Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
Ig Publishing / 2022 / $14.95 /176 pp
Reviewed by Robin Lippincott
From One Writer to Another
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, by Robin Black, is the fifteenth book from Ig Publishing’s “Bookmarked” series, in which authors write about a book that was influential to their life and work. I confess to having felt a pang of envy upon first hearing about this book, wishing that I had been asked to write it. But Black quickly won me over, pushing those feelings aside, for this is one of the more extraordinary exegeses of a work of literature that I have read. Black informs us up front that she avoided reading any critical texts while writing this book. Instead, “I have written here as a reader who is also a fiction writer.” And that is one of the book’s greatest strengths.
In her “Introduction,” Black—author of the story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this, the novel Life Drawing, and most recently, Crash Course: Essays from Where Writing and Life Collide—writes that in the early 1980s, long before she ever read Mrs. Dalloway, she idolized and identified with Virginia Woolf. But because of her attention deficit disorder, Black says that “her relationship to reading anything the least bit ‘difficult’ was complicated.” Writing about the dysfunctional family she was born into, as well as about her own mental health struggles, Black confides: “I am now the age at which Woolf took that heavy-pocketed walk into the River Ouse, and I feel great security that I will do no such thing.” However, because of her own experiences and struggles, Black writes, she “could better see the courage it took for Woolf to write a book featuring a suicidal illness that came so close to her own.”
Robin Black was forty-two and in an MFA program when she read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time. By then, she was “well on my way to becoming a bona fide craft nerd, and Mrs. Dalloway played a crucial role in that evolution for me.” And it is as a “craft nerd” that Black—and this book—excels. Witness this impressive early passage in which Black confesses that the first time she read Mrs. Dalloway, she gave short shrift to the six paragraphs that precede Clarissa’s encounter with Hugh Whitbread. “They were just too long, too filled with information to which I couldn’t connect, and too much like other paragraphs I had spent decades skipping through . . . .” But it was the following passage, seven paragraphs in, “that first riveted me to the book, and it is still, to use an image favored by Woolf, the hinge connecting me to it:
. . . [Hugh Whitbread’s] wife had some internal ailment, nothing serious,
which, as an old friend, Clarissa Dalloway would quite understand
without requiring him to specify. Ah yes, she did of course; what a
nuisance; and felt very sisterly and oddly conscious at the same time
of her hat. Not the right hat for the early morning, was it?
Next, with a passionate attention, Black begins to unpack the passage, while acknowledging how much it accomplishes: “The action here,” she writes, “involves Clarissa thinking and feeling. She feels sisterly toward Hugh (or possibly toward Hugh and his invalid wife) and is also aware that she feels sisterly. We know she feels both sisterly and aware of doing so, because, while feeling sisterly, she is ‘at the same time oddly conscious at the same time of her hat.’ The ‘oddly’ in there ‘belongs’ to Clarissa, which is writer-speak for the notion that within the rules governing point of view in this book, that ‘oddly’ is not a distant narrator commenting on the peculiarity of Clarissa Dalloway’s awareness of her hat, but is a thought of Clarissa’s own. Clarissa herself finds it odd that while having this sisterly feeling (which she is aware she is having) she is also thinking about her hat (which she is aware of doing). So, to be clear, there are at least three things that Clarissa is either feeling or thinking (conscious of) all at once. She 1) feels sisterly, 2) is conscious of her hat, 3) is aware that it’s odd that this consciousness of her hat occurred while she is feeling sisterly.”
Further on in the same passage, Black goes on to say: “Woolf cuts the potential sentimentality of Clarissa’s sisterly feeling with a moment of vanity. Lest we think Clarissa ‘soft,’ or the kind of woman so often seen in fiction who experiences undiluted impulses toward nurturing, the intrusion of her worry about her hat, placing a thought about herself in competition with her empathy toward the Whitbreads, signals that Clarissa is not meant to follow that pattern of idealized, fictional women. And I am allergic to idealized characters, really to idealization in any form.”
I’ve spent so much time and space on this early passage because of how well it captures Black’s exemplary style of close reading. Though Black weaves in glimpses of her family, her mental health struggles, her thoughts about motherhood and the depiction of mothers in literature, as well as her own fiction, throughout (thus, the structure of her book, as might also be said of Mrs. Dalloway, is web-like), it is Black’s response to Woolf's novel as a writer that I find most compelling.
Black is also remarkably articulate about delineating point of view in Mrs. Dalloway. She mentions Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness, adding that Woolf “also explores aspects of overlapping consciousness, oceans of consciousness. . . .” About how Woolf switches point of view from one character to another, Black suggests, “It’s a tricky business with which all writers who take on omniscient narration must contend. If you are ‘in the head’ of one character and too abruptly change that focus to another character it can be jarring to a reader, reminding them that there’s an author who is orchestrating all of this. Woolf’s solution . . . is to do what I think of as triangulating the two (or more) consciousnesses off of an object or other entity, sometimes off of a thought.” Black quotes at length from a scene between Clarissa and Peter Walsh in which Peter is, as always (as Clarissa perceives it) “playing with his knife.” Black writes: “We are in Peter’s thoughts as he withdraws the knife. The knife is a point of connection between them, or of triangulation, as I think of it. My first reaction to detecting this technique was a kind of head-shaking amazement at how simple it was. What an elegant solution for something so boggling to so many of us, a ‘baton of consciousness’. . . Over time, as I read and reread Mrs. Dalloway . . . I began to see that transfer, that point of triangulation, not simply as a writer’s technique, and no longer as a passing of a baton, but as an actual merger of two (or more) consciousnesses. . . .”
It’s tempting to go on quoting Black at length, but because of space constraints let me just add that Black is also brilliant about the “gorgeous” structure of Mrs. Dalloway, as well as on the subject of doubling, specifically how Woolf doubles Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith. But then Black is on-target with so much of what she has to say about Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, especially in acknowledging and elucidating its greatness: “Mrs. Dalloway is about many things. On the plot level, it’s about a woman who . . . on the day leading into a party she is to throw, has reason to muse on her past and on her present-day life. It is also about a veteran of The Great War who suffers from psychotic episodes . . . . At a slightly deeper level, Mrs. Dalloway is about British society, and the devastating impact of the War both on the nation as a whole and on individuals. It is about the convention, benefits, and limitations, of marriage. It is also about the failures of the medical profession to treat mental illness effectively or humanely. It is about the roles into which women are pressed by societal expectations. And it is about the degree to which romantic and erotic feelings toward members of one’s own gender are forcibly written out of their society’s narrative . . . . On level after level, Mrs. Dalloway illuminates and interrogates the conundrum of the individual in society.”
Finally, I admire so much Black’s remarkable admission that, “One of the beauties of this novel is that no matter how much one studies it, it is impossible to master. In fact, the more I immersed myself in it, the less I believed it subject to complete understanding at all. It is a book so reliant on interpretation, so dangerous in the degree to which it invites a reader’s collaboration, that it is something of a moving target, never still—which is perhaps its greatest achievement.” This intimate, incisive, revelatory book is a must-read for admirers of Virginia Woolf, for fans of Mrs. Dalloway, for readers and writers of literary fiction and, yes, let it be said, for MFA writing students.
Robin Lippincott is the author of six books, most recently Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell. He has been teaching in the MFA Program of the Sena Jeter Naslund-Karen Mann Graduate School of Writing since its inception in 2001.