Before working on “The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway” (Liveright), Merve Emre didn’t consider herself a Virginia Woolf devotee. “I teach her novels in my 20th-century literature class,” she said. “But if I were asked the novelists with whom I feel like I have a particularly strong intellectual or emotional connection, she would never have been one of them.” Still, Emre had read “Mrs. Dalloway” at 11 or so, mostly diligently underlining the sections about flowers.
Emre, who teaches at Oxford University, began working on the book just as her children’s schools were shutting down due to COVID-19, leaving her much less time to focus on other writing. “It was a good lockdown project in part because of how the work of annotation can be organized,” she said. “It’s something you can do in brief snatches of time.” In addition, the novel’s war-haunted setting felt familiar to our own times. “Because ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is a novel that is so preoccupied with how to be in the world when the specter of mass death is everywhere, it was impossible to work on it without thinking of its resonances in the present,” she noted.
Reading it again — and this time, typing out the entire manuscript by hand — revealed new layers. “Because it’s a novel that is itself so interested in the process of aging, and of how we reconcile the self that we were with the self that we are, reading it when you are older invariably makes you think about who you were when you were younger,” Emre said. “Now that I’m closer to the age that Clarissa [Dalloway] is when the novel opens than to Clarissa’s adolescent self, I think I have a lot more sympathy for the possibilities and also the perils of getting older.”
Merve Emre will join the Harvard Square Book Circle to discuss her “Annotated Mrs. Dalloway” at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 12 in a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store.