Book Review

There is something quite private about annotating a book. Without thought to publication, writing in the margins is an act of confidence; there is the possibility of glibness, or pretention, or completely banal questions that we wouldn’t typically offer up in public. We are able to argue with every page of Plato, if we so choose, and the only repercussion is perhaps embarrassing our future selves with notes that now seem naïve. But when annotation becomes a genre for the public eye, it changes shape. We are inviting—and trusting—a third person to be in the conversation, one whose influence on the book might be permanent.

By now, this is something Norton is well versed in, after publishing over a dozen editions in their Annotated Series, including The Wizard of Oz, Sherlock Holmes, and the Brothers Grimm. What is different about The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway, however, is that the former texts endear themselves to annotation. The simplicity of the Brothers Grimm tales, for example, and their inherently flat language, has always been conducive to historical context, lush illustration and an endless range of interpretation. But Mrs. Dalloway is anything but simple; its prose is not improved by digression or interruption, running on as it does like the Thames through London. The novel is one less concerned with detailed contemporary knowledge, and more with sound, and rhythm, and the reverberation of life. It is not spoiled as a story if we don’t know the precise location of St. Paul’s Cathedral, nor if we aren’t certain who was prime minister in 1925. It is diluted by losing the thread of Clarissa’s mind. This is where trust comes in, because The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway is not Virginia Woolf’s Dalloway; it is Merve Emre’s, editor and annotator of the edition.

Emre is well aware that Woolf herself was no fan of debate in the margins: “I was mindful of her contempt for readers who annotated books to argue with or correct their authors—though unable to repress my belief that, at times, critique was both necessary and truer to Woolf’s approach to reading than fawning would have been.” As a guide to Woolf, Dalloway, and the novel’s many threads—both fictional and biographical—Emre is an obvious choice. As an Associate Professor of English at Oxford University, author of The Personality Brokers—which tracks the creation and consecutive popularity of the Myers-Briggs test—and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, Emre’s appeal is both broad and academic; important qualifications for introducing new students to a story coming up on its one hundredth birthday.

In her introduction, Emre writes that, “I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time when I was maybe ten or eleven, too young to make much sense of it,” striking the tone of an amiable lecturer, both erudite and relatable. The introduction brings in the three elements—the novel, the writer, and Emre’s own relationship with both—that provide a solid base for the annotations themselves. What then follows is Mrs. Dalloway as a historical artifact, replete with records, diary entries, illustration and theory. We are able to trace each character’s path over a two-page map, that may or may not assist in understanding the story. There are photographs of Virginia and reproductions of publications like Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities, a comic Clarissa spots at Hatchards.

The notes themselves are democratic; there is no assumption of literary expertise. Emre offers asides on everything from Margot Asquith to the city of Liverpool, from pointers on form to teacherly prompts. By the end, she has managed to build a web around Mrs. Dalloway that feels as busy and successful as Clarissa’s own party. The trouble only comes when some guests linger for too long, or crowd too heavily. An annotation on Hampton Court spans the margins of three pages, whereas Ceylon, Leonard Woolf’s home for seven years, has only four sentences. Meanwhile, in a few pages near the beginning, the images and notes pile on so thick, that it’s almost impossible not to lose the novel itself; a style better suited to an annotated Middlemarch, perhaps, or Oliver Twist.

What is never lost throughout, however, is Virginia herself. With a biographer’s eye for fact, anecdote, and primary materials, Emre does not romanticize her subject. Placed at a crossroads between the Victorians of the last century, and the first war of the modern, Woolf exists as a complex product of both. She was deeply suspicious of Britain’s colonial regime, seemed to relish in its failures, and yet was never free from its prejudices and ignorance; she is able to namedrop both Darwin and Einstein in Mrs. Dalloway, markers of two very different worlds, and treated serving staff better in fiction than in her own home. “Though Woolf’s style . . . encodes her criticism of an unjust social system, in life she was just as dependent on her servants as Clarissa, though more impatient and abusive toward them.” What this honest appraisal does is draw Woolf into her novel, sometimes making it difficult to separate her from Clarissa and Septimus. But the generosity of Emre’s criticism does exactly what it should: it opens up the connections you might otherwise have missed. For example, by tracing Septimus’s poetry to Woolf’s own mental illness, and how they both hear birds “sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words,” it struck me how similar their symptoms are to Blake’s raptures and hallucinations; his visions of bright angels in London. The key difference, of course, being modern medicine, and the dry, automaton doctors—such as Dr. William Bradshaw—that it produces.

It is easy to say that new readers must learn to make their own judgements. “The only advice,” Woolf wrote in “How Should One Read a Book,” “that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” Which of course is all correct and true, but Woolf came from a home of books and readers and was from an early age incapable of writing a dull word. It is harder to have confidence in your own instincts, when your first real “literary” reading doesn’t happen until you’re eighteen or older. For those readers in particular, who need to trust that third person in the room, The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway is perfectly suited. It is as close as many will come to a seminar with an Oxford professor, as good a place as any from which to begin trusting your own instincts.

About the Reviewer

Connor Harrison is a writer based in Montreal. His work has appeared at Lit Hub, The Moth Magazine, Hinterland, Review31, and Poetry Wales, among others.