For There She Was

Virginia Woolf, Merve Emre (ed.), The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway

Liveright, 320pp, 280, ISBN 9781631496769

reviewed by Ellie Mitchell

You see, I’m thinking furiously about Reading & Writing. I have no time to describe my plans. I should say a good deal about The Hours, & my discovery; how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment — Dinner!

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 30 August 1923

Virginia Woolf’s famous caving method, or what she later termed her ‘tunnelling process’, is perhaps as much a method of reading as it is a method of writing. She lights upon it in this diary entry of August 1923, which falls in the midst of a period in which she was working on and indeed ‘thinking furiously about’ both ‘Reading & Writing’. As her emphatic capitalisation implies, the two activities went hand in hand for Woolf during this time. While she was working on the novel which was to become Mrs. Dalloway, she was working also on the collection of literary criticism which was to become The Common Reader. Both works appeared within a month of one another in the spring of 1925, like companion pieces. As Mrs. Dalloway dug out beautiful caves behind its characters, offering a glittering and labyrinthine excavation of post-war society, so The Common Reader dug out beautiful caves behind its texts, drawing works of literature out from the darknesses of their pasts into the light of the present. Still today, this is what good literary criticism should do.

It is what a good critical edition should do, too, and it is what The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway does — although, for all its beautiful caves, it is not a critical edition in the established sense. As Mrs. Dalloway offered up a new mode of writing, so Merve Emre’s edition of the novel offers up a new mode of reading. I use the term ‘edition’ reluctantly, because it is not so much an edition as its own thing. The first thing I noticed about it was its thingness — as a thing, it is artfully conceived, beautifully designed, and demands to be placed on a coffee table. Crucially, it does not only excavate Woolf’s text but exhibits it too. It places the text in boxes and surrounds those boxes with notes and illustrations as an exhibition curator would, and in a way which turns the reader into a viewer of or visitor to the text. The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway seems to be designed to encourage stopping and starting, lingering and skipping ahead, looking closer and looking away. Its annotations are both interruptions to and interpretations of the text. They cannot be deferred or ignored the way a footnote or endnote can; rather, they are there on the page, eye-catching in full colour, attracting and distracting your attention.

It is for this reason that I would not recommend the edition to a first-time or unfamiliar reader of Mrs. Dalloway. The abundance of annotations can border on overwhelming, and while many are charming gems, offering flashes of illumination, some strike as detours into more laborious territory. The short history of the mackintosh given in note 56 is an example of the former; the longer exploration of Woolf’s aesthetic and political positions on the aristocracy given in note 46 is an example of the latter. While instructive, it would be less intrusive as an endnote. The abundance of annotations also means that there are occasional instances where a note is more than one page-turn away. This is, of course, a standard occurrence in critical editions and would not usually be an issue. In this unique case, however, it does somewhat defeat the purpose of the annotated form: a reader loses the illuminating immediacy of the annotation without gaining the informative efficiency of an endnote.

But these are quiet quibbles. For the scholarly or familiar reader, The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway offers a wealth of new ways to engage with a well-loved novel. That its annotations comprise not only notes but also illustrations is especially welcome. Mrs. Dalloway is, after all, a vibrantly visual novel. Moving cinematically from scene to scene, from viewpoint to viewpoint, and from spectacle to spectacle, its all-seeing eye captures and catalogues a colourful post-war London. Illustrations including the May 1922 issue of Tatler, a photograph of skywriting from the Chronicle, a postcard of Piccadilly, and Joseph Pennell’s 1908 Westminster Night — From My Studio Window thus complement the novel’s own collage of modern fashions and marketing stunts, street views and cityscapes, new technologies and old institutions.

The maps, too, are a delightful addition. These provide the aspiring flaneur or flaneuse with the route not only for Clarissa Dalloway’s famous walk to the florists, but also for Peter Walsh’s walk through the city , for Septimus and Rezia Smith’s walk from Regent’s Park to Dr Bradshaw’s office, for Richard Dalloway’s walk home from Lady Bruton’s house, and for Elizabeth Dalloway’s walk with Miss Kilman to the Army and Navy Stores. Rendered clearly in attractive pastels, these maps plot the novel ever more vividly in the reader’s mind, and provide a cartographical referent for the ways in which its characters continually meet and cross and miss one another — both literally and figuratively. By the time I reached the end of the novel, I felt as though I too had wandered all over London, had seen all of its sights, had thought all of its thoughts, and I read Woolf’s final line with a grateful sigh of relief: ‘For there she was.’

This final line both fixes and unfixes Clarissa Dalloway in space and time. She is ‘there’, a deictic pointing, but only to a not-here; she ‘was’, but there is no telling who she is or is going to be. Merve Emre’s annotation on this final line notes its open ambiguity. She remarks that its simplicity ‘sum[s] up Woolf’s commitment to her character’s irreducibility, her singularity’, that it leaves us able only to point to the novel itself in answer to the mystery of where and who Clarissa is, and that it invites us ultimately ‘to go back to the beginning and read again; to refuse to close the door on Mrs. Dalloway’s party’. Certainly, this is an easy invitation to accept. By excavating and exhibiting Woolf’s text in the way that it does, The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway continually invites its reader to read, to reread, and to reread differently. Like a gracious party host, it makes of the novel an experience, makes the reader feel the fun, and looks good doing it.

Ellie Mitchell a PhD researcher at the University of St Andrews, specialising in the influence of theatre on the novels of Virginia Woolf.