Review: Hellai GulOn Michelle Cahill

For There She is, Out of the Shadow

It is difficult to overvalue the currency of modernism right now. Over the last decade, a plethora of scholarly writers have addressed modernism’s imperial legacies and in so doing have extended its geographic and temporal boundaries. Contemporary writers such as Tom McCarthy, Zadie Smith, Sophie Cunningham and Jack Cox have also engaged in varied ways with modernism’s aesthetic and revolutionary bequests. Michelle Cahill’s debut novel, Daisy & Woolf, is preoccupied with Virginia Woolf’s portrayal of a Eurasian character, Daisy Simmons, in Mrs Dalloway

The novel opens in 2017 with Mina, a Sydney-based writer who is in London researching a new novel that aims to counter Woolf’s erasure of Daisy. The only description of Daisy we are given in Mrs Dalloway is via a photograph Peter Walsh (her English paramour) keeps in his pocket: ‘a snapshot of Daisy on the verandah; Daisy all in white, with a fox-terrier on her knee; very charming, very dark; […] And the dark, adorably pretty girl on the verandah exclaimed (he could hear her) Of course, of course she would give him everything! she cried (she had no sense of discretion), everything he wanted!’ 

‘I need to give Daisy a voice and a body’, Mina declares, ‘the woman whom Virginia Woolf had scarcely sketched as naïve, vulnerable and wanton’. It is Mina’s belief that as an Anglo-Indian writer it is ‘a story that is mine to tell’ and she is determined to tell  it well. Mina’s research endeavours and travels, that span from England to India and China, form the framing narrative around the life she is fashioning for Daisy. These passages recount Mina’s creative process, while also bridging the past to the present. The underlying structures that led to Woolf’s thinly veiled racist depiction of Daisy in Mrs Dalloway have reconfigured to shape Mina’s existence in the world as a woman writer of colour. Writing Daisy’s story is a way for Mina to push back and resist the daily draining forces of racism and sexism. Writing is revival, ‘I know what I have to do: tracking her voice, channelling her vibe; that is what matters’, Mina hypes herself, adding ‘[r]esearch seems to work when I’m stuck, turning history, allowing the creative nexus to thrive, to flower, for Daisy to intone leaving her husband, her son, and her household behind.’. 

Daisy’s newly brewed narrative, sewn in between Mina’s endeavours to devise it, is presented to us via her letters to Peter Walsh and to her cousin Nora, as well as her private journal entries. We find Daisy in Calcutta in 1924, about six months after the Dalloways’ dinner party, as she prepares to board a voyage to London to be reunited with Peter. Although the main reason for leaving Calcutta is to marry Peter, Daisy hints at her anxiety about a post-colonial India: ‘Should the Empire collapse, I do not know what might happen to my children.’ As Daisy is considered a British subject by marriage, she and her children are entitled to British passports. However, at the emigration office Daisy is told her skin colour is too dark and she is classified as ‘Eurasian’ by means of taxonomical criteria. 

Back at her writing desk, Mina wonders if this is the best approach to representing Daisy, ‘Can I be assured that this is the right story?’ Mina continues to struggle with this ethical question throughout her writing of the novel but she leans towards telling Daisy’s story as a necessary act of intervention. After all, Mina wonders, ‘How did Virginia Woolf justify sacrificing Daisy’s entire life for a single day in June 1923, the day of Mrs Dalloway’s party?’   

Dispersed between Mina and Daisy’s narrative strands are other fictional and exofictional fragments that serve either to aid Daisy’s unfolding plot or add to Mina’s archive of research for her project. The fictionalised sections include letters from various characters in Mrs Dalloway to each other: from Peter to Daisy, between Clarissa and Peter, and Lady Bradshaw to Mrs Smith. Then there is the correspondence between the fictional Lucrezia (the Italian wife of Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway) and the historical figure Sylvia Pankhurst. Most interesting is the exofictional, the invention of fictions involving actual persons; for example, we read an imagined letter sent by Vanessa Bell to Virginia Woolf. Bell describes a scene in Italy of two women at a market, Daisy and Lucrezia, and suggests to Woolf they may serve as inspiration for characters ‘seeing as you have a touch of India in Mrs Dalloway. Might be a story there you could use?’ Cahill’s interweaving of fiction and history shows the permeability of both as well as their capacity to shape and reshape each other.  

The multidimensional connections between the women, real and fictional, both within and external to the novel is another mingling of the past and present. At the macro level there is of course Michelle Cahill’s complex relationship to Virginia Woolf. Woolf figures as champion of a much-needed tradition of women’s writing and yet like many women writers of colour, Cahill’s relationship to Woolf involves admiration and connection combined with wounded criticism of her racist failings. This is carried in Daisy & Woolf via Mina’s ruminations as she crafts a life for Daisy. Mina feels a writerly kinship with Woolf that she does not deny or reduce, freely complimenting ‘the erotics of [Woolf’s] writing, its vivid layering of ideas, political and feminist intensities’. Woolf’s modernist experimentations, her subversions of culture and patriarchy, and the questioning of ideas around selfhood are all acknowledged. However, Mina is quick to note that those offerings do not negate other truths as Woolf ‘stands for the establishment, she is the darling, the doyen of British feminism’ and that the choices she made in her writing are ‘cast from privilege’. Mina, and by proxy Cahill, are not able to neatly harmonise these facets of Woolf’s writing but are certain that both her talents and deficiencies need to be a focus of her literary legacy.     

Combing through the digitised original manuscripts of Mrs Dalloway, Mina hopes to find some sort of justification for the portrayal of Daisy, ‘perhaps another interpretation of the novel, meanings that had escaped from the final draft’. The alterations in these manuscripts do not provide any defence for Woolf’s treatment of Daisy, and so Mina turns to scholarly work on Woolf and empire. Early on in her research, it strikes Mina that not much in the way of literary criticism has been written when it comes to Daisy as ‘it takes courage for a critic to contradict someone like Virginia Woolf’. Mina asserts that Woolf was fierce in her advocacy of white women’s writing ‘but she use[d] her genius to slay Daisy Simmons’. While reading Woolf’s diaries from the period in which she was writing Mrs Dalloway in 1923, Mina cites a well-known quote: ‘I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth.’ This methodology seems to not have been applied to all of Woolf’s characters, and so Cahill by way of Mina is providing the absent dimensions to Daisy’s character. 

In digging this cave of depth for Daisy, Mina must excavate history and evoke an intuition that she believes comes to her through affiliation; ‘Daisy’s suffering is not entirely strange to me’, she writes. Mina allows this force to consume her: ‘I imagine talking to her as if we are two women speaking a secret language. Except it’s her voice that matters, her story, her life.’ Months deep into the cavern of research and immersion it dawns on Mina that she is ’falling into crisis’. Both Daisy and the past begin to intrude and inhabit Mina’s life and reality: ‘The price you pay for looking too deeply into the past, for trying to correct history, for even believing that you can try, is that you lose your fixture in the present.’ As Mina gets close to finishing her first draft of Daisy’s story in a Varuna writing retreat, she likens the process to travelling ‘an imaginary geography where the boundaries separating the real and the created, the Orient and Europe, the past and the present are always shifting.’ This experience of fusion pervades Daisy & Woolf, with the interweaving of the past and present, of fiction and reality, and of author and character.  

Mrs Dalloway is really a novel about moments accruing’, Mina fittingly concludes, but Daisy seems to never get a moment of her own which may open up her interiority or agency to a reader: 

There she is, after all, unfairly cooped up in Virginia Woolf’s novel, without so much as an alcove of interior space to move about in, to express her ecstasy or to vent her grief. She suffers without family or society, swallowed up in Clarissa’s language, and only seductively on the outskirts of social space. 

So Mina determines that the task of giving Daisy a voice is vital to crafting her a life. Daisy’s voice will convey the variety and complexities of her character, ‘her intentions, instincts, emotions, the chaos and serendipities of her selves’. Mina, endowed by Cahill, manages to achieve this feat rather successfully. Daisy’s narrative captures a gradual growth in her agency and expression. At first Daisy is intelligent but mild, soon after her arrival in London there’s a shift in her tone as Peter begins to avoid her: ‘Clarissa is his fixation. What was I? Little more than adornment; not a sapphire or a ruby, perhaps, but nevertheless a semi-precious stone from abroad.’ In the final pages of Daisy’s story, via her journal, we realise she has undergone a metamorphosis. While we leave her amidst plenty of uncertainty, there is a tenacity and autonomy in Daisy that was previously absent: 

I felt careless and mildly exhilarated by my resilience over the turns of fortune and fate. Like a dolphin, I felt utterly free. I could not be hunted.

Having written Daisy’s story, Mina again questions the effectiveness of her approach, ‘is it right to assume that a story alone can liberate Daisy of race and gender?’ Mina does not really arrive at a clear answer and an aspect of Daisy’s narrative further complicates the matter. Daisy takes Radhika, a ‘low-caste’ servant girl from Bihar, on the voyage to London to assist and attend to her. Daisy describes Radhika as a ‘beautiful servant’ that ‘has not a pinch of personal ambition, nor does vanity mar her character’ and makes sure to pay her parents before departure. In London, while Daisy attempts to integrate into English society, she almost forgets her servant, observing ‘Radhika is very thin and quiet’ and that she ought to take care of her. This consideration never materialises as Daisy admits her ‘neglect had become a habit’ and not long after, Radhika disappears during their short stay at the Bradshaw’s in Kensington. Mina is aware that Radhika’s inclusion in the narrative is necessary to depict an historically accurate context for Daisy and to avoid representing her as immune to said context. Radhika remains voiceless as she is ‘fixed and limited’ in the novel and her creator Mina acknowledges it, ‘How does she speak if she is illiterate?’ This leads Mina to ponder whether it is ‘possible to tell stories which are not in some way partial, appropriating?’ Which is not to suggest that this somehow exonerates Woolf, Cahill is instead demonstrating self-reflectively that adherence to hisorical accuracy in her own novel about Daisy has confined another character to the shadows. Perhaps in the future someone will rise to the challenge of writing a story that gives Radhika a voice.               

Daisy & Woolf is a post-colonial interjection into one of traditional modernism’s classic novels. Cahill’s, and therefore Mina’s, acute awareness of past’s reach into the present is precisely why the novel’s central project is to extend the present to past. The aim of this reversing of forces is to counter modernism’s erasure and to widen the contemporary engagement with its afterlives. Cahill’s approach to the legacy of modernism is nuanced and captures the inevitable influence of giant figures like Woolf, especially on women writers of colour, along with the irrefutable conflict that arises from such a positioning. Cahill’s contribution is to insert a neglected narrative and perspective into an historically exclusionary tradition by constructing a life and voice for Daisy, while simultaneously exposing how said neglect can impact current women writers of colour such as Mina, or herself.