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The Mrs. Dalloway Reader Paperback – November 1, 2004
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How felicitous a pairing, that of Virginia Woolf--who elevated literature to glorious new heights with her glimmeringly beautiful prose and acute renderings of human consciousness but whose life has become the stuff of myth and speculation--and Francine Prose, a shrewd and thrilling novelist and insightful scholar of the creative process and women's lives. Prose's incisive introduction is worth the price of admission to this well-conceived study of the evolution and impact of Woolf's revolutionary novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Prose neatly characterizes what exactly Woolf achieves in this masterpiece, invaluable commentary that paves the way for Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway's Party, the sequence of seven stories that seeded the novel, and relevant entries from Woolf's diaries. Prose wisely includes the short story "The Garden Party," by Katherine Mansfield, the only writer Woolf envied, and presents a set of suitably eloquent critical essays by the likes of Michael Cunningham, Margo Jefferson, Mary Gordon, James Woods, and Sigrid Nunez. And then there's the jewel in question, Mrs. Dalloway itself, which completes this one-of-a-kind reader. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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So, why buy a "reader" in the first place, instead of just the stand-alone novel? Presumably to have the experience of a landmark work of fiction in its own right, as well as to explore the illuminating thoughts of a variety of minds suitably equipped for the task of intelligent criticism. A laudable aspiration of course, but in the present instance, one that is hardly likely to be met.
Not even one of Woolf's high-flying literary contemporaries manages to do her novel justice. E. M. Forster's essay on the early novels of Virginia Woolf may be an attempt to contextualise "Mrs Dalloway" within a proto-Woolfian cadre, but it actually manages to spend much more time on the other novels it discusses than on the actual subject of this volume. The wandering discussion offered by Daniel Mendelsohn in "Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf" suffers from a sustained lack of focus, struggling as it does to explore the relationships between "The Hours", "Mrs. Dalloway", and "A Room of One's Own". That it is interspersed with sundry unilluminating literary and cinematic references further disperses its faltering focus.
But there's more! Michael Cunningham's "First Love" amounts to nothing more than a vacuous and self-indulgent trifle, while Sigrid Nunez, in her ominously titled "On Rereading Mrs. Dalloway" underlines for us the dangers of hyper-critical reflection and over-intellectualisation in the re-reading process. One truly hopes that she will now fulfil her promise of leaving Woolf's fiction alone and concentrating on her non-fiction. This may possibly mean that "Mrs Dalloway" could remain safe from at least one self-important literary iconoclast.
Clearly, the ironically named Francine Prose who edited this misguided volume was hard up for publishable material. Why else would we have to endure Elaine Showalter's tedious "Invigorating Life" which manages - wait for it - not to make a single mention of "Mrs Dalloway", but instead to concern itself entirely with Woolf's "A Room of One's Own"? Shouldn't that one have made it into the "A Room of One's Own Reader", or did that already contain too many misplaced articles on "Mrs Dalloway"?
In the midst of this mindless morass, there are few gems to justify the publication of a "reader" such as this. Certainly, Deborah Eisenberg's "On Mrs. Dalloway" is a largely mature and intelligent discussion, though rather too brief to do itself full justice; and Elissa Schappell manages in "That Sort of Woman" to personalise her ideas on the text, though hers is ultimately a self-centred narrative which, for anyone truly interested in Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway", must fail to satisfy.
I am a little surprised that Harcourt would run the risk of damaging their academic credibility with a volume as unsatisfying as this. A Mrs. Dalloway reader it really aint! Perhaps it might have been less of an exercise in false advertising, if the publishers had taken a leaf out of the Pythons' book and called it "The Not Exactly a Mrs Dalloway Reader but Something Remotely Approaching It", for what we have here is surely a sheep in Woolf's clothing.
If you've read and enjoyed Cunningham's The Hours but haven't yet picked up Mrs. Dalloway, then you are missing out on part of the experience of reading really great literature: finding connections to other works, other voices, other worlds. What is affecting in The Hours is made even more powerful by knowing the work that helped bring it into being.
This collection is especially useful for classes working with Mrs. Dalloway; however, as of writing this review, the book is currently "out of stock" indefinitely with no scheduled reprint date (which is bookstore lingo for being one step away from officially out of print). I hope that this collection will be treated to a second edition (perhaps with expanded commentary - c'mon Cunningham, I know you can do better than that!) or at least a new printing to bring this classic piece of literature to life for even more students.
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