Ninety-five years ago this week, Mrs. Dalloway—arguably the most famous work by iconic modernist writer and pioneer of the stream of consciousness narrative technique, Virginia Woolf—was first published. Capturing the complex and disquieting interiority of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional high-society woman in post–WWI England, over the course of a single day, it is considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
Though troubled by debilitating bouts of mental illness throughout her life, culminating in her tragic suicide in 1941 at the age of 59, Woolf was an astonishingly prolific writer—of novels, short fiction, essays, literary criticism, and drama—and by the 1930s had established herself as one of the most revered public intellectuals of the era.
To mark this auspicious literary anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the first New York Times reviews of each of Woolf’s ten novels, from The Voyage Out (1915), to the posthumously published Between the Acts (1941).
The Voyage Out, 1915
“I want to write a novel about silence,” he said; “the things people don’t say.”
“This English novel, by an English writer, gives promise in its opening chapters of much entertainment. Later, the reader is disappointed. That the author knows her London in its most interesting aspects—those in which members of Parliament and their coterie of relatives and friends are the active figures—there can be no doubt. But aside from a certain cleverness—which, being all in one key, palls on one after going through a hundred pages of it—there is little in this offering to make it stand out from the ruck of mediocre novels which make far less literary pretension.
As for the story itself, it is painfully lacking, both in coherency and narrative interest … The Voyage Out is announced as the author’s first novel. That fact is the most hopeful thing about it. With the cleverness shown here, crude as most of it is, there should be a possibility of something worth while from the same pen in the future.”
Night and Day, 1919
Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter’s evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day.
“This is essentially an analytical novel; seekers for thrills and exciting adventures will search its 308 pages in vain. The setting is in London, most of the action taking place in the luxurious home of the Hilberrys. Mrs. Hilberry was the only child of Richard Alardyce, deceased, a poet eminent among the poets of England … In short, the Hilberrys were trying to live up to their ancestors; furthermore, she was engaged upon a life of a poet. This literary effort had its inception years before the story opens, but for reasons which the author fully develops as she humorously portrays Mrs. Hilberry’s peculiarities, the work has made no progress at the end … The portrait of Mr. Hilberry, Katharine’s father, is clever; his habit of shunning every responsibility and taking himself off when domestic or social affairs become complicated will be appreciated. All of the characters are drawn with art; their thoughts and actions are minutely observed and dissected. In point of literary style the book is distinctive.”
Jacob’s Room, 1923
When the body escaped mutilation, seldom did the heart go to the grave unscarred.
“No plainer manifestation of the modernist trend in contemporary English fiction may be found than in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. The book is a natural (some conservatives will undoubtedly say ‘unnatural’) development from those queer stories included in this writer’s ‘Monday or Tuesday.’ So much does style play a part in her work that it is of more importance to dilate on this aspect of her work than to enumerate the incidents that make up Jacob’s Room. The incidents do not so much matter. They are merely a series of events, more or less slight from an objective viewpoint, outlining the career of a young man from his early boyhood to his death in Flanders. It is the manner in which these things are revealed that makes the book of importance, at least as an example of what the younger rebels are doing in England. It is to be suspected that Miss Woolf stems from May Sinclair, but she has carried the terse method of that excellent writer to a natural conclusion and added to its value by a vein of sheer poetry that continually crops out.
“How easily this would split up into vers libre; one has but to rearrange the lines. And this is the case with much of Jacob’s Room, particularly those passages which are descriptive. The dialogue is sharp-edged, springing from the book like a series of sword thrusts. Here is a paring down to essentials: nothing is included but that which urges the mood forward; there is no idle reflection, no subterfuge of matter to extend the volume of the episode.
“At first one is uneasily aware of Miss. Woolf’s bizarre qualities as a writer of prose, but after one has progressed a way in the book, this consciousness rather vanishes. The metier establishes itself in the reader’s mind and he travels along easily enough unless he is looking for a tale of sustained and rounded plot. He will not find that. But if he is a lover of prose (even grant that it be experimental prose) he will find much to please him and to awaken his fancy.
“This book again impresses upon the reader of English fiction the great quality of the women now writing in that country…Indeed, the list is endless. Miss Woolf is certainly one of the foremost figures in this group, and one is glad to note that she is, for her work is more cynical, more compact with beauty than several of the others. Her influence is one that modern England needs.”
Mrs. Dalloway, 1925
She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.
“It is almost a perfect being that Mrs. [Clarissa] Dalloway enjoys, but there is a resentfulness in her, some paucity of spiritual graces, or rather some positive hideousness.
Among Mrs. Woolf’s contemporaries, there are not a few who have brought to the traditional forms of fiction, and the stated modes of writing, idioms which cannot but enlarge the resources of speech and the uses of narrative. Virginia Woolf is almost alone, however, in the intricate yet clear art of her composition. Clarissa’s day, the impressions she gives and receives, the memories and recognitions which stir in her, the events which are initiated remotely and engineered almost to touching distance of the impervious Clarissa, capture in a definitive matrix the drift of thought and feeling in a period, the point of view of a class, and seem almost to indicate the strength and weakness of an entire civilization.”
To the Lighthouse, 1927
About here, she thought, dabbling her fingers in the water, a ship had sunk, and she muttered, dreamily half asleep, how we perished, each alone.
“To the Lighthouse is a book of interrelationships among people, and though there are major and minor characters, the major ones are not, as Clarissa Dalloway was, the alpha and omega of the story, but more truly the means for giving to the story its harmony and unity, its focal points. Those who reject To the Lighthouse as inferior to Mrs. Dalloway because it offers no one with half the memorable lucidity of Clarissa Dalloway must fail to perceive its larger and, artistically, more difficult aims. They must fail to notice the richer qualities of mind and imagination and emotion which Mrs. Woolf, perhaps not wanting them, omitted from Mrs. Dalloway. They must fail to appreciate that as an author develops he will always break down the perfection he has achieved in an earlier stage of his writing in order to reach new objectives.
“To the Lighthouse has not the formal perfection, the cohesiveness, the intense vividness of characterization that belong to Mrs. Dalloway. It has particles of failure in it. It is inferior to Mrs. Dalloway in the degree to which its aims are achieved; it is superior in the magnitude of the aims themselves. For in its portrayal of life that is less orderly, more complex and so much doomed to frustration, it strikes a more important note, and it gives us an interlude of vision that must stand at the head of all Virginia Woolf’s work.”
As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.
“Those who open Orlando expecting another novel in the vein of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse will discover, to their joy or sorrow, that once more Mrs. Woolf has broken with tradition and convention and has set out to explore still another fourth dimension of writing. Not that she has abandoned the ‘stream of consciousness’ method which she used with such conspicuous success in her previous novels, but with it she has combined what, for lack of a better term, we might describe as an application to writing of the Einstein theory of relativity. In this new work she is largely preoccupied with the ‘time’ element in character and human relationships, and with a statement of the exact complexion of that intangible moment, a combination of past and future, of objective reality and subjective consciousness, which we refer to as the present.
“It is in these last thirty-odd pages that the book springs startlingly to life. Up to this point it had seemed a pleasant narrative made notable by a number of passages of great beauty and by occasional bits of vivid description, but marred by a rather self-conscious facetiousness on the part of the author, an addiction to parenthetical whimsicalities that are not particularly effective.
In the closing pages of the novel Mrs. Woolf welds into a compact whole what had seemed to be a series of loosely connected episodes. In them she seems to reach down through the whole superstructure of life and to lay bare a new, or at least a hitherto unperceived, arrangement of those ephemeral flashes of memory of perception that go to make up consciousness.
“Mrs. Woolf has faced squarely one of the most puzzling technical and esthetic problems that confront contemporary novelists. The mere fact that she has stated the problem as succinctly as she does in the course of this book is immensely stimulating, whether or not one feels that she has achieved a final solution of it. It is something of a question whether the tendency of contemporary novelists to become more and more introspective can profitably be carried much further. If it is to continue, however, Mrs. Woolf has pointed out the direction in which it must develop.”
The Waves, 1931
“There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to the star, ‘Consume me’.”
“…the real reason why The Waves comes close, as a novel, to going out of bounds is that its true interests are those of poetry. Mrs. Woolf has not only passed up superficial reality; she has also passed up psychological reality. She is not really concerned in The Waves with people, she is hardly concerned in the prosaic sense with humanity: she is only concerned with the symbols, the poetic symbols, of life—the changing seasons, day and night, bread and wine, fire and cold, time and space, birth and death and change. These things treated separately, as facts, are indeed the stuff of a novel; but treated collectively, as symbols, they are the stuff of poetry. In spirit, in language, in effect The Waves is—not a poetic novel but a poem, a kind of symphonic poem with themes and thematic development, in prose. It is as weak in genuine perceptiveness as it is rich in sensibility; and even when a character seems most skillful in penetrating himself, it is the essence of a mood that he captures, not a truth. Mrs. Woolf does not give us her characters as men and women; she gives them to us clearly in seed and in seed they remain throughout the book. Their thoughts, their words, their preliminary differences from one another become stylized and they themselves fit, at length, into a verbal pattern, half ornamentally. They are not six people but six imagist poets, six facets of the imagist poet that Mrs. Woolf is herself.”
Twice Flush had done his utmost to kill his enemy; twice he had failed.
“In her efforts, sometimes agonized, to get at the hidden core, the inner springs, of life, Mrs. Woolf must often have felt the inadequacy of mere words. And in Flush, which is a brilliant biographical tour de force that brings the cocker spaniel of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to life, she confesses as much. In seeking to record the states of consciousness of a dog, Mrs. Woolf is more successful, it seems to us, than she ever was at adumbration of the psychic life of human beings.
And the reason is easy to see: a cocker spaniel sees, feels, hears and smells—all without the use of classifying language. Mrs. Woolf can present the world of Flush as a delicious or a fearful floating spectacle of scent, sight and sound—and there is no great need of orderly Arnold Bennettish catalogue.
“This is not a ‘cute’ book for those who like to swoon over pets. Mrs. Woolf does no yearning over Flush. The life of the dog gives her an opportunity to indulge in some delicious Shandyesque writing, in contrarious non sequiturs for the sake of rambling off the path … The charm of Flush is so great that it leads one away form the Brownings. This book is, obliquely, a retelling of the most famous Victorian romance among the poets; and Mrs. Woolf would be the one to give that story its final fillip by glimpsing it from a dog’s point of view.”
The Years, 1937
There must be another life, she thought, sinking back into her chair, exasperated. Not in dreams; but here and now, in this room, with living people.
“Rather this is a long-drawn-out lyricism in the form of a novel, with flying buttresses to sustain its airy and often absent-minded inspirations. There is the minimum of substructure. But there is everywhere, on one lovely page after another, a kind of writing which reveals a kind of feeling that is more illuminating than a dozen well-made and documented novels. Mrs. Woolf has made, or unmade, her novel in the form of a poem or a piece of music.
“She has not continued from The Waves, which was the furthest the novel could go in the way of freedom, or even license, of reverie and the stream of consciousness. Instead she has turned back to earlier forms of her own. “The Years” resembles somewhat the general motive of To the Lighthouse in its marking of time as the chief protagonist of recorded life. But sometimes there is the traditional form of narration that she mastered so easily in the early The Voyage Out. There is also the discontinuity of Jacob’s Room. There is also the unity and singleness of Mrs. Dalloway, with the years of five decades toiling instead of the chiming of a day’s hours. In short, Mrs. Woolf has written her longest novel, her richest and most beautiful novel, out of many years in the practice of writing.
“Lovely as The Waves was, The Years goes far behind and beyond it, giving its characters a local habitation and a name, and expressing Mrs. Woolf’s purpose in the novel more richly than it has ever been done before.”
Between the Acts, 1941
Empty, empty, empty; silent, silent, silent. The room was a shell, singing of what was before time was…
“When Virginia Woolf quietly wrote a farewell note to her husband, took her stick—so fixed is habit—and went on her favorite walk across the summery meadows down to the Ouse to slip under the water, it was a sad hour for English letters. Why did she do it? No one knows precisely. It may well have been a combination of four factors—sorrow over the war with its breeding hatreds; the demolishment of her Bloomsbury apartment (‘They are destroying all the beautiful things!’ she cried); the revising of her book, which always caused her pain; and the fear of “an old madness” coming over her.
Between the Acts had been completed before her death, but she was still working on the final revisions when the compulsion for the ultimate escape seized her. It is with curiosity, profound regret, and a cool sort of reverence that one takes up the last work of the sole indisputable genius among contemporary British women-of-letters.
“As the bulk of the iceberg lies beneath the water’s surface, so the greater opulence of Mrs. Woolf’s prose fiction may be said to lie above the clouds. In rarefied strata of pure sensation, ephemeral beauty, celestial imaginings, she flies with skill and daring. Without eager wings and sympathetic vision, even the practiced reader may fail to realize how she has pierced the screen ‘twixt thing and word, ‘where language is lit straight from soul.’
“As in most of her novels, the cream of Between the Acts lies between the lines—in the haunting overtones. And the best of the show—the part one really cares about—happens between the acts and immediately before the pageant begins and just after it is over. So the play is not really the thing at all. It is merely the focal point, the hub of the wheel, the peg on which to hang the bright ribbons and dark cords of the author’s supersensitive perceptions and illuminated knowledge. It is in her imagery, in her felicitous gift for metaphor, for cadence, for exciting association, in her ‘powers of absorption and distillation’ that her special genius lies. She culls exotic flowers in the half-light of her private mysticism along with common earthgrown varieties and distills them into new essences. Her most interesting characters move in an ambiente of intuition. With half a glance they regard their fellow-mortals and know their hidden failures. They care less for the tangible, the wrought stone, than for fleeting thought or quick desire.
In ten novels Mrs. Woolf lifted veil after veil to reveal what she perceived as the secret meaning of life. When one finishes a book of hers it is not characters he remembers but their spiritual emanations, which are in reality manifestations or facets of Virginia’s Woolf supervision. Her peculiar interest not in surfaces but in mysterious motivations and subterfuges that do not meet the eye. And no other English novelist has ever written more dazzling passages of poetry undefiled than Virginia Woolf. Like the great poets—Shakespeare, Donne, Shelley, Blake—Mrs. Woolf could say the unsayable, and it is there in her books for those who have ears attuned to unheard melodies, even if they can never recommunicate it in any language except Mrs. Woolf’s own precisely.”
“The physical embodiment of Virginia Woolf is no more, but her inimitable voice remains to speak to generations yet unborn.”