Holding and Unfolding Woolf’s Treasure: On “The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway”

October 18, 2021   •   By Seth Katz

The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf

“DO NOT DICTATE to your author; try to become him,” Virginia Woolf admonishes in her 1926 essay “How Should One Read a Book?” While Woolf’s use of the male pronoun would likely rankle progressive readers today, her sentiment — that we should strive, when reading, to adopt the author’s perspective on the world — is perhaps even more provocative to prevailing literary sensibilities. In a 2019 essay for The New York Times, Brian Morton finds himself differing with a young reader who can’t bear another page of Edith Wharton due to her manifest antisemitism. Thinking along similar lines as Woolf, Morton sees readers of old books as “journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around,” whereas others might imagine writers of the past, with their outdated views, invading ours.

When University of Oxford professor and literary critic Merve Emre began work on a new, annotated edition of Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, she decided to retype the entire text herself, which she describes in the introduction as a “monkish” practice. For Emre, following Woolf’s advice doesn’t mean inhibiting her critical faculties, and indeed, we find her vigorously wrestling with the author’s entrenched racism whenever it rears its head in the novel. But part of what Emre achieves in this scholarly yet accessible work is to reanimate for us the world in which the novel was written.

Liveright is bringing out The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway just shy of the novel’s centenary, continuing an august tradition of its parent company, W. W. Norton & Company, whose Annotated Classics series dates back to the 1960s. For various reasons, this edition would be a poor choice for someone encountering the novel for the first time, as it is a work that demands immersion, not critical distance. But for those seeking a deeper understanding of Woolf’s masterpiece, it is indispensable. Emre is a brilliant guide, mining an astonishing array of sources — personal correspondence, diaries, manuscript pages — as she maps out the genesis of the novel, analyzes its language and themes, and explicates details that only seem trivial until she reveals their personal significance to Woolf or their broader social context. At one point, a passing use of the word “apprehensive” in the text triggers a note about two of its uses in Woolf’s diaries to “describe the onset of her depressive states,” followed by a brief study on the state of apprehension in which we find Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Smith, and other characters in the novel.

Each page of the book is divided vertically, with the inner two-thirds containing the text of the novel and Emre’s annotations running along the outer margin. In addition to some 400 notes, we are treated to various photographs and other images: paintings by Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, including her dust jackets for The Hogarth Press; photographs of Woolf, family members, friends, acquaintances, and other historical figures, some of whom served as inspiration for characters in the novel; and, most usefully, contemporaneous photographs of London, as well as maps that chart the characters’ journeys during the single-day narrative. (While Mrs. Dalloway hasn’t inspired the same kinds of devotional rites as James Joyce’s Ulysses [1920], anyone wishing to initiate a Bloomsday-esque observance could easily do so on the basis of what Emre provides here.)

The lengthy introduction has enough substance to stand on its own as an essay, establishing a narrative of the novel’s creation that serves as a framework for the annotations that follow, which burrow even further into the sources upon which Emre draws. We might have done without the personal reminiscences of Emre’s first reading of Mrs. Dalloway, but the biographical sketch of Woolf and the account of her writing process carry the veracity of firsthand testimony. Woolf left behind detailed notes that allow Emre to trace the novel’s development, both thematically and structurally. Its 1925 publication also coincided with Woolf’s first collection of essays, The Common Reader, which provides a record of Woolf’s thinking about literature at that time.

At one point (we learn), Mrs. Dalloway was to have a less fluid structure, proceeding throughout a June day as a sequence of short sections, each marked off by the beginning of a new hour. The novel as we know it still uses the intervalic pealing of Big Ben as an objective marker of the passage of time, but the narrative moves through the characters’ subjective experiences, and through the physical layout of London, in a far more organic, relay-like way, as time itself dilates and contracts. Woolf’s original design also didn’t include the character of Septimus — Clarissa’s inverted double, the insanity that puts her sanity into relief — whose death thrills her with the joy of being alive. Both characters were partially inspired by Woolf’s childhood friend Kitty Maxse, a society woman and prodigious hostess like Clarissa who died prematurely, as does Septimus, from a fall.

Clarissa Dalloway’s function in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), is mostly to be an object of satire, but Woolf found herself reviving this secondary character as a protagonist in a 1923 short story, “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” which was later revised to become the first chapter of Mrs. Dalloway. Emre traces Clarissa’s development to show not only how the character became fully formed but also how Woolf’s process of “tunneling” into her characters became richer during this early period of her writing career. Indeed, E. M. Forster, in a contemporaneous survey of her early novels, felt that Woolf’s achievement was to wed the “inspired breathlessness” of her impressionistic short stories to a conveyance of “the actual process of thinking.” Yet he still felt that her challenge moving forward was to “retain her own wonderful new method and form, and yet allow her readers to inhabit each character with Victorian thoroughness.” (Woolf, who spoke of “Victorians” in much the same way today’s youth remark on “boomers,” would likely have objected to this.)

Woolf’s novels increasingly privilege the internal lives of her characters over the objective world around them. As Emre writes in her introduction, “Woolf prided herself less on detail and plot than on the creation of characters, who, for all their physical indeterminacy and psychological inconstancy, their worldly insignificance, had minds that felt ‘real, true, and convincing.’” Thus, the curious absence, for much of Jacob’s Room (1922), of the title character, about whom we learn via the thoughts of the other characters; or the daydreaming of Mrs. Ramsay as she holds still for a portrait in To the Lighthouse (1927); or the disembodied voices that constitute The Waves (1931), her most radically experimental work. But in Mrs. Dalloway especially, Woolf writes less as an omniscient narrator dipping into her characters’ thoughts than with a sense of “general consciousness,” as J. Hillis Miller once termed it.

As the characters make their way through London, Woolf litters the text with short, declarative sentences that often appear within parentheses, an inversion of more traditional realism, in which we might find physical description and dialogue hinting at the characters’ inner states, while their thoughts are occasionally interposed. Introducing the novel in its 1981 edition, Maureen Howard describes these “easy lines” as stones placed “at the rim of a billowing tent,” and as “necessary stakes in the shimmering flow of language and emotion that strains, in paragraph after paragraph, to contain the intricacies of life.” As for the physical indeterminacy Emre describes, Woolf will sometimes introduce a character so that we may see through their eyes, as when a man named Scrope Purvis appears for a single paragraph: “A charming woman,” he thinks of Clarissa Dalloway, who does not see him.

It is perhaps this communing with our collective experience of life that speaks most directly to us today. For all of Merve Emre’s efforts to teach us about the novel’s cultural references, the intellectual traditions to which it alludes, and the ways of life it portrays — all of which provide a deeper understanding of the novel’s historical context — the text itself still washes over us and pulls us into its currents of thought, its summoning of experience. We can choose to read Mrs. Dalloway to learn about English society after World War I (and indeed there are few greater sources in the canon of literary fiction), but its most enduring and immediate essence is its evocation of life itself.


Seth Katz is a freelance critic who has written book reviews for Slant Magazine and interviewed writers for The Millions.