‘Rewriting’ Virginia Woolf
Dr Makiko Minow-Pinkney
‘Rewriting’ Virginia Woolf’s work has become an established practice in the last two decades or so. I am using the word ‘rewriting’ in a broad sense; the particular art form used for such rewriting can be various—play, film, music, ballet, painting, or another novel. How should we approach these works? What do we expect from them? Do we have any criteria in our appreciation and judgement of them? Is faithfulness to the original paramount? The committed fan of Virginia Woolf could be upset by any deviation from her own idea of the author and her work. Is it acceptable for such a rewriting to give some novice to the Woolfian world a misleading, or even blatantly wrong, notion about the author and her works? A rewriting is, after all, an independent creative work, even if it takes its cue from this great writer. And what does it mean to be ‘faithful’ to the original in a rewriting whose artistic medium is very different from Woolf’s own prose fiction? Or is ‘faithfulness’ enough, if the new work does not want to be just derivative but wishes to establish its own worth as an independent artistic creation? The project of Woolfian rewriting thus seems to have opportunities as well as challenges peculiar to it.
As an enthusiast for Woolf’s work over many years, I have had, therefore, a rather complex feeling of curiosity and weariness towards this new practice. However, when this film started, my apprehensions evaporated immediately. The conversion of the novel into this visual version felt so natural that what I was seeing and hearing merged with my own sense of Mrs Dalloway without any jar or distraction. This must surely be because the film captures some crucial essence of the original novel. Such a successful transmission of the quintessence of a novel to a different art form is a feat in itself. This is to a great extent due to the wonderful graphic work of the film, with its animation composed of sketches of a woman’s face and the London cityscape (the result of painstaking work to create moving images out of millions of sketches).
Whether the sketch is based on the actual face of the actress who voices the monologue or on the artist’s image of the Clarissa Dalloway of Woolf’s novel, I am glad to say that it does not diverge too far from my own image of her. Unlike a real actor playing the role in a theatre or film production, the image sketched here by monochrome strokes without precise details allows each viewer’s own image of Mrs Dalloway to be worked into it. I applaud this choice of animated sketch as the filmic mode as a stroke of genius.
The visual impact is not the only experience we enjoy in the film, of course. The voice of the monologue stirs us too, sometimes articulating Clarissa’s sharp regret or exhilaration or at other times some yearning reminiscence. The accompanying music, like a strong undercurrent of the sea, carries us powerfully with this tide of self-reflection, which at times surges overwhelmingly or undulates soothingly. So though the film is quite brief, our experience of Mrs D is intense indeed.
But is this the Clarissa Dalloway of Virginia Woolf’s novel? Yes and no. One notices that the woman the film presents is not exactly Mrs Dalloway; she is named just ‘Mrs D’. The words are not exact quotations from the novel; there are also minor factual differences, like her husband being a professor instead of an MP. We come to realise that she is the familiar Clarissa Dalloway of the novel but also somebody like her, some woman, any woman, perhaps you or me. The film manages such complex doubling, of evoking the original Mrs. Dalloway as well as, shall we say, a more ‘universalised’ woman, by releasing the character of Woolf’s novel from her particular geographical space (London), from her culture and society (the English upper-middle class), and from her specific historicity (the early twentieth-century). This beautiful short film, while being faithful to the original, thus also gives the viewer freedom to expand imaginatively according to each individual’s own psychic scenery. We are offered the chance here to re-experience the old and intimate, but also to explore something new and different.
I think in this context of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay ‘The Task of the Translator’, in which he argues that the greater the original text is, the greater its need to be translated. According to him, whatever intention the original text strives for can come to fruition only by being supplemented with an infinite number of translations at some point in infinity. ‘Supplement’ here has a truly Derridean force, which deconstructs the hierarchy of primary vs. secondary, superior vs. inferior. Perhaps we can conceive the relationship between the original work of art and its rewriting in a similar way. The original and the work of rewriting, while both independent and complete as works of art, need each other nonetheless; they depend on each other for their true completion. For the original work’s unfathomable intention can only be realised in its totality by the sum of all subsequent works inspired by it (that is, all the new works already existing as well as those to be created in future). The ‘true’ intention of the original work can only be forged in the ‘kinship’ (Benjamin’s term) that is formed by all these works together.
Today this short film joins the kinship which is forming around Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway. It strengthens that kinship and contributes its own energies to deepen the thematic potentiality which the original novel never stops inspiring.
Dr Makiko Minow-Pinkney, a member of The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain and the author of numerous books on Virginia Woolf’s heritage ,Next