Virginia Woolf’s Art of Character-Reading


I learn “Mrs. Dalloway” for the primary time after I was ten or eleven, too younger to make a lot sense of it. It was summer time. I used to be away from house, although I can not recall the place or why precisely—solely that the mornings unfold upon a countryside very inexperienced and vivid, and that the times have been sizzling, and longer than one felt they’d any proper to be. What I do bear in mind, with a readability that startles me, is a letter I obtained and opened with pleasure, a letter I saved for a few years. It was written on a sheet of paper torn from a composition pocket book, with apparent care taken to not jag the sides. The author was a good friend from college, a boy to whom I had mailed my copy of “Mrs. Dalloway.” With the novel, I will need to have enclosed a letter of my very own, providing some insistence that he not solely learn the e book however learn my copy of it, and see one thing of us mirrored within the pages I had annotated—most definitely, the scenes about being younger and half in love. Once he had learn it, he was indignant and excited. “You were wrong,” he wrote. “We’re not Mrs. Dalloway and Peter Walsh. We are Jake Barnes and Lady Ashley from ‘The Sun Also Rises’ by one Ernest Hemingway. Don’t jump to conclusions halfway through. Read the book to the end. . . . the very end.”

Reading the letter in the present day, I really feel embarrassed on behalf of our youthful selves, for no matter infantile misunderstanding had led us to consider that our relationship was properly represented by both Clarissa and Peter, the repressed upper-class English spouse and the uninteresting, mawkish civil servant she refused to marry, or Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes, the sexually liberated English divorcée and the impotent American journalist she cherished an excessive amount of to shake free. Yet I confess to feeling some distant admiration for the readers we had been. I consider we had intuited one thing important about novels, and about “Mrs. Dalloway” specifically, after we sought some continuity between our lives and the lives we examine in fiction. It will need to have appeared potential, even fascinating to us, that Virginia Woolf’s characters would assist us relieve “the pressure of an emotion” and really feel the form of a thought; would supply us a glimpse of the ever-deepening “colours, salts, tones of existence” that she described in Clarissa’s meditations on youth and its discoveries. In creating Peter and Clarissa, she had laid a slim spit of land between our lives and her artwork, on which she had scattered a procession of moods and postures, scraps of dialog that allowed us not simply to endow her characters with the appearance of actuality however to strive on elements of it as our personal.

“Mrs. Dalloway” let me sense what I’d come to know solely later, {that a} fictional character is a marvellously and perplexingly hybrid creature. She is a bit of writing, and, as such, is made up “of words, of images, of imaginings,” because the scholar John Frow writes. But she additionally requires the pretense of existence: the idea, nonetheless wide-eyed or fantastical, that from behind these phrases, or from inside their vaporous path, there rises a distinctly human form. It is that this form that beckons to readers, that extends an invite to the fictional get together. So charmed are we by a personality’s presence—how is it that individuals can spring from marks on a web page?—that we’re insensible to the truth that she is however the intermediary, brokering a extra far-flung relationship. Behind her stands our true hostess: the author, exceptionally properly disguised.

This is, at the very least, how Woolf imagined the connection between readers, writers, and characters in her 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” which she wrote concurrently “Mrs. Dalloway,” and which supplies expression to the identical philosophy of character because the novel. The essay casts the author and the reader as two strangers attending to know one another in a distant, impersonal method, studying by characters calibrate one another’s sensibilities and ideas. In Woolf’s view, their fellowship was just like the rapport that “the perfect hostess” (Peter’s memorable description of Clarissa) cultivated with an unknown visitor—the sort of visitor who arrives at a celebration alone, empty-handed, and have to be coaxed into dialog with others, these whom the hostess can depend on to be courteous and entertaining. “Both in life and in literature it is necessary to have some means of bridging the gulf between the hostess and her unknown guest on the one hand, the writer and his unknown reader on the other,” Woolf wrote. “The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognises, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to co-operate in the far more difficult business of intimacy.”

So stimulated, the reader learns be the author’s confederate in what Woolf referred to as the artwork of “character-reading”: a follow of observing, of speculating about, folks, each in life and in fiction. The adept character-reader was one who fastened folks with a robust, sympathetic, and looking gaze; who seized on their unobtrusive moments—their small habits, their humble recollections, their incessant chatter—to know the total pressure of their being. Character-reading was an on a regular basis expertise, eminently helpful and even vital. “Indeed it would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practised character-reading and had some skill in the art,” Woolf wrote. “Our marriages, our friendships depend on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help.” Though character-reading may easy the social tribulations of grownup life, Woolf held it to be, at first, the artwork of the younger. They drew on it for “friendships and other adventures and experiments” that have been much less ceaselessly launched into in center or previous age, when character-reading retreated from its inventiveness, its candid curiosity, and have become a dutiful, pragmatic train, a method to keep away from misunderstandings and arguments.

The novelist was distinct amongst adults. She was a perpetual youth, preoccupied with the lives of others lengthy after it ceased to be both vital or prudent. Character-reading clutched at her first as “an absorbing pursuit,” then as an obsession. Like all obsessions, it demanded expression. To turn into a author was to remodel oneself from a reader of character, gazing at these round her with gleaming eyes, to a creator of character, turning her observations into phrases, conjectures, fantasies. But she didn’t search to know folks utterly, to grasp them. She knew all too properly that disordered currents of emotion ate away on the tracts of the thoughts, that nobody, regardless of how charming or profitable or self-possessed, ever existed as a whole and wholly built-in self.

Suppose, then, that there was one thing supremely applicable in the way in which my good friend and I got here to “Mrs. Dalloway” at midnight, too ignorant to know its characters’ relations absolutely, however succesful of perceiving, with a sudden clap of recognition, that the probabilities and frustrations lighting their minds—pleasure, defensiveness, worry, the shortcoming to know one other particular person with certainty—have been additionally lighting ours. Suppose Woolf had created them with an eye fixed to dissolving the boundary between fiction and life, revealing to us that the patterns of thought and feeling organized by the novel have been already embedded within the trivial occurrences of our every day lives (although they might not have appeared trivial to us on the time). This was the reason that the critic Erich Auerbach ventured as to why Woolf’s writing overflowed with such “good and genuine love but also, in its feminine way, with irony, amorphous sadness, and doubt in life.” Her characters, for all of the particularities of their nationality, their race, and their class, provided an admirably collective imaginative and prescient of humankind. They modelled “nothing less than the wealth of reality and depth of life in every moment to which we surrender ourselves without prejudice,” Auerbach wrote. “To be sure, what happens in that moment—be it outer or inner processes—concerns in a very personal way the individuals who live in it, but it also (and for that very reason) concerns the elementary things which men in general have in common.”

I don’t assume that Auerbach is true in referring to this sense of shared life, in all its hope and its melancholy, as a distinctly female method of seeing the world. But I do consider that solely Woolf’s characters may have proven us the frequent floor the place life and fiction meet: not at fastened deadlines and area however within the recesses of our minds. Had we chosen a novel by Flaubert, we’d have been mesmerized by the scenes he set, each spoon in each eating room polished, each grain of powder within the folds of Emma Bovary’s gown discolored and tough. Had we chosen a novel by Dickens, we’d have flung ourselves into his grand, spirited plots, the motion rising, falling, cresting, and breaking, then carrying us, together with Pip and Estella, to the tip of the e book in essentially the most orderly method. Woolf prided herself much less on element and plot than on the creation of characters, who, for all their bodily indeterminacy and psychological inconstancy, had minds that felt “real, true, and convincing,” she wrote in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” She burrowed deep into their processes of thought, and, so submerged, illuminated the astonishing perceptions and sensations hid therein. From them, she extracted not only a stream of consciousness however a vast capability for all times—a vitality that would solely have been hinted at by the traces of eyes and noses, by little speeches and lengthy silences. One may scarcely think about getting into these depths of intimacy with Hemingway’s terse, battered brood. (Though who is aware of what type of intimacies my good friend had imagined?)

It is probably too apparent to insist that “Mrs. Dalloway” is a few character—for there she is within the title, which Woolf settled on after rejecting “The Party” and “The Hours.” (Woolf additionally thought-about “The Life of a Lady,” “A Lady,” “A Ladies Portrait,” and “A Lady of Fashion”—titles that alluded to Henry James’s “The Portrait of a Lady,” arguably the best novel of consciousness and character.) But “Mrs. Dalloway” can also be a novel that thinks with extraordinary precision about how characters are born; how they navigate the world of the novel; how they attain for each other in moments of terror and pleasure, and, discovering nothing strong to carry on to, shrink again, unfurling the dazzling intricacies of their ideas just like the petals of the flowers Clarissa sees, in a store, burning “softly, purely in the misty beds.” The intimacy we’re provided together with her characters comes on the expense of the intimacy they can not supply one another. So, in a single of my favourite scenes within the novel (I will need to have requested my good friend to take care of it intently), Peter and Clarissa sit in her drawing room, she together with her stitching needle, he along with his pocket knife, with all of the recriminations of the previous thirty years hanging between them, leaving every no alternative however to point out the reader, and the reader alone, the recollections that also twinge and wound. So Clarissa’s double, the conflict veteran Septimus Smith, sits within the park, the sunshine of the solar dancing throughout the leaves overwhelming him. He can categorical this sense to his spouse, Lucrezia, solely in scary murmurs—however to the reader he affords an ode to reality and sweetness.

Many years after my first studying, the good pleasure of annotating “Mrs. Dalloway” has been to comply with the thread of character-reading by the novel, making an attempt to impress its significance not on one or two readers previously however on many within the current. Looking past Peter and Clarissa, wanting past the textual content to the historical past of its creation, we uncover that the thread by no means slackens or snaps. We discover it in Woolf’s choice to show Clarissa Dalloway, a minor character in her first novel, “The Voyage Out” (1915), into the principle character of her story “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” (1923)—after which, after discovering that Clarissa clamored for extra life, in her sluggish give up to the novel. We discover it stitched by her largest revision to the e book: the creation of Septimus as Clarissa’s double, in order to entwine the story of an ageing, rich, vivacious lady with the story of the First World War and its penalties. Her most well-known diary entry about “Mrs. Dalloway” presents the 2 characters as metaphysical and political extremes: “I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense.” Yet, as quickly as she voiced this, she retracted it. “But here I may be posing,” she wrote. There is little doubt that her characters are shot by with historical past: that, because the scholar Alex Zwerdling observes, Woolf used her fiction to satirize Britain’s “hierarchies of class and sex, its complacency, its moral obtuseness.” But the greatness of her novel comes from its refusal “to judge simply and divide the world into heroes and villains.” Her characters stay irreducibly, unconventionally themselves, which implies that they continue to be eternally accessible to point out us the artwork of dwelling as a human being.

This essay has been drawn from “The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway,” which is out this month, from Liveright.


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