“I am the only woman in England free to write what I like,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1925, the year she published her fourth novel. Thanks to a new reproduction of the only full draft of MRS. DALLOWAY (SP Books, $220), handwritten in three notebooks and initially titled “The Hours,” we now know that the story she completed — about a day in the life of a London housewife planning a dinner party — was a far cry from the one she’d set out to write. The novel we know today begins with the iconic sentence “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” But a manuscript page dated June 1923 bears a different opening: “In Westminster, where temples, meeting houses, conventicles, & steeples of all kinds are congregated together, there is at all hours & halfhours, a round of bells, correcting each other, asseverating that time has come a little earlier, or stayed a little later, here or here.” Woolf began writing a “big book about London after World War I,” said Michael Cunningham, whose Pulitzer-winning novel “The Hours” was based on Woolf’s. But “she didn’t go very far with that before she appears to have realized that the ‘big’ book she thought she should write was not really the book she wanted to write. The transition for her was understanding that a book about an outwardly ordinary woman on an ordinary day in London could be every bit as ‘big’ as the books about wars and revolutions.” Rather than one of many minor threads, as Woolf initially planned, Mrs. Dalloway’s became the entire story.
In his preface to “The Portrait of a Lady,” Henry James wrote that the “wonder” of the novel was “how absolutely, how inordinately, the Isabel Archers, and even much smaller female fry, insist on mattering.” Of “girls and their blind visions,” George Eliot wrote in “Daniel Deronda”: “In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affections.” By revising her readers’ first impressions of this now canonical novel, Woolf ushered the tradition of her psychological realist forebears into the modernist era. She was, in Cunningham’s words, “walking right into the prejudice against women, rather than trying to skirt it.” Clarissa Dalloway was nothing if not a “delicate vessel” — but, like Woolf herself, she insisted on mattering.
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