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A masterpiece in purple ink

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Essay, Extract | 14 minute read
Virginia Woolf re-worked and edited The Hours, working in ink, pencil and crayon, and occasionally upside down, before finally publishing it under the title Mrs Dalloway. Here, on Dalloway Day, Woolf scholar Helen Wussow describes the genesis of the great novel

‘The Hours’ represents the first full-length draft of what was to become Mrs Dalloway (1925). Virginia Woolf wrote two short stories, ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’ and ‘The Prime Minister’, between approximately 14 April and 21 October 1922. The manuscripts and typescripts of both these stories, which are kept in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, are published in The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf (1989), edited by Susan Dick. After T. S. Eliot rejected ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’ for Criterion it was published in the July 1923 issue of Dial and was subsequently republished by Stella McNichol as part of a collection entitled Mrs Dalloway’s Party (1973). These two works will be republished in the forthcoming edition of Woolf’s collected short fiction to be edited by Bryony Randall and Laura Marcus as part of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Virginia Woolf.

The genesis of Mrs Dalloway was in Woolf’s childhood. As Anne E. Fernald remarks in her excellent introduction to the Cambridge edition of Mrs Dalloway (2015), Kitty Maxse – friend of Woolf ’s mother, Julia Stephen – was the earliest model for Clarissa Dalloway. Fernald traces the many appearances of the Dalloways in Woolf’s earlier fiction, diaries and letters. She also investigates the many public and personal events that Woolf included in her novel. Readers who wish to gain a full understanding of the background of ‘The Hours’ and Mrs Dalloway will find much of interest in Fernald’s essay.

On 24 May 1941, Leonard Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West to inform her that Virginia Woolf, her friend and lover, had left one of her manuscripts to her, with instructions that Leonard was to choose which. Leonard first offered Sackville-West Flush (1933) and then The Years (1937). Vita asked for The Waves (1931), not realising that this was the one manuscript besides the diaries which Leonard particularly wanted for himself. He indicated that he had originally thought of offering her ‘Mrs Dalloway, but [he] could only find half of it and oddly enough the second half in two versions’. However, by 29 May 1941, he had found the first volume and he sent the entire manuscript to Sackville-West on 21 June 1941, along with an advance copy of Between the Acts (1941). In August 1956, Leonard wrote to Frances Hamill, a rare book dealer from Chicago, indicating that he would be willing to sell ‘11 items’ en bloc to either Harvard or Yale. Eventually these manuscripts were purchased by the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. Some of the notebooks purchased by the Berg contain Virginia Woolf ’s original outlines for the novel, along with drafts of extended dialogue, discussed further below.

The manuscript given to Vita Sackville-West, called ‘The Hours’, was eventually purchased by the British Library with contributions from the Shaw Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries. The three notebooks of the manuscript are numbered Add. MSS. 51044–51046 and total 467 folio pages. The paper is that consistently favoured by Woolf for her notebooks, namely Chariot Cream Laid, bound as large post quarto (21 cm × 26.67 cm). Most of the manuscript is written in the purple ink preferred by Woolf, although, upon occasion, she uses black and, more rarely, blue. Less frequent is her employment of blue or red crayon and black or blue pencil. Pencil markings mainly appear as marginal comments or remarks on the backs of pages or as short sentences at the end of a page that often serve as starting points for the next day’s writing.

The original opening of ‘The Hours’, on page 1 of notebook 1. Courtesy of SP Books.

Leonard Woolf described the covers of the writing notebooks as being constructed from ‘coloured, patterned Italian papers which we frequently used for binding books of poetry published by us in The Hogarth Press and of which she was very fond’. Each of the notebooks of ‘The Hours’ has a different cover. Add. MS. 51044 has a cloth cover with a crimson background in a Japanese motif of white circles with radiating lines in what is known as the ‘hemp’ pattern. The central four circles and their accompanying rays are filled in with blue ink. Add. MS. 51045 is covered with stained, slick, dark purple paper. Upon the front cover is a white adhesive label with red borders bearing the inscription in blue pencil, ‘Mrs Dalloway 2.’ Add. MS. 51046 has a shiny cover of material similar to oilcloth covered with a rough crisscross paper in white.

For the most part, it is fairly easy to chart Woolf’s progress on ‘The Hours’; she often begins her work by noting the date at the top of the page. This is fortunate, for Woolf marked Add. MS. 51045 as ‘2’ and Add. MS. 51046 as ‘Volume II’. Another opportunity for confusion rests in the fact that on folio 109 of Add. MS. 51045 (referred to henceforth as notebook 2), the visions of one ‘Bernard’ Warren Smith are described, while folio 110 opens with ‘Who was he talking to Sally asked?’ What Woolf did was to move to Add. MS. 51046 (notebook 3), the frontispiece of which bears the date 31 July 1924, and there resumed Bernard’s conversation with Rezia. Woolf continues to use this notebook until 4 October 1924. She then returns to notebook 2 and recommences Sally Seton’s conversation with Peter Walsh, eventually concluding ‘The Hours’ on Thursday, 9 October 1924, at 11:15 am. On 20 October, she returns to this same notebook to rewrite the first chapter, a text which had its earlier incarnation in the aforementioned ‘Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street’ and ‘The Prime Minister’.

Although the typescript of Mrs Dalloway has not yet come to light, two out of three sets of the corrected proof pages are still extant. In a letter dated 30 November 1924 to Violet Dickinson, Woolf writes that she has just finished a novel – all except copying out the last chapter. Woolf usually created her final draft on the typewriter, revising her manuscript, in this case ‘The Hours’, as she went along. She congratulates herself on 13 December for the speed with which she is rewriting while typing the entire novel, a process she terms a ‘good method’. On 21 December, she remarks that she is ‘putting on a spurt to have Mrs. D. copied for L. to read at Rodmell’. The Woolfs stayed at their home in Rodmell over Christmas, and it was there that Woolf made her final revisions before sending the typescript to her printer, R & R Clark Ltd in Edinburgh.

The returned proofs are dated 9–13 January by Clark. E. F. Shields, Glenn P. Wright and Anne E. Fernald have exhaustively charted the many complexities surrounding the proofs of Mrs Dalloway. I will, however, briefly describe what appear to have been Woolf ’s working methods regarding the proof corrections. Woolf was faced with the disagreeable task of correcting three identical proof sets. One set was for her own use, another for the Hogarth Press, and the last for her American publisher, Harcourt Brace. One would expect Woolf to make identical corrections on all three sets. However, a severe bout of influenza coupled with the tedium of the work and time constraints created a situation in which Woolf was hard pressed to keep up with the minutiae of the process. Furthermore, each set of proofs served a distinct purpose and, consequently, resulted in distinct texts. On 24 January 1925, Woolf wrote to her friend Jacques Raverat, offering to send him her own set of corrected proofs of Mrs Dalloway as a gift. However, Woolf’s illness intervened, and she wrote to Raverat on 5 February apologising for the delay: ‘I should have sent off my proofs before but they were muddled up, and influenza makes me like a wet dish cloth – even to sort them was beyond me’. Although she reassures Raverat she will send a set the next day (6 February), the pages were not mailed until mid-February, leaving Raverat’s wife, Gwen, only a short time to read the work to him before he died on 7 March. After sending a set of the proof pages of Mrs Dalloway to Raverat, Woolf continued correcting proof sets of both Mrs Dalloway and The Common Reader (1925) for her British and American publishers. Corrected proof pages of both works were sent to Edinburgh and Harcourt Brace by mid-March, although Wright argues that Woolf continued to mark the Edinburgh set after mailing the other to the States. The discrepancies between the British and American editions, when compared to the Raverat proofs, can be explained by the fact that the Raverat set was mailed in mid-February, while Woolf had until mid-March to continue work on the remaining two sets. The proof pages for the British edition no longer exist, but the American proof is now at the Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington. The Raverat proofs are held at the University of California, Los Angeles. Wright argues that Woolf continued to mark the British proofs after sending the other corrected set to America, as there are various corrections in the published British edition not found in the American edition. The Woolfs left for France on 26 March, and it is doubtful that any additional marks on the Edinburgh set were made after that date. Given her previous work habits, Woolf would probably not have gone on holiday had the corrections not been completed.

Woolf worked on ‘The Hours’ and the reviews and essays published in The Common Reader concurrently. Drafts of the essays appear on the reversed folio pages of the notebooks. In a diary entry dated 16 August 1922, Woolf describes her work habits as ‘my quick change theory’. By simply turning her notebook upside down she could use the same volume for both fiction and criticism. She could literally flip from one genre to another. Woolf’s composition of one text within another is at the heart of ‘The Hours’. Often, a scene will be interrupted in mid-sentence, as on folio 84 of notebook 1, where Woolf suddenly comments on Electra’s relationship with Clytemnestra, a passage found later in the essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’.

The second opening of ‘The Hours’, in notebook 2. Courtesy of SP Books.

The Berg Collection holds four notebooks containing fragments, notes and drafts pertaining to ‘The Hours’. The first is dated 12 March 1922 and is labelled ‘Books of scraps of J’s R. & first version of The Hours’. This is the third notebook of the draft of Jacob’s Room (1922). Another notebook is labelled ‘Reviews 1924’ and is dated 7 January 1924. A third is dated 22 November 1924 and is also labelled ‘ Reviews 1924’. A smaller notebook dates from 9 November 1922 to 2 August 1923 and contains very early structural notes for ‘The Hours’ as well as Woolf’s reading notes and a partial translation of the Choephori of Aeschylus, edited by A. W. Verrall (1893). It is in this small notebook that Woolf ponders the ‘question of choruses’ (420).

Much has been written on Woolf’s interest in ancient Greek literature. Emily Dalgano, in Virginia Woolf and the Visible World (2001) and Virginia Woolf and the Migrations of Language (2012), thoroughly investigates Woolf’s knowledge of Greek and reading of the classics, such as Aeschylus and Plato. Jane de Gay, in Virginia Woolf’s Novels and the Literary Past (2006), also explores Woolf’s reading of the Greeks. While Woolf favoured the idea of employing the dramatic form of the Greek chorus to provide depth and perspective to her novel, she remained uncertain. What she sought was a method to provide ‘weight and sharpen dialogue till each sentence tears its way like a harpoon and grapples with the shingles at the bottom of the reader’s soul’. Steven Monte points to the ‘unusual number of similes that draw on epic language and imagery’ in Mrs Dalloway. These extended similes, as in the Homeric epic, ‘are lyric interruptions of the narrative’. Woolf toyed with the idea of a multi-voiced chorus, one ‘half of calm & security’, but did not find it ‘convincing’. She then thought about ‘an observer in the street at each critical point who acts the part of the chorus – some nameless person’, an idea that resulted in the characters of Scrope Purvis and Maisie Johnson.

‘Can one admit rhapsodies?’ Woolf asks in her notebook prior to exploring the concept of the chorus. Like the chorus, a rhapsody is a passage that may be chanted or sung. While a chorus suggests several performers, a rhapsody may be single-voiced. Eventually, it was to these rhapsodic intervals, uttered by a ‘nameless person’, that she returned. The nameless voice takes on the role of the rhapsode or ‘song-stitcher’ who tells of different times, places and characters through a series of extended similes and commentaries. In ‘The Hours’ and Mrs Dalloway, these ‘rhapsodies’ are not so much ‘interruptions’ as they are the narrative itself, the threads that weave together the lives of disparate people, unknown to one another – no matter in how close a relationship they may be – during a hot June day in London shortly after the First World War.

The rhapsode was a traveller who recited works of literature as a profession. Rhapsodes are depicted in Greek art wearing a cloak and hat and carrying a staff, a costume worn by Woolf herself as she tramped across the Sussex Downs. The figure of the ‘song-stitcher’ is ever-present in ‘The Hours’ and Mrs Dalloway. One need only think about the ‘lonely traveller’, ‘the solitary traveller’ whose ‘visions’ ‘proffer great cornucopias full of fruit’ or ‘murmur in his ear like sirens lolloping away in the green waves’.

Title, 2 April 1924. Courtesy of SP Books

In ‘The Hours’, Septimus’ early life is characterised as a ‘confusion of rhapsody’, ‘a rhapsody congeal[ed]’. He becomes a wandering rhapsode and travels from his parents’ home to London and Italy. He tells of messages from birds, of what the dead, risen from Thessaly, convey. Many of his rhapsodies are inspired by music, such as the sound of a penny whistle or bird song. The role of the rhapsode – who stitches together past and present, time and space – is played by other characters as well. They tell their tales, whether to themselves or others, and tie together their evocations of experience. Nearly all the characters have travelled: Miss Kilman to Germany, Peter Walsh to India, Richard and Clarissa Dalloway to Constantinople, Aunt Helena to Burma. They all narrate their lives and give voice to their experiences. Their rhapsodies provide universality to individual experience. As Peter Walsh walks across Westminster following his visit to Clarissa, his reflections take on epic proportions: ‘Then its all up, its all up! he thought, looking rather drearily into the glassy depths, & wondering whether . . . by his appearance, or calling at that hour, he had annoyed her? . . . With the same <suddenness that> a cloud . . . on a summer’s day, crossing the sun, silence falls on London; & falls on the mind, & all effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. Rigid, like a skeleton . . . the skeleton of belief <alone> upholds the human frame’. In this passage, Peter’s misery, anger and disappointment reflect our own experiences. The visions of the ‘solitary traveller’ overpower ‘the actual thing’. While Septimus loses touch with the ordinary, he sees ‘the truth of everything’. The old woman who sings of love is ageless, as is her lover, who, though ‘dead these centuries’, lives through her song: ‘The old bubbling burbling song, soaking through the roots of infinite ages, through skeletons & treasure’. The words of her song are the root of all languages: ‘ee um fah um so’. Her song lengthens, ‘cheerfully and gaily’, like the twining ‘smoke from a cottage chimney’.

Threads of sound bind London together: ‘Brilliant as glass the filaments stretched, upon which . . . the race balanced itself & the days traffic went forward, with music wrought into it, & a desperate energy’. The characters are also drawn together by threads. Lady Bruton is connected to Hugh Whitbread and Richard Dalloway by a ‘thin thread’ which gets ‘thinner and thinner’ as they walk across London. Richard is attached by ‘a single spider’s thread’ to Clarissa. The soul, thinks Peter Walsh, is a fish who threads ‘her way between the boles of giant weeds’.

Woolf’s many rhapsodes tell and retell their stories until they become epic, part of human consciousness. Their rhapsodies forge a new language for the modern epic. As readers, we become Woolf ’s meta-rhapsodes. Through our reading, we weave together different strands from inter-related texts such as Woolf’s stories, notes and essays. Within the stitched notebooks of ‘The Hours’ are the narratives that are woven into the whole cloth of Mrs Dalloway.

This is an edited version of Helen Wussow’s foreword to a new edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, released in handwritten manuscript form for the first time by independent Parisian publishers SP Books. 

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