She was probably thinking about how ugly the photographer was. Credit: Getty

August 31, 2021   5 mins

What startles the first-time reader of Virginia Woolf’s diaries is her constant rudeness. She compares James Joyce to a “queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples”. T. S. Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, was “unwholesome, powdered, insane”, and all in all a “bag of ferrets”. Clive Bell’s mother was “a little rabbit faced woman”. And Lady Cunard is described, after a lunch in 1928, as a “ridiculous little parakeet faced woman”.

Like so much of Woolf’s diaries, that last description has an echo in her fiction. In Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa, the eponymous wife, thinks about how much she dislikes her own appearance, her “ridiculous little face, beaked like a birds’”.

In her new, annotated edition of Mrs Dalloway, Merve Emre doesn’t footnote the parakeets. But she is frank about Woolf’s less sympathetic side — and the ghastly personal beliefs she subsumed into her fiction:

“The fact is that the working classes are detestable”, Woolf would write in her diary in 1920 — a prejudice she harboured and took great care to ironise in Mrs Dalloway.

Indeed, the point of Mrs Dalloway is to show the thoughtless distance that existed between the comfortable world of the rich and the unquiet world of the poor. Woolf “took great care” to transform the rudeness of her diaries: what appears as shockingly nasty and unprovoked becomes artful and observant — empathetic, even — in her fiction.

Because we do think about other people like that. We can’t control our thoughts. And Mrs Dalloway is concerned with the inner life (“one’s life,” Woolf wrote, “is not confined to one’s body and what one says and does”). Clarissa is so polite, so well mannered, so poised; Woolf drew on her own nastiness to show Clarissa’s interior: frustrated, suppressed, annoyed — about even the smallest things. “For Heaven’s sake, leave your knife alone! she cried to herself in irrepressible irritation.”

To use the language of Twitter, Clarissa Dalloway is trying to control her inner troll — just as Woolf was disguising, ironising and converting hers. In the online age, we are constantly confronted with the dilemma of appropriately expressing our thoughts, of not feeling free to express what ought to be acceptable, of feeling obliged to disguise or edit ourselves, or simply of disliking our own personality. The Annotated Mrs Dalloway is timely.

Woolf wrote in her diary that she detested “egoistical: personal” writing — of the kind that proliferates, now, in autofiction. She worked to be formal, objective. But Emre finds Woolf’s life surfacing everywhere. Woolf’s thoughts, and her self, are irrepressible. Her half-brother used to fondle her in bed, and Emre suggests we can see him “peeping out” from behind Hugh Whitbread, a “sexually abusive” character. Woolf’s early suicide attempt is drawn on. Like Septimus, the soldier suffering from PTSD, Woolf once hallucinated birds talking to her in ancient Greek.

The form of the footnotes mirrors their eclectic contents. They are laid out in thick margins, but sometimes they don’t run in sync with the text, so you have to scout around for the relevant note. There is at least one pile up, where a page of images is put in to allow the notes to catch up with the novel. Emre has created a kaleidoscope of revealing and illuminating images: contemporary photos of London; Duncan Grant’s painting of Regents Park; an etching of Oxford Street by Joseph Purnell; the Tatler cover for May 1922; an X-Ray of a hand. There are also frequent maps showing the characters’ routes through London.

Just as Woolf’s fragmentary syntax reflects the irrepressible flux of a busy mind, the images and footnotes give a sense of the emergent bustle of London — one of the novel’s essential metaphors — and the disjoined way in which we piece our thoughts together. We are used to this of course — or we should be. Modern culture is chaotic. Social channels and comment threads enable everyone to footnote everything. But still, the annotations show what a marvel it is that Woolf managed to hold together this strange and vivid story — in her head and on the page.

It wasn’t easy. Emre shows how Woolf worked and worked and worked at this book. She was weary with the effort. She resented distractions — she often did. Throughout the letters and diaries, Woolf complains about the demands of other people. “We have seen an endless number of people”. Clarissa’s inventor was, like her, a reluctant hostess. Without people, she relaxed. She wrote to Vita Sackville-West from Sussex in 1928, “I am in soaring health and spirits after one day here and have sat looking at cows for 3 hours instead of chasing round London buying scraps of meat and coming home to find Clive, Miss Jenkins, Sybil, etc.”

Her diary, when she is home, crashes around from notes of where she has been, what she did, who was there, into convoluted psychological, ethical, and philosophical considerations. Just when the discussion becomes intractably deep, she flips into personal admin, grumbles, plans for work, gossip. Woolf seems calmer — nicer — when she is relieved of her anxieties, ambitions, and activities. Unquiet minds, we might speculate, produce unpleasant remarks. They also produce good art. Mrs Dalloway crashes around, too.

Woolf examined her own mind for material, but the novel wasn’t simply a re-working of her diary. Remember: Woolf took great care. She had almost impossibly high standards: she once told E.M. Forster that he wasn’t really a novelist. The poor man had nothing to say other than “Ah!” She criticised him for being unable to marry “satire and sympathy; fantasy and fact.” To meet Woolf’s high standards, then, one must transform the biographical. We must look for the way her rudeness is recreated — not merely expressed — in her art. What we dislike in her private voice, we most likely, unsuspectingly, admire in her public art. If only the same were true of our own vicious internet selves.

It would be easy to cancel Woolf today — parts of her, at least. Emre’s notes introduce critical debates about Woolf’s racism: the diaries are full of unacceptable remarks about Indian people. Mrs Dalloway, however, is not so straightforward. Woolf unflinchingly portrays how the English upper classes saw Indian women as mere objects of desire; as Emre (summarising Supriya Chaudhuri) says: “she represents prejudice from the intimate position of who feels it… Woolf is critiquing what she knows best: her failure to transcend her own racism.” By reading Woolf, we might critique our own rudeness. We might learn, like her, to use our lesser thoughts to encourage ourselves into empathy.

Because some of the rudeness Woolf buried in her novels has become more, not less, acceptable: Emre shows many lines that were cut from the original draft of Mrs Dalloway, a lot of them about same-sex attraction. Clarissa’s memory of her first kiss with Sally was rewritten so that it described something spiritual and nostalgic, rather than a physical pleasure: “she became instantly soothed and yet stimulated as if myriads of bells chimed.” As with her racism, when writing about concealed desires, Woolf wrote about unacceptable things from the intimate vantage point of one who has experienced them.

Today’s literature looks for the personal everywhere — memoirs proliferate, especially from the unmemorable. But today’s culture is often intolerant of imperfection. We are too close to ourselves, perhaps, to see ourselves clearly, and accept what we find. The distance of fiction can help us see our irrepressible thoughts — to understand we are not obliged to be what we think or say or write.

One reader on Twitter with an aversion to Woolf hoped Emre’s edition would help him “overcome my longstanding dislike of Woolf.” “Probably not!”, she replied.

I have always found disliking Virginia Woolf quite easy, and Emre’s careful annotations provided many ways for me to improve my view of Woolf, by seeing so many sides of her. “How queer,” Woolf wrote, “to have so many selves” — offensive, repressed, unstable, insightful.

Henry Oliver is a writer. His work can be found at The Common Reader.