The Mrs. Dalloway Reader is an excellent collection which consists of short stories, diary entries, theoretical writings and personal responses, all leading up to the text itself, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Since its publication in 1925, Virginia Woolf's masterpiece has been described in a countless number of ways. For this collection, Francine Prose has selected various writings that are meant to shed some new light on Woolf's opus. In addition to Prose's own personal response to the novel, presented in the form of an introduction, there are writings by Woolf herself, as well as texts by well-known critics and authors such as Elaine Showalter, Michael Cunningham and E. M. Forster.
The collection can be divided into different sections. The first part of the book contains Woolf's own writings, starting with an introduction to the 1928 edition of Mrs. Dalloway. According to a brief comment by the editor, this constitutes Woolf's only published text on one of her own works. Although short, this introduction offers many interesting insights, such as how Woolf regards her reader. She also defends herself from criticisms made against her work. As is well known, at the time of its publication, reviewers of Mrs. Dalloway were often puzzled. They described the novel as poetic rather than realistic, they found it difficult to read and thought its characters and events were unclear. During Woolf's lifetime it soon became an established truth that she was an experimental novelist whose readers should look for symbols and evocations of mood rather than for sequences of events and stories. Needless to say, Woolf's work is more than a dense collection of tropes and moods, and through these writings we get a clear glimpse into how much effort she put into developing all aspects of her fiction so that they would form a unified pattern, functioning to describe life as she saw it. It is especially illuminating to read the selection of her short stories included here, some of which were later published as Mrs. Dalloway's Party. In these narratives, we are introduced to what was to become the novel's characters, themes, and motifs. To this reviewer it seems particularly appropriate that these stories precede the novel itself, as this allows for moments of recognition when one finally reads the novel itself, both in relation to how and to what extent the various elements of text have been developed.
Another valuable element in this section is selected entries from Woolf's diary. These selections include many of the passages describing the technique Woolf devised for writing her experimental novel. Although many of these passages are well-known, they nevertheless form a useful addendum to the novel. Because of modernism's focus on form and technique, its literary expressions can sometimes seem impenetrable and oblique, even to a reader of 2005. Thus, Woolf's comments on her own work function as a useful "way in," so to speak, to her fictional universe. While Woolf's descriptions of her ideas for Mrs. Dalloway, her design of the novel, and her comments on other members of the Bloomsbury group, is all interesting material on its own, it also functions as valuable preparation for reading the novel itself.
The next section really only consists of one piece of writing, namely, Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden-Party." Mansfield's story is connected to Woolf's novel on many levels. The plot "The Garden-Party" spans one single day and that day is spent planning a party. In addition to this, the two works feature many similar themes, such as the relationship between life and death. Woolf and Mansfield had a very complex relationship, built on both fierce rivalry and mutual respect. Apparently Mansfield once wrote to Woolf "You are the only woman with whom I long to talk work" , and after Mansfield's death Woof reportedly confessed: "I dream of her often." Mansfield has also been described as Woolf's "shadow self," as the woman writer who spurred Woolf on to do her best. Thus, there are many good reasons for incorporating "The Garden-Party." It is also interesting to note that, largely due to the fact that Mansfield passed away as early as 1923, Woolf's work seems more experimental and purely modernistic than Mansfield's, which hovers on the border between the traditional narrative and the modernist focus on technique and form.
In the section directly preceding the novel itself, various critics and authors offer different perspectives on and readings of Woolf. These pieces of writing vary both in time and space, in the sense that they range from E. M. Forster's description of Woolf's early novels to Daniel Mendelsohn's "Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf," in which he compares her novel with Michael Cunningham's The Hours. The inclusion of this piece is, of course, very fitting, indeed, as Cunningham's novel together with the eponymous movie production from 2002, are largely responsible for the renaissance that Woolf's work has enjoyed in the last few years. The Hours is interesting not only because the narratives of the three female protagonists are all intertwined with Mrs. Dalloway in some way, but because Cunningham also employs Woolf's novel in an intertextually more active way. In what one might see as an homage to his literary predecessor, Cunningham borrows and moulds characters, relationships, sentences, expressions, minute details from Mrs. Dalloway, reincarnating them, as Mendelsohn puts it, "with almost obsessional devotion" . The creative closeness between the two novels is very vividly portrayed by Mendelsohn, making his text one of the most interesting in this section of the book.
Another important aspect of Mendelsohn's text is his emphasis on an element that we have not yet been presented to in the parts of Woolf's own writing that has been incorporated into this edition. Mendelsohn highlights Woolf's feminist agenda and reminds us of her audacity in creating as her protagonist a middle-aged, ordinary woman who is planning a party. In his essay, Mendelsohn shows us just how important this choice is by including a passage from Woolf's seminal feminist essay A Room of One's Own:
By adopting Clarissa Dalloway as her main character, Woolf actively worked against the prevalence of these "masculine values," and this is something that should not be forgotten.
Technically, modernism was distinguished by its opposition both to traditional forms and aesthetic perceptions. This opposition frequently manifested itself as a rejection of flat, external realism for the sake of diving more freely and intensely into the facts of life and the modern consciousness. The modern novel aimed to escape the conventions of fact-giving, in order to serve what one might term a higher realism. Because of her adherence to these principles, Woolf's 1925 novel has often been considered difficult. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf reformulates the assumed relationships between authors and characters, consciousness and time, in addition to redefining the traditional elements of the novel. As mentioned above, this is one of the main reasons why the texts preceding Mrs. Dalloway form such a useful framework. Although these texts are interesting on their own, this is nevertheless their main purpose.
Although the movement that we tend to call modernism belongs to a time which has now passed, Woolf's novel is remarkably compelling and potent. One of the reasons for this is, of course, her focus on "an ordinary mind of an ordinary day" and her attempts to come "closer to life." Woolf's efforts to fuse the everyday with the universal, or, what she called moments of "non-being" with moments of "being," seem to have caught onto something permanent within the human consciousness. Another reason for her enduring relevance is that many of the issues that she raises have still not been resolved. When Woolf complains that "Almost without exception [women] are shown in their relation to men [...] not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex" , this is something that we, as human beings, can still relate to. And when Woolf writes about madness, death, time, relationships, memories that shape us, middle-age, youth, her fiction has the one quality that matters to a reader, no matter when or where she is situated in space or time—it rings true.