Mrs Dalloway: A novel in cinemascope

Alice Robinson explores how Virginia Woolf embraces the techniques and temporality of the cinema in her writing

Picture the classic moment of any superhero movie—when the people’s protector flies over the city, and the camera focuses in on various bemused faces gazing in amazement at the heavens. However thorough histories of this trope may be, I doubt many of them reference Virginia Woolf’s famous novel Mrs Dalloway.

Yet, unexpected as it may be, Woolf’s novel is heavily influenced by cinematography, complete with its very own ‘Is it a bird, is it a plane…?’ scene: “All down the Mall people were standing and looking up into the sky”. This aeroplane skywriting scene flits between characters’ perspectives: Mrs Coates, Mr Bowes, Mrs Bletchley and more. The Times Literary Supplement at the time even commented on “the cinema-like speed of the picture”. Perhaps that critic was reminded of George Pearson’s Reveille (1924), released the year before Mrs Dalloway was published, which contains a similar moment of what we could call communal individual thought.

In the movie, the striking of Armistice time (eleven o’clock) is highlighted by eleven shots showing the film’s characters in different locations, all at the same moment. Woolf’s skywriting scene echoes this: “In this purity, the bells struck eleven times”. If we count Mrs Coates’ baby, there are also eleven characters glimpsed in her passage. Woolf is imitating the cinematic montage in literature—basically creating the literary equivalent of all those people dramatically removing their Guy Fawkes masks at the end of V for Vendetta. The masks, like Woolf’s aeroplane and armistice time, have both an obvious public significance and can mean something different and personal to each individual.

Mrs Dalloway’s cinematic quality is unsurprising, as the Bloomsbury Circle was deeply involved with the London Film Society. Woolf’s own personal opinions of the creative possibilities within the medium were expressed in an essay on ‘The Cinema’ (1926): “We are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments of all shapes and savours seem to simmer”. Mrs Dalloway is heavily influenced by the idea of these unknowable, unfinished, fragments. During this period of silent film, where voiceovers weren’t possible, and spectacle was prioritised over introspection, it was particularly difficult to get to know a character intimately in film. As she wrote in her notes for Mrs Dalloway, Woolf’s characters “must be seen by other people”. The novel zooms in on characters, and then draws back before we fully know them, imitating the camera’s ever-present third-person gaze.

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Mrs Dalloway’s setting is equally filmic. Reflecting the avant-garde cinema of the twenties, Woolf creates a ‘city symphony’ of London, as James Joyce does with Dublin in Ulysses. Nowadays we have the celebration of Los Angeles in La La Land or of New York in just about any chick flick ever: in 1926 there was Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a City. Mrs Dalloway translates this tribute into poetry-prose. The growth of these cities was itself crucial to both cinematography and Woolf’s writing. As Ezra Pound wrote in 1922, “The life of a village is a narrative… in the city the visual impressions succeed each other, overlap, overcross, they are cinematographic”. The focus on busy city life—where you can glimpse a person only once and then never see them again—changed the way literature was written. Just comparing the village life of Middlemarch to the multiplicity of voices in Woolf’s “Murmuring London” makes this clear.

Cinema’s uninterrupted set running time also distinguishes it from the serial novels of a century past. It has a chronological continuity which novels only gained with the emergence of Modernism. Nineteenth-century novels like Bleak House span over years, even decades. Mrs Dalloway takes inspiration from cinema’s temporal parity and situates her narrative in a continuous present, over the course of a single day, a ground-breaking decision at the time. The persistent chimes of Big Ben throughout the novel highlight the difference between what Henri Bergson termed ‘historical time’ and ‘psychological time’: the former never stops whereas the latter is flexible. This combination of relentless continuity and yet seemingly endless imaginative time is intensely cinematic. It’s the reason that the cinema can be such a heady experience, leaving you bewildered by the real world after a mere hour and a half absence.

Mrs Dalloway doesn’t actually mention the cinema all that much. The only time the “pictures” are brought up in the book is when “the young people” talk about their plans for the evening. We see, then, the cinema being linked with youth, newness, and innovation: everything Woolf was trying to achieve with her (pardon the pun) novel writing style. She took inspiration from a new art form and used it to revolutionise an old one. It is this kind of dialogue between the arts that should encourage anyone who fears that the book will be overtaken by film, television, gaming, and the new virtual reality headsets.