How exquisitely Woolfian of Katherine Mansfield to begin her short-story, “Miss Brill,” by not only comparing the air to a crisp, bright drink but by introducing her heroine by her marital status and intention – a la Mrs. Dalloway. Or, as “Miss Brill” was published in 1920, perhaps Woolf was the mime, choosing to begin “Street Haunting” and Mrs. Dalloway in these veins. As woman modernists, outward shows of friendly camaraderie and private rivalry aside, Woolf and Mansfield are both interested in a similar quandary. Both attempt, through the crises of Mrs. Dalloway and Miss Brill, to illustrate isolation. Through the liveliness of a meticulously plotted party and the buzz that comes with the inauguration of the Season, both writers examine the malaise that accompanies the realization of remoteness.
Miss Brill, exhilarated by the quickening pulse of the public gardens at the start of the French Season, dons her beloved impish fur and perches on her usual bench to observe and comment on the passers-by. Like my Aunt Marian, who enjoys nothing more than keeping a quiet commentary of those who parade down the beach in various states of dishabille (Oh, Di! Take a look at this one!), Miss Brill quietly passes judgment on the strangers who move around her. A lonely woman at her core, Miss Brill establishes false relationships: her fur, her pupils, her geriatric. She fantasizes that her class would be interested in her Sunday tradition and that the old man she reads the newspaper to is dazzled by Miss Brill, the secret weekend actress. While she sits imagining these amicable relations, Miss Brill, stationary in both her pose and existence, casts a discerning eye on the strangers who pass her by. “How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play.” Suddenly, Miss Brill’s Sunday is a matinee and she quickly reasons that she herself plays a part. She is an actress, and part of a cast. She belongs. The band nearly brings her to tears as she imagines they are part of an ensemble whose upwelling notes will lead to a song-and-dance number.
Poor Miss Brill. No sooner has she concocted a delusion of unity and connectedness than it is devastated by her hero and heroine whose conversation she can hear. The lovers turn the tables on Miss Brill. Now, the critic meets criticism. In mocking tones, they scoff at her pathetic appearance and her presence among them. Immediately after finding solidarity with the strollers in the gardens, she is faced with true alienation. Not only is she ignored, but she is scorned by the hero and heroine whose appearance she admired so much.
Mansfield’s Miss Brill, like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, not only wrestles with her own identity, but moreover, perhaps, with the role her identity plays in the lives of others. Miss Brill, accompanied to the park only by her stuffed fur (“Little rogue!”), grows restless with her silence. She yearns to be acknowledged. She yearns for a part. Unmarried, Miss Brill thinks only about her pupils and the sickly old man. Needless to say, it doesn’t sound like the woman has many friends. When she synthesizes a unified world, a structure which she herself helps to support – a play – she is momentarily fulfilled by her role as actress. After the comforting epiphany, the snide comments of the lovers snap her into reality. Miss Brill is then forced to acknowledge her separateness.
In the same way that Mrs. Dalloway attempts to assert herself as hostess by presiding over a dinner-party congregation, Miss Brill inserts herself into the lives of others. By commenting, she silently assumes a role and wields a quiet power. Similarly, Clarissa attempts to solve her issues with her own atomization and privacy, by hosting a party. Clarissa’s dinner party, for her, becomes a sort of play. She carefully assembles the players and designs the set. She buys the flowers and mends her costume. She constructs communication and connection. When the party comes into fruition and the curtain goes up, Clarissa is made to cast off her expectations. Septimus’ suicide, like the jarring comments of Miss Brill’s lovers, infiltrates the diorama and Clarissa retreats to resolve, for herself, the problem of alienation. She is forced to acknowledge human alienation in her neighbor's solitary room and she is forced to interpret the death of a stranger.