Virginia Woolf ’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) are two of the twentieth century’s most highly regarded novels. However, they were not universally acclaimed by contemporary reviewers, and to this day are regarded by many people as dauntingly difficult. One of the reasons for this is that they depart radically from the conventions of Victorian and Edwardian fiction: to understand why they are unconventional we must turn to two essays that Woolf wrote at about the same time, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ (1924) and ‘Modern Fiction’ (1925). What the essays reveal is that Woolf considered the inner world of the mind to be of greater interest than the outer world—the world at large—and for that reason believed that novels should reveal more of their characters’ inner than of their outer experience. In practice this meant that she highlighted her characters’ thoughts and feelings in her novels, presenting them in what William James refers to as a ‘stream of consciousness’.
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