lamb, an English critic and novelist who has gone to New York to research Woolf’s papers.  Angela has to help Virginia through her sometimes shaky transition into a new life into our modern world; Woolf comes across like a much-loved but eccentric elderly relative who can provoke delight and anxiety in rapid succession in those charged with looking after her; Woolf’s enthusiasm and curiosity come across.  Eventually Virginia and Angela travel to Turkey, where Angela is due to speak on Woolf at a scholarly conference.  Meanwhile, Angela’s feisty and hard-to-impress teenage daughter Gerda has run away from boarding school and followed Angela to New York, only to find that her mother has already left for Turkey.

Priya Parmar’s novel fictionalises the period of Vanessa and Virginia’s life from 1906 to 1912: the core of the narrative is the disruption to the sisters’ relationship caused by the death of her brother Thoby Stephen and by Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell soon afterwards; and then the further disruption caused to Vanessa’s marriage by Clive’s infidelities, particularly the close relationship he struck up with Virginia; and then the happiness that came through Vanessa’s relationship with Roger Fry.  As the title suggests, the story is told primarily from Vanessa’s perspective, in what is ostensibly a diary form, though interleaved with Vanessa’s diary are letters between other members of her circle.

There are all sorts of great and admirable things happening in both novels.  Gee’s is the easier read: its narrative form is simpler, both in the sense of the straightforward rhythm of passages alternating between Virginia’s and Angela’s perspectives (as well as Gerda’s), and in the sense that the plot has a clearer outline.  Parmar’s diary and letter form is more fragmented, and keeps us on our toes.  Gee’s command of tone is brilliant: essentially the novel is light, and yet it raises serious questions about our relation to the great cultural figures of the past, and the ethics of reading them. Her Virginia can be a two-dimensional cartoonish figure at times, and yet at other times she’s a figure of great pathos; in saying she’s two-dimensional I don’t mean that those passages are weaker; Gee keeps the tone light so that the deeper moments can resonate.

Parmar’s crafting of a diary-voice for Vanessa is an impressive achievement. Although there are a few moments where Vanessa’s reflections echo those of Virginia in her diaries, essentially Vanessa speaks differently, with more sustained concentration on a subject, and less of Virginia’s rapid flitting about; Virginia’s diary voice would be hard to turn to the requirements of narrative. (At the Oxford Literary Festival, Parmar said that her main source for Vanessa’s voice was the published and unpublished letters by Vanessa.)  As someone who has intensively researched Woolf and her circle in the period 1908 to 1919 for the purposes of my edition of Night and Day, and as someone who can’t quite shut down the scholarly urge to annotate and investigate, I’m not the best reader for this novel. With my historicist hat on I felt there were some phrases and grammatical constructions in Vanessa’s and Leonard’s voices that were later twentieth-century, and that someone from her background wouldn’t have used at that date. The phrases in question aren’t on the same scale as the errors of idiom in Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway, where British characters are found speaking (or thinking) American English; they’re much subtler and harder-to-call; indeed, one might argue that a degree of cross-period intermingling of idioms is valuable, as it allows Vanessa to speak to us now.  But a detailed account of that question may have to wait for another blog.  What’s impressive about the voices in Parmar’s novel is that she’s clearly steeped herself in the writings of the originals and then allowed herself to cut loose. When, in The Hours, Cunningham has Virginia worry about Mrs Dalloway being “too tinselly”, it felt at best like a piece of undigested research (Woolf writes exactly that in her diary), and at worst like a deliberately paraded piece of research.  When Parmar has characters assess someone or something by how “civilised” it is, it sets the right Bloomsbury flavour, but it’s not conspicuous in the sentence or the paragraph.

In The Hours, the representation of “Virginia Woolf” allowed Cunningham to ask questions about the posthumous presence of authors in later lives; the connection between the Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf sections is a demystified version of the relation between Nicholas Hawksmoor and Nicholas Dyer in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor.  But while the relationship of past to present (Laura Brown’s present) doesn’t have the uncanny quality found in Ackroyd’s novel, there’s still a celebration of the greatness of the “great” author and her power to reach across generations that amounts to a kind of mystification; Cunningham’s novel draws its power from the fact of Woolf’s suicide, and while it can’t be said actively to glorify it, it makes it a significant fact in her life, the end which gives meaning to every act and sign.

If Gee’s novel were to be read as a response to Cunningham’s novel — and it’s richer and more interesting than that reading would allow it to be — then it’s asking us to realize what a terrible loss her suicide was; not so much to us as readers, as to Virginia Woolf as a living, lively, inquisitive human being.  It’s getting us to think about how much she missed by her untimely death. At some level I think Gee’s novel still needs Woolf to have died by suicide, but it wants to undo the romanticisation attached to it.  When Virginia first reappears, she smells dankly of pondweed, as while there’s a degree of emotion attached to the fact, Gee mostly plays up the comic incongruity of it, and the awkwardness for Angela.  As Virginia establishes herself in the modern world, her curiosity becomes her most prominent quality.  At times she is comically unable to grasp present-day technologies — she can’t understand paperless typing on a laptop, for example — but she generally grows accustomed to them.  Much more than correcting the emphasis of Cunningham’s novel, the presence of “Virginia Woolf” allows Gee to investigate our modernity, to render it strange to us, and in particular to investigate the place of America in the modern world. For those purposes, perhaps any revenant from the early twentieth century would have sufficed, but Woolf in particular allows Gee to think about the awkward ethics of reading a dead writer’s diaries: there’s a section where Angela realises that Woolf’s doesn’t know that Leonard did not destroy the diaries and that they have been published; and that Virginia doesn’t know how many personal secrets are now public knowledge.  And having a revenant of Woolf’s gender and class allows Gee to raise questions about the material advantages that enabled Woolf to succeed as a writer.

Virginia isn’t central to Priya Parmar’s novel, but she’s essential to the narrative. The title captures this peculiar centre of gravity quite neatly: you know, it implies, who the sister is; she’s the famous one; but this novel is about Vanessa.  However, at the Oxford Literary Festival, Parmar said that at her first public reading from the novel, the first audience question was “Who was Virginia Woolf?” and she had to rapidly recalibrate.  It’s interesting to contemplate how the novel reads to someone who knows nothing of Virginia, and presumably therefore nothing of the other personages; but I’ll have to skip those speculations.  For the reader with some knowledge of Woolf, there’s an odd sensation throughout of seeing a familiar person and familiar events from an unexpected angle.  It’s not a comic change of perspective like Woolf’s Flush sometimes is, or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is, because Vanessa is fully realised as a presence and there’s too much emotionally at stake in what unfolds.  Notoriously, the Bloomsbury Group “lived in squares and loved in triangles”, and the main love-triangle in this novel is that involving Vanessa, Clive, and Virginia; and later another involving, in a subtler sense, Vanessa, Clive, and Roger.  And in a novel full of triangles, the reader who begins it more knowledgeable about Virginia than Vanessa find him- or herself in a sort of triangle, registering Virginia through the medium of Vanessa. The nature of the passions reminded me of René Girard’s ideas about “imitative” or “mimetic” desire: we desire a person or thing not because of any inherently desirable qualities in the thing, but because we want to be like another person who also desires the object of desire.  (Sure, this raises the problem of whether there was ever an original “pure” or “real” desire, but I’ve leave that for now.)  In this novel, Virginia “desires” Clive because she wants to be Vanessa; and at the close, Clive’s feelings for Vanessa are rekindled because he wants to be Roger.  And one wonders whether the desirability of the Stephen sisters to their various Cambridge suitors was because the suitors wanted to be Thoby Stephen.  As a theory, it seems to work best when discussing affections that seem creepily empty; it’s less successful in explaining Vanessa’s love for Roger, for example.  And Virginia’s responding to Clive’s advances can be explained more simply as her attempt to regain her sister’s attention.  She emerges as not entirely likeable: exasperating to her sister; emotionally insecure and thoughtless in her means of securing affection, but not consciously calculating.  The final letter of the novel indicates that the sisters’ bond has been irreparably weakened by Virginia’s involvement with Clive.

I’ve suggested that the reader gets drawn into these triangles too, but it’s also the case that the narrative form of the novel places a certain distance between readers and characters.  I think this would be the case if the story were told solely through Vanessa’s diary, just because diaries are necessarily fragmentary and immersed in the day of their writing; but by interspersing the diary with others’ letters, Parmar distances us in another way. The contents of the letters don’t ever place Vanessa as the unknowing one in a situation of cold dramatic irony, but they make us aware that her tone and attitude isn’t the only one available: most conspicuously, Lytton Strachey’s brilliantly done letters, witty, detached, epigrammatic (all somewhat Wildean, in fact), offer a sharp contrast to Vanessa’s more deeply felt diary.

If Gee’s novel refocuses our attention away from Woolf the tragic suicide onto Woolf the lively and inquisitive mind, Parmar’s refocuses it away from the mature Virginia Woolf altogether and on to the as-yet-unmarried Virginia Stephen, a young writer who is publishing her first book reviews and essays, and working on her first novel, but who is far from an established figure. Moreover, Parmar’s Virginia is presented to the reader only through the medium of other characters. If the two novels have something in common, it could be that they both start from the point of view that we know — or we think we know — a great deal about Woolf, and while that’s mostly to the good, sometimes the various strands of knowledge tighten into a mythology, and we need to unknot them, and try to reshape our knowledge in a different way.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and the country house

My blog post on Woolf’s Orlando is now available on the OUP blog:


The source for the quotations from Angela Carter is a YouTube video of Tom Paulin’s notorious J’accuse programme about Woolf. The two parts available are labelled as parts 2 and 3, but I’ve not been able to find part 1 anywhere:



Angela Carter’s contribution comes just after 1m 27s in “part 2”; I’d first come across the ‘slobbering valentine’ bit in a newspaper review of the programme.  I must admit I’ve not watched both parts: the arguments are so tendentious that it’s hard to take seriously: for example, Clarissa Dalloway’s patriotic statement in The Voyage Out is offered as if it reflects its author’s views (which it obviously does not); the error in the reading is acknowledged, and then Paulin ploughs on regardless, treating a piece of unpleasantness in the diaries as if it rescued his argument about Clarissa.

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.

Podcast: An Introduction to Orlando (1928), by Virginia Woolf

Podcast: An Introduction to Orlando (1928), by Virginia Woolf

I’ve uploaded an MP3 of an introductory lecture on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I was invited to give the lecture by the producer of a theatrical adaptation of it at Keble College; as the audience was reckoned to consist mostly of school pupils (presumably sixth-form), the lecture tries not to assume much familiarity with Woolf or the novel.  I begin with biographical background about Virginia and Vita, go on to narrate their relationship, and mention Logan Pearsall Smith as background to Nick Greene / Sir Nicholas Greene;  I then talk about genre (biography and fantasy), discover I’ve left far too little time to talk about sexuality, and conclude by addressing Angela Carter’s accusation that it’s ‘an orgy of snobbery’, caught up in the ideological myth of the English country house.

I hadn’t had an opportunity to see the play — and sadly, due to other commitments, wasn’t able to — so it doesn’t discuss that at all.

It’s all largely improvised, and two-thirds through when I’m discussing Sally Potter’s film adaptation, I completely forget Tilda Swinton’s name.

#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.’

#bookadayUK (23): Made to read at school

I can recall a few works that I resented having to read at school, or that at the very least I said goodbye to with complete indifference, but on the whole I was lucky with the things I was made to read at O-level, and with those I half-chose to read by taking A-level English. So I can ask with good reason what the Associated Examining Board thought it was doing when it chose Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water as a set text — presumably working on some undigested Romantic assumption that Nature is morally uplifting — but generally speaking I’ve no cause for complaints.

The text I was made to read at sixth-form college that had no connection to our syllabus was the ‘Time Passes’ section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Our class usually studied two texts in parallel with two different teachers, Miranda O’Connell and Joan Clark, but at some point in the spring of the second year, Mrs Clark suffered a slipped disc and had a week or so away. In the first instance the college drafted in a teacher from the Henley Technical College, who I think was called Sally Benjafield, and so we found ourselves doing a practical criticism exercise on ‘Time Passes’.  Opinions were divided: I found it strange but haunting, and couldn’t put my finger on why it sounded like poetry; Dan P., who regularly sat next to me, and who was refreshingly free of illusions, declared it to be ‘pretentious’.


Whether this was the first time I’d ever heard of Woolf I can’t be sure.  Colin Gregg’s adaptation of To the Lighthouse had first broadcast on the BBC in March 1983, and was given front-cover treatment in the Radio Times, but I didn’t watch it then; we saw it on videotape some time at sixth form: possibly as a follow-up to the close-reading class on ‘Times Passes’, but possibly as a quite separate extra. And although this was the first time I’d read Woolf, and although I remembering being intrigued by it, I didn’t immediately rush out and get hold of To the Lighthouse.  In part because I was busy preparing for A-levels, and busy preparing for that summer’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in part too because presenting ‘Time Passes’ without any narrative context might make for a good practical criticism exercise, but it doesn’t make for the best introduction to Woolf.