Although the rise of the bureaucratic state was one of the most startling transformations of early twentieth-century British society, novelists raised on a diet of laissez-faire liberalism tended to shy away from direct representations of bureaucracy (with some prominent exceptions, such as the Circumlocution Office in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit or Anthony Trollope's Three Clerks). Although squarely set within the “governing-class spirit” of Westminster and populated with a bevy of civil servants, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway tends to be read as maintaining a strict public-private division with a marked preference for the richness and beauty of private life. This article argues that Woolf, no stranger to the civil service through her family and personal networks, had a more strained and ambivalent response to bureaucracy as an idea and government form. A close reading of the structural importance of Hugh Whitbread's character, a minor figure who is often read as an empty, flat Dickensian caricature of the gentleman, shows a more ambivalent response to how bureaucracy and its forms impacted the wider concerns raised about governmentality in Woolf's novel.

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