The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

Our “Dallodays” are almost over, alas, How’d the month go so fast? I simply cannot let it go by without pointing you to yet another book of my heart whose structure borrows bits beautifully (while also remaining entirely original) from Mrs. Dalloway.

This book is engrossingly and beautifully written!

The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman deserves all of the love and affection I am about to heap on it. However, I feel the need to be transparent and also tell you that I know and adore its author, Sena Jeter Naslund. It was in her novel writing workshop that I first dared present an early draft of Victorine.

Her double novel, the story of writer Kathryn Callaghan who has recently completed a draft of a novel about artist Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, is not only doubled in the sense that it tells the stories of both women, but it also “doubles” in showing how two incredibly gifted women overcome major life change and challenges. That doesn’t really have anything to do with Woolf, but I think it’s cleverly done.

While I have read the book numerous times, I don’t trust that I will be able to count all of the ways Mrs. D. permeates the book, so forgive me in advance. This is only a sampling.

I don’t use it to be pretentious, but here’s a literary term that fits perfectly: intertextuality. In short, that’s when one book “speaks” to another. (Here’s a secret: my novel Victorine is in a one-sided constant chatter with Naslund’s books, plural. I am either highlighting a concept she has already shared, am exploring a differing viewpoint to see what I think of it or am celebrating her work in various ways.)

Don’t be shocked – all of literature is in conversation with the rest of it, whether writers have read others’ works or not, because any work that has been read and digested by any author makes its way into the literary stream and when we drink of one, we drink of the one before.

Purposeful echoes or discussions or unconscious connections happen all the time.

Okay, that out of the way, let’s get into it.

Fountain certainly is in dialogue with Woolf in terms of style and structure. Not only does the author in the novel, Callaghan, acknowledge that Woolf and Joyce are influences (a subtle, welcome nod from the author of the actual novel), but others (and I agree) have compared Naslund’s writing to Woolf’s with its emphasis on inner character, on elevating daily life, not to mention its lyrical quality.

Here’s her marvelous opening line. I don’t need to tell you what it echoes: “No matter it was almost midnight, she would deliver her manuscript herself. (A lopsided moon hunched high overhead.)”

One thing this line, stacked with all of the other first (and alternative) first lines I have mentioned in previous posts convinces me of: Woolf wasn’t focused on the flowers. It was the agency of Clarissa, her ability and will, after her illness, to go fetch them herself. Clearly she had servants who were more than willing to get them, but she refused. Later, remember, Richard, her husband, brings her some. But no, she wants to be out and about in the world, if even for just a few minutes. (Reminds me of writers, too. Callaghan probably spends tons of time indoors and is likely pleased to be out in the night air. If the weather were nicer today, I’d be outdoors right now.)

In tone, in cadence, this book also reminds of Dalloway. Woolf’s pacing is both casual and unspooling at once. It’s intertwined with the book’s meaning. Same here.

We are given a walking tour of Callaghan’s neighborhood reminiscent of Clarissa’s walk. In fact, Dalloway is referenced directly, as is a day being a metaphor.

Hints of Woolf, heavy doses of Naslund’s artfully crafted historical fiction, exquisite insights into the human condition, and art! So much wonderful art! Even if I didn’t know Naslund (my novel is dedicated to her), I would have read it for the Woolf aspects and the art alone.

Do yourself a favor and read this book. It pairs perfectly with Mrs. Dalloway.

Next up: our very last (for now!) Mrs. Dalloway post.

Clarissa Explains it All, and Victorine Receives a Gift!

Feel free to groan at the title of this post. If you don’t recognize it, the first half is actually the title of a Nickelodeon show from the early 90’s. I just wanted to get you to think of a different Clarissa, although she’s not the subject of today’s post.

A reader on another social media channel, Sandra (I will not share her last name in case she doesn’t want me to, but she’s more than welcome to claim her contribution in the comments section below) wondered in the comments if Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway could be based on Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa of the eponymous, epistolatory novel published in 1748.

I was thrilled and surprised by her comments. I haven’t read that novel since college. Actually, I’m pretty sure I took it and a blanket to a park and read part of it in the grass one early spring afternoon in the 90’s, listening to the chimes of the local bell tower in the background. To be perfectly honest, I never made the connection between the Clarissas, but I think she’s on to something.

Sandra’s comments:

“Hey, been enjoying your posts. In college I read Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady and I always wondered if Woolf chose Clarissa as Mrs. Dalloway’s first name as a reference to that character in regard to theme of living within expectations of morality. I agree with you that the use of Mrs. is a statement on women being looked upon as extension of husband and not as an independent person. Richardson’s Clarissa resisted at the cost of her own eventual death bring subdued by the (evil) man who was determined to marry and have her as his possession.”

Snooping around the internet tells me others have had the same thought. Guess I’m the last one on the bus. Hey, it doesn’t matter what stop you get on, as long as you hop aboard before the end of the line, am I right?

We know that Woolf based Clarissa on an acquaintance, Kitty Maxse, a socialite who died by falling over a staircase, leading Woolf to wonder if it had indeed been an accident. But how like Woolf it would be to add an exploration of the oppression of women and reinforce that with using names one (besides me I guess!) would associate with the topic.

What do you think? Have you read Richardson’s Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady? Do you think Woolf could have named what is arguably her most famous character after her?

In other news, Victorine received a generous gift in the mail from admirer Rob Hudson yesterday. This wonderful vintage of Chenin Blanc from Lang & Reed Wine Company will be saved for a special occasion, assuming V. will share with me! Many, many thanks, Rob! You’ve been a good friend to Victorine.

First Second Impressions

Here are my murky first “second” impressions of Mrs. Dalloway. I was taught by a wise professor to read a novel for the story first, and then go back and really read for the nuances, the language, etc. That method changed my reading forever!

These thoughts are on my first re-reading. I’m doing this because maybe you have a similar process, or maybe it would be helpful for you to realize I, too, see through a glass darkly before the Windex of re-reading. 😊 Nevertheless, I think that first looks can be informative. Consider the first glance to be the drawing beneath the paint.

If I were reading this for the first time ever, I would say:

Here’s a society woman, Clarissa Dalloway, who has been sick but is now out and about, buying some flowers for her party, her return to society, if you will. Later, while she mends her dress for the party she will throw that evening, an old suitor returns from a stint in India, five years I think. Peter Walsh plays with his pocketknife, a habit he’s had since he was a youth. He bursts into tears at one point while talking to the preoccupied hostess-to-be, and one wonders if he has ever gotten over Clarissa, even though he confesses that he’s in love with a married woman who is about to get a divorce.

Out of sequence question: why do you suppose Woolf called the novel Mrs. Dalloway rather than Clarissa or Clarissa Dalloway? I have thoughts.

For one thing, Woolf was trying to show that any life circumstance, even that of a privileged woman with servants, was worthy of exploration. This is not a romance; this is a novel after marriage, delving into the everyday joys and challenges.

Also, the title underscores the name stripping of a woman. Not enough Clarissa “takes” her husband, Richard’s, name. By being called Mrs. Dalloway, she becomes a nondescript wife of him; her very “name” doesn’t belong to her but to him. She’s his property. (Argue if you like, but I see real tones of that here, even though I did opt to take my husband’s last name when we married. It makes a great author’s name I’ve been told more than once, so why wouldn’t I?)

Then again, in Lighthouse Mrs. Ramsay is given no first name and I think it’s brilliant because it makes her the universal spouse. Maybe there are shades of this here. I do think Woolf struggled with marriage and domesticity and its place in her own life, in the life of her peers from early on. (For god’s sake, she did write A Room of One’s Own, so there’s that.)

Anyway, why, Clarissa wonders, is her husband invited to Lady Bruton’s luncheon and she is not? I’d be pissed, so I get that. It’s rude and ungenerous, even if Clarissa had previously made some minor social blunder at Lady Bruton’s. (Actually, I have been excluded. A friend of mine invited my hubby out to dinner to “interview” him. But I had been through the same schooling as him, sooo??? I would have been pleased to sit alongside them and have a drink while they talked, just because I enjoyed my friend’s – and hubby’s—company, but I wasn’t asked along. Come to think of it, I’m not sure she ever did anything with that interview. Oh well. If memory serves, I dined with another friend a few restaurants down the street that evening, so there.)

Septimus, a veteran struggling with what we would now call PTSD and his wife, Lucrezia, are introduced in the novel, a contrast to the Dalloways. We pity the newly married pair.

Richard wants to buy his wife jewelry (suspiciously timed after he hears that her old beau is back in town) but suspects she doesn’t enjoy his taste as he had previously brought her a bracelet she doesn’t wear. Wanting to remind her of his love for her but not being one to say so, he brings her flowers. Flowers, flowers, everywhere! (And that not being able to confess love to someone, that is Mrs. Ramsay’s role in Lighthouse. Another of Woolf’s themes.)

And veils and gloves. Birds and flowers. But more on that another time.

So these are my quick, impressionistic thoughts. I really want to talk about the language itself, but that’s not the purpose of this post, so let’s hold off on that as well.

Thoughts? Rebuttals? Questions? Let’s get into it!

A Very Good Place to Start

So far I’ve danced around the edges of this novel, Mrs. Dalloway, because I like to warm up and I wanted to give you plenty of time to get started reading. I know even the best of intentions go sideways in the best of conditions, let alone right now. So if you haven’t begun, go ahead. Pick it up, read a few pages, and you will soon find yourself immersed.

I’m about 70 pages from the end of Mrs. Dalloway this round. Here’s where I like to start when I’m reading a book, which may seem elementary. I pay attention to the title, study it, and ask myself what I expect from the book based on it. (Titles are important! And when I’m reading a novel, I keep an eye out for the title within its pages or for the fitness of it if I don’t spot it.)

Of course I study the cover; that’s important to me. I want it to pair with the title and make me eager to read the book. It’s okay if the cover displays a painting that only nods at the era of the story. It isn’t designed to actually tell the story, but to give hints. I especially love novels that use paintings. If it draws my eye, it’s a winner.

For a classic, I don’t pay as much attention to the front of the book because it likely has had many covers and so none of them is directly connected with the original, not that every author has the luxury of being involved with cover design the way I was allowed to with Victorine.

I’m someone who reads the synopsis on the back of the book, as well as any blurbs. I read the forward, the dedication. Not that I always read these in that order. It just depends.

Do you read with a pen either in hand or nearby ? I do. I like taking notes in the margins, circling things, asking myself and the author questions. I write tidbits in the front of the book as well. Ever since I was a child I have written notes in books, particularly (you may gasp if you were brought up thinking this wasn’t okay) the Bible. I learned that writing was a two-way street way back then.

But let me turn to this novel. Why did I want to re-read it? To be honest, I read it hurriedly the first time (or two; I believe this is my third reading, but I can’t swear to that) and I thought I owed it better. Because it wasn’t the Woolf book I was most enthralled with (Lighthouse), I must admit to being a bit dismissive about it. Lighthouse was Sgt. Pepper’s; Dalloway was maybe Abbey Road. And yet without Dalloway, there would be no Lighthouse.

Then my writing mother mentioned she believes that Woolf was most successful with Dalloway, though she had long held my opinion of Lighthouse being superior; since obviously I respect her, I was (am) eager to read Dalloway once more to see if I can agree with her. (I’m still forming my opinion.)

Of course this novel was also the basis for a modern-day takeoff Michael Cunningham wrote called The Hours. If that also sounds like a movie title from 2002, you’re correct, it became that as well. The title comes from an alternate title for Mrs. Dalloway that Woolf considered for an awfully long time before using the current title.

While the novel doesn’t have chapters, it does have twelve slight breaks that function as such. (The Hours. Get it?) Anyway, that was another reason I read it to start with.

Why doesn’t Mrs. Dalloway have chapters, you ask?  Ah, my take on it is that she wants to highlight the unbroken nature of life, the interconnectedness: characters weave in and out of one another’s lives and consciousness. Not giving us chapters keeps the stream of consciousness flowing. After all, she is only depicting one day.

Let me share some first (again) impressions of the novel, my sketchy thoughts, and feelings. (Caveat: while I adore Woolf, I am an amateur reader of her work. I don’t know all there is to know about her. I don’t have every date related to her memorized. I may well be “wrong” about her intentions and what she’s done, but I am a passionate reader and I don’t care if I am wrong, because as an author I consider myself of her tribe and therefore qualified to discuss any damned thing I like about her work.)

I also don’t believe there are rights and wrongs when it comes to literature. It’s subjective.

So there. Insert an insolent tongue-sticking-out emoji here. The overly reverent, fearful approach commonly taken with Woolf is why more people don’t read her. But don’t forget that I am someone who wrote notes and questions to God in the margins of my Bible; I’m not likely to be afraid of Woolf. (No nod to Albee intended!)

I will say this: you don’t read her for the plot. Sure, her novels (mostly) have one, but that’s not why you’re there. You’re there to wander in her worlds and see how she’s created them and the immediacy with third person. How she doesn’t over rely on tradition. How she puts forth modern life, domestic life, as fitting subject matter. How she elasticizes language, how she makes writing impressionistic. How she makes a miracle of a meal. And for so much more.

Will you forgive me if I dive into Lighthouse for a moment here? “One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, it’s an ecstasy.” It’s a line the painter Lily Briscoe says, and I believe it speaks for itself. If you don’t think that’s a life-changing, gorgeous sentence in all senses, there’s nothing more I can do for you.

I could (and will, later) go on, but that quote has my heart full at the moment.  

Mr. Dalloway

If you haven’t heard of the novella Mr. Dalloway by Robin Lippincott and you’re a Woolf fan at all, do yourself a favor and order it. Now.

Full disclosure: he was my writing mentor for two semesters in grad school. I begged the person in charge of assigning mentors to let me work with him. Having recently come off my undergraduate thesis about Woolf, and having found Woolfian ideas sneaking into my fiction, I knew he was the ideal mentor for me.

Poor guy as he watched me continue to hone my process, a circular one that must be maddening for someone bound by a semester. He’s amazing. That’s all I will say of his honesty and generosity or I’m going to cry.

And I’m happy to report that, having my first novel published and rounding the bend on finishing my second, I can now start and complete a novel. Yay!

I will say, I was so intimidated by Robin’s brilliance (of course I read Mr. Dalloway before meeting him) that I was way too jokey and light in his workshop and I’m afraid he got a not-great impression of my critiquing abilities.

In addition to his mentoring skills, he’s an exquisite writer. Mr. Dalloway, as you’d suspect, comes from the POV of Richard Dalloway. The opening line? “Mr. Dalloway said he would buy the flowers himself.”

What a fabulous opener! It says everything we need to know. We just can’t get away from those flowers, can we? I told you they mean more. (Still not ready to get into it. But we will.)

From there we get his sensuous, striking Woolfian sentences and a similar, pleasing pace to Mrs.

And we do worry about poor Richard.

Remember the total eclipse of 2017? There’s a wonderful scene of an eclipse in this book, one I re-read in preparation for my and Barry’s trip to see the eclipse in Tennessee.

We often talk of intertextuality in books, but sometimes entire books spring from another. I’m so grateful this one did.

WHEN you read it, not if, let me know what parallels you see in it with Mrs. Dalloway and what you think of the provoking premise of it. (Prefaced with a selection of quotes to lend it legitimacy, I find the novella beautiful and convincing, just as I find the lovely Mr. Lippincott.)

Mrs. Dalloway Would Buy the WHAT Herself?

Okay, I promised to talk more about the opening line of Mrs. Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said would buy the flowers herself.”

Would you believe Woolf wrote a short story called “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” with a similar but different first line? “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself.” (It’s so similar I suspect either it was written as a precursor to the novel or it was reworked from it.)

Gloves? Gloves? Really? That’s interesting…

1920’s gloves, the Metropolitan Museum of Art

How do you think that would change the novel if it opened with gloves instead of flowers?

I suppose we have to consider what the flowers might mean and then possibly throw all of our thoughts about them away in light of the interchangeable nature of the flowers with the gloves.

On the one hand (ha, an unintentional glove pun), it might point to the fact that Woolf wanted to emphasize that Clarissa, newly recovered from influenza, wants a reason to take a walk on a nice day, and not necessarily emphasize the flowers.

Gloves cover hands, can keep them warm and clean. They are prophylactic, protecting one from the world. And yet what a pleasure it must have been to pick them out – material, color, style, trimmings… practical items to purchase and yet much more, items of fashion.

Then again, Woolf chose flowers for the novel’s opening, not gloves. (My senior thesis has a large section about gloves in Lighthouse, so of course gloves are meaningful to me when I see them in a novel. And yet we have to consider authorial intent, right?)

In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway’s husband Richard brings her roses. We are told he shows his love for her by giving her these rather than telling her. (Woolf’s characters sometimes have trouble expressing their love openly for one another; it happens in Lighthouse as well.) (BTW, by now you know that Clarissa Dalloway is the titular character of the book, right?)

Here’s the link to the short story if you’d like to read it.

Flowers are a theme throughout the book, but it seems early to get so deep. Let’s read on and talk more about that later. Where are you now in the book? Are you as excited as I am about the gloves/flowers discovery? What do you make of it?

Here’s another teaser: these are not the only two places where we’ll see the Dalloways in Woolf’s writing.

Mrs. Dalloway and the Pandemic

Photo by Raphael Brasileiro on

“Mrs. Dalloway said would buy the flowers herself.” If you know anything at all about the novel, you know its opening line. But have you ever paid attention to the early lines that reveal that Clarissa was sick with influenza and possible heart damage as a result? Just what “influenza” are we talking about?

There’s a fabulous article by Elizabeth Winkler that talks about WHY it would be a treat for Mrs. Dalloway to buy the flowers herself, a timely article in the Times Literary Supplement well worth the read during this pandemic that reveals more.

So much more to be said of that opening line (and a possible alternative…just a teaser for you.)

More from me on that later….

Let the Reading Begin! Mrs. Dalloway, Day 1

Welcome to my Autumn of Virginia Woolf! We will spend the ENTIRE MONTH on this slim novel, so feel free to take your time. I don’t have a particular reading schedule in mind — schedules were made to be broken, in my experience. Please add your thoughts or questions in the comments, or just read along this fall. (Although autumn is a prettier name for it, isn’t it?)

Here’s the version I’m reading. Show us yours in the comments!

To begin, I will post a series of interesting articles, quotes, etc. Now and again I will pop by with thoughts on sections of the novel itself, of course.

Let me make this abundantly clear — while I am a fan of Woolf’s writing, I am no scholar. Every time I read something of hers, I learn something new, have a new thought. I hope it will be the same for you.

Where did you encounter Woolf for the first time?

For me, it was in a literature class in the 90’s. We read Three Guineas and A Room of One’s Own. In a later class, I read Orlando, and the world of fiction as I knew it exploded.

Still, for no known reason, even though Woolf had changed what I knew of the world, I didn’t seek out any of the rest of her literature. I don’t know why. I acknowledged that she was brilliant, but I didn’t even know she had written more fiction. No one mentioned it, and I had so much reading to do as an English major it didn’t occur to me to check into her further. Of course I now regret that, and yet I suspect I can appreciate and understand her work much better at this age than then, so in the spirit of “All’s well that ends well,” I also don’t regret it.

And I hadn’t forgotten her along the way after leaving school. When the film of Orlando came out, of course my hubby and I watched it, mesmerized. I re-read Orlando, and yet I still didn’t think to see if she had written more novels. Go figure.

That being said, when I returned to school many years later, I wrote my senior thesis on To the Lighthouse and was asked by my advisor to read and include Mrs. Dalloway as well. At the time I felt put upon, because my life was hella hectic. But after I read it I was grateful. (Lighthouse is still my favorite, but Dalloway is also important and innovative.) I’m eager to revisit the book, focusing on it alone.

Here’s a link to an article to ten interesting facts about Mrs. Dalloway I think you’ll enjoy. I learned a lot from it.

P.S. I do not at all promise to post every day, but I will be back every few days at the least.

Have you started reading it yet?