Woolf-Tolstoi-Eliot-Joyce

In the fall of 1922, Woolf was working on the very first bit of Mrs. Dalloway. She was also reading Ulysses and spending time talking about it with T. S. Eliot. Twice in her diaries that season, she offers accounts of conversations with Eliot about how Joyce is a genius, but Ulysses, in Eliot’s opinion, does not capture life as fully or richly as War and Peace. (Woolf herself was ambivalent about Ulysses, ultimately finding it inadequate.)

There is a lot to think about in this constellation of Woolf, Eliot, Joyce, and Tolstoi (as Woolf spelt it). Of most immediate interest for me is how it might build on our understanding of Mrs. Dalloway. This, as much as any small literary allusion or biographical note, is the big challenge of creating an edition, it seems to me. How to get that intellectual context and texture into my introduction?

Here, then is a tiny start. I read Bob Kiely’s riff on the title, Mrs. Dalloway with great admiration: how, in titling her novel after a married woman’s public name, Woolf announces her departure from the tradition of the novel which tends to use either women’s first names only (Clarissa, Pamela, Amelia, Emma) or men’s whole names (Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews, Tristram Shandy). Such a practice reinscribes marriage as the end of women’s lives by showing the assumption that the woman’s surname will change. Building on that, then, and returning to Tolstoy, I am reminded of Anna Karenina as well as of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, two novels about adultery which break the English title tradition and end with the heroine’s death. Mrs. Dalloway is every bit as big a novel, but its events, insofar as Mrs. Dalloway is concerned, are thoughts: thoughts about romantic possibilities passed by and death, not adultery and suicide.

In that, I think Woolf shows how she tried to navigate the channel between the raw meat of Tolstoi (her expression, her sense that really only the anemic Eliot could rate Tolstoi so highly) and the empty undergraduate genius of Joyce (again, as she saw it). That is, Mrs. Dalloway is an attempt to write a psychological novel that matters, to use stream-of-consciousness not as an end in itself but to give an account of real consequence all the while avoiding the simplistic equation of consequence with event.