Thoughts on Reading Mrs. Dalloway

On the whole, I enjoy my job. True, like any English teacher, I don’t enjoy grading papers. I procrastinate when faced with a pile of them, often ferrying them for a week or so between my office desk to my dining room table without ever reading them. But reading texts and discussing them—what could be better than that?

Part of this enthusiasm stems from the knowledge of how unfit I am for other types of work. Lack of practical organizational skills made me a fairly poor secretary in my youth; likewise, I found it hard to be an effective real estate agent when one is, at heart, a Marxist. (“Certainly I think this is an excellent house to buy, Mr. Brown, or at least I would if I believed in the division of labor and private property.”) Teaching seems to be the one thing I can do effectively, because so much of the job entails hours and hours of reading—which is just fine by me. In fact, it recently dawned on me that I make my living largely by reading.

Several years ago, when I was taking my son’s friend home from a play-date, I listened to the two of them as they sat in the back seat, discussing their future careers. “I’m going to be a teacher,” announced Maureen, a fiery red-headed girl about half the size of my son Ian. “I’m going to be a military historian,” said Ian, who was forever watching black-and-white movies about World War II. I expected Maureen to ask for an explanation, but instead there was a pause, and, a couple of seconds later, she sighed and said, “I wish I could get paid just to read.” Ian didn’t answer; a quick glance in the rear-view mirror showed me that he was considering this as a career possibility. In the silence that followed Maureen’s wistful declaration, I broke one of my parental rules: I spoke while chauffeuring. “You know what?” I said. “I do get paid to read.” There was another pause, and, her voice full of admiration, Maureen said, “I want to do what you do.”

I didn’t tell them that at least three-quarters of the reading I do is an onerous task, consisting of scanning freshman and sophomore papers that I have to comment on and grade. The world needs teachers and professors, after all, and maybe by withholding that detail, I might have produced two more candidates for the job. But the truth is, while by far the greatest part of my job entails reading student papers, I am also paid to know all sorts of things that I can know only by reading, whether articles about teaching online writing classes, or critiques of films, or novels like Mrs. Dalloway. I’d guess that at least two-thirds of my job involves reading primary material to digest and pass on to others, colleagues, administrators, or students. As I told Maureen that summer morning, it’s true that I make my living by reading.

But spending a career in reading has its risks, and one of them is personal, as I am beginning to find out. I’ve recently had to re-read Mrs. Dalloway, a novel I always enjoy more when I don’t happen to be in the process of reading it. The last time I read Mrs. Dalloway was about fifteen years ago. What I noticed about the book on this go-round was that, while each other time I had read the novel I had admired the passages relating to Bourton and the golden past of Mrs. Dalloway and her friends, this time, reading them evoked a vague feeling of discomfort in me. In fact, the entire novel produced an unpleasant sensation that had nothing to do with Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness. As I puzzled it over, I realized with a shock that this feeling was not due to Woolf’s wary depictions of madness or the masterful representation of the fragmentation of society, but because I am now the age of Mrs. Dalloway. Now I, too, have my own Bourton: now I can remember people and events from thirty years ago, and this fact alone is a deeply unsettling. In earlier years, when I read Mrs. Dalloway, I was a spectator, a sympathetic on-looker. Today, I am Mrs. Dalloway.

Consequently, I’ve discovered that the process of aging has all sorts of implications for a person who makes his or her living from reading. A few years ago, I turned fifty, a very interesting age for a woman in American culture. But what does this mean specifically to a person who reads for a living? Just this: All those fatuous matrons in British novels have become sisters to me; we are all women d’un certain âge, so to speak. Dickens, Austen, Eliot—these authors are frequently unkind to women my age. Think of Flora Finching, Mrs. Bennett, Lisbeth Bede: all of these women are ridiculous, pitiable characters who are about my age—a sobering thought indeed.

In fact, lack of charity towards their older female characters seems widespread among the authors I read, and it’s apparently something that I’ll have to put up with now, just as I put up with Dickens’s occasional over-the-top sentimentalism, Scott’s tendency to tell rather than show, and Eliot’s relentless gravitas. It is now clear to me I can no longer identify with the youth and simple virtue of Esther Summerson; but does this mean I have to see myself as the jaded Lady Dedlock? It’s bad enough being Mrs. Dalloway; must I also be Miss Prism?

This kind of thinking makes me wonder whether I should have warned my son and his friend about the dangers of a career in reading. But it’s just as well I didn’t: they wouldn’t have listened, anyway. Aging, they say, is not for the faint-hearted. The Victorians had a good remedy for this kind of malaise: work. But no more novels, please! Today, for the first time in my career, I’m actually looking forward to reading a huge stack of student papers.