We all know – or think we know – what happens in Virginia Woolf’s celebrated novel Mrs Dalloway, first published almost a century ago. It concerns a day in the life of a London society hostess as she prepares for and then holds a party in the years following the Great War.
Because Woolf is a novelist attuned first and foremost to interior mental states, this is really a narrative skin suit fashioned to contain a biotic galaxy of inner life. The blithe social realm of the novel splits open when word reaches Clarissa Dalloway’s assembled guests that a young veteran of the recent conflict has committed suicide: “Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death …”
What begins as a series of small-bore, First World problems about provisioning her coming entertainment evolves into a solitary and unanticipated effort to find clarity in the chaos of the world.
Michelle Cahill, a close, loving but not uncritical reader of Virginia Woolf, has set out in her second novel – her first, Letters to Pessoa, was published by Giramondo in 2016 – to produce a story that at once mirrors and critiques its source text. Which is to say, Daisy and Woolf is an act of homage to Mrs Dalloway that also seeks to dismantle the rigid frame of colonial ideology that surrounds it.
The “Daisy” Simmons of the title is a character discussed but not seen or heard in Mrs Dalloway. She is the married Anglo–Indian woman that Peter Walsh, Clarissa Dalloway’s old flame – an attractively complex failure of a man – met and fell in love with while he was living on the subcontinent. In Woolf’s novel, Walsh is seeking a divorce from his wife in order to bring Daisy to England.
Cahill’s novel takes up Daisy’s story – marginal in terms of gender, geography and race – and makes it central. Using a series of letters written by Daisy and others between 1924 and 1926, the Australian author steps into the life of a young, attractive and questing Anglo–Indian woman living in Calcutta, married to a drunk English officer from whom she is increasingly alienated, and mother to two children whom she adores.
The decision to give Daisy voice is not a new strategy. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a postcolonial pendant to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre that entered the experience of the first Mrs Rochester – the notorious madwoman in the attic – inaugurated a whole subgenre. What makes Daisy and Woolf unique is Cahill’s own situation, which she describes in autofictional terms in interleaved chapters.
The main narrator of Daisy and Woolf bears a strong resemblance to Cahill. An Anglo–Indian woman based between Sydney and London is struggling to write a novel about Daisy Simmons while juggling the multiple demands and petty humiliations of being a jobbing teacher and writer.
The richness of the novel emerges from the ways Daisy and her narrator’s lives begin to collapse into one another. The letters describing Daisy’s decision to leave her son behind and travel to England with her daughter and a single servant to be with Peter Walsh are coloured by the guilt she feels at leaving her son behind at boarding school. The present-day narrator also has left her teenage son behind with an ex-partner in Australia, to pursue a vocation whose rewards seem increasingly dubious.
When Daisy’s daughter falls ill with a shipboard illness and eventually dies, the young woman’s grief at the cost of her desire to live life on her own terms is also registered in her creator’s life. The narrator of Daisy and Woolf grieves in her Bloomsbury flat over the mother whose attenuated illness and death she missed to pursue this difficult fictional enterprise.
Throughout, the one constant for both women is Virginia Woolf and her remarkable novel. For the contemporary narrator, Woolf’s struggle to overcome the strictures of gender and to embrace her sexuality – her striving as an artist despite debilitating mental illness and trauma – are a goad and an anchor. And for Daisy, of course, it is the narrative of Mrs Dalloway that furnishes the scaffold for her coming into being as a character.
Cahill describes this in prose of unusual elegance and with increasing narrative subtlety. While both author and creation set out with relatively clear issues to resolve, it isn’t long before each has lost themselves in situations of mounting loneliness and perplexity. Clear narrative arcs are troubled by larger questions of meaning relating to class, race, sexuality and gender – much of it unresolved even in the long century that divides Mrs Dalloway from Daisy and Woolf.
What joins the two texts across time is a sense that, for some individuals who stand outside the mainstream, the world can stop making sense. Both characters in these pages find themselves unmoored and adrift, faced with conundrums that may not be resolved, only succumbed to, and that must be faced in solitude when the noise of daily life falls away and death rudely intrudes.
Both are unexceptional women who try to live with dignity and decency under difficult conditions. Each are heroines of a mission that takes them deep inside themselves. An interior drama, then, but no less vivid for taking place beneath the skin.
Hachette, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "Daisy and Woolf, Michelle Cahill".
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