Anne Brewster reviews Daisy and Woolf by Michelle Cahill
Daisy and Woolf
by Michelle Cahill
Reviewed by ANNE BREWSTER
Daisy & Woolf : An investigation of the novel-essay
Michelle Cahill’s debut novel Daisy & Woolf is accomplished and exhilarating. A re-reading of Virginia Woolf’s iconic modernist novel Mrs Dalloway, it excavates and reconstructs the literary worlding of a minor character, Daisy Simmons – the ‘dark, adorable’ Eurasian woman that Clarissa Dalloway’s long time admirer, Peter Walsh, plans to marry. If you are thinking about the coupling of Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre you are on the right track.
Daisy & Woolf relates the journeys of two Anglo-Indian women – Daisy, as she travels from Calcutta to London in the 1920s to meet her beloved Peter Walsh and her subsequent peregrinations in England and Europe – and Mina, the present-day writer recreating Daisy’s story in her own novel as she follows in Daisy’s footsteps, and as she re-traces the geographical trajectories and geopolitical underpinnings of Woolf’s writerly life.
The novel has been widely – and mostly positively – reviewed. Reviewers have acknowledged the significant cultural work that the novel undertakes in investigating the impact of race on women of colour. Marina Sano, for example, praises the novel’s ‘organic’ treatment of this issue (Books+Publishing) and Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen in the Sydney Morning Herald comments on the book’s challenge to the whiteness of the western canon, saying that there is something ‘wonderfully subversive’ about taking ‘a well-known Western text and flipping it inside out to reveal societal truths’ as Cahill does in Daisy & Woolf.
An exception to these reviews is a review which simply fails to recognise the workings of race as they are laid bare within the poetic aesthetics of this powerful and complex novel. Attending to this omission is important, I suggest, as it indicates to us how resilient white power is in reproducing itself and how the operations of race remain invisible and unremarked in so many locations. It prompts me to respond by analysing the novel’s deconstructive aesthetics and how Cahill skilfully borrows from Woolf to rewrite the racialising narrative.
I was more than a little taken aback by the reviewer’s comment that the novel offers
‘scant insight into the degree to which Daisy’s race (as opposed to her class or the scandal of her adultery) affects either her social standing or her eventual fate. The only time we are jolted into acknowledging the social and political repercussions of her Anglo-Indian heritage is when she is refused the designation “British subject” on her passport because her ‘skin colour is too dark.’
I was surprised that anyone could miss the novel’s forensic examination of the multiple ways both Daisy and Mina (and their families) have been racialised through the operations of the category Anglo-Indian/Eurasian.
Mina, the young writer whose story becomes intertwined with Daisy’s reflects, in the first few pages of the novel, on Australia’s colonial history and the little-recorded history of the early migrants on the south coast of NSW where her family lived. She thinks about the Bengali lascars who, as indentured non-Indigenous labourers in the British colonies, represent ‘the invisible ink in the history of cross-cultural connections between India, China, Australia and England’ (6). The novel introduces us early to the tropes of migration/travel and ‘cross-cultural connections’ which comprise the overarching narrative framework of the novel and inform the character arcs of three central writerly female figures of the novel (Woolf, Daisy and Mina). Each of these women is cosmopolitan, cross-hatched by multiple cultural connections, translations and globalised histories.
The canonical weight of Virginia Woolf and the privileged sure-footedness of her creation, Mrs Dalloway, serve as both inspiration and challenge to Mina and to Daisy. Cahill’s novel excavates Woolf’s familial connections (via Empire) with India and Sri Lanka/Ceylon. While Mina acknowledges, in the first pages of the novel, that ‘Woolf sought to question … empire’ (13), the novel proceeds to demonstrate the shortcomings of this enterprise. It problematizes Woolf’s representation of India and Anglo-Indians and demonstrates that, in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf ultimately could only ‘ke[ep] Daisy stunted’ (75), rendering her through the trace of stereotype. It would seem that Woolf did not have the imaginative resources – that is, an adequate political understanding and knowledge of the classed and raced history of empire – to create for Daisy any substantive ‘interior space’ (248) within the novel in spite of its experimental approach to literary realism. Ultimately, Mina insists, Daisy’s world was impenetrable to Woolf: ‘Daisy walks the streets of … postwar London in a way that Clarissa Dalloway cannot appreciate’ (177). Woolf’s apparent cosmopolitanism was marked by classed and raced elisions and disavowals which reproduced the hegemonies she aimed to challenge.
This cultural blindness is understood by Mina as Woolf committing a discursive violence on the Anglo-Indian gendered subject, of whom Daisy is indexical. These discursive elisions become wider acts of gatekeeping by the literary industry; Mina reflects on the fact that Woolf and ‘the critics that came after her’ in effect ‘refus[e] to let Daisy in’ (69) or to give her a substantive presence within the narratives and the literary worldings that comprise the Anglophone canon. As Mina observes, ‘there’s barely a critic who is aware of, let alone interested in, poor Daisy Simmons’ (76). Indeed, in reality, even in progressive criticism Daisy has been mis-read, for example as ‘an English woman in India’ (Reed Hickman, 65). We can understand Daisy’s exclusion from canonical literary texts as being aligned with the exclusion of Anglo-Indian (along with other BIPOC) writers from the canon.
In her depiction of Daisy’s world, Mina, in a corrective move, decenters Mrs Dalloway’s hegemonic view of the ‘post-war London’ (177) to showcase the other aspects of that city and its denizens that Woolf’s novel largely omits – the many exiles, activists and impoverished people who call it home (however partially or temporarily). Cahill’s novel (like other literary work by BIPOC writers in other contexts) brings the spotlight to bear on the histories and bodies of minoritised people and their struggles against the hegemonic cultural and political histories we see enshrined in the literary canon and its aesthetics.
However, this is not to argue that Mina or the novel, Daisy & Woolf, rejects Woolf and her work tout court. Mina avers an affiliation with Woolf as a feminist who fought against ‘the gender binary and patriarchy’ (175). She affirms that Woolf ‘knew that women’s bodies are exploited and pursued’ (118). For example, she salutes Woolf for her efforts in testifying to the sexual abuse hidden beneath the niceties of upper-class English life, acknowledging Woolf’s courage in disclosing her sexual abuse at the hands of her half-brother (18).
Nor, despite its criticisms of Mrs Dalloway, does Daisy & Woolf advocate casting Woolf on the scrapheap of what we might call dead white women, or banishing the novel in disgrace. As well as mounting a sturdy and unflinching critique of Woolf’s classism and racism as they manifest in her representation of Daisy, Daisy & Woolf constitutes a homage to Woolf’s radical modernist aesthetics. Mina’s writing is an important and generative site of experimentation and subversion of literary realism (175). Mina admires Woolf’s interest in what she calls ‘the malleable nature of experience’ and ‘the trick of narrative’ (176). Further, Mina applauds Woolf’s efforts in forging a ‘new form’ (118), hailing her as ‘perhaps one of the first to attempt the novel-essay’ (176).
Woolf’s aesthetics, I’d suggest, have deeply inspired Cahill’s own work. I’d argue, for example, that the novel-essay intersects with and informs Daisy & Woolf’s literary project. In reflecting on how to shape and fashion Daisy outside the strictures of the orientalising colonial gaze, Mina says:
Is it right to assume that a story alone can liberate Daisy of race and gender? Without an argument, without a history, Daisy’s voice is exotic or historical fiction [my emphasis]. (176)
Mina explains that the novel-essay – made up of historical fact and documentary material which in turn is combined with fictional speculation – is the genre which provides the means to ‘liberate’ Daisy. So can we identify the two constitutive elements of the novel-essay – argument and history – in Daisy & Woolf, and what literary work they undertake there?
As I have argued, the novel documents the historical operations of white power, race and class and their impact on Daisy and Mina. When Daisy writes to Peter Walsh of the Anglo-Indians/Eurasians in India that ‘all our communities have been woken to the politics and economics of the times’ (27), she is summarising what we could, in effect, describe as one of the novel’s implicit ‘arguments’ about minoritised identities in the aftermath of colonisation, namely, that minoritised identities are shaped on multiple fronts by racialising forces beyond their control. Further, they are cognisant of these forces which many white constituencies disavow. In her portraiture of Daisy, Mina documents the historical context of the Anglo-Indians/Eurasians in both India and the UK. For example, Daisy’s decision to leave India is motivated not only by her desire to be with Peter Walsh but by her sense of the precarity of the Anglo-Indians’ position there. Mina makes reference to the stirrings of the political unrest and violence – along lines of racial/ethnic and religious difference – that we know would lead, twenty years later, to Partition (33).
Mina’s family (like Daisy’s) is constantly sensitive to racialised tensions in India (and in her case, East Africa), which impact on them as Eurasians and precipitate their multiple migrations. Racialisation meant that issues of citizenship and identity loomed large for both Daisy (55) and Mina’s mother (72). Mina describes the ambivalent positioning of Anglo-Indians/Eurasians within the colonial governance in India which had ‘taught them to assimilate and to behave in all ways as if they were English’ (50-51). She outlines the stigma of ‘mixed ancestry’ (51) and the structural poverty which beset Anglo-Indians after the late 1900s (50). Mina writes, ‘I felt ill when I was growing up encountering some Indians: the ridicule and scorn they heaped on us’ (51). When her family migrated to Britain the racism continued. She described how her mother internalised the ‘colour conscious’ (49) racism in Britain; how Mina and her siblings were teased for being coloured and how, as a result, Mina ‘avoided other children’ (50). These racialised tensions persist in the contemporary world. While researching Woolf in Britain some years later, Mina is acutely aware of the racialised violence constantly profiled in the media there (such as the Westminster attack by Khalid Masood) (20).
I quoted above Mina’s statement – ‘without an argument, without a history, Daisy’s voice is exotic or historical fiction [my emphasis]’ (176) – suggesting that argument and history might be read as the core elements of the novel-essay. Daisy & Woolf, as a novel-essay, can be understood as emerging at the intersection of these two discursivities. In my reading of Cahill’s novel, to this point, I’ve argued that Mina’s documentation of how her own and Daisy’s complex worlds are shaped by colonial histories allows us to understand the two women’s fraught positionality as Anglo-Indians. This documentary discursivity, I’m proposing, could be identified as the ‘essayistic’ trajectory of Cahill’s novel-essay. Mina asserts that research on/documentation of Anglo-Indians is indispensable to her novel whose main work, she declares, is ‘the historical restoring of my community’ (75). There is a convergence here between her work and Cahill’s.
The relationship between Mina and Cahill is complex. At the core of the novel is Cahill’s project to resurrect Daisy. Daisy’s story is in part Mina’s story which in turn resonates with autofictional echoes of Cahill’s life. These complex layerings are mediated by the epistolary first-person address, which both Mina and Daisy adopt. We can note the significance of the analytical, investigative, first-person voice in the context of the documentary imperative of the novel where Daisy and Mina – in their letters and journal entries – observe, chronicle, and salvage the daily and the political life of the world around them. (They draw on the same style of ‘moments accruing’ (171) through which Mrs Dalloway records her world). Their end goal, however, as I have argued, is quite different from Woolf’s. It is to ‘refus[e] demise’ (291) of what Mina describes as ‘my people’ (16) and, further, to ‘control their own destiny’ (219) through acts of narration. The immediacy of the first-person in Mina’s and Daisy’s stories bears a personalised testimony to the silences, elisions and losses which, when exhumed, bring to light a newly recognised history. We must not forget that this is Daisy’s story too; the reviewer quoted at the start of this review comments that Mina’s story overpowers Daisy and ‘swamps’ her. This comment is hard to justify given the complex and rich evocation of Daisy’s journey and its beautifully elaborated water themes; her psychological journey through grief and spurned love which shadow her physical voyage, and the motifs of travel as survival and reinvention.
In light of the prominent and avowed documentary/essayistic aesthetics in the novel the reviewer’s comment – with which I started this review – concerns me. The reviewer singles out the incident where Daisy is refused a British passport as the sole incident in which race impacts on her. This is to ignore the novel’s textual organisation as a novel-essay which, I suggest, is identified in Mina’s insistence that Daisy’s story cannot be told without a retelling of history. The central project of investigating race is undertaken by two distinct discursivities. Daisy & Woolf is both essayistic (in its inclusion of historical ‘research’ ) and fictional – in the imaginative worlding of Daisy’s and Mina’s lives. Is it possible that the historical and documentary discursivity is completely invisible to some readers? Such readers duplicate the race blindness that Cahill identifies in Woolf‘s aesthetics. It’s disturbing to see this blindness reappearing in contemporary literary criticism, especially when that criticism addresses the work of writers of colour. The enterprise of critics who are, like me, non-Indigenous and not people of colour, and who analyse the literary work of BIPOC writers, is a precarious one. There are many twists and turns within our readings which may prove to be blind spots like the one I have identified. The works we examine are also precarious in that they are open to mis-reading and mis-representation in our hands.
Cahill, Michelle. 2022. Daisy & Woolf. Sydney: Hachette.
Hickman, Valerie Reed.”Clarissa and the Coolies’ Wives: Mrs. Dalloway figuring transnational feminism.” Modern Fiction Studies 60.1 (2014): 52-77.
Stubbings, Diane. July 2022. “Delible Impressions Liberating Daisy Simmons”. Australian Book Review.
ANNE BREWSTER is Honorary Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her books include Giving This Country a Memory: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices of Australia, (2015), Literary Formations: Postcoloniality, Nationalism, Globalism (1996) and Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography (1995, 2015). She is series editor for Australian Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives