Blog #184: Great Expectations and Mrs. Dalloway Revisited

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Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has traveled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being? I cannot tell. Now I feel nothing; it has stopped, has perhaps sunk back into its darkness, from which who can say whether it will ever rise again? Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. And each time the cowardice that deters us from every difficult task, every important enterprise, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and my hopes for to-morrow, which can be brooded over painlessly.
Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

This entry is partly a record keeping one. Berfrois has now published “What the Dickens”, an essay in which I review Virginia’s relationship with Dickens and, drawing heavily on past blog posts, tease out some of the ways she assimilated and transformed Great Expections and Bleak House in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. The paper can be read by going to this Berfrois site.

Writing the paper recalibrated my sense of Woolf as a modernist. Partly because of the way in which academics define and examine modernism, partly Because aspects of her writing are so radically different from that of her Edwardian and Victorian predecessors, and partly because she is so good at assimilating and transforming the methods and themes of her literary ancestors, I had come to underestimate how much of the past Virginia retained. This despite the fact that again and again in her essays, she celebrates tradition. Above all else, she prizes culture and without tradition there is no culture. Culture is her lighthouse and to her it means everything. Woolf is undeniably a radical innovator and someone who helped to shape and define modernism, but her modernism is based on accommodation and assimilation of the past, not on rejection. Her position is best expressed in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” when, invoking Dickens, she concludes by saying that one of the great ages of literature will only be reached “if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.

My Dickens exploration also deepened my awe at Woolf’s subtlety and her ability to pile meaning upon meaning. Multiple meanings shimmer in almost every name, phrase or concept. Everything connects. Virginia’s brain teemed with possibility. Clarissa is Laura Sheridan is Septimus is Persephone is Kitty Maxse is Estella is Cleopatra is Peter is Pip is Belinda is Katherine Manfield is Persephone is Stephen Daedalus is Virginia Woolf… and is so many more besides. Meanings ramify through multivalence, yet amazingly everything coalesces into a controlled, coherent whole. As readers, we are forever discovering new elements and forever reinterpreting, according to which perspective is foremost in our minds. Conrad, Pope, Richardson, Joyce, Mansfield, Dickens, Flaubert, Homer, Proust, Shelley and Shakespeare are among those required to see Clarissa clear.

A final point. Woolf’s allusiveness is often so subtle and fleeting that it seems solipsistic. How many readers, for instance, were or are likely to connect little Jim Hutton and Professor Brierly to Lord Jim, or the Rigby and Lowndes clock to the suffragettes? Of what value are so many of the references and connections if they do not register with the reader? I see two answers to those questions. The first answer is that Virginia expected the reader to constantly search and to dig for her buried treasure. Reading is a challenge to engage with the world, not a passive pleasure. The second answer is Proustian. Woolf used Proustian insights to help write Mrs. Dalloway. Even if meanings do not consciously register, they can disturb the mind and evoke associations. The madeleine moment does not have to be retrieved for its effects to be felt. Readers responses can be shaped by unseen forces. You do not have to see or note Macbeth in To the Lighthouse or Great Expectations in Mrs Dalloway to feel their influence.

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