This extract is taken from the working draft of one of Virginia Woolf's most admired novels - 'Mrs Dalloway' (originally 'The Hours'). Woolf is acclaimed as an innovator of the English language. Here, in her own handwriting, we see her explore a new style of writing called 'stream of consciousness', in which the imprint of experience and emotion on the inner lives of characters is as important as the stories they act out.
Who was Virginia Woolf?
Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 into a family with strong literary connections. Woolf, along with some of her siblings, was later also a member of an exclusive community of writers and artists who became known as the Bloomsbury group. In 1912, Virginia married Leonard Woolf and together they set up a publishing business. In March 1941, Woolf committed suicide. She had suffered from bouts of mental illness all her life.
Woolf's novel 'Mrs Dalloway' parallels a single day in the lives of two people: Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith. As the day begins, Clarissa buys flowers for a party she will give that night, while Septimus is in Regent's Park listening to the sparrows which, he believes, sing to him in Greek.
By featuring their internal feelings, Woolf allows her characters' thoughts to travel back and forth in time, reflecting and refracting their emotional experiences. This device, often known as 'stream of consciousness’, creates complex portraits of the individuals and their relationships.
What does 'stream of consciousness' mean?
It's a style of writing evolved by authors at the beginning of the 20th century to express in words the flow of a character's thoughts and feelings. The technique aims to give readers the impression of being inside the mind of the character - an internal view that illuminates plot and motivation in the novel. Thoughts spoken aloud are not always the same as those "on the floor of the mind", as Woolf put it.
'Stream of consciousness' has its origins in the late 19th century with the birth of psychology. An American psychologist, William James (brother of novelist Henry), first used the phrase in his Principles of Psychology of 1890 to describe the flow of conscious experience in the brain.