The Mrs. Dalloway Reader edited by Francine Prose is a collection of Woolf’s writing alongside the writings of contemporary authors (Katherine Mansfield and E. M. Forster) as well as contemporary writers. Prose has gathered together a very interesting and insightful group of writings all meant to enlighten the reader and perhaps enhance an appreciation for Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf herself.
From Woolf we have the full text of her novella as well as an early short story version that barely resembles its descendent except perhaps in title (“Mrs. Dalloway’s Party”), excerpts from her journal, and an introduction to the novella (that gives away a major plot point). Her short story is juxtaposed against Katherine Mansfield’s own short story “The Garden-Party.” Reading the two stories side-by-side leaves little doubt which is the more superior and when the novella is added into the mix one’s appreciation for how Woolf revised her original vision into something far more profound cannot be understated.
Any writer who wants to really see how far a revision can carry a story would benefit greatly from reading the short story and novella by Woolf and take notes!
The essays were a disappointment only when they digressed from focusing on Mrs. Dalloway. Gathered from a conference where Woolf’s works were being highlighted, some of the essays barely mention Mrs. Dalloway and the reader who has not delved into other works by Woolf will feel lost and even confused. When the essays focus either on the novella itself or compare it with other novels by Woolf and/or others, the essays are better. But they are best when the focus is on Mrs. Dalloway and the inspired The Hours by Michael Cunningham. Cunningham’s brief essay, a celebration of Woolf’s novel, is followed by E. M. Forster’s broader appreciation of Woolf’s early novels. Forster, a friend of Woolf and the other Bloomsbury group, doesn’t focus solely on the one novel but he assumes that the reader has not read her writing and therein lies this essay’s strength because the previous essays presume that the reader is quite familiar with Woolf and build from that presumption.
This is at worst, an error in judgment on the editor’s part but it is hardly a flaw that detracts from the overall effect of this collection. When Daniel Mendelsohn writes about the novels by Woolf and Cunningham as he discusses the movie The Hours, there is a sort of magic in seeing how eloquently each informs the other. When Sigrid Nunez approaches the novel for a third time, her disappointment in the narrative is understandable but then it is followed by Deborah Eisenberg’s pleasure in the novel. Last but not least is the very intimate personal essay by Elissa Schappell who meant to take a copy of The Waves with her on vacation and accidentally grabbed the wrong book which, as one would expect, proves to be the right book after all, the one that serves as a prophetic metaphor for Schappell’s own life.
The book concludes with the complete text of Mrs. Dalloway. I would have put it first, especially when one considers how many plot points are blatantly bandied about in the previous essays. But I think it’s safe to say that anyone who picks up this book has probably already read and appreciate the novel so there won’t be too many surprises made in reading the essays. I certainly would encourage anyone who likes or even loves the novel to read this book. If you do not fall squarely into that camp, and especially if you think that Woolf’s writing is obtuse or over-rated, you probably should just pass on reading this book altogether. I definitely recommend it, in spite of its subjective flaws.