Contained within three notebooks, this is the working draft for one of Virginia Woolf's most famous novels, Mrs Dalloway. Dating from 27 June 1923 and originally titled 'The Hours', it was published two years later 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.

At the end of each notebook we find notes and drafts for The Common Reader. The essays were published by The Hogarth Press in 1925.

What is Mrs Dalloway about?

Mrs Dalloway 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.

The character of Mrs Dalloway had already appeared in Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out, 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’. Writing the essay ‘Modern Fiction’ in April 1919, Woolf questioned the ‘proper stuff of fiction’. Praising James Joyce’s Ulysses, another novel that takes place on a single day, she asked her readers to ‘Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day’ – and to imagine the possibility of a new fiction that comes closer to reflecting this ‘life’.

What is 'stream of consciousness’?

'Stream of consciousness’ is a style of writing evolved by authors in the early 20th century to express 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 as well as non-linear time, psychological complexity and the fragmented experience of living in the modern world. Thoughts spoken aloud are not always the same as those ‘on the floor of the mind’, as Woolf put it.

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 James Joyce.