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Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’

Image from Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’

Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’
British Library Add. MS 51045, f.136
Copyright © The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf | Usage Terms: Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence, No Derivatives Licence
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This working draft for one of Virginia Woolf's most admired novels dates from 1924. Originally called 'The Hours', it was published the following year as Mrs Dalloway. 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?

She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 into a family with strong literary connections. Her mother, Julia, had previously been married to Herbert Duckworth, a barrister. (Their son, Gerald, went on to found the Duckworth publishing company.) Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, a literary critic, had also been married before. Eight siblings and half-siblings shared the family home in London.

Virginia was only 13 when her mother's death triggered a nervous breakdown - the first of her many bouts of mental illness. After their father died in 1904, Virginia moved to a house in Bloomsbury with her two brothers and her sister, Vanessa, who was a painter. The siblings and their friends became the hub of an exclusive community of writers and artists referred to by critics as ‘the Bloomsbury Group’.

At the end of that year, Virginia began writing reviews, initially for a clerical newspaper and then for the Times Literary Supplement. Her first novel, The Voyage Out, was completed in 1913, but publication was delayed for two years by another of her mental breakdowns.

In 1912, she married Leonard Woolf, a political theorist who had worked for the Ceylon Civil Service from 1904 to 1911. (Ceylon, a former British colony, is now called Sri Lanka.) They decided to earn their living by journalism and publishing. Five years later, Leonard set up a publishing business with a hand-printing press at Hogarth House in Richmond, where the couple now lived - a venture designed, in part, to provide a practical therapy for Virginia's fragile mental state.

The River Ouse ran close by the Woolfs' country home in Sussex . On 28 March 1941, Virginia filled her pockets with heavy stones, walked into the river and drowned herself. The note she left for her husband read: “I hear voices and cannot concentrate on my work. I have fought against it but cannot fight any longer. I owe all my happiness to you but cannot go on and spoil your life.”

What’s Mrs Dalloway about?

The character of Mrs Dalloway had already appeared in Woolf's first novel as the wife of a Member of Parliament. By 1923, Woolf had conceived the idea of writing a new story built around her. "I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity," Woolf enthused in her diary, "I want to criticise the social system, and show it at work, at its most intense."

To this end, Woolf parallels a single day in the lives of two people: the privileged, socially elite Clarissa Dalloway, and Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked veteran of the First World War. As the day begins Clarissa is buying flowers for a party she will give that night, while Septimus is in Regent's Park listening to the sparrows, who, 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.

Woolf also uses the novel as a vehicle for criticism of the society of her day. The main characters, both aspects of Woolf herself, raise issues of deep personal concern: in Clarissa, the repressed social and economic position of women, and in Septimus, the treatment of those driven by depression to the borderlands of sanity.

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.

The term was first used in a literary sense by May Sinclair in her 1918 review of a novel by Dorothy Richardson. Other authors well known for this style include Katherine Mansfield, William Faulkner and, most notably, James Joyce.

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