What the Dickens? On First Seeing Great Expectations in Mrs. Dalloway


Great Expectations, 20th Century Fox, 1998

by Andre Gerard

When we want to decide a particular case, we can best help ourselves, not by reading criticism, but by realizing our own impression as acutely as possible and referring this to the judgments which we have gradually formulated in the past. There they hang in the wardrobe of our mind—the shapes of the books we have read, as we hung them up and put them away when we had done with them. If we have just read Clarissa Harlowe, for example, let us see how it shows up against the shape of Anna Karenina. At once the outlines of the two books are cut out against each other as a house with its chimneys bristling and its gables sloping is cut out against a harvest moon. At once Richardson’s qualities—his verbosity, his obliqueness—are contrasted with Tolstoi’s brevity and directness. And what is the reason of this difference in their approach? And how does our emotion at different crises of the two books compare? And what must we attribute to the eighteenth century, and what to Russia and the translator? But the questions which suggest themselves are innumerable. They ramify infinitely, and many of them are apparently irrelevant. Yet it is by asking them and pursuing the answers as far as we can go that we arrive at our standard of values, and decide in the end that the book we have just read is of this kind or of that, has merit in that degree or in this.

“How Should One Read a Book?”, Yale Review, October 1926

It is a truth too often accepted, that a modernist writer with Virginia Woolf’s feminist and elitist tendencies, had no use for Victorians in general and for Charles Dickens in particular. For instance, in Virginia Woolf and the Victorians (2007), Steve Ellis talks about “how Woolf’s own supposedly fundamental anti-Victorianism is sustained as a position by critics refusing to recognize key differences between her and ‘Bloomsbury.’”1 In “Two Londoners: Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf” (a paper first presented at the Museum of London’s 2012 “The Global Meaning of Dickens and ‘Dickensian’ Today” conference), Francesca Orestano makes the even stronger claim that Dickens and Woolf “figure as incompatible entities in the literary canon, and therefore have never been associated.”2 Certainly, despite the profusion of Woolf scholarship, there do not seem to be any books or papers which closely examine Woolf’s engagement with Dickens. To counter the currently prevailing truth, my paper proposes that Dickens and Woolf were far from incompatible. Indeed, I would argue that Woolf was deeply influenced by Dickens, and intertextual readings of themes, plot, and characterization in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse show deep and deliberate indebtedness to Dickens. Vivid traces of Bleak House are to be glimpsed in To the Lighthouse, and Mrs. Dalloway can even be read as a strong rewriting of Great Expectations. There is much to be learned by looking at how Woolf thought about Dickens, and at how she made use of Dickensian characters, plots and themes in her own writing. For all her modernism and her feminism, Woolf never abandoned or deserted Dickens.

Reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries, letters and essays, it is relatively easy to see why she might be viewed as oil to Dickens’s water. In “Dickens as a Disciple” (E3, 25), she talks about how Dickens “has been made to appear not so much a great writer as an intolerable institution.”3 Later in the same essay she pokes fun—and perhaps I should bear her sallies in mind as I develop this, my own essay—at the way in which Mr. Crotch, the subject of her review, sees Dickens everywhere and seems to see all writers “as the forerunners or successors of his hero.” Many a Bloomian critic, subjecting an unfortunate author to the rack of influence analysis, might do well to heed Woolf’s mocking caution that “If everybody is, in a way, somebody else, would it not be simpler to call them all Charles Dickens and have done with it?”

In “David Copperfield” (E4, 284), Woolf’s resistance to Dickens is expressed in a variety of ways. She draws attention to the rumour “that his sentiment is disgusting and his style commonplace” and to the feeling that he “lacks charm and idiosyncrasy, is everybody’s writer and no one’s in particular, is an institution, a monument, a public thoroughfare trodden dusty by a million feet.” She states directly that “of all the great writers Dickens is both the least personally charming and the least personally present in his books.” She bristles at his conventional masculinity and the way “he is self-assertive, self-reliant, self-assured; energetic in the extreme.” She takes him to task for his “great contempt for the finicky, the inefficient or the effeminate.” She enumerates his failures of sympathy towards the financial or hereditary upper classes, his failure when he has “to treat of the mature emotions,” his failure, in short, “to think deeply, to describe beautifully.” For her, “a Dickens novel is apt to become a bunch of separate characters loosely held together, often by the most arbitrary conventions, who tend to fly asunder and split our attention into so many different parts that we drop the book in despair.”

In her letters and her diary entries, too, Woolf expressed an ambivalence about Dickens. To George Rylands, on September 27th, 1934, she wrote:

I do feel in the great Victorian characters, Gamp, Micawber, Becky Sharp, Edie Ochiltree, an abandonment, richness, surprise, as well as a redundancy, tediousness, and superficiality which makes them different from the post Middlemarch characters. Perhaps we must now put our toes to the ground again and get back to the spoken word, only from a different angle; to gain richness, and surprise (L5, 335).4

There is a sense here that she is expressing and continuing an argument which she first developed in a 1910 “Mrs. Gaskell” review (E1, 340), when she confessed “a kind of irritation with the methods of mid-Victorian novelists” and claimed “Nothing would persuade them to concentrate.” Their failure was that “they seem to have left out nothing that they knew how to say.” Against this, Woolf asserts: “Our ambition, on the other hand, is to put in nothing that need not be there.” For Woolf, less is more. She rejects the Dickensian profusion and the three volume bagginess of the Victorian novel. What she wants is the precision and the clarity of “the poet and the philosopher” (“David Copperfield”). In talking about Dickens and the Victorians, she faults them for a lack of psychological depth, for overwhelming readers with detail rather than making them think and challenging them with psychological subtlety and complexity.

Woolf’s irritation with Dickensian prolixity and superficiality reappears in a diary entry for 13 April, 1939:

“I read about 100 pages of Dickens yesterday & see something vague about the drama & fiction: how the emphasis, the caricature of these
innumerable scenes, forever forming character, descend from the stage. Literature—that is the shading, suggesting, as of Henry James, hardly used. All bold & coloured. Rather monotonous, yet so abundant, so creative: yes: but not highly creative; not suggestive. Everything laid on the table. Nothing to engender in solitude. That’s why it’s so rapid and attractive: nothing to make one put the book down and think.” (D5, 215)5

As in the letter to Rylands, she is struggling with the redundancy, tediousness and superficiality which she attributes to Dickens and the Victorians. She wants writing which challenges the reader to think, “to engender in solitude.” She wants, as her remark about Henry James indicates, psychological depths and suggestiveness. Her idea here picks up an earlier portion of the already quoted letter to Rylands, a portion in which she talks about how the great Victorians mainly created their characters through dialogue and how Henry James “receded further and further from the spoken word, and finally I think only used dialogue when he wanted a very high light” (L5, 335).

In part Woolf’s response to Dickens was also personal, personal and gendered. As well as having certain issues with Dickens the writer, she had issues with Dickens the man. Writing to Hugh Walpole (February 8th, 1936), she asks:

Whats wrong, I can’t help asking myself? Why wasn’t he the greatest writer in the world? For alas—no, I won’t try to go into my crabbings and         diminishings. So enthusiastic am I that I’ve got a new life of him: which makes me dislike him as a human being. Did you know—you who know   everything— the story of the actress. he was an actor, I think; very hard; meretricious? Something had shriveled? And then his velvet suit, and his       stupendous genius?” (L6, 13)

This mingled criticism of writer and man picks up personal criticism also present in “David Copperfield.” Part of her discomfort was clearly with the biographical Dickens, Dickens the human being. While she may not yet have known “the story of the actress” when she wrote her “David Copperfield” piece, she faults Dickens for his bluff masculinity. There is also a hint of class-based snobbishness in her comment that his sympathies fail him “whenever a man or woman has more than two thousand a year, has been to the university, or can count his ancestors back to the third generation.”

In writing Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s original conception was to use her characters as a nameless Greek chorus: “Why not have an observer in the street—at each critical point who acts the part of chorus—some nameless person?…Mrs. D, must be seen by other people. As she sits in her drawing room.”6 In the end, however, she assigned names to most of those characters (the old beggar woman and the nameless woman across the street are the major exceptions) and it is with those names that I want to start “seeing Dickens in disguise.” First, and most obvious, many of the names in Mrs. Dalloway are Dickensian. There is rich humour and suggestiveness in names such as Edgar J. Watkiss, Scrope Purvis, Miss Kilman, Isabel Pole, and Hugh Whitbread. Purvis, for instance, was the surname of a prominent industrialist charged with procuring acetone and other chemicals used for the making of explosives throughout WWI. Watkiss can be read as “What kiss,” and the name can be seen as subtly linking to either Sally and Clarissa’s kiss or to Hugh’s predatory kissing of Sally. Kilman and Whitbread are largely self explanatory, and Isabel Pole can be read and pronounced “Is a Bell Pole.” Amusingly, the character of Isabel Pole is a Hitchcock-like cameo. Isabel—who thinks shy and stammering Septimus to be like Keats and who corrects his love poems to her with red ink—is modeled on Virginia herself. On October 1st, 1907, she wrote to Violet Dickinson about a talk on Keats which she gave to four working men at Morley College, saying that one of the men stuttered on his “m’s,” another was an Italian, and a third was “my degenerate poet, who rants and blushes, and almost seizes my hand when we happen to like the same lines” (L1, 313).

Reading Mrs. Dalloway and “seeing Dickens in disguise” requires careful scrutiny, imagination and, initially, at least, a certain courage. Coleridgean “suspension of disbelief” is called for. All the same, consider. Five names in Mrs. Dalloway connect more directly to Dickens than simply displaying Dickensian skill in naming. The first of the names is Mr. Bentley. With Mr. Bentley, we come to Great Expectations by way of Bentley Drummle. Granted Bentley may also connect to the designer of the Bentley motor car or to Richard Bentley, the classicist, whose work and life Virginia Woolf consulted when she researched “On Not Knowing Greek”(E4, 38). No matter. Overdetermination or, as I prefer to call it, multivalence is frequently used by Virginia Woolf. Whatever other associations the Bentley name might have had for Woolf, in this instance she also subtly connects it to Bentley Drummle by way of his “vigorously rolling his strip of turf.”7 In part, his activity can be read as a modernist social observation about the introduction and spread of urban lawns. In part it is also a sly teasing, almost private joke. Lawn rollers, after all, were often called drum rollers.

Although their names do not link them directly to any of the Dickens characters in the novel, Hugh Whitbread and Mr. Brewer can also be connected to Great Expectations. First of all, they are both Dickensian in their vigour and their peculiarity and in the richness with which they are described. The “admirable Hugh” with the “pout or swell” of his “perfectly upholstered body” (5), and his Royal dispatch box, and his silver fountain pen, and all his petty social pretensions and condescensions is first cousin to Mr. Dombey, Uncle Pumblechook, or even Mr. Pickwick himself. As for Mr. Brewer, “managing clerk at Sibleys and Arrowsmiths, auctioneers, valuers, land and estate agents” (77), with his “waxed moustache, coral tie-pin, white slip, and pleasurable emotions–all coldness and clamminess within” (80), he could have stepped out of any number of London offices or counting houses, including Scrooge and Marley’s. What connects Mr. Brewer and Hugh Whitbread more directly to Great Expectations, however, is not characterization. What connects them is beer.

Again consider. Link Brewer to Whitbread and you have beer. Samuel Whitbread acquired two small London breweries in 1742, and well before the end of the century Whitbread’s was the biggest brewery in the world. Even to this day, despite selling their brewing assets to Interbrew in 2001, Whitbreads is still synonymous with beer in the UK. Taken together, the names of Mr. Brewer and Hugh Whitbread call attention to the unexpected presence of beer in Mrs. Dalloway. First of all, there are the broken beer glasses following the shindy in the public house. Secondly, there is shawled Moll Pratt, who, by way of her flowers, would have “tossed the price of a pot of beer” (17) into St. James’s Street. And thirdly, there are the grey horses and the brewer’s cart which Rezia sees near Regent’s Park Tube station, after hearing the old woman singing. Possibly, too, beer flows behind or under “the shindy of brawling women, drunken women” (147) which Peter passes on his way to Clarissa’s party.

To make sense of all this beer, allow the yet-fully-to-be-proven connection to Great Expectations. Beer is one of the ingredients which Woolf uses to tie her novel to Dickens’s. Beer is a powerful symbol in Great Expectations. Remember that Miss Havisham’s dismal brick house is built next to a decaying, extinct brewery. Satis House, or “Enough House” is built with beer money. Even if, as Estella tells Pip, “you could drink without hurt all the strong beer that’s brewed there now,” there is still “enough of it in the cellars already, to drown the Manor House.”8 Beer is what provided the “Enough” of Satis House, thereby leading to Miss Havisham’s situation and, ultimately, contributing to the falseness of Pip’s great expectations.

Beyond the furthest end of the Satis House brewery is “a rank garden with an old wall” (GE, 49) and it is in a retired nook of this garden that the Great Expectation prototypes of my last two Mrs. Dalloway characters meet and fight. Continue to suspend disbelief. My contention is that Pip and Herbert Pocket shimmer palely behind Septimus Warren Smith and the Herbert who winds up possessing Bourton. Before considering the two Herberts, think about the Smith surname. Smith is a ubiquitous name. Indeed, in “Notes on an Elizabethan Play” (E4, 62), Virginia Woolf herself wrote: “The reality to which we have grown accustomed is, speaking roughly, based upon the life and death of some knight called Smith, who succeeded his father in the family business of pitwood importers, timber merchants and coal exporters, was well known in political, temperance, and church circles, did much for the poor of Liverpool, and died last Wednesday of pneumonia while on a visit to his son at Muswell Hill.” Septimus is one of those knights, one of “the many millions of young men called Smith” (76), and his knighthood is confirmed partly by his going to France to save an England which, while it consists “almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress” (77) also contains “Mr. Brewer’s establishment at Muswell Hill” (77). Ubiquitous as the Smith name may be, the strong Muswell Hill paratextual link between novel and essay hints at how carefully Virginia Woolf pondered the implications of the name.

Inherent in the Smith name is the trade which it references, and it is this aspect of the name which forges the Smith connection to Great Expectations. In Woolf’s associative mind, with Smith came blacksmith, came Joe Gargery, and came Pip, “once the blacksmith’s boy” (GE, 185). Pip’s smith connection helps Woolf to use him as an intertextual double for Septimus. Woolf confirms and strengthens this intertextual thread with Smith’s Dickensian work situation. Septimus’s position under Mr. Brewer parallels Herbert Pocket and Pip’s with Clarriker and Co.. Like them, Septimus is a young man with prospects, one of the “many millions of young men” just starting out in London, who, if all goes well, will “in ten or fifteen years, succeed to the leather armchair in the inner room under the skylight with the deed-boxes round him” (77). He has, like Pip, great expectations.

Anne Fernald has shown how “Woolfian intertextuality operates at every level, from the word and phoneme through sentence, character and plot to genre itself,” and how “Woolf’s intertextual moments create ironic buried commentaries, playing at once with the syntactic greatness of an early work and her distance from it.”9 The Smith Pip association is a brilliant example both of the playful pleasure Woolf found in intertextuality and of the rich, even if buried, uses she could put it to. For Septimus is not the only, nor the best Pip double in Mrs. Dalloway. That honour belongs to Peter Walsh. Peter is even openly, if inversely, associated with “great expectations” when we see him musing about “not caring a rap what people say and coming and going without any very great expectations” (145). Both Peter and Pip are characters who started out with youthful ambitions and expectations. Both are thwarted in love and in their future hopes, and both, after spending years in the East, have rueful, wistful, late encounters with the women who rejected them. Where Pip has lost Estella to Bentley Drummle, Peter has lost Clarissa to Richard Dalloway.

Molly Hoff, in her raggedly eccentric Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Invisible Presences, makes a strong argument that Peter and Clarissa’s reunion scene parallels the meeting between Pip and Estella at the close of Great Expectations:

The scenario in each case is composed of an older and wiser couple who shared the youthful love-interest in their respective fictions. Neither has lived happily ever after. In each, both London and a provincial family seat figure prominently. Both couples are now awkwardly reunited after an extended period of physical and temporal separation. Moreover, the conversations are singularly parallel. Together, Peter and Clarissa paraphrase the reunion between Pip and Estella. The dialogue leads a strange double life.

Estella describes “the remembrance of what [she] had thrown away when [she] was quite ignorant of its worth.” Clarissa, similarly, has realized, “If I had married him, this gaiety would have been mine all day.” “She’s grown older,” Peter notices, whereas Pip thinks, “the freshness of her beauty was indeed gone.” Pip narrates, “the moon began to rise,” just as the  Dalloway narrator says, “There above them it hung, that moon” while they “seemed to be sitting on a terrace…in the moonlight” discussing Bourton.

Clarissa says, “I never go there now” as Estella has “never been back [t]here since,” Peter affects the “ burden of colonial rule” convention in his life abroad (“work, work, work”) like Pip: “I work pretty hard.”10

This comparison between the two novels, lengthy as it is, can be extended by noting that in the reunion scenes both Peter and Pip are newly returned from lengthy stays in the East. It can be further extended by noting how Peter’s anguished thought, “Why make him think of it again? Why make him suffer, when she had tortured him so infernally?” (38), suggests that Peter views his relationship in much the same terms that Pip experienced his relationship with Estella. In Great Expectations the word torture is several times used to describe what Estella does to Pip, with Pip even saying that “I suffered every kind and degree of torture that Estella could cause me” (GE, 227).

It is also worth noting that Pip’s reunion with Estella takes place in the garden where Pip and Herbert fought. House and brewery are gone now, and when Pip asks Estella how the estate came to be left in this condition, Estella tells him, “The ground belongs to me. It is the only possession I have not relinquished” (GE, 366). Set this against Peter and Clarissa’s reunion and Clarissa’s remarks, while Peter is wallowing in memories of a moonlight moment at Bourton: “‘Herbert has it now,’ she said. ‘I never go there now,’ she said” (38). Where Estella has managed to retain at least part of the grounds of Satis House, Clarissa has lost Bourton to a Herbert. While this Herbert could be a previously unmentioned brother of Clarissa’s, or the Herbert Ainsty who appears later in the novel, or any Herbert at all, (including, perhaps, the Herbert who looks at the moon in Jacob’s Room) mention of the Herbert name in a passage which so closely parallels the end of Great Expectations brings to mind Pip’s “pale young gentleman,” Herbert Pocket (GE, 69).

Beyond the intense overlap visible in the two reunion scenes, other Great Expectation shreds and patches can also be seen or imagined in the Mrs. Dalloway fabric. For instance, Joe Gargery’s hat, which repeatedly tumbles off the mantel-piece when he visits Herbert and Pip, may lurk behind Rezia’s memory of how Septimus’s hat “had fallen when he hung it up” (131). Also, as Anne Fernald’s explanatory note to Mrs. Dalloway points out (178-9), the “What a lark!” exclamation on the first page of Mrs. Dalloway links to Joe Gargery’s repeated use of “larks” to express fun or adventure. Clarissa as a genteel, literate, class-bound reincarnation of Joe…WOT LARX! Yet beyond the larks also lies the tragedy of all that lurks beneath Clarissa’s brittle surface.

More dramatically and more suggestively, the repeated references to immolation—“men were trapped in mines; women burnt alive” (81); Clarissa’s thought at the party, “Why seek pinnacles and stand drenched in fire? Might it consume her anyhow! Burn her to cinders!’ (150); and Clarissa’s thought on learning of Septimus’s death, “Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt” (164)—evoke Miss Havisham in a whirl of fire as her ghastly bridal dress burns around her. Similarly, the ironies of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress and her beer fortune may explain why Woolf has “words, broken beer glasses, and a general shindy” echo “strangely across the way in the ears of girls buying white underlinen threaded with pure white ribbon for their weddings” (16). The ghostly presence of Miss Havisham and her madness deepens the implied equation between Clarissa and Septimus, between wedding and war.

What more can we take away from all these Dickensian details in Mrs. Dalloway? Firstly, Dickens was far more important to Woolf than most readers and critics seem to have noticed. He mattered deeply to her. Much of “David Copperfield,” indeed, praises Dickens, even if the praise is constantly qualified. Woolf admires his ability to create characters who “exist not in detail, not accurately or exactly, but abundantly in a cluster of wild and yet extraordinarily revealing remarks, bubble climbing on the top of bubble as the breath of the creator fills them.” Dickens, for her, “made his books blaze up not by tightening the plot or sharpening the wit, but by throwing another handful of people upon the fire.” For all her reservations about characterization, plot and intellectual depth, Woolf numbers Dickens among the great geniuses who “make us see the world any shape they choose,” and she famously goes on to say that “We remodel our psychological geography when we read Dickens.”

Secondly, many of the Dickensian details reveal a lot about Virginia Woolf’s playfulness and what Anne Fernald has called “Woolf’s gift to the text itself.” Fernald rightly calls attention to “the serious pleasure Woolf found in writing texts bound up with other texts” (Fernald, p. 60), and it is likely that many of the small Dickensian resonances in Mrs. Dalloway owe their presence to this pleasure. Woolf, like Mr. Carmichael in To the Lighthouse, delights in puzzles. The buried associations in the names of Bentley, Smith, Brewer, Whitbread and Herbert are proof of this. In and of themselves they are not conspicuously allusive, and consequently it is not surprising that no one seems to have connected the Mrs. Dalloway names to Great Expectations. Molly Hoff, the only critic to link the two novels, owes her insight to plot similarities rather than to character names. Couple names with plot, however, and there seems to be little doubt about Hoff’s discovery.

Thirdly, I would argue that beyond expressing playfulness and puzzle pleasure, Woolf’s naming and development of characters is a direct response to some of the characterization techniques used by Dickens. Woolf devoted considerable thought to the way in which Dickens created characters. Beyond her comments in “David Copperfield,” she also looked carefully at Dickens in her 1929 “Phases of Fiction” essay (E5, 40), where she placed Dickens among the “character-mongers and comedians.” Focusing primarily on the characters in Bleak House, she praises the way his romantic force, his prodigious character-making power, and his spirit of exaggeration give the reader the sense of “wantoning with human beings twice or ten times their natural size.” At the same time, while admiring the way in which Dickens uses perpetual repetition to give force and sublimity to the Turveydrops or the Jellybys, “and the endless ebb and flow of life round one or two stationary points,” she finds fault with “the limitations and even the exuberance of his genius.” Often, she finds his characters “vapid in the extreme or sentimental beyond belief.” Dickens, she says, gives us a desire for “something, smaller, more intense, more intricate,” and with that she turns to the wit, truth, comic power, naturalness, check and control of Jane Austen. In Jane Austen, there is “spectral architecture built up behind the animation and variety of the scene.” According to her: “Pride and Prejudice, one says, has form; Bleak House has none.”

In Mrs. Dalloway, there is a sense that Woolf often had Dickens in mind while shaping her characters; in some instances because she wanted to give them Dickensian characteristics and functions, and in others because she wanted subtler effects and wanted to avoid the grotesque or eccentric. Dickens was both warning and model. The suggestive quality of many of the names I have already cited is one example of Dickens as model. A further Dickensian character technique is the use of a brief, disturbing detail. In “Phases of Fiction,” Woolf talks about “the strange avenue of suggestion” inherent in some movement, word or glance of a Dickensian character; and as examples she gives Mademoiselle Hortense walking “shoeless, through the wet grass” and Tulkinghorn’s friend who “gave his gold watch to his hairdresser one summer evening, and walked leisurely home to the Temple, and hanged himself.” Woolf makes use of this same “strange avenue of suggestion” in her presentation of Sylvia, the sister killed by a falling tree. Brief as Sylvia’s appearance is, her disturbing presence greatly deepens and complicates Mrs. Dalloway’s character. Behind or inside Mrs. Dalloway, wife of Richard Dalloway, are traces of the young Clarissa who suffered the trauma of abruptly losing a talented, favourite sister.

Dickens as warning can be seen in the un-Dickensian brevity of Woolf’s minor characters. Generally speaking, she denies her characters Dickensian powers. Many of the minor characters exist as little more than names having at most one action, comment or slight perception attached to them. Numbered among them are such as Elise Mitchell, Miss Filmer, and Mr. Bentley. Such minor characters are seldom given dialogue, and they are almost never used to reflect stronger characters. Eccentric or distorted characters, so abundant in Dickens, are also relatively rare. Similarly, Woolf seldom enhances minor characters by giving them an even more minor double. Beyond Millie Brush doubling Mrs. Bruton, Dickensian pairings along the line of George Rouncewell and Phil Squod, or Mr. and Mrs Micawber are hard to find. Admittedly, some characters, though not quite as grotesque or eccentric as Krook, Boythorn or Wemmick, for example, would not be far out of place in a Dickens novel. Bruton, Kilman and Whitbread come to mind, but these characters are more three dimensional than a similar Dickensian character would be, and they are not realized through a single mannerism or a repeated verbal quirk or tag. They also contain inner complexities or contradictions which are not found in Dickensian characters. Miss Kilman’s neediness, for instance, is compounded of gendered, social, historical and personal frustration. Limited options for women, poverty, anti-German prejudice, and a lack of physical beauty are among the elements which Woolf uses to shape our responses to this character.

Fourthly, Woolf’s use of Dickens impacts our understanding of both her themes and Dickens’s. Mrs. Dalloway can be read as a novel about the consequences of violence and war, a study of sanity and insanity, a criticism of the social system, an exploration of consciousness, an inquiry into the negotiations between self and society, a celebration of the magic and wonder of life and, with Dickens to guide us, a sympathetic yet rueful examination of middle-age disillusionment. This last aspect of Woolf’s novel becomes far more apparent when, say, Clarissa and Peter are thought about as versions of Pip and Estella. Without attempting an extensive analysis, to glimpse Great Expectations in Mrs. Dalloway is to pay far more attention to thwarted youthful idealism and to the ways in which Clarissa, Peter, Richard, Sally and even Hugh have failed to achieve their youthful expectations. Just as Pip fails to heed the warning inherent in the yeasty, amoral foundations of Satis House, Woolf’s characters fail to notice the insidious yet intense social and commercial pressures to which they are subject—pressures so powerful that they can transform the aeroplane–the spark, the aspiration, the symbol of man’s soul—into an advertising tool. Similarly, those social pressures parodically commemorate and obliterate Edith Rigby’s and Mary Lowndes’s idealism and heroism in the crass form of a department store clock. 11 In both Great Expectations and Mrs. Dalloway youthful aspirations and dreams are thwarted and subverted by venal commercial forces. In Great Expectations, these forces are strongly, darkly, monolithically embodied in brewery beer, while in Mrs. Dalloway they flicker, they shimmer, ubiquitous and evanescent, in shops, clocks and aeroplanes, in “the bellow and the uproar” of modern London.

Woolf skillfully masked the ties to Great Expectations by placing the meeting between her lovers relatively early in her novel rather than at the end; by using memories of Bourton to fuse past and present; and by using language, objects and incidents which call to mind Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” rather than Dickens’s novel. Further, in shifting the position of the reunion scene and in changing the age of her lovers, she also subverted the Bildungsroman aspects of Great Expectations. In ending his novel with the indeterminate meeting between Pip and Estella, Dickens allowed his lovers a possible future. Older and wiser, Pip and Estella, still only in their thirties, have a chance to build a hopeful life together. They still have expectations, whereas Peter and Clarissa, fifty-three and fifty-two respectively, have only memories to help them meet the challenges of an ever diminishing future. The past, with all its might-have-beens, for them is not so much a guide as a refuge.

To read in the opposite direction, to reread Great Expectations through a Mrs. Dalloway lens, is to rethink the social forces and pressures acting on Dickens’s characters. For instance, Clarissa’s losing Bourton throws Estella’s hanging on to part of the Satis House lands into higher relief. With Clarissa as descendant, Estella becomes a much more visible and heroic figure in Great Expectations. Despite the harm done to her by Miss Havisham, harm originating in the evils of the patriarchal system, she manages to retain the Satis House garden, and the possibility of a relationship with Pip. A positive, even heroic conception of Estella raises the astonishing thought that Dickens, despite his Victorian attitudes towards women, and Virginia Woolf’s antipathy towards his crude masculinity, might, to paraphrase Blake on Milton, “have been of the womens’ party without knowing it.” By invoking Dickens, by writing Mrs. Dalloway as a Great Expectations pared of plot, Woolf ramifies both novels in unexpected ways. Many stimulating questions are raised by comparing the outlines of the two books and recognizing how successfully Woolf transforms Dickens’s famous Bildungsroman into an Erfahrungsroman.12

Fifthly, Woolf’s use of Dickens liberates or opens up her text by means of fluidity or indefiniteness. Great Expectations enriches or opens up possibilities in Mrs. Dalloway because Woolf refuses to make rigid parallels between her text and Dickens’s. Pip can be equated with both Septimus and with Peter, for instance, or Clarissa with both Miss Havisham and Estella. This lack of determinism gives the characters freedom and fluidity as well as complexity and strength. The combined suggestiveness and indeterminacy is one of the ways in which Woolf works towards the “perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow”(E4, 473), towards “showing colour burning on a framework of steel”,13 towards a Proustian combination with the toughness of catgut and the evanescence of a “butterfly’s bloom” (D3, 7), or towards fabric “clamped together with bolts of iron” (TTL 264). But solid structure and shimmering fluidity are not just effected by Great Expectations. Thoughts of Dickens can lead us to consider the ways in which Woolf assimilated other writers who were equally important to her. Woolf frequently examined writers in relationship to each other. Mrs. Dalloway seethes with allusive texts and all of these texts can be played against Woolf’s novel and also against each other. The myth of Persephone, Cymbeline, Clarissa Harlowe, “The Rape of the Lock,” Antony and Cleopatra, Ulysses, Jacob’s Room, Hamlet, “The Garden Party,” The Rape of Lucrece, Great ExpectationsMrs. Dalloway reconfigures itself against all of these, and Woolf’s novel becomes a different book according to which intertexts are foremost in a reader’s mind.

By way of illustration, an illustration which will come back to Dickens, consider Lord Jim. Lord Jim enters Woolf’s novel by way of “little Jim Hutton” and Professor Brierly (157). Other than providing a minor bit of social criticism aimed at bumptious young men and pompous, insecure university professors, Jim Hutton and Professor Brierly exist solely for the sake of their names, and their names lead directly to Lord Jim. In Lord Jim, Captain Brierly, “Big Brierly,” is one of the assessors who presides over the inquiry surrounding Jim’s actions during the Patna incident, and who then, less than a week after the end of the inquiry, commits suicide by jumping over the side of his ship, after first removing his gold watch and carefully hanging it to the deck rail by its chain. Woolf’s use of “little” for Jim Hutton plays off of Conrad’s use of “big” for Brierly, thereby supporting the idea that Woolf deliberately used the names to suggest Lord Jim and Brierly’s suicide.

This suicide theme is further expanded by the probability that for Woolf the Brierly reference was also closely connected to Dickens. In her “Phases of Fiction” analysis of Bleak House, Woolf calls attention to:

Mr. Tulkinghorn’s friend, who appears once and once only—“a man of the same mould and a lawyer too, who lived the same kind of life until he was seventy-five years old, and then, suddenly conceiving (as it is supposed) an impression that it was too monotonous, gave his gold watch to his hairdresser one summer evening, and walked leisurely home to the Temple, and hanged himself”.

Woolf had noted the gold watch and the attendant echoes. She had registered the disturbances and tremors emitted by this brief incident in Dickens.14 Very likely, too, when reading Lord Jim she would have surmised that the origins of Captain Brierly were to be found in Dickens.           Conrad, himself, supplies evidence for those origins. Writing in A Personal Record, he described Bleak House as:

a work of the master for which I have such an admiration, or rather such an intense and unreasoning affection, dating from the days of my childhood, that its very weaknesses are more precious to me than the strength of other men’s work. I have read it innumerable times, both in Polish and in English.

Tulkinghorn’s friend is easily visible behind Captain Brierly, and his presence adds resonance to Big Brierly’s suicide. Conrad has amplified and reshaped the implications inherent in the elderly lawyer’s suicide, thereby making the suicide pass commentary on what happens when values and personal codes are shaken or felt to be illusory.

Spotting Conrad in Woolf and Dickens in Conrad provides many delights. First and headiest is the Easter egg element. It is a treasure deliberately placed there for readers to find. More sobering are the thoughts about suicide provoked by the three authors. This conjunction of Bleak House, Lord Jim, and Mrs. Dalloway, possibly mixed with incidents in the reader’s own life, provides abundant material for dark reflection. If observant and thoughtful enough, we can read and interrogate Septimus’s suicide against other examples. For instance, Septimus’s madness and death has been profitably read against that of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.15 Much less troubling are thoughts about artistic technique and the way in which writers educate themselves and look to others to learn their craft. There is delight in seeing what Conrad took and learned from Dickens and of what Woolf, in turn, took and learned from the two of them. Finally, along with all these thoughts, there is also a poignant thought about Woolf the person, rather than Woolf the author. On the day of her suicide did Woolf, as she filled her pockets with stones, recall Captain Brierly and the “four iron belaying-pins” which he used to ensure his drowning?

Sixthly, and a long ways from Conrad and suicide, I’m back to Jane Austen again. In her “Leaning Tower” article, first presented as a talk to the Brighton Workers’ Educational Association on April 27th, 1940, Woolf stated:

Books descend from books as families descend from families. Some descend from Jane Austen; others from Dickens. They resemble their parents, as human children resemble their parents; yet they differ as children differ, and revolt as children revolt. (E6, 259)

This, it seems to me, is a wonderful paratextual comment on Mrs. Dalloway in particular and on Virginia Woolf’s writing in general. Emily Auerbach, in “The Geese vs. the ‘Niminy Piminy Spinster’: Virginia Woolf Defends Jane Austen”16 has shown the depth and breadth of Woolf’s engagement with Austen: Woolf wrote four essays about Jane Austen, and she also made her one of the central heroines of A Room of One’s Own. As well, Auerbach calls attention to how important Austen is to the Clarissa Dalloway of the Voyage Out. Though Auerbach does not mention it, Austen is also overtly present in Mrs. Dalloway. Not only does Clarissa refer to Richard as Wickham, but her marriage story can be interpreted as an ironic reworking of Elizabeth’s, with Clarissa as an Elizabeth who makes a wrong choice and marries a Wickham. Stylistically, too, though this is much too complex and complicated a subject for this paper to tease out in detail, Woolf’s writing owes an enormous debt to Austen. Her subject material, her plotting, her ironies, her social commentary, and her character presentation all reveal traces of lessons learned from Austen, as do the restraint, the surface reticence, and the obliqueness which she so frequently uses.

More than that. In Woolf’s mind. Austen and Dickens were closely linked. This is demonstrated not only by the above quotation, but also by the fact that in “Phases of Fiction” Woolf groups both Austen and Dickens among “The Character-mongers and Comedians,” and after reflecting at length upon Dickens she passes directly to Austen. When it came to character, character for which “the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved” (“Mr Bennett and Mrs. Brown”), Austen and Dickens were mother and father to Woolf. To revert to “The Leaning Tower” quotation, Austen, like Dickens, is parent to Woolf.

Seventhly, we can explore other Woolf works for Dickensian traces. Take To the Lighthouse, the book which Woolf wrote after Mrs. Dalloway. If one admits the possibility of Dickens, then several elements of To the Lighthouse can plausibly be read against Bleak House. The first, and most tenuous, can be found in the name of Mrs. Bast’s son—rat catching, grass scything George. George is an all too common name, yet given how often names in Woolf’s novels have literary and historical resonance, and given, too, the private pleasure which she seems to find in concealing her allusions, there is merit in connecting this George with George Rouncewell in Bleak House. Both George Bast and George Rouncewell are housekeeper’s son’s, and both wind up helping their aged mothers maintain decaying estates. As do so many of the minor characters in Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway, George Bast belongs to the half-hidden about whom we know little more than the name and one or two small actions. He is not in the George Rouncewell mold, robust, eccentric and strongly memorable. He lacks what Alex Woloch, in his review of Dickensian minor characters, calls “affective presence.”17 All the same, his name and his role are similar to his namesake’s. Further, given his appearance in the post-war portion of the “Time Passes” segment, and the reference to him as “one of those quiet ones” (TTL 218), it is easily possible to imagine him, just like George Rouncewell, as a retired soldier.

A second Bleak House connection shimmers suggestively behind Lily’s memory of Mrs. Ramsay in “The Lighthouse” portion of To the Lighthouse. Hold the following two passages up against each other. Compare and contrast the Woolf with the Dickens:

Then lights are brought in, discovering Mr. Tulkinghorn still standing in his window with his hands behind him and my Lady still sitting with his figure before her, closing up her view of the night as well as of the day. She is very pale. Mr. Tulkinghorn, observing it as she rises to retire, thinks, “Well she may be! The power of this woman is astonishing. She has been acting a part the whole time.” But he can act a part too—his one unchanging character—  and as he holds the door open for this woman, fifty pairs of eyes, each fifty times sharper than Sir Leicester’s pair, should find no flaw in him.

Bleak House, chapter 48

One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, she reflected. Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, she thought. Among them, must be one that was stone blind to her beauty. One wanted most some secret sense, fine as air, with which to steal through keyholes and surround her where she sat knitting, talking, sitting silent in the window alone; which took to itself and treasured up like the air which held the smoke of the steamer, her thoughts, her imaginations, her desires.

To the Lighthouse, p. 303

Why should the fifty pairs of eyes in To the Lighthouse not be descended from the fifty in Bleak House. It is possible that “fifty pairs of eyes” is an idiomatic expression, one evolving from the hundred eyes of Argus, yet even so the passages seem linked. As remembered by Lily, Mrs. Ramsay sitting in her window appears cousin to Tulkinghorn standing in his and, also, cousin in shared inscrutability to Lady Dedlock. The Tulkinghorn taint adds a Machiavellian element to Mrs. Ramsay’s character and deepens other, darker aspects which creep in elsewhere in the novel. And, at the same time, working against the darkness is the Lady Dedlock likeness: beautiful, strong-willed, victim of the patriarchal distortions inherent in society, and recovered, lost or missing mother. Mrs. Ramsay is as much to be missed and pitied as she is to be feared and condemned. “Fifty pairs of eyes,” indeed! Meanings ramify.

The biggest reward in holding the shape of To the Lighthouse against Bleak House is to notice two bleak, empty, ghost haunted houses, houses with only elderly housekeepers to protect them against the assaults of weather and time. Despite Virginia Woolf’s dismissal of Dickens’s poetic qualities, the description of Chesney Wold offers an important model for the “Time Passes” segment. The “downpouring of immense darkness” (TTL, 195) and the diluvian imagery in “Time Passes” flows from the rain passages in Bleak House. The little airs—fumbling, nosing, rubbing—are as ubiquitous and invasive as the fog known as a “London particular.” In her cosmic perspective and in her humanizing of the darkness and the breezes, Woolf is embracing and channelling Dickens. She is revisiting her “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” idea “that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in.” With Dickens as her guide, she is looking at how houses can be used “to deduce the people who live there.” She is putting into practice her “Phases of Fiction” insights about Dickens’s “prodigious character-making power” and how, in his descriptions of “London and the landscape of the Dedlocks’ place at Chesney Wold,” “the very houses and streets and fields are strongly featured in sympathy with the people.” Her anthropomorphic evocation of Finlay, the Ramsay summer home, owes much to Chesney Wold. Her purposes may be different yet she is not above using Dickensian tools of “spontaneity and abundance” to remodel “our psychological geography.” The Eliot of “Prufrock” may also be present, but as moonlight, stars, waves, silence, and watchers on the shore confound in an uneasy hum, some of the transcendental effects are clearly Dickensian.

By way of conclusion. On June 14th, 1925, Virginia Woolf ended a short letter (L3, 190) to Lady Ottoline Morell with the words:

But do what you will, invent what you will, expect what you will, exact what you will, never, never, will you quarrel





admirer and





The playfulness and the humour are obvious, and so is the way Virginia uses Mr. and Mrs. Micawber to express intimacy and to build upon a shared private world. Her delight in sharing Dickens is evident. Dickens is such a vibrant part of her and of her reader that she can assume a Dickensian persona to lovingly caricature herself and her relationship to Ottoline. More than that, she can draw on Dickens to reveal truths about herself.

In the letter to Ottoline Morell, it is the playful intimacy which stands out. In yet another piece of writing (a piece first published in the Criterion, July 1924, as “Character in Fiction,” and then published in October of 1925 as the pamphlet “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”), what stands out is the value Woolf placed on Dickens and his presentation of character. In her discussion of “characters who are real, true and convincing” and her analysis of the relative successes and failures of the Edwardians and the Georgians in trying to create such characters, Woolf only alludes to Dickens once, and then only to list him as a member of a group of greats along with Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Austen and Thackeray. The reference is so fleeting as to seem superficial or even condescending. For much of the essay, Dickens and the Victorians seem to be almost irrelevant to Woolf’s analysis of realism and character creation. The emphasis is on seem. This apparent diminishment of Dickens is both deliberate and deceptive. In the original 1923 version of “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (E3, 384), Woolf expresses admiration for the Victorians. Using Pendennis as her model for the novel of the Victorian age, she praises “the astonishing vividness and reality of the characters.” She also cites Mrs. Micawber’s “I shall never desert Mr Micawber” to help show how the Victorians used astonishingly apt keywords to give “undeniable vividness” to their characters. The differences between this version and the 1925 pamphlet version are instructive in that they show Woolf applying her avowed novelistic principles to her essay. Concentration and suggestiveness is preferred to redundancy and overtness. References to the Victorians are greatly reduced, and Dickens is almost erased. Almost. Almost, but not quite. As in the letter to Ottoline Morell, Woolf again becomes Dickens, and it is Dickens in Mrs. Micawber guise who has the last word. Ever so aptly, Virginia Woolf’s famous “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” essay concludes, as does mine, by saying that one of the great ages of literature will only be reached “if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.”


1) Steve Ellis, Virginia Woolf and the Victorians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 3.

2) Francesca Orestano, ““Two Londoners: Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf” in Charles Dickens. Modernism, Modernity, ed. by Christine Huguet and Nathalie Vanfasse, (Wimereux: Edition du Sagittaire, 2014).

3) The Essays of Virginia Woolf, 6 vols., ed. Andrew McNeillie (vols. 1-4), ed. Stuart N. Clarke (vols. 5-6), (London: The Hogarth Press, 1986-2011), vol. 3, p.25. Further references to the essays will be made in the text using a (E3, 25) format.

4) The Letters of Virginia Woolf, 6 vols., eds. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975-1980), vol. 5, p. 335. Further references to the letters will be made in the text using a (L5, 335) format.

5) The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 5 vols., eds. A. Olivier Bell and A McNeillie, (London: Penguin, 1979-85), vol. 5, p.215. Further references to the diaries will be made in the text using a (D5, 215) format.

6) Virginia Woolf, Red Morocco Notebook, Albert A. Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, p. 6.

7) Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, ed. Anne Fernald, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) p. 25. Further references to Mrs. Dalloway will be made in the text using a (25) format.

8) Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, (London: Chapman and Hall, 1894), p. 43. Further references to Great Expectations will be made in the text using a (GE, 43) format.

9) Anne Fernald, “Woolf and Intertextuality,” Virginia Woolf in Context, eds. Bryony Randall and Jane Goldman, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p.52.

10) Molly Hoff, Virginia Woolf ‘s Mrs. Dalloway: Invisible Presences, (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2009), p. 257.

11) In her explanatory note for 92:11-12 of Mrs. Dalloway, Anne Fernald connects the surnames on the department store clock to suffrage activists, Edith Rigby, Marie Lowndes and Mary Lowndes. Of Edith Rigby, she says: “In 1913, she threw a black pudding at a Labour MP in Manchester and set a bomb (which did not explode) under the Liverpool Cotton Exchange.”

12) In The Artist-Figure, Society, and Sexuality in Virginia Woolf’s Novels, (New York: Routledge, 2004), Ann Ronchetti writes: “In abandoning elements of the Bildungsroman, or novel of development, employed in her early novels, Woolf, along with other contemporaries such as Joyce and Proust, evolves a genre that might be termed the Erfahrungsroman, or novel of experience, in which adults assess their lives, the choices they have made, and the impact of events that have befallen them.” (p.50)

13) Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 8th Impression (London: The Hogarth Press, 1949), p.78. Further references to To the Lighthouse will be made using a (TTL 78) format.

14) In describing the suicide of Tulkinghorn’s friend, Dickens drew on an incident he had first written about in the August 18th, 1860 edition of All the Year Round. The suicide of Tulkinghorn’s friend is a pared down version of the story of Parkle’s neighbour. The catalogue of the WSU Leonard and Virginia Woolf Library shows that Virginia Woolf owned Volume III of All the Year Round, the volume in which Parkle’s neighbour makes his sad appearance and even sadder exit.

15) Damien Toman, “Sham & Sentiment: Madness & Ideology in Heart of Darkness and Mrs. Dalloway,”, 2011.

16) Emily Auerbach, “The Geese vs. the ‘Niminy Piminy Spinster’: Virginia Woolf Defends Jane Austen, Persuasions Online V.29, No. 1, (2008).

17) Alex Woloch, The One Vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 132.

About the Author:

Andre Gerard (@PatremoirPress) is the winner of the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.