Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Giving the Mundane Its Due: One (Fine) Day in the Life of the Everyday

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Giving the Mundane Its Due: One (Fine) Day in the Life of the Everyday

Article excerpt

No, Lytton does not like Mrs Dalloway ... What he says is that there is a discordancy between the ornament (extremely beautiful) and what happens (rather ordinary--or unimportant).

Virginia Woolf's Diary

18 June 1925

The country is recovering from the trauma of the war. A middle-aged woman ventures out of the house; as the day unfolds, we will witness a series of small events that will amount to no more than a "drama of the doorstep" which will conclude before night falls. (1) We will examine an ordinary mind as it receives a myriad of impressions, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms which, as they fall, shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday. This is of course the plot of Mrs Dalloway (even though we know that Clarissa went to buy flowers on a Wednesday); it is, however, also the plot of A Day Off (1933) by Margaret Storm Jameson and One Fine Day (1947) by Mollie Panter-Downes, writers whose company Woolf would have shirked. Jameson had a puzzled admiration for Woolf, although she worried that a novel like Mrs Dalloway will leave the reader "with something so fluid and nebulous that it will slip through his fingers altogether and leave him staring at the pattern made by the sunlight on the floor of his room" (Georgian 62, 21). Woolf, on the other hand, loathed "the ignominious tribes of Walpoles and Storm Jamesons" (letter to Vita Sackville-West, 16 September 1931). And, given how she despised the middlebrow, which she castigated for mixing life and art "rather nastily, with money, fame, power or prestige" and "sticking geniality and sentiment together with a sticky slime of calves-foot jelly" ("Middlebrow" 115, 117) her censure would not have spared Panter-Downes either.

Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, Jameson's A Day Off, and Panter-Downes's One Fine Day are all examples of the circadian novel (one of the first was Henry Ceard's Une belle journee (1881)--of which Mollie Panter-Downes's title is, surreptitiously, a literal translation). This narrative is one which, as Steven Kellman has noted, not only "restricts itself to the rhythms of one day" but which "is a celebration of the quotidian--as both ordinary and diurnal. Days are where we live, and the house of fiction is commonly filled with topologies of these phantom designs for living" (225, 211). This sub-genre, which stems from "a revulsion toward history" (Kellman 211), is remarkably suited to tell stories that if not about the war are "of the war" (Adolph 21), for in all three the central character reflects and recovers (or not) from the disarray caused by the war (albeit not the same war). All three counter the history as invented "by gentlemen in tall hats in the Forties who wish to dignify mankind" with the lives of the obscure, the history of the everyday. (2) All three texts centre on one day plucked out from the humdrum of the everyday, valiantly making their focus the narrative middle, which, like Franco Moretti's "fillers," is "notoriously impossible to sustain--undecided, transitional, vacillating, even cowardly" (Levine and Otiz-Robels 2). They grapple with the difficulty of salvaging not only what is unique and of avoiding imposing on the narrative a teleology that is extraneous to the rhythm of the day. For if the shape of the day may be a microcosm of a life, the assumption is also that in fact it isn't--a day will be followed by another day; one does not write the word "end" at the end of the day. All three are narrated through free indirect discourse and, written by middle-aged women, have middle-aged women at their centre. All three are committed to giving visibility to the everyday and to telling the world about the undistinguished of our existence despite the world's resistance to such attempts.

As Liesl Olson has reminded us, the Victor Shklovsky of "Art as Technique," the essay that with its notion of ostranenie, its insistence on the ability of art to defamiliarize the ordinary, was to prove so extraordinarily influential in shaping modernism, was only nineteen. …

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