Reading Virginia Woolf's novel



                                     A Novel Marriage


                     “They spoke of marriage always as a  

                            catastrophe” Mrs Dalloway



  A novel relationship, a literary marriage of shared language and imagery, exists between The Wise Virgins of Leonard Woolf and Mrs Dalloway of Virginia Woolf. If one fails to perceive this it may be due to emphasizing their disparate narratives rather than noting the allusions characterizing the incestuous relationship between the two novels. In addition to the quantities of language in common, each of these novels has borne a similar burden, Mrs Dalloway being perennially viewed as autobiographical, The Wise Virgins called a roman à clef (Parsons, “Introduction” The Wise Virgins xi). Tacit associations between them leave impressions of an intimate relationship. Novels, like Royals, tend to marry among themselves.

The heroine of Leonard Woolf’s Wise Virgins, published in October 1914, says, “It’s the voyage out that seems to me to matter” (Spater and Parsons 61). His novel is a study of class distinctions, religious distinctions, and a fictionalized love affair between Harry (Leonard) and Camilla (Virginia) which is suddenly concluded when Harry marries Gwen, a young admirer with whom he oddly feels some “impotence,” rather an unusual suggestion (WV 209; Parsons Introduction). There is also “a caricature of an effete society” in this “bitterly satirical comedy,” according to Lyndall Gordon. The same can be said of Mrs Dalloway, except that the love affair there is between Peter and Clarissa  which obviously never succeeds since Clarissa marries Richard Dalloway.

When Virginia Woolf read her husband’s novel in 1915, she had already “recovered from her third attack of mental illness,” (Parsons Introduction xvii). Virginia wrote in her diary that Leonard’s novel was “very bad in parts; first rate in others” and she saw “why the good parts are so very good, and why the bad parts aren’t very bad” (Woolf Diary Vol. I. January 31, 1915: 31-32). Being vulnerable to recurring attacks of acute intermittent porphyria, symptoms often regarded as psychological illness by Freudian theorists, Virginia broke down two weeks later, a relapse which postponed a more detailed reaction. As for Leonard’s opinion of Mrs Dalloway and the thirty or more words and phrases borrowed from his novel which it incorporates, his terse comment comes only in January, 1925 when he saw the typescript. According to Virginia, “L. read it; thinks it my best” (Woolf Diary 4).

Many assume that Leonard Woolf is guilty of “severely criticizing his wife Virginia in the thinly-veiled portrait of her in The Wise Virgins.” Levine-Keating, reviewing Louise DeSalvo’s Conceived with Malice: Literature as Revenge, asserts that DeSalvo  opines that The Wise Virgins is “a novel of revenge and betrayal  [which] almost destroyed his marriage” (Levine-Keating 216). DeSalvo claims it to be a “vicious” description of a sexually inadequate woman, and, with Woolf’s experience of incest and abuse, “one of the major causes of Virginia Woolf’s ensuing breakdowns, and the cause of her suicide attempt and subsequent three years of illness” (Levine-Keating 217). Nothing could be further from the truth.

It has been suggested that, as social comedy, Night and Day, Virginia’s third novel, “tells the [Wise Virgins] story that Virginia was to recast from a different angle and with another voice” (Wise Virgins jacket flap). The same may be claimed for Mrs Dalloway, as well. There has been no commentary, however, on the relationship between Leonard’s fiction and Virginia’s Mrs Dalloway, notorious for incorporating preformed language from many literary sources including Leonard’s perceptive and highly intelligent work. It is characteristic of Virginia Woolf’s own satirical style that Mrs Dalloway would introduce in place of the cold indifference of a “sexually inadequate woman” an amusing portrait of a sexually inadequate man, Peter Walsh, in the spirit of a retort.

The similarities between Mrs Dalloway and The Wise Virgins may invite anxiety regarding originality. In the Renaissance, writers like William Shakespeare who appropriated material from their predecessors were tacitly authorized to do so if they were judged to have improved upon the original or added value to it in some way. There was no question of false pretences. The stunning creativity in the stories for which in Shakespeare were famously named “borrowed plumes” incorporated into his dramas demonstrate a basis for belief in his genius, whereas currently, the major criterion of creativity has become its requisite originality. A modern example, however, which validates contemporary borrowed plumes appears in the connection between Romeo and Juliet, which itself was not original with the Bard, and the plot recycled as West Side Story. The value added to a simple love story by association with a famous play, a work of art too famous for it to be considered coincidental or as a mere takeoff, livens up the narrative if the association be recognized.

In Lady Bruton’s company, the comic matter of “false pretenses” is explicitly introduced as Hugh Whitbread and Richard Dalloway collaborate in ghostwriting her letter to be published in The Times over her name (MD 165-167). No such crime exists between Wise Virgins and Mrs Dalloway. In some cases, in this case a parody, it is intended that the context of the model be recalled as applied to a new context, making use of elements that only cohere through prior knowledge; these must be recognized for their status to be acknowledged at all. If material borrowed from Leonard achieves significance by coherence through one’s prior knowledge developed in Mrs Dalloway, it remains to be explained how Virginia has added to their value in any way. 

Plumes in Mrs Dalloway borrowed from Wise Virgins are various in dimension; some are quite small. The copious presence of italicized words in both novels suggests a common source, perhaps Jane Austen. Words and phrases in Wise Virgins also reappear in Dalloway in various contexts, such expressions as “hard as nails,” “queer fish,” “false pretenses,” “take me with you,” and “it was a very nice place.” The Wise Virgins likewise contains many parentheses which, one suspects, are deliberately exaggerated in Mrs Dalloway. The aposiopesis, the incomplete sentence, is featured in Wise Virgins which provides around twenty-five examples as if the character concerned is chronically unable to complete the thought. In Mrs Dalloway, the three or four instances invite the reader to complete the thought instead.

These small similarities may suggest an element of burlesque on the part of Dalloway since Clarissa, too, senses herself as a laminated personality, “very young; at the same time unspeakably aged” with a feeling of being outside herself, “looking on” (MD 11-12) while Harry Davis seems “to be divided into several consciousnesses, one watching the other” (WV 149). Clarissa ponders the end of life, “that death ended absolutely” (MD 12) ; it is as if Harry replies, having been asked, “Is there nothing afterwards. Do we just go out?” He answers, “Nothing, absolutely nothing. Puff” (WV 182). In another context, Richard Dalloway, commenting on the relationship between Elizabeth Dalloway and her tutor, Miss Kilman, says, ”But it might be only a phase … such as all girls go through” (MD 15). The phenomenon draws some attention from the narrator of Wise Virgins who comments, “Women, and especially young women, are continually suffering little bursts of passion for one another” (WV 55). According to Leonard Woolf’s vicar, it is a stage that everyone passes through (WV 193).

Characterization is a different matter. The prolonged portrait of Mrs. Brown in Wise Virgins, the “elephantine” woman who drops her aitches, is not as charmingly presented as Mrs. Dempster with her Cockney idiom (WV 127; MD 40). There is also a subtle association of her with Aunt Helena described as “one of nature’s masterpieces,” diction which John Donne employs in describing the elephant (The Progress of the Soule line 381; MD 246). A comparable relationship exists as Harry Davis, the Virgins hero, is typically seen slouching along with his hands in his pockets whereas Clarissa “who hated frumps, fogies, failures, like himself,” as seen in Peter’s thoughts, “thought people had no right to slouch about with their hands in their pockets” (WV 69, 205; MD 115).

Characterization of Camilla, DeSalvo’s “sexually inadequate woman,” is detailed; her indecision about marriage to Harry extends over several chapters compared to the brief notice the issue receives in Mrs Dalloway (MD 10). Clarissa argues with herself that she had been right not to marry Peter or they would have been destroyed, a thought that returns later in the day: “Now I remember how impossible it was to ever make up my mind – and why did I make up my mind – not to marry him?” Clarissa is thinking (MD 61-62). Camilla’s indecision, however, becomes prolonged over time. Harry, very much in love thinks “If he died at that instant … he would have died … with Camilla’s hand in his” (WV 146). In Mrs Dalloway this translates as Othello: “If it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy” (MD 51). Matrimony takes an exaggerated form as if, as in the Jane Austen cliché, every man is  in want of a wife.

Harry impatiently demands that Camilla terminate her indecision, “You must end it, one way or the other” (WV 152). Likewise, Peter thinks, “It’s got to be finished one way or the other” (MD 96). Two chapter headings in The Wise Virgins are so devoted to this matter: “Camilla Neglects to Make Up Her Mind” and “Camilla Makes Up Her Mind.” Camilla’s sister counsels her on the issue and the requirement returns repeatedly, “You’ll have to decide … whether you are or you are not going to marry Harry,” an often repeated expectation (WV 81, 83, 110, 113, 115). “Tell me the truth,” demands Peter (MD 97). Camilla’s sister, Katherine makes the same request: “Tell me the truth” (WV 163). She simply decides not to marry Harry. There is no suggestion that Camilla is “sexually inadequate”; she clearly tells him, “I’m not in love with you” (WV 153). Harry feels as if her words “had struck him like a blow” (WV 153). The emotional trauma for Peter and Harry is similar. For Peter it is “as if she had hit him in the face” (MD 97).

Peter Walsh’s account of the traumatic break-up with Clarissa is apparently related to his opinion that women “don’t know what passion is. They don’t know what it is to men” (MD 121). Harry Davis is of the same opinion: “They don’t know, they simply don’t know what desire is” (WV 96). On the other hand, Clarissa anticipates this accusation, thinking,  “she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt” which like the world, swollen with some pressure of rapture, “gushed and poured”, a fairly graphic description of her feeling (MD 47). It seems a mystery, like the “mysteries” into which the Greeks “initiated their young men and women,” their eyes opened to the mystery of things (WV 198). In Mrs Dalloway, however, the mysteries are much more ambiguous, a designation which extends into the mystery of life itself although the Greeks understood it differently. In most cases one is not supposed to see.

For Clarissa Dalloway the “mystery” involves love and religion, a mystery which Miss Kilman “might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn’t believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving” (MD 193). For her the miracle, the mystery concerns her neighbor whom she can see moving about the room. “That’s the miracle, that’s the mystery.” Matters concerning mysteries have an extended history in ancient literature.

On behalf of the Greeks, Ovid’s Metamorphoses in particular includes frequent reference to mysteries, as in the stories of Pentheus and Agave, Juno and Ino, Procne and Philomela, and Medea, always with the caution understood, “No prying into mysteries.”  Rituals such as the rites of Demeter in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 2.556 include the cautions attendant on women’s mysteries from which men were excluded. Passersby in Mrs Dalloway are affected by mystery, “mystery had brushed them with her wing; … the spirit of religion was abroad” (MD 20). Such a mystery ritual takes place between Clarissa and Sally Seton who kissed Clarissa on the lips, a gift with the attendant religious feeling of some revelation (MD 53). For Clarissa the mystery, the sacred event which involves love and religion, however, is interrupted when Peter faces them; it is “like running one’s face against a granite wall in the darkness!” “It was shocking; it was horrible!” (MD 193, 53). For him, however, when such actual meetings had been painful, he finds merely that “there was a mystery about it” (MD 232).

The cautionary mantra uttered in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “No prying into mysteries” (7.560) is occasionally rashly violated by those confronted with women’s rites. Mysteries are always considered secret, and women’s rites, the most sacred of all, are always closed to men. The mysteries of Eleusis in honor of Demeter are secret and semi-public, but not to be revealed; Horace does not trust the man who would reveal the rites of Demeter (Horace Odes 3.2). Rituals limited to women exclusively include those dedicated to the Bona Dea, to Bacchus, and to Priapus among others. The issue of women’s mysteries results in a major problem for Peter Walsh and his relationship with Clarissa Dalloway. No such circumstance comes between Harry and Camilla.

Peter’s encounter with his friends at Bourton ties him to women’s rites, a motif which is subtle but significant. Clarissa feels his hostility; his jealousy: “It was shocking; it was horrible!” (MD 53). The event he broke into seemingly involves merely a moment when Sally Seton kissed Clarissa Parry on the lips. On the other hand, the sacred nature of the event for Clarissa however, the companionship exhibited between them as they walked up and down on the terrace, entails “revelation” and a “religious feeling” as she receives something from Sally. It is something “infinitely precious, and secret, wrapped up, which she was not to look at” (MD 52-53).  The occasion suggests sacred rites, not prying into women’s mysteries. This type of event resembles several narratives, historical and literary.

An historical event, the famous example involving Publius Clodius Pulcher, a Roman politician, concerns the 62 bce scandal which resulted when he intruded on the rites of the Bona Dea. In pursuit of a romantic interest, a friend of Julius Caesar’s wife, he dressed himself as a woman in order to gain access to Caesar’s house undetected where she was participating in the event. Tried for immorality, he was acquitted only through a bribed jury. The behavior of Clodius endured in Roman history and is considered almost universally an amusing occurrence. As Juvenal comments (1st century ad ) “What altar does not attract its Clodius in drag” (Juvenal Satires 6, 312-345).

A literary example is found in Euripides’s play Bacchantes   (405 bc)  in which  Pentheus wishes to see the rites of Bacchus. In female garb he does so but is torn to pieces by the women who discover him. His mother, Agave, who led the frenzy, is naturally the first to have recognized him. Ovid offers a similar version of the occasion (Metamorphoses 3.518). Another literary example appears in The Satyricon, the Latin novel of Petronius (1st century ad). The hero has accidentally come upon the secret grotto of Priapus where the secret ritual is taking place. Having been informed that “No man on earth may look on forbidden things and escape punishment” in Petronius 31 he is consequently stricken with impotence, a  condition he retains to the end of the narrative. Apparently the only male who is butch enough to escape impotence is Heracles, known for once being in drag, who burst into a women’s ritual (Propertius Poems 4.9).

Peter gives no account of his intrusion into Clarissa’s moment of happiness. He, however, retains an impression comparable to the long-ago occasion, “a sense of pleasure-making hidden … young people slowly circling … Absorbing, mysterious … that one passed, discreetly, timidly, as if in the presence of some sacred ceremony to interrupt which would have been impious” (MD 248).  More than impious, however, the consequence for Peter, unlike Pentheus who is “mauled and maltreated” will leave him in the condition of sexual inadequacy. Traditionally, the punishment for the unfortunate male who intrudes into women’s mysteries, is for him to be afflicted with impotence.

The aptronymic significance concerning Peter’s name focuses ironically on his anatomical failings: “The troubles of the flesh” (MD 77). Moreover he seems euphemistically aware of his own infirm condition when he laments his inability to “come up to the scratch” and being “not altogether manly” (MD 240, 237). This is something more than the metaphorical condition which has been suggested (Squier 109). He is still smarting about his failed relationship with Clarissa, hinting that in truth he has a sense of the cause for his condition. “Clarissa had sapped something in him permanently” (MD 241). According to the myth at least, the source of his anguish accurately depicts him as a sexually inadequate man.

One must admit that Mrs Dalloway’s use of and modification of components existing in The Wise Virgins clearly livens up, even spices up the work, criteria introduced by Richard Posner, thus improving the original. The matter of “mysteries” serves as a linking device between the novel of Leonard Woolf and that of Virginia Woolf in a system of meaning. A tacit link exists between the metaphorical mysteries of Wise Virgins which develops the motif of maturation and emotional growth, and the explicit Mysteries of Classical tradition as demonstrated in ancient literature, a motif applied in Mrs Dalloway. The Mysteries are clearly not in accord with the intention in the former usage of Harry Davis. Some prior knowledge is required for making the desired association with new meanings which Virginia brings to the surface; the reader must recall the context of the model and apply it to the new narrative. The Mysteries in Mrs Dalloway permits the realization of the “sexually inadequate” man (not a sexually inadequate woman) like Peter Walsh, in terms of that very playful fiction. Nevertheless, these two novels together, each a representative from the greatest generation of Modern literature, have begotten an even larger narrative between them.

                                                              Molly Hoff


                                    Works Consulted


Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. NY: Quality, 1972.

Juvenal. The Sixteen Satires. Trans. Peter Green.

Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

Levine-Keating, Helane. Rev. of Conceived with

Malice, by Louise DeSalvo. Woolf Studies Annual. NY: Pace University Press. Vol. 3, 1997: 216-218.

Parsons, Ian. Introduction. The Wise Virgins.

  By Leonard Woolf. NY: Harcourt, 1979, xi-xviii.

Petronius. The Satyricon. Trans. William Arrowsmith. New

  York: Mentor, 1959.

Posner, Richard A. Little Book of Plagiarism. NY: Pantheon:


Spater, George and Ian Parsons. A Marriage of True Minds. NY:

Harcourt, 1977.

Squier, Susan. Virginia Woolf and London. Chapel Hill:

  University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Woolf, Leonard. The Wise Virgins. Introduction. Ian Parsons.

NY: Harcourt, 1914.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell, Vol. 1 & 3. NY: Harcourt, 1977.

-  -  -  . Mrs Dalloway. NY: Harcourt, 1925.