Mrs Dalloway at the British Library

Exciting news that, amongst many other manuscripts of modernist works, the British Library has digitised the notebooks in which Virginia Woolf wrote the first draft of Mrs Dalloway.

Here, for example, the first page, with the famous first sentence and the working title of the novel, The Hours:

notebook-draft-of-virginia-ii-add_ms_51045_f114r

There is also an excellent article on Mrs Dalloway and the use of stream of consciousness by Elaine Showalter, published on the British Library website. For example, here on the composition of Mrs Dalloway:

We know a lot about the composition of Mrs Dalloway between 1922 and 1924. Woolf’s holograph draft, called ‘The Hours’, is in the British Library, and her working notes are in the New York Public Library. She also treated the themes of the novel in an early group of short stories, collected as Mrs Dalloway’s Party, and discussed her writing process in her journal and letters. One central problem she faced was how to organise the flow of perceptions and memories; she did not want to have chapters with titles interrupting the illusion of a spontaneous stream of consciousness. She considered having a Greek chorus speak at intervals to sum everything up; she thought about dividing the text like the acts of a play. Finally, she decided to mark off sections with a double space; in the British edition published by the Hogarth Press, there are 12 spaces, like the hours on a clock. The striking of Big Ben further serves to punctuate the narrative. A central motif of the book is the analogy between the hours of the day and the female life cycle – what we would now call the biological clock. Woolf places Mrs Dalloway in the middle, and surrounds her with female characters ranging from 18 to over 80. As she was working on the various drafts, Woolf grew confident in her techniques and goals: ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice.’

and this on the party that concludes the novel:

Woolf had intended the party which ends the novel to express ‘life in every variety & and full of anticipation; while S. dies’. For Clarissa, it is a happy occasion. Re-meeting the prosperous mother of five who had long ago been the object of her schoolgirl crush, and talking to Peter Walsh, a restless immature man she might have married, she affirms the choices she has made. The guests who gather in her bright home come from an upper-class London society that includes the pompous, the frivolous, the narrow-minded and the snobbish, as well as some lost souls she has included out of kindness. Yet behind their decorous façades, Woolf shows us their hidden memories and troubled feelings, especially fears of ageing and death; and Clarissa senses the bravery of their performances. At the height of the party, she abruptly learns from Dr Bradshaw that one of his patients, a young soldier, had killed himself that afternoon. Shocked at the news, she retreats to a little room to meditate in solitude on the great unanswerable questions of meaning, mortality and purpose. She emerges with an understanding of the party as a life-affirming communal pageant. The internal changes Clarissa undergoes during her day mirror the transformations in her society. Despite its obsession with loneliness and death, Mrs Dalloway is a compassionate and optimistic novel, ending as it begins, with a tribute to endurance, survival, fellowship and joy.

Read the full article, with links to the digitised manuscripts, at the British Library website here.

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Author: westrow

Author of 'Walking with Mrs Dalloway'; tech writer working in London and Dorset

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