Mrs. Dalloway is Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece. The novel follows socialite Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party and receives a visit from an old suitor. With this simple plot, Woolf explores the subjective experience of the mind, as memory, emotion, and outside social forces flood in and out of the character’s day, which is in the middle of June 1923.
1. Woolf Wrote The Novel In A Garden Shed.
At Monk’s House in Sussex, Woolf spent three hours every day writing in a shed in the garden. She wrote Mrs. Dalloway in large notebooks that she hand bound herself through the printing press she ran with her husband, Leonard. According to the BBC show The Secret Life of Books, Woolf composed the novel in a diary-like fashion, dating each day’s work in the margin and crossing out sections she didn’t like as she went along. There’s even a sketch of a floor plan for a house she was considering renting—apparently, even the minds of great writers wander.
2. The Book Was Originally Titled The Hours.
Woolf went back and forth between calling the book Mrs. Dalloway or The Hours, a more abstract choice that would draw attention to time in the novel. The book spans a single day, and the events are punctuated by the chiming of Big Ben. There are no chapters in the book, just 12 section breaks, one per hour. However, in the end, Woolf chose to name the novel after its main character, Mrs. Dalloway.
3. It Was Partially Influenced By Ulysses.
James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in 1922, three years before Mrs. Dalloway. (In fact, the Woolfs had a chance to publish it, but passed.) When Ulysses came out, Woolf wrote in her journal that it was “an illiterate, underbred book.” Yet she also responded to the novel’s experimental nature. In writing Mrs. Dalloway, it’s almost as if she took what she liked from Ulysses and left the rest behind. Both books are set in a single day in June, both have two story structures with two major characters, and both use language to dip in and out of people's heads and move fluidly through time. It’s hard to believe Mrs. Dalloway would be the same if Woolf hadn’t read Ulysses.
4. Clarissa Dalloway Was Based On A Socialite Woolf Knew.
Woolf modeled Clarissa after childhood friend Kitty Maxse, who became the kind of society woman Woolf was raised to be—that is, the proper, genteel wife of a prominent man. In 1922, right as Woolf was starting Mrs. Dalloway, Maxse died by falling over a staircase banister. Woolf was saddened by the death and speculated whether or not it was an accident. Soon after, she started Mrs. Dalloway, saying in a letter to her sister Vanessa Bell that Clarissa was “almost Kitty verbatim.”
5. Clarissa Was A Difficult Character To Write.
Clarissa appeared in Woolf’s novel, The Voyage Out, as well as five short stories before starring in her own book. Still, Woolf found it difficult to give depth to the superficial character, writing that Clarissa was “too stiff, too glittering and tinsely.” Then she had a breakthrough: she would write Clarissa’s memories. This “discovery” opened the book up and allowed her to tunnel into her characters’ consciousnesses. She wrote, “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each come to daylight at the present moment.”
6. Originally, Clarissa Was Going To Die.
At first, Woolf thought that at the end of the 12 hours, Clarissa—like Kitty Maxse—would die. At some point, however, she abandoned the idea and created a double for Clarissa named Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked World War I veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Inventing Septimus changed the direction of the book. Woolf wrote, “I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side—something like that.”
7. Woolf Drew On Her Mental Illness When Writing Septimus.
Through Septimus, Woolf explores insanity, the toll of war on veterans, and the prejudices doctors of the day had toward the mentally ill. Much of this came out of firsthand knowledge. Woolf had her first mental breakdown at age 13 and continued to have episodes throughout her life—at times she was psychotic and bedridden. Septimus was given many of these experiences. For example, like Woolf, Septimus hallucinates that birds are singing in Greek.
8. The Thwarted Lesbian Romance Is Based On Real Life, Too.
As a teenager, Clarissa was in love with Sally Seton, who once kissed her in a garden. Clarissa remembers, “standing in her bedroom … saying aloud, ‘She is beneath this roof!’” This is similar to a memory from Woolf’s adolescence, when she was in love with Madge Symonds Vaughan. In 1921, she wrote how Vaughan—who like Sally, had matured into a boring, matronly woman—was once “the woman I adored! I see myself now standing in the night nursery at Hyde Park Gate, washing my hands and saying to myself ‘At this moment she is actually under this roof.’”
9. The Book’s Success Purchased Mrs. Dalloway’s Closet.
In 1925, Mrs. Dalloway was published by Hogarth Press. As with all of Woolf’s books, Vanessa, an artist, designed the book cover. It sold so well, it paid for hot water to be installed in the house, as well as a bathroom that was nicknamed “Mrs. Dalloway’s closet.” Woolf seemed to know she’d hit her stride was a writer. “Now suppose I might become one of the interesting—I will not say great—but interesting novelists?” she wrote.
10. It Helped Change Our Expectations Of What A Novel Could Be.
Mrs. Dalloway is a pioneering novel in stream-of-consciousness storytelling. Woolf invented a narrative form that imitates how the brain works and the way the mind perceives the world. The book challenged ideas of how a novel could be structured and what language could reveal about the inner workings of the self. No wonder Mrs. Dalloway continues to be on so many “best books ever” lists.