Virginia Woolf and the art of rudeness

What startles the first-time reader of Virginia Woolf’s diaries is her constant rudeness. She compares James Joyce to a “queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” T. S. Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, was “unwholesome, powdered, insane,” and all in all a “bag of ferrets.” Clive Bell’s mother was “a little rabbit faced woman.” And Lady Cunard is described, after a lunch in 1928, as a “ridiculous little parakeet faced woman.” Like much of Woolf’s diaries, that last description has an echo in her fiction. In Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa, the eponymous wife, thinks about how much she dislikes her own appearance, her “ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird’s.”

That’s the start of my review of The Annotated Mrs Dalloway, edited by Merve Emre, published today in Unherd. The Annotated Mrs Dalloway is a wonderful edition of Woolf’s most accessible serious novel. And what a novel about modern life it is, where we are all constantly finding ourselves thinking — or saying, or typing — irrepressible thoughts. We are not always the people we want to think we are.

Here’s a section about Woolf and the common reader that didn’t make the final edit.

Like Samuel Johnson, from whom she pinched the idea, Woolf’s respect for the common reader came from her experience. (She lacked her brothers’ public-school education and was, instead, an autodidact.) And yet, readers often find Woolf’s books too elite or complex. Orlando irritated Elizabeth Bowen because it had so many in-jokes for Vita Sackville-West. The Waves, as Penelope Fitzgerald said, “is a warning… that her particular methods can’t be taken any further.” But if there is one book of Woolf’s that will live on with the common reader, beyond the essays, it is Mrs Dalloway.

Do read the whole thing. You can also pre-order The Annotated Mrs Dalloway (US link).


And, in case you missed it, here’s my article for UnHerd about the 110th anniversary of the Parliament Act 1911 — the statute that removed the House of Lords’ veto.


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