Virginia Woolf

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Marilyn Kurtz (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Kurtz, Marilyn. “Glass Breaking: Later Fiction.” In Virginia Woolf: Reflections and Reverberations, pp. 115-23. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Kurtz considers the symbolism of windows and mirrors in Woolf's later short fiction.]

Windows and mirrors play as compelling a part in the later fiction of Virginia Woolf as they do in the earlier works. Even the short stories are infused with images of glass, for here, as in the novels, Virginia Woolf makes explorations into personal identity and the human condition through vehicles of glass in a quest for meaning.

Because of their power to separate and divide (as the self split from its image in the mirror or the external and internal division at a window), mirrors and windows are often used by Virginia Woolf as barriers or distancing devices. On the other hand, they are, paradoxically, symbols of unification since revelations or epiphanic “moments of being” take place at these transparent vantage points. In this sense the frame of the mirror or window is used by Virginia Woolf to create a holding pattern—to capture, for a moment, that which otherwise becomes caught up in the transitoriness of life, in the fleeting condition of mortality.

Before looking at Virginia Woolf's final apocalyptic vision through broken glass in her last novel, Between the Acts, it will be interesting to view other revelations experienced through windows and mirrors in the other works.

In a story written in 1928, “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points,’” (in The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed. Susan Dick 209-214), glass represents the fragile connections between the past and the present, as well as the protective barriers between people. The first page of the story draws the reader into the “cool glassy world of Bach fugues” (209). This is the detached, remote, ineffable world where Miss Julia Craye lives and plays her music to herself and occasionally to special students like Fanny Wilmot. Julia inhabits a world which preserves the past in glass cases—Roman urns and glasses to be looked at and admired—in the house she had shared with her brother, Julius, before he died. Julius, her counterpart, had been an archaeologist, an “odd” man whose “driving look” through the frosty windowpane had seemed to say “I can't reach you—I can't get at you” (210). The existence of Julia and Julius is fragile, detached, remote, and frustrating because they cannot make contact with the world and people. They are different from others; there is “something queer in Julius Craye; it was the very same thing that was odd perhaps in Julia too” (210). But Julia wants to “break the spell that had fallen on the house; to break the pane of glass which separated them from other people” (210). She wants to come out of her protective shell (she has even dressed “like a beetle compactly in its sheath”) (209), and reach out to Fanny. Fanny, too, doesn't want protection, she says, when she and Julia talk about the protective value of men (211). Fanny, indeed, seems like a reflection or mirror-image of Julia; perhaps her youthful side.

The climax of the story occurs when Julia, holding a carnation (a flower representing incarnation—flesh) “seemed to emerge out of the London night” (214) as she is suddenly revealed to Fanny in relief against the “sharp square of the window, uncurtained” (214) behind her. The window is no longer covered with frost; it is “uncurtained” in order to reveal. And Fanny has a revelation:

All seemed transparent for a moment to the gaze of Fanny Wilmot, as if looking through Miss...

(This entire section contains 3488 words.)

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Craye, she saw the very fountain of her being … she saw back and back into the past behind her. She saw the Roman vases stood in their case … the pettiness of daily life; and slowly aging … she saw Julia—


Fanny sees through time and into essences of people and life, and then she sees Julia in the flesh when Julia kisses her. Suddenly with the kiss, the barriers of glass have been broken. Physical and metaphysical contacts have been made.

An amazing story, written in 1929, is “The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection” (Complete Shorter Fiction 215-219), in which the mirror plays an active part and comes alive: “the looking-glass began to pour over her a light that seemed to fix her; that seemed like some acid to bite off the unessential and superficial and to leave only the truth” (219).

Mirrors reveal secrets; they expose what is private and personal. The opening line of the story is cautionary: “People should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms any more than they should leave open checque [sic] books or letters confessing some hideous crime” (215).

The mistress of the house, Isabella Tyson, is spied upon in the looking-glass by the anonymous narrator of the story who wants to solve the mystery of Isabella for “There must be truth … it was strange that after knowing her all these years one could not say what the truth about Isabella was …” (216). The narrator imagines intrigues and passionate assignations have taken place in Isabella's unmarried life. The looking-glass makes the mysterious, enigmatic woman become “larger and larger, more and more completely the person into whose mind one had been trying to penetrate” (219).

The life in the mirror becomes organic as Virginia Woolf beautifully adjusts the imagery:

She came so gradually that she did not seem to derange the pattern in the glass, but only to bring in some new element which gently moved and altered the other objects as if asking them, courteously, to make room for her. And the letters and the table and the grass walk and the sunflowers which had been waiting in the looking-glass separated and opened out so that she might be received among them.


There is life inside the looking-glass (the spiritual kind of life in which primitive peoples believed),1 for something is captured there: “in the looking-glass things had ceased to breathe and lay still in the trance of immortality” (216).

The sense of an enduring spirit occurs elsewhere in Virginia Woolf's fiction: the spirit of Mrs. Ramsay lives on and is captured by Lily Briscoe in her artistic, hallucinatory vision of the dead woman through the medium of the window. In a similar vein, the spirit of Mrs. Wilcox, in E. M. Forster's Howards End, lives on in Margaret Schlegel and the house willed to her.

The notion of life taking place inside the mirror recalls a moment in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury when the “idiot” Benjy thinks to himself: “Caddy and Jason were fighting in the mirror … Father … went into the mirror and fought too” (78-79). This is a pre-lingual, primitive mode of thinking and perception. There is no abstract conception of forms being reflected in the mirror; instead, there is the belief that the people are actually in the mirror. This kind of thinking leads to a magical-fantasy world in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and suggestions from it reverberate in Virginia Woolf's short story as well as elsewhere in her fiction.

When Alice enters the world within the looking-glass, everything becomes reversed. For example, to approach the Red Queen, Alice must walk backwards; the looking-glass cake is handed around first and then sliced. This mad logic of the looking-glass world is based on the mirror reflection motif: in a mirror all asymmetrical objects (objects not superposable on their mirror images) “go the other way” or are seen in reverse. Therefore, in a sense, nonsense itself is a sanity-insanity inversion. (Martin Gardner points this out in his Annotated Alice). The ordinary world is turned upside down and backward; it becomes a world in which things go every way except the way they are supposed to (Gardner, Note 181). Forward and backward are reversed by a mirror: walk toward a mirror and the image moves in the opposite direction. This fact is alluded to when Alice has to walk away from the Red Queen in order to approach her.

In Virginia Woolf's story, the observer of what is going on in the looking-glass forms definite ideas and conclusions. At the end of the story, however, she finds that she has been mistaken. Her expectations, therefore, have been reversed. The person observed in the looking-glass has turned out to be the opposite of what she appeared to be. There is, indeed, a topsy-turvy world of illusion/reality in Virginia Woolf's story as there is in Alice's world and, as implied in both literary works, in the world we all live in.

Echoes of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass appear to be elsewhere in Virginia Woolf's fiction. Woolf uses nonsense verse in several places: the song of the old woman in Mrs. Dalloway, the children's indecipherable lines in The Years, as well as the enigmatic skywriting message in Mrs. Dalloway, for example. These bring to mind what Alice says of the nonsense Jabberwocky poem: “it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don't know exactly what they are.” Although the strange words have no precise meaning, they chime with subtle overtones (Annotated Alice 191). Martin Gardner in his notes also points out the similarity between nonsense verse like Jabberwocky and abstract painting. The words Lewis Carroll uses suggest vague meanings, like an eye here and a foot there in a Picasso abstraction, or they may have no meaning at all—just the play of non-objective colors on a canvas (192). Virginia Woolf seems to be doing the same thing.

Of course, Virginia Woolf is very concerned with the concept of doubles which is a dominant theme of the looking-glass world as Tweedledum and Tweedledee are the mirror-image forms of each other.2

In Virginia Woolf's “looking-glass” story, the search for truth is paramount (reflecting the modern writer's quest for understanding). Because of the powers of the looking-glass, the narrator uses it to find truth: the inner reality of the mysterious woman reflected in it. She seems almost obsessed by the pursuit of solving the mystery: “surely one could penetrate a little farther into her being” (218). This relentless desire to expose the naked soul of another person is reminiscent of Conrad's Marlow trying to understand Jim in Lord Jim and again, to penetrate the secrets of Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Nick Carraway, in The Great Gatsby, also tries to probe the mystique around Jay Gatsby. In Virginia Woolf's story, the mirror does reveal the truth—a harsh, empty one:

Here was the woman herself. She stood naked in that pitiless light. And there was nothing. Isabella was perfectly empty. She had no thoughts. She had no friends. She cared for nobody. As for her letters, they were all bills … she did not even trouble to open them.


The looking-glass becomes a dangerous, powerful weapon in that it does expose the woman. (This part brings to mind the Henry James story, “The Beast in the Jungle” in which John Marcher is revealed as a man to whom nothing has ever happened or ever will). The vision is a horrible one of nothingness and emptiness. Yet, in the Virginia Woolf tale, the suggestion is that there is some kind of life outside the person and the room—in the looking-glass—where there is a transcendent, other-world appeal. There is also order, form, and truth, within the looking-glass. This, in contrast to the woman's emptiness, is meaningful.

What appears in the mirror is artistically selected, arranged, and enclosed. C. Ruth Miller, in her dissertation, sees Virginia Woolf's frequent use of the frame as a consequence of her association with painters, particularly Roger Fry, and aestheticians (2). For Fry, the frame confers artistic significance, a “visionary quality.” In “The Lady in the Looking-Glass,” what is framed in the glass becomes important by the very fact that it is framed. However, C. Ruth Miller also recognizes that Virginia Woolf is more concerned with apprehending the true nature of reality than with achieving a unified artistic vision. Like G. E. Moore, Miller notes (50), Virginia Woolf disapproved of unified systems that are the products of wish-fulfillment pursued instead of what is real. In Principia Ethica, G. E. Moore wrote that “to search for ‘unity’ and ‘system’ at the expense of truth, is not, I take it, the proper business of philosophy, however universally it may have been the practice of philosophers” (G. E. Moore 222).

Naturally, with modern writers, there is no one truth to be apprehended wholly; truths are multiple and must be seen fragmented in time and perspective or, with Virginia Woolf, through the medium of glass. The “Looking-Glass” story reflects Virginia Woolf's vision of modern life as elusive, enigmatic, complex, and subjective.

Both reality and illusion are to be seen in the mirror; it all depends on the viewer, this story seems to be saying. The Lady of Shalott had to move away from her mirror to escape from illusion to the reality outside the window. In Virginia Woolf's story, the mirror represents the mind; all takes place within the mirror just as everything takes place within the mind, the mind which probes and penetrates to find a truth. There is no reality outside or separate from the mind's subjective perceptions, just as nothing is consequential in the story except that which appears in the mirror.

The focus on the mirror itself in “The Lady in the Looking-Glass” is comparable to the concentration on the mark on the wall in Virginia Woolf's sketch of that name: the mirror and mark become a jumping-off point for the play of the mind's speculations.

There is another reason for the importance of the mirror which stands at the center of this interesting looking-glass story: it serves as a distancing device. By peering only at the mirror, the narrator-viewer avoids direct confrontation with Isabella. Perhaps distancing is necessary because voyeuristic tendencies and sexual desires are involved. Surely the narrator's wish to “penetrate a little farther into her being” (218) suggests eroticism. This becomes depersonalized as it takes on larger meaning: an almost sexual union with the universe is suggested in the line already quoted which may be seen here in another light: “And the letters and the table and the grass walk and the sunflowers separated and opened out so that she might be received among them” (219). The descriptive language continues in a physically erotic manner: “Everything dropped from her—clouds, dress, basket, diamond … Here was the woman herself. She stood naked in that pitiless light” (219). Yet, “the enthralling spectacle” reveals an empty woman. She turns out to look old and ugly. The aroused expectations have been quelled. The looking-glass has revealed the truth of nothingness and decay. The sexual excitement is turned off.

The narrator-viewer seems ‘safe’—unrevealed—since Isabella does not know she has been observed. However, the reader gets a glimpse of the voyeuristic, sexual excitement as well as the quest for knowledge and meaning revealed in the spectator-narrator. Thus, the reader views the viewer in the act of viewing while reflections of the mind and the mirror reflect back to this outside secretsharer.

The mirror also has an alienating power in this story as the narrator is cut off and estranged from all the activity going on within the looking-glass. The image in the mirror may also be a projection of the self or the other side of a character's being. The narrator may feel the emptiness herself which she thinks she sees in Isabella.

The prevalence of mirrors in Virginia Woolf's work may indicate a modernist absorption with self-reflection. The modern novelist writes about himself writing: for example, Bernard in The Waves, Malone in Beckett's Malone Dies.

In the later novels of Virginia Woolf, the wholeness of mirrors and windows gives way to fragmentation. The glass loses its shape and structure just as the world seems to have done. Broken glass becomes a metaphor for the disintegration of modern life. The individual depicted in Woolf, as in much of modern literature, feels alien, isolated, and seeks communion with others and with something beyond the self. The self is in flux, mutable. Identity is questioned: at what point in time? from whose perception? at what place? in what circumstances?

The modern narrative is fragmented because there is no certainty of a unified meaning. The modern novel destroys the illusion of completeness by replacing the omniscient narrator with localized perspectives and by using unexpected and unexplained details. Discontinuities represent the fractured mode of human understanding, for we know ourselves, each other, and the world only in “scraps, orts and fragments” since there is no cohesive central body of knowledge which will reveal itself to us. Individual separateness and isolation—the breaking up of the group—is another aspect of disintegration. Fragmentation ultimately becomes a metaphor for a world torn apart by conflict and war—for minds and bodies blown asunder. And segmentation represents the pieces of art to be assembled by the artist in an attempt to create some unity of vision or, as in Virginia Woolf's last work, a final vision of fragmentation itself; a revelation of life as so disrupted that civilization itself is on the verge of coming apart.

Images of glass provide a backup for this departure from more traditional structures. The broken mirror which reflects an alien and fragmented universe is the necessary mirror for the modern writer. …


  1. Frazer in The Golden Bough speaks of mirrors and souls:

    As some peoples believe a man's soul to be in his shadow, so other (or the same) peoples believe it to be in his reflection in water or a mirror. Thus “the Andamanese do not regard their shadows but their reflections (in any mirror) as their souls.” When the Motumotu of New Guinea first saw their likenesses in a looking-glass, they thought that their reflections were their souls. In New Caledonia the old men are of opinion that a person's reflection in water or a mirror is his soul; but the younger men, taught by the Catholic priests, maintain that it is a reflection and nothing more, just like the reflection of palm-trees in the water. The reflection-soul, being external to the man, is exposed to much the same dangers as the shadow-soul. The Zulus will not look into a dark pool because they think there is a beast in it which will take away their reflections, so that they die. The Basutos say that crocodiles have the power of thus killing a man by dragging his reflection under water. When one of them dies suddenly and from no apparent cause, his relatives will allege that a crocodile must have taken his shadow some time when he crossed a stream. In Saddle Island, Melanesia, there is a pool “into which if anyone looks he dies; the malignant spirit takes hold upon his life by means of his reflection on the water.”

    We can now understand why it was a maxim both in ancient India and ancient Greece not to look at one's reflection in water, and why the Greeks regarded it as an omen of death if a man dreamed of seeing himself so reflected. They feared that the water-spirits would drag the person's reflection or soul under water, leaving him soulless to perish. This was probably the origin of the classical story of the beautiful Narcissus, who languished and died through seeing his reflection in the water.

    Further, we can now explain the widespread custom of covering up mirrors or turning them to the wall after a death has taken place in the house. It is feared that the soul, projected out of the person in the shape of his reflections in the mirror, may be carried off by the ghost of the departed which is commonly supposed to linger about the house till the burial.


  2. Another connection between Virginia Woolf's work and Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass is with the White Knight. Of all the characters in the Looking-Glass world, only the White Knight is kind to Alice and seems genuinely fond of her. The White Knight, comically, keeps falling off his horse. Is it far-fetched to say that Percival in The Waves is like the White Knight? Only there is a reversal here: Percival, who provides the only real connection as a focal point for all the characters in The Waves, he, who is their ideal knight in shining armor, falls off his horse in India. He doesn't get back on his horse as does the White Knight; instead, Percival dies in this later novel of Virginia Woolf's where things fall apart. (James Joyce uses Through the Looking-Glass's Humpty-Dumpty as a dominant character whose fall echoes the fall of Lucifer and the fall of man, along with the fall of Finnegan and others). There is rise and fall in Virginia Woolf's The Waves also, but unlike Joyce, Woolf ends The Waves with fall. “Alis, alas, she broke the glass! Liddell lokker through the leafery, ours is mistery of pain” (Finnegans Wake 270).


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Virginia Woolf 1882-1941

(Born Adeline Virginia Stephen) English novelist, critic, essayist, short story writer, diarist, autobiographer, and biographer.

The following entry provides an overview of Woolf's life and works of short fiction.

Recognized as one of the major figures of modern literature, Woolf is highly regarded both for her innovative fiction techniques and insightful contributions to literary criticism. In her short fiction, she explored such themes as the elusive nature of storytelling and character study, the nature of truth and reality, and the role of women in society. Like her novels, these highly individualized, stylistic works are noted for their subjective explorations and detailed poetic narratives that capture ordinary experience while depicting the workings and perceptions of the human mind. Written in an elliptical and impressionistic style, Woolf's brief, apparently plotless stories are considered to have significantly influenced the development of modern short fiction.

Biographical Information

Woolf was born into a talented and distinguished literary family in London in 1882, the third of four children of Sir Leslie Stephen, a prominent literary scholar, and his second wife, Julia. Virginia's parents maintained friendships with figures of the Victorian intellectual aristocracy, often hosting visits from such eminent writers as Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, and Henry James. Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, did not receive a formal education, but access to their father's extensive library provided a rich source for their private learning. In 1895 the Stephens' comfortable existence was disrupted by the sudden, tragic death of their beloved mother, Julia. Virginia's subsequent mental breakdown was the first of several that troubled her throughout her life. After her father's death in 1904, Woolf, along with her sister, and two brothers, Thoby and Adrian, moved to the Bloomsbury district of London. It was there they met weekly with several of Thoby's Cambridge associates to discuss the arts and together formed what is now known as the Bloomsbury Group. Within this circle of friends that included, among others, John Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell, Vita Sackville-West, and Lytton Strachey, Woolf was exposed to a variety of modern theories on art and literature that deeply affected the development of her own ideas. Also during this time, she published her first essays and reviews, a practice she continued throughout her life. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf, a writer and socialist political figure, also among the Bloomsbury circle, whose stabilizing influence on Virginia is considered to have nurtured her literary career. Nevertheless, in 1913, after completing her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), she collapsed from mental exhaustion, and the ensuing breakdown, her most severe, lasted several years.

In 1917, following Virginia's recovery the proceeding year, she and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press—a business venture which was intended partly as a release from the anxiety she experienced when writing, and which subsequently kept her from having to send her work to an outside publisher. By 1924 Hogarth had grown into a successful and respected business, publishing all of Virginia's writings as well as the early works of such writers as Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and Sigmund Freud. During the period 1922 to 1941, Virginia immersed herself in writing fiction, completing the critically acclaimed novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931), which form the foundation of her literary reputation. In addition, her nonfiction works from this time, particularly A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), established her as an important contributor to modern critical and feminist writing. Yet, despite these successes, Woolf feared the onslaught of another breakdown—from which, she believed, it would be impossible to recover—and in 1941, she took her own life by drowning. The posthumous publication of many of Woolf's essays, short stories, journals, diaries, and letters attest to an abiding interest in her career.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In her short fiction Woolf typically focused on minute physical detail and experimented with stream-of-consciousness techniques, interior monologue, and symbolism to capture the subjective workings of human thought. “Kew Gardens” typifies her lyrical portrayal of varied narrative perspectives through the interior monologue of an omniscient narrator. In this seemingly plotless story, Woolf creates the atmosphere of an afternoon at London's Kew Gardens by fusing the shifting points of view of several people with those of a snail, insects, flowers, and even such inanimate objects as buses and airplanes. In “Mark on the Wall” she employs interior monologue to impart the musings of a narrator who, in speculating about a small detail on a wall, ponders a variety of topics, including personal reminiscence, history, and nature. Every rumination returns to the mark only to stray anew into reverie, as each of the narrator's seemingly meandering thoughts builds upon one another to create an intricate discourse on the nature of reality and truth. Themes in Woolf's short fiction are intrinsically fused with narrative form. Similar to Joyce's short stories, in which epiphany is frequently an essential element, Woolf's short fiction often depends on “moments of being” to delineate themes. Whereas Joyce's notion of epiphany focuses on the power of a single event to reveal truth, Woolf's “moments of being” encompass various incursions into time and place. In “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points,’” the protagonist, Fanny Wilmot, searches for a lost pin while she simultaneously attempts to gain insight into the personality of her elderly piano teacher, Julia Craye. In the brief time she searches for the pin, Fanny juxtaposes thoughts about Julia's past with the present and speculates on Julia's happiness. The narrative returns after each rumination about Julia's life to Fanny's search for the pin until, finally, at the instant when Fanny finds the pin, she experiences the revelation that Julia is indeed happy.

Woolf's fascination with the elusive nature of storytelling, as well as the inherent difficulty of knowing character, provided subject matter for several of her short stories. In “An Unwritten Novel” she explored this theme through the capricious mind of the narrator as she rides a train with a stranger, observing details of the unknown woman's appearance and behavior to construct a story surrounding her life. At the end of the tale the narrator is stunned to realize that her conclusions are utterly incorrect. In this and in several other stories, Woolf overturned conventional Edwardian precepts that relied on observable details to discern veracity and illustrated the unknowable nature of truth and character. In both her fiction and nonfiction Woolf was devoted to raising the social consciousness of readers. Her disarming and often humorous feminist works are informed with pointed criticism of sexism, as well as praise for neglected women writers. For example, “A Society” highlights ten years in the lives of a group of women who meet regularly to question conventions of art, literature, scholarship, law, and military achievement in a male-dominated society. One of the group's vows is to forego having children until they have resolved their questions. However, when one woman, Castilia, becomes pregnant, a new resolution is adopted to allow only the unchaste into their society, and Castilia is appointed president. The story's ironic stance, humor, and extensive use of allusion to the Bible and mythology serve, for several critics, to elevate it above the level of polemic.

Critical Reception

Like her contemporary James Joyce, with whom she is often compared, critics argue that Woolf revolted against the traditional narrative methods of her time and experimented with stream-of-consciousness prose and interior monologue. They note that she first introduced many of these formal experiments in short stories that often present “moments of being”—instances of intense sensibility during which disparate thoughts and events culminate in a flash of insight. Recent critical studies of Woolf's short fiction have investigated the symbolism of mirrors and glass in her work, traced revisions of her stories, assessed the influence of Thomas Browne and Bertrand Russell on her fiction, and explored aspects of her alleged anti-Semitism. Commentators have discussed her as a lesbian writer, and have emphasized parallels between her lesbian-themed stories with those of Gertrude Stein. Most critics acknowledge that Woolf's short stories frequently served as experimental studies in which ideas for her longer works of fiction originated and developed. Yet many commentators have contended that Woolf's experiments with poetic style, her psychological focus, and her subjective point of view expanded the limits of time and perception within the framework of the short story, influencing and contributing significantly to the development of modern short fiction.

Wayne Narey (essay date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Narey, Wayne. “Virginia Woolf's ‘The Mark on the Wall’: An Einsteinian View of Art.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 1 (winter 1992): 35-42.

[In the following essay, Narey views “The Mark on the Wall” as an “artistic manifesto” of time and perspective influenced by the theories of Albert Einstein.]

James Naremore's study of Virginia Woolf, The World without a Self, refers to her short story “The Mark on the Wall” as “a sketch in which the protagonist indulges in what appears to be a Freudian daydream” (58-59). The Freudian aspect of the story comes from the free-associative quality of the protagonist's thoughts, the only “action” in a tale in which the daydreamer never moves from her chair. While Naremore's observation is valid, another contemporary of Woolf makes his presence more strongly felt in the story. With “The Mark on the Wall” Woolf offers an artistic manifesto of an emerging concept of time and perspective, a manifesto, in this story at least, perhaps influenced by the theories of Albert Einstein and his new views of the universe.1

The Einsteinian papers of 1905 and 1915 literally altered past perceptions of time and space; Einstein was but one of those extraordinary intellects and artists of the early decades of the twentieth century who thrust their visions upon the world like mental coups. It is a generalization, though no less a truism, that in periods of crisis and upheaval the arts and philosophic thought flourish. The modern world of Einstein, Freud, and Woolf found repeated evidence for questioning reason and perception at a time when artistic and intellectual experience equally impinged upon all interdisciplinary venues for creativity.

To what extent had Virginia Woolf an understanding of the physicist's work? Her diaries and letters give no direct evidence of such an influence. But while Woolf's “practical” knowledge of Einstein's theories remains unknown, “The Mark on the Wall” gives evidence of a familiarity with the rudiments of Einsteinian physics, and in turning to her short story that association is difficult, I believe, to ignore. Whether Woolf had a cursory or fairly developed knowledge of Einstein's work is moot; the point is she may have used that understanding because it coincided with her own approach to fiction as a nonlinear view of events, one in which time is relative for each observer. Nor would I press the Einsteinian “influence” beyond a few of her early stories. The association between the scientist and the author may be a similar, fortuitous vision of perception in two gifted people.

I should add too that my intention here is not to popularize Einstein's theories. For laymen, indeed for physicists, a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of Einstein's work is difficult to come by. The relative nature of time was, however, “in the air” from late in the nineteenth century and not strictly an Einsteinian concept: James Clerk Maxwell (as early as the 1860s), Hendrik Lorentz, Henri Poincaré, Ernst Mach, Edward Morley, Albert Michelson, and Max Born, among others, influenced Einstein's work.2 It was left to Einstein to synthesize the earlier work in electromagnetics, the velocity of light, and the relative, subjective nature of time. Ronald Clark's biography of the physicist succinctly notes the way in which he broke with the past:

If the nub of Einstein's Special Relativity can be considered as resting within any one sentence it rests here in the realization that one man's ‘now’ is another man's ‘then’; that ‘now’ itself is a subjective conception, valid only for an observer within one specific frame of reference.


In breaking with a literary past, Woolf gives particular emphasis to the relationship between time and perspective, where motion is always relative to the viewer, much as Einstein's scientific theories focused on the concept of relativity. What Einstein achieved was a new cosmology; what Woolf aspired to was a new style of fiction. “The Mark on the Wall” serves as practical example of her artistic vision, which can be viewed, as relativity implies, from several equally valid perspectives. How Woolf's perspectival art differed from that of her literary predecessors can be understood by another helpful comparison made by the mathematician/philosopher Jacob Bronowski between Einstein's universe and that of his predecessor, Sir Isaac Newton. A Newtonian view of things, said Bronowski, takes a

God's eye view of the world, it looks the same to every observer, wherever he is and however he travels. By contrast, Einstein's is a man's eye view, in which what you see and what I see is relative to each of us, that is, to our place and speed. And this relativity cannot be moved.


Bronowski goes on to say that “relativity is the understanding of the world not as events but as relations” (254), a statement that also serves as a valid appraisal of Woolf's fiction. She avoids the linear view of time, where one sees past, present, and future with a “God's eye view,” in favor of time that cannot be fixed in duration or progression, a time relative to the beholder. Woolf situates her perspective in total subjectivity; reality is a centric position within one's own small corner of the universe.

Whereas Einstein's universe inextricably links motion, light, and time, these elements also give structure to Woolf's story. The protagonist sits staring at a black mark on the wall while her thoughts tumble forth in a series of memories and conjectures. The static mark and the daydreamer's inactivity are juxtaposed to the mental motion of reflection. The irony of this juxtaposition intensifies at the end of the story, when the mark on the wall is revealed to be a snail, symbol of slow and measured existence. But the daydreamer's thoughts are neither slow nor measured; what we see or how we perceive it is thus underscored as a relative experience.

An additional perceptional disparity exists within the seated figure, who remains at rest in the present while her mind's motion takes her into fantasy, experience, and history. Each mental journey possesses a different form of time, with all three relative to the daydreamer's present. One of Einstein's own daydreams helps to explain this relationship. When a boy of sixteen, he wondered what the world would look like seen from a beam of light. From the beam's perspective, time stands still as the world rushes past at breakneck speed, while to a viewer—if one could one see light particles—the world is fixed as light races before the viewer. Both realities are correct, since no universal time in space exists, and time's measurement will always vary with the relative motion of the measurer. Woolf considers a similar difference in realities when her daydreamer thinks of the past owner of her house:

They wanted to leave this house because they wanted to change their style of furniture, so he said, and he was in process of saying that in his opinion art should have ideas behind it when we were torn asunder, as one is torn from the old lady about to pour out tea and the young man about to hit the tennis ball in the back garden of the suburban villa as one rushes past in the train.

(“Mark” [“The Mark on the Wall”] 38)

Woolf illustrates two points in this passage: first, her artistic vision does not concentrate itself in art with “ideas behind it,” with its fixed, standardized point of reference; second, her art separates itself from a fiction where time passes equally for all characters, in orderly motion and proportion. Woolf's persona likens life to “being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour” (38); yet life also exists in the frozen moments of inaction, suggested by the dust she notices upon the mantelpiece, a rude simile, she muses, for the dust that, “so they say, buried Troy three times over” (39).

Much like riding on Einstein's beam of light, this subjectivity draws the reader into the author's personal perspective, where one moves in her space, at her speed. As the daydreamer in the story sits quietly and motionless in her chair, attempting to distance herself from “hard separate facts” (39), she lets her mind run free, resulting in a passage that one could mistake for an excerpt from Woolf's own diary:

But how dull this is, this historical fiction! It doesn't interest me at all. I wish I could hit upon a pleasant track of thought, a track indirectly reflecting credit upon myself, for those are the pleasantest thoughts, and very frequent in the minds of modest mouse-coloured people, who believe genuinely that they dislike to hear their own praises.


Just as Woolf's work reveals a “track of thought” reflecting her own life, her persona in “The Mark on the Wall” engages in a reality of subjective experience so personal that narrative is rendered inarticulate; only a monologue of memories will do, each a series of sensations without connection or logical progression. The effect slows down time by drawing life up into oneself:

I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface.


Although her consciousness returns to the surface and the black mark, the reflective, unnamed character takes part in no reality other than her own, never getting up to examine the spot. Instead, she notices how light affects the mark, which sends her once more into herself, and even deeper into another consciousness.

In the beginning of the story, light and time are associated with memory: in order to recall the moment she first saw the mark, she uses the fire and its “steady film of yellow light” (37) as a stimulus. Light often equates with time in Woolf's work, as the cyclic dawn to dusk symbolism in The Waves or the light and shade of Lily Briscoe's painting in To the Lighthouse demonstrate. In “The Mark on the Wall,” the daydreamer's reminiscences on the color of flowers draw light and time together, painting a life run on emotional time rather than clock time,3 a new relationship of life's perceptions to its events that can only be understood in terms of a second life, another existence in which consciousness is far different: time, perspective, and light merge into emotional harmony:

But after life. The slow pulling down of thick green stalks so that the cup of the flower, as it turns over, deluges one with purple and red light. Why, after all, should one not be born there as one is born here, helpless, speechless, unable to focus one's eyesight, groping at the roots of the grass, at the toes of the Giants? As for saying which are trees, and which are men and women, or whether there are such things, that one won't be in a condition to do for fifty years or so. There will be nothing but spaces of light and dark, intersected by thick stalks, and rather higher up perhaps, roseshaped blots of an indistinct colour—dim pinks and blues—which will, as time goes on, become more definite, become—I don't know what. …


The flower imagery suggests that in a tranquil world, one separate from hard realities, a person's perspective may be different, a view of life in which colors measure time and its emotional value: “Yes, one could imagine a very pleasant world. A quiet, spacious world, with the flowers so red and blue in the open fields” (43). Red and blue, the extremes of the color spectrum, are thus the extremes of time.4 This alternate vision, in which light, color, and time merge, lies in the realm of Woolf's new fiction, the seeds of which parallel the new emerging perspective in science, as further suggested by another memory recalled to the daydreamer's consciousness:

And then I came into the room. They were discussing botany. I said how I'd seen a flower growing on a dust heap on the site of an old house in Kingsway. The seed, I said, must have been sown in the reign of Charles the First. What flowers grew in the reign of Charles the First?


The answer makes the association between Woolf and Einstein all the more tantalizing. Two theoretical “seeds” concerning light and time were put forth by Newton, born in 1642, and Christiaan Huygens, born in 1629. Both had theories as to the nature of light: Newton saw light as particles, while Huygens saw light as a wave. In an age where light symbolized enlightenment in thought and the arts, each theorist reflected new scientific perspectives.

John Maynard Keynes, a member of the Woolf circle, was a Newton scholar with one of the finest collections of Newton known. When a freshman at Cambridge, Keynes wrote a paper on the relativity of time for the undergraduate society, Parrhesiasts. His biographer, R. F. Harrod, refers to the work as “astonishingly mature,” especially for a freshman “not even a specialist in philosophy” (61). Keynes was asked to join Lowes Dickinson's “Discussion Society,” with philosophers such as J. M. E. McTaggart, G. E. Moore, and Bertrand Russell occasionally taking part. Leonard Woolf and Lytton Strachey later invited Keynes to join “The Society,” which also included the philosopher G. E. Moore and, formerly, Alfred Whitehead (see Harrod 63; 69).5 Surely Keynes would be aware of the work of Einstein, one so dependent upon Newton's work, and certainly Keynes would know where he departed from older theories.

Einstein would, in fact, merge past theories into a harmonious whole, and, by blending the past with the present, Newton, Huygens, and Einstein, Woolf seems to say, are the scientific “Giants” of time and light. Those seeds planted in the seventeenth century thus come to fruition in the twentieth. The garden of enlightenment, where a flower “deluges one with purple and red light,” offers an artistic conceit for life, one that replaces metaphors of post office shoots and the tube to express life's rapidity—an alternate awareness apparently in keeping with Newton's Opticks: “the changing of Bodies into Light, and Light into Bodies, is very comformable [sic] to the Course of Nature, which seems delighted with Transmutations” (374).

Woolf undertakes the transmutation of a new artistic form, the desire to turn historical fiction into a time/perspective-oriented structure through a motif of light and relativity. Time, light, and motion are inextricably linked. Yet the black spot on the wall holds this new perception to an uncomfortable earthbound reality; the mark, a reference point for her mind's motion, restates the present and the need to deal with it, however ugly its nature. The comfort of the daydreamer's subjective reverie contrasts to wartime, with its disturbing intrusion on her new ways of seeing. Even with a different perspective that understands the world “not as events but as relations,” art must still coexist in the present, with its static, meaningless marks and recurrent cruelties.

No matter how different one's perception may be, scientifically or artistically, one horror persists: however relative the past, present, and future may be, the empirical evidence has always been that time runs in one direction and entropy occurs. Everything eventually runs down, expends its energy, and turns chaotic. While her art concerns itself with time's perceptional importance, Woolf remains acutely aware of the universal order for life and time's fatal direction. The death motif, so strongly felt in her work, reaffirms that existence, no matter how relative time may be, is an expenditure into oblivion. It remains clear that other obstacles to new ways of seeing remain; even a changed perspective cannot alter “some collision with reality”:

How peaceful it is down here, rooted in the centre of the world and gazing up through the grey waters, with their sudden gleams of light, and their reflections—if it were not for the ‘Table of Precedency’!


The Whitaker's Almanack “Table of Precedency”—a guide to tradition and decorum: the Archbishop of Canterbury is followed by the Lord High Chancellor, in turn followed by the Archbishop of York, etc.—symbolizes the old, male-dominated view of art and universal order, an order difficult to deny or to defy, even with new perspectives. Thus “The Mark on the Wall” ends on a sad note, with its reminders of war and the old realities.

Woolf knew the difficulties she faced in transcending the former ways of seeing time and space. In her essay “On Re-reading Novels,” she stated that a book “is not form which you see, but emotion which you feel” (qtd. by Richter xi). Although she understood the need for a new vision, one feels that hers was melancholic, an existence drawing from the emotions that all sentient life must feel at being organic. The subjectivity of Woolf's art therefore draws upon the sensation of touch—confirmation of being—at the expense of a dispassionate sense of sight that often observes life from a position of objectivity.

Of course, the world of 1917—the publishing date of her story6—had little objectivity; in the early years of the twentieth century, those such as Einstein, Freud, and Woolf could offer through science, philosophy, and art cogent observations on the many perceptions of existence. Einstein's physics taught the world that the old common sense no longer applied to the universe, that worlds move and time passes differently for each of us, and that time, light, and motion are bound together in a new reality. Virginia Woolf's “The Mark on the Wall” proposes a new fiction, likewise necessary, in which “everything's moving, falling, slipping, vanishing. There is a vast upheaval of matter” (46).


  1. A cryptic comment in a letter to Vanessa Bell (Nicolson and Trautmann 242 [2267: 2 Nov. 1930]) is the only mention of Einstein that I have found (see also Silver, LVIII, B.17: 1931, for a reference to him that Woolf made note of).

  2. See Clark 95ff., for Einstein's acknowledgement of those to whom he felt indebted. Clark has consolidated the statements made by Einstein in the 1940s and 1950s when he reflected on the many contributions that influenced his Special Theory of Relativity. For a line of influences on Einstein, beginning with Newton, see Clark 74ff.

  3. With regard to the correspondences between color and emotion (and indicative of the artistic experimentation of the early years of the twentieth century), one also thinks of Alexander Scriabin's “clavier à lumière,” an instrument designed to cast colors upon a screen that suggested the music's tone and “spirituality.” The device was used only once, at Carnegie Hall in 1914, for his orchestral work “Prometheus” (see Sabins).

  4. The Doppler effect is, of course, essential to an understanding of astronomy.

  5. Following Keynes's death in 1946, his paper, “Newton the Man,” was read by his brother Geoffrey.

  6. “The Mark on the Wall” appeared in the short story collection Monday or Tuesday, published in 1921; in 1944 Leonard Woolf wrote a foreword for a new edition of Virginia Woolf's short stories in which he “tried to carry out her intention” for republishing many of those stories in a new collection (A Haunted House v).

Works Cited

Bronowski, Jacob. The Ascent of Man. Boston: Little, 1973.

Clark, Ronald W. Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: World, 1971.

Harrod, R. F. The Life of John Maynard Keynes. 1951. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1969.

Naremore, James. The World without a Self: Virginia Woolf and the Novel. New Haven: Yale UP, 1973.

Newton, Sir Isaac. Opticks. 4th ed. London: 1780. New York: McGraw, 1931.

Nicolson, Nigel, and Joanne Trautmann. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume IV: 1929-1931. New York: Harcourt, 1978.

Richter, Harvena. Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

Sabins, Robin. The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians. 9th ed. New York: Dodd, 1964.

Silver, Brenda. Virginia Woolf's Reading Notebooks. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Mark on the Wall.” A Haunted House and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, 1972. 37-46.

Principal Works

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*The Mark on the Wall 1917

Kew Gardens 1919

Monday or Tuesday 1921

A Haunted House, and Other Short Stories 1944

Mrs. Dalloway's Party: A Short Story Sequence 1973

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf 1985

The Voyage Out (novel) 1915

Night and Day (novel) 1919

Jacob's Room (novel) 1922

Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (criticism) 1924

The Common Reader (criticism) 1925

Mrs. Dalloway (novel) 1925

To the Lighthouse (novel) 1927

Orlando: A Biography (novel) 1928

A Room of One's Own (essays) 1929

The Waves (novel) 1931

The Common Reader: Second Series (criticism) 1932

Flush: A Biography (biography) 1933

The Years (novel) 1937

Three Guineas (essays) 1938

Roger Fry: A Biography (biography) 1940

Between the Acts (novel) 1941

The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays (essays) 1942

The Moment, and Other Essays (essays) 1947

The Captain's Death Bed, and Other Essays (essays) 1950

A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf (diary) 1953

Hours in a Library (essay) 1957

Granite and Rainbow: Essays by Virginia Woolf (essays) 1958

Collected Essays. 4 vols. (essays) 1966-67

The Letters of Virginia Woolf. 6 vols. (letters) 1975-80

Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings (autobiographical essays) 1976

Books and Portraits (essays) 1977; also published as Some Further Selections from the Literary and Biographical Writings of Virginia Woolf: Books and Portraits, 1979

The Diary of Virginia Woolf. 5 vols. (diary) 1977-84

The Essays of Virginia Woolf. 4 vols. (essays) 1986-93

A Moment's Liberty: The Shorter Diary of Virginia Woolf (diary) 1990

A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909 (journals) 1990

*This work was also published with Leonard Woolf's “Three Jews” as Two Stories in 1917.

Susan Clements (essay date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Clements, Susan. “The Point of ‘Slater's Pins’: Misrecognition and the Narrative Closet.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 13, no. 1 (spring 1994): 15-26.

[In the following essay, Clements regards “Slater's Pins Have No Points” as an “emblematic representation” of difficulties faced by lesbian writers and focuses “on the destructive and ultimately self-effacing practice of misrecognition.”]

“Chloe liked Olivia,” I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature.

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own1

Ideology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it … “transforms” the individuals into subjects … by that very precise operation I have called interpellation or hailing. … By this … he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was “really” addressed to him, and that “it was really him who was hailed.”

—Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”2

Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.

—Virginia Woolf, “Professions for Women”3

In the early years of the twentieth century, novels like Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness were more the exception than the rule for lesbian fiction. The rule impelled such writers as Willa Cather and Henry Handel Richardson to translate lesbian motifs into accepted heterosexual terms; The Well of Loneliness, on the other hand, graphically dramatizes the passion of women for women. Flouting the laws of social and literary convention, Hall's novel was duly banned, and so revealed the extent of state power to silence lesbian voices. And yet such silencing is not only operative on the manifest level of censorship. Long before a narrative meets the press, it encounters the obstacles of language itself. In early twentieth-century culture, the lesbian writer could find only scant traces of the vocabulary she needed to write her desire; without this vocabulary, she could easily fail not only to communicate but even to recognize her own sexual identity. The coding that crosses lesbian texts of this period must thus be understood in two ways: cleverly wielded, as Jane Marcus points out, it can be an empowering tool against the forces of censorship,4 but it can also serve as a medium of misrecognition, through which established social narratives invade and undo a lesbian's growing perception of her sexual self.

In this paper, I intend to demonstrate that Virginia Woolf in 1928 was keenly aware of this process of sexual undoing and that her short story “Slater's Pins Have No Points” provides a reflection on the lesbian artist of her time. Carefully transcribed into heterosexual terms, “Slater's Pins Have No Points” makes use of socially acceptable metaphors only to resist and subvert them from within the story itself. Woolf accomplishes this subversion through a covert reflection on the very practice of heterosexual coding: on its conscious use as an escape from censorship and its unconscious use as an escape from self. With her creation of Fanny Wilmot—a narrator wholly unable to recognize her lesbian identity—Woolf begins to examine the social underpinnings of the lesbian writer's tragic inability to come to terms with herself. Using this text as an emblematic representation of difficulties faced by the lesbian writer, I intend to focus attention on the destructive and ultimately self-effacing practice of misrecognition—a practice built, as I shall show, on established heterosexual traditions, and one which Woolf herself seems to highlight as a key to her narrator's problems.

Stranded in a tradition that was only beginning to acknowledge their existence, lesbian writers of the early twentieth century had little but the established forms of heterosexual romance with which to build their works.5 For these women and their lesbian forebears, neither sexual works nor established sexual traditions could be attached to friendship between women: “accented differently by competing groups … the terrain of language is a terrain of power relations” from which lesbian concepts were largely pushed away.6 In “Slater's Pins Have No Points,” Woolf dramatizes the cultural mechanisms through which such exclusion is accomplished: focusing on Fanny Wilmot's difficulty in perceiving her lesbian orientation, Woolf draws our attention to the social obstacles that limit her view of herself. The story presents us with three female characters—Phoebe Kingston, Julia Craye, and Fanny Wilmot—all of whom are unattached to men, and all of whom appear, under Woolf's hinting hand, to be lesbians. Between Phoebe and Miss Craye there exists a relationship of “special favor[s]” and “greatest admiration”—a detail whose sexual overtones gather force with the depiction of Miss Craye.7 There is, as Fanny realizes, something “odd” about her music teacher, who crushes sexually resonant flowers “voluptuously in her smooth veined hands” and whose “crush and grasp of the finger was combined with a perpetual frustration” (p. 1372). In light of her continually wry comments on the meager “use of men” (p. 1373), Miss Craye's refusal to marry also points to her lesbianism: “they're ogres,” she says, “laughing grimly” about men, and she feels “immense relief” whenever she rejects the marriage proposal of a young suitor (p. 1374).

In spite of all of this, however, Fanny continually misrecognizes both Phoebe's and Julia's lesbian characteristics, and it soon becomes clear that she is not quite as indifferent to their behavior as she makes herself out to be. Whether she knows it or not, Fanny Wilmot is also a lesbian, and there exists between Miss Julia and her an erotic attachment from which Fanny as narrator continually shies away. This latent eroticism surfaces at several points in the text of Fanny's thoughts—points of obsession and repressed desire whose meaning, however opaque to Fanny herself, seems clear enough to the reader. Fantasizing about Julia's past with men, obsessed with the fact that she never married, and displaying for her teacher a romantic fascination (p. 1375, for example), Fanny also “feels” how “voluptuously” Julia handles and crushes a Fanny-associated flower with her fingers. Inevitably, however, Fanny falls just short of the realization that Julia's “perpetual frustration” stems from a sexual desire for Fanny herself: some psychological barrier prevents her from recognizing the erotic bond that links the two women. Because Fanny herself has not yet realized its presence, this psychological barrier remains an ostensible mystery to us; but it is not hard to guess that it has something to do with fear and guilt and with Fanny's indoctrination into social structures that deny (and force her to deny) the lesbian's existence.

To the reader, then, “Slater's Pins Have No Points” suggests myriad images of lesbian love—images that entirely escape the understanding of the narrator who lays them out. Filtered through Fanny's guarded consciousness, the lesbian themes of the story take on a surface veneer that blinds her to their true meaning, so that “Slater's Pins Have No Points” becomes a study of the forces through which lesbians come to misrecognize their sexual identity. These forces, moreover, are significantly intertwined with the act of storytelling, for Woolf reminds us again and again that the story we receive has been edited and re-worked in the chamber of Fanny's mind. Echoing throughout the story, Fanny Wilmot's name appears in almost every paragraph, asserting her narrative presence through the actions of thinking, remembering, and feeling. Nor does Woolf insist on the verity of her narrator's thoughts and memories; far from seeking painstaking accuracy, Fanny realizes that Miss Craye's past can become virtually anything she wants it to be. “One could imagine every sort of scene in her youth” and “make that yield what one liked” (p. 1373), Fanny reflects; casting Miss Craye in a marriage proposal scene with a nervous young suitor, Fanny realizes that “the scene could be changed; and the young man and the exact manner of it all, but one thing was constant—her refusal, and her frown, and her anger with herself afterwards, and her argument, and her relief—yes, certainly her immense relief” (p. 1374). One thing remains constant—Miss Julia's rejection of heterosexual romance—and yet Fanny consistently shirks perception of the import of this detail in her story. She does this, as we shall see, by surrounding Miss Craye with alternative stories that come straight from the heart of literary tradition: lacking a model for lesbian love, Fanny codes her experiences into other pre-existing narrative forms. In her creative capacity, Fanny can be seen as a storyteller who through the muteness of her own tradition and the sway of another is forced to “overcode” the events of her tale with a socially acceptable veneer.8

The first of Fanny's reconstructed stories is set off by the question her teacher poses at the beginning of the story: “Slater's pins have no points—don't you always find that?” (p. 1370). Decoding these words, we find that Miss Julia begins the story with a question about Fanny's sexual orientation. Linked by word-sound and physical shape to “penis” and sanctified by a patronymic corporate name, the association-rich pins are being used in their dullness to question the force and satisfaction potential of male lovers—to state, in effect, that contrary to popular belief, there is not really much point to a penis. “Transfixed” at first by these words, which “gave her an extraordinary shock” (p. 1371), Fanny begins her narrative version of Miss Craye's life by picking up on the teacher's own suggestive sexual imagery:

Did she stand at the counter waiting like anybody else, and was she given a bill with coppers wrapped in it, and did she slip them into her purse and then, an hour later, stand by her dressing table and take out the pins? What need had she of pins? For she was not so much dressed as cased, like a beetle compactly in its sheath, blue in winter, green in summer.

(p. 1371)

In this emerging story, Fanny begins to visualize, in metaphorical terms, the possibilities of Miss Julia's sex life. The pins going into and out of the purse resonate with sexual imagery—but it is heterosexual imagery, which fails, somehow, to accord with Miss Julia's being. Thus arises the question “What need had she of pins?” and the subsequent observation that as far as pins are concerned, Miss Julia is completely closed—sheathed like a battle-ready (and phallic) knife—against penetration. For Fanny, however, who has grown up in a tradition where chivalry is male and romance a thing between men and women, there can be nothing heroic about Miss Julia's resisting stance towards heterosexual intercourse. Invaded by social standards, the “sheath” degrades, in Fanny's mind, into the case of a beetle—a repulsive image that sends her flying from the emerging face of Miss Julia's lesbian orientation. Immediately, then, as for relief, she turns to a more acceptable reason for her surprise at Miss Julia's need of pins: she “lived, it seemed, in the cool glassy world of Bach fugues, playing to herself what she liked, and only consenting to take one or two pupils at the Archer Street College of Music” (p. 1371). Here, the potential lesbian narrative begins to turn into a meditation on social class, for which English literature provides manifold examples; soon reverting to the story about “tomboy” Miss Kingston's relationship to the wealthy Craye family (p. 1371), Fanny succeeds, at least for a moment, at obscuring her interest in Miss Julia's sex life. Thus she concentrates on the “lovely things” (p. 1371) of the Craye household—things like Roman glasses, vases, and urns, which can stand in imagistically for Miss Craye's sexuality without forcing Fanny to confront, on a conscious level, the teacher's desire. For Fanny, it is easier to construct a fairy tale of spells and glassy surfaces (p. 1372) than to face the lesbian reality that lurks unconsciously beneath her narrative.

If, however, Fanny wraps her interest in Miss Julia's sexuality with fairy tales of upper-class life, she cannot keep it completely quiet: like the return of the repressed, it surfaces intermittently to haunt the tales she invents. Here again, however, the heart of the matter recodes itself into a socially acceptable narrative, for Fanny consistently directs her sexual curiosity away from Miss Julia and towards the teacher's brother. Endowed not only with similar names, but with similar traits, the characters of Julia and Julius allow for easy interchanging; and at first Fanny centers her erotic fascination on the figure of the brother. Only about Julius can it be a “seductive thought; there was something odd about Julius Craye” (p. 1372), and it is Julius, not Julia, whose sexual past Fanny at first reconstructs. The two siblings, we know, share the same kind of “lingering, driving look” (p. 1371) and are enclosed in the same wistful and frustrated sexual spell (p. 1372), but Fanny sculpts her visualization of these things primarily on the brother's face. Instead, then, of concentrating on the admiring and possibly lesbian relationship between Miss Kingston and Julia, Fanny turns her attention to Julius's heterosexual desire for the little Polly,9 and so averts her gaze from Julia's own desiring look.

On the face of Julius, then, and correctly directed to a member of the opposite sex, this look is allowed to speak with romantic eloquence:

“Stars, sun, moon,” it seemed to say, “the daisy in the grass, fires, frost on the window pane, my heart goes out to you. But,” it always seemed to add, “you break, you pass, you go.” And simultaneously, it covered the intensity of both these states of mind with “I can't reach you—I can't get at you,” spoken wistfully, frustratedly. “And the stars faded, and the child went.”

(p. 1372)

With its terms of frustration and inaccessibility, this description could easily apply to Miss Julia's lesbian desire; indeed, Fanny's reconstruction of the dead and unseen brother must stem at least in part from the repressed ardor she senses in her teacher. But stories of poetically frustrated love have been written for couples like Petrarch and Laura—certainly not for lesbian pairs—so that even if Miss Julia shares her brother's passionate look, it must on her be coded in different terms. When, then, as we have seen, Fanny transfers the look to Miss Julia's face, it speaks out in social terms, buying out of the heterosexual narrative of romance (which cannot fit a lesbian pair) and into the widely perpetrated terms of democratic social leveling: “Miss Craye wanted [to show] … that she, too, knew, like other people, about pins. Slater's pins had no points” (p. 1372).

For a while, then, Fanny succeeds at averting her gaze from Miss Julia's lesbianism by concentrating on Julius's past; but stories about someone dead and never even encountered have a way of running thin, and soon enough Fanny finds herself in the middle of a narrative about the teacher's own life. Here, it should be clear, Fanny stands on dangerous ground, but once again her ready-made narratives serve to shield her from the truth. If Miss Julia has never married, it is not because of lesbianism but because of the admirable political cause of independence: Miss Craye “was so thankful that she had not sacrificed her right to go and look at things when they are at their best. … She had not sacrificed her independence” (p. 1374). Enlisted in this self-protecting story is also the mythology of the archetypal old maid, for Fanny envisions heterosexual marriage not as a threat to her teacher's sexual orientation, but as a danger to her habits. “Yes, Fanny Wilmot smiled, Julia had not endangered her habits. They remained safe; and her habits would have suffered if she had married” (p. 1374). What is significant here is not merely Fanny's invocation of Miss Julia's habits, but her use of them as a way to avoid a painful and startling truth. In all likelihood, Miss Craye really is dogged by unshakable habits—but by enlisting them as one of Miss Craye's primary reasons for remaining single, Fanny betrays her nervousness about exploring the factors that are really at stake.

Thus turning to various reconstructions of Miss Julia's past, Fanny avoids the meaning of what is going on between the two women in the present. This tendency to flee reality into imaginative fields of thought is nowhere so clear as at the end of the story, when Miss Julia begins to transform, before Fanny's eyes, into a kind of superhuman figure of passionate intensity. “Julia Craye, sitting hunched and compact holding her flower, seemed to emerge out of the London night, seemed to fling it like a cloak behind her, it seemed, in its bareness and intensity, the effluence of her spirit, something she had made which surrounded her” (p. 1375). Surprising Miss Julia “in a moment of ecstasy” (p. 1375), Fanny stares, and once again approaches the realization of her teacher's phallic properties. In suggestive imagery, Fanny sees “the very fountain of [Miss Craye's] being spurting its pure silver drops” (p. 1375); clearly too much for her, however, the vision sends Fanny fleeing once again—only this time in pell-mell fashion—to the security of Miss Julia's reconstructed social past. In one long breathless sentence, Fanny draws the images of Miss Julia's life protectively before her gaze, and so shields herself for a moment against the electric intensity in the room (pp. 1375-76). In this, as in Fanny's other narratives, sexual perceptions lurk just beneath the surface: the traditional mythology of penny-counting spinsterhood serves to envelop the true sexual identity of the lesbian teacher. Thus Fanny sees Miss Julia “cleaving her way ever more definitely as her will stiffened towards her solitary goal; travelling frugally; counting the cost and measuring out of her tight shut purse the sum needed for this journey or for that old mirror” (pp. 1375-76); but the sexual significance of the stiffening will and “tight shut purse” does not register in her mind. Once again, Fanny succeeds at closeting her erotic relationship to Miss Julia within the walls of socially proffered coding.

As a young girl confronting her lesbian desires for what is most likely the first time, Fanny is certainly bound to denial by the fear of “coming out” in a society that relentlessly ties “social stigma and self-contempt”10 to the admission of lesbianism. And yet Woolf's story concentrates surprisingly little on such fear—what seems more at stake is the story itself and the very possibility of framing it in lesbian terms. Fanny is hindered from seeing and telling the truth not only by the fear of its consequences but by the dearth of narrative models for laying it out. If, after all, as Woolf herself points out, the life of a heterosexual woman “has an anonymous character which is baffling and puzzling in the extreme” and which has “run underground” in the history written by men,11 the experiences of lesbians are even more obscure, having been even less expressed and illustrated in the history of literature. For lesbians, it will be even more difficult to find a voice, for they have fewer models to follow—and in Woolf's eyes, the need for a model is paramount. “If you consider any great figure of the past, like Sappho, like the Lady Murasaki, like Emily Brontë, you will find that she is an inheritor as well as an originator, and has come into existence because women have come to have the habit of writing naturally.”12 How much more difficult to establish a voice for the lesbian writer, who has so little to go on, and whose tradition, where it exists (as in the case of Sappho), is obscured by a culture all too ready to deny its sexual overtones.

This lack of tradition tells visibly on Fanny and Miss Julia, in both of whom Woolf evinces the damaging effects of socially enforced brands of coding. Though she necessarily casts it in nonsexual terms, even Fanny realizes that Miss Craye has lived her life on a battlefield between desire and its fulfillment; “always engaged in outwitting the enemy” (p. 1374), Miss Julia suffers severe consequences for her journeys to love and passion. The teacher's enemy, it seems, is none other than the social code that seeks to confine her: leaving her house for journeys into passion, Miss Craye escapes the spinsterly closet in which tradition seeks to engulf her lesbian identity. Such forays into self-awareness, however, cannot go unpunished, and the fatigue of the battle afflicts Miss Julia with “terrible headaches” (p. 1374) that internalize guilt and reproach for acknowledging and seeking out the objects of her desire. When, then, she kisses Fanny, Miss Julia ascends to a moment of full self-awareness, but the rising sun of her sexual identity is scarred into “a dead white star” (p. 1376) by the weary ravages of her past. To the very end, Woolf points our attention to the difficulties of the lesbian's struggle out of the closet.

In spite of all this, however, it is clear that Miss Julia has achieved a level of self-knowledge never attained by her pupil. “Obstinately adhering, whatever people might say, in choosing her pleasures for herself” (p. 1376), Miss Craye attempts in vain to pass her wisdom on to Fanny, who persists in misrecognizing both her own and Miss Craye's sexual orientation. Unlike Miss Julia, who often departs from the arbitrary but socially acceptable category of spinsterhood, Fanny remains blinded by the language and traditions of her culture. For this reason, she consistently fails to grasp the meaning of Miss Craye's words: translating them into acceptable paradigms, she completely misconstrues the sexual messages that her teacher sends her. Such miscommunication echoes tirelessly throughout the story, as Fanny meditates on Miss Craye's opening statement. “Slater's pins have no points,” says Miss Craye, implying, as we have seen, that she has no need for the pointlessly phallic objects; and Fanny responds obtusely by seeking the reason that her teacher does need them: “What need had she of pins?” (p. 1371). Attempting to find the answer to this question, Fanny hypothesizes that Miss Julia wants to show that she “[knows], like other people, about pins” (p. 1372), when in fact Miss Julia is making an assertion of difference from other people by declaring that penises have no point. Time and time again, such socially acceptable translations shield Fanny from knowledge of both herself and Miss Craye—obtusely but consistently, Fanny responds to her teacher's lesbian overtures by searching for the phallic pin.

Faced with this evidence of misrecognition, the next step is naturally to ask how normative social narratives achieve such sway that they can actually alter one's perception of self. Borrowed from the work of Louis Althusser, the term “misrecognition” suggests the function by which individuals are inserted into an ideology that obscures “their real conditions of existence”—a function that appears under the deceiving guise of recognition and so works to naturalize the acquisition of pre-established social roles.13 According to Althusser, the (mis)recognition that guarantees the survival of the status quo operates by appealing to the individual's need to feel herself as a subject:

Ideology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it … “transforms” the individuals into subjects … by that very precise operation I have called interpellation or hailing. … By this … he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was “really” addressed to him, and that “it was really him who was hailed.”

(p. 174)

What I add to Althusser's view of this process is an emphasis on the function of pre-established social narratives—narratives that call on the individuals in a given culture to accept (and enjoy) their sexual place. Broadly speaking, all women are “hailed” by the category of heterosexual femininity; ironically, it is in exchange for “recognizing” themselves in this role that they gain the socially accepted place that guarantees their status as “free” subjects.14 If, then, the lesbian resists the call to (mis)recognition and stands outside of her culturally constructed role, she will find herself deprived of any concrete form of social identity; without an identity, in turn, it is difficult (Althusser would say impossible)15 to feel herself as a subject. Many lesbians, it is true, doff the roles that constrict them, even maintaining a sense of subjective agency; in doing so, however, they have surmounted incredible forces. Invariably there will be others who cannot succeed at the task and for whom subjectivity, based on a reciprocal exchange of (mis)recognition between themselves and society, will be achieved at a very damaging price.

Here, perhaps, lies the key to Fanny's problems, for standing, as she does, on the dangerous precipice between an established heterosexuality and a socially negated lesbianism, she seems to have trouble asserting a subjective space as her own. Thus she tells her story not from the point of view of first-person subjectivity but from an often confusing third-person stance, and so comes close to the brink of losing herself among the other characters she describes. Throwing light on the problem of maintaining subjectivity from within a socially invisible identity, Fanny's loss-of-self becomes most pronounced when she approaches recognition of her lesbianism: “But whenever she spoke of Julius, or heard him mentioned, that was the first thing that came to mind; and it was a seductive thought; there was something odd about Julius Craye” (p. 1372). Here, as we have seen, Fanny approaches recognition of Miss Julia's “oddness” through the medium of her brother, but the third-person narrative bars us from certainty that it is really Fanny who is making this discovery. As if to distance herself as far as possible from dawning suspicions, Fanny here casts herself and Miss Kingston into such pronominal confusion that we cannot tell who the “she” she speaks of really is. Nor is the action itself any more lucid, for at the crucial moment of lesbian desire we are not sure onto whose breast—Miss Craye's or her own—Fanny is pinning the flower. If, then, the coding of “Slater's Pins Have No Points” is meant, as Jane Marcus interprets that of A Room of One's Own, to show the lesbian writer “how to avoid both the censor and lugubrious self-pity at the same time,”16 it is also meant to show the tragedy of such socially constructed coding, which can force itself on the lesbian and hide her identity from self and censor alike. Thus it is that in the final climax of the story, Fanny herself, the narrator, the lesbian, disappears, and we see only Julia blazing and kindling, possessing through a passionate kiss and embrace the abstract “it” to which Fanny reduces herself (p. 1376). Enveloped in heterosexual traditions of discourse, Fanny misrecognizes and drowns both her identity and that of her teacher; when she finally achieves a single kissing moment of self-awareness, she pays for it with the price of her subjectivity.

To the end, as we have seen, Fanny is dogged by the long-established narratives that work to filter the image of the “aberrant” from literature; providing her with ready-made romantic narratives, society has protected itself against the threat of her self-understanding. And yet it is just this self-understanding that forms for Woolf the basis of art: locked into old narratives and old ideals, the writer stands no chance for survival. “Had I not killed her,” Woolf writes of the Angel in the House mythology, “she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”17 Failing in the Herculean task of beating such mythologies back, the lesbian writer is too often ensconced in a stifling narrative closet, which filters her words into acceptable paradigms and so bars her perception of her sexual self.


  1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929), p. 142.

  2. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation),” in Lenin and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), p. 174.

  3. Woolf, “Professions for Women,” in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1985), p. 1385.

  4. See Jane Marcus, “Sapphistory: The Woolf and the Well,” in Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions, ed. Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow (New York: New York University Press, 1990), pp. 164-79.

  5. Until the end of the nineteenth century, as several recent studies have pointed out, there existed neither the words nor the established traditions to provide a conceptual framework for lesbian love. “Before the end of the nineteenth century,” writes Catharine R. Stimpson, in “Zero Degree Deviancy: The Lesbian Novel in English,” Critical Inquiry, 8, No. 2 (1981), “homosexuality might have been subsumed under such a term as ‘masturbation’” (p. 365); in medical lexicon, George Chauncey, Jr., points out, “sexual inversion, the term used most commonly in the nineteenth century, did not denote the same conceptual phenomenon as homosexuality,” in “From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualization of Female Deviance,” Salmagundi, 58-59 (Fall 1982-Winter 1983), 116. See also Esther Newton, “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman,” in The Lesbian Issue: Essays from Signs, ed. Estelle Freedman, et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 7-25.

  6. Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 17. I do not mean here to imply that lesbians and women of color experience the same specific forms of oppression, but only to underline the degree to which language functions, against all oppressed groups, as an instrument of exclusion.

  7. Woolf, “Slater's Pins Have No Points,” in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, p. 1371. Further references to this story will appear parenthetically in the text.

  8. In “Slater's Pins Have No Points,” such misrecognition takes the blatant form of Fanny's translation of lesbian experiences into heterosexual terms. But subtler forms most certainly exist and probably predominate in “real life.” One could ask, for example, whether Radclyffe Hall's insertion of lesbian love into the heterosexual paradigm of “mannish”-womanly relationships is not merely another example of such misrecognition. For Hall, there were few other paradigms to follow. See Newton, p. 18: “Hall's creation, Stephen Gordon, is a double symbol, standing for the New Woman's painful position between traditional and political and social categories, and for the lesbian struggle to define and assert an identity.”

  9. In this story there are clearly nuances of both child-molestation and incest—nuances on which my argument need not dwell. I would, however, suggest an interesting paradox: while Fanny seems drawn to admirable paradigms of traditional heterosexual love, her “real-life” models (or at least the way she constructs her real-life models) have nothing admirable about them at all.

  10. Stimpson, p. 364.

  11. Woolf, “Women and Fiction,” in The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader, ed. Deborah Cameron (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 38.

  12. Woolf, A Room of One's Own, p. 190.

  13. Althusser, p. 162. In Althusser's essay, the process of misrecognition is discussed largely within the Marxist context of economic and religious control of the working class, but I see no reason why the argument should not extend to sexual ideologies as well. Indeed, Althusser himself gestures us in this direction with his discussion of the child's acquisition of sexuality:

    Before its birth, the child is therefore always-already a subject, appointed as a subject in and by the specific familiar ideological configuration in which it is “expected” once it has been conceived. I hardly need add that this familiar ideological configuration is, in its uniqueness, highly structured, and that it is in this implacable and more or less “pathological” … structure that the former subject-to-be will have to “find” “its” place, i.e. “become” the sexual subject (boy or girl) which it already is in advance.

    (p. 176)

  14. The irony is best expressed by Althusser himself: “the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection ‘all by himself’” (p. 182).

  15. Here appears one of the difficulties with Althusser's model: namely, his assertion that “there is no practice except by and in an ideology” (p. 170). If “ideology has no outside” (p. 175), how have lesbians ever moved beyond the closet at all? And yet in commissioning Althusser for this part of my essay, I need not accept this disturbing premise. What I am interested in is why so many lesbian subjects never do make it out of the closet, and for this Althusser provides an intriguing and useful model.

  16. Marcus, p. 168.

  17. Woolf, “Professions for Women,” p. 1385.

Marc D. Cyr (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Cyr, Marc D. “A Conflict of Closure in Virginia Woolf's ‘A Mark on the Wall.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 1996): 197-205.

[In the following essay, Cyr explores the meaning of the mark in “The Mark on the Wall” and debates the sense of closure in the story.]

Virginia Woolf's “The Mark on the Wall” concludes with the identification of that mark as a snail, this after several pages of digressions—on history, reality, society, art, writing, and life itself—incited by the flimsy ruse of an ontological inquiry. Readers have reacted variously to this revelation: As T. E. Apter notes, some, like M. C. Bradbrook, have found it “exasperating” (54), while others have found the “cruelly disappointing” (Guiguet 217) or “trivial” (Apter 54) or “insignificant” (Gorsky 51) nature of the mark to be important to understanding that Woolf is proposing that objective reality is less important than the world of perceptions internal to each individual, a line of thought that leads ultimately to the idea that what the mark is “really doesn't matter” (Lumpkin 29), or the ironic Doppelgänger to this idea, that “The writer deflates herself comically when the mark is revealed as a snail …” (Gordon 167).

I suspect, however, that if there is a joke here, it is on us, that Woolf, like Mary Carmichael in A Room of One's Own, “is playing a trick on us. … [She] is tampering with the expected sequence” (81). We expect closure, so that's what Woolf gives us—or seems to. I don't think the mark on the wall is a snail—or at least it might not be—and while it may not matter what the mark actually is, what it is not (or may not be) could matter a lot.

The first paragraph of the story raises the initial doubt, though it doesn't come into focus until the end. The narrator, writing the story some months after the event, is “now” trying to remember the time of year when she “first looked up and saw the mark on the wall” (77). By remembering the scene, she is able to decide that “it must have been winter time … when I looked up and saw the mark on the wall for the first time” (77).

I am intrigued by the phrasing here. At the end of the story, when the narrator's disgruntled companion stands and says “… I don't see why we should have a snail on our wall” (83), there appears to be little question that he is going to remove it: Upset by the war and unable to do anything about it, he seems unlikely to tolerate a more local and actionable irritant. But the narrator's phrasing, that this was the “first time” she saw the mark on the wall, suggests subsequent sightings: One does not say “first” when one means “only.” If the mark were a snail subsequently removed by the companion, it would not have lingered beyond that after-tea session. That the mark still remains at the time of writing, or at least remained for some time after the original event, is possible, even likely, and this would seem to rule out its being a snail.

Let me admit that there are objections that can be raised to this proposal, the most obvious being that the narrator apparently confirms her companion's identification: “Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail” (83). Also, she uses the past tense here, as she does in the first paragraph, when she says “The mark was a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantlepiece” (77). The verb tense would seem to indicate that the mark “was” but is no more, as would be the case with the snail removed. One might also point out that, in the course of the story, the narrator's focus comes and goes from the mark itself, so that the “first time” remark may pertain only to the first time she focused on it during that after-tea interlude.

Dealing with the last objection first, the phrasing does not strike me as correct: It would be like describing dinner by saying, “The first time I saw my plate was when I cut a slice of beef; the second time was when I speared a carrot; the third time I saw it …,” and so on. This would be odd even if the period of linear time covered were several hours, and, while the plot duration (if I may use the word “plot” regarding this story) is indefinite, an after-tea sit and smoke interlude would likely be quite short. Perhaps more to the point, our narrator tells us that in that mid-January scene, she was reading by “the steady film of yellow light upon the page” (77; my emphasis), yet later she tells us that she began to suspect the mark to be three-dimensional when she noticed that “In certain lights that mark on the wall seems actually to project from the wall” (80). How can our narrator see the mark in differing “certain lights” when the light in the room is “steady” and she herself does not move from her chair and so change her visual perspective? It seems likely to me, then, that she has seen this mark in varying lights, which indicates varying times, and that means the mark was not a soon-to-be removed snail (nor one that, left to its own devices, would “walk” away itself).

Considering the issue of verb tense, a number of possibilities open. One must immediately note that, except for the first paragraph and the last line/paragraph, the whole story is in present tense, including references to the mark on the wall, so verb tense offers contradictory evidence for the mark's presence or absence, and therefore for its identification as a snail. The shift to present tense, though, may be simply an attempt by Woolf to embody the kind of thinking/being processes the story exemplifies: As Wayne Narey puts it, Woolf is proposing a vision of “time that cannot be fixed in duration or progression, a time relative to the beholder”; that is, “a life run on emotional time rather than clock time” (37, 39). Therefore, the inner life of the narrator is present tense except when called upon to act in the chronometric world, as in the first paragraph when she is attempting to “fix a date” on the timeline, or in the last paragraph when she is hauled back to the hard, objective world by her companion. This may, then, be an instance of the kind of memory Woolf discusses in “A Sketch of the Past”:

I can reach a state where I seem to be watching things happen as if I were there. That is, I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen.


Therefore, the mark could be a snail that was removed, but in remembering the event the narrator is transported back to the scene so that it seems to her to be happening in the present, or happening over and over, hence the “first time” phrasing.

Other possibilities, not necessarily mutually exclusive, are also available, however. One of these was suggested by a student of mine, Mr. Spendiff, who mentioned that he once had a job that entailed removing snails from the walls of a house, and he noted that when removed they left a mark where they had been. If the mark on the wall were originally a snail, but at the time of writing the narrator is contemplating this footprint, then we could have here an instance of signed and signifier being granted unity, at least unity in regard to individual responses. For the narrator, contemplating the sign (still present, hence present tense) is the same as contemplating the thing itself (which exists only in the past tense) because in her inner life they obtain the same significance; hence, when seeing the signifier she is able to speak of the signified as though it were present. This may be akin to something else Woolf says in “A Sketch of the Past,” in the same paragraph as the remarks I quoted earlier: “I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start” (67).

Still another possibility is that what we read in “The Mark on the Wall” is not, in fact, a reminiscence, except for perhaps the very beginning and the very end; rather, all of these “digressions” are the thoughts of the narrator at the moment of writing, summoned into being by thinking about that event that occurred long months before. At the end of the story, the narrator's reveries are interrupted—during the mid-winter scene? at the time of writing, the “now”?—and she tells us that

something is getting in the way. … Where was I? What has it all been about? A tree? A river? The Downs? Whitaker's Almanack? The fields of asphodel? I can't remember a thing. Everything's moving, falling, slipping, vanishing. …

(83; Woolf's ellipses)

If the interruption occurred “back when,” and she could not remember the particulars then, immediately after the fact, how can she do so at the time of writing, a time when she must work hard even to recall the time of year in which the original event took place? But contemplating that moment draws from the narrator what may be the same kind of response she had when contemplating the mark on the wall: I say “may be” because of what Woolf says in “Sketches of the Past,” when she is searching for a way to organize those draft memoirs, and for the first time she dates her “notes”:

2nd May … I write the date, because I think that I have discovered a possible form for these notes. That is, to make them include the present—at least enough of the present to serve as platform to stand upon. It would be interesting to make the two people, I now, I then, come out in contrast. And further, this past is much affected by the present moment. What I write today I should not write in a year's time.


We can perhaps add that what one thinks of on a mid-winter afternoon may not be what one thinks of some months later, even if the stimulus is the same. And, if we do not have here a recollection of the narrator's mid-January thoughts but a transcript of her thoughts at the “now” of the writing, can we say that these musings spring from contemplation of the mark at all? Must there be an objective reality when, as Jean Guiguet says, “The reality that matters is that effervescence of the imagination …” (216)?

In “An Unwritten Novel” (which Woolf hopefully envisioned as “taking hands and dancing in unity” with “The Mark on the Wall” and “Kew Gardens” to form a new kind of fiction; quoted by Bell 2: 72), the narrator indulges in making up stories about a woman seated across from her on a train, trying to discern from the woman's appearance and demeanor her history, that is, as Guiguet puts it concerning both “An Unwritten Novel” and “The Mark on the Wall,” “attempt[ing] to go back through time to the origin … of which this appearance is the sign, the consequence, the ultimate manifestation” (216). Ultimately, the narrator in “An Unwritten Novel” is proven wrong concerning the woman's life, though unless we aspire to be detectives, mindreaders, or decimal-perfect bookkeepers, the error itself is of little consequence. In “The Mark on the Wall,” we may have a similar situation: What we take as the “reality” of the narrator's thoughts during that mid-winter scene is actually the “reality” of her thoughts at the time of composition, compounding Guiguet's characterization of this story, “An Unwritten Novel” and “Kew Gardens” as “so many attempts to disintegrate reality, … the first blows struck at the objectivity of space and time” (384).

But all of this takes me rather far from the question of whether the mark on the wall is or is not a snail: The greatest “proof” that the mark is a snail is that the narrator's companion identifies it as such and the narrator seems to confirm this identification in the final line of the story. It is very comforting, not only for the reader but for the narrator, as the “Ah” of the last line may be read not only as an expression of surprise, but an exhalation of relief. But here, I think, narrator and readers fall into a pattern of thought she herself identifies in the story:

Indeed, now that I have fixed my eyes upon it, I feel that I have grasped a plank in the sea; I feel a satisfying sense of reality which at once turns the Two Archbishops and the Lord High Chancellor to the shadows of shades. Here is something definite, something real. Thus, waking from a midnight dream of horror, one hastily turns on the light and lies quiescent, worshipping the impersonal world which is proof of some existence other than ours. That is what one wants to be sure of. …

The ellipses are Woolf's and lead immediately and abruptly into the story's final “digression,” about wood and trees; that is, they lead immediately back to the “reality” that matters, her own thoughts and feelings. However, as the narrator says, we and she want the comfort of “something definite, something real,” and the snail at the end of the story is just such “a plank in the sea,” offering closure at least, though individual readers, as I've noted, may find it more a sliver than a plank.

One problem with this closure is that not only did Woolf say that “inconclusive stories are legitimate” (“Russian” 84) but it is just the kind of pat ending Woolf dismisses in “Phases of Fiction,” where one of the tyrannies of the novel form she objects to is that

the story must be finished: the intrigue discovered, the guilty punished, the lovers married in the end. … Better would it be, we feel, to leave a blank or even to outrage our sense of probability than to stuff the crevices with this makeshift substance. …


(One could argue that the mark turning out to be a snail—“the intrigue discovered”—does “outrage our sense of probability,” but I would think that if any sense is outraged, it is our sense of proportion, not probability.) Throughout this story, Woolf has violated—perhaps “attacked” is the right word—standard fictional techniques of coherence and logic, the most obvious violation being the lack of plot structure. That is, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis might put it, in “The Mark on the Wall” Woolf attempts to “distance the reader from codes of expected narrative and from patterns of response that had seemed to command universal or natural status” (20). Another point to remark on is that none of the mini-stories the narrator starts ever reaches conclusion or closure: She was “torn asunder” (77) from the house's previous tenants before they could complete a conversation; her vision of the afterlife is unable to “become more definite, become—I don't know what …” (78, Woolf's ellipses); her vision of Shakespeare at work is abandoned mid-sentence (79); her story of the antiquarian colonel trails off with a list of artifacts “proving I really don't know what” (81); and her reveries on wood—ultimately disrupted by her companion—include the comment that, even when the tree falls, “life isn't done with” (83). The sense of completion and closure the identification of the mark as a snail brings is what writers are ordained to produce and readers conditioned to expect, and so it seems a departure from the radical technique exhibited everywhere else in the story.

This lack of consistency could be deliberate, of course. As DuPlessis remarks, “there is often a disjunction between narrative discourses and resolutions, which may be felt as the ‘patness’ of a resolution, or as the ironic comment of an author at closure” (7), and the neat, pat irony of so petty an object having ignited the various disquisitions in this story could be just such a comment by Woolf. But DuPlessis also notes that

Any resolution can have traces of the conflicting materials that have been processed within it. It is where subtexts and repressed discourses can throw up one last flare of meaning; it is where the author may sidestep and displace attention from the materials that a work has made available.


One of the several “materials” Woolf deals with directly in the story (I would consider her radical form an “indirect” commentary) is “the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets the standard, which establishes Whitaker's ‘Table of Precedency’ …” (80). It is this point of view that establishes “a whole class of things indeed which, as a child, one thought the thing itself, the standard thing, the real thing …” (80). It is this point of view, exemplified by the “Table of Precedency,” that “has become, I suppose, since the war, half a phantom to many men and women, which soon, one may hope, will be laughed into the dustbin …” (80). The closure to the story may, however, be an example of the tenacity of the “masculine point of view,” but an example that bears within it a “proof” of the nature of reality Woolf has been presenting.

Bette London points out that while the narrator is not specifically identified as female, “gender coding” strongly suggests the narrator is a woman (182n6). London also says that “For Woolf … the head-on approach to reality represented what might be called the masculine point of view …” (114), and on this basis implies that gender coding identifies the narrator's companion as male, since “The masculine intervention of the discourse of ‘fact’ … closes the story by foreclosing the woman speaker's inconclusive, self-proliferating text” (182n6). I would add that just before the narrator is torn from her reveries she mentions that “men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes” (83), an inclusion of both sexes that hints at the presence of both here; also, the companion's interest in the war, while not a purely male interest (especially in the midst of hostilities), is one usually deemed masculine rather than feminine: For example, while the war is included in the peripheries of the narrator's thoughts, it seems the center of the companion's concerns. (It is interesting to note that the lack of gender identification is a corollary to the lack of specificity about the identity of the mark on the wall.)

At any rate, the companion seems to be male, and when he identifies the mark on the wall as a snail, the narrator, without rising from her chair, simply accepts his version of reality or the truth: The “masculine point of view” still obtains; it has not yet been “laughed into the dustbin.”

But while the narrator's text may receive foreclosure and her story closure, Woolf's story may still be open. Although some readers see the companion as having been elsewhere, only entering the room to tell the narrator that he's going out for a newspaper, I don't see any reason to assume this; indeed, the narrator's noting of “rooms, where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes” offers reason to assume that the companion has been sharing this room and this time with the narrator, as does the description of the interruption as an “upheaval of matter” (83; my emphasis), as though something has risen, as from another chair. And what has the companion been doing this while, besides sitting and smoking? We know he hasn't been reading a newspaper, and they have not been making conversation. He may have been reading something else, as was our narrator when she embarked on her ontological quest, but it is quite likely that he, too, has been sitting quietly musing, and the fact that he mentions the mark at all suggests that he, too, has been contemplating it.

In discussing “The Mark on the Wall” in relation to Einstein's theory of relativity, Wayne Narey comments that

The static mark and the daydreamer's inactivity are juxtaposed to the mental motion of reflection. The irony of this juxtaposition intensifies at the end of the story, when the mark on the wall is revealed to be a snail, symbol of slow and measured existence.


There may be a further irony, though; this “symbol” may be the creation of the companion, an instance of what the narrator calls “Nature's game—her prompting to take action as a way of ending any thought that threatens to excite or to pain,” a propensity she specifically notes as belonging to men, though she herself sees “no harm in putting a full stop to one's disagreeable thoughts by looking at a mark on the wall,” despite confessing a “slight contempt for men of action—men, we assume, who don't think” (82). But her companion's remarks reveal that he has been thinking, specifically about the war, more specifically about its lack of progress—“Though it's no good buying newspapers. … Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war!” (83)—and so, as the narrator has been doing throughout, he may have been “reflecting” himself off the mark on the wall until his inner reality breaks the surface and pronounces the mark to be a snail. But how does he know? He's only just stood up, and there's no indication that he has a better perspective or better eyesight than the narrator. He is, however, a man, and as such is conditioned to impose the imprimatur of “truth” on his version of reality, to make of his masculine point of view “the thing itself, the standard thing, the real thing” (80).

But do we have to accept this? The narrator tells us “the great thing” about Whitaker's “Table of Precedency” “is to know who follows whom”; it is a “comfort” (82). In fiction, it is a traditional comfort to know that closure will follow at story's end, that we will be able to say “Ah.” That snail supplies the satisfying click we hear as this story closes shut. Yet the narrator has warned us to beware the complacency of our formal, ontological, and epistemological assumptions, what Woolf calls in A Room of One's Own being “merely lazy minded and conventional into the bargain” (92): The narrator tells us that “nothing is proved, nothing is known” (81), that even “if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn't be able to say for certain [what it is]; because once a thing's done, no one ever knows how it happened” (77-78), and were she to “ascertain [what] the mark on the wall is really … what should I gain? Knowledge? Matter for further speculation?” (81)

The mark on the wall might be a snail, but, as I've argued, it might not, and this doubt breaks the expected sequence. Mary Carmichael, Woolf tells us, “has every right” to do this if she does so “not for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating” (Room 81), and I think the same right may be granted the narrator in “The Mark on the Wall,” whose conclusion offers not closure, but opening.

Works Cited

Apter, T. E. Virginia Woolf: A Study of Her Novels. New York UP, 1979.

Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1972.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

Gordon, Lyndall. Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life. New York: Norton, 1984.

Gorsky, Susan Rubinow. Virginia Woolf. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Guiguet, Jean. Virginia Woolf and Her Works. Trans. Jean Stewart. New York: Harcourt, 1965.

London, Bette. The Appropriated Voice: Narrative Authority in Conrad, Forster, and Woolf. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990.

Lumpkin, Janet. “Woolf's ‘Mark on the Wall’ [sic] as a Voice in Transition.” Conference of College Teachers of English Studies 54 (Sept. 1989): 28-33.

Narey, Wayne. “Virginia Woolf's ‘The Mark on the Wall’: An Einsteinian View of Art.” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (1992): 35-42.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Mark on the Wall.” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. New York: Harcourt, 1985. 77-83.

———. “Phases of Fiction.” Virginia Woolf: Collected Essays. 4 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1967. 2: 56-102.

———. A Room of One's Own. 1929. New York: Harcourt, 1989.

———. “The Russian Background.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. 4 vols. London: Hogarth, 1988. 3: 83-86.

———. “A Sketch of the Past.” Moments of Being. Ed. Jeanne Schulkind. New York: Harcourt, 1976. 61-137.

Further Reading

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Abbott, Reginald. “What Miss Kilman's Petticoat Means: Virginia Woolf, Shopping, and Spectacle.” Modern Fiction Studies 38, no. 1 (spring 1992): 193-216.

Offers a consumer/commodity perspective on Woolf's short fiction.

Banfield, Ann. “Time Passes: Virginia Woolf, Post-Impressionism, and Cambridge Time.” Poetics Today 24, no. 3 (fall 2003): 471-516.

Argues that Woolf's literary impressionism developed through her short stories.

Bishop, Edward. “‘Kew Gardens’ and Jacob's Room: Pursuing ‘It’ and the ‘Greek Spirit.’” In Virginia Woolf, pp. 32-48. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Provides a stylistic analysis of “Kew Gardens” and finds parallels between the story and the novel Jacob's Room.

Burgan, Mary. “The ‘Feminine’ Short Story: Recuperating the Moment.” Style 27, no. 3 (fall 1993): 380-87.

Considers Woolf's place within the tradition of the female short story writers.

Deppman, Hsiu-Chuang. “Rereading the Mirror Image: Looking-Glasses, Gender, and Mimeticism in Virginia Woolf's Writing.” Journal of Narrative Theory 31, no. 1 (winter 2001): 31-64.

Explores Woolf's use of the mirror in several of her stories.

Dick, Susan. “Virginia Woolf's ‘The Cook.’” Woolf Studies Annual 3 (1997): 122-42.

Maintains that “The Cook” “is of interest not only as an example of Woolf's continuing experimentation with biographical writing, but also as an expression of her growing sense, in the nineteen-thirties, of the importance of the unrecorded lives of domestic servants.”

———. “A Book She Never Made: Editing The Complete Shorter Fictions of Virginia Woolf.” In Editing Virginia Woolf: Interpreting the Modernist Text, edited by James M. Haule and J. H. Stape, pp. 114-26. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Describes her experience as the editor for The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf.

Hellerstein, Marjorie H. “The Examination of Consciousness.” In Virginia Woolf's Experiments With Consciousness, Time, and Social Values, pp. 13-19. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

Underscores the acute perceptions of Woolf's characters in her later short stories.

Henry, Holly. “From Hubble Telescope to ‘The Searchlight.’” In Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science: The Aesthetics of Astronomy, pp. 51-70. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Investigates the way in which Woolf's fascination with cosmology and telescopes informed her work, particularly her short story “The Searchlight.”

Humm, Maggie. “Visual Modernism: Virginia Woolf's ‘Portraits’ and Photography.” Woolf Studies Annual 8 (2002): 93-106.

Asserts that Woolf's short fictions, “Portraits,” “provide an appropriate point at which to examine broader issues of visuality and gender in modernism.”

Peach, Linden. “The Last Years: ‘The Shooting Party’ (1938) and Between the Acts (1941).” In Critical Issues, pp. 195-213. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Regards “The Shooting Party” as a transitional work in Woolf's oeuvre and finds similarities between the story and the novel Between the Acts.

Sherry, Vincent. “The Sounds History Was Making.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5223 (9 May 2003): 14-15.

Evaluates the significant role of “The Mark on the Wall” in Woolf's oeuvre.

Westman, Karin E. “The Character in the House: Virginia Woolf in Dialogue with History's Audience.” Clio 28, no. 1 (fall 1998): 1-10.

Examines Woolf's utilization of dialogic exchange between historian, historical text, and audience in her work.

Additional coverage of Woolf's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 44; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; British Writers, Vol. 7; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1914-1945; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 130; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 64, 132; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 36, 100, 162; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 10; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors and Novelists; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 8, 12; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 4, 12; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 7; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 5, 20, 43, 56, 101, 123, 128; World Literature Criticism; and World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4.

Herta Newman (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Newman, Herta. “Stories about Storymaking.” In Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Brown: Toward a Realism of Uncertainty, pp. 17-29. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

[In the following essay, Newman assesses Woolf's success as a storyteller, concluding that her stories “fail to satisfy the reader's desire for certainty.”]

But what are stories? Toys I twist, bubbles I blow, one ring passes through another. Sometimes I begin to doubt if there are stories.1

Virginia Woolf's stories have not generally received the acclaim accorded to her novels and essays. Yet she is an inveterate storyteller, and it is in her stories that she deploys most dramatically the evasive strategy that informs her fiction. Her novels abound in stories and sketches that should enliven description, illuminate character, and underscore the play of chance and conflict. Stories are marshalled to advance the progress of critical discussion, to strengthen argument, and to conjure the elusive concepts that defy analysis. Indeed, the story may well be Woolf's standard recourse in the face of verbal incapacity. Yet when we examine them closely we cannot help but notice that these efforts seldom succeed. Woolf's stories fail, egregiously, to fulfill the expectations they excite. The arguments they mount are apt to founder, the characters they present remain unknown and the mysteries they cite are left unresolved. So predictable is this outcome that the story itself is quickly derailed, and the brave convictions of the teller sadly overcome,

I have made up thousands of stories. I have filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the one story to which all those phrases refer. But I have not yet found the story and I begin to ask, “Are there stories?”2

The narrative prospect as Woolf defines it, is fraught with irony. Whether they are finished fictions that should stand independently, or illustrative examples interpolated into novels and essays as modifying additions, Woolf's stories fail to satisfy the reader's desire for certainty. They insist instead that fiction is as powerless to achieve resolution as life itself. The acknowledgement that accords the teller a liberating candor may be disheartening for the reader. The story as Woolf tells it not only fails to meet our fondest expectations, but is confined and subjugated to some extraneous purpose. Yet the reader is reassured that some advantage will be garnered out of this subversion, a truth will be revealed more precious than the fantasy surrendered. In exchanging candor for deception, Woolf means to demonstrate a more convincing truth; acknowledging the likelihood of failure, she means to recapture something of the truth she has relinquished. In this roundabout fashion she will admit into the life of fiction the uncertainty that the Edwardians choose to ignore.

The retrograde argument3 that pervades the whole of Woolf's oeuvre is the most striking feature of her stories. It is in the diminished framework of the story that we are able to see how this strategy is meant to function and what are its peculiar effects. Some evidence of constraint is immediately apparent. Apart from her wide use of the story as lesson and critique, Woolf's formal output is slight. She worked on stories only intermittently, mainly to relieve the strain of novel writing or to experiment with strategies intended ultimately for the novels. Moreover, the stories themselves are severely limited in range and subject matter. In one form or another they take up the cognitive problems that dominate the essays. The familiar doubts as to the expressive capacity of fiction and language, which are at the heart of her quarrel with traditionalism, are the central issues in Woolf's stories. We read them most effectively then, not as stories, and certainly not as conventional stories, but as critical discussions in story form. Discursive and indeterminate, they are prime examples of that generic intermingling through which Woolf voices her vehement rejection of conventional standards and finished forms.

It is the illustrative story of Mrs. Brown that provides the clearest prototype for this fictive process. Offered as a corrective lesson on the role of character in fiction, the tale of Mrs. Brown was meant to counter Arnold Bennett's charges that the Georgians, and Woolf in particular, failed to create the fully dimensioned characters on which the novel depends. Typically, Woolf defends herself with a vigorous attack.4 She casts the Edwardians, and Bennett in particular, as the exhausted players in a once great tradition. Their novels, she claims, are stale, their characters artificial, and their advice to the aspiring novelist deeply misguided. But with regard to the issue of contention, the concept of character itself, she is curiously evasive. In place of character, a concept too difficult to articulate, she offers a paradigmatic tale that does not so much resolve the issue as provide the proper approach to its evaluation. The stratagem clearly avoids the falsification she complains of in the Edwardians. But what is more important, it freely acknowledges the complexities they ignore. This candor in the face of intransigence, it may well be, is the critical distinction between Woolf and her predecessors. The indeterminacy in which they see only defection is, for Woolf, the greatest challenge to the moral and aesthetic integrity of the novel. “Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display?”5

The critical problem to which she alludes, that life is uncertain, character impenetrable, that fiction must struggle with these conditions without assurance of success, is the active concern of Woolf's storytelling narrators; and they engage these problems with the earnest, at times indeed the academic interest of the insider. Like Woolf herself, her fictional counterparts are would-be critics, novelists, and biographers, whose musings turn instinctively to the analogy of art. They ponder the problems of fiction as seasoned theorists and practitioners, more acutely aware than the layman of the close analogy of art and life; they urge the life-like character of fiction, the fictive character of life; their critique, in the most profound sense a commentary on existence: “How shocking, and yet how wonderful it was to discover that these real things, Sunday luncheons, Sunday walks, country houses and table cloths, were not entirely real, were indeed half phantom. …”6

This peculiarly aesthetic outlook is not however restricted to the professional. More deeply immersed in the outward life and less able to objectify, Woolf's social being is, nevertheless, given to the existential musing that defines the critic and philosopher and provides an antidote to existential “angst.” Like the solitary thinker who seeks solace in philosophy, Woolf's party-goer, a type she considered often and closely, is anxious and contemplative, troubled by the shifting currents of the social scene, overcome by feelings of anomie. Some, like Mabel Waring in “The New Dress” (1928) or Lily Everit in “The Introduction” (1923) are so distracted by the pressures of the social ritual that they lose all sense of what is real. Others defend more effectively against the threat of dissolution; they guard against the judgments of the stranger and bolster the beleaguered self with reminders of advantage: “She soused herself, even as she sat beside Mr. Serle … in the sense she had of a cluster of miracles, which she could not believe other people had” (p. 137).

Whether inward and solitary or social and outgoing, Woolf's characters are preternaturally alert to the shiftings of an unreliable reality. Occasionally the precarious balance they maintain will falter and we find ourselves a witness to more serious disorder. In stories like “Solid Objects” (1920) and “Lappin and Lapinova” (1939) the retreat to the life of the mind that is fostered by fear and obsession is unmistakably pathological. Yet the demarcation between madness and sanity remains, provocatively, indistinct. As Woolf depicts it, the delusionary life is no less demanding than worldly existence, nor is it, in fact, so far removed from it as we are apt to suppose.7 In the rabbit empire she has fashioned, Lapinova recreates the fearful conditions she is trying to escape. So, too, John's obsession with what is lost and discarded in “Solid Objects” reenacts the pointless drive for acquisition from which he has tried to escape. The antics of “the madman,” are, in truth, no more irrational, no less authentic than the conduct that society endorses. What we call madness, Woolf suggests, may be nothing more than illicit non-conformity, “How shocking … to discover that these real things … were not entirely real … and the damnation which visited the disbeliever in them only a sense of illegitimate freedom” (p. 41).

Diffusion is the essential atmosphere of this fictive world. Even in its palpable and most objectified form it yields a prospect as wavering and uncertain as the reflected images of the mind. The eye, it is suggested, is as unreliable a mediator of reality as the mind, and the world itself is various and fluctuating. An idyllic summer afternoon in “Kew Gardens” (1919) is bewilderingly multifarious. The distanced view of a “String Quartet” (1919) is disengaged and incomprehensible. In their unlikely contrasts and combinations Woolf's impressionistic sketches8 release a dimension of reality, disturbingly unfamiliar. The assurance of stability that the observer seeks is nowhere to be found. Only those who willingly renounce the reassurance that such evidence provides, achieve the mastery that the artist requires. Woolf's most confident and contented creator is a solipsist, who has turned his back on the claims of factuality, and embraced uncritically the pure concoctions of the mind: “I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another without any sense of hostility and obstacle” (p. 39). Yet this repudiation of the external world proves difficult, perhaps impossible to sustain. “The Mark on the Wall” (1917) it will be shown, is in reality a snail, a creature far less imposing than the humble Mrs. Brown, but undeniably real.

The meditator is, in any case, an exception to Woolf's rule. Typically, her artist is an enthusiastic witness to life's uncertainties, susceptible especially to the fascination of the stranger, to the compelling enigma of character. That, indeed, is how all novels are conceived: “Here is Mrs. Brown making someone begin almost automatically to write a novel about her. I believe that all novels begin with a lady in the corner opposite.”9

Woolf's paradigm asserts the preeminence of character in fiction, a view that she is pleased to share with the Edwardians, insisting however on a more elusive and mysterious sense of character than they have allowed. Yet it is, significantly, not character itself, but the curiosity that it evokes that she defines as the driving force of fiction. This is the message of “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” and she repeats it often elsewhere, as though in making the case for mystery in character she is somehow able to resolve it. She bases a number of stories directly on the paradigm of Mrs. Brown, repeating the form and setting of the interpolated story, restating insistently its argument for inaccessibility. The earliest and purely fictional version is offered in the experimental sketch, “An Unwritten Novel” (1921). Here the title quickly signals the ongoing state of fiction. We are dealing with a novel, still unwritten, hence unfinished, inconclusive and, no doubt, untrue. The setting introduces us to the intimacy of a railway carriage, an environment Woolf favors for its mesmerizing movement and its momentary suspension of commonplace reality. As in the story of Mrs. Brown, the narrator is struck by the face of a fellow passenger, bearing an expression so profoundly miserable as to require something in the way of explanation. This is the sympathetic curiosity that marks the onset of an urgent, almost instinctive process that is the origin of fiction. Driven by the desire to discover the true identity of the fascinating stranger, the source or story of her “malheur,” the would-be novelist is careful to consider the evidence at hand. She scans the face of the opposing stranger for signs of distinction, questioning her silently, “What are you thinking?” She asks, “Have I read you right?” (p. 15). Despite its look of tragedy, the face of Minnie Marsh, for so the subject has been dubbed, calls forth an ordinary fate. The narrator will suppress the powerful urge to dramatize and Minnie will play the dreary but realistic role of a poor relation, an unwanted guest, a silent sufferer of scorn and loneliness. Above all, she will be steadfast and mundane, “Never utterly unconscious of the cheapness of eggs” (p. 15).

However judicious these concessions may be, however properly “realistic,” they fail to produce the desired effect. Minnie Marsh continues to elude the efforts of the would-be novelist. Yet the story proceeds, relentlessly determined to fulfill some destiny of its own. Minor characters appear and behind them, houses, gardens, fences, children, dogs and cats; that is to say all the alluring by-products of the sub-plot emerge. The process of creation is almost automatic now, and the creator reduced to a mere agent of delivery. Yet the final outcome of this urgent process will be utterly conventional. Shades of Bennett will be in it and echoes of Conrad. Indeed all of the trappings of Edwardian fiction will gradually appear. This condition, Woolf implies, is the inevitable fate of fiction. The tales we have heard and read are so deeply embedded in the imagination that no attempt to render life remains unaffected by them, no observation can be pure. The very notion that inspires the writer, that every stranger hides a story in his breast, is a fiction that life cannot sustain. The end of the hermetic voyage reveals the story to be false, “That's not Minnie Marsh. There never was a Moggeridge. Who am I?” (p. 31).

In “The Shooting Party” (1938), originally intended for an American readership, Woolf reverts to a more traditional variant of this format. Here the concern with the unfolding story, its process and uncertain outcome is restricted to an introductory and concluding frame. We are reminded that the subversion of reality in fiction goes back at least as far as Chaucer. (Yet pains were always taken to preserve the autonomy of the story, to uphold its claim to truth.) In “The Shooting Party” Woolf conforms to this more traditional standard faithfully, yet she devises other means for tampering with the narrative process exposing the mechanism of narration, diverting the reader's attention to the “real” dimension of tellers and telling. In the opening episode she returns to the railway carriage and the familiar scenario in which one passenger is moved to invent the history of another. Here, however, the process has become quite mechanical, and the object of interest a figure neither singular nor mysterious. Though she is ordinary in the extreme, Millie Masters, as she is now called, inspires an interest so profound as to enable the narrator to read her thoughts and reconstruct in them “the story she is telling over in her mind” (p. 58). This initiating exchange introduces a new set of characters, imaginary now or recollected, a pair of ancient ladies who, in still another turn of the fictive wheel, half-recall and half-invent the story of “The Shooting Party.” In this telepathic fashion all of the principals are drawn into the inventive process; all are instinctive story-tellers, Woolf suggests, engaged continually in that inventive process that is the universal pastime. The boundaries between tale and teller, past and present, fiction and reality are suffused. The story is finally its own excuse for being.10

The concluding episode reverts to the present time of the railway carriage. Under the harsh lights of the station, “the sepulchral atmosphere” of fantasy is abruptly dispelled and the heroine is revealed in her prosaic actuality. “It was plain she was quite an ordinary, rather elderly woman travelling to London on some ordinary piece of business” (p. 68). As in “An Unwritten Novel” the falseness of fiction is, at last, brutally exposed. Yet in this instance, the demolition remains significantly incomplete. Our final glimpse of Millie Masters, something in her gestures, in the sound she utters unconsciously “like somebody imitating the noise that somebody else makes” (p. 39), suggests the stubborn hold of fantasy and its promise of rich alternatives to commonplace existence. “Why should not the eyes there, gleaming, moving, be the ghost of a family, an age, a civilization … ?” (p. 67). Woolf reaches a more affirmative conclusion here. Fiction may be false, and the imagination unreliable, yet it serves to enrich an otherwise humdrum reality and it may produce a viable truth of its own.

Though it does not deal specifically with a creative enterprise, “The Lady in the Looking Glass” (1929) engages once again in an intensely self-conscious pursuit of unfathomable character. Here Woolf extends her thesis to include the ordinary social experience. Life, she implies, is not, in essence, different from fiction. Our experience of it is false, our observations unreliable, the so-called “truth” an invention. The narrator, no longer a writer or a painter, but simply an interested observer, is determined to discover the underlying truth concerning his attractive hostess, Isabella Tyson. The elegance of her bearing, the rich, suggestive atmosphere of her country house, indicate she is a person of some substance, someone endowed with what the narrator calls “a profounder state of being” (p. 91). Yet the very things that intimate this superiority, the nooks and crannies of her lovely house, its shimmering rugs, its lights and shadows, conspire against disclosure. Compounding the mystery is a prominently placed mirror whose silvery reflections promise revelation of what is deeply hidden. For truth, we are persuaded, resides more clearly in the stillness of reflection than in the dynamic interchange of life. Caught in the cruel glare of the looking glass, Isabella is transfixed, exposed at last for what she truly is: “Here was the woman herself. She stood naked in the pitiless light. And there was nothing” (p. 93).

Once again we are left with an image of human nature that fails to sustain the lofty expectations of the imagination. Mrs. Brown and Minnie Marsh escape detection altogether. Millie Masters is exposed as old and ordinary. And in the most shattering instance, Isabella proves to be “perfectly empty” (p. 93). Do these revelations define the dreary face of truth? Woolf does not commit herself. She has appended an insinuating subtitle to her story. “The Lady in the Looking Glass,” she tells us, is a “Reflection” merely; and she takes the trouble, furthermore, to warn us that even the cruelest exposure may be misleading: “People should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms any more than they should leave open cheque books or letters confessing some hideous crime” (p. 87).

The contention between mind and matter that is enacted in these stories is never resolved. If fiction is defective as a register of life, life is “bare as a bone” without the enrichment of a falsifying imagination. In “Moments of Being” (1928), the most personally revealing of this group of stories, Woolf makes the strongest case for the existence of a rich, internal state of being, and for the power of the imagination to receive it. Yet we are left, finally, with no clear sense of distinction between truth and fabrication; nor do we understand fully the nature of revelation. Woolf begins the familiar process with yet another of her voyeuristic narrators, who, armed only with a burning curiosity and an active imagination, embarks upon the voyage of discovery. Fanny Wilmot pursues her piano teacher, Julia Craye, in the typically fanciful manner of Woolf's narrators. She is neither profoundly perspicacious, nor does she have special access to her subjects' unknown history. Yet she achieves the much desired “moment of being,” the revelation in which the hidden core of character is laid bare. “Looking through Miss Craye she saw the very fountain of her being, spurting its pure, silver drops” (p. 110). The occasion is momentous and the insight that it yields unquestionably true. Yet the experience itself is curiously opaque, its onset insistently mundane, accidental, its outcome finally more mystifying than enlightening.

The closed and inadvertent character of Fanny's “moment of being” underscores the fundamental ironies in Woolf's creative schema. The discovery of the truth that is presumably the story's overwhelming purpose is accomplished only by chance. Though it is earnestly undertaken, the narrator's pursuit of the mysterious stranger is pervaded by the acute awareness of impending failure. On the verge of coalescence the would-be novelist acknowledges the unlikeliness of success, “But the human face at the top of the fullest sheet of print, holds more, withholds more …” (p. 15). Yet despite these premonitions the passion to invent persists, overriding the specter of failure, overriding at last the desire for truth. Hot in pursuit of Julia Craye, Fanny Wilmot gives up the struggle for truth. Like so many of Woolf's inventive narrators, she yields to the momentum of her story, and proceeds to invent the scene, the setting, the critical events of that history she is retracing, “the scene could be changed, the young man, the exact nature of it all!” (p. 108).

Woolf's paradigm of fiction receives its clearest statement in the story of Mrs. Brown. It is here that she demonstrates how curiosity should be translated into fiction. The writer's fascination with Mrs. Brown, the intuition of her history, the acute awareness of discrepancy, comprise Woolf's lesson to the Edwardians on the properly respectful approach to the complexities of human nature. In her insistence on the intangible, and her acknowledgement of uncertainty, she means to correct their unyielding materialism, and to invoke the existential mystery which, she claims, they deny. Yet in the end it may well be, she fails to elucidate that mystery. Whatever the connection between inspiration and invention, the novelist Woolf describes is finally no more successful in attaining Mrs. Brown than the Edwardians. Indeed, we begin to suspect that Woolf's novelist, who exploits so insistently the tension that produces fiction, is not interested in character at all. The real distinction of Woolf's fictionalizer consists not in her love of character, but in her disarming acceptance of the difficulty to attain it and in her pervasive concern with the ramifications both aesthetic and existential, of those difficulties. Freely acknowledged and intensively examined, the writer's problems in realizing character should admit into the precincts of fiction the uncertainty that is so large a part of life.


  1. Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931). p. 144.

  2. The Waves. p. 187.

  3. Thus, the narrator in Jacob's Room (1922) discourses lengthily on the inaccessibility of the hero, Jacob Flanders. Similar problems beset the poet Orlando and his beleaguered biographer. In To the Lighthouse (1927), Lily Briscoe struggles audibly over the impenetrability of Mrs. Ramsay. Miss La Trobe, the fictive dramatist in Between the Acts (1941), despairs on the inefficacy of the dramatic illusion; and Bernard, the inveterate storyteller in The Waves, questions the validity of storymaking. In essence this reflexive problem of art provides the informing principle of Woolf's oeuvre.

  4. In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1925), Woolf is specifically countering Bennett's criticism of Jacob's Room in which he complained of the insubstantiality of Woolf's characters.

  5. “Modern Fiction,” The Common Reader, I. p. 154.

  6. Virginia Woolf, “The Mark on the Wall,” A Haunted House and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, Inc.), p. 41. All quotations from Woolf's stories are taken from this edition.

  7. Woolf deals with insanity most elaborately in the portrait of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), where his doubling with the heroine Clarissa Dalloway is meant to enforce the strong parallels between madness and so-called sanity. Woolf depicts madness in a more self-revealing fashion in the portrait of Rhoda, in The Waves. These portraits certainly acknowledge a condition of sometimes desperate incapacity, yet they include elements of revisionary defiance.

  8. “Monday or Tuesday,” “String Quartet” and “Blue and Green” are impressionistic sketches which appeared in Woolf's first collection of stories, Monday or Tuesday, published by the Hogarth Press in 1921. “Blue and Green” was subsequently omitted from the later collection.

  9. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” The Captain's Death Bed and Other Stories, p. 102.

  10. Woolf, in her circular short stories strikingly, but in fact, throughout her fiction anticipates the post-modern contention that fiction is self-contained, referring finally to no reality beyond itself.

Sally Greene (essay date fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Greene, Sally. “Brownean Motion in ‘Solid Objects.’” Virginia Woolf Miscellany, no. 50 (fall 1997): 2-3.

[In the following essay, Greene assesses the influence of Thomas Browne on Woolf's fiction, particularly “The Mark on the Wall.”]

As Woolf refashioned her early empirical realism into a modernist practice, her work began to reflect a deeper engagement with the Renaissance, including the works of an old friend, Sir Thomas Browne. While she was finishing Night and Day (1919), she was embarking on a new direction in short fiction. “The Mark on the Wall” and other stories collected in Monday or Tuesday (1921) reflect, in their impressionistic fragmentation, her new position that “inconclusive stories are legitimate.” Although that statement comes from a review of a collection by Chekhov,1 it is a conclusion she was also gleaning from Browne.

In September 1919, she remarks that while “making way with my new experiment” in prose style—an experiment that culminated in Jacob's Room (1922)—she “came up against Sir Thomas Browne, & found I hadn't read him since I used to dip & duck & be bored & somehow enchanted hundreds of years ago.” She “had to break off, send for his books … & start little stories” (Diary [The Diary of Virginia Woolf] 1: 297). “Solid Objects,” a story begun in 1918 (Letters [The Letters of Virginia Woolf] 2: 299) but not published until 1920,2 recalls Urn Burial in its focus on the collection of treasures buried, broken, and rediscovered in a new context. More generally, it embraces Browne's sense of wonder at the cryptic expanse of the world.

The story involves two men walking along a shore, one of whom, John, stumbles upon a piece of glass so worn it has become “almost a precious stone” (103). Inspired to look for other such treasures, he searches grass fields, railroad rights-of-way, abandoned houses, all in hopes of finding “[a]nything, so long as it was an object of some kind, more or less round, perhaps with a dying flame deep sunk in its mass, anything—china, glass, amber, rock, marble.” He is detained from a political meeting when he finds a shard of china “shaped, or broken accidentally, into five irregular but unmistakable points” (104)—like the five-pointed items catalogued in The Garden of Cyrus. Finally, he loses his bid for a seat in Parliament.

That the defeat is less important to John than the discovery of what might be a meteorite, still less important than the random mystery of the meteorite next to the round stone and the pointed piece of china, is something his politically ambitious friend cannot understand. He is baffled by the serene disengagement of this man who has ruined his career for the sake of a few solid objects. But the narrative offers a correction: it is only his “political career” (106) that is jettisoned. The objects have worked on John, as the shards of ancient burial urns did on Browne, to call into question customary measures of success. “Time which antiquates Antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor Monuments,” marvels Browne. “In vain we hope to be known by open and visible conservatories, when to be unknown was the means of their continuation, and obscurity their protection.”3

Structurally, Browne's influence extends to Jacob's Room, where Woolf uses techniques of diffraction to keep Jacob just out of view—unknown and obscure—even through his death in the first world war. The story's episodic unfolding is further complicated by the unstable narrative voice. Through seemingly arbitrary shifts from “I” to “we” to “you,” Woolf attempts, as Pamela Caughie claims, to “liberate” readers from the assumption that the novel should provide a naturalized depiction of the world, with its constricting social structures (71-72). Employing a similarly destabilizing habit of interrupting the narrative with essayistic flights into abstractions that are in turn subverted or contradicted, Woolf recalls the spiraling rhetoric of the Religio Medici.

A reference to a London neighborhood, for example, provokes an imagined voyage to the New World: “‘Holborn straight ahead of you,’ says the policeman. Ah, but where are you going if instead of brushing past the old man with the white beard, the silver medal, and the cheap violin, you let him go on with his story. … [T]his (skipping the intermediate stages) brings you one winter's day to the Essex coast, where the little boat makes off to the ship, and the ship sails and you behold on the skyline the Azores. … As frequent as street corners in Holborn are these chasms in the continuity of our ways,” the passage concludes. “Yet we keep straight on” (Jacob's Room 94-95). Browne, whose Christianity moved him to emphasize continuities over chasms, nevertheless wrote, in Woolf's words, “[w]ith such a conviction of the mystery and miracle of things, he is unable to reject, disposed to tolerate and contemplate without end” (Essays [The Essays of Virginia Woolf] 3: 156).

But, as Woolf herself remarks of the experience of reading Browne (Essays 3: 370), isolated segments hardly convey the point. A sustained reading of “Solid Objects,” Jacob's Room, and Browne's meditations on his literal and figurative New Worlds more fully demonstrates the similarities of narrative voice. Through constant shifts of tone and attention, both writers compel a “sacrifice of independence”4 on the reader's part—in turn prompting a highly personal engagement and response.


  1. “The Russian Background,” Times Literary Supplement, 14 August 1919, rpt. in Books and Portraits 123-25 (cited in Dick 1).

  2. In The Athenaeum on 22 October 1920 (see Dick 299n), rpt. in Dick 102-07. I speculate that Woolf completed the story after her 1919 encounter with Browne. “Reading,” written some time in 1919, supports this notion with its emphasis on Browne, in particular with the following sentence: “How charming, for example, to have found a flower on a walk, or a chip of pottery or a stone, that might equally well have been thunderbolt, or cannon ball, and to have gone straightway to knock upon the doctor's door with a question” (Essays 3: 154).

  3. From Urn Burial, in Browne 176. For a different reading, see Panthea Reid [Broughton] 54-56. Citing the influence of Roger Fry's formalist aestheticism alone, she argues that John should be viewed unsympathetically because he forsakes a life of political action for “art.” Although Reid's reading is persuasive on its own terms, it seems to me partial. Recognizing the simultaneous influence of Browne introduces a tension that is more consistent with Woolf's lifelong wrestling over what role (if any) politics ought to have in art—an issue Reid later acknowledges in her reconsideration of the story in Art and Affection (240-41).

  4. The phrase is from J. R. Mulryne (64), who notes a discordance between Browne's “intimate and confessional” voice and his “distant or ironic relationship” to that voice (60); Mulryne argues that the literary effect of the Religio Medici arises from the way the reader is asked to negotiate this tension. Similarly, in “Reading” Woolf noted the difficulty of maintaining distance from the “I” of Browne's persona; in her reading, Browne is the first writer to prompt “the whole question, which is afterwards to become of such importance, of knowing one's author” (Essays 3: 156).

Works Cited

Browne, Sir Thomas. Religio Medici and Other Writings. Intro. Frank L. Huntley. New York: Dutton (Everyman's Library), 1951.

Caughie, Pamela L. Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1991.

Dick, Susan, ed. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt, 1989.

Mulryne, J. R. “The Play of the Mind: Self and Audience in Religio Medici.Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne: The Ann Arbor Tercentenary Lectures and Essays. Ed. C. A. Patrides. Columbia, Missouri: U of Missouri P, 1982. 60-68.

Reid, Panthea. Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

———. [Panthea Reid Broughton.] “The Blasphemy of Art: Fry's Aesthetics and Woolf's Non-‘Literary’ Stories.” The Multiple Muses of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Diane F. Gillespie. Columbia, Missouri: U of Missouri P, 1993. 36-57.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie. 5 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1977-84.

———. The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. 3 vols. to date. New York: Harcourt, 1986-.

———. Jacob's Room. 1922. London: Hogarth, 1965.

———. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. 6 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1975-80.

Nóra Séllei (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Séllei, Nóra. “The Snail and The Times: Three Stories ‘Dancing in Unity.’” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 3, no. 2 (1997): 189-98.

[In the following essay, Séllei finds thematic and stylistic similarities in “The Mark on the Wall,” “Kew Gardens,” and “An Unwritten Novel.”]

“[Y]esterday I … arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel. Suppose one thing should open out of another—as in ‘An Unwritten Novel’—only not for 10 pages but 200 or so—doesn't that give the looseness and lightness I want; doesn't that get closer and yet keep form and speed, and enclose everything?” asks Virginia Woolf in her diary in January 1920, and adds “conceive ‘Mark on the Wall,’ ‘K[ew]. G[ardens].’ and ‘Unwritten Novel’ taking hands and dancing in unity. What the unity shall be I have yet to discover; the theme is a blank to me; but I see immense possibilities in the form” (WD [A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf] 42). Regarding this diary entry as a starting point for the analysis of these three short fictional texts by Woolf, in this paper I will try and find an answer to the following questions: What kind of form did Woolf find in these short pieces? What are the common characteristics in the narrative strategies which make these pieces experimental and pointing in the direction of the later novels? How do language and narration themselves become a/the main theme in these writings? And, finally, how are all these features correlated to Woolf's modernism and feminism?

“The Mark on the Wall,” “Kew Gardens,” and “An Unwritten Novel” were written in the period between 1917 and 1920, which is considered formative in Woolf's ideas of a new, modernist, as she calls it, “spiritual Georgian” fiction. In the period when her most traditional novel, Night and Day (1919) was written, but when simultaneously she was experimenting in her shorter fiction with new modes of narration, and in the first version (“Modern Novels”) of what later became known as her modernist manifesto entitled “Modern Fiction” where she defined what she thought the essence of the new paradigm.

In spite of the fact that these short pieces were written in a period which seems to be the turning point in Woolf's oeuvre, and Woolf's own comments direct attention to their significance, neither they nor the other writings (“A Haunted House,” “A Society,” “Monday or Tuesday,” “The String Quartet,” and “Blue and Green”) which appeared in the volume Monday or Tuesday (1921) received much critical attention. Critical appreciations rather place them into the context of literary history and define the basic quality of these texts by describing the narrative situation or by characterising in a few attributes the impression the texts make on the reader but these comments all seem to share the final aesthetic evaluation that these writings are failures and can rather be considered fragments.

Lyndall Gordon applies the term “impressionism” to these writings. He defines “Kew Gardens” as visual impressionism, an attempt “to capture in prose the way in which the light falls upon the flowers, pebbles, snails, drops of water,” whereas he sums up “The Mark on the Wall” as the impressionism of the consciousness, and “An Unwritten Novel” as external-internal impressionism (Gordon 65). Phyllis Rose states that “Kew Gardens” and “The Mark on the Wall” “worked out the lyrical, oblique approach, … [thus constituting] a crucial moment in [Woolf's] artistic development,” and though she esteems “Kew Gardens” as “a lovelier piece of writing, [in which Woolf] tries to describe the fragmentary, transient nature of what is real. … She captures wonderfully the movement of life in a great city,” she concludes that “although stylistically, formally they are exciting, Woolf's experimental works are ultimately unsatisfying” (Rose 94, 104, 103). Tony Davenport thinks “Kew Gardens” “suffers, like ‘The Mark on the Wall,’ from Woolf's tendency towards ‘fine writing’ in a belle-lettrist tradition” and adds reproachfully that “this is hardly a recipe for a truer record of ‘life itself’ … [as] emphasis is on the arbitrariness of perception” (Davenport 169, 173). David Lodge, on the other hand, censures the stories because “endings are false endings, or non-endings … the cut-off point is essentially arbitrary” (Lodge 180). His position is shared by David Dowling, who would expect the stories to conclude neatly and properly. He evaluates these texts negatively because “‘Kew Gardens’ could go on forever, the other stories finish circumstantially” and because he thinks they lack unity (Dowling 126). To support his argument, he even misapplies Woolf's diary entry quoted above, which expresses Woolf's uncertainty about and search for the thematic unity of a future novel, and not her own dissatisfaction with the respective unities of these short writings.

My assumption is that what is considered as failure by these critics is the unavoidable outcome of Woolf's aesthetic principles and of her stance concerning the existence of objective reality. I am going to argue that the narrative strategies applied in the three texts are three versions of challenging the formal characteristics of the realist novel: omniscient narration, associated with the imposition of authority, coherent and well-defined character, and a properly concluded plot based on logical and metonymical cause and effect relationships—the textual signs of a stable and unified universe created and governed by a teleological principle. In these short pieces, Woolf uses three different narrative strategies and thematic concerns, which in their respective ways parody Woolf's predecessors, the Victorians and the “materialist Edwardians” for their self-evident confidence in mimesis, in the traditional properties of realist narration, in rational logic, and, ultimately, in language and in the human subject's capacity of reading signs.

Of the three texts, “Kew Gardens” seems to comply most with the rules of realist narration. The organising principle here is contiguity, the basis of metonymy: the field of associations is limited to the same space and the narration keeps a strictly chronological succession in time. What, however, makes this work experimental is the use of narrative strategy: the point of view technique with scarcely any, though thematically significant, narratorial comment. The narrator, after describing a flower bed (the original title of the story) in Kew Gardens, fixes the scope and adopts the perspective of a snail that struggles to get over a leaf, and from that neutral, non-human or rather non-humane perspective, without any affective overtones, records what can be experienced physically, through the senses in that limited space and time.

The beginning of the story, the definition of space and time—the description of the flower bed in July—creates an atmosphere in line with the fragmentedness of the whole fictional world. Though definite and at first sight/reading harmonious and almost idyllic, the space is full of uncertainties, hesitation, non-fulfillment, and dispersion:

From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end.

(SF [Virginia Woolf: The Complete Shorter Fiction] 90—emphasis added)

Besides the words expressing negativity and curbed and stifled opportunities, the disjunct “or” deserves special attention as in the context “and” could serve the same purpose—the use of “or” instead qualifies the narrative voice. It signifies the lack of control, the incapacity of naming and categorising.

The subsequently presented universe of the human beings is also a disjointed world. In none of the four cases, as it becomes obvious as the family of four, the madman and his keeper, the two elderly ladies and the lovers pass, have we any sense of people inherently connected to each other. Their belonging together is only the surface under which each of them lives his/her own life irrecoverably separated and moving along in the same aimless and purposeless way: “The figures of these men and women straggled past the flower-bed with a curiously irregular movement not unlike that of the white and blue butterflies who crossed the turf in zig-zag flights from bed to bed” (SF 90). Their stories have no beginning and/or ending. The people happen to appear and to disappear without any motivation or reason, they just move on repetitively and mechanically, the married couple and the madman and his keeper re-living their disparate pasts, recalling incidents from their pasts that are alien to the other, the elderly women living in their disjointed presence, talking past each other until their speech turns into inarticulate series of sounds; and the young couple going on to live in their separate presents and futures although they are the lovers, whose relationship, in a romance, should be characterised as a rule by liveliness and vital energies—here their voice betrays lifeless monotony; they are the ones between whom there should be perfect understanding—here they cannot even agree on what they mean by “it.”

“Lucky it isn't Friday,” he observed.

“Why, do you believe in luck?”

“They make you pay sixpence on Friday.”

“What's sixpence anyway? Isn't it worth sixpence?”

“What's ‘it’—what do you mean by ‘it’?”

“O anything—I mean—you know what I mean.”

Long pauses came between each of these remarks: they were uttered in toneless and monotonous voices.

(SF 94)

This “it” the young woman considers worth more than sixpence is left undefined yet by its very vagueness and non-definition it is the most inclusive word of the language, which could be replaced in Woolfian usage by “life itself,” or rather by the exceptional moments of life, when in the most common everyday experience there resides the power of a transcendental revelation, the moments of being, which, tragically, can never be shared in this fictional world, just as the separately lived past experiences cannot be conveyed to the other. They can be formulated into words, but in the same way as the present experience triggers off different chains of associations in the individuals (e.g., as they walk in Kew the husband thinks of an old lover whereas the wife recalls an old woman's kiss on her neck), the homogeneous meaning of the words is questioned in the text. Language loses its function as communication, it rather separates than connects: “[the young man] felt that something loomed up behind [his lover's] words and stood vast and solid behind them” (SF 94). The paradox of the word “it” is that neither the simplest word nor the most complex experience can be shared—the human being is inherently alone.

The point of view technique and metonymical narration thus become the textual correlative of the characters' contiguous yet unbridgeably separate existences. As the successive pairs pass the flower-bed seen from the snail's perspective, they exist contiguously, next to each other both in space and time yet neither their seeming spatial unity nor their temporal succession means any link, any common aim or goal, any system of signs decodeable for the other, an experience which is universalised in the final paragraph of the text when the perspective expands over the city in the background, and the voices and noises in their unavoidable physical vagueness and blurredness turn alienation into the condition of human existence.

Though in a different narrative situation and narrative strategy, the main concerns of “An Unwritten Novel” are not unlike those of “Kew Gardens.” In “An Unwritten Novel” the narrator, obviously Woolf's persona, a creative artist, sits in a train compartment facing several fellow travelers and is finally left alone with a woman who is unwilling to play the game and conceal the projection of the emotions on her face: “Such an expression of unhappiness was enough by itself to make one's eyes slide above the paper's edge to the poor woman's face—insignificant without that look, almost a symbol of human destiny with it” (SF 112). Compared to the first sentence of “Kew Gardens,” this beginning is affirmative and creates the impression of a firm control of the narratorial “I.” The narrator, as David Lodge remarks, is “struggling to extract an imaginative truth from the clues of her appearance and deportment (the metonymic or synecdochic indices of character in realistic [sic] fiction”) (152). By supposing a causal relation between the woman's looks and her character, she tries to decode the sign of the woman and to contextualise her socially, economically, psychologically and emotionally.

The presupposition behind this attitude is the confidence in the perceiver's ability to decode the other, and to reach a final and objective truth. It is on this basis that the narrative consciousness builds the story of the woman, which seems within easy reach. It offers itself “inevitably,” distracts the narrator's attention from the daily paper behind which she and the other passengers hide. The newspaper here is of special importance. Not only does it create the atmosphere of a real and realistic train compartment but it also functions as a symbol of self-evident conclusions, of ready-made truth, of facts served daily as life, as a repository of the essence of existence: “The Times knows” (SF 112).

The narrator knows, too (or she over-confidently thinks she does), and she becomes, in her search for meaning, the creator and absolute ruler of a fictional world which she presumes to be the imitation and the verbal equivalent of the real world—parallel with The Times, which posits itself as the repository of knowledge about contemporary political and social history. This striking functional resemblance between the narrator and The Times can make readers dubious about the narrator's over-confidence. As it appears in context, in the beginning The Times and life are considered as each other's correlatives, but ultimately they are essentially contrasted. The Times, which sums in headlines the surface of reality, is first taken by the narrator as “my great reservoir of life” (SF 112). Yet the story of life as constructed by The Times is constantly invaded, torn open, and defeated by the other story of life, by the story of the woman. At this point, the newspaper is presented in military metaphors, as something which tries, in vain, to defend its own truth:

The Times was no protection against such sorrow as hers. […] The best thing to do against life was to fold the paper so that it made a perfect square, crisp, thick, impervious even to life. This done, I glanced up quickly, armed with a shield of my own. She pierced through my shield; she gazed into my eyes as if searching any sediment of courage at the depth of them.

(SF 112-13)

In this “fight” the narrator apparently gives in to life as represented by the woman, but though conceiving herself as the empathetic reader of the signs of a human being, finally she turns out to have imposed her own truth and to have attributed an arbitrary meaning to the woman sitting opposite. Considering her own perception of the looks of the woman as a firm and unmistakable foundation, she makes up a life story for the woman, based on her own associations related to the sight, never questioning the validity of such a process, never doubting her own pre- and misconceptions, even neglecting the signs that do not fit her own structure, though the woman, at the beginning of the story, keeps sending messages: “If only you knew” (SF 112).

Inevitably, the “written novel” about that particular woman fails as a realist representation of her life. The imagined childless spinster living at the mercy of better-off relatives almost as a domestic servant, only with the past memories of an unfulfilled and hopeless love affair, turns out to be the respectable mother of a loving son. The narrator's process of prejudiced sign-reading proves to be unsatisfactory and the doubt about the possibility of realist mimesis arises.

Yet, this short piece, in my reading, is neither “a self-conscious defeat” (Dowling 126), nor is the final note the expression of “the writer's uncertainty and comic unreliability” (Davenport 165). I am more inclined to agree with the view that “An Unwritten Novel” “dramatises the problem of writing, the impossibility of closing the gap between the subject who writes and the object written about” (Minow-Pinkney 26). I would add that the ending of the story is a self-conscious, though mannered and affected declaration of the creative artist, who, in spite of the awareness of the gap, continues to create and yet tries and grasps the essence of what the archetypal image of mother and son represents, the very essence that for Woolf “life,” “it” means. It is at this point that the narrator rejects the approach symbolised by The Times in order to create an admittedly fictional world in another way. She does so not by summing up in headlines, not by looking at, not by seeing, not by an external approach but by entering the minds of the characters and by “recording the myriads of impressions as they fall upon the mind” (MF [“Modern Fiction”] 89). Similarly, she records all “the myriads of impressions” (MF 88) of the narrator's mind in “An Unwritten Novel”—that is why and how the “unwritten novel” becomes more important than the one(s) already written—either by her or by her predecessors.

The third piece, “The Mark on the Wall,” as far as its narrative strategy is concerned, resembles “An Unwritten Novel” in that it is in first person narration, and “Kew Gardens” in that the perspective is limited and the attitude of the narrator, as opposed to that of “An Unwritten Novel,” is one of uncertainty, hesitation, even an agnostic attitude to the possibility of grasping and defining the world through language and clear-cut categories.

The first sentence defies the rules of omniscient narration with a clearly defined time and space, even parodies the tradition of creating spatial and temporal environment:

Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall. In order to fix a date it is necessary to remember what one saw. So now I think of the fire; the steady film of yellow light upon the page of my book; the three chrysanthemums in the round glass bowl on the mantelpiece. Yes, it must have been wintertime, and we had just finished tea, for I remember I was smoking a cigarette when I looked up and saw the mark on the wall for the first time. (Emphasis added: “perhaps” is a key word in the first sentence of “Kew Gardens” too.)

(SF 83)

There are several twists in the logic of this argument. The arguments enumerated to prove it was January are so vague that they widen the possible scope of time in winter rather than limit it. The third part of the argument further broadens the period since neither drinking tea nor smoking a cigarette is inherently linked to any season, and it is on these grounds that the conclusion is drawn: “Yes, it must have been wintertime.” At this moment the whole argumentation becomes hypothetical and non-defined in spite of the alleged, though most probably tongue-in-cheek intention of fixing the time.

Similarly, the mark on the wall, the only fixed and concrete object in the text, is left ultimately non-defined all through the narrator's interior monologue, yet this non-defined object serves as a starting point for a series of hypothetical and deductive conclusions, which, in turn, serve as the basis for free associations, as indirect and subjective evidence to locate and create a certain fictional reality. Linguistically, the floating elusiveness is brought about as a result of a special use of paratactic and loosely connected hypotactic sentences. The successive clauses within the sentence create associative links with each other and not with the main clauses which include the object of contemplation and the intention to find out what the mark is. In this process the hierarchy of the main clause and the sub-clauses is inverted, and the reader is lost in the text, unable to hold on any key statement, as there is none:

And yet the mark on the wall is not a hole at all. It may even be caused by some round black substance, such as a small rose leaf, left over from the summer, and I, not being a vigilant housekeeper—look at the dust on the mantelpiece, for example, the dust, which they say, buried Troy three times over, only fragments of pots utterly refusing annihilation, as one can believe.

(SF 84)

In this sentence, which is not even finished grammatically, the focus of the statement is just as ungraspable as the mark on the wall, but, then, this is the essence of the whole text: it is the “failure” to fix meaning that creates the text whereas achieving the apparently admitted aim—the identification of the mark—destroys the text.

The narrator, in a metaphor, provides a key to the logic of the text: “How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade so feverishly and then leave it” (SF 84). This sentence expresses the rhythmical repetition and circularity of the text. The narrator, instead of standing up and seeing what that “small round mark black upon the white wall” (SF 84) is, goes on with her guessing game in which the current idea triggers off further chains of associations until, at one point, there comes another assumption as to what the mark may be, so a deductive hypothesis is followed by a series of reflections in each unit of the text, where the non-definition of the mark (or, we can say, the sign) becomes the metaphor for the ontological insecurity of human existence: “To show how little control of our possessions we have—what an accidental affair this living is after all our civilization. […] What a scraping paring affair this living is to be sure” (SF 84), and as the last sentence hints, the non-definition of the mark serves also as the metaphor for epistemological agnosticism: “I might get up but if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn't be able to say for certain” (SF 83-84). The text itself, by making constant attempts at definition, yet in each case from the beginning skeptical about the validity of the supposition proposed, becomes an elusive sign, resisting categorisation and fixed definitions on the textual level and on the thematic level of the reflexive parts.

In the narrator's reflections, the coexistence of Woolf's modernist and feminist aesthetics as “two faces of a single project” can clearly be grasped as “they converge in th[e] attempt to challenge phallocentrism” (Minow-Pinkney 14, 5). The main themes of the reflections are the binary oppositions of objective and subjective, fixed and loose, the notions of hierarchical order, generalisations, rules and knowledge juxtaposed to life, “the pleasant track of thoughts” and “illegitimate freedom.” These binary oppositions create thematic links to Woolf's well-known hostility towards the masculine myth of “historical fiction,” towards fixed and unchangeable rules and categories symbolised by Whitaker's table of precedency. They connect to her skepticism about the possibility of gnosis (the antiquary Colonel “feels agreeably philosophic in accumulating evidence […] proving I really don't know what. […] And what is knowledge?” [SF 87])—key ideas that recur in her discursive feminist essay A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas.

The Colonel's attempts to fix a clearly defined and categorised meaning is a counterpoint to the attitude of the narrator, who maintains an alternative imaginary freedom consisting in the free play between the sign and the interpretative consciousness, which gives the pleasure of just sitting and opening up new versions of reading the sign instead of fixing it. This is how Woolf's feminist arguments and modernist aesthetics coalesce and posit the prospect of an oncoming, in Woolf's thinking, more humane world:

The masculine point of view, which governs our lives, which sets the standards […] soon, one may hope, will be laughed into the dustbin where the phantoms go, leaving us all with an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom—if freedom exists. […] Yes, one could imagine a pleasant world. […] A world without professors or specialists or house-keepers with the profiles of policemen.

(SF 86-87)

This is a world unpinned, where the process of interpretation is the creation of the subjective consciousness, where one can, subversively, defy culturally inherited and encoded rules of thinking, speaking, writing, and behaviour (as in this case, when the narrator rather goes on thinking instead of getting up as a well-trained Englishwoman should to see and wipe off the mark).

It is only with this subversive attitude that creative writing is possible. Instead of closing down, instead of fixed and unified identities, instead of rendering one-to-one equivalents ending up in “military sounding generalisations” (what ultimately, the narrator of “An Unwritten Novel” does), the writer should be aware that the “novelists in future will realise more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number” (SF 85). The text should open up in the same way as the mark on the wall is open to several interpretations, and it is in these interpretations, in the interaction between sign and interpreter (let it be the narrator and the mark or the reader and the text) that “the pleasure of the text” can be found. The moment it is closed, creation is over—as in this case.

The narrator's reverie is interrupted by someone just about to buy a newspaper, which in itself relates him to the narrator of “An Unwritten Novel” and the The Times. When he enters the room, which was a room of her own before, the joy of the reverie is destroyed. He is the intruder, the emblematic imposer of order and definition as he says, “all the same, I don't see why we should have a snail on the wall” (SF 89). In this situation he is the housekeeper as policeman (whereas the narrator is, admittedly, a bad housekeeper), the namegiver, the categoriser, the embodiment of confidence in the non-ambiguity of knowledge and language. From this moment on creation is no longer possible, the text must cease: “Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail!” (SF 89). In this context the newspaper can easily be associated with the narrator of “An Unwritten Novel,” who is liable to draw self-evident conclusions, just like The Times in the same story, while the snail suggests the dislocated narrative position of “Kew Gardens.”

The three texts in which Woolf saw “immense possibilities,” the texts which she imagined as “taking hands and dancing in unity” (WD 41) seem puzzlingly different at first sight. Yet, the fact that the last sentences of “The Mark on the Wall” bring together the key motifs of the other two stories (snail, newspaper) and the text combines them with its own key motif (the mark on the wall) might perhaps suggest links of a more substantial kind. The narrative strategies of the three stories will become constituents of the new paradigm of fiction in Woolf's later novels, decentering key assumptions behind realism. In “Kew Gardens” the omniscient narrator is replaced by an impersonal voice speaking from the snail's perspective, in “An Unwritten Novel” the narrator admits the failure of the realist method of reading the world as a system of transparent signs, whereas the narratorial “I” of “The Mark on the Wall” is skeptical towards language and clearly definable meanings, parodying and defying the deepest underlying logic of realist fiction.

These narratorial attitudes are reflected on the structural level as well: none of the texts is centered “successfully” around plot and character. The fictional world of “Kew Gardens” is intentionally created as limited, fragmented, and haphazard, as if in a futile attempt to express anything coherent and meaningful about the people passing in their sheer physicality. “An Unwritten Novel” is an attempt to make up a life-story as both the framing narrative situation and the story of the unknown woman have a proper beginning and a neat conclusion symbolised by the train journey with a concrete destination, only to come to a novellistic twist which destroys the logic of the text. The narrator of “The Mark on the Wall,” on the other hand, though she sets a clear aim, which would require teleological linearity, evades reaching the goal and creates an all-inclusive, rambling, circular text, one thing opening out of another. Thus, the three texts are experimenting with different forms of narration. Each in itself and all of them together seem to destabilise all the elements of realist fiction, and propose “the new form of the novel” (WD 42) that, in Woolf's later fiction, will not be devoid of feminist overtones both on the textual and the thematic levels—both of which are foreshadowed and experimented with in her short stories.

Works Cited

Primary Sources:

Bowlby, Rachel, ed. Virginia Woolf: A Woman's Essays. [WE]. London: Penguin, 1992.

Dick, Susan, ed. Virginia Woolf: The Complete Shorter Fiction. [SF]. London: Triad, 1989.

Woolf, Leonard, ed. A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf. [WD]. London: Triad, 1953.

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” [MF]. Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. A Reader. Ed. David Lodge. London: Longman, 1972.

Secondary Sources:

Batchelor, John. Virginia Woolf: The Major Novels. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Davenport, Tony. “The Life of Monday or Tuesday.” Virginia Woolf: New Critical Essays. Ed. Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy. London: Vision, 1983.

Dick, Susan. “The Tunnelling Process: Some Aspects of Virginia Woolf's Use of Memory and the Past.” Virginia Woolf: New Critical Essays. Ed. Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy. London: Vision, 1983.

Dowling, David. Bloomsbury Aesthetics and the Novels of Forster and Woolf. London: Macmillan, 1985.

Gordon, Lyndall. Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.

Harper, Howard. Between Language and Silence: The Novels of Virginia Woolf. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.

Lodge, David. The Modes of Modern Writing. Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature. London: Arnold, 1979.

Minow-Pinkney, Makiko. Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject. Brighton: Harvester, 1987.

Rose, Phyllis. Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. London: Routledge, 1979.

Corinne E. Blackmer (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Blackmer, Corinne E. “Lesbian Modernism in the Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein.” In Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, edited by Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer, pp. 78-93. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Blackmer analyzes the lesbian-themed short stories of Woolf and Gertrude Stein to gain insight into their “distinctive approaches to creating lesbian modernist literature.”]

To the extent that lesbians have been associated with the obscure, the neglected, and the marginal, there is something quintessentially “lesbian” about bringing the shorter fictions of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein into critical focus. Although her accomplishment in this genre equals that of her contemporary James Joyce, Woolf has not been highly appreciated for her short stories. The standard format for a critical study of Woolf remains, as Avrom Fleishman notes, “a series of chapters on the nine longer fictions, one after another” (“Forms” 44). When mentioned at all, her short stories tend to be regarded not as innovative achievements in themselves, but rather as experiments in themes and techniques developed more fully in the novels. Her short stories occupy, in the hierarchy of Woolfian genres, a marginalized lesbian position analogous to that held by her treatment of desire between women in mainstream Woolf criticism.

In her lesbian-themed short stories, Woolf conducts a comprehensive analysis of the psychological experience of attraction among women. In “The Mysterious Case of Miss V.” (1908) and “The Lady in the Looking-Glass” (1928), she uses the images of the apparitional spinster, the double personality, and the mirrored self-portrait to explore the disavowed lesbian desire that simmers beneath the surface of ostensibly conventional lives. The signal importance of these stories and, in particular, “Memoirs of a Novelist” (1909) and “A Society” (1920) lies, however, in their fiercely intimate and impassioned engagement with earlier traditions of sublimated or censored literatures of lesbianism.1 Woolf turns specifically to the short story, rather than the review essay or literary manifesto, because this form enables her to express herself with imaginative latitude and, given the need in her historical moment for discretion in handling this explosive topic, indirection. Woolf combines critical analysis and fictional narration to fashion what are among the first examples of lesbian feminist historical criticism.

Because Stein worked extensively in all the major forms, critics have been less inclined than they have with Woolf to privilege one genre over another in her vast, multifaceted, intentionally decentered oeuvre. Her concise, poetic evocations of lesbian subjectivity in her short story “Melanctha” (1909) and her verbal portraits “Ada” (1908), “As a Wife Has a Cow” (1926), and “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” (1922) achieve an aesthetic power not equaled in her more diffuse lesbian-themed writings, with the exception of her equally poetic collection of object portraits Tender Buttons and her erotic dialogue poem Lifting Belly.

Differing critical receptions of their shorter fiction cannot, however, account for the general absence of comparative commentary on Woolf and Stein, an absence all the more striking given their stature as major lesbian modernists. An analysis of their lesbian-themed short stories provides an excellent context for examining the larger implications of their distinctive approaches to creating lesbian modernist literature. For Woolf and Stein, lesbian modernism signifies a historical break with the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres, which, as represented in Victorian realist literature, reflected the belief that men and women have different but complementary biological traits, social roles, and sexual natures. In lesbian modernism, the lesbian enters the public domain as an autonomous, artistically creative, self-directed being whose conscious desire for women contradicts dominant assumptions regarding women's innate sexual passivity. More radically, her very existence implies the eventual elimination of gender as a significant force in cultural and social relations.

While Woolf and Stein share this broad understanding of lesbian modernism, their shorter fictions elaborate different significations around the homosexual closet, constructed by separating private from public knowledge of homosexual identity. According to Eve Sedgwick's influential paradigm, the defining feature of gay and lesbian modernism is the production of a homosexual code that restricts information about homosexuality to contexts in which its legibility depends on shared minority identification (Epistemology 71-73). Hence, textual occlusions, including those that ostensibly have nothing to do with sexuality, point obliquely toward individual or cultural instances of sexual identity crisis. In her lesbian-themed shorter fictions, Woolf invites her homosexual readership to identify with her lesbian subject position. Through encoded language, she reveals the repressed lesbian identities within earlier literatures of homosexuality. Concomitantly, she treats conscious acknowledgment of homosexual identity as the ethical truth of modern lesbian subjectivity by critiquing the self-ignorance and self-repressiveness informing earlier authors like Marie Corelli and Vernon Lee, Sappho scholars, and her self-portrait as the apparitional Miss V(irginia).

Because Stein occludes her gender by substituting “he” or “one” for “she,” she can also be read as a lesbian modernist who, like Woolf, uses coded language. However, since readers of Gertrude Stein remain aware of her gender, these transparent sex reversals can be interpreted as sites of disruption designed not to conceal but to call attention to the fictive status of all gender constructs. Moreover, her notorious textual opacity does not disguise lesbian identity because Stein, anticipating the queer theorizations of Judith Butler, does not believe that sexuality can remain sexuality if it submits to linguistic acts of naming that promise to transform intrinsically opaque psychic processes into transparent facts (Butler “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 15). For Stein, sexual subjectivity signifies an inner movement of self-contained being that resists capture through definitions, categorizations, or other information about persons. Since Stein based her lesbian-themed verbal portraits on her autobiographical experiences, it makes sense that she approaches lesbianism as an embodied form of desire related immediately and casually to dramatized being. In her lesbian-themed shorter fictions, she reconfigures the ontological relationship between inessential attributes that describe habitual acts and essential definitions that name persons in order to represent lesbian subjectivity as an embodied process of experience that is neither speakable nor unspeakable.

Woolf's early story “The Mysterious Case of Miss V.” concerns an anonymous narrator who becomes obsessed with Miss V., an elderly spinster who haunts London society without anyone's taking notice of her existence. This narrative illustrates what Terry Castle calls the “lesbian ghost story,” in which the metaphor of ghosting represents the culturally mandated specter of disavowed lesbian desire that returns to haunt another woman (28-65). The connection between the narrator and Miss V. also recalls the covert male homoeroticism in late Victorian doppelganger stories such as Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). In her diary, Woolf noted that she wanted to study Stevenson, “not to copy … but to see how the trick's done” (PA [A Passionate Apprentice] 251). Published the year that the Labouchere Amendment outlawing male homosexuality in England went into effect, Stevenson's novella explores the double life of daytime social propriety and nighttime sexual liaisons forced upon male homosexuals. Henry Jekyll, an ostensibly respectable and celibate bachelor, mates with his double, Edward Hyde, a disreputable young man who arouses suspicion among his all-male circle of acquaintances, who fear being sexually blackmailed by working-class blackguards. The narrator of this study of male homosexual panic is Gabriel John Utterson, who, like Woolf's narrator, fills the void in his uneventful existence with an elaborate fantasy life based on vicarious identification with “downgoing men,” for whom “it was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance” (1). Just as Woolf's narrator becomes fixated on Miss V., Utterson becomes “enslaved” (13) by the mystery of Hyde, vowing that “If he be Mr. Hyde … I shall be Mr. Seek” (15).

Woolf represents herself, as Dean R. Baldwin notes, in the character of Miss V. (Miss Virginia) and explores her fears of becoming an isolated spinster whose personal identity has shrunk to an initial and who has no more substance than a shadow (8). Through this fictionalized self-portrait, Woolf examines how the fear of losing social acceptance makes her reluctant to embrace her desire for women. Moreover, Elaine Showalter remarks that unlike Victorian gentlemen, who “had the prerogative of moving freely through the zones of the city,” Victorian ladies were not permitted “access to a nighttime world of bars, clubs, brothels, and illicit sexuality as an alternative to their public life of decorum and restraint” (118-19). In contrast to Gabriel Utterson, Woolf's narrator relates little information about her unanchored, solitary life that secretly mirrors that of the mysterious Miss V.

The sudden death of Miss V. plunges the narrator into apprehensions concerning her own anonymity: “The ease with which such a fate befalls you suggests that it is really necessary to assert yourself in order to prevent yourself from being skipped … It is a terrible fate” (“Miss V” [“The Mysterious Case of Miss V”] 30). Although she refers to the “sister” of Miss V., she also notes that “it is characteristic that in writing of them one name seems instinctively to do for both—indeed one might mention a dozen such sisters in one breath” (“Miss V” 30). She both erases Miss V. as an individual and implies that a covert sisterly bond exists between them. While the strength of this bond makes her afraid to acknowledge her desire for intimacy with Miss V. lest she share in her insignificance, her disavowal of this connection will result in the same end.

Significantly, the narrator first notices Miss V. through her absence, which causes her a “nameless dissatisfaction” (“Miss V” 31). One morning she calls aloud her name: “Mary V! Mary V!” (“Miss V” 31). But this attempt at communication fails to raise the ghost. She conceives the “fantastic plan” of visiting Miss V. and treating her “as though she were a person like the rest of us!” (“Miss V” 31). When she arrives, she discovers that Miss V. has died “at the very moment when I called her name” (“Miss V” 32). This melodramatic ending spells out the doom of urban isolation foretold in the opening: “It is a commonplace that there is no loneliness like that of one who finds himself alone in a crowd; novelists repeat it; the pathos is undeniable; and now, since the case of Miss V., I at least have come to believe it” (“Miss V” 30). The narrator arrives too late to create an actual bond with the woman revealed, at last, not as Miss Virginia but rather her apparitional double, Mary V. The story leaves the narrator with the choice of repeating the patterns that have ghosted women like Mary V. or, alternately, of becoming intimate with and acknowledging herself, Miss Virginia.

Woolf's “Memoirs of a Novelist” reveals that in the negative anxieties over ghostly spinsterhood that characterize “The Mysterious Case of Miss V.” lie the positive possibilities of recovery and rematerialization. Woolf frames this quasi-fictional, quasi-critical story as a review article that outs two late Victorian romantic friends as repressed lesbians in the process of critiquing Miss Linsett's tedious memoirs of her lifelong companion, Miss Willatt, a once popular author of insipid romances. This groundbreaking fiction should be read in conjunction with Woolf's two manifestos of literary modernism, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924) and “Modern Fiction” (1925). Years before declaring that their materialist world view prevented her Edwardian literary forbears from apprehending modern character as an “unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration and complexity it may display” (“Modern Fiction” 150), this story reveals how the ideology of separate spheres governing Victorian culture systemically suppressed lesbianism. Woolf accomplishes this task by exploring the difference between the official Miss Willatt, as portrayed by her Victorian biographer Miss Linsatt, and the real Miss Willatt, as revealed by the narrator.

Woolf appears to have modeled Miss Willatt on the immensely popular Edwardian novelist Marie Corelli. Her melodramas, which combined anti-sex polemics with occultism and science fiction, were often set in biblical or otherwise remote locales and rapidly fell into obscurity after her death. Corelli had a longtime romantic friendship with Bertha Vyver, a union complete with the consolations of traditional marriage except for sexual expression, which Corelli regarded as legitimate only for procreation. Viewing their female-female love as free from any “taint” of male lust, the women were openly affectionate in public. Ironically, Corelli's belief in women's natural moral superiority accompanied her staunch opposition to women's suffrage.2 Woolf, who regarded Corelli as a model of bad writing and compared her unfavorably to Sappho (D [The Diary of Virginia Woolf] 2: 340), treats the Corelli-like Miss Willatt as the archetype of the censorious and morally self-righteous lesbian author who regards public adulation as a personal right but cannot identify with feminists or homosexual men lest she come to recognize her sinful lesbian desires.

The story opens with the death of Miss Willatt. After considering whether anyone can or should know the truth about someone's private life, the narrator concludes that both women have, as writers, exposed themselves to historical scrutiny. Miss Linsatt, however, uses writing to mask rather than reveal truth, and since she never explains why she wrote her memoirs of Miss Willatt or who either of them was, the narrator reinterprets the official story. Miss Linsatt, she surmises, wrote the memoirs because she “felt uneasy” after her companion's death since the people on the street looked remarkably “indifferent” (“Memoirs” [“Memoirs of a Novelist”] 69). While Miss Willatt's fate as a forgotten novelist mirrors the existential anomie of Miss Linsatt, she reinforces her predicament by excising from her memoirs the psychological conflict that would have made her and her friend fascinating and instructive to future homosexual readers. Woolf rescues Miss Willatt from oblivion but also emphasizes that authors who live by dictates of conventional opinion will die by them as well.

From the narrator's sleuth-like skill in reading between the lines of the official memoirs, we learn that Miss Willatt became alienated from society because her male relatives belittled her intellectual abilities. Expected to marry to establish her “relationship to the world,” she experiences “a terrible depression” (“Memoirs” 72). To avoid institutional heterosexuality, she takes up religion. Her moral seriousness cannot, however, eliminate her persistent desires. She confesses to her best friend, Ellen Buckle, that she oscillates between feeling superior to the sexual sinfulness that surrounds her and regarding herself as an anomalous “blot upon the face of nature” (“Memoirs” 73):

A terrible self-consciousness possessed her, and she writes to Miss Buckle as though she watched her shadow trembling over the entire world, beneath the critical eyes of the angels. … “What would I not give to help you?” writes Miss Buckle. Our difficulty as we read now is to understand what their aim was; for it is clear that they imagined a state in which the soul lay tranquil and in bliss, and that if one could reach it one was perfect. … But the only pleasure that they allowed themselves to feel was the pleasure of submission.

(“Memoirs” 73)

In this crisis, however, Miss Buckle deserts her friend by marrying an engineer “by whom her doubts were set at rest for ever” (“Memoirs” 73) and leaves Miss Willatt to suffer her suspected sinfulness alone. Not surprisingly, Miss Linsatt ruthlessly censors this portion of her memoir, shrinking “the word love and whole passages polluted by it … into asterisks” (“Memoirs” 73) and substituting dull catalogues of virtues for the complicated truth of Miss Willatt's romantic grief. Judging that Miss Linsatt has abandoned Miss Willatt by refusing to disclose why Miss Buckle ended her friendship with Miss Willatt, the narrator, in turn, dismisses Miss Linsatt and her memoirs. The narrator surmises that Miss Willatt, having suffered rejection for revealing her anomalous character to another woman, learned to mask herself and deceive the adoring Miss Linsatt. In reality, Miss Willatt was a “restless and discontented person” (“Memoirs” 75) who doubted religion and used charity to mask her ambitions. But rather than acknowledge her lesbian desires or critique Victorian gender ideology, she turns, in a gesture common to sublimated literatures of lesbianism, to the realm of fantasy, producing romantic fables of imaginary lovers in faraway locales that transport her readers into places remote from their own constricted lives. Miss Willatt becomes a failed Sappho, a woman whose cynical failure of nerve constitutes her essential tragedy as a writer and a leader of women:

She had thoughts of emigrating, and founding a society, in which she saw herself … reading wisdom from a book to a circle of industrious disciples. … Miss Willatt was far too clever to believe that anyone could answer anything; but the sight of these queer little trembling women, who looked up at her, prepared for beating or caress, like spaniels, appealed to a mass of emotions, and they were not all of them bad. What such women wanted, she saw, was to be told that they were parts of a whole.

(“Memoirs” 77)

Miss Linsatt lavishly describes Miss Willatt's death, but her homage does not succeed in immortalizing her friend. In “Memoirs of a Novelist,” Woolf doubly inverts the traditional love story. Victorian mores result in the denial of lesbian passion and an amorous fixation on death. Miss Linsatt loves her dead companion because “[i]t was an end undisturbed by the chance of a fresh beginning” (“Memoirs” 79). But Woolf destabilizes this closure, showing the intensely lonely Miss Linsatt remembering how she and her friend “had been in the habit of going to Kew Gardens together on Sundays” (“Memoirs” 79).

In “The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection,” Woolf portrays a disquieting, compelling woman modeled partly on her influential contemporary, the lesbian art critic Vernon Lee (Violet Paget).3 The narrative begins with the statement that “People should not leave open cheque books or letters confessing some hideous crime” (“Lady” 221) and ends with “People should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms” (“Lady” 225). This story reveals that the elderly spinster Isabella Tyson does not hide behind her façade a terrible crime or financial indiscretion. Rather, Isabella's reflection in the looking-glass exposes her to the narrator as an “empty” old woman who has “no thoughts,” “no friends,” and “cared for nobody” (“Lady” 225). This story never reveals the actual connection between the narrator and Isabella, or explains why the former observes Isabella so intently, as if determined to uncover “the truth about Isabella … after knowing her all these years” (“Lady” 222).

The anonymous narrator relates several facts about her friend while Isabella tends her opulent flower garden. A wealthy woman with a home furnished with Oriental antiques she has accumulated in her travels to “the most obscure corners of the world” (“Lady” 222), Isabella in her worldliness contrasts sharply with Woolf's earlier portraits of restricted, impoverished lesbian lives. Although she had “known many people, had had many friends,” her intimacies have led to “nothing” (“Lady” 222), either because she has never married or has never shared the story of her personal relationships with others. Nevertheless, the narrator speculates that to judge “from the mask-like indifference of her face, she had gone through twenty times more of passion and experience than those whose loves are trumpeted forth for all the world to hear” (“Lady” 223). The narrator implies that Isabella's hermetically sealed private life protects her lesbianism from public disclosure.

Both the voyeuristic narrator and Isabella Tyson bear a striking resemblance to Vernon Lee. Woolf composed a portrait of Lee, whom she had visited in Florence and, as the ending of “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” indicates, originally intended to make Lee's longtime female companion, C. Anstruther-Thomas, a character in Mrs. Dalloway (MD [Mrs. Dalloway] 159). Like Isabella Tyson, Lee was a widely traveled aesthete who collected art and antique furnishings. An enigmatic and strikingly beautiful woman, Lee forbade inquiries into her personal life. While Lee was reluctant to acknowledge her lesbianism even to her close friends, her writings on aesthetics, which influenced Woolf, were replete with encoded homosexual references.

Woolf treats Lee as a transitional figure who embodies the struggle between cultural tradition and innovation. Regarding art as the vehicle for sublimating homoeroticism, Lee's aesthetic theory combines an obsessive focus on women as the ideal object of art with a universalizing masculine gaze that causes her to construct an airtight homosexual closet. While Woolf shared Lee's contrary impulses to worship unattainable women and penetrate the enigma of their seductive allure, Woolf's aesthetic objectification was modified by her feminist valorization of female experience. In “The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection,” Woolf uses the metaphor of the mirror to explore how Vernon Lee would look to Vernon Lee if she held up the reflection of her aesthetic philosophy to herself. That the narrator discovers nothingness as the secret of Isabella's life reveals Woolf's critique of the consequences of Lee's divorce of aesthetic pleasure from empathic identification. Art, like the aesthetic contemplation of human beings, exists to forbid rather than to create intimacy. Yet the very force of the forbidden creates a desire to uncover a hidden truth that the denial of female experience has already rendered not only inaccessible but also, more alarmingly, perhaps nonexistent.

In “A Society,” Woolf turns to Sappho, the preeminent lesbian poet of Western culture. Gillian Spraggs argues that in the early twentieth century, when medical sexologists and apologists for same-sex love were adopting the names “lesbian” and “Sapphist” for a distinct psychological type, lesbian authors were identifying Sappho as an exemplary foremother. In response to these developments, “eminent scholars of ancient Greek were covering pages with passionately expressed assertions as to the ‘moral purity’ and generally conventional character of the poet” (51). Woolf shows how male scholars' pathologizing misinterpretations of her poetry contribute to the most egregious features of British patriarchy: fatalistic warmongering among men and compulsive childbearing among women. Cassandra, the central narrator, reports on the doings of six complaisant young women who have been taught to disparage women and praise male achievements. Their assumptions are challenged by Polly, who has been given a paternal legacy on the condition that she read all the books in the British Library. Polly “bursts into tears” when she can no longer suppress her knowledge that most books written by men are “unutterably bad” (“A Society” 124). Deciding that the object of life is to “produce good people and good books” (“A Society” 128), the women form themselves into a Society for judging the worth of patriarchal culture. They venture out to investigate what men do in the navy, the law courts, the arts, and the university. Until they receive satisfactory answers, they vow to remain chaste: “Before we bring another child into the world we must swear that we will find out what the world is like” (“A Society” 125).

As Jane Marcus notes, “A Society” represents Woolf's effort to penetrate cloistered male scholarly societies such as the Cambridge Apostles, whose members were ostensibly heterosexual even though they idealized male homosexuality and Greek culture, and “to offer a parallel sisterhood of intellectual inquiry and social conscience” (“Liberty” 91). Sappho connects this closeted male society of scholars, who live in sterile isolation without “children or animals” (“A Society” 127), to the feminist society of modern sapphists who infiltrate their domains. Castalia travels to Oxbridge to investigate the intellectual contributions of Professor Hobkin, whose scholarly life has been dedicated to an edition of Sappho. When Castalia returns, her contempt for his arid life mingles with her puzzlement over what useful knowledge his work means to convey.

It's a queer looking book, six or seven inches thick, not all by Sappho. Oh, no. Most of it is a defense of Sappho's chastity, which some German has denied, and I can assure you the passion with which these two gentlemen argued, the learning they displayed, the prodigious ingenuity with which they disputed the use of some implement which looked to me for all the world like a hairpin astounded me.

(“A Society” 128)

Another woman speculates that Professor Hobkin must be a “gynaecologist” since no serious literary scholar could waste so much time, in a work supposedly dedicated to a great lyric poet, over minor issues like hairpins and disputes over chastity. But Professor Hobkin typifies a tradition of male scholars who refused, with few exceptions, to accept Sappho's love for women as an unproblematic aspect of her being related to her appreciation of female beauty, celebration of nature, and criticism of warfare. Rather, they projected their compulsion to control women onto Sappho by isolating her sexuality from its social and artistic context. This fanatical obsession with Sapphic sexuality serves to deflect attention from the serious issues raised by feminist reinterpretations of chastity and to mask profound fears that women's politically motivated feminist bonding threatens male dominance and the patriarchal family. For the Society, chastity means the refusal to reproduce a culture that perpetuates waste, aggression, and mediocrity by barring women from making vitally needed contributions.

Woolf underscores the point that productive feminist community depends on common political goals. Castalia ventures again to Oxbridge to uncover more information about male notions of chastity. She decides to conceive a child out of wedlock and raise it in the female world of the Society. Although she has broken her vow of chastity, her companions do not reject her since her pregnancy registers her protest to the life-denying world of male scholarship. Both Cassandra and Castalia realize that they are not chaste according to the male definition of the term, for, as Castalia remarks, “If you'd been a chaste woman yourself you would have screamed at the sight of me—instead of which you rushed across the room and took me in your arms” (“A Society” 129).

In the end, however, Woolf undercuts this epiphanic moment of feminist solidarity in two ways. She reveals the tragic political consequences of male scholars' bowdlerizations of Sappho and suggests the challenges the women will face in coping with their new insights. The sudden arrival of World War I represents the literalization of the disputes over Sappho's chastity among European scholars. Masculine culture has failed to learn anything valuable from Sappho, who linked her love for women—as friends, students, lovers, and mothers—to her critique of the Homeric epic that glorified violence and nationalistic warfare.4 In a desperate effort to protect her child from this destructive culture, Castalia wants to prevent her daughter Ann “from learning to read” (“A Society” 134). But Ann cannot return to the child-like ignorance of Victorian womanhood any more than she can handle the adult responsibilities thrust upon her. Hence, just as Polly creates the Society by bursting into tears, Ann concludes this phase of feminist inquiry by crying when the women elect her the president of the Society of the Future. “A Society” allegorizes how the ideology of separate spheres imposed limits on the groundbreaking cultural achievements of lesbian-feminist modernism. The Society gains sapphic insight into the systemic failures of masculine civilization but still lacks the political and economic power to transform their world.

In her lesbian-themed shorter fictions, Woolf transforms lesbianism from a repressed cultural phantasm into a form of modern sexual subjectivity through encoded acts of critical reinterpretation. Identification with this textually generated lesbian subject position not only fosters awareness of the historical repression of lesbianism but also serves as a site of political resistance to sexual un-self-consciousness and complicity in patriarchal domination. While Stein, like Woolf, alludes to earlier literatures of homosexuality in her writing, her distinctive contribution to lesbian modernism resides in her use of autobiographical experience to resignify sexuality as an opaque psychic process and, concomitantly, to transform the relationships among literary representation, autobiographical narrative, and sexual subjectivity.

Stein makes the transition from Victorian realism to lesbian modernism in her short story “Melanctha.” This story represents her second attempt, after her posthumously published autobiographical novella Q.E.D. to understand the failure of her first lesbian relationship with May Bookstaver, a student she met during medical school and on whom she based her bisexual, biracial protagonist Melanctha Herbert in “Melanctha.” By applying the logic of the homosexual closet to Stein's mature writing, however, influential critics such as Richard Bridgman conclude that Stein merely covered her lesbian self-portrait in Q.E.D. with a heterosexual ethnic mask in “Melanctha,” thereby using race to encode lesbianism (52). This interpretation not only erases the lesbianism represented legibly in the relationship between Melanctha and Jane Harden but also elides how Stein uses race to foreground how the body and sexual life are governed by arbitrary convention. While distinctions based on race, color, gender, and sexuality dominate the text's social landscape and make Melanctha “blue” about “how all her world was made” (“Melanctha” 87), these presumptively stable and discrete properties are combined and recombined through permutating contexts with such dizzying complexity that they become self-contradictory and lose their authority to enunciate any singular truth about human nature.

Stein employs “black” language as the verbal landscape of this text not to represent actual African American dialect but rather, as Michael North observes, to dramatize the conflict between realist and modernist conceptions of linguistic meaning (74). This conflict informs the central relationship between Melanctha and Jefferson Campbell, a middle-class black doctor who wants “colored people” to avoid “excitements” and “live regular” (“Melanctha” 117). While Stein's self-portrait as Jefferson encodes her gender, she masculinizes herself to parody an earlier version of herself as a naive medical student who believed in bourgeois morality and, subscribing to medical sexology, regarded “real” lesbianism as the assumption of a socially defined masculine role. Melanctha, exposed by Jane Harden's scandalous revelations to Jefferson about their sexual “wanderings” that identify her as a biracial lesbian prostitute who has sex with black and white men alike (“Melanctha” 143-44), treats language as an inessential attribute that describes immediate, self-contained experiences without reference to past or future. She insists that her words mean no more than what she is “just saying” (“Melanctha” 172) in any given moment or context. Jefferson, in contrast, in anguished conflict over the seeming contradiction between Melanctha's “sweet nature” (“Melanctha” 160) and her experiences as a “bad one” (“Melanctha” 144), wants language that commits the speaker, that links past and present selves, and that reveals the consistent inner “truth” of being. His need to “have it all clear out in words always, what everybody is always feeling” (“Melanctha” 171) not only destroys his relationship with Melanctha but also sets the stage for Stein's subsequent representations of lesbian subjectivity as a form of dynamic experience knowable only in reference to itself.

In “Melanctha,” Stein masters her painful loss of May Bookstaver by relinquishing claims to linguistic mastery. Melanctha, who is neither black nor white nor homosexual nor heterosexual, explodes the claims to knowledge and ownership of selves that ground stable racial and sexual identities. Oscillating between her incompatible desires for an expansive “world wisdom” (“Melanctha” 103) on the one hand and a socially approved “right position” (“Melanctha” 212) on the other, Melanctha frustrates the will of the persons she encounters to dominate or contain her by naming her essence. Although Melanctha ultimately dies alone of “consumption” (“Melanctha” 236), exhausted by her inability to gain social acceptance, the responsibility for her tragic end rests not with Melanctha herself but with the limits her world imposes on the meaning of a woman's quest for “world wisdom” (“Melanctha” 212).

Melanctha begins her journey toward “world wisdom” through her relationship with her teacher and first lover, Jane Harden. An educated, “reckless,” and hard-drinking woman, Jane was forced to leave her position at a colored college because of her “bad conduct” (“Melanctha” 103)—an allusion to the drinking habits that, unlike her lesbianism and prostitution, “can never really be covered over” (“Melanctha” 105). Melanctha becomes enamored of Jane because, as an experienced preceptor, Jane makes her “understand what everybody wanted, and what one did with power when one had it” (“Melanctha” 106). Once Melanctha gains equal footing with Jane, however, she begins to quarrel with her and forgets “how much she owed to Jane's teaching” (“Melanctha” 107). Her desertion of Jane propels Melanctha on her self-destructive quest to become “regular” by discovering her “right position” (“Melanctha” 210) through her relationship with Jefferson, the gambler Jem Richards, and Rose Johnson, a shrewdly practical woman who, near the end of the story, ejects Melanctha from her house because she threatens the stability of her heterosexual marriage. On the other hand, the breakdown of Melanctha's friendship with Jane stems from her implicit recognition that, for working-class black women leading lesbian lives, the meanings of “world wisdom” extend no further than the domains of hard drinking, prostitution, and informal relations with other women located similarly on the margins of respectable society.

Conversely, “Ada” celebrates Stein's union with Alice Toklas, whom she nicknamed Ada. This encapsulated history narrates the story of Ada's life from her subordinate position as a daughter in a conventional patriarchal household to her equal status as an adult lesbian who tells and listens to stories that have a satisfying “beginning and a middle and an ending” (“Ada” 16). Stein delineates lesbian modernism as a contextual shift from the heterosexual family to “telling stories” with “one,” namely Gertrude Stein, in an open context of lesbian creativity.

As in her later relationship with “one,” Ada and her mother tell stories to each another. But in this case, the people around them do not like Ada as well as her mother, for while “the daughter was charming inside in her, it did not show outside in her to every one” (“Ada” 15). In other words, in this implicitly homophobic setting, Ada's creativity remains unappreciated and inexpressible. After her mother dies, moreover, Ada becomes a servant to the “many relations who lived with them.” When she tells her father “that she did not like it at all being one being living then” (“Ada” 15), he says nothing, since he cannot imagine an alternative to the unequal relations that make his daughter unhappy. Serendipitously, Ada receives an inheritance and moves away. Her father, who learns to value Ada because she leaves, eventually becomes “quite tender.” Once liberated from her family, Ada does not become the proverbially frustrated or outcast spinster; rather, her capacity for “living” and “loving” liberates a jouissance that results in a rewriting of literary conventions of lesbianism.

In “As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story,” Stein represents lesbian sexuality explicitly to subvert conventional notions of plot structured around conflict, rising action, crisis, falling action, and denouement or climax. While “wife” encodes a private reference to Alice Toklas, having a “cow” is a slang term for orgasm. This activity of female sexual pleasure leading to orgasm is the subject, plot, and climax of this story in which form literally becomes content. The circular story begins by describing the central action and its genre: “Nearly all of it to be as a wife has a cow, a love story” (“Wife Has a Cow” 543). This story concludes, appropriately enough, with the completed action or female “climax”:

Happening and have it as happening and having it happen as happening and having to have it happen as happening, and my wife has a cow as now, my wife having a cow as now, my wife having a cow as now and having a cow as now and having a cow and having a cow now, my wife has a cow and now.

(“Wife Has a Cow” 545)

These verbal clusters indicate the rising action of sexual activity (“came in there … come out of there” and “feeling for it … feel”) and the voluntary withholding of premature orgasm to increase the suspense and pleasure of the climactic close (“not and now … just as soon as now,” “expect … expected,” “prepare … preparation,” and “happening … having”).

As in her other lesbian-themed verbal portraits, Stein drew the inspiration for her most famous portrait of lesbian life, “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” from her actual experiences—in this case, from her and Toklas's acquaintance with a lesbian couple named Miss Mars and Miss Squires. Her repetitive use of the verbal motif “gay” performs a verbal mimesis of the self-contained forces that are related immediately, dynamically, and casually to the thing signified. Stein expands the grammatical function of the adjective “gay,” which signifies happy and carefree, and universalizes the attribute of “gayness,” a slang term for an emerging subcultural attitude toward being homosexual that countered dominant stereotypes of the “third sex” as tragically maladjusted inverts. On the threshold between an inessential attribute and an essential name, “gay” operates as both an adjective denoting a general quality of being (“happy”) and a noun designating a specific class of persons (“homosexuals”). Stein renders the contextual meanings of the “gay” relationship between Misses Furr and Skeene so transparent that only the ingrained habit of the closet, which makes readers notice lesbians only as unspeakable presences lurking behind veiled references to “the love that dare not speak its name,” could prevent anyone from perceiving this story as a coming-out narrative that assumes the existence of an articulate homosexual community.

Stein presents two distinct types of gay women: the one whose restlessness and sense of adventure impels her to travel and the other whose memories of a stable home life motivate her to discover a secure community. Although their different responses to their “gayness” finally drive them apart, both women develop themselves by “cultivating” their “voices” and “other things needing cultivating” (“Furr and Skeene” 17). Stein connects singing with lesbianism because the female voice, as a form of cultivated artistic expression, can only be generated through the female body. Hence, “cultivating voices” signifies learning how to express oneself by nurturing lesbian artistic sensibility within the context of a community where they can speak gay language and live regular (rather than abnormal) gay lives.

While Woolf's “A Society” and Stein's “Melanctha” offer trenchant critiques of the ideology of separate spheres, their lesbian-themed shorter fictions signify lesbian subjectivity differently. Woolf uses encoding to reveal and reconceal her lesbian subject position, fashioning an enclosed, protected site of self-articulation that is constitutive of modern lesbian identity as an ethical domain. In contrast, Stein's experiences impelled her to discard the epistemological distinctions between public and private and literal and encoded knowledge of (homo)sexual identities. For Stein, conscious actors cannot articulate their sexualities as stable identities because sexuality remains occluded by subconscious process. Like Melanctha, who resists Jefferson's/Stein's attempts to commit her to consistency, when it comes to disclosing the truth about sexuality, we can never mean more than what we are “just saying” in any given moment.


  1. I am drawing a historical distinction between “lesbian literature” (literature about lesbianism written by women who identify as lesbians) and “the literature of lesbianism” (literature about lesbianism regardless of the sexual orientation or gender of the author).

  2. See Patricia Smith, “Marie Corelli.”

  3. Vernon Lee is not the sole model for the woman in this story. In her diary, Woolf noted that “One of these days, though I shall sketch here, like a grand historical picture, the outlines of all my friends. … How many little stories come into my head. For instance: Ethel Sands not looking at her letters. What this implies” (D 3: 156-57). While Woolf was thinking of her friend Ethel Sands as someone who, like the woman in this story, does not open her letters, this portrait represents a composite character study. I would argue that this story's prevailing artistic influence derived from Woolf's intense engagement with Vernon Lee as the closeted lesbian embodiment of fin-de-siécle homosexual aestheticism.

  4. In Fragments 40, 41, and 42 of Mary Barnard's translation of Sappho's lyrics, the narrator addresses her friend Anactoria, exiled from the community of women by her marriage to an army officer. Sappho bids her to remember Lesbos, where “delicious dew pours down to freshen / roses, delicate thyme” and beautiful girls lay on “soft mats” with “all that they most wished for beside them.” In Fragment 41, she elevates the personal love lyric above the masculine ethos of Homeric epic: “So Anactoria, although you / being far away forget us, the dear sound of your footstep / and light glancing in your eyes / would move me more than glitter / of Lydian horse or armored / tread of mainland infantry.”

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Ed. Diana Fuss. NY: Routledge, 1991. 13-31.

Fleishman, Avrom. “Forms of the Woolfian Short Story.” Freedman 44-70.

Freedman, Ralph, ed. Virginia Woolf: Revaluation and Continuity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1980.

Marcus, Jane. “Liberty, Sorority, Misogyny.” The Representation of Women in Fiction. Ed. Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Margaret R. Higonnet. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983. 60-97.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. The Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1990.

Stein, Gertrude. “Ada.” Geography and Plays. NY: Haskell, 1967. 14-16.

———. “As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story.” Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein 543-45.

———. “Melanctha.” Three Lives. NY: Random House, 1936. 85-236.

———. “Miss Furr and Miss Skeen.” Geography and Plays 17-22.

———. Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. NY: Random House, 1990.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. NY: Bantam Books, 1981.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. 5 vols. Ed. Anne Oliver Bell. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

———. “The Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection.” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf 221-25.

———. “Memoirs of a Novelist.” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf 69-79.

———. “Modern Fiction.” Common Reader: First Series 146-54.

———. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Essays 3: 384-89.

———. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. San Diego, NY, and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

———. “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street.” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf 152-59.

———. “The Mysterious Case of Miss V.” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf 30-32.

———. A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897-1909. Ed. Mitchell Leaska. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

———. “A Society.” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf 124-36.

Michael Lackey (essay date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: Lackey, Michael. “The Gender of Atheism in Virginia Woolf's ‘A Simple Melody.’” Studies in Short Fiction 35, no. 1 (winter 1998): 49-63.

[In the following essay, Lackey perceives “A Simple Melody” to be a transitional work in Woolf's short fiction oeuvre and examines her portrayal of male atheism in the story.]


Posthumously published, the 1925 short story “A Simple Melody” is one of the most pivotal works in Virginia Woolf's corpus, signaling a decisive break with her first four novels, yet anticipating the central issues of her last five. Typical of Woolf's fiction, the story features a main character who is an atheist, a man who, like Woolf, mocks those who believe in God: “To believe in God indeed!” says George Carslake, “When every rational power protested against the crazy and craven idiocy of such a saying!” (203).1 While it is quite normal for early Woolf to make her protagonist an atheist (Rachel Vinrace, Mary Datchet, Katharine Hilbery, Clarissa Dalloway, Mrs. Ramsay), “A Simple Melody” is unique because it represents Woolf's first effort to give her reader a sympathetic portrait of a male atheist. There are, to be sure, male atheists in Woolf's early novels (Terence Hewet, St. John Hirst, Jacob Flanders, Timmy Durrant, Fraser), but in all instances, Woolf gives her readers significant reasons for not sympathizing with their particular motivation for rejecting God—as I will argue below. By 1927, however, when she published To The Lighthouse, Woolf finally took a more balanced look at male atheists, specifically considering the negative non-believer (Charles Tansley) and the positive one (Mr. Ramsay, who becomes a positive example only in the final moments of the novel, when he appears to James as if he were saying, “There is no God” [207]), though it is in the character of George Carslake from “A Simple Melody” that Woolf first made an effort to picture the male atheist.2 A close look at this story will not only shed light on Woolf's attempt to rework her understanding of male atheism: it will also clarify why she considers atheism necessary for the development of healthy human relationships.


On the surface, “A Simple Melody” is an uncomplicated story, a tale that documents Carslake's response to a landscape painting: “It was a picture of a heath: and a very beautiful picture” (201). But reflecting on his aesthetic response leads him to reconsider his view of humans. After first considering the painting, he thought “[a]ll human beings were very simple underneath” (201), but later in the story, having reflected a little on this simple-minded view of ‘human nature,’ he reconsiders his earlier claim, wondering if his reduction of the human is not a conceptual imposition (206).3 Given the radical reconsideration of his view in such a short story (six pages), the obvious question for readers is: what accounts for Carslake's rejection of his earlier belief in humans as “very simple underneath”? In what follows, I discuss the specific aesthetic experience that leads Carslake to reject his simple concept of human nature, but because Woolf strategically places Carslake's reflections on God at the center of this story, it will be important to incorporate the story's atheism into Woolf's aesthetic.

To understand the male atheist in Woolf's early works, it is important to note a recurring pattern. In contrast to the female atheists, who take their non-belief very seriously, many males proclaim themselves atheists, yet their behavior suggests that they remain believers. Furthermore, Woolf makes it clear that the male atheist's surreptitious belief legitimates the male's privileged position within the body politic. To get a clear sense of the distinction between the male and female atheist in Woolf's first four novels, we need only consider Peter Walsh and Clarissa Dalloway. Not “for a moment did” Clarissa “believe in God” (29), whereas Peter is by “conviction an atheist perhaps” (57). An atheist categorically denies God's existence, so saying that Peter is an “atheist perhaps” makes him more of an agnostic, and since Woolf's father wrote voluminously about agnosticism, we can assume that she was familiar with this discourse. This pattern is no anomaly. For instance, after Rachel Vinrace declares in The Voyage Out that she does not believe in God (250), she tells Helen that she will no longer attend church (261), but Terence Hewet, a male who touts a progressive feminist ideology, betrays his covert faith by attending church (229), despite his overt apostasy (144).4 In Night and Day, Ralph Denham and Katharine Hilbery are non-believers who reject a church wedding, but Ralph's “doubts upon this point, which were always raised by Katharine's presence, had vanished completely” once Katharine's mother suggests a church wedding in a private conversation with Ralph. Significantly, in the same paragraph Ralph discloses his desire “to dominate her [Katharine], to possess her” (489). In Jacob's Room, though Jacob and Timmy Durrant make jokes about God, we find the two in church. But more important is their decision on the issue of allowing women to take part in a “service in the King's College Chapel” (32). Jacob responds negatively, not just because bringing a woman into the Chapel is like “bringing a dog into church,” but also because the women who would come would be “as ugly as sin” (33). The pattern is quite consistent: Woolf's male atheists reject God, and yet there are subtle hints (church attendance) that suggest a fidelity to God, and this fidelity invariably has unfortunate consequences for women.

Like the male atheists in Woolf's early works, Carslake betrays his fidelity to God through his relationship to a church, specifically the Cathedral near Gloucester:

Living near Gloucester, he had an absurd touchiness about the Cathedral; he fought its battles, he resented its criticism as if the Cathedral were his blood relation. But he would let anyone say what they liked about his own brother.


More faithful to the church than he is to his own “blood relation,” Carslake commits himself to an entity that honors a figure he considers an absurdity—God.

But fidelity to the church is not the only thing to betray Carslake's covert belief. When criticizing belief in God as a “crazy and craven idiocy,” he faults specifically believers for reconciling human differences and thereby reducing the human to a simple formula—“to reconcile differences—to make one believe in God” (203).6 Humans are complex, so much so that to reconcile differences is a conceptual imposition.7 Believers, however, convert that complexity into a simple idea, which is why Carslake is so critical of them. But note that Carslake is guilty of exactly the believer's crime early in the story. On first glancing at the painting, Carslake is struck by the power “it had to compose and tranquilize his mind,” for at a party like the one he is currently attending, his emotions are normally “scattered and jumbled.” But in this instance, the painting brings “the rest of his emotions … into proportion” (201). Under normal circumstances, this tranquil and harmonious aesthetic response would be considered a positive experience, but in the context of Woolf's corpus, the word proportion should immediately send up red flags, alerting the reader to a serious intellectual danger. This is especially the case if we consider that this story was written in the publication year of Mrs. Dalloway, a novel that allegorized Proportion and Conversion, two goddesses who feast “on the wills of the weakly” and coerce human ‘souls’ (99-101).8 Not surprisingly, just after his tranquilizing experience, Carslake makes an observation about ‘human nature’: “All human beings were very simple underneath, he felt” (201). Like the believer, Carslake reduces human complexity to a simple formulation, which makes him a believer, according to his own logic.

To complete the pattern found in Woolf's first four novels, Carslake's covert belief should specifically have unfortunate consequences for women, and indeed, this is precisely the case. Significantly, after observing that all humans were simple underneath, Carslake uses two women—Queen Mary and Miss Merewether—as an example to confirm his thesis:

All human beings were very simple underneath, he felt. Put Queen Mary, Miss Merewether and himself on that heath; it was late in the evening; after sunset; and they had to find their way back to Norwich. Soon they would all be talking quite naturally. He made not a doubt of it.


Not coincidentally, just after making this observation, he sees his friend Mabel Waring, who “looked agitated, with a strained expression and fixed unhappy eyes” (202). Not yet realizing the link between his view of human nature and Mabel's unhappiness, Carslake wonders: “What was the cause of her unhappiness? He looked again at the picture” (202). That Woolf's narrator raises the question of Mabel's unhappiness and then has Carslake look at the picture suggests that through his aesthetic experience he might find an answer to his question. This early in the story, however, Carslake has not a clue what causes Mabel's unhappiness.

What differentiates Carslake from the male atheists of the early novels is his ability, through the aesthetic experience, to recognize his covert belief and the devastating consequences such belief has on those around him. For the early Carslake, it is only the religious who are guilty of a conceptual simplification that reconciles human differences, and it is for this reason that he thinks the religious corrupt everything they touch: “Every phrase he used, alas, tinkled in his ears with a sham religious flavour. ‘Getting home’—the religious had appropriated that” (203). The word “appropriated” suggests a verbal entrapment, a linguistic imperialism that coerces language users into adopting the believer's ideology whether they are aware of it or not.9 So even if a person refuses to accept the believer's premises, the non-believer will be trapped into belief. Hence, Carslake's feeling that “he had been trapped into the words. ‘To believe in God’” (203). If Carslake is right, however, then he too must be guilty, through his inscription within the believer's discourse, of the same crimes against humanity of which he accuses the believer. But what exactly is the believer's crime?

Like Martin Heidegger, Woolf considers the reductive impulses built into the Cogito responsible for the deleterious simplification of the human. The narrator of “A Simple Melody” makes this clear by saying that “all thinking was an effort to make thought escape from the thinker's mind past all obstacles as completely as possible” (206). To preserve an experience, thinking must convert it into an idea so that it can be conceptually recovered at a later date, but the danger of such a conceptualization is that the originary experience may be lost altogether. Indeed, this is Heidegger's critique of the Cogito exactly. For Heidegger, theoretical reason is not sufficient for grasping the Being of Dasein, because one's everydayness is either “passed over” or considered insignificant. So to bring Dasein's Being into the open, Heidegger endorses a perceptual paradigm that resists the temptation to reduce Being to the precepts of the Cogito. Or conversely, his existential analytic invites us to comprehend beings outside the conceptual nets of theoretical reason, an epistemological act that implicitly valorizes ways of knowing beyond reason. Just before Carslake discovers the dangers of simplifying humans, he realizes the degree to which “a deep reservoir” of unanalyzable feelings quivers “in the depths of one's own being” (205):

all the time ideas were rising from this pool and bubbling up into one's brain. Ideas that were half feelings. They had that kind of emotional quality. It was impossible to analyse them.


Reducing an experience to an idea results in a loss of that “emotional quality” of an idea, so when Carslake says that “[a]ll human beings were very simple underneath,” he dismisses as insignificant the emotional quality of an idea. Not surprisingly, after his epiphany, Carslake understands the dangers of the reductive simplifications: “So he could see everyone now engaged. But it was not, strictly, thought; it was being, oneself, that was here in conflict with other beings and selves” (206). For Carslake, being and thought are two separate entities, an idea Woolf develops in more detail in Orlando: “Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces” (17). For Woolf, the world (“nature”) is not a sacred text waiting to be read aright, or as Foucault says, “we should not imagine that the world presents us with a legible face” (“Discourse” 229).10 Rather, language (“letters”) and the world (“nature”) are two irreconcilable entities, and the moment one world dominates the other, “they tear each other to pieces.” When Carslake realizes that thinking and being can never be fitted together, he takes his first step toward understanding what Foucault calls the “violence we do to things” through discourse (229), and for Woolf, it is the believer who is most guilty of this violence.

But how is it that Woolf establishes a link between God's existence and a reductive simplification of the human? Again, Woolf finds herself in a specific tradition of writers who have noted this connection, for, as Jean-Paul Sartre says in the conclusion of Being and Nothingness:

Every human reality is a passion in that it projects losing itself so as to found being and by the same stroke to constitute the In-itself which escapes contingency by being its own foundation, the Ens causa sui, which religions call God. Thus the passion of man is the reverse of that of Christ, for man loses himself as man in order that God may be born. But the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain.


In a Heraclitean universe, where the endless stream of becoming can never be reduced to what William Blake calls “a stable without fluctuation,” the perpetual flux of the world neither invites nor allows the reductive analysis of thought, or as the narrator of “A Simple Melody” claims, it is “impossible to analyse” the evanescent flickerings of human experience. Thought, however, dupes humans into believing that they can preserve experience by converting it into an idea, but by showing that the “emotional quality” of an idea cannot be subjected to analysis, Woolf exposes the productions of thought as individual wills to power that necessarily falsify the world—they dismiss the “emotional quality” of an idea in order to convert the idea into a preserved thought. In other words, the simplifications of thought are willful lies that pawn themselves off as enduring Truths. The “thinker's mind” will, therefore, always be much richer than thought can express, so when Woolf's narrator says, “all thinking was an effort to make thought escape from the thinker's mind past all obstacles as completely as possible,” Woolf is showing how thinking must avoid the “thinker's mind” if it is to establish itself beyond the moment. To state this in Sartrean terms, we can say that thinking, a human passion that founds itself as thought and thereby “escapes contingency by being its own foundation,” can only function as its own unfounded founder if it excises that unanalyzable “emotional quality” that bubbles “up into one's brain.” Unfortunately, however, while this excision may allow humans to ground ‘human nature,’ it will have the undesirable effect of losing individual humans, for thinking, which leads to a reification in the form of thought, must avoid the thinker's mind, if it is going to ground itself as an acultural, noncontingent ‘reality,’ “the Ens causa sui, which religions call god.”11

Nowhere does Woolf describe the disastrous consequences of reducing the human to an idea more clearly than in Mrs. Dalloway. For the religious Miss Kilman, the life of the body distracts her from experiencing an intimate spiritual relationship with the Divine, so when Kilman withdraws to “the habitation of God,” with all “the variously assorted worshippers, now divested of social rank, almost of sex,” she aspires “above the vanities, the desires, the commodities” of the embodied life as she approaches God through a “bodiless” “double darkness” (133). Indeed, so spiritual is Kilman that fellow worshippers think of her as “a soul cut out of immaterial substance; not a woman, a soul” (134). That Kilman's religious belief leads her to be seen as less human and more idea is obvious when Clarissa takes a moment to reflect on her own hatred of Kilman:

For it was not her one hated but the idea of her, which undoubtedly had gathered in to itself a great deal that was not Miss Kilman; had become one of those spectres with which one battles in the night; one of those spectres who stand astride us and suck up half our life-blood, dominators and tyrants; for no doubt with another throw of the dice, had the black been uppermost and not the white, she would have loved Miss Kilman!


Trapped in the abstract gaze of that projected conceptual mummy known as God, Kilman has gathered much into herself that is not herself, and in the process, having become a spectre, she would stand beside us and “suck up half our life-blood” too (12).12 In Woolf's world, then, for Kilman to actualize her humanity, she would have to abandon God so that she could experience the “emotional quality” of an idea, an idea that cannot be subjected to or by the reductive analysis of thought. Therefore, Woolf objects to God and the attendant metathought not so much because they necessarily falsify the world, but rather because they are extremely damaging for those who have been subjected to their dehumanizing power, and in the context of Woolf's fiction, the damage is mainly done to women.13

Because Carslake makes the discovery that belief in God leads to a dehumanizing simplification of the human, he cannot be considered the traditional male atheist of Woolf's early works. Indeed, the more intense his aesthetic experience, the more he questions his naive view of human nature:

It was impossible to put this into words, and it was unnecessary. Beneath the fidgety flicker of these little creatures was always a deep reservoir: and the simple melody without expressing it, did something queer to it—rippled it, liquefied it, made it start and turn and quiver in the depths of one's being, so that all the time ideas were rising from this pool and bubbling up into one's brain. Ideas that were half feelings. They had that kind of emotional quality. It was impossible to analyse them.


For Carslake, the aesthetic experience stirs (“rippled” and “liquefied”) his inner life and thereby disrupts the simple reifications that allowed him to reduce the human to an abstraction, so art (be it music, literature, or a painting) reveals to him that reducing the human to an idea is not just a false simplification of something complex; it is a dangerous imposition on others: “Was he not trying to impose on human beings who are by their nature opposed, different, at war, a claim which is perhaps incongruous—a simplicity that does not belong to their natures?” (206).14 By strategically using the word “different,” Woolf recalls Carslake's earlier critique of belief in God, which implies a reconciliation of differences. But now Carslake realizes that it is he who is guilty of the believer's crime of imposing on others a conceptual simplicity that must avoid the “thinker's mind” if it is going to ground itself beyond the moment. Such an epiphany is a new step for one of Woolf's male atheists, for until this short story, though all the male atheists reject God, each one remains a covert believer, and it is because of their belief that they continue to oppress women—Hewet oppresses Rachel by calling her “essentially feminine,” Denham oppresses Katharine by wishing “to dominate her, to possess her,” and Jacob oppresses women by likening them to dogs and denying them access to the King's College Chapel. Carslake rejects God outright early in the story, but after recognizing that the believer's ideas grammatically corrupt human language and thought, he begins the process of self-examination to see if he too has been tarnished by the covert patterns of belief. Once he discovers that he remains a believer despite his rejection of God, he can then begin the process of becoming a thoroughgoing atheist, and thereby eliminate what are for Woolf the dehumanizing and oppressive patterns of thinking built into the epistemological act of believing in God.15

It is this epiphany that differentiates Carslake from the male atheists in Woolf's early novels, and it should therefore come as no surprise that this figure will reappear in To The Lighthouse (1927) as Mr. Ramsay, a character who makes the same journey as Carslake. In a weak moment, Mrs. Ramsay says to herself: “We are in the hands of the Lord.” But immediately questioning the validity of such a claim, she says: “Who had said it? Not she; she had been trapped into saying something she did not mean” (63).16 Somehow, the believer's discourse has taken possession of Mrs. Ramsay, trapping her into saying something incompatible with her world view. After further reflecting on her situation, she searches “as she alone could search into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie” (63). This qualification is crucial. The subtle but coercive discourse of belief entraps Mrs. Ramsay, so to liberate herself from this colonizing rhetoric, she must probe her inner life, scrutinizing the degree to which she has been subjected into being as a religious person. Once she identifies how the believer's “lie” has taken possession of her, she can then begin the process of “purifying” herself. But should she have failed to search her inner world satisfactorily, the novel implies, she would have remained subject to the mendacious discourse of belief.

Significantly, just after Mrs. Ramsay probes her heart and mind and purifies herself of the believer's lie, her husband enters the room, laughing to himself about David Hume. While this may seem to be an abrupt transition, it is not. Only nine pages later the reader is given more information about the precise nature of Mr. Ramsay's thought: “Mr. Ramsay felt free now to laugh out loud at the thought that Hume had stuck in a bog and an old woman rescued him on condition he said the Lord's prayer” (73). Mrs. Ramsay and Hume are in a similar situation: they experience being trapped into belief. Interestingly, on discovering that she is trapped, Mrs. Ramsay turns inward, scrutinizing her inner life to determine to what degree she has been adulterated by the believer's lie. By contrast, when Mr. Ramsay is faced with an instance of a person being trapped into belief, he does not gaze inward to see if he too has been trapped by the believer's rhetoric. He only laughs. This dismissive response is important, for as the novel suggests, had Mrs. Ramsay not searched “into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie,” she would have remained defiled by the believer's lie. Given this logic, we can assume that Mr. Ramsay does indeed remain trapped, because, instead of scrutinizing his inner life, he merely shrugs the experience off with a laugh. Understanding this idea of being trapped into belief is important, for at the end of the novel James observes his father: “He rose and stood in the bow of the boat, as if he were saying, ‘There is no God’” (207). Without understanding the need to purify out of existence the believer's mendacious discourse, James's atheistic reference would seem to be an intrusive observation. But given the careful way in which Woolf sets up the atheist's need to purify him or herself, James's comment is quite clear—Mr. Ramsay, like his wife and Carslake, has finally purged himself of belief in God. Significantly, Mr. Ramsay would be the first male atheist to purify his heart and mind of the believer's discourse, had Woolf not experimented with this character in “A Simple Melody.”


For Woolf, God's existence necessarily legitimates an essential world structure, so humans remain bound to a pre-determined nature. Killing God, therefore, would liberate the ‘human’ from the Human, and since the ‘human’ is not just a social construct, but specifically a male construct, killing God would allow women to take control of their own formation as grammatical and living subjects. Without this freedom, women face a profound despair, or as Mabel Waring experiences, a deep-seated unhappiness. Because men are the cause of this profound unhappiness, or to put this in the words of Mrs. Jarvis from Jacob's Room, since “it's man's stupidity that's the cause of this” violent storm known as life (28), it will only be when men actually embrace pure atheism that human relations between men and women can be set straight. This explains Woolf's enigmatic diary entry in 1935 about T. S. Eliot: “He is a dear old fellow: one of ‘us’: odd; I felt I liked him as I liked Lytton & Roger—with intimacy in spite of God” (Diary [The Diary of Virginia Woolf] 4: 324). Woolf has experienced intimacy with the eight-year believer, and it is obvious that she considers this rather startling. To say “intimacy in spite of God” implies that she can normally conceive of intimacy only as long as God does not enter the picture. According to Woolf, because God has so far created the conditions for the worst of all possible worlds for women, she considers God's presence detrimental to healthy relations between the sexes. This explains why she considers belief in God an obscene gesture and it helps explain the consistent anti-God rhetoric in her fiction. To save human relationships, and specifically to save women, therefore, Woolf would have us kill God, and this she would consider a labor of love.


  1. That Woolf was an atheist is most obvious from her direct comment in Moments of Being: “certainly and emphatically there is no God” (72). But just as telling is her response to T. S. Eliot's conversion, which Woolf writes in a letter to her sister, Vanessa Bell:

    I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.

    (Letters [The Letters of Virginia Woolf] 3: 457-58)

    For discussions of Woolf's atheism, see Makiko Minnow-Pinkney, Susan E. Lorsch, Martin Corner, and Mark Hussey.

  2. Significantly, David Berman argues in his excellent book, A History of Atheism in Britain from Hobbes to Russell, that 1927 was “probably the high-water mark of British atheism” (233).

  3. Writing in 1925, Woolf finds herself at the center of a specific tradition of writers who, in one way or another, have significantly undermined the basic premises of ontological realism, a subversion that has led to what Michel Foucault refers to as the death of the subject. Writers like Nietzsche, who condemn the grammatical impulse to reduce becoming to being, find the concept of “subjectivity” destructive, which is why he thinks it necessary to deny God (the support for the traditional subject) in order to redeem the world (Twilight of the Idols, On the Genealogy of Morals and the fifth book of The Gay Science). Henri Bergson draws a similar conclusion about subjectivity (not about God), but he does so by valorizing time over space (Matter and Memory). For Martin Heidegger, abandoning substantialist models of being in favor of relational ones will allow us to perceive the Being of Dasein for the first time (Being and Time). In her essays, “Modern Fiction” and “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf endorses a similar view of the subject as motion and relation, arguing that the artist “is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its message through the brain” (“Modern” 107), but it will be in Orlando and The Waves that Woolf finally gives her reader the most radical version of the ‘subject's’ “being laid out like a mist between people,” to borrow Clarissa Dalloway's words (9).

  4. Woolf makes it clear that Hewet, though he pretends to a progressive view of God and feminism, remains quite traditional, and for Woolf, the link between belief in God and oppressing women is inevitable. After telling Hewet in a playful manner that she is “the best musician in South America, not to speak of Europe and Asia,” Hewet compares her “simple tunes” to “an unfortunate old dog going round on its hind legs in the rain” (292). Furthermore, Hewet remains faithful to the traditional view that a woman is intellectually inferior to a man, as he says to Rachel: “You've no respect for facts, Rachel; you're essentially feminine” (295).

  5. In Between the Acts, Bart Olive, Lucy Swithin's brother, also criticizes a fidelity to the church, which, according to Olive, should be accorded to humans: “The love, he was thinking, that they should give to flesh and blood they give to the church” (25).

  6. In The Voyage Out, Woolf uses a similar rhetorical device for establishing a necessary link between belief in God and a specific way of thinking. For instance, after listening to a rather offensive sermon, Susan Warrington's mind was “occupied with praise of her own nature and praise of God—that is of the solemn and satisfactory order of the world” (227). The reference after the dash suggests that in praising God and her own nature, Susan is praising the solemn and satisfactory order of the world. By making this link, Woolf suggests that those who praise the satisfactory order of the world are implicitly praising God.

  7. In The Waves, a character like Neville, who has a secret need to offer his “being to one god” (52), predictably tries to reduce others to a single and simple being. Bernard exposes Neville's agenda most clearly when he says: “For I am more selves than Neville thinks. We are not simple as our friends would have us to meet their needs” (89).

  8. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf exposes the seemingly neutral and objective concept of “human nature” as not only a social construct, but specifically a male construct, so when Sir William Bradshaw claims that proportion is an essential dimension of a healthy human psyche, Woolf makes it clear that this is Bradshaw's notion of ‘human nature,’ and not something intrinsic to humans: “Sir William with his thirty years' experience of these kinds of cases, and his infallible instinct, this is madness, this sense; in fact, his sense of proportion” (99-100). People like Sir William and Miss Kilman impose on humans the concept of proportion, but such an act, as Clarissa observes, is a coercive assault on “the privacy of the soul” (126-27), which is why Clarissa considers Bradshaw a dangerous man—“forcing your soul, that was it” (184-85). So long as the concepts of ‘reality’ and an essential world structure are in currency, humans will suffer at the hands of those who control those concepts. For this reason, Woolf's narrator says: “Human nature is remorseless” (98).

  9. Woolf's point here cleverly anticipates the work of Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser. Power as a diffusive force that saturates language creates the necessary intellectual conditions for a person's possibility for experiencing the world, so power need not be overt to be tyrannical. For this reason, Althusser's distinction between State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses effectively distinguishes militant (State Apparatus) from non-militant (Ideological State Apparatus) power, the latter being the more effective the less discernible it is (in families, schools, churches, which materially produce subjects by making them subordinate to the State Ideology). See Foucault's essays, “Body/Power” and “Two Lectures” and Althusser's “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation).” For an excellent discussion of this process of subjectivation, see Judith Butler's recent book, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (1-30, 83-131).

  10. Woolf's view of language, which Pamela Caughie best analyzes, is logically connected to her atheism. No one details more clearly the consequences of atheism than Foucault. More than anything else, he says, “the death of God profoundly influenced our language” (“Father's” 86). For an analysis of the impact of atheism on language, see Foucault's “A Preface to Transgression,” Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and Jacques Derrida's “Force and Signification” and “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation.” For an excellent discussion of the effects of atheism specifically on Woolf's relationship to “nature,” see Susan E. Lorsch's book, Where Nature Ends: Literary Responses to the Designification of Landscape.

  11. In his essay “The Humanism of Existentialism,” Sartre claims that “there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it” (36). Obviously, Woolf and Sartre are working within the same atheist tradition.

  12. Woolf's critique in this instance is certainly not original. As we know, Karl Marx argues in Capital that religious belief reifies objects external to humanity, and then allows those reified objects to tyrannize humanity. In “Sunday Morning,” a poem published shortly before Woolf wrote “A Simple Melody,” Wallace Stevens also discusses how “Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth,” a birth that leads humans to believe that their own blood would fail. In Freud's The Future of an Illusion and Faulkner's Light in August, this same critique is central, so Woolf is merely picking up on a theme that already had wide currency. What separates her critique from these others, however, is her focus on the gender of atheism and belief, a topic that Nella Larsen also addresses in her 1928 novella, Quicksand.

  13. Another woman who first declared herself an atheist in the 1920s argues along the same lines as Woolf. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir criticizes Freud's model of sexuality, arguing that he makes universal claims about sexuality that in fact apply only to men, and not women. And like Woolf, Beauvoir is quick to note the damaging consequences of imposing this male model on women.

  14. In The Waves, Bernard makes the same discovery as Carslake: “But why impose my arbitrary design?” (188).

  15. In Swann's Way, Marcel Proust also suggests that despite the death of the Gods, the structure of belief that informs faith still remains:

    But when a belief vanishes, there survives it—more and more ardently, so as to cloak the absence of the power, now lost to us, of imparting reality to new phenomena—an idolatrous attachment to the old things which our belief in them did once animate, as if it was in that belief and not in ourselves that the divine spark resided, and as if our present incredulity had a contingent cause—the death of the gods.


    Woolf was very fond of Proust's work, so it is not unlikely that she was spinning out the logical possibilities of Proust's claim in her own work.

  16. Interestingly, the believer's tendency to trap individuals into belief was rampant during the early twentieth century. For instance, the Swiss pastor and lay analyst, Oskar Pfister, writes to Freud: “You are not godless, for whoever lives in God, and whoever battles for the liberation of love remains, according to John 4.16, in God” (29 Oct. 1918, qtd. in Gay 82-83). For an excellent discussion of Freud's atheism and Pfister's efforts to trap Freud into belief, see Peter Gay's A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis. In his review of Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian? T. S. Eliot uses a similar rhetorical device to trap Russell, D. H. Lawrence, Matthew Arnold, and others into belief. For an excellent analysis of the believer's tendency to trap individuals into belief, and specifically Eliot's tendency, see David Berman's A History of Atheism in Britain (1-43, 232-33).

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” Mapping Ideology. Ed. Slavoj Zizek. London: Verso, 1995. 100-40.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer. New York: Zone, 1991.

Berman, David. A History of Atheism: From Hobbes to Russell. London: Routledge, 1988.

Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 1996.

Caughie, Pamela. Virginia Woolf & Postmodernism: Literature in Quest & Question of Itself. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.

Corner, Martin. “Mysticism and Atheism in To The Lighthouse.Studies in the Novel. 13 (1981): 408-23.

Derrida, Jacques. “Force and Signification.” Derrida, Writing 3-30.

———. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

———. “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation.” Derrida, Writing 232-50.

———. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1977.

———. “The Discourse on Language.” The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1971. 215-37.

———. “The Father's ‘No.’” Foucault, Language 69-86.

———. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

———. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Random, 1970.

———. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-77. Trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate Soper. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

———. “A Preface to Transgression.” Foucault, Language 29-52.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: Norton, 1989. 685-721.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. San Francisco: Harper, 1962.

Hussey, Mark. The Singing of the Real World: The Philosophy of Virginia Woolf's Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1986.

Lorsch, Susan E. Where Nature Ends: Literary Responses to the Designification of the Landscape. Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1983.

Marx, Karl. Capital, The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings. New York: M. Eastman, 1932.

Minow-Pinkney, Makiko. “‘How then does light return to the world after the eclipse of the sun? Miraculously, frailly’: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Woolf's Mysticism.” Virginia Woolf and the Arts. Ed. Diane F. Gillespie and Leslie K. Hankins. New York: Pace UP, 1997.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random, 1974.

———. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Random, 1989.

———. Twilight of the Idols. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Random, 1990.

Proust, Marcel. Swann's Way. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff. New York: Random, 1970.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

———. “The Humanism of Existentialism.” Essays in Existentialism. Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol, 1999. 31-62.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Random, 1982.

Woolf, Virginia. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. New York, Harcourt, 1989.

———. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. 5 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1977-84.

———. Jacob's Room. 1922. New York: Harcourt, 1950.

———. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. 6 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1975-80.

———. Moments of Being. 2nd ed. Ed. Jeanne Schulkind. New York: Harcourt, 1966.

———. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. New York: Harcourt, 1981.

———. Night and Day. 1919. New York: Harcourt, 1948.

———. Orlando: A Biography. 1928. New York: Harcourt, 1956.

———. To The Lighthouse. 1927. New York: Harcourt, 1989.

———. Virginia Woolf: Collected Essays. 2 vols. London: Hogarth, 1966.

———. The Voyage Out. 1915. New York: Harcourt, 1948.

———. The Waves. 1931. New York: Harcourt, 1959.

Annette Oxindine (essay date autumn 1998)

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SOURCE: Oxindine, Annette. “Sexing the Epiphany in ‘Moments of Being,’ Woolf's Nice Little Story about Sapphism.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 31 (autumn 1998): 51-61.

[In the following essay, Oxindine links the homoerotic and epiphanic moments in “Slater's Pins Have No Points.”]

You remember there is a very fine instinct wireless telepathy nothing to it—in women—the darlings—which fizzles up pretenses, and I know what you mean though you don't say it …

—Virginia Woolf to Violet Dickinson, 1903

Critical avoidance of the lesbian intimacy at the conclusion of Virginia Woolf's “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points’” has been noted by Avrom Fleishman in his own hesitant focus on the story's homoerotic ending. In an essay examining form in Woolf's short fiction, Fleishman reluctantly concedes that the “crass” subject of homosexuality must be addressed if his analysis of the story's circular structure is to be complete:

… the elderly piano teacher kisses her young pupil on the lips, at the precise moment of her vision of Julia's being. It seems crass to labor the point, but this intuition of homosexuality is part of the total vision of Julia's being.


It should come as no surprise that literary critics have been reluctant to link modernism's primary spiritual landmark—the epiphany—with lesbian sexuality. In Epiphany in the Modern Novel, for example, in a discussion of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Morris Beja ultimately dissociates Clarissa Dalloway's most intense epiphanic revelation from the lesbian moment of passion that engenders it. Initially Beja acknowledges that Clarissa Dalloway's intimacy with Sally Seton “displays an actual if latent homosexuality” (135); however, in his discussion of the passage in which Sally kisses Clarissa on the lips—“‘The whole world might have turned upside down! … the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!’”—Beja points out that Clarissa's “latent homosexuality is dropped” for the remainder of the novel, and he insists that “the main interest in this very significant passage finally lies in the Proustian way in which the past experience is revived” (136).

It is my contention, however, that one cannot so easily separate the message from the method of its delivery. Furthermore, I will argue that the very nature of epiphanic revelation—both its brevity and its cryptic quality—make it a perfect vehicle for Woolf's attempts to evoke lesbian desire. Perhaps no other work of Woolf's lends itself to this task as well as “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points.’” The very title “Moments of Being” is suggestive of epiphanic vision when we consider that in her autobiographical essay “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf equates “moments of being” with “a revelation of some order … a token of something real behind appearances” (72). That Woolf thought the lesbian content in “Moments” to be central to its theme is surely suggested by her reference to it as “a nice little story about Sapphism” (Diary [The Diary of Virginia Woolf] 3: 397). Woolf's yoking together “moments of being” in her title with a phrase that sparks an erotic connection between two women suggests just how integral the homoerotic moments are to the epiphanic ones in “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points.’”

Before moving on to an analysis of the story, I will first address just such a link between lesbian desire and epiphanic vision in Woolf's diary. In a February 1926 diary entry, Woolf recounts her quest for what she calls “the thing itself,” and she reveals, albeit cryptically, that her moment of vision finally comes when she sees the same moon that Vita Sackville-West sees—that is, the moon which is risen over Persia. Vita had departed for Persia a month earlier, shortly after she and Woolf began their physical love affair. Vita's absence, I suspect, may have engendered some of the hunger for meaning conveyed in the following passage:

Yet I have some restless searcher in me. Why is there not a discovery in life? Something one can lay hands on & say “This is it?” … What is it and shall I die before I find it? Then (as I was walking through Russell Sq[ua]re last night) I see the mountains in the sky: the great clouds; & the moon which is risen over Persia; I have a great & astonishing sense of something there, which is ‘it’—It is not exactly beauty that I mean. It is that the thing itself is enough: satisfactory; achieved.

(Diary 3: 62)

When Woolf sees what Vita sees—the moon over Persia—she has an epiphanic sense of the elusive “it” she has been seeking1. The words Woolf chooses to describe the denouement of an epiphany (as well as their order and grammatical relationship to each other)—“enough: satisfactory; achieved” are equally descriptive of the denouement of orgasm. The implication of this syntactically extracted synesthesia is that vision (literal and figurative) and tactile sensation overlap in Woolf's account of what surely amounted to a moment of being: the desire to find something she “can lay hands on” is quenched by a purely visual discovery.

In “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points,’” Woolf's provocative story about a mundane phrase that leads to a vision that leads to a kiss, the visual and the tactile are brought together in a way that begs the same question an epiphany does: Is seeing believing?; or more accurately, in this case, is seeing feeling? Fanny Wilmot sees her piano teacher, Julia Craye, open her arms and kiss her, but is it really happening?

[Fanny] saw Julia—

She saw Julia open her arms; saw her blaze; saw her kindle. Out of the night she burnt like a dead white star. Julia kissed her. Julia possessed her. ‘Slater's pins have no points’, Miss Craye said, laughing queerly and relaxing her arms, as Fanny Wilmot pinned the flower to her breast with trembling fingers.


While this story is invariably read as though the kiss actually occurs, I contend that Woolf made the ending purposefully ambiguous by stressing the verb “to see”—“She saw Julia open her arms” in order to suggest that Fanny may be having an erotic fantasy, which would explain as well as if the women had actually kissed why her fingers are trembling. Though it could be argued that Julia's “relaxing her arms” in the paragraph that follows the kiss is evidence that Julia did indeed open her arms and kiss Fanny, the fact that Julia had been sitting “with her hands clasped in her lap holding [a] carnation upright” could also serve as a reasonable explanation for relaxing her arms. What is important, however, is the ambiguity surrounding the kiss, for it eroticizes the female gaze in such a way as to make Fanny's epiphany contingent upon lesbian vision. In this story's “moment of being”, lesbian eroticism is not incidental but rather germane.2

In Fanny's visionary narrative about Julia's sexual history (or lack thereof), which takes its cue from Julia's comment about Slater's pins, the teller becomes the tale. While Fanny searches Miss Craye's floor for the “pointless” pin—a pun signifying the uselessness of the phallus—that kept in place her rose—a traditional symbol of female sexuality—she recalls many things Julia Craye “had said” and thinks with reference to a scene from Julia's childhood that “One could make that yield what one liked” (212). What Fanny's thoughts about Julia Craye “yield” are internalized narratives about her piano teacher's sexual desire, frustration, and fulfillment, wherein Fanny becomes the one thing that finally satisfies Julia, the one thing she can “possess”: “Julia kissed her. Julia possessed her” (214). Suspecting Julia's lesbianism, Fanny is able to project onto her teacher all the frustration and desire she has been unable to acknowledge as her own. Fanny imagines Julia's earlier frustration with heterosexual coupling: “I can't have it, I can't possess it, [Julia] thought” (212); she also envisions Julia's autoerotic frustration with the flower she now holds in her lap: “She had her hands on it; she pressed it; but she did not possess it, enjoy it, not altogether” (211). I concur with Fleishman that an “intuition of homosexuality is part of the total vision” that Fanny experiences while apprehending Julia; however, what is more specific to that vision is Fanny's discovery of her own sexual feelings for another woman.3

That Fanny's sexuality is going to be exposed, as it were, is indicated in the first sentence by Woolf's odd choice of the preposition “out”: the rose “fell out of Fanny Wilmot's dress” instead of “off of” or “from”. Woolf's keen attention to names and her notoriously sly humor deem it unlikely that she missed the double entendre in “Fanny stooped … to look for the pin on the floor” (209)4. While symbols of sexuality are associated with Fanny from the story's beginning, Julia's sexuality becomes gradually more explicit (in Fanny's mind) the longer she considers Julia's remark “‘Slater's pins have no points—don't you always find that?’” (210). The image of Julia as a “lonely” unmarried woman is transformed by Fanny's vision of Julia's “ecstasy” while holding a carnation (the root word of which means “flesh”) “upright” in her lap, assuming a position of power but not phallic sexuality. As Patricia Cramer has illustrated, Woolf is part of a lesbian literary tradition that uses erect flowers to signify the strength of female sexuality.5 All is suddenly “transparent for a moment to the gaze of Fanny Wilmot” who sees into Julia's past and imagines her “cleaving her way ever more definitely as her will stiffened toward her solitary goal” (214). Julia becomes for Fanny a symbol of powerful self-determined sexuality.

The story comes full circle as Fanny locates her own sexuality, as it begins with an image suggesting its dislocation: Fanny's “rose” fell out of her dress. As Fanny searches the floor for the ineffectual pin, she imagines Julia Craye independently holding her own carnation “voluptuously” so that the “pressure of her fingers … set[s] it off” and “make[s] it more frilled” (211).6 While Fanny suspects that Julia is “conscious to her fingertips of youth and brilliance … but inhibited,” it is Fanny's less inhibited fingers that tremble with consciousness at the story's close as she “pinned the flower to her breast” (emphasis mine 211; 214). But it is not clear whose breast or whose flower is being referred to7. Fanny could be pinning her rose to her own breast or to Julia's; or she could be pinning Julia's carnation to her own breast or to Julia's breast. The ambiguity certainly suggests just how difficult it is to “pin down” the potential configurations of lesbian erotics. Even though the presence of the pin is implied in the last line, “Fanny Wilmot pinned the flower to her breast with trembling fingers”, the emphasis is on the fingers doing the pinning—an act made all the more erotically potent because Julia's hands and fingers have been engaged in sensual pleasure throughout the story.

Upon receiving payment for “‘Slater's Pins Have No Points,’” Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West, “Sixty pounds just received from America for my little Sapphist story of which the Editor has not seen the point, though he's been looking for it in the Adirondacks” (Letters [The Letters of Virginia Woolf] 3: 431). Woolf's editor may have had trouble finding the point in a story about a pointless phallus, for as Judith Roof has argued, lesbian narratives frustrate the “scopophilic pleasure of the male gaze” (100).8

However, it is the erotic gaze of one woman upon another, always frustrated and sometimes punished in heterosexist narratives, that gains visionary status in Woolf's “Moments of Being.” It is when Fanny perceives Julia's “moment of ecstasy” that everything becomes “transparent for a moment to the gaze of Fanny Wilmot, as if looking through Miss Craye … She saw back and back into the past behind her” (214). The desire that dare not speak its name developed its own language through use of the other senses, but what is communicated cannot be “written in any language known to men”, as Lily Briscoe also realizes in To the Lighthouse (51). Sapphic vision, then, shares with the epiphany the quality of not being directly translatable into language.

Less than a year after the idea for “Moments of Being” sprouted in Woolf's mind, she recorded in her diary the genesis of yet another story in which “Sapphism is to be suggested”:

Suddenly between twelve & one I conceived a whole fantasy to be called the “Jessamy Brides”—why, I wonder? I have rayed around it several scenes. Two women, poor, solitary at the top of a house … Sapphism is to be suggested … The ladies are to have Constantinople in view. Dreams of golden domes … I want to embody all those innumerable little ideas and tiny stories which flash into my mind at all seasons … it is possible the idea will evaporate.

(Diary 3: 131)

That a story hinting of sapphism is thus among the possibly fading “innumerable little ideas and tiny stories which flash into [Woolf's] mind at all seasons” emphasizes the fact that while lesbian moments in Woolf's fiction may be transitory, they are nonetheless pervasive, as the emergence of lesbian readings of Woolf's fiction is bearing out.9

The curious reference to Constantinople in the passage above, written several months after Woolf finished To the Lighthouse, may illuminate just such a fleeting sapphic moment in that novel. In a chapter that is literally parenthetical, Woolf describes a strange, unspoken intimacy between Minta Doyle and Nancy Ramsay, who, when Minta held her hand “saw the whole world spread out beneath her, as if it were Constantinople seen through a mist” (74). Though Nancy and Minta's intimacy rapidly fades, as does Nancy's epiphany which “sank down” and “disappeared” into the mist when Minta let go of her hand, Woolf's narrative framing of the scene privileges the transitory homoerotic alliance between the adolescent Ramsay girl whose sexuality is just awakening and “this tomboy Minta with a hole in her stocking” (57) over the heavily sanctioned heterosexual union between Paul Rayley and Minta which, we later learn, turns out to be sexually unfulfilling.

As with “Moments of Being,” the homoerotic intimacy which leads Nancy to her epiphany is conveyed not through talk but through sight and touch. Nancy goes with the others because “Minta Doyle had asked it with her dumb look” (73)10. In the holograph version of this passage, Woolf emphasizes the fact that Minta's look creates a language of its own with the power to seduce Nancy: Minta's “implor[ing]” her to come makes Nancy feel “elation,” though Woolf's first word choice, “ecstasy” implies a more erotic joy: “Yes, Nancy has gone … for … Minta Doyle had implored her to come, not in words; Minta was dumb; but in speechless language which roused in Nancy's heart a an [sic] extraordinary elation” (Holograph [To the Lighthouse: The Original Holograph Draft.] 97).

The touch of Minta's hand awakens something in Nancy that enables her to see “life spread beneath her” (74)—more exactly in the holograph, “her own future” (Holograph 122). What she “sees” more specifically is rather curious, given that she is on a Scottish island: she sees the mist covering Constantinople, and through the mist views “a pinnacle, a dome” (74). Though Woolf's exotic depiction of Constantinople is in part informed by imperialist constructions of Orientalism, her choice of Constantinople to convey something both epiphanic and homoerotic in this scene as well as her allusion to that same city when she envisions the “Jessamy Brides” may also be illuminated by Woolf's personal associations with Constantinople. Virginia Stephen visited Constantinople in 1906 as a young woman engaged in an intense romantic friendship with Violet Dickinson, who accompanied Virginia and her siblings to Greece and Constantinople. Before their departure, Woolf writes to Dickinson, “You must come. I dream of it every night” (Letters 1: 233). Two weeks after their return, she writes, “If you could put your hand in that nest of fur where my heart beats you would feel the thump of the steadiest organ in London—all beating for my Violet. Sometimes when I am ordering dinner, or emptying—a flower vase—a great tide runs from my toe to my crown, which is the thought of you” (1: 245).

What makes Constantinople just as fitting a choice for Woolf's conflation of telepathic vision and lesbian intimacy as the fact that she went there with one of her first loves is the fact that Vita Sackville-West, who would become her most intimate lover, also traveled to Constantinople as a young woman (in 1913 when she was twenty-one) and recorded impressions in her poetry very similar to the ones Virginia recorded in her diary. In 1906, Woolf writes,

… the most splendid thing in Constantinople … is the prospects of the roofs of the town, seen from the high ground of Pera. For in the morning the mist lies like a veil that muffles treasures across all the houses & all the mosques; then as the sun rises … a pinnacle of gold pierces the soft mesh, & you see shapes of precious stuff lumped together.

(A Passionate Apprentice 351)

In Vita's poem “Morning in Constantinople” (written in and privately printed in Constantinople: Eight Poems, 1915), we find the same impression of a “veil” that Virginia Stephen had recorded in her diary as well as both the pinnacle (a minaret) and dome that Nancy Ramsay sees rising through the mist: “A shadowy dome and soaring minaret / Visible though the base be hidden yet / Beneath the wreaths of milky shroud …” (Collected Poems 201).

These images of Constantinople appear as epiphanic flashes in an incipient romance that never unfolds, for it is interrupted, as is characteristic in Woolf's fiction, by the intrusion of a male pursuing heterosexual courtship. When Minta drops Nancy's hand and when Paul later kisses Minta—the thought of which makes Nancy “outraged” and “indignant”—the world which was spread out so gloriously beneath the two women fades away. Minta's world will become much smaller, for she and Paul will “retreat into solitude together” (78). Nancy shares Minta's sadness, though she is unable to articulate its cause, just as earlier in the scene she understands the urgency of Minta's touch, even though she does not have a name for the world of emotion that Minta's touch opened up for her.

The little sapphic stories that “flash[ed]” into Woolf's “mind at all seasons” may seem as brief as Julia Craye's imagined or real kiss on Fanny Wilmot's lips, or as brief as Sally's very real kiss on Clarissa's, but that flash did after all have the power to turn the entire world upside down. Moments of overt lesbian passion in Woolf's fiction may indeed blaze briefly, but their power to turn upside down an entire story or novel is suggested by their epiphanic nature. It is after all in its brevity that an epiphany's truth is revealed.


  1. Inspired by the work of French feminists, Elizabeth A. Meese performs an innovative reading of Virginia and Vita “seeing” each other in (Sem)erotics: Theorizing Lesbian Writing.

  2. There are two existing versions of the passage describing Julia and Fanny's kiss in “Moments of Being”, as Susan Dick points out in her edition of The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. In Woolf's typescript, which was reprinted by Leonard Woolf in A Haunted House, the passage reads, “Julia blazed. Julia kindled. Out of the night she burnt like a dead white star. Julia opened her arms. Julia kissed her on the lips. Julia possessed it” (qtd. in Dick 10). Woolf's revision of the typescript, published in Forum in 1928, highlights the fact that Fanny sees Julia, continuing an emphasis on Fanny's gaze present in the two previous paragraphs: “She saw Julia open her arms; saw her blaze, saw her kindle. Out of the night she burnt like a dead white star. Julia kissed her. Julia possessed her” (214). In both versions of the story, the paragraph which precedes the kiss ends mid-sentence, “She saw Julia—” (214). So even if there is no stress placed on Fanny's seeing Julia open her arms, her seeing Julia has already been emphasized. In fact, in the paragraph which precedes the kiss, Woolf uses the verb “saw” seven times to indicate Fanny's seeing “back and back into the past behind [Julia]” (214). Prior to that, Woolf ends the paragraph about Fanny's perceiving Julia's “moment of ecstasy” with an uncharacteristic simple statement: “Fanny stared” (214).

  3. In an alternative reading of Fanny's sexuality, Susan Clements effectively argues that Fanny “is hindered from seeing and telling the truth not only by the fear of its consequences but by the dearth of narrative models for laying it out” (21).

  4. The choice of Fanny's last name, “Wilmot”, may playfully refer to the intentionality with which Woolf chooses the risque first name “Fanny”—suggesting that Woolf “willed” the “word” (“mot” meaning “word” in French). Janet Winston offers another possibility, reading “Wilmot” as “‘Will not’”—indicative of her initial reluctance “to see her teacher's lesbianism and with it Fanny's own desire for her” (73).

  5. Patricia Cramer notes that Woolf's “codes for female sexual arousal firmly place her within a lesbian literary tradition which rewrites men's conventional associations of women as fragile and vulnerable flowers by using flowers instead as images of female sexual power” (183-84).

  6. For an engaging reading of the use of flower imagery to suggest female sexuality as well as an analysis of the Sapphic tradition in both Woolf's “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points’” and Katherine Mansfield's short story “Carnation,” see Janet Winston's essay in Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings.

  7. After pointing out that Woolf's choice of the pin was not arbitrary and that it “achieve[s] symbolic status” as a phallus “by the time it is repeated at the close,” Avrom Fleishman also notes the ambiguity surrounding “the continued activity of the pin”; but his focus on the activity of the phallus precludes his determining anything else about the final exchange between the women except that it is “disturbing” (62).

  8. In an essay which posits that lesbian sexuality can only be represented as unrepresentability, Judith Roof explains that sexuality which is “seeable” is “a source of voyeuristic pleasure particularly associated with Freud's observation of the connection between the eye and the phallus.” Roof maintains that lesbian sexuality frustrates this voyeurism: “The lesbian, instead of imparting the implicit phallic desire of the ‘normal’ woman, conveys a different, concerted absence which frustrates both symmetry and visibility” (101).

  9. Woolf's use of the word “little” to refer to her sapphist sketches does not necessarily suggest that they are trivial; on the contrary, “little” is an adjective associated with Woolfian epiphanies. Returning her painting after ten years and still wondering about “meaning of life,” Lily Briscoe realizes that “The great revelation had never come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark …” (emphasis mine, Lighthouse 161). In her memoirs, Woolf describes her “scene making” as “a means of summing up and making a knot out of innumerable little threads” which are “made out of something permanent; that is proof of their ‘reality’” (emphasis mine, “Sketch of the Past” 142).

  10. “Dumb,” incidentally, is what Woolf twice calls the letters Vita sends her en route to Persia in February 1926, the same month Woolf drafted the scene between Nancy and Minta (whose name sounds a little like Vita's). In a letter to Vita, she writes, “Here's a letter from Cairo, I mean the shores of Greece, come this morning, a dumb letter but I'm getting good at reading them” (3: 237-38); in her diary Woolf writes, “Vita is a dumb letter writer, & I miss her” (3: 58).

Works Cited

Beja, Morris. Epiphany in the Modern Novel. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1971.

Clements, Susan. “The Point of ‘Slater's Pins’: Misrecognition and the Narrative Closet.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 13 (1994): 15-26.

Cramer, Patricia. “Notes from Underground: Lesbian Ritual in the Writings of Virginia Woolf.” Virginia Woolf Miscellanies: Proceedings from the First Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Mark Hussey and Vara Neverow-Turk. New York: New York UP, 1991. 177-88.

Fleishman, Avrom. “Forms of the Woolfian Short Story.” Virginia Woolf: Revaluation and Continuity. Ed. Ralph Freedman. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980. 46-70.

Meese, Elizabeth A. (Sem)Erotics: Theorizing Lesbian Writing. New York: New York UP, 1992.

Roof, Judith. “‘The Match in the Crocus’: Representations of Lesbian Sexuality.” Discontented Discourses: Feminism / Textual Intervention / Psychoanalysis. Ed. Marleen S. Barr and Richard Feldstein. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989. 100-116.

Sackville-West, Vita. Collected Poems. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1934.

Winston, Janet. “Reading Influences: Homoeroticism and Mentoring in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Carnation’ and Virginia Woolf's ‘Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points.’” Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings. Ed. Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer. New York: New York UP, 1997. 57-77.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. 5 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1977-84.

———. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. 6 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1975-80.

———. “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points.’” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. San Diego: Harcourt, 1985.

———. A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909. Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska. San Diego: Harcourt, 1990.

———. To the Lighthouse. 1927. San Diego: Harcourt, 1989.

———. To the Lighthouse: The Original Holograph Draft. Ed. Susan Dick. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1982.

———. “A Sketch of the Past.” Moments of Being. Ed. Jeanne Schulkind. 2nd ed. San Diego, Harcourt, 1985.

Ellen Tremper (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Tremper, Ellen. “Prologue: ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’ and Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes.” In “Who Lived at Alfoxton?”: Virginia Woolf and English Romanticism, pp. 35-61. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Tremper investigates the influence of William Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes on Woolf's “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn.”]

Here are the poets from whom we descend by way of the mind.

Between the Acts

Virginia Woolf's relations with her father, Leslie Stephen, were exceptional. Beyond overseeing her education at home, he felt for her an “elective affinity,” unique among his children. She was the one with the literary promise, visible when she was only five or six. She was the one to whom he opened his large library, granting her liberty to roam there at will—an unusual privilege during the Victorian age for a daughter.1 And later, when he was dying, she was the one whose help he sought in editing his last book.

She repaid his love and intellectual admiration by becoming a writer whose work visibly bore the imprint of her father's interest in history, his aesthetic values, and his ideas. But Leslie Stephen's influence did not mark his daughter's writing directly. Rather it was mediated by the poet he loved best among the “moderns”—William Wordsworth. English Romanticism and Wordsworth's poetry, in particular, made possible Virginia Woolf's transformation into a writer whose imaginative merging of history and fiction colors all her work.

To be sure, Leslie Stephen would not have objected to his daughter's becoming a novelist. Katherine C. Hill quotes several letters in which Stephen asserts that his very young daughter's verbal skills might mean a career as a novelist. However, six years later, when writing to his wife, he said that writing articles would “‘be 'Ginia's line unless she marries somebody at 17’ (27 July 1893).”2

She did not marry at seventeen, and he was correct in forecasting that she would be a writer of articles. But at twenty-four, she was attempting a very different sort of expression and, sometime within a year of writing her earliest stories, beginning Melymbrosia, her working title for The Voyage Out, published in 1913.

The internal and external pressures that drove her to become a novelist are as difficult to name as is an answer to her own later question about the forces that caused the extraordinary creativity of the Brontës (CE [Collected Essays] 2, 162). An approximation, however, is found in Leslie Stephen's profound effects on his daughter. He communicated his love and admiration for literature directly and forcefully to his children through his nightly ritual of reading to them during their childhood and, to his daughters, beyond their early years.

Virginia's own words best express what this experience meant to her. In “Impressions of Sir Leslie Stephen,” written by February 1905 and published in Frederic Maitland's The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen in November 1906, Virginia wrote that after finishing the thirty-two volumes of the Waverley Novels, Carlyle's French Revolution, Jane Austen, Hawthorne, some Shakespeare, “and many other classics,” “He began too to read poetry instead of prose on Sunday nights, and the Sunday poetry went on till the very end after the nightly readings had been given up” (Essays [The Essays of Virginia Woolf] I, 128). She continues:

His memory for poetry was wonderful; he could absorb a poem that he liked almost unconsciously from a single reading. … He had long ago acquired all the most famous poems of Wordsworth, Tennyson, Keats, and Matthew Arnold, among the moderns. Milton of old writers was the one he knew best. … His recitation … gained immensely from this fact [that he spoke from memory], for as he lay back in his chair and spoke the beautiful words with closed-eyes, we felt that he was speaking not merely the words of Tennyson or Wordsworth but what he himself felt and knew. Thus many of the great English poems now seem to me inseparable from my father; I hear in them not only his voice, but in some sort his teaching and belief.

(Essays I, 128-29)

In her later essay, “Leslie Stephen,” she added to the picture:

And often as he mounted the stairs to his study with his firm, regular tread he would burst, not into song, for he was entirely unmusical, but into a strange rhythmical chant, for verse of all kinds, both ‘utter trash’, as he called it, and the most sublime words of Milton and Wordsworth, stuck in his memory, and the act of walking or climbing seemed to inspire him to recite whichever it was that came uppermost or suited his mood.

(CE 4, 76-77)

Woolf's was an unusual introduction to English poetry, both affective and intellectual, particularly of Wordsworth, who heads the list of Stephen's favorites. He remained a vital voice for her until the end of her life as the dated Victorians did not.

We have seen that Woolf, when praising Wordsworth to Ethel Smyth in 1936, said: “we only have a few pipers on hedges like Yeats and Tom Eliot, de la Mare—exquisite frail twittering voices one has to hollow one's hand to hear, whereas old Wth [Wordsworth] fills the room” (Letters [The Letters of Virginia Woolf] VI, 73). There is reason to believe that it was her father's voice that, like an auditory palimpsest, gave added depth and meaning to the printed words of the poetry. Her admiration of Wordsworth, furthermore, is reminiscent of her father's essay on the poet in Hours in a Library:

I gladly take for granted—what is generally acknowledged—that Wordsworth in his best moods reaches a greater height than any other modern Englishman. … Other poetry becomes trifling when we are making our inevitable passages through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Wordsworth's alone retains its power. We love him the more as we grow older and become more deeply impressed with the sadness and seriousness of life. … And I take the explanation to be that he is not merely a melodious writer, or a powerful utterer of a deep emotion, but a true philosopher. His poetry wears well because it has solid substance. He is a prophet and a moralist as well as a mere singer.3

The poetic revolution begun by Blake and enunciated by Wordsworth in the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads published in 1800 explains the “psycho-political” and social dimension of Virginia Woolf's writing, her insistence on the quotidian and on the ordinary experiences and emotions of ordinary people, and a metaphorical style that makes consciousness translucent and continuous with the world it perceives and reflects.

Hazlitt in 1825, in his essay on Wordsworth, was first to assess the deeply radical political nature of Wordsworth's approach and its shift away from both the aesthetic and implied political position of the poets of the preceding generation. Of Wordsworth, Hazlitt wrote:

He takes the simplest elements of nature and of the human mind, the mere abstract conditions inseparable from our being, and tries to compound a new system of poetry from them; and has perhaps succeeded as well as anyone could. ‘Nihil humani a me alienum puto’—is the motto of his works … his poetry is founded on setting up an opposition (and pushing it to the utmost length) between the natural and the artificial. …

It is one of the innovations of our time. It partakes of, and is carried along with, the revolutionary movement of our age: the political changes of the day were the model on which he formed and conducted his poetical experiments. His Muse … is a levelling one. … It takes the commonest events and objects … to prove that nature is always interesting from its inherent truth and beauty. … Hence the unaccountable mixture of seeming simplicity and real abstruseness in the Lyrical Ballads.

… He takes a subject or story merely as pegs or loops to hang thought and feeling on; the incidents are trifling in proportion to his contempt for imposing appearances; the reflections are profound, according to the gravity and aspiring pretensions of his mind.4

As with Wordsworth's Prospectus, if we translate Hazlitt's claims for Wordsworth's poetry into more contemporary language, we may see in Virginia Stephen's earliest stories the crucial presence of Leslie Stephen and the nascence of Wordsworthian Romanticism that was to color all of her mature work.

Her father's death marked the end of an era in Virginia's life. It precipitated the break-up of the establishment at 22 Hyde Park Gate, her home in London since childhood, and the move to Bloomsbury with her sister Vanessa and brothers Thoby and Adrian. Many young writers spin their first fictions out of the material they know best: themselves and their own experience. Virginia Woolf was no exception. Her early short stories reveal the autobiographical conflicts of this difficult but adventurous time. They commemorate her father's influence on her decisions and qualities of mind which lasted a lifetime.

“Phyllis and Rosamond” of June 1906 (CSF [The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf], 289) limns the choice Virginia made, not merely by leaving behind Hyde Park Gate but also the Victorian upper middle-class social world of traditional and restricting expectations for young women. The two sisters, Phyllis and Rosamond, are twenty-eight and twenty-four, exactly the same ages as Vanessa and Virginia in that year.

There are a number of parallels between the situation of her characters and her own. Through a series of commercial metaphors, Virginia describes the case of these “daughters at home” (CSF, 18) who, like other girls of their social class, are forced to fulfill the economic expectations of their family, particularly of their mother, by making the drawing room “their place of business, their professional arena” (CSF, 18) where they practice their skills on marriage prospects. Like Phyllis and Rosamond, Vanessa and Virginia were made to go into society for the same purpose by their half-brother George Duckworth, their dead mother's favorite and representative. In the memoir “22 Hyde Park Gate,” Virginia Woolf claimed that in this respect, “he had done what he knew my mother would have wished him to do” (MoB [Moments of Being], 172). In the story Rosamond weakly resists her overbearing mother and reveals her intellectual proclivities by reading Walter Pater's “Greek Studies” (CSF, 20), as Virginia actually studied Greek with the Oxford don's sister, Clara Pater.

On the other hand, the father of Phyllis and Rosamond is a benignly hovering presence. He introduces them to two young men of his acquaintance, Mr. Middleton and Mr. Carew—humorously the names of two Jacobean authors from his library to whom Leslie Stephen would have “introduced” Virginia. Nor is he criticized as their mother Lady Hibbert is. Instead, the daughters actually side with their father: “The daughters were used to these insinuations against their father: on the whole they took his side, but they never said so” (CSF, 20).5 The two sisters meet at the Bloomsbury home of the Tristrams and talk to Sylvia, the daughter of the family, who has never had a marriage proposal and who represents the social and intellectual freedom that Vanessa and Virginia chose by moving to bohemian Bloomsbury. The name “Tristram” was an apt choice for these free spirits, given the oddities of the character of Tristram Shandy, but one also with which Virginia identified her father. In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf wrote: “Leslie Stephen apart from his books was a figure … and lived a very real life in the minds of men like Walter Headlam or Herbert Fisher; to whom he was a representative man; a man with a standard they often referred to. If a man like Leslie Stephen likes Tristram Shandy, Walter Headlam wrote to someone, then it must be all right. That gives what I mean” (MoB, 110-11).

The young Virginia thus split her own character between the doomed, intellectually undeveloped Rosamond and the bohemian Sylvia. In this unfashionable quarter of London, Phyllis thinks: “There was room, and freedom, and in the roar and the splendour of the Strand she read the live realities of the world from which her stucco and her pillars protected her so completely” (CSF, 24). But the two young sisters feel that they have been spoiled for such freedoms, that “long captivity had corrupted them both within and without” (CSF, 26).

Such, indeed, must have been the negative feelings that Virginia harbored about herself in 1904 as she stepped out of “the cage”—her name for 22 Hyde Park Gate—replete with images of imprisonment: the “iron trellis,” the “square of wall-circled garden,” the “creepers [that] hung down in front of the window” (MoB, 116). However, she emerged with a rich intellectual legacy acquired through her father's direct encouragement, which enabled her to move successfully, although not without self-doubt, into the rigorous world of her brother Thoby and his intellectually sophisticated, free-thinking Cambridge friends.

Thus, “Phyllis and Rosamond” gives an extremely contemporaneous and close approximation of the two forces Virginia felt to be vying for her mind and life near the time of the actual writing of the story. A more sublimated representation of these forces, and one in which the attraction and strength of the intellectual life happily prevails, is found in “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn.” This story, found among Woolf's Monks House Papers, was published for the first time only in 1979 in Twentieth Century Literature. However, it was written during August 1906, when Virginia and her sister Vanessa were on holiday in Norfolk, staying at Blo' Norton Hall (CSF, 289). Written only two months after “Phyllis and Rosamond” and exactly two and one half years after the death of Leslie Stephen, it memorializes her father's passion for history and his hopes that Virginia would follow professionally in his footsteps as an historian and biographer.

Yet Virginia Stephen, in this second short story, did something more. Like George Eliot, focusing in Middlemarch on the sort of woman who might have lived in 1832 at the time of the first Reform Bill, she imaginatively merged fiction and history. Indeed, we begin to feel that the possibility of such a hybrid is, in fact, the point of her story.

The singular mixing of the “historiographic” apparatus with which she frames the story and its wholly fictional content suggests her lifelong efforts to create an interdependent structure based on history and imagination in her writing. This early work is thus a metaphor for Woolf's desire to be a writer of fiction who would, nevertheless, stay close to the intellect perspectives of her father and of the writers he encouraged her to read from his large library.

We clearly feel the veiled autobiographical presence both in the framing device and in the journal proper. As in the earlier tale of the two sisters and their friend Sylvia Tristram, Virginia Stephen split the representation of herself between Rosamond Merridew, the forty-five-year-old, exuberant historian-archaeologist, and Joan Martyn, the young woman in her twenties, keeping in 1480 the journal discovered by the historian. Yet although Virginia gave Miss Merridew the Christian name of her insecure avatar in the previous story, the middle-aged historian, like Sylvia Tristram, has tremendous self-assurance. More significantly, she has a profession.

Miss Merridew's surname says all there is to say about the joy with which she embraces her life's work. She happily asserts that she has “exchanged a husband and a family and a house in which [she] may grow old for certain fragments of yellow parchment” and further admits that “a kind of maternal passion has sprung up in [her] breast for these shrivelled and colourless little gnomes … with the fire of genius in their eyes” (CSF, 33). A comparable profession may well have seemed probable for Virginia who had begun writing journalistic reviews to supplement her private income. Rosamond Merridew is thus a representation of Leslie Stephen's wishes for his daughter.

Katherine Hill asserts that Virginia Woolf's approach to literary criticism—its sociological underpinnings and the informing belief that the dominant class of an age creates the new genres of literature—was influenced generally by her father's positions last enunciated in English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century, which Virginia helped him edit in his final years. But Hill's essay is silent about the more difficult issues bearing on her decision to become a writer of fiction. What forces or causes in her life other than her love of literature made her pursue this path rather than follow in her father's footsteps? Virginia Hyman offers a psychological reading in “Reflections in a Looking-Glass: Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf.”6 She describes Virginia's double need: to see herself as duplicating her father's life but yet to distance herself from him. Certainly there are temperamental proclivities that explain her choice as well. In a letter of 1940 to Vita Sackville-West, who had encouraged her to write a book about Bess of Hardwick, Woolf explained:

It is angelic of you to wish me to write another book. At the same time devilish. Havent I 20 books sizzling in my head at the moment? Then you tempt me with old Bess. It is tempting of course. But I doubt if old Bess is my bird. I think she's neither one thing or the other. I mean Orlando was imagination: Roger [Fry] fact. But Bess is after all, though much spangled with Elizabethan finery, an historic figure. I should have to grub. And I dont like shoddy history.

(Letters VI, 445)

If we agree that her fiction, as well as her life, bears the imprint of her struggle, a different answer can be found in Rosamond Merridew's position in “… Joan Martyn.” Introducing her methods, Miss Merridew (if not Virginia Stephen) self-consciously asserts:

The critics … complain that I have no materials at my side to stiffen these words into any semblance of the truth. It is well known that the period I have chosen is more bare than any other of private records; unless you choose to draw all your inspiration from the Paston Letters you must be content to imagine merely, like any other story teller. And that, I am told, is a useful art in its place; but it should be allowed to claim no relationship with the sterner art of the Historian.

(CSF, 35)

Perhaps the critic is Leslie Stephen, but the charm for Rosamond Merridew and Virginia Stephen seems precisely in the bareness of private records that gives them the freedom to imagine.

Furthermore, the intellectual combat Miss Merridew most relishes is over the sort of evidence from the past most pertinent to the historian. Starting from the reasonable but often obscured assumption that “the intricacies of the land tenure were not always the most important facts in the lives of men and women and children” (CSF, 34), she claims to have come

upon … [prizes] that because they are so fitful and so minute in their illumination please me even better. A sudden light upon the legs of Dame Elizabeth Partridge sends its beams over the whole state of England, to the King upon his throne; she wanted stockings! and no other need impresses you in quite the same way with the reality of mediaeval legs; and therefore with the reality of mediaeval bodies, and so, proceeding upward step by step, with the reality of mediaeval brains; and there you stand at the centre of all ages: middle beginning or end.

(CSF, 34)

Indeed, her insistence on the distinction between the “prizes” most interesting to other historians and those that most appeal to her determines the key to the compromise between Leslie Stephen's professional interest in history and Virginia Woolf's own preference for the transcendent role of the imagination, of mediaeval and other “brains” in her writing. To be sure, Miss Merridew's interest emphasizes the kinds of particulars that, at least theoretically, Stephen, as distinct from others, believed are responsible for creating the character of the past and, as well, should direct the historian in his quest for this character. But more importantly, Rosamond Merridew describes the sort of “evidence” that most appeals to Woolf in the creation of fictive worlds. The subject and texture of Woolf's imaginative writing are spelled out in a way that remarkably heralds her later career. The desire for stockings—the stuff of the banal quotidian world—and the mind to which, physically and figuratively “proceeding upward step by step” they lead, represent the pith and marrow of her novelistic writing. The same democratic impulse that privileges the quotidian and thought and feeling in Woolf's later work is also strikingly present in “… Joan Martyn.” Further, her attention to the world of nature, a result, as well, of her father's interest in and love of the natural world, which would much later transform into the idiosyncratic and totally original description of “Time Passes” in To the Lighthouse, is equally present here.

Clearly Woolf's sympathies and approach do not amount to a mere reductive repetition of the values and techniques of English Romanticism. To make this argument would be to violate the evidence of her fiction as well as of her own notion, expressed in “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,” that each age enters into a complicitous agreement with its authors to create new conventions through which the ideas of that age are expressed. However, the spirit of Wordsworth hovers over the pages of “… Joan Martyn,” reminding us of the origins of Woolf's political and literary patrimony. Since Virginia had just written a review for The Times Literary Supplement in June 1906, “Wordsworth and the Lakes,” for which she received 9.7s, the poet's felt presence is not a surprise. “‘This is the largest sum I have ever made at one blow,’ she announced proudly to Violet Dickinson.”7 Her financial success made an impression on her. But so, it seems, did Wordsworth's habits of carefully recording his impressions of the landscape and his reactions to it because Virginia, in the poet's manner, attempted a minute description of the countryside of Norfolk in the journal she kept during her stay at Blo' Norton. However, she seemed subtly aware of an important difference between her journal and Wordsworth's: the absence in hers of self-conscious examination of the effects of this landscape on her imagination and feelings. She wonders about her inability to respond to what she sees every day.

It is one of the wilful habits of the brain, let me generalise for the sake of comfort, that it will only work at its own terms.

You bring it directly opposite an object, & bid it discourse; it merely shuts its eye, & turns away. But in one month, or three or seven, suddenly without any bidding, it pours out the whole picture, gratuitously. … Like the light that reaches you from the stars, it will only shine when some time after it has been shed.

So then, to come to the heart of the discourse, there is no use in presenting here a picture of Norfolk; when the place is directly beneath my eyes. I see at this moment a wall, coloured like an apricot in the sun; with touches of red upon it. The outline & angles of the roof & the tall chimney are completely filled with pure blue sky. …

(APA [A Passionate Apprentice], 313)

Saying there is no use in description, she yet continues to describe. We must conclude that by “presenting” she means something other than the marketplace use of the word, depending rather on its root significance of spatial and temporal immediacy. She seems to take a leaf out of Wordsworth's autobiographical poem, The Prelude, the famous “spots of time” episode of Book XII. There he asserts that “An ordinary sight” from the past, coupled with another and remembered in the present, or one from the past evoked by its repetition in the present, has “A renovating virtue, whence … our minds / Are nourished and invisibly repaired” (Wordsworth [Selected Poems and Prefaces], 345). Both for Wordsworth and Woolf, the active imagination transforms these otherwise meaningless, ordinary sights from nullities into meaningful, even restorative memories. After Wordsworth describes two chance sights from the landscape of his childhood, the gibbet and the murderer's name carved into the grass and the girl with the pitcher on her head, straining against the wind, thus married through spatial and temporal propinquity, he sums up the significance of such memories for the present.

… When, in the blessed hours
Of early love, the loved one at my side,
I roamed, in daily presence of this scene,
Upon the naked pool and dreary crags,
And on the melancholy beacon, fell
A spirit of pleasure and youth's golden gleam;
And think ye not with radiance more sublime
For these remembrances, and for the power
They left behind? So feeling comes in aid
Of feeling, and diversity of strength
Attends us, if but once we have been strong.
Oh! mystery of man, from what a depth
Proceed thy honours.

(Wordsworth, 346)

Wordsworth does not consider the mechanics of the re-presenting of these memories to the consciousness while Woolf simply implies that it is an unwilled process. Nevertheless, they both believe that the faculty of the imagination creatively superimposes itself on remembrance. The imagination, by simultaneously insisting on the emotional importance of the memories, thus gives new meaning to the notion of “seeing” or “presenting.” The organically assimilated vision in Wordsworth's prose and poetry was conspicuously absent, Virginia felt, in her own journal.

However, while Virginia hoped that her untoward brain, refusing thus far to “discourse” or speak to her, might still have a surprise in store for her several months hence, her other literary venture, going forward at the same time, was a less direct but more successful attempt to capture the present moment and turn it from the forgettable into a moment of being. As an experiment in the imaginative sphere, imbued with the values of Romanticism, “… Joan Martyn” is a thoughtful compromise with the expectations of Leslie Stephen. Its obvious concern with the ordinary and diurnal, the metaphorical attention to landscape and its continuity with the perceiving imagination, and, finally, the democratic political impulse of the young and inexperienced writer of the diary are all reminiscent of the methods and ideas of Wordsworth, her father's favorite. In more than one sense, then, it is the story of “fathers” and a daughter.

Joan's story begins with an historical comparison between the time of her own mother's girlhood and the present. She writes: “The state of the times, which my mother tells me, is less safe and less happy than when she was a girl, makes it necessary for us to keep much within our own lands” (CSF, 45). However, the present necessity of barring the Gates against fearful intruders—the historical reality of the Wars of the Roses, which ended in 1485 at the battle of Bosworth Field8—is then metaphorized in a powerful natural image:

I am very bold and impatient sometimes, when the moon rises, over a land gleaming with frost; and I think I feel the pressure of all this free and beautiful place—all England and the sea, and the lands beyond—rolling like sea waves against our iron gates, breaking, and withdrawing—and breaking again—all through the long black night.

(CSF, 45)

We hear the power of Wordsworth's poetic descriptions in The Guide to the Lakes. His imagination is felt everywhere as he appropriates the landscape of the Lake District. She thus commends his description in her review.

But all through this minute and scrupulous catalogue there runs a purpose which solves it into one coherent and increasingly impressive picture. For all these details and more ‘which a volume would not be sufficient to describe’ … are of such interest to him [Wordsworth] because he sees them all as living parts of a vast and exquisitely ordered system. It is this combination in him of obstinate truth and fervent imagination that stamps his descriptions more deeply upon the mind than those of almost any other writer.

(Essays I, 107)

Metaphors of organicity, used by Coleridge in his description of the imagination,9 enter organically and become truth in Wordsworth's writing. Virginia apprehends this phenomenon from the ability of his imagination actually to apprehend the organic connection of the parts of the ecosystem which he visually, auditorially, and tactilely perceives and records.

Similarly, Virginia, conscious of metaphor as a vehicle for the imagination's appropriation of the world before it,10 imputes to Joan the power to register it through metaphors—here, the presence of the world become the pressure of sea waves against the gates. Virginia's “own” imagination is very much under the influence of Wordsworth's language in the “Guide” as she borrows words and phrases from it, transforming them and making them serve her particular needs. And so we find that Wordsworth's “birch with its silver stem”11 becomes Virginia Stephen's “beech … with silver gems” (CSF, 56). The suggested auditory remembrance of his words is also joined by a more conscious effort to replicate Wordsworth's precise rendering of the complexity and beauty of the natural world. Attracted to Wordsworth's “general survey” of the countryside, she then extols his “very penetrating eye” and paraphrases in her review his closer description of “the rocky part of a mountain [which] is blue or ‘hoary grey’, with a tinge of red in it ‘like the compound hues of a dove's neck’” (Wordsworth's Guide [The Guide to the Lakes], 28; Essays I, 106). There she praises, as well, his inclusion of “sober details [that] … give a tone of solidity to the whole, and suggest the rough surface of the earth, which is as true a part of the country as its heights and splendours” (Essays I, 106).

Wordsworth writes:

The general surface of the mountain is turf, rendered rich and green by the moisture of the climate. Sometimes the turf … is little broken, the whole covering being soft and downy pasturage. In other places rocks predominate; the soil is laid bare by torrents and burstings of water from the sides of the mountains in heavy rains; and not unfrequently their perpendicular sides are seamed by ravines … which, meeting in angular points, entrench and scar the surface with numerous figures like the letters W and Y.

(Wordsworth's Guide, 27)

Virginia similarly describes the color and the texture of the “surface” of Norfolk when she writes:

Walsingham, as all the world knows, is but a very small village on the top of a hill. But as you approach through a plain that is rich with green, you see this high ground rising above you for some time before you get there. The midday sun lit up all the soft greens and blues of the fen land; and made it seem as though one passed through a soft and luxurious land, glowing like a painted book; towards a stern summit, where the light struck upon something pointing upwards that was pale as bone.

(CSF, 58)

The “compound hues” of the fen land, “the soft greens and blues,” followed by the “soft and luxurious land,” reminiscent of Wordsworth's “soft pasturage,” and then the shift to the vertical plane, to “something pointing upwards,” like Wordsworth's “perpendicular sides … meeting in angular points,” all suggest Virginia Woolf's extraordinary aural recall, exercised frequently in her many allusions to Romantic poetry. As she said of her father's, her own “memory for poetry was wonderful.”

The description Joan gives of ascending to the “stern summit” of Walsingham also seems a reworking of Wordsworth's description from the Guide of his ascent of Scawfell Pike on which she particularly remarks in her review. Wordsworth's sense of reverence for the wonders of nature, his own variety of religious experience, is transformed by Virginia into the only sort of religious ecstasy possible for Joan in the year 1480. Wordsworth, describing the coming of a mountain storm and then his safe reaching of the summit, says:

I know not how long we might have remained on the summit of the Pike … had not our Guide warned us that we must not linger; for a storm was coming. We looked in vain to espy the signs of it. Mountains, vales, and sea were touched with the clear light of the sun. ‘It is there,’ said he, pointing to the sea beyond Whitehaven, and there we perceived a light vapour unnoticeable but by a shepherd accustomed to watch all mountain bodings. … Great Gavel, Helvellyn, and Skiddaw, were wrapped in storm; yet Langdale, and the mountains in that quarter, remained all bright in sunshine. …

I ought to have mentioned that round the top of Scawfell-PIKE not a blade of grass is to be seen. Cushions or tufts of moss, parched and brown, appear between the huge blocks and stones that lie in heaps on all sides to a great distance, like skeletons or bones of the earth not needed at the creation, and there left to be covered with never-dying lichens. …

… Afterwards we had a spectacle of the grandeur of earth and heaven commingled; yet without terror. We knew that the storm would pass away, for so our prophetic Guide had assured us.

(Wordsworth's Guide, 115-16)

Joan, in her account, says:

At last I reached the top of the hill, joining with a stream of other pilgrims, and we clasped hands, to show that we came humbly as human beings and trod the last steps of the road together, singing our Miserere. …

But then the pale cross with the Image struck my eyes, and drew all my mind, in reverence towards it.

I will not pretend that I found that summons other than stern; for the sun and storm have made the figure harsh and white; but the endeavour to adore Her as others were doing round me filled my mind with an image that was so large and white that no other thought had room there. For one moment I submitted myself to her as I have never submitted to man or woman, and bruised my lips on the rough stone of her garment. White light and heat steamed on my bare head; and when the ecstasy passed the country beneath flew out like a sudden banner unfurled.

(CSF, 59)

The something “pale as bone” is a transformation of the skeletons and bones of Scawfell Pike. Woolf recalls Wordsworth's contrast of storm and sunshine in “the sun and storm” that have weathered the figure of Mary. Wordsworth's reverential “unwilling to lose the remembrance of what lay before us” and “the spectacle of the grandeur of earth and heaven commingled” reappear in “when the ecstasy passed the country beneath flew out like a sudden banner unfurled.”

However, an even more remarkable borrowing is from stanzas III through V of “Resolution and Independence.” Joan, describing her pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, says:

And my brain that was swift and merry at first, and leapt like a child at play, settled down in time to sober work upon the highway, though it was glad withal. For I thought of the serious things of life—such as age, and poverty and sickness and death, and considered that it would certainly be my lot to meet them; and I considered also those joys and sorrows that were for ever chasing themselves across my life. Small things would no longer please me and tease me as of old. But although this made me feel grave, I felt also that I had come to the time when such feelings are true; and further, as I walked, it seemed to me that one might enter within such feelings and study them, as, indeed, I had walked in a wide space within the covers of Master Richard's manuscript.

(CSF, 58)

Like Joan, Wordsworth is travelling in “Resolution. …”


I was a Traveller then upon the moor;
I saw the hare that raced about with joy;
I heard the woods and distant waters roar;
Or heard them not, as happy as a boy:
The pleasant season did my heart employ:
My old remembrances went from me wholly;
And all the ways of men, so vain and melancholy.


But, as it sometimes chanceth, from the might
Of joy in minds that can no further go,
As high as we have mounted in delight
In our dejection do we sink as low;
To me that morning did it happen so;
And fears and fancies thick upon me came;
Dim sadness—and blind thoughts, I knew not, nor could name.


I heard the sky-lark warbling in the sky;
And I bethought me of the playful hare:
Even such a happy Child of earth am I;
Even as these blissful creatures do I fare;
Far from the world I walk, and from all care;
But there may come another day to me—
Solitude, pain of heart, distress, and poverty.

(Wordsworth, 166)

Wordsworth's meeting with the Old Leech Gatherer makes more pointed the self-conscious study of his feelings, the subject of the entire poem. Joan, as well, sees that it is possible to “enter within such feelings and study them,” comparing the feelings with the play of her imagination when she had, figuratively, “walked in a wide space within the covers” of a travelling minstrel's book.

The complex “Klein bottle” or self-devolving image of her imagination's entering a work of art as it does the emotions that, likewise, it engenders, is suggested through another Wordsworthian image. Because Virginia had already cited it as an example of his “obstinate truth and fervent imagination” in her review of his Guide and then turned it to her own and very interesting account in the story, we are convinced of its special importance to her. Wordsworth, describing trees, says: “and the leafless purple twigs were tipped with globes of shining crystal” (Wordsworth's Guide, 127). Joan says: “I saw them [italics mine] as solid globes of crystal; enclosing a round ball of coloured earth and air, in which tiny men and women laboured, as beneath the dome of the sky itself” (CSF, 58).

The pronoun “them” has an ambiguous antecedent. Does Joan mean to refer to her “feelings” or to the “covers” of Richard's book? The confusion instructively suggests Virginia Woolf's dependence on Romantic metaphors for mind in which the world or the work of art is enfigured as an extension of, and continuous with, the imagination. Hermione Lee has similarly developed the idea of Woolf's use of metaphors of transparency and fire as important proof of the connection between her and the writers of the Romantic Movement.12

Woolf relies on such images, particularly on the figure “solid globes of crystal” and on similar ones in this story like the protective glass covering of a picture mentioned by Giles Martyn. She seems aware of the sometimes “transforming” or “preserving” properties of glass, especially as she borrows the dominant metaphor, the solid globes of crystal, from Wordsworth. Such metaphors and other similarities in perspectives and values represent important proof of the privileged position that Woolf accords to Romantic self-consciousness and to the textures of ordinary life.

Thus, the wave metaphor from the natural world in the beginning of Joan's narrative, conveying the historical moment, but equally an indication of the characteristic imagination of the narrator, is succeeded by a direct discussion of the capacity of imaginative literature to reveal the truth about the lives and the emotions of historical figures. Indeed, Joan sees imaginative literature as an alternative means both of apprehending and representing historical reality. Through it Virginia Stephen worked a compromise with her father.

Joan's family's reaction to “Mr John Lydgate's” “The Palace of Glass,”13 “a poem written about Helen and the Siege of Troy” (CSF, 46) and a gift from her father—“my father has sent me a manuscript from London” (CSF, 46)—is the compromise with Leslie Stephen dramatically rendered. Virginia made her intentions clear through Joan's comment.

Last night I read of Helen, and her beauty and her suitors, and the fair town of Troy and they listened silently; for though we none of us know where those places are, we see very well what they must have been like; and we can weep for the suffering of the soldiers, and picture to ourselves the stately woman herself, who must have been, I think, something like my mother. My mother beats with her foot and sees the whole processions pass I know, from the way her eyes gleam, and her head tosses. ‘It must have been in Cornwall,’ said Sir John [the priest], ‘where King Arthur lived with his knights.’

(CSF, 46-47)

The beauty of this poem and the emotions it engenders are real and powerful despite the historical ignorance of those who listen to it. The poor guess by Sir John, that Troy must have been in Cornwall, does not change the “truth” of Lydgate's words. Virginia, who was very familiar with Walter Pater's work, may well have been taking ironic pleasure in the knowledge that the site of Troy was not known until thirty-five years before she wrote her story.14 People for thousands of years have been able to appreciate The Iliad and The Odyssey despite their lack of accurate historical and archaeological knowledge.

Joan's family is equally moved by the story of Tristram and Iseult in the book of the travelling minstrel. The description of Richard suggests the singularity of the Romantic metaphors for mind that reveal the imagination and world as coextensive. In Richard's case, art is actually an extension of the mind of the individual who creates it: “He turned to me, and wound up with a flourish of one hand with the book in it” (CSF, 54). The symbolic physical extension of the arm and hand by the book he holds is then given emotional dimension as he begins to read the story of Tristram and Iseult, which, unlike that of Helen of Troy, does take place in Cornwall. Richard's extension of himself into the story is clear from his dramatic involvement. Joan writes:

He dropped his gay manner, and looked past us all … as though he drew his words from some sight not far from him. And as the story grew passionate his voice rose, and his fists clenched, and he raised his foot and stretched forth his arms; and then, when the lovers part, he seemed to see the Lady sink away from him … and his arms were empty. And then he is wounded in Brittany; and he hears the Princess coming across the seas to him.

(CSF, 56)

The same pronomial confusion that keeps us from knowing whether, in the figure of the solid crystal globes, Joan refers to her emotions or the covers of Richard's book occurs here, for it is impossible to tell whether the “he” of the last sentence refers to Richard or Tristram. The created art is the projection of the artist's imagination, an idea reinforced through the figure Joan deploys to describe looking at the manuscript “illuminations.”15

… the capital letters framed bright blue skies, and golden robes; and in the midst of the writing there came broad spaces of colour, in which you might see princes and princesses walking in procession and towns with churches … and the sea breaking blue beneath them. They were like little mirrors, held up to those visions which I had seen passing in the air but here they were caught and stayed forever.

(CSF, 56-57)

Art is not mimetic, that is, does not hold its mirror up to the world, as in the Aristotelian or Platonic conceptions of the relation of artist, audience, product, and world.16 Rather, it mirrors or expresses the imagination to give form to what is inside the creative individual.

Art both issues from the imagination and extends us. But even more significant is the contrast Joan draws between the art Richard makes—the art of pure fantasy and escape—and “ordinary thoughts,” not the proper subject, Joan at first believes, of stories. When Richard finishes the tale of Tristram and Iseult, the spell is broken, the moment of being is over: “But then the voice stopped; and all these figures withdrew, fading and trailing across the sky to the West where they live. And when I opened my eyes, the man, and the grey wall; the people by the Gate, slowly swam up, as from some depths, and settled on the surface, and stayed there clear and cold” (CSF, 56). The end of the illusion similarly affects Richard: “Meanwhile Richard was like a man who lets something slip from his clasp; and beats thin air. He looked at us, and I had half a mind to stretch out a hand; and tell him he was safe. But then he recollected himself, and smiled as though he had reason to be pleased” (CSF, 56). The ordinary world of the “grey wall,” the Gate, and the people are nothing like the intense blue skies and princesses of the illuminations. Joan says that Richard “took his manuscript from me, and tied the covers safely across it. He placed it in his breast” (CSF, 57). His actions thus invert Jasper Martyn's generous giving of the papers with their “thick cord of green silk” (CSF, 41)—the manuscript of the “ordinary” world of Joan Martyn—to Rosamond Merridew, which prefaces the diary. The kind of art that Richard creates, like Richard himself, “the strange bird” who “By dawn … was out of the house” (CSF, 57), is not always there to be relied on although it is pleasurably seductive. Indeed, Joan's mother, taking pleasure in Lydgate's poetry but calling “herself an old fool for listening to stories, when the accounts had still to be made up for my father in London” (CSF, 47), may be her first teacher in this regard.

“The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn” is an imaginative rendering of the ordinary experiences of relatively comfortable but by no means extraordinarily wealthy or socially elevated people at the end of the fifteenth century. The opacity of Elizabethan and earlier prose and the paucity of extant documents of the time, hindering the reclamation of the past, are ideas Woolf would also consider nearly thirty years later in The Second Common Reader essay, “The Strange Elizabethans.” The desire to name the past, to make it come alive for herself and her readers, suggests, then, a second plausible explanation for Woolf's choice of fiction over history and her elevation of the ordinary into art. The attraction to the freedoms of fiction in the face of a disappointingly slight historical record is represented by the historian Drew Gilpin Faust in her review of Celia: A Slave. Faust remarks of the difficulties that beset the author:

But his scanty sources compel him to guess, to speculate, to improvise, in ways that frustrate a reader eager to know more of what Celia thought and said, of how her lawyers debated their course of action. … In a work such as Mr. McLaurin's, history forcefully displays both its compelling strengths and its debilitating weaknesses as a mode of insight into the human experience.

… that we must be satisfied with shadows and outlines because of the irremediable incompleteness of the historical record reminds us of how every historian is compelled to create the past out of the pieces of it that survive. Celia's story almost inevitably evokes a work whose author bypassed the constraints of history for the freedoms and challenges of fiction: Toni Morrison's extraordinarily powerful novel Beloved, the tale of an escaped slave woman who kills her infant daughter to prevent her return to bondage.17

Similarly, when history provided her with so few Paston families, Woolf was drawn to invention, but invention based on historical evidence and her own experience. The family of Joan Martyn is one Woolf could have known well had she been alive in 1480, being much as her own family would have been, transported back four hundred years. Joan Martyn, herself, is like Virginia Stephen, a young woman with a talent for writing and “history” recording and, for this reason, her father's particular joy.18 Joan mentions her father's reaction to her diary:

My father came in yesterday when I was sitting before the desk at which I write these sheets. He is not a little proud of my skill in reading and writing; which indeed I have learnt mostly at his knee.

But confusion came over me when he asked me what I wrote; and stammering that it was a ‘Diary’ I covered the pages with my hands.

‘Ah,’ he cried, ‘if my father had only kept a diary! But he, poor man could not write even his own name. There's John and Pierce and Stephen all lying in the church yonder, and no word left to say whether they were good men or bad.’

(CSF, 60-61)

Virginia's choice of “Stephen” for the last-named ancestor of Giles Martyn, recalling her own patronymic, thus suggests the possibility of her intimate knowledge of these people and, possibly, as well, the role played by her father in the acquisition of this knowledge.

The connection between the present and the past is also the note sounded positively at the beginning of the narrative when Rosamond Merridew talks with the farmer Jasper Martyn. As the owner of Martyn Hall and, more importantly, of the journal manuscript written by his ancestor Joan Martyn, whom he refers to as his grandmother, he is the representative Englishman, tied to the land and to its history, and valuing the company of his ancestors through the written records they have created down through the centuries. Their personal accounts, in both senses of that word—their stories and their stud books—are a kind of “memory” of the past, connecting Jasper to it through his reading of them. Further, the creation of these memories, first through the writing, and their re-creation through the reading, form an indissoluble imaginative link between reader and writer. Indeed, these memories explain, as well, Rosamond Merridew's more impersonal and professional interest in stockings, to legs, to bodies to mediaeval brains—her interest, that is, in a moment of being or spot of time in the cultural past of the nation. Similarly, these “memories,” we shall see, informed Woolf's sense of historiography both in “Anon” and “The Reader,” and in her cultural criticism in general. When Virginia Woolf wrote to Ethel Smyth that she would “thread a necklace through English life & lit,”19 the metaphor implied by her image transforms the moments on this continuum into pearls or beads, moments of be(ad)ing or spots of time with their renovative, even generative, effect on her audience or readers in the present.

All the “readers” in “… Joan Martyn” agree on the importance of the written word that commemorates the present, thus transforming it for later generations into the potentially accessible past. Rosamond Merridew, from a professional point of view, Jasper Martyn with his very personal interest in his ancestors, and Joan's father, Giles, with his prescient understanding of the importance of the historical record are all firmly convinced. Only Joan is diffident, but her diffidence stems from a certain modesty about her powers as an observer and recorder, and of the unimportance, as she sees it, of what is available for her to observe and record. Indeed, the entire story records Joan's coming to terms with the very act of journal-keeping, making history “out of the ordinary,” which provides the material for a new kind of art.

The story begins as very much centered on women. With the exception of Jasper Martyn, the characters first introduced are all female: Rosamond Merridew, the narrator of the frame story, the housemaid of Martyn Hall, Mrs. Martyn, the journal-keeping Joan, and Joan's own mother. One can see why Louise DeSalvo, who not only edited and named the untitled story but also wrote about it in the critical essay “Shakespeare's Other Sister,” claims importance for this early work as a “meditation upon the relationship between the woman as historian and history and upon the need of women such as Merridew to write women into history.”20 Although there is truth in her assertions, there are other, more compelling issues that surfaced for Virginia Stephen as she wrote this narrative in 1906.

The presence of men in this story is, indeed, delayed. However, their entrance—both of Jasper Martyn, who returns from his work in the fields and satisfies Rosamond Merridew with a history of his ancestors, and of Giles Martyn, the father of Joan, absent for most of her journal-keeping—makes possible the formative relationships and turning points of the narrative. This, then, may be a story about mothers, but it is even more significantly a story about “absent” fathers.

Rosamond Merridew is what Joan Martyn may well have become if she had lived four hundred years later. The historian's insistence on the importance of the recording of the quotidian world in her sort of historiographical account of reality is doubled in Joan's registering the impressions of the diurnal round in her journal. But Jasper Martyn, even before Rosamond opens Joan's journal, sounds the recognizably Woolfian note of the importance of the texture of the ordinary in imaginative as well as historical writing. His wife Betty has shown Miss Merridew over the house while he shows her the portraits of his ancestors—history in themselves. He saves the best for last: “‘Stop a moment,’ he interrupted, ‘we're not done yet. There are the books’” (CSF, 40). With “temperate voice” he hands her the first lot, “merely saying” “‘that's no. I: 1480 to 1500’” (CSF, 41). His casualness about the great age and possible historical importance of these and the other papers is paradoxically a function of his sense of the continuity between the present and the past. It suggests his belief that this continuity is the result of the essential sameness of the human consciousnesses spanning the centuries. He simply recognizes his ancestors' consciousness as his own and his wife's. Miss Merridew asserts:

No words of mine … can give the curious impression which he produced as he spoke, that all these ‘relations’ Grandfathers of the time of Elizabeth, nay Grandmothers of the time of Edward the Fourth, were just, so to speak, brooding round the corner; there was none of the pride of ‘ancestry’ in his voice but merely the personal affection of a son for his parents. All generations seemed bathed in his mind in the same clear and equable light: it was not precisely the light of the present day, but it certainly was not what we commonly call the light of the past. And it was not romantic … and the figures stood out in it, solid and capable, with a great resemblance, I suspect, to what they were in the flesh.

(CSF, 43-44)

The apparent paradox of Wordsworthian Romanticism, as Miss Merridew also asserts here about Jasper Martyn's view of the historical past, is that its “friendly” acquisition of the personal past through memory is not romantic. On the contrary, Wordsworth mythologizes the restorative value of the past for the present rather than its specific attributes. Rosamond Merridew and Virginia Stephen are attracted to Martyn's demythologized view of his ancestors because it makes them more real. That sense of continuity with one's “grandfathers” and “grandmothers,” of whom Martyn speaks, and his way of talking about them are both explicit in Virginia Woolf's commendation of Leigh Hunt, written fifteen years later. Woolf transcribed into her diary a long passage about Coleridge from Hunt's autobiography,21 following it with these more general remarks on the Romantics:

L. H. was our spiritual grandfather, a free man. One could have spoken to him as to Desmond. A light man, I daresay, but civilised, much more so than my grandfather in the flesh. … These free, vigorous spirits advance the world, & when one lights on them in the strange waste of the past one says Ah you're my sort—a great compliment … Shelley died with H.'s copy of Lamia in his hand. H. wd. receive it back from no other, & so burnt it on the pyre. Going home from the funeral? H. & Byron laughed till they split. This is human nature, & H. doesn't mind owning to it. Then I like his inquisitive human sympathies: history so dull because of its battles & laws; & sea voyages in books so dull because the traveller will describe beauties instead of going into the cabins & saying what sailors looked liked, wore, eat, said: how they behaved. …

(Diary [The Diary of Virginia Woolf] II, 130)

She applauds the recognizable emotions of Hunt, his natural reaction to death—the release of pain through laughter that Woolf realized she herself would have expressed, if allowed, at her own mother's death22—and the cataloguing of the commonplace items that constitute his “inquisitive human sympathies.” These items are the basis of another kind of history, appreciated by Woolf in 1921 as Rosamond Merridew appreciates Jasper Martyn's idiosyncratic “ancestor worship.” She says of it: “They are, he would have told me, all flesh and blood like I am; and the fact that they have been dead for four or five centuries makes no more diffence [sic] to them, than the glass you place over a canvas changes the picture beneath it” (CSF, 44).

Similarly, Jasper Martyn adds of his “grandmother” Joan that she was “not remarkable” (CSF, 45). His simplicity, which keeps him from seeing the antiquarian value of his family treasures, actually masks a profound grasp of the nature of human consciousness, central to this story, and to all of Woolf's later fiction and criticism. Indirectly, he thus restates a tenet of Wordsworthian Romanticism—the importance of the ordinary and of the “not remarkable” mind that engages it.

Joan contrasts, throughout her journal, the ordinary and solid world of accounts, impending marriage contracts, and the sometimes sordid one of poor peasants, highway robbers, and “Sanctuary” men, “prowling out of bounds in search of food” (CSF, 52), with Lydgate's fictive world. The cottage of the peasant woman Beatrice Somers, “more like the burrow of some rabbit on the heath than the house of a man” (CSF, 52), is “a nightmare” (CSF, 53) to Joan from which she is happy to awake upon entering her own clean and prosperous home. However, a sympathy for the poor, unlike the chief steward Anthony's disdain when he speaks to Beatrice “as he would have spoken to some animal who had strong claws and a wicked eye” (CSF, 53), begins to glimmer in Joan as she recognizes that the lines in her mother's face “and some of the sternness of her voice, had come there … because she always saw not far from her such sights as [Joan] had seen today” (CSF, 53). Perhaps Julia Stephen's untiring concern for the poor served as the model for this description. However, Wordsworth's lines from “Tintern Abbey,” in which the joys of unexamined childhood are contrasted with the deeper pleasure, because mixed with pain, of maturity's achieved ability to examine, suggest the basis for the entire episode of the visit to the cottages.

… For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all. …
… That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh, nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. …

(Wordsworth, 109-10)

Joan establishes one term of the Wordsworthian comparison between youth and age when she describes her walk with her brother Jeremy and the steward Anthony to the cottages.

He [Anthony] is for ever trampling our fields, and knows them better and loves them more, so I tell him, than any human creature. … And, as we have trotted by his side since we could walk alone, some of his affection has become ours too; Norfolk and the parish of Long Winton in Norfolk is to me what my own grandmother is; a tender parent, dear and familiar, and silent to whom I shall return in time. O how blessed it would be never to marry, or grow old; but to spend one's life innocently and indifferently among the trees and rivers which alone can keep one cool and childlike in the midst of the troubles of the world! Marriage or any other great joy would confuse the clear vision which is still mine. And at the thought of losing that, I cried in my heart, ‘No, I will never leave you—for a husband or a lover,’ and straightway I started chasing rabbits across the heath with Jeremy and the dogs.

(CSF, 52)

Wordsworth's ruminations terminate fruitfully, not in chasing rabbits (Wordsworth's “glad animal movements” are foregone by the time of the writing of the poem) but in his embracing of maturity and philosophic wisdom. For Joan the process of moving from the pleasures of childhood's joyful spontaneity and its rejection of the responsibilities of maturity to an acceptance of them is delayed until she returns from bearing witness to the suffering of humanity through the visit to Beatrice Somers. The sense of community she begins to feel enters into her description and metaphor-making as well.

Possibly the summer of 1480 was a hiatus in the ducal wars that had plagued England for the previous twenty-five years. Certainly, Joan's appreciation of ordinary life seems to have returned with the arrival home of her father and brothers from London. Whatever the cause, the minstrel Richard's inspiration or her father's presence, her susceptibility to “figures,” the heightened sensitivity, that is, of her imagination, is apparent.

Figures are particularly important in Joan's description of the pilgrimage to Walsingham that she now makes to express her thankfulness. The Wordsworthian trope, the “solid globes of crystal,” now becomes thematically significant. For as Joan walks to Walsingham, her examination of her feelings, which she has compared with her metaphorically walking “in a wide space within the covers of Master Richard's manuscript,” is, indeed, one of the sights mysteriously promised by Richard to those who but look. Her feelings, the globes of crystal containing the “round ball of coloured earth and air, in which tiny men and women laboured,” are her imagination enriched by the contemplation of ordinary men and women working on the earth. The landscape, through which she literally walks, is “a soft and luxurious land, glowing like a painted book” (CSF, 58). Her life, now that she is ecstatically alive to the miracle of the ordinary, has become an illuminated manuscript.23

Joan's sense that real writing is about romantic princes and princesses begins to founder as she describes the preparations for her unromantic marriage to the elderly Sir Amyas. She thinks at first that her life is nothing but the uncompelling workaday world “at the time of the Civil Wars” (CSF, 59). Joan describes her mother's “theory of ownership” (CSF, 59), attention to which must take the place of Joan's “reading of Princesses” when she is a busy and responsible married woman. However, from the romantic point of view, Joan is uncompelled by it. Her mother uses wave metaphors, “turbulent waters” and “tides,” which must be kept from the land and that “one day … will abate” (CSF, 59). Her figures remind us of Joan's own “crashing waves” at the beginning of the journal, meant to convey the danger of the times. But her mother draws on such images for her account of a millennial reality of peace and democracy in a future prepared for by women like her. Of her mother's theory, Joan reports:

… deeply though I honour my mother and respect her words, I cannot accept their wisdom without a sigh. She seems to look forward to nothing better than an earth rising solid out of the mists that now enwreathe it. … Then she would dream of certain great houses … and there would be cheer for guest or serving man at the same table with the Lord.

And you would ride through fields brimming with corn, and there would be … cottages of stone for the poor. As I write this down, I see that it is good; and we should do right to wish it.

(CSF, 60)

Besides reinforcing Joan's sense of the inalienable rights of men, first developed when she visited the cottages with Anthony, the surprising element of Joan's description is her declaration that her own writing makes her see the truth and goodness of her mother's vision. Thus, while the seductiveness of fantasy still lingers, the ordinary as subject begins to prevail for Joan who adds: “Yet what it is that I want, I cannot tell, although I crave for it, and in some secret way, expect it” (CSF, 60).

Joan's developing self-conscious sense of authorship is made even more important in “Last Pages” through the record of her conversation with her father concerning the importance of using her writing skill to record history. But the two do more than discuss Giles Martyn's desire to add a description of himself to the historical record. He ends by saying: “My fathers were much as I am. … Why they might walk in at the door this moment, and I should know 'em, and should think it nothing strange” (CSF, 61).

This conversation impresses upon Joan and equally upon us the sense of the repetitiveness of ordinary life, of the similarity between the present generation and her ancestors, the idea of history first expressed by Jasper Martyn to Rosamond Merridew. And so the story, in its insistence on the value of recording such “immemorable” existence and consciousness of it, has come full circle. That it should be her father who strengthens Joan's conviction of this truth is significant as is his injunction, “‘Well then Joan, you must keep your writing, … or rather, I must keep it for you … our descendants shall have cause to respect one of us at least’” (CSF, 61).

Giles then asks Joan to accompany him to the church, where, he says, “‘I must see to the carving on my father's tomb’” (CSF, 61),24 a request that is reminiscent of Jasper Martyn's guided tour for Miss Merridew of his ancestral portraits. Joan's thoughts, as she walks, are turned to her pride in her writing: “there were few women in Norfolk who could do the like” (CSF, 61). Only her pride has kept her at her labors “For, truly, there is nothing in the pale of my days that needs telling; and the record grows wearisome” (CSF, 61). The pull of the fantastic, the desire to write about “Knights and Ladies and of adventures in strange lands” (CSF, 62) is still strong despite her father's commendation of her writing about the diurnal round. However, this is her last expression of such a desire. Fittingly, her final embrace of the wonder of ordinary life and the fiction that depends on it is effected through a transition that may well be based on Wordsworth's Guide. For Joan's “Captains” and “soldiery” (CSF, 62) seen in the clouds seem a reworking of one of Wordsworth's stories of a similar exercise of the imagination in the Guide.

While we were gazing around, ‘Look,’ I exclaimed, ‘at yon ship upon the glittering sea!’ ‘Is it a ship?’ replied our shepherd-guide. ‘It can be nothing else,’ interposed my companion. … The Guide dropped the argument; but before a minute was gone he quietly said, ‘Now look at your ship; it is changed into a horse.’ … We laughed heartily; and, I hope, when again inclined to be positive, I may remember the ship and the horse upon the glittering sea; and the calm confidence, yet submissiveness, of our wise Man of the Mountains.

(Wordsworth's Guide, 114-15)

The movement from the fantastic to reliance on the wisdom of his guide, the down-to-earth “Man of the Mountains,” is mirrored in Joan's story, which also ends in reliance on her realistic mother's opinion. Describing the clouds as shapers of the fantastic, she adds: “But as my mother would say, the best stories are those that are told over the fire side. … I have always thought that such stories came partly out of the clouds, or why should they stir us more than any thing we can see for ourselves? It is certain that no written book can stand beside them” (CSF, 62). Reality is more interesting than fantasy. Joan allies herself with the tradition of writing about the ordinary of which she is the fictional ancestress. Wordsworth's self-imposed task was to give this assertion concrete form in Lyrical Ballads. When she says “No book can stand beside” the tales of true life, she is thinking of books that have already been written, for none, in her experience, takes the ordinary as subject. However, her assertion “that such stories come partly out of the clouds” suggests Virginia's attraction to writing, which takes the real and historical for its subject but orders it according to the greater freedoms of fiction.

She renders her final reconciliation of history and imagination through Joan's desire, in the church, to “do some small act that would give [the ancestors in their sarcophagi] pleasure. It must be something secret, and unthought of—a kiss or a stroke, such as you give a living person” (CSF, 62). For Joan and her father, as for Jasper Martyn after them, these dead ancestors are “living,” familiarized and loved through an act of imagination. For Virginia the imaginative act of writing was equally one of love, dedicated to her father, her own ancestor, who had empowered her.


  1. Virginia Woolf wrote in “Leslie Stephen” (1932): “Even today there may be parents who would doubt the wisdom of allowing a girl of fifteen the free run of a large and quite unexpurgated library. But my father allowed it. There were certain facts—very briefly, very shyly he referred to them. Yet ‘Read what you like,’ he said, and all his books … were to be had without asking” (CE 4, 79-80).

  2. Katherine C. Hill, “Virginia Woolf and Leslie Stephen: History and Literary Revolution,” PMLA 96, no. 3 (1981): 352.

  3. Leslie Stephen, “Wordsworth's Ethics,” Hours in a Library in Leslie Stephen: Selected Writings in British Intellectual History, ed. Noël Annan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 202. The similarity between father's and daughter's words is probably not coincidental. Woolf wrote in “A Sketch of the Past”: “When I read his [Stephen's] books I get a critical grasp on him; I always read Hours in a Library by way of filling out my ideas, say of Coleridge, if I'm reading Coleridge; and always find something to fill out; to correct; to stiffen my fluid vision” (MoB, 115).

  4. William Hazlitt, “Mr. Wordsworth,” in The Spirit of the Age, vol. 11, The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe (London: Macmillan, 1932), 86-87.

  5. Describing her father in “A Sketch of the Past,” written thirty-three years later, Virginia Woolf wrote: “Indeed I was on his side, even when he was exploding” (MoB, 112). The narrator's assertion that Rosamond and Phyllis took their father's side seems, then, to have had an autobiographical basis.

  6. Virginia Hyman, “Reflections in the Looking-Glass: Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf,” Journal of Modern Literature 10, no. 2 (June 1983): 197-216.

  7. Virginia Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals: 1897-1909, ed. Mitchell Leaska (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), 309. Hereafter cited parenthetically as APA.

  8. Article, Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 8 (Chicago: Britannica Inc., 1964): 478-79.

  9. M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1958), 169.

  10. Indeed, later in the narrative, she has Joan say: “But figures are slippery things!” (CSF, 57) and “In sober truth, and without metaphor” (CSF, 58).

  11. William Wordsworth, Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes, intro. and notes E. de Selincourt (London: Humphrey Milord, 1926), 29. A reprint of the 1906 edition Virginia reviewed. Hereafter cited parenthetically as Wordsworth's Guide.

  12. Hermione Lee, “A Burning Glass: Reflection in Virginia Woolf.” Lee considers Woolf's metaphors but not her subjects, political views, or other aspects of Woolf's craft as evidence of her relationship to Romanticism.

  13. In a note to the story, Susan Dick says: “As Susan M. Squier and Louise A. DeSalvo point out, VW is probably referring here to John Lydgate's Temple of Glas, which she seems to have confused with his Troy-book” (CSF, 290).

  14. Walter Pater in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, first published in 1873, devotes a chapter to the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who in 1871 discovered the site of ancient Troy.

  15. Illuminations, the term for the handpainted illustrations in mediaeval and renaissance manuscripts, although only implied here, would be a significant example of the metaphors dependent on light and fire that Lee has isolated as characteristic Romantic metaphors for the imagination.

  16. See The Mirror and the Lamp for a full account of the difference between mimetic and Romantic expressive theories of art.

  17. Drew Gilpin Faust, review of “How Master Lost His Concubine,” by Melton A. McLaurin, New York Times Book Review (17 November 1991): 30-31.

  18. Louise DeSalvo, in “Shakespeare's Other Sister,” New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, ed. Jane Marcus (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981), 61-81, says:

    Soon Joan's father finds out about her Journal. He is envious and realises that he is too lazy for such a task. He encourages her to continue keeping it; she has learned to read and write from him.


    There is nothing in Joan's reporting of her father's reaction to her and her journal keeping to indicate anything but his pride in her abilities. His emotional outburst, such as it is, concerns his regret over his own father's inability to write and so leave an historical record of his fathers before him as Joan is doing for the present moment. The issue of the sex of the historian does not appear as relevant to Giles Martyn as it does to DeSalvo. Perhaps DeSalvo has distorted her reporting of the interaction between daughter and father to bolster her thesis that this is a story about women's need to empower themselves by becoming historians who write women into the historical record. Correlatively, DeSalvo sees the male characters as the cause of the women's compromised power and skill—an idea that is borne out neither by the strong figure of Joan's mother nor her father's pride in her writing ability. Leslie Stephen was as proud and encouraging of his daughter's efforts as Joan's father was of hers.

  19. Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf V, ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 327. All other references to the diaries will be to the five volumes of this edition (1977-84) and cited parenthetically as Diary.

  20. DeSalvo, “Shakespeare's Other Sister,” 66.

  21. Leigh Hunt, The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, vol. 2, chapter XVI, 1850: 223.

  22. Woolf in “A Sketch of the Past,” commenting on when she was brought by George Duckworth to see her dead mother, says: “a desire to laugh came over me, and I said to myself as I have often done at moments of crisis since, ‘I feel nothing whatever.’” (MoB, 92).

  23. Joan's heightened imagination causes her to see ordinary life in a way that is comparable to Wordsworth's account of the aim of the poems in Lyrical Ballads.

    The principle object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.

    (Wordsworth, 446-47)

  24. Giles Martyn's decision to see that his father's tomb is carved seems a deliberate imaginative rewriting of history by Virginia Stephen since John Paston, also of Norfolk, “delayed to make his father's tombstone” (CR [The Common Reader], 8).

Natania Rosenfeld (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Rosenfeld, Natania. “Incongruities; or, The Politics of Character: Departures.” In Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf, pp. 81-95. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Rosenfeld juxtaposes the style and themes of the two pieces collected in Two Stories: “The Mark on the Wall,” and Leonard Woolf's “Three Jews.”]

Five years after their [Virginia and Leonard Woolf's] marriage, in 1917, the newly founded Hogarth Press issued its first publication. The Woolfs saw their press as an opportunity for creative and intellectual freedom, and as a respite from mental labor. It would enable Virginia to publish what she chose—and thus, more easily, write what she chose—and provide a forum for avant-garde writers whom more conservative publishers might turn away. Its first production was a pamphlet-size volume containing a short story by each member of the couple.

Two Stories encapsulates the fraught dialectic of imagination and sociological fact that informed the Woolfs' marriage as well as their fiction. Leonard's story, “Three Jews,” is so laden by its theme of sociological destiny as to imply the impossibility of imaginative transcendence; its central character is a grave-digger, and the story ends with a figurative burial that might be read as Leonard's self-burial as Jewish writer. Hermione Lee calls “Three Jews” “a signpost pointing down a road [Leonard] would not take—as a fiction writer, as a Jewish writer”; Virginia's “The Mark on the Wall,” on the other hand, signaled “a completely new direction, the beginning of a new form and a new kind of writing” (Virginia Woolf 359). The yoking of these stories is powerfully suggestive; like the engagement notice to Lytton Strachey, they comprehend a union tugging in two directions. Leonard Woolf's departure from fiction and increasing involvement with “real world” politics and history shadowed Virginia's literary flights, her development of a fictional style at first quite fantastical, and gradually more and more deft in its interweaving of fantasy and fact. The Hogarth Press was the spawning ground of those parallel trajectories, and its first publication contained them in embryo.

Both Woolfs were snobs, but her snobbery, directed at people recognizably different from herself, energized her fiction: the energy was compounded of both the snobbery itself and the desire to overcome it. Virginia saw that objectifying others is a way of objectifying the self—for better and for worse—and also that the boundaries between self and other are finer than class politics and entrenched prejudice allow. It is easier, however, to ignore the boundary beneath oneself, attempt empathy for the person lower down, than to recognize one's real identification with that person—to feel, in fact, that one is something of an imposter on the higher rung. For Leonard, snobbery lurked dangerously near self-hatred, just as his acceptance by elite groups, a form of tokenism, bordered on rejection. He was a Jew in England: a species Theodor Herzl described as fundamentally self-divided when he referred, in an 1897 article, to “the efforts of amphibious-minded men to combine ancient tradition with an exaggerated imitation of national customs” (qtd. in Finestein, Jewish Society in Victorian England 177). It is this amphibiousness that informs the family caricatures in The Wise Virgins and constitutes the subject matter of “Three Jews.”

If, as Homi Bhabha has written, the subaltern's mimicry parodied the colonialist original, the early-twentieth-century metropolitan Jew in English masquerade was in a trickier position, both less and more of a parody. He was allowed to don gentleman's clothing—he was, in fact, enjoined to do so as a condition of membership in English society, barred him if he maintained orthodox garb or Eastern European customs; yet, this entrance once permitted, he often exposed himself by the way he wore his clothes. His masquerade could not function as satire, for he was always in the minority in a land that defined itself—despite universalist rhetoric—as both Christian and insular; when the gentleman-Jew served as parody, it was himself he mocked. The balancing act British Jews performed in the early and mid-nineteenth century, which won them their political emancipation—a victory with “the aura of a bargain” (Finestein, Jewish Society in Victorian England 147)—involved the insistence on difference in religious belief only. Socially and culturally, English Jews declared themselves to be thoroughly English; though never persecuted for their religion, they became a new sort of crypto-Jew, adopting all the customs of the host society while keeping their Jewish habits for home and family.

An antiessentialist philosophy was at work in the insistent self-Anglicization of British Jews through the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. That philosophy assumed no racially or even culturally inherent Jewishness, but instead that individuals of Judaic background and persuasion could be molded into perfect and wholehearted citizens of their new nation. The process of molding was to be performed as quickly and efficiently as possible on new immigrants; it was carried out by Jewish organizations that mimicked, even down to name, clubs and organizations of the larger society: the Jewish Working Men's Club, the Jewish Lads' Brigade, the Jewish Soup Kitchen, and so on.1 Those very names embody the division that made Anglo-Jewish identity so vertiginous: the prefix suggests separateness, particularist or parochial considerations, but the purpose of these “Jewish” organizations was, almost exclusively, an acculturation in Englishness. At the same time, the names expose the ambivalence behind the apparently antiessentialist, liberal ideology of acculturation: if immigrant Jews were publicly incongruous only by virtue of Polish customs or Yiddish speech, and these groups had no religious purpose, why call them “Jewish”? Jews were a separate group in English society, and it was as a separate group that they formed smaller groups to expedite and prove their assimilability and loyalty to the new nation—a distinctly paradoxical enterprise.

The bifurcated nature of Anglo-Jewish identity, and the antialienism that formed the particular English quality of English antisemitism, provide the subject matter of “Three Jews.” It is a story about the failure of Anglicization, a failure the author seems to ascribe on the one hand to an essential Jewishness that will out despite masquerades (or that will not out despite efforts at eradication), and on the other to tenacious Jewish exclusivism. The story neither represents nor apparently indicts British antisemitism; yet the narrator, even as he exaggerates Jewish incongruity, places such unflattering emphasis on the norms of English respectability as to suggest yet a third reason for the unassimilability of the Jews: a distinct, almost laughable (if one dared laugh aloud), even pathetic (if one dared say so) lack of magnetism in British ways.

It is here—on the subject of English uptightness—that Leonard's story both joins and parts ways with Virginia's “The Mark on the Wall.” The short stories—“Mark,” “Kew Gardens,” “An Unwritten Novel,” and various others—that adumbrate Virginia's first stream-of-consciousness novels (Jacob's Room and Mrs. Dalloway), also read like sketches leading up to her famous modernist pronouncement on “reality” of character, the 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” All are concerned with transcending demarcation; the eponymous mark on the wall transmutes, in the essay, into the “markers” of character so clumsily deployed by Edwardian realists, and the entire corpus of short prose from the period between Night and Day and Mrs. Dalloway is an experiment in conveying character from within rather than marking it from without. A principle of Woolf's modernism, this idea was also central to her politics: in A Room of One's Own, she would expound her repugnance toward all forms of categorization and measure, the tools of territorialization and of the colonizing of women and others.

But Virginia Woolf was not marked in the way Leonard was. To be her father's daughter was both advantage and disadvantage; it was not a stigma. Wearing the masquerades of upper-middle-class femininity (white hats, white drapery, tea-table decorum) did not mean inviting disdain—although inhabiting a woman's body did mean categorical exclusion from public life. Virginia's examination of exclusion and inclusion led her to conclude in A Room of One's Own “how unpleasant it is to be locked out; [but] it is worse perhaps to be locked in” (24), and the conviction that there was more space on the outside—space in which to question, parody, and reconceive the inside—informs the early articulations of her modernism. Leonard's firm position as a man, a Cambridge graduate, and an ex-imperialist, was always undermined, potentially if not in fact, by his precarious station as English Jew; this tenuous identity made it more difficult to choose the outside, for the stigmatized cannot really escape.

The very structure of “Three Jews” nails home the fact of Leonard's entrapment, while the structure of “The Mark on the Wall,” inclusive, inconclusive, and suggestive, opens out into Virginia's further flights. Her story embodies possibility even when it rails against containment, while his shows up alternatives as vain fantasy. As in some of his other short fictions, the main story of “Three Jews” is encased in a double frame, and the awkwardness of this construct echoes the story's theme: the ill-fittingness of Anglo-Jewish identity. Each of the story's three speakers occupies a different position on the spectrum of that identity: the narrator who begins the tale is evidently the most assimilated, but as the story unfolds, the idea of progressive assimilation is complicated. Is it a ladder, on which the most Anglicized is most privileged? Or is the most Anglicized also most self-deluded, most thoroughly self-parodying, and thus most profoundly uncomfortable? Answers suggest themselves but are never proposed, and the identity of the first narrator is never fleshed out, so that it is tempting to find in his character signs of Leonard's stance toward the questions he raises.

Like Virginia in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Leonard concerns himself with character as seen through the eyes of another. Here the encounter arises from an explicitly escapist desire: on a Sunday in early spring, the first-person narrator chafes at the sooty airlessness of his city environs. He boards a train to Kew Gardens (the scene of another of Virginia's early stories), which provides at least the taste of nature amid excessively ordered and regulated grounds. So far, the plot gives a foretaste of A Room of One's Own, in which imagination is both vivified by the lawns and streams of Oxbridge and constrained by its sexist strictures. But the strictures in “Three Jews” are not imposed by an identifiable authority, arising instead from a general aura both less definite and more ubiquitous than Virginia's Oxbridge beadle. The first indication that the narrator is not at home in Kew comes with the surprising national characterization of the season and weather: “It was spring there, English spring.” Once invoked, the adjective recurs, and recurs again, accompanied by other repeated modifiers:

Yes, the quiet orderly English spring that embraced and sobered even the florid luxuriance of great flowers bursting in white cascades over strange tropical trees. … And the spring had brought the people out into the gardens, the quiet orderly English people. … They looked at the flaunting tropical trees, and made jokes, and chaffed one another, and laughed not very loud. They were happy in their quiet orderly English way. … They did not run about or shout, they walked slowly, quietly, taking care to keep off the edges of the grass because the notices told them to do so. … I watched them eating plum-cake and drinking tea quietly, soberly, under the gentle apple-blossom.

(TS [Two Stories] 6-7; italics mine)

The narrator's cool, sarcastic, half-admiring distance from the “English” people implies that he is a foreigner, a tourist, perhaps, culling observations to repeat at home. But the description of “florid … strange tropical trees” (so perplexing to the English), incongruously set against “gentle” apple-blossom, metaphorically indicates the narrator's identity: he is not a tourist, but a transplant—one whose alien roots inevitably “show.” The luxuriant blossoms of imported flora are analogized almost instantly in the floridity of the second Jew, a man who appears in the tea gardens with a good deal more than the conspicuous energy of Ralph Denham arriving to Sunday tea at the Hilberys'. That second Jew, whose narrative will shortly take over, is a veritable catalog of orientalist and antisemitic stereotypes: his movement is “bustl[ing],” his face “dark fat … and inscrutable,” his mouth “sensual” and eyes “mysterious” and heavy-lidded, and, says the narrator, “I noticed the slight thickness of the voice, the over-emphasis, and the little note of assertiveness in it” (7). But he is recognized almost immediately by the way he wears his clothes—as though they belonged to another.

Whose side are we on? The story presents the reader with a narrator who is both native and excluded, who measures the man opposite by an alien standard that we know already to be alien to himself, as well. The story that follows concerns a third Jew, whose tale the second man recounts only once he and the narrator have compared notes on the subject of their own conspicuousness and the question of “belonging.” Both feel entitled to possess or claim their surroundings; both feel, however, that their surroundings would never claim them; and, as nonbelieving Jews, both feel deracinated. The third man, however, though also a skeptic, is not deracinated; his tenacious Jewish parochialism gives him a rootedness-despite-transplantation that the story conveys as at once enviable and primitive.

The third man is a grave-keeper and, though he presides over a dusty Jewish cemetery, represents a spirit that, far from dying out, thrives ever more stubbornly in the face of opposition and adversity. “By Jove!” says the second Jew, whose idiom distinguishes him from the third he is about to describe—and, presumably, from the first as well, whose locutions are more highbrow—

You couldn't mistake him for anything but a Jew. His arms hung down from his shoulders in that curious, loose, limp way—you know it?—it makes the clothes look as if they didn't belong to the man who is wearing them. Clever cunning grey eyes, gold pince-nez, and a nose, by Jove, Sir, one of the best, one of those noses, white and shiny, which, when you look at it full face, seems almost flat on the face, but immensely broad, curving down, like a broad high-road from between the bushy eye-brows down over the lips. And side face, it was colossal; it stood out like an elephant's trunk with its florid curves and scrolls.


This eloquent description seems implausible, overdetermined—a fabulistic flight that almost touches the fantastical digressions of “The Mark on the Wall” and other early stories by Virginia. But her fantasies are the deliberate meanderings of a narratorial imagination refusing to be pinned down, a mind willfully defying rules and roles, refusing simple plots. The satirical fervor that seizes the second Jew in his description of the third marks an ugly confinement at the very moment of imaginative flight: it is imagination in the service of self-hatred, creativity immured in textbook racism. Sociological entrapment defeats the desire for transcendence; prejudice strangles a potentially original mind: the Anglo-Jewish writer, this passage seems to suggest, is damned both ways. If he chooses the questionable universalism of “Englishness,” he denies his particular origins; if he seeks his origins, he becomes an anachronism, a displaced particularist; caught between the two impossibilities, he is forced to tell self-defeating stories.2 Incongruous in the tea gardens, he takes up residence in a graveyard.

The third Jew's story is simple enough, though its ending exposes the ambiguity of the entire tale. Having failed in business, he has taken a job as grave-keeper, an inglorious position but sufficient to provide a comfortable living for his wife and two sons. When the second Jew visits the grave of his first wife, he converses with the grave-keeper on matters of belief and concludes, “‘He isn't a Jew now any more than I am. We're Jews only externally now. … Even he doesn't believe, the keeper of Jewish graves!’” (14). But the ending of the story proves this wrong; the second Jew returns to the graveyard some time later and finds the third in a state of defiant misery, Job-like and gloriously stiff-necked. The ultimate disaster has occurred: his son has married a Christian woman. The grave-keeper's condemnation of his son in fact mingles two kinds of stiff-neckedness, one that might be called Jewish, the other, perhaps, classically English—for in the end, it seems, he is more disturbed by the son's crossing of class borders than he is by his departure from the fold:

“That eldest boy of mine, he's no longer my son—… I had a servant girl here working in my house, a Christian serving girl—and he married her behind my back. He asks me to sit down to meat with a girl, a Christian girl, who worked in my house—I can't do it. … Times change: I might have received his wife, even though she was a Goy. But a servant girl who washed my dishes! I couldn't do it. One must have some dignity.”

He stood there upright, stern, noble: a battered scarred old rock, but immovable under his seedy black coat. I couldn't offer him a shilling; I shook his hand, and left him brooding over his son and his graves.


Thus the story ends, contradicting some of its earlier elements: the point of view has changed, a piece of the frame has dropped out—the last words, without quotation marks, belong to the second Jew rather than the initial narrator—and what had seemed ludicrous now appears sublime. The incongruous English Jew is a figure of biblical pathos, and assimilation, represented up to now as an inevitably failing gambit, the performance of a monkey in a top hat, appears as a tragedy. The description seems unambivalent; the characterization derives from Sholem Aleichem rather than a proto-Nazi textbook. But this Tevye, rooted in his eternal displacement, recalls the specifically displaced previous narrators; the story, after all, is about “Three Jews.” The title lumps them together, even as each is at pains to distinguish himself from the next, and the ending signals a fading out in two directions: the loss of distinctive Jewishness in intermarriage (and the inevitably non-Jewish offspring), and the loss of distinction the first narrator undergoes through seeing himself in the other.

The recognition, after all, is mutual: the grotesque Jewish businessman gravitates to the narrator's tea-table even as the latter labels him Other. They speak the same language, though each notes the “distinctive Jewish speech” of the next man. Therein lies the story's irony: the very distinctions that the first Jew notes in the second, the second in the third, would be noticed by a fourth in the first; not even the most assimilated is exempt.

That the word “distinction” has a particular English connotation, one that will never apply to these three figures, is the tragic irony of Anglo-Jewish identity. Leonard Woolf could never be “distinguished”—wherein precisely lay his attraction for Virginia Stephen, whose hand is in this text as in the whole slim volume. Virginia, in fact, set the type for the story of a Jew marrying a “Goy”; it was her first typesetting venture and resulted in some quirky errors, mostly in punctuation and spacing. The last line of the story is half-effaced by a sloppily printed woodcut, one of three illustrations commissioned for the volume from the painter Dora Carrington. The story is thereby given an additional valence, for Carrington, like Virginia, had a fraught alliance with a Jew. Her much-documented relationship with Mark Gertler (possibly alluded to in the grave-keeper's reference to his faithful, second son, a painter?) ended in a breakup, supposedly because his sexual demands were too much for her, conceivably also because they combined with his East End background and notorious unwashedness to make him seem deeply alien.

The shadowy textual presence of Mark Gertler highlights the issues of class, nationality, and religion that Leonard's story raises. Gertler belonged to that group of Jewish immigrants who were simultaneously seen as an embarrassment, and aggressively cultivated and Anglicized, by the more prosperous, more rooted and more “Western” British Jews whose own continuing acceptance depended upon “civilizing” the recent arrivals.3 Yet he came late enough, with the great influx of the last two decades of the nineteenth century, to belong to that generation which changed the profile of English Jewry and exposed its paradoxes: ten years younger than Leonard Woolf, he grew up in squalid East End poverty, speaking Yiddish, unashamed of his background—yet nonetheless wishing to escape it for airier, brighter spaces in which he might cultivate a modernist art. He never rejected his class or his family, though he did leave his religion behind; his Orthodox parents, like the grave-keeper in Leonard's story, were surprisingly tolerant—indeed, proud—of a son whose vocation violated the biblical law against creating images.

This universal desire for escape, which constitutes a fundamental trope of early English modernism—escape from parents, forefathers, British philistinism, traditional realism—informing the rebellious outcries of Carrington as well as Gertler, Virginia as well as Leonard, represents both the suture and the split between “Three Jews” and “The Mark on the Wall.” Insofar as Leonard's English Tevye seems finally to reject his new daughter-in-law on the basis of class rather than religion, he aligns himself, however unconsciously and coincidentally, with English values: class values both Leonard and Virginia consciously rejected even as their lives and livings depended upon them. The dependence was somewhat different in the two cases, however: Virginia, as the next chapter will note, relied on others' service for her own creative freedom—and sometimes just shied clear of including Leonard in the servant category: “Poor devil,” she wrote flippantly to her friend Jacques Raverat in 1923, “I make him pay for his unfortunate mistake in being born a Jew by discharging the whole business of life. This induces in me a sense of the transitoriness of existence, and the unreality of matter, which is highly congenial and comfortable” (L [The Letters of Virginia Woolf] 3:58). That Leonard's psychic comfort also depended upon class-consciousness is underscored by Virginia's remark. Ironically, it was precisely such prejudices as hers against which his own snobbery was erected, in order to align him with English insiders rather than immigrant newcomers; yet his position as potential target of these prejudices helps explain his deeply principled egalitarianism. This lifelong stance comprehended the realms of gender, economic, and imperial relations; if, when it came to the relations between Jews and the Gentile majority, he was ambivalent and ultimately passive, perhaps he may be forgiven, considering the double bind of Anglo-Jewish identity and the aversions of those he most loved and admired.4

But Virginia Woolf's remark about confining Leonard to “business” while she pursues her fantasies casts light on more than the failings that formally characterize and thematically inhabit Leonard's story of closed possibilities; it also elucidates the contradictions inherent in Virginia's early modernist experiments, superficially universalist in ethos yet undergirded (and, to a critical eye, undercut) by a form of deeply rooted particularism. “The Mark on the Wall” echoes the structure of “Three Jews” in containing three encounters; each is a frustrating convergence between a narrator desiring complete freedom and some other figure or figures, real or imaginary, trying to impose confinement. Like the indecorous shatterings and willful obscurities Woolf attributes to Messrs. Joyce and Eliot—though not, curiously, to herself—in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” the demonization of those jailers and the textual meanderings that seem intended to confound them arise from a counterreaction that energizes her early prose. Hermione Lee cites a 1930 letter to Ethel Smyth in which Virginia describes her early experimental work during her long illnesses of the early teens:

I used to make up stories, profound and to me inspired phrases all day long as I lay in bed, and thus sketched, I think, all that I now, by the light of reason, try to put into prose (I thought of the Lighthouse then, and Kew and others, not in substance but in idea)—after all this, when I came to, I was so tremblingly afraid of my own insanity that I wrote Night and Day mainly to prove to my own satisfaction that I could keep entirely off that dangerous ground. I wrote it, lying in bed, allowed to write only for one half hour a day. … I shall never forget the day I wrote “The Mark on the Wall”—all in a flash, after being kept stone breaking for months. The “Unwritten Novel” was the great discovery, however. That—again in one second—showed me how I could embody all my deposit of experience in a shape that fitted it. … I saw … when I discovered that method of approach, Jacobs Room,Mrs. Dalloway etc—How I trembled with excitement; and then Leonard came in, and I drank my milk, and concealed my excitement, and wrote I suppose another page of that interminable Night and Day (which some say is my best book).

(L 4:231; in Lee, Virginia Woolf 370; italics mine)

The structure of confinement—the body in bed, the mind constrained to function on traditional lines—pierced through by flights of imagination is a founding trope of the early fiction. It is a dialectic that works through the later fictions in ever subtler, more formally complex and sociologically astute fashion: as Woolf grows more and more alert to social conditions and prejudices, she seams the material and the metaphysical more closely, illuminating their interdependence. The sickbed was a prison, which paradoxically liberated her fancies.5 This was the case in an extreme sense during her long illness of 1913-1915; for the rest of her life, briefer stints in bed would function as periods of fertilization, during which Leonard, nursing her, would appear less as warden, more as nurturer. But in the early fictions, written, as it were, straight from the prisoning bed and the recent experience of young womanhood as itself an imprisonment, the ambivalence is more intense. It shows itself in her conception of character, whose development can be traced through “The Mark on the Wall” to “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” to Mrs. Dalloway, in which compassion toward the ill-treated mental sufferer is at last diametrically balanced with a condemnation of social villainy.

From the start, Woolf's modernism was based on the idea of character, bound up with questions of empathy, of the precise distance between self and other. Thomas Caramagno describes the process both critics and therapists must undergo to comprehend texts or symptoms that elude their conventional notions of order—a process of understanding, and liberating themselves from, their own countertransference: “What is essential, in understanding both literature and manic-depressive illness, is the ability to open oneself up to experiences, reactions, emotions, and ideas that do not slavishly reinforce our defensive, narrow, entrenched strategies for coping with self-world transactions” (The Flight of the Mind 76). It is a process Woolf herself underwent in the early modernist experiments, with an important difference: rather than seeking authorization and reinforcement, she strove vehemently against all figures who might represent such authority—so vehemently that she came close, at times, to reincorporating the exclusivist attitudes they represented.

This fraught paradox of liberation founded on enclosure, rebellion compromised by resentment, animates the two texts in one volume that together signal three important developments: the incorporation of “the Woolves” as a working team, the ultimate demise of Leonard's fictional enterprise, and the launching point of Virginia's bold literary experiments.6 The founding of the Hogarth Press freed Virginia to write what she chose, as she chose—and “The Mark on the Wall” is a chronicle of that liberation. It sits oddly next to Leonard's story of essentialism and entrapment, and challenges the reader's capacity for maintaining tension in the face of seeming breakdown7—thus mimicking the very challenge Woolf was facing in the early fiction. Again, Caramagno's discussion of Woolf's anti-countertransference illuminates both her development and the stance required of the reader of the Woolves' only dually (but not co-) authored volume:

Can we … possibly read what the writer writes? Woolf thought we could, if, paradoxically, we tolerated disorder while detecting patterns; by combining disorder and pattern … we might see something new. What, exactly, would that new thing be? It doesn't matter, just as long as we start seeing what previously could not be seen, the différance of the text, the voice of the Other, which urges us to question every assumption we hold sacred. …

(The Flight of the Mind 86)

The voice of the Other does not inhabit “The Mark on the Wall,” which is, in a sense, a univocal text. But it is also a text of différance par excellence, in which the principle is never to mark, always to seel—and always to see differently. The narrator, who never leaves her chair during the story, builds her defiantly senseless narrative around a mark on the wall, a kind of Rorschach blot, which is neither one thing nor the other but whatever the narrator (and, implicitly, the reader) wishes it to be. This is the principle and the plot of the narrative, in whose course various conclusions—definitive ideas—are rejected in favor of inconclusion. The other persons who appear in the story are engaged, it seems, solely to embody those rejected notions: first, the former inhabitants of the room, a wife and a husband met so fleetingly as to make clear that we are not in the realm of realism—“he was in the process of saying that in his opinion art should have ideas behind it when we were torn asunder, as one is torn from the old lady about to pour out tea and the young man about to hit the tennis ball in the back garden of the suburban villa as one rushes past in the train” (20); second, a “house-keeper, a woman with the profile of a police-man … [who] talks always of art … [who comes] nearer and nearer” until she nearly compels the narrator to get up and examine the mark on the wall—“But no. I refuse to be beaten. I will not move. I will not recognise her” (22); and third, an imagined group of people in a room, who spawn elaborate reflections:

And then I came into the room. … [I]t is curious how instinctively one protects the image of oneself from idolatry or any other handling that could make it ridiculous, or too unlike the original to be believed in any longer. … It is a matter of great importance. Suppose the looking glass smashes, the image disappears, and the romantic figure with the green of forest depths all about it is there no longer, but only that shell of a person which is seen by other people—what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in. As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking in the mirror; that accounts for the expression in our vague and almost glassy eyes. And the novelists in future will realise more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories … but these generalisations are very worthless. … Generalisations bring back somehow Sunday in London, Sunday afternoon walks, Sunday luncheons. … How shocking and yet how wonderful it was to discover that these real things, Sunday luncheons, Sunday walks … were not entirely real, were indeed half phantoms, and the damnation which visited the disbeliever in them was only a sense of illegitimate freedom.


Talking to herself, the narrator addresses in this one long passage both the socio-/psychological questions of Leonard's story and the ideas of intersubjectivity that will inform all Virginia Woolf's further work. The conventions of the Sunday afternoon walk, so stultifying, so dictatorial, and yet so easily dispensed with, mark the boundary between Leonard's identity and Virginia's; from here on in, that boundary will also define the progress of their respective careers. For Leonard, the convention was not so easily rendered unreal: recognition of the customs of the Christian sabbath was the price he paid for admission in non-Jewish society. Had he denied the substantiality of those customs, he would have been ghettoized, reconfined, as it were, to the soot and chimney pots his narrator flees at the start of “Three Jews.” For all their worldliness and bohemianism, his set were also parochial—parochial, indeed, in the name of worldliness. It is this conflict between the imposition of one's own vision on others and the validation of another's mode that defines the narrator's mental convolutions in “The Mark on the Wall.” Trying to find her way between definition and discovery, she is not yet comfortable in the realm of intersubjective relations; seeking freedom, she paradoxically confines herself to a room, an inanimate sign, and a misanthropy arising from fear of confinement. Others disturb her because they raise questions about the relation between narcissism and mutual understanding, prejudice and self-realization. Encounters are dangerous because the other so often sees us as a shell, a mere projection of his or her own fears and preconceptions. Not to engage with others, however, is to elude the self—to elude, also, the moral and political questions so pressing in a society that defines most encounters between people as encounters between types, either harmonious (because homogenous) or hierarchical (because incongruous). In this instance, the narrator settles for a tree, advancing from the inanimate stain to an organic object with which, in an almost ludicrously beautiful final fancy, she intensely empathizes, imagining the feel of cold, the song of birds, the feet of insects, from the tree's point of view. It is an engagement that falls short of activism; but the final moment of the story, with the sudden intrusion of a second presence, begins to imagine an affirmative relation toward an Other that will be elaborated and complicated in Woolf's work henceforth:

Where was I? What has it all been about? A tree? … I can't remember a thing. Everything's moving, falling, slipping, vanishing. There is a vast upheaval of matter. Someone is standing over me and saying—

“I'm going out to buy a newspaper.”



Thus the story ends, having raised a complex set of questions about the relations between character and “reflection,” with the latter word punningly deployed to suggest the ways in which two beings can either glassily refract or thoughtfully illuminate each other. The intruding presence in the final paragraphs, which both stanches overwhelming flux and suggests future possibilities, might be that of a husband. Both Leonard and Virginia seem to inhabit their respective narrators; both stories are intensely personal, chronicles of decision, and the figure who leaves the room for the world of action and headlines suggests Leonard himself, leaving behind the fiction-writing venture in favor of an engagement with the real world that might lead to real change, if not for English Jews specifically, then for all those oppressed by conventions and hierarchies.8 The figure who remains in the room, half-denying, half-answering the voice of the Other, is the narrator/writer who will favor, more and more, a starting point of stability-in-flux. Already in this story, and wholeheartedly in “An Unwritten Novel” and “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf employs the metaphor of vehicular travel as a way of conceiving character: face-to-face in a railway carriage, author and character partake of one another; if the author, ultimately, is the one who creates character, and is thus hierarchically in a position of power, the idea of movement past an ever-changing landscape and the image of two people in the same carriage9 is a corrective reminder that we're all, for better or worse, in it together.10

On this recognition, Virginia Woolf's future fictions were founded. The limits of her capacity to empathize and equalize define her early prose experiments as much as the ideal of free travel fuels them. No terrain is undemarcated, and Woolf's attitude toward character—like her attitude toward Others—negotiates between the desire to liberate trapped souls and a tendency to redraw the lines of engagement. Snobbery is in almost mortal conflict with the ideal of empathy, making for a particularly turbulent train journey for narrator and character in “An Unwritten Novel,” the story that most clearly adumbrates the narrative and theory of “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Acutely observing the woman opposite, the narrator realizes time and again that the watcher is also watched, also in danger of construction and misconstruction. To take another's life in one's own hands is potentially an act of hubris. Yet the imagining of that other life is also the supreme act of social empathy; in a sense, all our lives depend on the capacity of others to imagine us. The story plays ceaselessly with this idea, moving beyond the endless play of “A Mark on the Wall” by carrying fantasy out of the compartment of one brain and into another. That crossing rebounds, however, with the narrator's recognition that all such games are determined by the self's preconceptions; the ending of the story is a surprise and a lesson, as the narrator learns that “her” “old woman opposite” is really quite a different character from the one she'd imagined all along. The story concludes, however, with a new beginning, as the narrator readjusts to her discovery. It is such perpetual new beginnings that from here on characterize Woolf's writing, in its refusal to draw character simply as caricature and its continual pursuit of what remains elusive. To mark, she realizes, is to kill the spirit.

The capacity for such ceaseless pursuit is a luxury that characterizes Woolf's modernism. From the point of view of her imaginative privilege, the author conceives herself as a transparent vehicle, conveying the dreams and desires of the disenfranchised to a readership privileged like herself. In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” this relationship among author, character, and readers is made explicit, again via the metaphor of railway carriages: author and character occupy one carriage, with the readers next door. As Rachel Bowlby reminds us, carriages in that period had no corridors; they were entered from outside, not within, the train (Feminist Destinations 4). It is thus the author's responsibility to penetrate the dividing walls, a performance with profound social implications, and one that can be achieved only through an imaginary disembodiment.

But the author, as a social being, is never disembodied—this is the paradox of Virginia Woolf's empathy. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” enshrines a new definition of character. The responsible, the imaginative, writer conveys character by conveying the world seen through that character's eyes, rather than describing the character as seen through her own (the writer's) eyes. The writer is a transparent eyeball, taking in another's vision without imposing her own. This is an impossible act, but one worth striving to achieve, and it is in such perpetual striving that Virginia Woolf's art of empathy succeeds. The counterpoint of failure and success is itself instructive. At one point in the essay, Woolf makes a surprising distinction: “[T]he men and women who began writing novels in 1910 or thereabouts,” she tells her audience, “had this great difficulty to face—that there was no English novelist living from whom they could learn their business. Mr. Conrad is a Pole; which sets him apart, and makes him, however admirable, not very helpful” (CE [Collected Essays] 326).

Of all possible discriminations, surely this is the least legitimate.11 Is not the lecture's central idea the importance of understanding and learning from those who are “set apart,” through a valiant effort to penetrate differences? The insularity at work in such a statement is contradicted by many others; it was contradicted by Woolf's own marriage. In the essay “On Being Ill” (1930), she wrote, as so often, of the creative value in sickness, comparing it to a strange country: “In illness, with the police off duty … if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first … like some queer odor. Foreigners, to whom the tongue is strange, have us at a disadvantage. The Chinese must know the sound of Antony and Cleopatra better than we do” (M [The Moment and Other Essays] 19). Thus a Pole, it seems, especially one repatriated, eloquent in at least three tongues, using language all the more brilliantly for its late acquisition, could teach young English writers a great deal …

The Jew, unlike a true foreigner, was doubly stymied, both a part of and apart from the country that denied him the very acculturation it insisted upon. This dual vision hampered Leonard Woolf's autobiographical fiction, whereas Virginia Woolf's work, even when the subject matter was far from her own daily life, always arose from her unusual capacity to leave the self behind even when the self was speaking. (“When the self speaks to the self,” asks the narrator of “An Unwritten Novel” near the end of the story, thus encapsulating its central questions about intersubjectivity, “who is speaking?”) “I'm amphibious,” Woolf wrote in a diary entry whose flow of fancies evokes the early fictions, “in bed & out of it” (D [The Diary of Virginia Woolf] 3:40); able to inhabit two realms, she was never hobbled in either. But—and the conjunction is of utmost significance—she was a woman, neither schooled nor wanted for public action. Thus she became a deeply political writer of fiction and essays, while her husband turned to traditional genres of political writing: the tract, the history, the argument from hard facts. Between them, they shared contemplation and action, prejudice and understanding.


  1. See Bill Williams, “‘East and West’: Class and Community in Manchester Jewry, 1850-1914,” in Cesarani, The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry.

  2. The lack of a real Anglo-Jewish literary tradition has often been remarked, especially in contrast to America, which boasts a Jewish literature both distinct from and contributing to the twentieth-century canon. Finestein lists several prominent Jewish writers who migrated from England to America, where they found a climate more conducive to their creativity (Jewish Society in Victorian England 198).

  3. On the relations between “East” and “West” (Eastern and Western Europe, but also East End and West End) in Anglo-British Jewry, see Cesarani, The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry. Bill Williams's essay “‘East and West’: Class and Community in Manchester Jewry, 1850-1914,” revises the commonly invoked polarity by describing a third group, the “alrightniks” (after Irving Howe in his history of American Jewry)—immigrant businessmen who mediated between the newly arrived poor and the more acculturated, well-to-do families. Several of the essays in Cesarani discuss the rhetoric used by the latter to describe their mission toward the immigrants; Finestein also offers acute discussions of the subject:

    [T]he assimilation of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants around the closing decades of the century into English and Anglo-Jewish life was of prime importance. Upon the success of that operation was thought to depend the success of Anglo-Jewry and much else besides. Anglicization thus became a moral imperative. Anglo-Jewish communal policy was dominated by considerations of public image.

    (Jewish Society in Victorian England 162)

    Hermann Adler, Chief Rabbi from 1891 to 1911, “did not quite live down his language about the immigrants in a much publicized Succot sermon in 1887 at the New West End Synagogue. It was necessary, he said, ‘to anglicise, humanise and civilize’ them” (Finestein 177). The language is redolent of British colonialist rhetoric, with the vital exception of “anglicise.” “The Very Reverend Herman [sic] Adler,” according to Cooper and Morrison, “became known as the ‘West End goy’” (Cooper and Morrison, A Sense of Belonging 73).

  4. Paul Morrison, director of a BBC series on Anglo-Jewry, remarks:

    I looked at my own back catalogue of documentaries made over twenty years. It is an honourable list. I had dealt with many important social issues—racism, unemployment, education. I had explored many themes of identity and empowerment. … There was much that could be said to be Jewish in my identification with the underdog, in my focus on the psychological scars of marginalisation. … But not one of the films I had made was explicitly Jewish in theme or subject-matter. I wore my Jewishness in my films invisibly, as I had learned to do in my life.

    (Qtd. in Cooper and Morrison, A Sense of Belonging 5)

  5. “For Woolf,” Caramagno writes, “manic-depressive illness periodically destroyed control … and so permitted her to return to the creative process unencumbered by the illusion that meaning lay in order alone” (The Flight of the Mind 80).

  6. Virginia began referring to herself and Leonard as “the Woolves” during this period; the elegant head of a rather ferocious wolf, designed by Vanessa Bell, was the symbol of the Hogarth Press, appearing on the title page of all publications.

  7. The terms belong to Jessica Benjamin.

  8. In later published versions, the story ends with an additional piece of dialogue, in which the seemingly-male voice expresses a sense of impotence in the face of real-world events, along with a—compensatory?—certainty about the mark on the wall:

    “Though it's no good buying newspapers. … Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war! … All the same, I don't see why we should have a snail on our wall.”

    Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail.

    (CSF [The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf] 83; ellipses in original)

  9. According to Bowlby, the carriage is third-class; Woolf never makes the distinction explicit, but her statement that “I … jumped into the first carriage I came to,” coming, as it were, from on high (along with her reference, also remarked by Bowlby, to “the character of one's cook”), suggests that this is a leap across class borders.

  10. Bowlby's introductory chapter in Feminist Destinations elucidates the many implications of the train setting from the point of view of a critic familiar with British rail travel, both past and present. “The compartment,” she remarks, “does have some of the qualities of the domestic sitting room [favored of Edwardian writers], but this only adds to its curiously ambivalent suspension half-way between two states. … This is a public space superficially identical to a private one, so that the anonymity of the limited number of passengers is all the more significant from its contrast to the scene of intimacy it resembles” (4).

  11. In his essay on ethnicity, Werner Sollors questions “[t]he discussion of literature in tribal isolation”: “The ethnic approach to writing … is often in danger of making one generalization (the writer is an X, meaning not a Y) the central, if not the sole, avenue to a text; yet making this Xness central may be circular and tautological (X writes like an X, not like a Y) since it reveals first and foremost this very Xness, a quality which cumulatively achieves the status of a somewhat mystical, ahistorical, and even quasi-eternal essence” (Sollors, “Ethnicity,” in Lentricchia and McLaughlin, Critical Terms for Literary Study 290).

Works Consulted

Works by the Woolfs

Woolf, Leonard. The Wise Virgins: A Story of Words, Opinions and a few Emotions. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.

Woolf, Leonard and Virginia. Two Stories. London: Hogarth Press, 1917.

Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays, Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967.

———. The Complete Shorter Fiction. Edited by Susan B. Dick. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.

———. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Anne Oliver Bell. 5 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977-1984.

———. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. 6 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977-1980.

———. The Moment and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1948.

———. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1925.

———. Night and Day. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1920.

———. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929.

Other Sources

Bowlby, Rachel. Virginia Woolf: Feminist Destinations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Caramagno, Thomas C. The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf's Art and Manic-Depressive Illness. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.

Cesarani, David, ed. The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Cooper, Howard, and Paul Morrison. A Sense of Belonging: Dilemmas of British Jewish Identity. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson in Association with Channel Four Television, 1991.

Finestein, Israel. Jewish Society in Victorian England: Collected Essays. London: Vallentine Mitchell & Co., 1993.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Lentricchia, Frank, and Thomas McLaughlin. Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Kathryn N. Benzel (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Benzel, Kathryn N. “Woolf's Early Experimentation with Consciousness: ‘Kew Gardens,’ Typescript to Publication, 1917-1919.”1 In Virginia Woolf: Turning the Centuries, edited by Ann Ardis and Bonnie Kime Scott, pp. 192-99. New York: Pace University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Benzel speculates about the origin, creation, and revision of “Kew Gardens.”]

In Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours, he describes a park that his character Virginia Woolf envisions in a dream:

It seems, suddenly, that she is not in her bed but in a park; a park impossibly verdant, green beyond green—a Platonic vision of a park, at once homely and the seat of mystery, implying as parks do that while the old woman in the shawl dozes on the slatted bench something alive and ancient, something neither kind nor unkind, exulting only in continuance, knits together the green world of farms and meadows, forests and parks. Virginia moves through the park without quite walking; she floats through it, a feather of perception, unbodied. … Virginia moves through the park as if impelled by a cushion of air; she is beginning to understand that. … It is the true idea of the park, and it is nothing so simple as beautiful.


In an uncanny way this description, 80 years later, gets to the heart of the issues I want to explore here in Woolf's short story “Kew Gardens.” In her story Woolf represents Kew as if it were otherworldly, larger than its physical existence, greater and finer than the four couples who walk randomly past the struggling snail. “Kew Gardens,” then, is Woolf's idea of a park found in the consciousness of the characters who mingle with the garden images. The park is represented not as a physical entity but as a collection, sometimes consistent, sometimes discordant, of characters' thoughts. But how are we to know if Woolf meant to create such an idealization of a park? Since there are no diary records and very little correspondence about “Kew Gardens,” we can only speculate about its origin, creation and revision. The typescript with holograph revisions at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin suggests that as early as August 1917 Woolf may have typed “Kew Gardens” and started revising it. A faded penciled date “Aug 7, 1917” appears at the top of the first page and next to the title appears a faded penciled “July.” In publication Woolf does add “in July” to the last sentence of the first paragraph; “the men and women who walk in Kew Gardens in July” (CSF [The Complete Shorter Fiction] 90 my italics). Still there is no evidence in Woolf's correspondence to support these dates, and her Asheham diary, started on 3 August 1917, doesn't mention the story; however, in an August 15, 1917 letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell, Woolf recounts, “Katherine Mansfield describes your garden, the rose leaves drying in the sun, the pool, and long conversations between people wandering up and down in the moonlight” (L[The Letters of Virginia Woolf (6 vols.)]2 174). This sounds like an outline for “Kew Gardens.” Also Katherine Mansfield visited Woolf at Asheham August 18-21 (or August 22—the dates are confused in Woolf's and Mansfield's correspondence) to discuss Hogarth Press's publication of her Prelude. During that time they read a play by Robert C. Trevelyan and sent a signed note confirming their pleasure with it; Lytton Strachey was also there. Mansfield as well sent a letter to Woolf in August suggesting that a manuscript of “Kew Gardens” did exist in August 1917, and that Mansfield read it. In the letter she says, “Yes, your Flower Bed is very good. There is a still, quivering changing light over it all and a sense of those couples dissolving in the bright air which fascinates me.”2 Thus there is reason to speculate that Woolf was working on her short story as early as August 1917.

In the period preceding her work on the “Kew Gardens” typescript, 1913-1917, Woolf was plagued with depression. Under Leonard Woolf's watchful eye she began to recover sporadically; in March 1915 Leonard hospitalized Virginia briefly while he moved them into Hogarth House in Richmond, near Kew Gardens. In the spring of 1917 she involved herself with the printing press which she and Leonard purchased to begin Hogarth Press. At that time she was typesetting, hand printing, and binding their Publication No. 1, Two Stories, including Leonard's “Three Jews” and Virginia's “The Mark on the Wall.” During the summer of 1917 Leonard Woolf was administering a “rest cure” and in several letters to Vanessa Bell, Woolf complains about Leonard's nursing; she was made to remain in quiet settings, with her writing and visits limited.3 In spite of these restrictions, she finally re-establishes her regime for writing novels and in August began again her diary. While working, I believe on “Kew Gardens,” she also wrote Times Literary Supplement essays and began to think about her next novel, Night and Day. It's unclear if Woolf wrote “Kew Gardens” in a flash as she says she wrote her preceding story, “The Mark on the Wall,”4 or whether she thought about it carefully, revising copiously. What the 1917 date on the typescript suggests, however, are the possibilities 1) that Woolf was writing more than Times Literary Supplement essays during the time when she was supposed to be taking her “rest cure,” perhaps hiding her writing, like Jane Austen, from Leonard's watchful eye, and 2) that she communicated with Katherine Mansfield about the development of “Kew Gardens.” This communication is significant in itself since Woolf rarely showed any uncompleted work to anyone.

Important to the Woolfs' move to Richmond is, of course, Kew; it became a place of respite and contemplation for her. In her diary and correspondence there is much mention of her walking in the gardens on “free” days and meeting friends and colleagues there, walking through the rhododendron and azaleas, the orchid house, the palm houses, in the rain and fog, and sitting on benches watching people. The intimacy with which she writes of Kew in her diary suggests she viewed the gardens as her own private space, her very own garden, a place for reflection. Certainly the story's lush, sensual descriptions of the flowers with their emerging throats, fleshy, heart-shaped/tongue-shaped leaves, and the trembling snail, reflect Woolf's emotional attachment to the gardens. In “Kew Gardens” the flowerbeds, butterflies, even the snail portray the inevitability and tranquillity of the natural world that Woolf found both comforting and mysterious at Kew. Interspersed among the glorious flowers and buzzing insects, the narrator describes the characters passing the flowerbed and interrupting the “atmosphere” of this garden world by the questions, unpredictability, and discord of their human world. For example, the old man's agitation and the aeroplane in the last paragraph disrupt the solitude and silence of the gardens. Through these interruptions, the reader discovers that “one's happiness, one's reality” (CSF 91)—that is, the human world—is not clearly defined, but rather like the transparent colors in the garden, the human world is indeterminate, transient, and undefinable, much like Woolf's own experience of the mysterious Kew.

Significantly during this early period, Woolf begins to develop an aesthetic system based on readership (Rosenberg; Benzel). In “Hours in a Library,” a November 1916 Times Literary Supplement essay, she describes books as treasures and the reading experience as full of passion, excitement, and a spirit of curiosity—like a pirate seeking treasure. Her TLS reviews from this time, of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, E. M. Forster, and George Gissing, focus on her replicating her own act of reading as a hunt for their treasures.5 This excavation of texts uncovers Woolf's search for “aesthetic emotions” found underneath “others of a literary nature” (L2 257). I believe as Woolf works on the typescript of “Kew Gardens” at this time that her revisions suggest her attempt to create such “a case of atmosphere,” a “mood” as she calls it in a letter to Vanessa Bell (L2 257).6 In Woolf's “Kew Gardens,” then, she attempts not only to represent the indeterminacy and mystery of life represented by the gardens and people in Kew, but also to have the reader experience this in the reading. I would like to suggest that Woolf's revisions demonstrate an experimental narrative strategy—generalizing and abstracting—which engages readers in an aesthetic experience of their own making, one which both recognizes and replicates the indeterminacy of life.

As “Kew Gardens” develops in the revised typescript, Woolf explores consciousness though the characters' memories and thought processes in order to represent this indeterminacy of life. Later in her essay “Modern Novels” she labels it “myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, … an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, … the semi-transparent envelope, or luminous halo” (“Modern Novels” E [The Essays of Virginia Woolf (6 vols.)]3 33). She sees a new narrative method where “there would be no plot, little probability, and vague general confusion” (“Modern Novels” E3 33). Such abstraction, “luminous halo,” and generalization, “vague general confusion,” encourage the reader to become a treasure hunter, digging out the story, making sense of the absences and silences, the suggestions and implications.

The revisions found in the “Kew Gardens” typescript hint at Woolf's attempts to create her “case of atmosphere.” First, in general Woolf changes from present tense verbs to past tense, and this past tense reflects characters' memories and the difficulty of communicating reality in any determined linear pattern or organized logic. All of the characters depicted in the story are absorbed in recollections of the past. For instance, as the first couple walks by the garden, Simon and Eleanor each remember a moment in their youths where they were made aware of their feelings. In addition to changing the verbs to past tense in the typescript, Woolf appends to Simon's explanation, “For me ˆ a square silver shoe buckle, and a dragonfly,” ˆ “there are no words: only” (Typescript 3). His memory flashes in an instant between the physical reality recalled and its inexpressibility. Because the words are separate from the physical reality, they seem inconclusive. However, this addition in the typescript (“there are no words”) does not appear in the published version, and readers see only descriptions of nature and inconsequential objects (e.g., the shoe buckle). If we analyze this typescript emendation and its subsequent deletion in the published text, two important questions arise. 1) If Woolf cannot use words, how can she represent the natural and human worlds that make up the “atmosphere” of Kew? 2) If there are no words, how can Woolf describe this memory which seems essential to Simon's sense of self? By finally erasing “there are no words,” Woolf strikes a balance between her understanding of the inadequacy of language to represent and her desire to do exactly that. The conclusion is that words can, perhaps, only suggest rather than actually represent any reality. Words do not so much explain the actual scene as outline it, suggesting mood and atmosphere.

Such impressionistic interpretation is found also in Woolf's use of nature metaphors to replicate human consciousness. The raindrop expanding into colors suggests a sort of free association thinking or immediate perception. The snail's struggle to conquer the leaf suggests a kind of logical, methodical thinking. Generalizing from these metaphors of the raindrop and the snail, Woolf represents human consciousness as a combination of perception and reasoning whose connections are often ephemeral and transitory. For example as various characters' thoughts are presented they echo such metaphors. Eleanor's recollection of her first kiss is associated with “the first red water-lilies I'd ever seen” (CSF 91). The old man's movement through the garden is likened to an “impatient carriage horse;” the “elder man has a curiously uneven and shaky method of walking, jerking his hand forward and throwing up his head abruptly” (CSF 92). Finally “the wordless voices” of Kew flash “their colours into the air” like “the petals of myriads of flowers” (CSF 95).

Another typescript revision suggesting Woolf's concern with representation of consciousness is found again in the scene with the old man and his young companion. The old man, consumed with memories of war and widows and his imaginative renderings, cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy when he thinks that shadows are women and that flowers speak. He tries to transmit his remembered feelings to his young companion, William, but to no avail. In the typescript Woolf deletes “But we must remember William,” which would suggest some spoken communication between them, and adds “Women! Widows! Women in black—” (Typescript 5), an abstract conflation of the old man's memory of widows and his immediate perception of women dressed in black. By conflating the old man's present moment of perception with his memory, Woolf captures the intangibility of life and its inability to be held in consciousness or communicated accurately in words. What appears in the typescript as dialogue between the old man and the young man (old man's command “we must remember”) becomes, with its deletion, a representation of the old man's thinking. The reader has the task of creating the old man's portrait from “out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole—a portrait of man” (CR [The Common Reader] 1).

Other revisions suggest the process of thinking rather than any conclusive belief or fact. Both “believe” and “in fact” are deleted and replaced with words “he thought” (Typescript 2), “as if in deliberation” (Typescript 4), “long pauses came between the remarks” (Typescript 9), all which suggest uncertainty. This indeterminacy of thinking, memory, and reflection is also found in additions which suggest the “mystic” quality of words,7 inarticulate speech of the heart: “there are no words” (Typescript 3) (subsequently erased in published version), “incoherent words” (Typescript 5), “words uttered in a curious tone” (Typescript 9). All this attention to words and their power or powerlessness to represent reflects Woolf's ongoing concern with reading as an act that replicates the indeterminacy of life. Again, if there are no adequate words to depict the human world, the reader is left with vagueness, generalization and abstraction, Woolf's “case of atmosphere” or “mood.”

The various human scenes which interrupt the garden suggest the transience of the human world. Each scene poses some question or dilemma that is never quite articulated and remains unresolved, in a sense disintegrates or is subsumed into the vaporous colors of the garden. Three important scenes support this theme of vagueness and uncertainty. First, in the typescript the old man wants to describe or explain electric batteries or some machine to the older women in the third scene. He calls forth some scientific explanation and then mysticism: “—In the interests of Science Madam—the spirits madam—” (Typescript 6, CSF 92). When this passage is deleted in the published version, not only is the old man seen as unable to distinguish between the physical world of science and the ephemeral world, but also his inarticulation makes abstract the nature of reality—its physicality and his “atmosphere.”

Second, a substantial passage concerning the two elderly women is deleted which describes their relationship as a “competition” in which the “smaller woman … [is] conquered”; it's unclear exactly what the competition is about though it seems to be something about “fluency of speech”; “the ponderous one fell silent” (Typescript 7). By deleting this passage Woolf allows the relationship between the two women to become vague, and the preceding lines of dialogue seem disconnected to any reality. As a means of characterization, then, deleting this aspect of their relationship—some competition—serves to generalize the women rather than particularize them in a specific reality. In addition both of these scenes in the typescript show cancellations and additions which generalize the characters into figures of “the old man,” “the ponderous woman,” “the old woman.”

Third, the last sentence of the typescript and published text are very different. In both the typescript and published version the snail is last seen just before the young couple, the last couple, passes by the flower bed: as the snail confronts the dead leaf, he has “inserted his head into the opening, and was taking stock of the high brown roof, … when two other people came past” (Typescript 8, CSF 94). The last sentence of the typescript reads: “… like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel, turning ceaselessly, the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud, and the snail in the oval flower bed emerging on the other side of the dead leaf went on quietly towards his goal” (Typescript 11-12). There is something satisfying about the snail completing his journey in the typescript; even though the couples and their journeys are vague and incomplete, the snail at least makes it to some kind of conclusion. Though the sentence having to do with the snail's journey is not canceled or revised in the typescript, the published version completely deletes the snail. The published version reads: “… like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air” (CSF 95). When Woolf eliminates the snail from the conclusion of the published version, the feeling of indeterminacy developed through the couples is re-emphasized in the natural world as gardens' colors vanish into the air. There is no definite conclusion to any of the story; readers do not know if the snail succeeds or if any of the couples' dilemmas are resolved.

In conclusion, these revisions demonstrate Woolf's concern with the emotional rhythms found in “Kew Gardens” (memories, affection, love, discord). As a means of intensifying and dramatizing the emotions, getting beneath “literary nature,” Woolf uses generalization and abstraction to create impressionistic renderings of the natural and human worlds. These impressions bind together the forms, shapes, colors, and texture of the written work into an aesthetic emotion—a feeling of mystery and uncertainty. The typescript revisions of “Kew Gardens” suggest, in my analysis, that the mood of vagueness and transience becomes a significant force in creating a reading experience that replicates human consciousness. The text becomes not an object but a process of creating aesthetic meaning through the reader's recreation of emotional textures and rhythmic patterns of human consciousness. Not unlike Michael Cunningham's description of Woolf's park in The Hours, “Kew Gardens” “is nothing so simple as beautiful” (30).


  1. This paper is part of a larger project on “Kew Gardens,” one aspect of which I presented at the 1995 Virginia Woolf Conference.

  2. Anthony Alpers's The Life of Katherine Mansfield (New York: Viking Penguin, 1980), 251, as quoted in Dick, (297).

  3. Several letters to Vanessa Bell indicate that Leonard would become upset with Woolf overdoing herself: she had to promise not to walk or bicycle and to keep quiet. Speaking about her weight she says, “I dont see how one can expect to keep the results of a rest cure permanently” (L2 170).

  4. Woolf recounts her early writing techniques and short fiction in a 1930 letter to Ethel Smyth: “I shall never forget the day I wrote ‘The Mark on the Wall’—all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months” (L4 231).

  5. See The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol 2. (Ed. Andrew McNeillie. New York: HBJ, Publishers, 1987).

  6. In a letter to Vanessa Bell, Woolf writes, “I'm sending my story [‘Kew Gardens’]; you will see that's its a case of atmosphere, and I dont think I've got it quite. Don't you think you might design a title page? Tell me what you think of the story. I'm going to write an account of my emotions towards one of your pictures, which gives me infinite pleasure, and has changed my views upon aesthetics; … but all this is very complicated, and I must write a special letter about it. Its a question of half developed aesthetic emotions, constantly checked by others of a literary nature—in fact its all very interesting and intense” (L2 257).

  7. In her essay “On Being Ill” Woolf describes this mystic quality as “what is beyond their surface meaning, [we] gather instinctively this, that and the other—a sound a colour, here a stress, there a pause … a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain” (CE[Collected Essays]4 200).

Works Cited

Alpers, Anthony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. New York: Viking Penguin, 1980.

Benzel, Kathryn N. “Reading Readers in Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography.Style 28.2 (Summer 1994): 169-182.

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998.

Dick, Susan, Ed. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. New York: HBJ, 1985.

Rosenberg, Beth. Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson: Common Readers. London; Macmillan Press, 1995.

Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays. Vols 1-4. New York: HBJ, 1953.

———. The Common Reader: First Series. [1925] Ed. Andrew McNeillie. San Diego: HBJ, 1986.

———. “Hours in a Library.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 2. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. New York: HBJ, 1987. 55-61.

———. Letters of Virginia Woolf. Vols. 1-5. Eds. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautman. New York: HBJ, 1975-79.

———. “Kew Gardens.” Typescript. By permission of Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the University of Texas at Austin. 1-12.

———. “Kew Gardens.” Dick, Susan, Ed. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. New York: HBJ, 1985. 90-95.

———. “Modern Novels.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. New York: HBJ, 1988. 33-37.

———. “On Being Ill.” Collected Essays. Vol. 4. New York: HBJ, 1953. 193-203.

Woolf, Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Publication No. 1, Two Stories. Richmond: Hogarth Press, 1917.

Jane de Gay (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: de Gay, Jane. “An Unfinished Story: The Freshwater Drafts of ‘The Searchlight.’” In Virginia Woolf: Turning the Centuries, edited by Ann Ardis and Bonnie Kime Scott, pp. 207-15. New York: Pace University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, de Gay traces the revision of “The Searchlight” into “A Scene from the Past,” and contends that the final version deserves more critical attention than it has been given.]

This paper will focus on a collection of drafts relating to Woolf's short story “The Searchlight,” which differ significantly from the version published by Leonard Woolf in A Haunted House (1943). Unlike the published version, which is set in London in the 1930s, these drafts describe a scene at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight in the 1860s amongst the circle of Woolf's great-aunt, the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Although the recent publication of one of the drafts in the Virginia Woolf Bulletin (no. 1, 1999) may herald a reappraisal, the Freshwater narrative has generally been regarded as an unsatisfactory experiment which Woolf abandoned in favor of the version which appeared in A Haunted House. This paper will question that view by arguing that Woolf did not dispense with the Freshwater version: on the contrary, she was developing it into a story in its own right, under the new title, “A Scene from the Past,” when she died.1 I will demonstrate that, although it is not a polished piece of work (even the final version includes a partial, handwritten attempt to rewrite the final paragraph), “A Scene from the Past” deserves more serious attention than it has been given. In particular, I will argue that Woolf's references to Julia Margaret Cameron in the Freshwater story further her examination of questions of biographical and historical truth which, as Raiskin points out, preoccupy her in many versions of “The Searchlight.”

“A Scene from the Past” begins with a photographic session at Cameron's studio at Freshwater, where an old man (later identified as Sir Henry Taylor, a writer and colonial official) poses to be photographed dressed as King Arthur, and a young woman plays the piano. When Cameron leaves them for a moment, the pair escape to Freshwater Down where the man describes a childhood experience, drawn from Taylor's Autobiography, of looking through a telescope and seeing a man kissing a woman. He describes how the experience made him aware of his own loneliness as a child who “never knew … a mothers love,” and the young woman is moved to tears by his confession. At this point, the narrative stance shifts, and Woolf names Sir Henry Taylor and provides a synopsis of his career, drawn from Leslie Stephen's essay on him in the Dictionary of National Biography. She adds that, unlike the DNB entry, the account she has given cannot be verified because “the book in [which] this story is told, and the album in which you could see him [Taylor] draped in a shawl posed as King Arthur were destroyed only the other day by enemy action” (“Scene” 5).

The story published by Leonard Woolf is sufficiently different from the Freshwater version for the two to be considered as closely related but ultimately distinct pieces of work. Only the middle section of the Freshwater version, concerning the boy looking through a telescope, appears in the story published by Leonard Woolf. In the latter, the telescope narrative is framed by a modern scene in which a Mrs. Ivimey sees a searchlight cast into the sky by the airforce in a practice exercise, reminding her of a story about her own great-grandparents, which she proceeds to narrate to her companions. This version contains nothing about Cameron and lacks the concluding discussion of how the account might be verified.

The prevailing view of the relationship between these stories is that outlined by Graham: that Woolf abandoned the Freshwater version in favor of the Ivimey story, which represented her last word on the subject. Graham notes that after some early sketches of the telescope story in 1929-30, Woolf returned to it in January 1939 and wrote the first draft of the story about Mrs. Ivimey. This date is recorded on the first of the Ivimey drafts and also in Woolf's diary where she records writing “the old Henry Taylor telescope story thats been humming in my mind these 10 years” (D[The Diary of Virginia Woolf (5 vols.)]5 204). Graham places the Freshwater drafts next: these were written in 1941, for the earliest version includes the phrase “what we call in 1941 potatoes.” He suggests that Woolf experimented with the Freshwater narrative, but abandoned it because “she found this form of the story fundamentally inadequate,” and then revived the Ivimey version which she took through three further drafts, the last of which was copied out by a professional typist. Graham argues that Woolf was by this time “too thoroughly professional to bring a version to this final form unless certain that it was to be published” (385).

Graham's dating is problematic because it would mean that Woolf produced at least seven drafts of the Freshwater version and three typescripts of the Ivimey story in less than three months in 1941. Although not impossible, this is an extremely tight schedule. Furthermore, as Rebecca Mason has argued, there is evidence that Woolf completed the Ivimey version earlier than the Freshwater story, possibly as early as 1939. Vanessa Bell's biographer Frances Spalding notes that Bell read the story in May 1939 and was thinking about illustrating it, and that she wrote to Woolf on 31 May that it “seems to me lovely—only too full of suggestions for pictures almost” (309). This implies that Woolf regarded the story as sufficiently polished to show her sister, and that she was contemplating having it published with illustrations by Bell. Woolf then had the story professionally typed, but for some reason did not proceed with publication. This typescript, which is in Smith College Library, came to light after Graham's essay was written; Susan Dick took it as the final version and used it as the basis for her edition of “The Searchlight” in the revised Complete Shorter Fiction of 1989 (CSF 6, 310). As Mason points out, the Smith typescript includes a handwritten note giving Woolf's address as 37 Mecklenburgh Square, London, and, so, because she lived at that address from August 1939 to September 1940, when the building was bombed, this typescript must have been prepared during that period. (The address is in Woolf's hand, perhaps suggesting that she was planning to post it to a publisher.) There are a few small holograph corrections to the Smith typescript and its carbon copy (CSF 310), which suggest that Woolf continued to tinker with the Ivimey story, but it is nonetheless true to say that she did not develop it significantly after having it typed professionally no later than September 1940.

The Freshwater story, on the other hand, clearly was begun in 1941, for that date appears in the first draft. Woolf was inspired to write this story and commemorate Cameron in late January 1941 while reading the autobiography of her cousin Herbert Fisher. Woolf mentions Fisher's book in her letters and diary for the period (L[The Letters of Virginia Woolf (6 vols.)]6 461, 464; D5 355), and refers to it in the opening sentence of the first, manuscript draft of the Freshwater story. In this new story, Woolf revisits themes from her early sketches and the Ivimey piece: she initially entitled it “The Searchlight,” but changed this to “The Telescope/A Scene from his Past” in the next draft. The title “A Scene from the Past” is used for all but one of the subsequent typescripts. Whereas Mason concludes that Woolf was revising “The Searchlight” at her death, I suggest that the Freshwater story of 1941 had its own momentum, and that with its different framing narrative and title, it was developing away from the Ivimey version and the searchlight motif. In the following discussion, I will take the Freshwater story on its own merits, and ponder why the Freshwater setting and the figure of Julia Margaret Cameron held such an appeal for Woolf. In doing so, I build on the work of Gillespie, Wussow, and others who have demonstrated Woolf's fascination with photography.

The Freshwater story began as a reaction against Herbert Fisher's autobiography. As Woolf remarked in a letter to Lady Simon, the book was both “charming” and “rather nettled me” (L6 464). Part of its charm was Fisher's narration of their common family history, including the romantic tale of an ancestor who had been associated with Marie Antoinette and a story about Cameron's father, who died from excessive drinking and whose body allegedly exploded out of its coffin. Woolf's commendation of the book to Ethel Smyth suggests that she was intrigued to be part of this family history: “If you want to know where I get my (ahem!) charm, read Herbert Fisher's autobiography. Marie Antoinette loved my ancestor; hence he was exiled; hence the Pattles, the barrel that burst, and finally Virginia” (L6 461; see Fisher 10-12). However, while Woolf was happy to associate herself with family myths, she was irritated when Fisher claimed to reveal “facts.” Woolf told Lady Simon that she resented being “exposed as a novelist and told my people are my mother and father, when, being in a novel, they're not” (L6 464). The “people” Woolf refers to are Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse: while Woolf had long admitted privately that they were based on her parents, her annoyance in this case suggests that she disliked her fiction publicly being collapsed into dry historical details. Such a prizing of fiction over “fact” prevails in “A Scene from the Past.”

In the Freshwater story, Woolf sought both to claim her share in family history and to displace Fisher from it. This can be seen in the opening lines of the first manuscript draft of the Freshwater story:

It was not altogether a joke, sitting to Mrs. Julia Margaret Cameron at Freshwater in the Sixties, Herbert Fisher tells us in his

(“The Searchlight” 1)2

This is a reference to Fisher's recollections of visiting Freshwater and being photographed by Cameron which was “a sore trial to the patience of a child” (15), but Woolf immediately goes on to introduce the scene in Cameron's studio as though it were her own personal memory. This is an act of imaginative reclamation, because she never knew Cameron, who died in 1879, three years before Woolf was born. The image in this quotation of a scene being recalled in a flash of light also refers to Cameron's medium: it suggests the flash of a camera by which a scene is captured on film, and the power of photography to preserve a record of events and people in a form that enables them to be viewed after they have ceased to be. In other words, it is Cameron's own art that has enabled Woolf to practise her feat of time-travel by recalling Cameron as though she had known her. The reference to the flash of light does not appear in later typescripts of the Freshwater story, and, as we will see, Woolf focuses instead on the themes of Cameron's photographs, rather than the photographic process. It is here that she leaves behind the searchlight—the controlling image of the Ivimey story—and moves forward into her new project.

Woolf's attempt to engage with Cameron may be read as a feminist strategy to celebrate a female relation (whom she had already commemorated in Freshwater), and to circumvent the first-hand account of Fisher, a man “stamped and moulded by the patriarchal machinery” (MOB [Moments of Being] 132), who is not mentioned in later drafts. This is a literal example of the kind of female tradition which Virginia Blain has described metaphorically as “thinking back through our aunts.” Blain argues that women writers find it helpful to negotiate their relationship with the past by adopting an aunt-figure, for an aunt is positioned outside the linear progression of the patriarchal family, and can offer subversive and alternative views of family history. Rather than constructing a lineage of “cultural matriarchy” through Cameron, as Olsen has suggested, Woolf adopts Cameron and her ideas in “A Scene from the Past,” in order to re-write and lay claim to the past in a freer and more imaginative way. In looking to Cameron, Woolf denies chains of inheritance and circumvents both her parents and their problematic roles of inducting her into Victorian society. Her ironic treatment of the DNB not only denigrates her father's work, but also bypasses her mother's writing, for Woolf makes no mention of the entry on Cameron, which was written by Julia Stephen.

In “A Scene from the Past,” Woolf claims Cameron imaginatively not simply by saturating the story with details about her life and circle—including references to Henry Taylor and the poem “Maud,” by another Cameron associate, Tennyson—but also by manipulating those details. For example, Woolf's description of Taylor posing as Arthur “draped in an Indian shawl” (“Scene” 1) is not based on a real photograph. Although the description is reminiscent of a portrait of Taylor which Woolf printed in her 1926 catalog of Cameron's work, Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women, Taylor does not appear as Arthur in that portrait. In fact, when Cameron compiled a set of photographic illustrations to Tennyson's Idylls of the King, she used a much younger model, William Warder, as King Arthur (Gernsheim 42-43), and she consistently portrayed him in the traditional medieval knight's costume of chain-mail and helmet.3 Woolf thus plays with facts to fuse Taylor with Tennyson and the Arthuriad. The reference to the Indian shawl is another complex allusion: it relates to an anecdote from Taylor's autobiography which Woolf narrates in her introduction to the Cameron catalog. Woolf had described how Sir Henry and his wife Alice, “suffered the extreme fury” of Cameron's affection, “Indian shawls, turquoise bracelets, inlaid portfolios, ivory elephants, ‘etc.’ showered on their heads.” When the Taylors returned an Indian shawl which Cameron had given them, she sold it and bought a sofa for Putney Hospital with an inscription that it was a gift from Lady Taylor herself. “It was better,” Woolf concludes, “to bow the shoulder and submit to the shawl” (3-4). In the story, Taylor is made to submit to the Indian shawl, for the colonial official is ironically described as being wrapped in an object from the colonized culture.

Woolf's distortions of facts were true to the spirit of Cameron's work, and served to defend a feminist reading of biography and history. In one of her earliest sketches of the Taylor story (“Incongrous Inaccurate Memories,” 1930), Woolf argued that “inaccuracy” in biography is “very often a superior form of truth which the victims themselves would be the first to welcome.” Such manipulation of details may be seen as a challenge to male accounts of the past, such as those presented by Fisher or the DNB. Woolf saw Cameron as a purveyor of truth through fantasy. In her introduction to the 1926 catalog, Woolf writes that unlike Cameron's father who was “the greatest liar in India,” Cameron herself had a “gift of ardent speech and picturesque behaviour which has impressed itself upon the calm pages of Victorian biography” (1). Where men tell lies, she suggests, women like Cameron deal in colorful truths.

“A Scene from the Past” can be seen as the culmination of these earlier meditations, for in this story Woolf seeks to access and defend a larger-than-life view of truth by alluding to Cameron's work. Although the story begins with a self-consciously posed scenario in Cameron's studio, Woolf does not break the frame when the protagonists move outside, but continues to describe them in terms which evoke a Cameron photograph: “Beautiful as they were, the old man and the girl—he had snatched a bosuns cape and clapped a sombrero on his head; she was in flowing purple; one pearl pinned the cambric ruffles to her throat—nobody marked them” (“Scene” 2). This description alludes to Cameron's use of beautiful models, and her tendency to dress her sitters in elaborate costumes. Woolf insists that this outlandish picture is a truthful depiction, for she says that even though the pair were stunning, they were not out of the ordinary for Freshwater at that time. Such a maneuver captures the spirit of Cameron's photography. As Carol Armstrong has pointed out, Cameron's work displays “a kind of excess” which secures “a confirmation of the truth of fiction that exceeds the simple reality-effect of the photograph, the consequent trust that this had to be some body's actual action, and that therefore the fiction was fact” (130). In other words, she sought to make the viewer believe in legends such as the Arthuriad by showing real people acting out these scenes.

Woolf found Cameron's penchant for showing real people in fanciful situations deeply subversive. In her 1926 essay, she praises Cameron's ability to overturn the traditional order of society: “Boatmen were turned into King Arthur; village girls into Queen Guinevere. Tennyson was wrapped in rugs: Sir Henry Taylor was crowned with tinsel. The parlour-maid sat for her portrait and the guest had to answer the bell” (6). This description suggests that Cameron's subversive strengths did not lie simply in the way in which she represented historical figures—her ability to get the viewer to believe that a servant could be Arthur or Guinevere—but in her power to get the famous men of her generation to dress up and act out roles, so that Taylor and Tennyson are effectively immortalized in fancy dress. Woolf's fanciful representation of the historical figure of Taylor thus draws on Cameron's playful depiction of him in her photographs.

Woolf's story also reflects a more subtle form of subversion practised by Cameron. As Beloff has noted, Cameron's portraits reveal an “element of serious subversion of the definition of both the ‘natural’ masculine and feminine. For Cameron, male goodness and nobility is not thrusting. She seems to present the Janus-face of Victorian aggressive progress, its intellectual, spiritual opposite” (115). Woolf explores this inverse side of Victorian society in her treatment of Taylor, by imagining the private life of a public figure. In re-telling his story about the telescope, Woolf empathizes with an old man recalling his lonely boyhood, rather than with Sir Henry Taylor the distinguished Victorian, thus turning him into a somewhat pathetic figure. In Taylor's own account (1 44-45), the telescope incident took place when he was a young man spending three weeks alone when his father and stepmother were away on holiday, and he found “something exciting in the sense of solitude,” but Woolf renders him vulnerable in her story by presenting him as a boy who was “very lonely” over a long period. However, in describing the old man as someone who had never known a “mother's love,” Woolf picks up on and elaborates a hint at suffering in Taylor's account: Taylor describes the experience of watching the couple's embrace as “the only phenomenon of human emotion which I had witnessed for three years.” Thus her account draws out what was only a passing comment, but suggests that this was somewhat nearer the truth, unmaking the great man by demonstrating his need of a mother.

Woolf tells the Taylor story in a melodramatic fashion reminiscent of the staged dramas in Cameron's photographs. The characters gesticulate wildly—the old man seizes the girl's arm, and casts his eyes upon the ground; her eyes follow his and “she saw what he saw”—and the narrative concludes with the sentimental picture of the girl breaking down in tears and exclaiming, “Dear Sir Henry!” (“Scene” 4-5). By foregrounding the melodramatic, while insisting on the veracity of this heightened account, Woolf draws on Cameron to question official, patriarchal constructions of history and biography. The tension between these different interpretations emerges briefly half-way through “A Scene from the Past,” when the narrator interrupts the story to note that “if her tears and his words move your scorn, turn from your path and pause where, in Whitehall, rise the august battlements of the Colonial Office. It was there he ruled; there stands his statue today” (“Scene” 3). The juxtaposition offers a choice between accepting this sentimental scene, or preferring the official historical record presented by Taylor's respectable but lifeless monument. The tension between official historical records and an imaginative recollection of the past is brought to a head in the closing paragraph of the story, when Woolf finally identifies Taylor and summarizes his biography as presented in the DNB: “It is left for our oblivious age to add ‘Taylor, Sir Henry. (1800-1886) Author of Philip Van Artevelde,Isaac Comnenus and The Statesman …’” (Ibid., 5). Like his statue, Taylor's entry in the DNB is a cypher which stands for something which has been lost: the modern age is oblivious to Taylor's achievements and the DNB can only stand as a poor substitute.

In “A Scene from the Past” Woolf moves towards a postmodern view of truth: on the one hand, there are details which are recorded in the DNB, but which stand in place of a lost reality; on the other is a reconstruction of the past through fiction which cannot be proven. Woolf's refusal to corroborate facts has subversive potential. By suggesting that the book from which she took this story and the album in which Taylor can be seen dressed as King Arthur have been destroyed in an air-raid, Woolf refuses to make the story acceptable to fact-gatherers, thus preventing her fiction from being reduced to verifiable details, as Herbert Fisher had done with To the Lighthouse. The “enemy action” which Woolf says had destroyed the documents may be a reference to the bombing of the offices of Autotype, where Cameron's negatives were thought to have been kept (Gernsheim 187); or to the destruction of Woolf's London home, in which family heirlooms may have been lost. However, it is more likely that the book and the album never existed—as I have suggested, Henry Taylor never posed as Arthur—and so the whole story becomes a fictional recreation of a scene from the past which Woolf had never known. In this way, we can read “A Scene from the Past” as an imaginative reconstruction of history drawn from an inventive interpretation of Cameron's life and work. It does not simply celebrate a secret feminist reading of the past which is invisible to patriarchal historians, but it suggests that the past may be reinvented in a fantasy of liberation from the burden of inheritance, maternal as well as paternal. By using Cameron's art as a framing device, Woolf forges an imaginative access to the past by thinking back through her aunt.


  1. Woolf used “A Scene from the Past” as the title for four of the last five drafts. I will take as the definitive text the last of the Freshwater drafts: Monk's House Papers MH/B 10e, 1-5, hereafter “Scene” (see Hussey for facsimile). There are at least 7 drafts of the Freshwater story—a manuscript at Smith College entitled “The Searchlight” and six typescripts identified by Graham. I have taken the last of these as definitive because a close comparison reveals a clear sense of progression from one draft to the next, the later changes generally involving slight rephrasing.

  2. In the transcriptions of the manuscript included here, crossed out text represents Woolf's deletions, text in angled brackets <= indicates Woolf's insertions, and square brackets [] denote illegible script or doubtful readings. I am grateful to the Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf for permission to quote from the drafts.

  3. Taylor describes Cameron photographing him in “multiform impersonations of King David, King Lear, and all sorts of ‘Kings, Princes, Prelates, Potentates and Peers’” (197), but does not mention Arthur.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Carol. “Cupid's Pencil of Light: Julia Margaret Cameron and the Maternalization of Photography.” October 76 (1996): 115-41.

Beloff, Halla. “Facing Julia Margaret Cameron.” History of Photography 17: 1 (1993): 115-17.

Blain, Virginia. “Thinking Back Through Our Aunts: Harriet Martineau and Tradition in Women's Writing.” Women: A Cultural Review, 1: 3 (1990): 223-39.

Fisher, Herbert A. L. An Unfinished Autobiography. Foreword by Lettice Fisher. London: Oxford UP, 1940.

Gernsheim, Helmut. Julia Margaret Cameron: Her Life and Photographic Work. London: Gordon Fraser, 1975.

Gillespie, Diane F. “‘Her Kodak Pointed at His Head’: Virginia Woolf and Photography.” Virginia Woolf: Themes and Variations. Ed. Vara Neverow-Turk and Mark Hussey. New York: Pace UP, 1993: 33-40.

Graham, John W. “The Drafts of Virginia Woolf's ‘The Searchlight’.” Twentieth Century Literature 22.4 (1976): 379-93.

Hussey, Mark. (ed.) Major Authors on CD-Rom: Virginia Woolf. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Media, 1996.

Mason, Rebecca. “Words Proud and Fearless: An Examination of Virginia Woolf's ‘The Searchlight’ and Sylvia Plath's Ariel Collection.” Diss. Smith College, 1992.

Olsen, Victoria C. “Family Fictions: Virginia Woolf and Julia Margaret Cameron.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 49 (1997): 5.

Raiskin, Judith. “Review: Virginia Woolf Manuscripts from the Monk's House Papers, Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press Microform Publication Ltd.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 27 (1987): 5.

Spalding, Frances. Vanessa Bell. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983.

Taylor, Henry. Autobiography of Henry Taylor, 1800-1875, 2 vols. London: Longman, 1885.

Woolf, Virginia. Introduction to Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women by J. M. Cameron. London: Hogarth, 1926.

———. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell, asst. ed. Andrew McNeillie, 5 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1977-84.

———. A Haunted House and Other Short Stories. Ed. Leonard Woolf. London: Hogarth Press, 1943.

———. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicolson, asst. ed. Joanne Trautmann Bankes, 6 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1975-1980.

———. Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings. Ed. and intro. Jeanne Schulkind. London: Triad/Granada, 1978.

———. The Complete Shorter Fiction. Ed. S. Dick. Rev. ed. London: Hogarth, 1989.

———. “A Scene from the Past.” Ts. MH/B10e: 1-5. Monk's House Papers, Brighton, England.

———. “The Searchlight.” Ms. Frances Hooper Collection of Virginia Woolf Books and Manuscripts, Smith College Rare Book Room, Northampton MA.

———. “Incongrous Inaccurate Memories.” Ts. MH/B9k. Monk's House Papers, Brighton, England.

Wussow, Helen. “Travesties of Excellence: Julia Margaret Cameron, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf and the Photographic Image.” Virginia Woolf and the Arts: Selected Papers from the Sixth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Diane F. Gillespie and Leslie K. Hankins. New York: Pace UP, 1997: 48-56.

Karin E. Westman (essay date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Westman, Karin E. “The First Orlando: The Laugh of the Comic Spirit in Virginia Woolf's ‘Friendships Gallery.’” Twentieth-Century Literature 47, no. 1 (spring 2001): 39-71.

[In the following essay, Westman maintains that “Friendships Gallery” best represents Woolf's development of a “new ‘art’ of biography that could negotiate the tension between fact and fiction” and identifies the story as the roots of her novel Orlando.]

The Comic Spirit laughed meanwhile.

—“Friendships Gallery” (284)

If Orlando (1928) has typically been read as the literary consequence of Woolf's call for a new “art” of biography that could negotiate the tension between fact and fiction—between the “granite” and the “rainbow” of life, as Woolf's metaphor figures it in her review essay “The New Biography” (1927)—the early biographical sketch “Friendships Gallery” questions Orlando's pride of place in that critical narrative.1 The laughter of the Comic Spirit in “Friendships Gallery” is a harbinger of the revisionary spirit that runs through Virginia Woolf's early essays and prose fiction and into her later work. Its text bound in violet leather and typed with purple ink, Woolf's gift to her childhood friend Violet Dickinson is the direct antecedent to the later “mock” biography Orlando, and in that capacity “Friendships Gallery” illustrates Woolf's growing control over her literary inheritance as she satirically mocks the failures of biography and novels to capture the “granite” and the “rainbow” of individuals' lives. For Woolf, the ideological connection between these traditional narratives of experience must necessarily come under investigation, particularly if a woman's life is to be told. Her narrative's self-conscious, satiric use of established forms illustrates how these forms in turn could be reconstructed for different ideological ends.

The comic tropes of Woolf's “Friendships Gallery” (her emphasis on Violet's physical height and persistent laugh, the disruptions of narrative time) as well as the biographer's self-conscious rejection of sentimental and realistic narrative forms suggest the sketch's pivotal position in Woolf's feminist revisions of literary traditions. In this more “proper writing of lives” (15 April 1908, Letters [The Letters of Virginia Woolf] 1: 325), “Friendships Gallery” tells Violet Dickinson's history by way of a dialogic emphasis on voice, in order to convey the energy and strength of Violet's character from birth through middle age—a range of female experience not traditionally recorded within the conventions of either the nineteenth-century biography or novel. By explicitly calling on both the historiographic and novelistic conventions for writing a woman's life, Woolf's biographical sketch of Dickinson reveals how these narrative forms can limit a woman's material existence within a capitalist society's histories and stories. Woolf therefore explicitly writes into her narrative what patriarchal ideologies and, consequently, history often elide: a woman's individual character, expressed through body and voice.

Since the tension between biographical truth and literary fiction is explicitly worked out in the pages of this early biographical sketch, “Friendships Gallery” offers early evidence for Woolf's goal of a new “art” of biography that strives to capture “the truth of real life and the truth of fiction,” however “antagonistic” and “incompatible” those truths may be (“The New Biography” [1927], 154-55). John Stape's assertion that we find the roots of Orlando in “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn” (1906), “Memoirs of a Novelist” (1909), and “The Jessamy Brides” (1927) is therefore appropriate but incomplete (xi). While these three texts certainly contribute to the development of Woolf's art, I believe that “Friendships Gallery” best represents the complex root system from which Orlando grows. In the pages of “Friendships Gallery,” we see nearly all of the qualities Stape identifies in his description of Orlando: a “hybrid genre of mock forms,” “simultaneously a novel, a treatise on biography, a study of the art of fiction, a work of feminist social criticism, a revisionist literary history and the fantastically reinvented life history of Woolf's friend” (xi).

The sketch's three chapters each offer a view of Violet's character that balance, in varying combinations, the “truths” of life and fiction: the first, untitled, chapter comically tells of Violet's birth, childhood, and first season; “Chapter Two: The Magic Garden” offers not only a comic but also a fantastic narrative of Violet's early years in society; and, finally, “Chapter Three: A Story to Make You Sleep” shifts almost completely into the realm of the fantastic by relating Violet's trip to Japan as a tale of a giant princess who saves a village from monsters by laughing and brandishing her umbrella. After briefly placing “Friendships Gallery” in the context of Woolf's other early biographical writings and noting its critical reception since its publication in 1979, I will identify three ways in which this early comic sketch anticipates Orlando and the feminist concerns of Woolf's later work: first, through her questioning of a third-person, omniscient narrative style typical of historiography and biography; second, through her revisions to Meredith's definition of the Comic Spirit, embodied by Violet's character in “Friendships Gallery”; and third, through her choice of romance and fantasy as alternative narrative forms for the telling of a woman's life. My goal is not only to recover an early sketch for further critical study but also to identify the importance of “Friendships Gallery” to our critical narrative of Woolf's development as a feminist writer.

“Friendships Gallery” is only one of several biographical sketches that Woolf, as an aspiring chronicler of the past,2 composed for family and friends or for general publication in advance of her more famous and irreverent Orlando. When we hear that Woolf had been asked by F. W. Maitland to contribute to his biography of her father Sir Leslie Stephen, a man whose name had become synonymous with the compendious Dictionary of National Biography, we might expect Woolf to have felt as burdened by her literary past as her character Katharine Hilbery in Night and Day (1920), who labors at her grandfather's biography, “half-crushed” by the weight of “the great poet, Richard Alardyce” (15), and his many letters and manuscripts. Yet far from suffering under the weight of this legacy, Woolf repeatedly adapts her inheritance to her own literary and feminist goals.3 Like her travel journals and earliest fiction, Woolf's biographical sketches4 put into practice a more “proper writing of lives” than she had found in the many histories, biographies, and memoirs she reviewed during these same years, a method that questioned patriarchal ideology by questioning the established methods of biographical writing. In her biographies, Woolf chose to emphasize individual voices from the past, to advocate storytelling as a way to recover those voices and bodies of the past for the contemporary reader, and, perhaps most importantly, to avoid historians' and biographers' replication of a patriarchal ideology of separate spheres, in which men's lives turn on their active engagement with the social world, and women's lives turn on their passive appearance and the “invisible” work they accomplish within the home.5 Acknowledging her independent, subjective perspective by writing herself into the biographical text, Woolf continually pursues the individual character of her subjects by re-presenting their speech and thoughts as well as their actions, so that the historical past lives again in the reader's present experience. Her biographical sketches anticipate the need to balance the “truth of real life and the truth of fiction,” the hallmark of what Woolf will identify as the new art of biography (“The New Biography” [1927], 154); their narrative forms illustrate a dialogic writing of lives commensurate with her feminist goals. In “Friendships Gallery,” however, we can see Woolf altering the balance from historical narrative (the “truth of real life”) to the possibilities of fiction (the “truth of fiction”), as her writing notebooks confirm.6 “Friendships Gallery” therefore provides a crucial link in our understanding of Woolf's development as a feminist materialist artist, one concerned with economic relations and with the life of the body and the mind within a patriarchal culture.

When “Friendships Gallery” was first discovered, however, the sketch was quickly linked with Woolf's better-known mock biography of another female friend, Vita Sackville-West, and it has since shared a critical fate similar to Orlando's within the Woolf canon of literary works.7 The prevailing critical evaluation of Orlando read Woolf's novel through the lens of Nigel Nicholson's oft-quoted line “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”8 Woolf's biographical sketch of Violet Dickinson is introduced in similar terms by Ellen Hawkes, who edited the previously unpublished sketch for Twentieth Century Literature in 1979. In Hawkes's introduction, “Friendships Gallery” becomes “an early example of Virginia Woolf's way of expressing her affection and admiration for a woman friend”—a “spoof biography of Violet Dickinson [that] begins and ends in love” (270).9 While both “Friendships Gallery” and Orlando are certainly motivated, as Woolf's letters and diary entries bear out, by the “affection and admiration” Woolf felt “for a woman friend,” this perspective limits the critical import of the particular stories each “biography” tells, and, in the case of Orlando, inappropriately limits the intended audience for the book. Both texts become only “love letters,” to be read more for the affection conveyed rather than for the form and content of the narratives told.

While the prevailing critical view of Orlando has shifted over the years, that for “Friendships Gallery” has not. In her biography Virginia Woolf (1996), Hermione Lee replicates Ellen Hawkes's approach, identifying “Friendships Gallery” as “a spoof love-letter-cum-biography” and therefore “an early Orlando” (13). Although Hawkes concludes her introductory comments by acknowledging the “reverberations here of [Woolf's] serious themes,” her list of themes is not fleshed out within the necessarily brief editorial space.10 Nevertheless, Hawkes's decision to frame “Friendships Gallery” foremost as a “panegyric” subordinates the narrative's role in cultural, feminist criticism, since Hawkes's choice elides Woolf's explicit play with the genres of biography, the novel, and the romance—a sign of Woolf's search early in her literary career for narrative forms by which to accomplish her explicitly feminist goals. A critical approach that reads “Friendships Gallery” alongside Orlando for the narrative forms by which Woolf conveys her “affection and admiration” reveals how these two biographical sketches underscore Woolf's continuing concerns with re-presenting individual experience, particularly women's experience. Together, “Friendships Gallery” and Orlando mark an early and later revision of available narrative forms into a new, and particularly comic, art.

Like Orlando, “Friendships Gallery” offers a satiric commentary both on the necessarily imaginative role a biographer plays in re-presenting experience and on the historiographic methods that traditionally mask this subjective view. Woolf's narrative places the biographer's construction of character in the foreground of the sketch, thereby encouraging her reader to see historical texts as subjective, interested readings of past experience rather than as the objective, disinterested truth historiography often purports to be. As she will in Orlando, Woolf's narrator adopts a masculine biographical persona when writing the sketch of Violet Dickinson—a rhetorical move that emphasizes not only how “biographer” is a role one assumes within the biographical narrative but also how this role is usually “played” from a masculine point of view. Though the sketch is written in the first and second person, the biographer's professed lack of knowledge of women and the solitary life the biographer leads indicates this masculine persona:

I will not say how they [the ladies] do these things; for that would require a surgical knowledge of anatomy, neither polite [n]or possible; for living as I do, in a garret with one dirty char woman who brings me Lloyds Weekly and a bunch of kippered herrings tied by the tails like candles, on Friday nights, …


Given this character sketch in “Friendships Gallery” and the use of the masculine pronoun in Orlando—“Happy the mother who bears, happy still the biographer who records the life of such a one! Never need she vex herself, nor he invoke the help of novelist of poet” (15)—Woolf appears to be drawing attention in both mock biographies to the presumed sex and gender of the biographer, making the reader aware of the gendered, subjective position of the supposedly “objective” historical voice.

The constraints of propriety, coupled with class position, emerge in this same narrative aside, emphasizing further the degree to which the biographer's own material circumstances must necessarily influence his representation of Violet's life. In describing the food consumed by ladies having tea in Violet's garden, the biographer cannot pretend to have an objective view of the scene:

how can I imagine the taste of the cutlets which Lady B__th eats off silver, beneath the eyes of six flunkeys in livery? Cutlets may change their shape beneath such a radiance; and Heaven knows what exquisite nerves are stimulated and begotten by mutton eaten off silver. And as it is with mutton, so it must be with other things; with books, with pictures; with love with life; this is a very good reason why I should not attempt to describe what I do not know—why I should continue to adore it.


Anticipating the narrator in A Room of One's Own (1929), Violet's biographer insists on the influence that good food in pleasant surroundings will have on the creative and intellectual faculties.11 And, like the narrator of A Room of One's Own who “take[s] the liberty to defy that convention of novels” (10) and describes the quality and quantity of food eaten at the men's college, Violet's biographer defies a related convention of biography by insisting on how the material experience of eating limits a biographer's sympathetic imagination. Woolf's biographical persona thus abandons all claims to objectivity: the subjective emphasis falls, as it does in A Room of One's Own, on the material conditions that allow or prevent a greater understanding for another's point of view.

The difficulty of composing with propriety while still crafting a “true” history marks another aspect of biography that Woolf questions in her comic sketch, as she will in her later work. In “Friendships Gallery,” such self-censorship limits Violet's “sincere historian” right from the opening of the sketch:

Forty years ago, our sincerity does her credit, a child was born in a Somersetshire manor house. Whether she was born laughing or crying or both at once or whether she merely accepted the situation and made the best of it, a sincere historian anxious to use only those words that cannot be avoided has no means of telling.


Restricted by the biographical conventions emerging from nineteenth-century social mores, Violet's biographer can only recount the difficulty of maintaining his goal of sincerity and cannot provide sincere speech itself. A paragraph later, the biographer's narrative is thwarted again by these prescribed bounds of speech:

Now the history of Christian names is so interesting that if I had the freedom of my mother tongue, as I have not for a reason to be told in the appendix,I I would here expound it;12 I will only say that forty years ago a Christian name was a Christian name; and that if you wished your daughter to answer with credit in this world and the next you branded her with the virtues of the faith from the very beginning.


Lacking the “freedom of [his] mother tongue,” the biographer claims not to be able to convey an important context for Violet's name; in place of the unspeakable, Violet's biographer includes the scene of Violet's baptism, but does so in order to turn the serious occasion of Christian naming through baptism into a merely arbitrary event, concluding how “nearly Violet was Mary, how easily Dickinson might have been Jones” (275). Violet's biographer thus both criticizes the social censure of his “mother tongue” and renders such censure ineffective, even detrimental to those social mores that required “a Christian name.” The biographer of Orlando will encounter and then surmount similar narrative difficulties by comically drawing the reader's attention to the censorship while offering a pointed commentary on the hypocrisy of the restrictions. When faced with the “truth” of Orlando's change from man to woman, Orlando's biographer is caught between “spar[ing] the reader what is to come” and adhering to “Truth, Candor, and Honesty, the austere gods who keep watch and ward by the inkpot of the biographer” (134). Woolf's satire on the hypocrisy of such claims to “Truth, Candor, and Honesty” soon becomes clear in the masque the biographer describes, a spectacle that in turn foreshadows the Victorian interval of Miss La Trobe's play in Between the Acts (1941). As “our Lady of Purity,” “our Lady of Chastity,” and “our Lady of Modesty” all dance attendance on the scene of Orlando's transformation, they try to “cover Orlando with their draperies” and “to cast their veils over the mouths of the trumpets”; “Truth,” however, “blare[s] out” and thrusts their offices from the room (136). Their departing speech invokes the qualities their names suggest, but only to reveal how ignorance and greed masquerade behind their seemingly pure draperies of faith and social respectability:

For there, not here […] dwell still in nest and boudoir, office and lawcourt those who love us; those who honour us, virgins and city men; lawyers and doctors; those who prohibit; those who deny; those who reverence without knowing why; those who praise without understanding; the still very numerous (Heaven be praised) tribe of the respectable; who prefer to see not; desire to know not; love the darkness; those still worship us, and with reason; for we have given them Wealth, Prosperity, Comfort, Ease.


As in “Friendships Gallery,” the biographer of Orlando acknowledges the limitations that censor his narrative, but does so in a way that such limitations appear ill-conceived and hypocritical—indeed, worthy of our laughter. Not being able to speak the truth ultimately works against the censor's goals: the reader learns that Violet's naming was a completely arbitrary event, rather than one with some meaning, and that the supposed protectors of society's modesty, purity, and chastity are, in fact, blindly faithful and self-serving citizens.

Woolf's strongest indictment in “Friendships Gallery” of biography's claims to omniscience and objectivity occurs with the laugh of the Comic Spirit, a laugh that neatly captures the tone and historiographic method Woolf advocates for the more “proper writing of lives” in both “Friendships Gallery” and Orlando. The occasion of the laugh is the biographer's hyperbolic claim that Violet's decision to purchase “a cottage of one[']s own” (288) will be seen by future historians as “the beginning of the great revolution which is making England a very different place from what it was” (288). The biographer supports the hyperbole of his mock-heroic claim by citing a parody of the Cambridge historian George Trevelyan, anticipating what Trevelyan will write about this “momentous change”:

That act of hers typifies a really momentous change which will be described one of these days by Mr George Trevelyan in his work of The Social Life of the Nineteenth Century. “A new spirit” he will write, “breathed, like the wind of a rosy dawn, from the works of George Meredith, and stirring the dusty and arid leaves now beginning to shrivel on the stunted bushes of modern life, caused them to drop those perfectly inefficient shields, relics of a purblind aristocratic age, and to put forth whatever of youth or Spirit yet remained in them. Not much in most cases!” There he laughed; and then went on sprinkling his page with notes to tell us how gently born ladies took to eating porridge off earthen ware, without stays, and how they dug in their gardens, and how muscles grew on their arms, and their husbands called them “Comrade” and how children in vast quantities mostly of the male sex were born to them, and how they toiled for human brotherhood, and the sap of life sang in their veins. The Comic Spirit laughed meanwhile.


Woolf's parody of Trevelyan's choice of historical subject and style is both prescient and topical: although Trevelyan did not compose his British History in the Nineteenth Century until 1922 and his English Social History until 20 years later, Woolf captures the cadence and spirit of Trevelyan's historiographic methods for social history,13 perhaps in part because of her familiarity with Trevelyan's ideas by 1907, the year she composed “Friendships Gallery.” Not only were George Trevelyan and his brother Robert well known to the young men of Bloomsbury during their Cambridge years,14 but also Trevelyan lectured on the French Revolution at Morley College in 1905, the same year Woolf lectured on history and composition for her Morley College students (Rosenbaum 167). It is likely that Woolf also read Trevelyan's essays for the Independent Review, since work by Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, Desmond McCarthy, and Leonard Woolf appeared in the Review during its first year (1903-04) and until its demise in 1908 (Rosenbaum 9). Trevelyan's essay titled “Clio, A Muse,” published first in the Independent Review in 1903, might well have caught Woolf's historiographic eye. Arguing for a literary, rather than the increasingly favored scientific, approach toward the writing of history, Trevelyan believes that history should be told as a “narrative,” a “tale,” that could recapture the past in almost Wordsworthian terms (148, 150). Trevelyan particularly values a historical method that includes humor: “The ‘dignity of history,’ whether literary or scientific, is too often afraid of contact with the Comic Spirit” (146), he claims. His laugh in “Friendships Gallery” (“There he laughed”), followed by his carefree gesture of “sprinkling his page with notes,” suggests that Woolf parodies Trevelyan with knowledge of his desire to include humor in historiography, as well as with knowledge of his highly metaphorical style.

Yet what of the Comic Spirit who laughs after the parody of Trevelyan's historiographic style? It may well be the one Trevelyan calls for in “Clio, A Muse,” but it might also be George Meredith's Comic Spirit, which Trevelyan describes in some detail in his study of The Poetry and Philosophy of George Meredith, published in 1906 and reviewed by Woolf's brother-in-law, Clive Bell, for the Cambridge Review that same year (Rosenbaum 278). In one of the few critical commentaries on “Friendships Gallery,” critic S. P. Rosenbaum hears echoes of Trevelyan's study of Meredith in Woolf's parody, identifying the connection as the result of “G. M. Trevelyan, fresh from his championing of Meredith” (374). Rosenbaum does not go on to explain Meredith's influence on the Trevelyan parody, but presumably the connection rests with the Comic Spirit as introduced in Meredith's Essay on Comedy (1897) and the Meredithean democracy and pastoral landscape of Violet's cottage, where, as Violet's biographer explains,

fashionable London “mak[es] believe” with a pruning hook and knife that it loves the country; as you have seen little town bred children dig holes in a corner of the Square Garden and pretend that they are really camping out with tinned food, in the Indian jungle, and that the cats are roaring lions.


As Trevelyan describes Meredith's philosophy on society, Meredith

detects one of the chief causes of the slack, good-humoured, and unthinking spirit, in the inheritance by individuals of immense quantities of unearned wealth. In consonance with the general tenor of his philosophy, he thinks that in most cases irresponsible wealth, especially when inherited in youth, dwarfs the growth of character and intellect by sheltering men unnaturally from the education of strife. …


Physical labor, then, in combination with the benefits of nature, should transform Violet's “unthinking” aristocratic guests into “Comrade[s]” of a new, more advanced and democratic age—a moment that Trevelyan, “fresh from his championing of Meredith,” would find worthy of recording in the history books.

The tone of the biographer's description of Violet's aristocratic friends, however, indicates there is more “play” than substantive transformation at Violet's pastoral cottage. Woolf's allusion to the Comic Spirit—and Rosenbaum's decision not to explain this allusion—in turn begs the following questions: At what or whom does the Comic Spirit laugh in the parodic passage quoted above? At Violet's decision to build her cottage? At Violet's aristocratic friends who visit her to “labor” on the pastoral land? At the parody composed in Trevelyan's voice, which anticipates the intonations and phrasing he will use in his later histories? And what is the intended effect of the laugh on the reader's understanding of the scene: critical, sympathetic, or both?

To answer these questions and arrive at a reading of Woolf's extended parody of historiographic practice, we must pause here and untangle Woolf's view of the Comic Spirit in 1907 from Meredith's Comic Spirit and Trevelyan's reading of Meredith's Comic Spirit—distinctions Rosenbaum does not pursue in his reading of Woolf's parody. For Woolf, the Comic Spirit shares qualities with Meredith's, but differs significantly in terms of motive, as Woolf's essay “The Value of Laughter” on 15 August 1905 for the Guardian makes clear. While Rosenbaum feels “the essay as a whole is more Meredithean and Aristotelian” (159), Rosenbaum's assessment elides several important differences between Meredith's and Woolf's views.15 Woolf's observation in her essay that “[d]irectly we forget to laugh we see things out of proportion and lose our sense of reality” (Essays [The Essays of Virginia Woolf] 1: 59) does correspond to Meredith's view that the laugh of the Comic Spirit “cures [society's] sickness […] whenever men wax out of proportion,” since “the spirit overhead will look humanely malign and cast an oblique light over them, followed by volleys of silvery laughter” (qtd. in Poetry 192-93). Woolf's claim that “the comic spirit concerns itself with oddities and eccentricities and deviations from the recognised pattern” (59) might not seem incommensurate with Meredith's claims. Yet Woolf locates the curative laughter within individuals, not “overhead,” and places the term “comic spirit” in lowercase rather than uppercase letters, further marking its earthly origins. Most importantly, Woolf genders and sexes Comedy as feminine and female, and here departs from Meredith's view of the Comic Spirit as a reconciling force between the sexes. Meredith aligns women with the Comic Spirit, but only to grant them equal opportunity in their “battle with men, and that of men with them”:

as the two, however divergent, both look on one object, namely Life, the gradual similarity of their impressions must bring them to some resemblance. The Comic poet dares to show us men and women coming to this mutual likeness; he is for saying that when they draw together in social life their minds grow liker. …

(qtd. in Poetry 188-89)

Woolf, by contrast, assigns women and children the shaping powers of the comic spirit, a power to reveal patriarchal ideologies that may be detrimental to men's and women's lives:

Women and children, then, are the chief ministers of the comic spirit, because their eyes are not clouded with learning nor are their brains choked with the theories of books, so that men and things still preserve their original sharp outlines. All the hideous excrescences that have overgrown our modern life, the pomps and conventions and dreary solemnities, dread nothing so much as the flash of laughter which, like lightning, shrivels them up and leaves the bones bare. It is because their laughter possesses this quality that children are feared by people who are conscious of affectations and unrealities; and it is probably for this reason that women are looked upon with such disfavor in the learned professions. The danger is that they may laugh, like the child in Hans Anderson who said that the king went naked when his elders worshiped the splendid raiment that did not exist. […] There is nothing, indeed, so difficult as laughter, but no quality is more valuable. It is a knife that both prunes and trains and gives symmetry and sincerity to our acts and to the spoken and the written word.


The laugh of the Comic Spirit in “Friendships Gallery” may indeed provide “symmetry and sincerity” to the biographer's act of composition and to the historiographic enterprise more generally, given that the laughter occurs directly following the parody of Trevelyan's history of the century. Yet this laughter also “prunes and trains,” giving outline to the founding patriarchal and class ideologies hidden by the draperies of social custom. Far from echoing Meredith's Comic Spirit of reconciliation, Woolf's comic spirit cuts through ideological “excrescences” to divest them of their power.

In “Friendships Gallery,” the character of Violet Dickinson embodies the Comic Spirit Woolf describes the previous year in “The Value of Laughter.” Physically disruptive as she navigates her large body through the social world, Violet's comically exaggerated size signifies not only difference but also productive difference in the terms established by Woolf's essay: it “prunes and trains” the layers of patriarchal custom she encounters. The biographer emphasizes Violet's physical attributes—her great height—to locate the disruption Violet causes to established social norms, and how such disruption often reveals the economic basis of those norms. Playing upon Violet's unusual height—as she does not do in her brief biographical sketch from 190216—Woolf has Violet's biographer present Violet's early years according to her rapid growth:

But there never was such a child for growing.

“Nurse, bring the weighing machine” said the doctor.

“It's the foot rule you want, Sir,” said Nurse; “if I may make so bold.”


The biographer's exaggeration of Violet's size reflects an approach to the body that echoes a long tradition of comic novelists such as Sterne, Cervantes, and Rabelais. However, such exaggeration is also at odds with the conventional focus of biography. In Woolf's biographical sketch, the development of the subject's mind and character is neatly acknowledged only to be undercut by an insistence on Violet's unruly body:

Miss Violet Dickinson grew to be as tall as the tallest hollyhock in the garden before she was eight; but after all our concern is with her spiritual progress. True, her size alarmed her family; her position in the ball room they thought might be seriously prejudiced. …


By suggesting that Violet's “spiritual progress” is related to her success “in the ball room,” Violet's biographer ironically reveals how, far from being discrete, any “spiritual progress” is closely tied to the very material fact of Violet's height—a connection symbolized by the heavy weight of a gold cross bestowed on Violet before her first ball. The gift of the cross from Violet's godmother to Violet, intended to make Violet attractive as a “Beacon of Godliness” rather than be seen as a “Maypole of Derision” (276), echoes the import of the biographer's claims but without the biographer's irony: both the biographer's narrative and the gift of the cross attempt to distinguish between the spiritual and the material, only to confirm the necessary link between them in a society that values physical beauty and material wealth as the signs of “spiritual” success. In the case of a woman, the connection is even more pointed: physical beauty and material wealth are the established criteria for a woman's success “in the ball room” with her potential suitors. As she grows older, Violet's height continues to challenge established views of women and class: “[S]triding along a country road” and “need[ing] only a couple of terriers at her heels and a whip in her hand to look the part which in effect she did not play; the Squires sporting daughter” (288), Violet is an avatar of the sporting Orlando who strides, dogs at heel, across her lands (97, 320) and of Miss La Trobe who appeared “swarthy, sturdy and thickset; strode about the fields in a smock frock […] often with a whip in her hand” (58). Importantly, Violet's great stature is resignified at the end of the sketch in the fantastical “Chapter Three: A Story to Make You Sleep.” There, Violet becomes a “Giantess,” one of two beneficent Giant Princesses, whose size represents the bounty of her good deeds. Rather than existing only as a disruptive force to society, Violet's great height is located back within the realm of the social, yet in support of a different social role for women and different feminine ideals: independence, strength, generosity, and, significantly, a principle of exchange rather than accrued material gain.

Violet's voice matches the physical height and ideologically disruptive force of her body. Through its strength, Violet challenges social proprieties with her loud and frequent laugh, and she voices revolutionary ideas. Woolf's decision not only to value but also to record Violet's voice stands in marked contrast to the palpable silence of women's voices in much history and biography. While Woolf regrets the loss of her mother's voice from records of Julia Stephen's life,17 in the role of Violet's biographer Woolf has the advantage of the “truth,” factual or fictional, of Violet's speeches:

Here again I would digress. But this is one of Violets earliest sayings.

Her mother; “I wish you would learn to write Violet.” Violet[:] “I wont write; I'd rather talk.”


The biographer's “digression” reveals, in fact, an extremely important quality of Violet's character, one that first opens the sketch—her nurses “agreed that she was the cleverest child,” “the noisiest child,” “the child with the finest lungs in the Parish” (275)—and recurs throughout. Like the comic portrayal of her height, Violet's insistent voice disrupts the established order of her class-based society to reveal the ideology that perpetuates it, thereby offering further evidence that Violet embodies the revolutionary force of the Comic Spirit as Woolf conceives it in her 1905 essay. While visiting the grounds of an aristocratic, Elizabethan home and noticing the gardener at work, Violet takes the unusual approach of rising to greet him:

“Good day” she began, with a heartiness that made the bent old creature straighten himself and look at her. Yes, she was a real lady; and—what was that odd feeling she gave him? [His usual] 18 crust of his demeanor which sheltered all [the] of the untaught man] and protected him from ladies and gentlemen and gave him a body wherewith to appear decently in their eyes, the crust that they both agreed to accept for the real man since the real man was not presentable, [a]


Violet's address liberates the gardener's character from the constraining “crust of his demeanor” that he and his employers “had agreed to accept for the real man,” revealing revolutionary, democratic sentiments within. The contradiction between their quotidian conversation about roses and his wife's illness and his violent gesture with his shears ushers the narrative into the register of the mock heroic and would seem to make him a comic figure. However, the tone of the narrative shifts at the end of the scene to a less hyperbolic and more reflective acknowledgment of his class difference: “He forgot for the first time for twenty years that half hours are the property of the C[eci]l family, and have been so ‘for centuries and centuries I dessay’” (286).19 Violet's address and her genuine interest in his concerns may invoke mock-heroic revolutionary fervor, but the shift in tone suggests that she has, like the comic spirit of Woolf's description, “give[n] symmetry and sincerity” (Essays 1: 60) to their exchange, “piercing” through generations of class-based difference with her “voice and friendly gaze.”

Violet's meeting with the gardener precipitates another scene in which Violet's voice challenges the ideology of class in order to reveal two material bases of her society: inherited wealth and drains. Once back within the aristocratic house, Violet finds in her Bible

a phrase for her discontent among so much that was old and beautiful which ended with “moth and rust” and suggested a figure to her mind of bodies encrusted with precious stones as some beetles are crusted with dry excrescences, trying painfully to scrape themselves smooth against gleaming walls of steel. It was not you perceive that she had no love of beauty but that—how can I explain it?—there was some illicit connection in her mind between beauty and riches, beauty and luxury, beauty and selfishness tyranny and vice.


The “illicit connection” Violet intuits between “beauty and selfishness tyranny and vice” will be explained in great detail by Woolf in Three Guineas (1938) as a connection forged by a capitalist and patriarchal society that signifies beauty as “riches,” “luxury,” “selfishness tyranny and vice” in order to further its own ideological ends. Orlando senses a similar illicit quality to material possessions, especially when they are divorced from the human life that animates them with purpose and pleasure (111-12, 147-48). But in 1907, Woolf had already expressed these thoughts, in quite similar terms, in her essay on laughter: just as Violet's biographer notes how “so much that was old and beautiful which ended with ‘moth and rust’ and suggested a figure to her mind of bodies encrusted with precious stones as some beetles are crusted with dry excrescences,” we hear in Woolf's essay how “[a]ll the hideous excrescences that have overgrown our modern life, the pomps and conventions and dreary solemnities, dread nothing so much as the flash of laughter” (Essays 1: 60). Violet, like the comic “knife that prunes and trains,” can cut through the crust of ideology to see—and encourage others to see—the “original sharp outlines” within the illusions of everyday experience (60).

At dinner, Violet's voice is granted the power to reveal the cultural ideologies that mask the physical evidence of bodies and of lived experience in and around the decaying Elizabethan house. Violet quickly disrupts the complacent complicity of her hosts by revealing this materiality:

[A]nd the question which she put with tremendous animation, to her host at lunch “Do tell me on what system is your drainage managed?” was the first shot of an attack which threatened the whole of the Elizabethan pile. They were sitting in the long gallery watching with calm benignant eyes the daily performance of sun and earth which had so often been repeated in front of them that they could almost prompt the actors. You had the impression, until Violet spoke, of an audience such as the audience of the hills beholding an evening sky; or the long gallery was a tranquil creek where ships that had done their voyages came to anchor. And then Violet spoke.


The audience to Violet's question—her act of speech—prefigures the audience that Woolf will assemble for Miss La Trobe's play in Between the Acts. Like the voice that exclaims “All that fuss about nothing” (138) during the Restoration act of the play, Violet's question breaks the complacent illusion of security under which her hosts exist, to reveal the material condition of their lives. The fact that “[n]o one could tell her how the drains were managed, for no one remembered that there were drains” (297), indicates the degree to which these members of the aristocracy have become unconscious of their own bodily existence and their necessary connection with the materiality of their surroundings—including the presence of their own gardener, whom Violet names when they cannot. It is Violet, then, who, in her role as the Comic Spirit, “laughed meanwhile” (284) when her aristocratic friends follow her to “a cottage of [her] own” where there are “real drains, and real roses” (288). Their growing awareness of their material condition marks “the beginning of the great revolution,” a beginning mock-heroically elevated by Violet's biographer, who in turn seems to join in the laughter and encourages the reader to do so as well.

While Woolf's biographical sketch of Violet Dickinson illustrates Woolf's frustrations with the methods and discipline of historiography conveyed contemporaneously through her reviews, her travel journal, and her other biographical sketches, “Friendships Gallery” is particularly important for its bearing on Woolf's evolving theories of fiction. The biographer's self-conscious rejection of “sentimental” and realistic narrative forms illustrates the pivotal position the sketch holds in an evaluation of Woolf's revisions of her literary inheritance. In this final section, I would like to explore Woolf's early revisions to received novelistic forms, particularly her allusions to romance and her use of fantasy. Both genres offer ways to capture the “truths” of a woman's life, truths that otherwise escape from the ideologically complicit narratives of experience valued by a patriarchal society.

Through Violet's biographer, Woolf criticizes the fictional methods available for recounting a woman's life, drawing attention to the ideological implications of nineteenth-century novelistic forms. Calling upon but redeploying the narrative conventions of the sentimental novel20 and the realist novel, Woolf's biographical sketch of her friend Violet Dickinson frequently questions and then rejects the “realistic” representation typical of biographies and novels, narrative modes that can limit a woman's body and voice.21 Instead, Woolf privileges a more “realistic”—more truthful—presentation of Violet's life through a dialogic narrative form that borrows from fantasy and the romance while still emphasizing the material conditions shaping her subject's body and voice.

In revising the narrative forms available for telling a woman's life, Woolf encourages her readers to recognize how existing narratives of experience, particularly the sentimental novel, influence a woman's material existence, since they record a woman's life according to her importance within a patriarchal society.22 In the conventional biography and bourgeois novel, women's lives only become worthy of note when women become valuable as a commodity through marriage, at the season when they “c[o]me out” (“Memoirs of a Novelist” 70). In recognition of this narrative convention, Violet's biographer pauses five pages into the sketch to reflect on the decisions he has made thus far for a reader who presumably knows the established methods for telling a woman's life in history and in fiction:

Now there should be here some more tremendous division than a blank space of white paper; and I suspect that my artistic skill would have been more consummate had I thrown these first pages into the waste paper basket or enclosed them [between]

                                                            Her First Season

and leave such details as birth parentage education and the first seventeen years of her life to be taken for granted. […] But then this Biography is no novel but a sober chronicle; and if Life will begin seventeen years before it is needed it is our task to say so valiantly and make the best of it.


Taking a stand against the prevailing assumption that “the first seventeen years of [a woman's] life [are] to be taken for granted,” Violet's biographer satirically decides that “if Life will begin seventeen years before it is needed it is our task to say so valiantly and make the best of it.”23 Violet's biographer thus lays claim to a higher authority than the established biographical and novelistic methods for recounting a woman's life and thereby revises the standards of woman's biography: “this Biography” will consider all of the years Violet has lived, even if those experiences are deemed by others to be a “mere waste of time” (279). Orlando's biographer wrestles with similar difficulties when Orlando, now a woman, provides none of the actions deemed appropriate for the writing of a woman's life, such as falling in love with a gamekeeper (268). Orlando's biographer chooses to defy convention by remarking on his difficulties and by resolving to “look out the window” to discover “Life” in all its sensory and sensuous experience, including the “Laughter, Laughter!” from the moths, until his human subject does or says something he can legitimately record (269-71). Both biographers' responses question the prevailing view that women's lives only become worthy of note when women become valuable as a commodity through marriage at the season when they “c[o]me out” or through a relationship with a man. By criticizing the ideologically tempered techniques of novels as well as biographies, Woolf censures the patriarchal ideology replicated within both narrative forms. To tell Violet's life, both must be revised.

While Violet's biographer insists that “Friendships Gallery” differs from a novel, the biographer does not refrain from using novelistic forms of representation if they can enhance the reader's experience of Violet's life and character. An ironic frame, however, accompanies their inclusion:

The day after a ball is always used by sentimental novelists endowed with words, for an effective contrast; not only does it change the scene and relieve the strain of prolonged attention—I give away these secrets the best in my possession, but it reveals quite naturally a different side of the heroes character. And so it was with my heroine, if a living woman can be called by such a title. The critics dispute it.


The biographer's need to explain why the methods of “sentimental novelists” could be used speaks to the presumed distinction between the genres of biography and fiction. However, because “[t]he day after a ball” provides “an effective contrast,” Violet's biographer is willing to embrace this novelistic device for its ability to convey Violet's character. Woolf shows, through Violet's biographer, the compatibility of novelistic and biographical methods, and how fictional devices that foreground character could benefit a biographical narrative—an oft-repeated point in her early essay reviews like “Their Passing Hour” (1905) and “Maria Edgeworth and Her Circle” (1909), and one developed further in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1923) and “Character in Fiction” (1924). Violet's biographer even contemplates the benefits of shifting the usual emphasis of biography from intellectual development to a broader psychological portrait of his subject, one that could capture the “flight of her mind, rising like a cloud of bees” (282) and would pursue the sort of “intricate labyrinths” that “modern novelists” (281) might enter, anticipating the narrative methods Woolf will adopt for her fiction.

The literary technique that best allows Violet's biographer to present Violet's character for the reader comes not from the novel per se but from one of the novel's antecedents: the romance. If conventional biographies of women's lives and the sentimental novel both elide those years that precede a woman's entrance into “the world”—those years considered a “mere waste of time” to describe, according to her biographer's ironic comment—the romance narrative can, by contrast, accommodate and value the early education Violet receives from her women teachers as well as the ways in which Violet's lessons are given: through the exchange of personal stories rather than the reading of “official” history.

Woolf offers a pointed satire of the “formal” education many middle-class daughters receive through the persona of Violet's biographer, who reveals the discrepancy between the professed goal of Violet's education and the alternative “history” she acquires during those hours. Since Violet is educated for her role as a commodity rather than the development of her character, Violet's biographer moves directly from the scene of her first ball to her morning lessons, since “it was the morning when Fräulein Müller came to ‘finish’ her with a German polish” (277)—a juxtaposition that highlights the ideological continuity between the two scenes. Violet's biographer explains the prevailing view of a young woman's education through the metaphor of science, marking her parents as doctors:

A time comes however, when parents and guardians can tell the precise second, when book learning has yielded exactly the number of drops which taken internally benefit the system of a maiden; a teaspoonful in excess has been known to ruin the constitution for life; some maintain that a little external polish is no bad thing.


The extended metaphor of education as the “finish” or “polish” applied to a young woman's body or administered “internally” illustrates the importance of social appearance over character. Yet Violet seems to tarnish under the “polish” of history she receives from Fräulein Müller, and Violet's education soon comes not from the “history” in textbooks but from the personal stories of her female teachers. Though Violet's lesson on the history of drama begins with the textbook, Fräulein Müller's candid acknowledgment that Violet will not be successful “in the society of Bath” (278) for her knowledge of Elizabethan drama leads to Fräulein Müller's narration of her own experiences in the social world: “when the lunch bell rang Fräulein Müller was wiping her eyes saying ‘Ah my dear Miss Violet, I have never told any one what I have told you’” (278). Providing Violet with first-hand experiences of the social world in place of the more “conventional” (and, by comparison, less practical) education, Fräulein Müller and Violet's other governesses offer their pupil what the heroine of Frances Burney's novel Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778) desires so much after her first experiences in the “world”: Evelina writes, “But, really, I think there ought to be a book, of all the laws and customs à-la-mode, presented to all young people upon their first introduction into public company” (89). Violet's female teachers provide her with scenes from just such a book.

The way in which Violet learns this knowledge of the world suggests the earlier novel form of the romance, represented by even so late an example as Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752).24 Within the feminine world of the romance, friendships between women are valued; to tell one's own “story” or history in response to another's is a compliment and an act that builds trust. Within the patriarchal social world of the bourgeois novel, by contrast, women are often encouraged to compete with one another for a man's affection, forging envy and jealousy instead of friendship and confidence. Further, in the novel a young woman is judged according to her innocence, not her experience—even her innocence of the sort of experiential knowledge that could in fact help her to preserve her innocent character. In Violet's biography, the reader sees the plot of the romance played out in place of the novel's preferred plot: rather than keeping Violet ignorant of previous women's experiences and leaving her to rely on her innocence,25 Fräulein Müller and Violet's other instructors share their own stories and the stories of women they know. These stories, paired with sanctioned instruction, become alternative “history” lessons, creating a genealogy of women's experience for Violet to learn by heart:

Keats sang of German life in


Violet's association of Wordsworth with “a plain Somersetshire girl” and her financial difficulties could be compared to Arabella's “foible” of reading romance as history, except that in Violet's case the two narratives are held in tension: one does not replace the other. Instead, the alternative education that Violet's governesses provide for her forges connections between life and literature. Violet begins her time in the world with an “island” of literary and personal stories that will serve her as she experiences the “immense ocean” of life—a stability of self in relation to the world that Rachel in The Voyage Out (1915) yearns for as she ponders Ibsen and Gibbon, and which Orlando struggles to achieve and finds only after many voyages across the centuries. According to Violet's biographer, her governesses' dramatic narratives about life—history, literature, stories of any kind—thus exist in connection with present experience, not separate from it. This connection between stories of the past and stories of the present, between official and unofficial narratives, is made possible by storytelling, the act of one person speaking to another. The result offers extraordinary potential for broadening women's experiences, as they acquire, like Violet, alternative histories of the past not provided by the high “polish” of the official books.

While the first chapter of “Friendships Gallery” illustrates the value of female friendships and an education inspired by the romance narrative, Violet's biographer tells two alternative “histories” of women's experience during the sketch for the reader to experience directly, both of which partake of the fantastic: a scene in “Chapter Two: The Magic Garden” and the whole of “Chapter Three: A Story to Make You Sleep.” Interwoven into the everyday, the fantasy of “Friendships Gallery” anticipates the balance of realism and fantasy in later works like Orlando. Shown taking tea in “The Magic Garden” of an aristocratic home, Violet and her friends have a mythic and fantastic beauty that still insists on their three-dimensional material existence:

There were gigantic women lying like Greek marbles in easy chairs; draped so that the wind [blew]

This is a picture of noble English ladies at tea, as true as I can make it, and if it is not spoiling the harmony, I would further suggest that these ladies think, eat and breathe—live in short, besides existing or whatever the polite word for it is, within the pages of Burke.


Violet's biographer decides not to forego a fantastical description that communicates the aesthetic “harmony” of the scene, but instead to supplement the ideological implications of that narrative with the equally material presence of the ladies' eating and drinking bodies. Painting a tableau of Greek goddesses who “looked upon a vision of a jocund world” and of women as “flowers [that] strayed from the beds,”26 the biographer conjures an idyllic, mythic, and extremely feminine scene of ladies at tea while also suggesting a vision of women's autonomy and independence from the demands of patriarchal social norms, not unlike the world presented in The Convent of Pleasure (1668) by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. The stylized poses of the “flowers” and “statues” indicate the staged quality to their performance—a performance of gender and class that Violet will soon indict, as we saw in the previous section, however beautiful it appears. In anticipation perhaps of that moment when Violet will reveal the material necessity of drains, the biographer's description insists on the ladies' three-dimensional existence. Violet's biographer is conscious of and determined not to replicate the biographical and historical methods of those like Burke, who negate women's bodies through a “polite” propriety complicit with patriarchal ideologies of the feminine. Instead, Violet's biographer asserts the intellect, sexuality, and the corporeality of the ladies' existence.

If “The Magic Garden” both invokes and complements the available narrative methods for describing a woman's life, the third chapter of Violet's biography, “A Story to Make You Sleep,” abandons the conventions of biography and realism entirely to offer a fantastic “story” in place of “history.” The story begins at the conclusion of Chapter Two: “In Japan they have a story, [which is] fast becoming myth, which mothers tell good children as a treat, or sick children who cannot sleep at night. […] 27 the effect of the direct address in this third chapter is slightly different: here, the reader plays the more intimate role of child to the narrating mother/biographer—a bond of intimacy quite uncharacteristic of conventional historiography and biography, and in this alternative mode, we hear an echo of the storytelling relationship between Violet and her governesses.

The “story” told in Chapter Three is loosely based on Violet Dickinson's and Lady Robert (Nelly) Cecil's trip to Japan, an event known to the sketch's intended reader, if not to others. Its characters share qualities with the first and second chapters of the sketch, respectively: in this final story, the two women become Two Princesses, a Giantess (Violet Dickinson) and the Mistress of the Magic Garden (Nelly Cecil). Elevating to mock heroic status the help both women provide to those in need, the storyteller describes how the two princesses assist the people of “Tokio” by curing their ills, bringing good luck, encouraging laughter, and, at the story's end, by slaying a sea monster with “certain magic wands called ‘Umbrellas’” (300). While the Rabelaisian presence of the women and the destruction caused certainly fulfill certain narrative tropes of the comic novel, the “story” form of tale is significant for “Friendships Gallery” as a whole. It is through the narrative tropes of myth and fantasy—through storytelling—that Violet's biographer can convey “truths” about Violet's character otherwise lost from conventional biographical methods: her independence, her generosity, and good spirits.

To shift an ostensibly biographical narrative into the register of the fantastic defies the “factual” conventions of historiography and biography. Yet, as Violet's biographer has made clear throughout “Friendships Gallery”—and as Orlando makes clear 20 years later—the methods of fiction are not incompatible with those of a “truthful” narrative. In contrast to literary realism and its affiliation with the didactic, mimetic, and ideologically suspect goals of historiography and biography, the romance and the fantastic explicitly acknowledge the implicit “fiction” of historical and novelistic claims to truth. While popular romances and fantasies can affirm the patriarchal ideologies found in historical narratives and realistic novels, these less-sanctioned forms hold out a narrative space in which to figure an alternative view of experience, particularly of women's relationship to cultural expectations within a patriarchal and capitalist society. The romance and the fantastic thus allow the expression of a different “economy” of power, a “fantasy of power,” according to Nancy Miller, “that would revise the social grammar in which women are never defined as subjects” (41). And aligned as they are in “Friendships Gallery” with Woolf's “comic spirit,” the resulting narratives provide not only an alternative view on women's lives within a patriarchal society but also one that indicts society through laughter. With the comic force of Violet's address to the gardener and his longtime employers, Woolf's “Friendships Gallery” breaks through the “crust” of the past to “prune and train” the ideologies of literary and biographical conventions toward a more feminist future.


  1. Beth A. Boehm's “Fact, Fiction, and Metafiction: Blurred Gen(d)res in Orlando and A Room of One's Own” (1992) exemplifies critical discussions of Woolf's interest in biography that fail to acknowledge Woolf's early interest in the relationship between fact and fiction. Hermione Lee, by contrast, offers a rich discussion of Woolf's early views of biography in the first chapter of her biography Virginia Woolf (1996), especially pages 10-14.

  2. Woolf's early journals and letters, as well as her father Leslie Stephen's memoirs, indicate that the young Virginia Stephen planned to be a historian, not a novelist. See Letters 1: 166 and 1: 190, and Leslie Stephen xxviii.

  3. For a discussion concerning the continuity between Woolf's and her father's views of biography, see Katherine C. Hill. While Julia Briggs's essay on Virginia Woolf provides a brief overview of Woolf's relationship to established biographical methods and her response to them in Night and Day, Briggs does not extend her insights to Woolf's questioning of historiography in general and only gestures briefly in conclusion toward the role Woolf's revisions to biographical methods play in her development of a new narrative form for prose fiction.

  4. These early biographical sketches fall into two categories: serious and comic. Her serious sketches include her contribution to F. W. Maitland's biography of her father in 1906 and her biographical sketch of her sister Vanessa, written upon the birth of Julian Bell in 1908, published in Moments of Being as “Reminiscences.” The comic sketches are more numerous: an early biographical sketch of Violet Dickinson (composed in 1902 but not necessarily shared [Bell 82-83]); the comic lives of her Aunt Caroline Emelia Stephen and her Aunt Mary Fisher (written around 1904, but now lost [Letters 1: 163-64]); the life of her dog Shag (published under the title “On a Faithful Friend” in 1905 [Essays 1: 12-15]), which anticipates her later mock biography of the Brownings' dog Flush (1933); the second, more elaborate biographical sketch of Violet Dickinson titled “Friendships Gallery” in 1907; and notes for a biographical sketch of her friend and brother-in-law Clive Bell, made in 1908 during their trip to Italy (Passionate 383-84).

  5. See Nancy Armstrong, John Berger, and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

  6. As Mitchell Leaska remarks in his introductory headnotes to Woolf's early journals, Woolf begins writing a few short stories in June 1906: “Phyllis and Rosamond” and “The Mysterious Case of Miss V.” During August 1906, Woolf also wrote the untitled story now published under the editorial title of “The Journal of Mistress Martyn.” By fall 1907, soon after she writes “Friendships Gallery” for Violet Dickinson, Woolf begins her first long work of fiction, which will be published in 1915 as The Voyage Out.

  7. John Stape offers an overview of Orlando's critical reception in his introduction to the Blackwell edition of Orlando (1998), xii-xiii.

  8. Until Harcourt Brace's current edition of Orlando appeared in 1993 in conjunction with Sally Potter's film Orlando (1992), the earlier Harcourt edition had Nicholson's comment running prominently across the top of the book's front cover.

  9. Hawkes echoes this view in her essay “Woolf's ‘Magical Garden of Women’” in Jane Marcus's New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf (1981), but with greater emphasis on the power of female friendship to change the social world (40-42, 56).

  10. Hawkes notes at the end of her introduction to “Friendships Gallery,” without further discussion, that:

    there are traces of [Woolf's] ideas about the limitations placed upon young women by society; their meager education; their special relationships with their women teachers; their desire to be themselves, to have a life and a room or a cottage of their own; their need to experiment, to rebel, to bring change in others' lives.


  11. In A Room of One's Own, Woolf's narrator explains more fully the experience Violet's biographer lacks yet still “adore[s]”:

    And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse.


  12. The manuscript of “Friendships Gallery” included annotations made in Woolf's hand for (primarily) Violet's eyes. The biographer's promise of an “appendix,” signaled by a raised roman numeral “I,” directs the reader to an appendix that does not exist; instead, the reader encounters in the margin of the page Woolf's handwritten notation that designates the appendix as “missing.” Woolf's appended note about the “missing” appendix would thus seem to play with scholarly practice and the formalities of scholarly editing. Like the “Preface” and “Index” to Orlando, this “missing” appendix is a comic parody of such practice, much as Cervantes mocks the scholarly conventions of histories and stories in “The Author's Preface” to Don Quixote (1605) and Sterne transposes—or even omits—chapters of his narrative in Tristram Shandy (1759).

  13. Compare, for instance, Trevelyan's description of the birth of the Renaissance in England as recounted in his British Social History:

    Shakespeare's England had a charm and a lightness of heart, a free aspiring mind and spirit not to be found elsewhere in the harsh Jesuit-Calvinist Europe of that day. […] The music of the Elizabethan madrigal and the lyric poetry to which it was wedded, expressed the reasonable joy in life of a people freed from mediaeval and not yet oppressed by Puritan complexes and fears; rejoicing in nature and the countryside in whose lap they had the felicity to live; moving forward to a healthy agricultural and mercantile prosperity, and not yet overwhelmed by the weight of industrial materialism.



    The Elizabethan English were in love with life, not with some theoretic shadow of life. Large classes, freed as never before from poverty, felt the upspring of the spirit and expressed it in wit, music and song. […] The Renaissance, that had known its springtime long ago in its native Italy, where biting frosts now nipped it, came late to its glorious summer in this northern isle. …


  14. George Trevelyan was familiar enough with the Stephen family to visit Gordon Square on 2 December 1906 to walk with Adrian Stephen, Woolf's youngest brother, soon after the death of Toby Stephen, her elder brother, from typhoid on 20 November (Letters 1: 255-56).

  15. In her essay “Four Stages in Woolf's Idea of Comedy: A Sense of Joviality and Magnanimity,” Sally A. Jacobsen also elides key differences between Woolf and Meredith, arguing that Woolf “follows Meredith” in “The Value of Laughter” (217).

  16. In contrast to “Friendships Gallery,” the tone of Woolf's earlier sketch is earnest and admiring, and lacks the humor of the later character study. In the 1902 sketch, Violet's height is remarkable only for the ways in which it does not detract from her character: “She came down to dinner in flowing & picturesque garments—for all her height, & a certain comicality of face, she treats her body with dignity” (Bell 82). Violet's own comic acceptance of her body captures Woolf's attention in the later sketch to an even greater degree.

  17. In “Reminiscences” (1908), her biographical sketch of her elder sister Vanessa, Woolf writes of their mother:

    It has often occurred to me to regret that no one ever wrote down her sayings and vivid ways of speech since she had the gift of turning words in a manner peculiar to her, rubbing her hands swiftly, or raising them in gesticulation as she spoke.


    For Woolf, Julia Stephen's “sayings and vivid ways of speech” could begin to capture the life of her character, beside which Woolf's own and other written biographical efforts pale by comparison. The daily sayings of Julia Stephen would not have been seen—and she most likely would not have seen her own sayings—as worthy of transcription and preservation like the sayings of Johnson, recorded for posterity by Boswell. Woolf implies that they are, if we ever want to know Julia Stephen.

  18. In transcribing Woolf's manuscripts for publication in Twentieth Century Literature, the editors used [word] (that is, square brackets) to designate a deletion editorially restored and

  19. The biographer's inclusion of the gardener's own voice resembles Woolf's inclusion in her journal narrative of the voices of the people she meets in the scenic landscape around Playden in 1907; in both narratives, hearing the voices of individual people dramatizes the scene and embodies more fully the individual character and subject position of speaker.

  20. In Sentimental Modernism (1991), Suzanne Clark identifies the word sentimental with a narrative form beginning in the eighteenth century that is “connected to the pathetic appeal—the appeal to emotion, especially pity, as a means of moral distinction and moral persuasion” (20). Further, the “sentimental locates moral values in the (feminized) heart and denies the importance of external differences” (22). Woolf, by contrast, questions a narrative form that denies the determining influence of “external differences” and how they affect the “heart.”

  21. The histories of the biography and the novel intersect at several points. In The Rise of the Novel (1962), for example, Ian Watt notes the connection between the novels of Defoe and the episodic rogue biographies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, known for factual detail of events, most particularly the trickery and deceptions of their subjects (106). The connection between autobiography and the novel, according to Watt, can be more definitively linked to the novel's similarities to the confessional autobiography or personal memoir (75, 292), as well as to the epistolary novel of the eighteenth century. In all cases, the novel's and the biography/autobiography's narratives were expected to tell the life of an individual according to an outside standard of experience. It is this “standard,” necessarily invested in a particular ideology of social behavior, against which Woolf writes her narratives of female experience.

  22. Describing Vanessa's reception by family and friends after their mother's death for her nephew Julian Bell, Woolf comments on how debilitating textual images of femininity can shape society's expectations for women in everyday life:

    People who […] love to invent a melodramatic fitness in life, as though it were a sensational novel, acclaimed her now the divinely appointed inheritor of all womanly virtues, and with a certain haziness forgot your grandmother's sharp features and Stella's vague ones, and created a model of them for Vanessa to follow, beautiful on the surface, but fatally insipid within.

    (“Reminiscences” 55)

    Woolf's description illustrates how hegemony authors and reproduces itself through various cultural practices already in place, as friends applied a patriarchal ideology found in the melodrama and the sensational novel to the family's experiences and Vanessa's future.

  23. See Woolf's mock review titled “Memoirs of a Novelist” (1909) for another satire of conventional biographical techniques that elide the first 17 years of a woman's life. Woolf's commentary implies the importance of those early years to the developing character of the fictional Miss Willatt, a period in which certain qualities will become “characteristic.”

  24. Operating consciously and ironically under the tradition of the extremely popular French romances of Madeleine de Scudéry, the narrative of Lennox's novel follows the adventures of Arabella, who reads the legacy of her mother's romances as histories rather than as the chivalric fictions others believe them to be. Although Arabella's proclivity toward understanding her world through the lens of the romance is deemed a “foible” of which she must be cured, Lennox's narrator clearly asks the reader to recognize, as Arabella says in her own defense, that “the Difference [between the world of the romance and the world of Georgian upper-class life] is not in Favor of the present World” (380).

  25. The theme of a young, uneducated woman left to learn about and survive the ways of the world on the basis of her innocence alone extends over several centuries, to include such characters as the titular characters of Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, Burney's Evelina, Gwendolen Harleth in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, and Isabel Archer in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady.

  26. An early version of this scene appears in Woolf's journal for 1903 under the title “An Afternoon with the Pagans” (Passionate 184-85). Woolf reflects that, far from being Barbarians as Matthew Arnold claims, the “English aristocracy […] are very strong believers in the Gods […] of the very picturesque Pagan mythology” (184). Katie (Countess of Cromer) is described as “that divine Giantess,” “a great benevolent goddess” (185), two expressions that will be used in “Chapter Three: A Story to Make You Sleep” for Violet, who was not in attendance at this party in 1903, and for Nelly (Lady Robert Cecil), who was. A letter to Violet Dickinson in June 1907, and therefore close to the gift of “Friendships Gallery” in August, describes Nelly Cecil, Violet, and Kitty Maxse “as beings moving in a higher world, with voices like the ripple of Arcadian streams” (Letters 1: 297), echoing the mythic and pastoral scene presented here.

  27. The biographer's direct address to the reader in the earlier chapters is more comic: as in Orlando, the reader is asked to excuse the biographer's omissions, trust the biographer's narrative approach, and make use of his or her imagination when the biographical “facts” are not enough. One extended address to the reader, when the reader is asked to play the role of a visitor to Violet's cottage (290), constructs a scene of interpellation that is closer in tone to that of “Chapter Three,” if still humorous in spirit.

Works Cited

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Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 1818. New York: Penguin, 1985.

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Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. 1972. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Boehm, Beth A. “Fact, Fiction, and Metafiction: Blurred Gen(d)res in Orlando and A Room of One's Own.The Journal of Narrative Technique 22.3 (1992): 191-204.

Briggs, Julia. “Virginia Woolf and ‘The Proper Writing of Lives.’” The Art of Literary Biography. Ed. John Batchelor. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995. 245-65.

Burney, Francis. Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World. 1778. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Cavendish, Margaret. The Convent of Pleasure. 1668. The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. 1605-1615. Trans. Charles Jarvis. 1742. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Clark, Suzanne. Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. 1876. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Hawkes, Ellen. Introduction. “Friendships Gallery.” Twentieth Century Literature 25 (1979): 270-273.

———. “Woolf's ‘Magical Garden of Women.’” New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Jane Marcus. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1981. 31-60.

Hill, Katherine C. “Virginia Woolf and Leslie Stephen: History and Literary Revolution.” PMLA 96.3 (1981): 351-62.

Jacobsen, Sally A. “Four Stages in Woolf's Idea of Comedy: A Sense of Joviality and Magnanimity.” Virginia Woolf and the Essay. Ed. Beth Carole Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino. New York: St. Martin's, 1997. 215-33.

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. 1881. New York: Bantam, 1983.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. London: Chatto, 1996.

Lennox, Charlotte. The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella. 1752. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Miller, Nancy K. “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction.” PMLA 96.1 (1980): 36-48.

Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa. 1747-48. Ed. Angus Ross. New York: Penguin, 1985.

———. Pamela. 1740. Eds. T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel. New York: Houghton, 1971.

Rosenbaum, S. P. Edwardian Bloomsbury: The Early Literary History of the Bloomsbury Group. Vol. 2. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.

Stape, John, ed. Orlando. By Virginia Woolf. 1928. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

Stephen, Leslie. Sir Leslie Stephen's Mausoleum Book. Ed. Alan Bell. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. 1759-67. Boston: Houghton, 1965.

Trevelyan, George Macaulay. British Social History in the Nineteenth Century and After (1782-1919). 1922. London: Longmans, 1967.

———. “Clio, A Muse.” 1903, 1913. Clio, A Muse and Other Essays. New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1968. 140-76.

———. English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries. 1942. New York: Longmans, 1947.

———. The Poetry and Philosophy of George Meredith. London: Archibald Constable, 1906.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. 1957. Berkeley: U of California P, 1962.

Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. 1941. New York: Harcourt, 1969.

———. The Essays of Virginia Woolf. 3 vols. Ed. Andrew McNellie. New York: Harcourt, 1987.

———. Flush. 1933. New York: Harcourt, 1983.

———. “Friendships Gallery.” 1907. Ed. Ellen Hawkes. Twentieth Century Literature 25 (1979): 270-302.

———. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. 6 vols. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. New York: Harcourt, 1975-80.

———. “Memoirs of a Novelist.” 1909. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. New York: Harcourt, 1985, 1989. 69-79.

———. “The New Biography.” 1927. Granite and Rainbow. 1958. London: Hogarth, 1981. 154-155.

———. Night and Day. 1920. New York: Harcourt, 1948.

———. Orlando. 1928. New York: Harcourt, 1956.

———. A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897-1909. Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska. New York: Harcourt, 1990.

———. “Reminiscences.” Moments of Being. Ed. Jeanne Schulkind. New York: Harcourt, 1985. 28-59.

———. A Room of One's Own. 1929. New York: Harcourt, 1957.

———. Three Guineas. 1938. New York: Harcourt, 1966.

———. The Voyage Out. 1915. New York: Harcourt, 1948.

Anne Besnault-Levita (essay date spring 2003)

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SOURCE: Besnault-Levita, Anne. “What ‘It’ Is About: The Implicit in Virginia Woolf's Short Fictions.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 40 (spring 2003): 135-47.

[In the following essay, Besnault-Levita analyzes Woolf's use of the pronoun “it” in her short fiction and explores “the implicit theories of meaning and interpretation behind the implicit as they are put to the test by Woolf's fictional prose.”]

How does “it” mean, what is “it” about and what does “it” reveal about the ethics of Virginia Woolf's poetics of the implicit, and therefore of fiction, are the three questions I would like to raise in this paper. My starting point will be the recurring use, in many short stories, of the indefinite pronoun “it”, that haunting black mark on the white wall of the texts whose metalinguistic function challenges some of our common assumptions about the implicit as a linguistic and literary concept. In other words, I would like to examine the implicit theories of meaning and interpretation behind the implicit as they are put to the test by Woolf's fictional prose.

On first consideration, the use of the pronoun “it” in Virginia Woolf's short fictions has nothing to do with the notions of linguistic presupposition, cultural presupposition or pragmatic implicatures, nor does it seem to refer to the common definition of the implicit as what is suggested or understood without being stated directly. As a pronoun replacing a noun or referring to a clause, “it” first seems to call for our knowledge of language as a code and designates language as explicit. “Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail”, the narrator of Woolf's famous short story concludes in an anti-climactic moment deflating the reader's expectations as to the nature of that “small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece” described in the first paragraph1. In what clearly reads as an ironical punch-line, “it” first anaphorically refers to the mark before cataphorically providing us with a definition—“it was a snail”—which puts an end to the thematic and imagistic meditation that it had triggered off in the first place. The deceived reader is left with the feeling that the linguistic and literary explicitness attached to the use of “it” is frustrating. But the “judicious” reader will reject explicitness as the implicit of the text to turn to implicitness as its essential mode: realizing that the mark's definition as a snail is some kind of reading lure, he will have to build up an interpretation of this short story insisting on the unsaid—this pattern of hidden, not-yet actualized signifieds—as one of its fundamental dimensions.

Thus, he may choose to read “The Mark on the Wall” as a fictional essay promoting Woolf's art of fiction as an encounter with “life itself”2. In this case he will foreground the text's implicit meditation on the problems of representation, a meditation opposing facts to fancy (the mark is a snail, yet “it is not the actual sight or sound that matters, but the reverberations that it makes as it travels through our minds”3), comparing the Edwardian interest for “the surface with its hard separate facts” (85) with the modernist awareness that a mirror never hides “one reflection but an almost infinite number” (85), contrasting the hierarchical and even patriarchical order of what Woolf calls in this same story the “Whitaker's Table of Precedency” (86) with the infinite richness of humanity as metaphorized not by the definition of the mark as a snail but by its potentially unstable nature as a referent. In the light of modernism's acknowledged self-reflexiveness and rejection of univocal determination of meaning, the reader may also conceive the story as the expression of a syntagmatic movement taking him from the illusion of significance as transparent and stable (the mark is a snail) to the revelation of signification as a paradigmatic process implying plurality and instability: “The outward sign I see and shall see for ever; but at the meaning of it I shall only guess”4. Inspired by a more phenomenological approach of interpretation positing the impossibility of our gaining a knowledge of the world that would remain untouched by our perception of that world, he could also probably insist on the definition “it” implicitly conveys of sight as insight, of vision as an envisioning process: objects are always the incomplete objects of our subjective perception. Now a post-modernist, if not deconstructionist, interpretation of “The Mark on the Wall” would surely underline the absence of any stabilized signified attached to “it” together with the endless circulation of unstable signifiers imparting a strong sense of the unpresentable, of the absence of a “beyond-the-text” since, indeed, “No, no nothing is proved, nothing is known. […] Everything's moving, falling, slipping, vanishing …” (87-89).

Whatever the different and yet non-exclusive interpretations, the various signifieds explicitly referred to by the signifier “it”—“mark”, “object”, “hole”, “nail”, “snail”—all point to an implicit dimension of the text which no longer designates language as an explicit and stable code or the text as an easily deciphered riddle. In other words, Woolf's use of the implicit here implies a poetical order that should be opposed to the traditional grammatical order of language, but also to the rhetorical or pragmatic order of meaning and interpretation when the theoretical injunctions implied by those orders amount to what Jean-Jacques Lecercle, in Interpretation as Pragmatics, calls a “doxic” theory of interpretation and meaning5. Thus, according to what could be called the metaphysical order of traditional grammar6, one of those injunctions is that as a mode of grammatical ellipsis the implicit entails that 1) an elliptic sentence refers to a complete sentence 2) what is implied is always perceptible 3) the missing words define a negative form of utterance: they unmistakably refer to the intention of the speaking subject, although in a negative way. Indisputably, the way “it” works in Virginia Woolf's short fictions offers an implicit theory of language and meaning that challenges those three theoretical maxims. First and foremost, the implicit is not for Woolf a secundary phenomenon which does not, or should not, disrupt the transparency of language as its primary quality. As Woolf herself explains in an essay called “Craftsmanship” dealing with the art of fiction but also with language as a conversational tool, words always “mislead us”, “fool us”; they never express “one simple statement but a thousand possibilities”. The “useful meaning” of words is not, as the final line of “The Mark on the Wall” suggests, their “literal meaning”, their “surface meaning”. The proper way to use them is by relying on their “power of suggestion which is one of [their] most mysterious properties”. “Words, English words”, Woolf goes on explaining, “are full of echoes, of memories, of associations—naturally”7. Not only does Woolf suggest here that the implicit dimension of words—the natural vagueness and undecidability of language—comes first; she also reverses the usual hierarchy of traditional grammar and of traditional rhetorics and pragmatics according to which the implicit presupposes the existence of explicit semantic contents to which it refers as an origin. As the short story entitled “Solid Objects” suggests, the search for such an origin (whether it be of an object or of a word) is impossible, and this is partly why what is implied is not always perceptible and does not refer to any complete and originally intended form of utterance:

It was a lump of a glass, so thick as to be almost opaque; the smoothing of the sea had completely worn off any edge or shape, so it was impossible to say whether it had been bottle, tumbler or window-pane; it was nothing but glass; it was almost a precious stone. You had only to enclose it in a rim of gold, or pierce it with a wire, and it became a jewel; part of a necklace, or a dull green light upon a finger. Perhaps after all it was really a gem; […].


In this short story, the way “it” cataphorically fails to provide us with a definition before retrospectively referring to an impossible quest for truth—“‘What was the truth of it, John?’ asked Charles suddenly, turning and facing him. ‘What made you give it up like that all in a second?’” (106)—is exemplary and echoes our analysis of “Mark on the Wall.” But although truth (the implicit signified attached to the signifier “it” under which all the others are subsumed in this text and in Woolf's short fiction in general) is most of the time conveyed metaphorically, it cannot be approached either through traditional rhetorics when based on a definition of the rhetorical figure as transparent and “translatable”8. In this respect, Oswald Ducrot is right to argue that the conception of language as a code, and of rhetorics as a set of conventional categories always finally turning indirect meaning into explicit meaning is incompatible with the very notion of the implicit9. The resurgence of the grammatical order of language (as defined above) in such a conception of the rhetorical order of language is obvious: it implies a positivistic account of sense based on the reductive opposition between literal and figurative meaning and argues for the view that literary interpretation is a disclosure process implying closure in the first place.10

Interestingly enough, Virginia Woolf's use of the implicit challenges this view by systematically resorting to connotation at the expense of denotation, as if there could be no such thing as denoted meaning. Linguistically and literarily speaking, the mark on the wall is not a snail but a mark on a wall: just as “solid objects” are solid (i.e. clearly identifiable) in appearance only, it has no significance outside a discursive context. This is why Woolf's short fictions constantly blurr our usual perception of the line between literal meaning and figurative meaning, between denotation and connotation, between the alleged transparency of the code and the alleged opacity of literature. As Jean-Jacques Lecercle points out in an essay entitled “L'écriture féminine selon Virginia Woolf”, the “philosophy of the implicit” in “the feminine sentence” according to Woolf can be described in the terms of various theories of sense and discourse (he mentions Derrida, Lyotard and Deleuze), but whatever the mode of theorizing, the Woolfian truth cannot be characterized by a normative and straightforward use of “designation, signification and manifestation”11. Not so much because it is ultimately inaccessible or “beyond the text”, as because it always exceeds ready-coded motifs, whether narrative or semiotic. In Woolf's short fictions, what we take for an explicit signifiance always-already implies the underdetermination of language as an implicit dimension, which accounts for the way the use of the pronoun “it” follows a circular movement from the implicit to the explicit and back again to the implicit: “But was it ‘happiness’?” the narrator wonders in “Happiness” (178). “How could she express it?” the character-focalizer asks in “A Woman's College from Outside” (147). In both examples, “it” anaphorically refers to an implicit utterance which is cataphorically turned into an explicit signified—“happiness”, “life”, “the world”—before losing its explicitness through a process of metaphorization that reminds one of Gertrude Stein's conception of the use of names12:

A name is adequate or it is not. If it is adequate why go on calling it, if it is not, then calling it by its name does no good. If you feel what is inside of a thing do not call it by the name by which it is known.

“Names”, “big words” as Woolf puts it, do not seem to fit “it”: “No. The big word did not seem to fit it [Happiness], did not seem to refer to this state of being curled in rosy flakes around a bright light” (178). “Big” words frozen by canonical significations, by semantic and cultural recognitions always fail in their attempt to hide the opacity of natural language behind an illusory correspondence between signifiers and signifieds, figural meaning and literal meaning:

How could she express it—that after the dark churning of myriad ages here was light at the end of the tunnel; life; the world. Beneath her it lay—all good; all lovable. Such was her discover.


In Virginia Woolf's short fiction, light is life is the world is truth is light. The meaning hidden behind “it”, the desired epiphanic disclosure of the text, cannot but be delayed, differred and differring, Derrida would say, questioned, rendered implicit, just as the idea of a formal centre of signification releasing knowledge is itself disrupted and replaced by an infinite reserve of signifiers and therefore of “possibilities”, “echoes, memories [and] associations”:

Desiring truth, awaiting it, laboriously distilling a few words, forever desiring—(a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)—forever desiring—(the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales, children swarm)—forever desiring truth.13

To understand how “it” means and what it is about therefore requires more than a positivistic account of meaning as intention and recognition. In this respect, even the traditional (Jean-Jacques Lecercle would say “doxic”) pragmatic view of sense does not seem to “fit it”. If Woolf would surely agree that “the interpretation of a text can be treated as an extended speech act”14, it seems to me that she would reject Searle's conception of meaning as intentionality (at least, her fiction does) according to which “everything that can be meant can be said”15, just as she would challenge Oswald's Ducrot's view that implicit meaning is always added on to literal meaning which it never completely erases16: “In reading we have to allow the sunken meanings to remain sunken, suggested, not stated; lapsing and pouring into each other like reeds on the bed of a river”17. Here again, Woolf reminds us that indirect language acts based on the use of the implicit are not secundary phenomenons. In a discursive context, the implicit has to be interpreted and constructed, not simply retrieved and re-constructed. In fact, what “it” is about in Virginia Woolf's short fictions cannot be recognized or disclosed since the modes of the implicit that “it” activates require a theory of interpretation which does not imply that signification comes prior to utterance. In this respect, the way the conventional motif of the quest in some of Woolf's famous stories (“The Mark on the Wall”, “An Unwritten Novel”, “A Haunted House”, “Monday or Tuesday” or “The Lady in the Looking Glass”) may lure the reader into a hermeneutic pattern of interpretation is a remarkable example of Woolf's subversive strategy, as the quest motif appears to orientate the writing and the reading of those texts towards the disclosure of an origin that was finally never there and therefore never lost18.

“A Haunted House” is here another canonical example of the way Woolf prompts us to look at “it” as a successful, yet finally absent, centre on which the overall meaning of the story deceptively depends:

Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple. ‘Here we left it,’ she said. And he added, ‘Oh, but here too!’ ‘It's upstairs,’ she murmured, ‘And in the garden,’ he whispered. ‘Quietly,’ they said, ‘or we shall wake them.’19

The resort to cultural implicatures in the form of an intertextual allusion is the first mode of the implicit in this story whose title builds up a deceptive horizon of expectation for the “common reader”. The convention of the gothic tale invites us to embark on a syntagmatic journey taking us from sheer absence—there is no object after the verbs “to lift” and “to open”—to the loss of the referent attached to “it”—to a discovered treasure—“the treasure yours” (123)—to the metaphoric unveiling of the treasure's significance: “Waking, I cry ‘Oh, is this your buried treasure, The light in the heart.’” (123). However, the disclosure of the metaphorical meaning of the story's “lost” referent does not entail a recognition of its lost signified although it takes place in an epiphanic moment, announced in the rest of the passage by the shift from obscurity to light, from the past tense to the present tense. The metaphorical implicitness of the “revelation” rather challenges the traditional pattern of the quest by taking us back to the beginning of the short story rather than to a lost origin of utterance and meaning. What that obviously rapid hermeneutic analysis does not account for, among other things, is the passage from the pronoun “they”—“from room to room they went”—to the pronoun “I” in the last sentence of the text. Just as there cannot but be an unbridgeable gap between utterer's meaning and utterance meaning, between utterance meaning and interpretation, what “I” has discovered may not be what “they” have been looking for. What “it” is about is therefore not merely the infinite reserve of textual meaning; “it” is a blunt reminder of the uncontrollable implicit dimension of natural and literary language (Woolf never seems to consider literariness as a form of disruption of ordinary language or communication), which entails that authorial meaning is a partly irretrievable intention and that literary interpretation is necessarily a praxis, an “intervention” depending on a situation of enunciation and on the “determinate limits” imposed by any literary text20.

I would also argue that for Woolf, it is that uncontrollable implicit dimension which renders human intercourse interesting and intense, however irrational, obscure and meaningless it may sometimes appear to be:

Of all things, nothing is so strange as human intercourse, she thought, because of its changes, its extraordinary irrationality, her dislike being now nothing short of the most intense and rapturous love, but directly the word ‘love’ occurred to her, she rejected it, thinking again how obscure the mind was, with its very few words for all these astonishing perceptions, these alternations of pain and pleasure.

(“Together and Apart”, 193)

‘Yet how sad a thing is sense! How vast a renunciation it represents! Listen for a moment. Distinguish one among the voices. Now. “So cold it must seem after India. Seven years too. But habit is everything.” That's sense. That's agreement. They've fixed their eyes upon something visible to each of them. They attempt no more to look upon the little spark of light, the little purple shadow which may be fruitful land on the verge of the horizon, or only a flying gleam on the water. It's all compromise—all safety, the general intercourse of human beings. Therefore we discover nothing; we cease to explore; we cease to believe that there is anything to discover. “Nonsense” you say; meaning that I shan't see your crystal globe; and I'm half ashamed to try.’

‘Speech is an old torn net, through which the fish escape as one casts it over them. Perhaps silence is better. Let us try it. Come to the window.’

‘It's an odd thing, silence. The mind becomes like a starless night; and then a meteor slides, splendid, right across the dark and is extinct. We never give sufficient thanks for this entertainment.’

(“The Evening Party”, 99)

My own reading, or “praxis” of those two extracts thus makes me aware that silence, which within the modernist literary context, is often endowed with a symbolic power of attractiveness, should not be here opposed to conversation or dialogue, but to sense as “habit”, “agreement”, “compromise”, “safety”. What is valuable for Woolf in “human intercourse” is neither silence as an ideal form of communication (although such an “entertainment” might seem attractive at times) nor an impossible cooperative principle between speaker and hearer, author and reader, based on the non-proliferation of the implicit. I do not think that her characters grieve here for the loss of dialogic directness or for a prelapsarian linguistic world: natural languages would sink into the plenitude of fixed meaning if the implicit was not a fundamental linguistic category. No “discovery” would be possible, no “spark of light” would “slide” across the dark sky if there was no “little purple shadow which may be fruitful land on the verge of the horizon”. As a highly political discursive mode, the implicit in Virginia Woolf's short fictions is thus inseparable from the concepts of history and society, which imply the acceptance of change, obscurity and disagreement and a distrust of “fixed” and “visible” meaning; it is inseparable from the complex and ambivalent process of subjectivation that involves both speakers and hearers, authors and readers. To take up B. C. Rosenberg's words in his analysis of the Woolfian notion of “common reader”, there is a parallel between Woolf's poetics and her conception of conversation and dialogue: “dialogue, as a model for constructing knowledge, is not fluid or static, but fluid, decentered, and process-orientated. Like the common reader, dialogue is anti-authoritarian and non-didactic, unsystematic and constantly changing with each interaction […]”21. If we agree that there are ethical implications in the way literary theory articulates the problem of how, as speaking subjects, we take into account the existence of others22, then the question of the ethics of Virginia Woolf's poetics of the implicit cannot but appear to be linked with the exploration of alterity “it” stands for:

I have some restless searcher in me. Why is there not a discovery in life? Something one can lay hands on and say ‘This is it’? My depression is a harassed feeling. I'm looking: but that's not it—that's not it. What is it? And shall I die before I find it?23


  1. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf (1985), ed. Susan Dick, London: Grafton Books, 1991, 89 and 83. All references to Virginia Woolf's short fictions will refer to this edition.

  2. V. Woolf, “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” (1923), A Woman's Essays, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992, 87: “[the reader's] part is to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs Brown. You should insist that she is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself.”

  3. V. Woolf, “Impassioned Prose”, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4, 367.

  4. V. Woolf, “Sympathy”, 108.

  5. J.-J. Lecercle, Interpretation as Pragmatics, New York: St Martin's Press, 1999. In this book, to which I am much indebted, Lecercle deconstructs what he calls the “doxic” theory of interpretation and its seven maxims: Maxim no. 1: “the transparency of the text”; Maxim no. 2: “the fixity of meaning”; Maxim no. 3: “the intendedness, or intentionality of meaning”; Maxim no. 4: “the truth of interpretation”; Maxim no. 5: “interpretation as a recovery of presence”; Maxim no. 6: “interpretation as repetition” (“meaning is of the order of an event, the singularity of which it is the aim of interpretation to recapture”); Maxim no. 7: “interpretation involves textual exchange and dialogue” and this dialogue is “resolutely irenic” (43-45).

  6. In an essay entitled «Ellipse et présupposition» (Poétique (44), nov. 1980, 422-437,) Marie-Thérèse Ligot explains how the nature of language and grammatical rules was already debated in the 17th and 18th centuries, between the rationalist philosophers for whom language, as an expression of Divine Truth, had to rely on a perfect equivalence between words and meaning, and the sensualist philosophers who considered that language was historically based on men's desire to communicate, to exchange information and intentions. The sensualist philosophers (she mentions Condillac and Batteux, 425) therefore opposed the “rhetorical order of language”, which acknowledges the presence of speaking subjects in language, to the metaphysical and grammatical order of language: “Bientôt les grammairiens, qui n'avaient fait leurs règles que sur la langue faite et établie avant eux, se persuadèrent que leurs règles étaient la Nature même qui avait présidé à la formation des langues” (Batteux, Nouvel Examen du préjugé sur l'inversion, 1767, cité par M.-T Ligot, 425).

  7. V. Woolf, “Craftsmanship” (1937), The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942), San Diego, London, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1970, 198-204.

  8. G. Genette, Figures, Paris: Seuil, 1960, 209: “Toute figure est traduisible, et porte sa traduction, visible, en transparence, comme un filigrane, ou un palimpseste, sous son texte apparent.”

  9. O. Ducrot, Dire et ne pas dire: principes de sémantique linguistique, Paris: Hermann, 1991, 18-21: “la rhétorique connotative [s'appuie sur] un code connotatif qui attache directement à chaque énonciation l'ensemble des significations implicites qui nous semblait d'abord lié à elle par une démarche discursive. […] Cette rhétorique instaure un nouveau code qui finit par expliciter l'implicite.”

  10. In «La Parole hantée: épistémologie linguistique de l'ellipse» («Ellipses, blanc, silences». Actes du colloque du CICADA, 6-7-8 déc. 1990., Presses Universitaires de Pau, 1992), Gérard Dessons explores the linguistic epistemology of ellipsis as a rhetorical figure and points out this convergence of the two orders of language and meaning: “Dans [le cadre de la rhétorique de l'écart], l'ellipse suppose […] que la phrase elliptique renvoie à une phrase pleine, […] que les mots sous-entendus sont perceptibles […] que les mots manquants définissent une énonciation négative” (15).

  11. J.-J. Lecercle, “L'écriture féminine selon Virginia Woolf”, Études Britanniques Contemporaines, Octobre 1999, 26.

  12. G. Stein, “Poetry and Grammar”, in P. Meyerowitz (ed.), Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures—1909-1945 (1967), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984, 125-126.

  13. “Monday or Tuesday”, 137.

  14. J.-J. Lecercle, Interpretation as pragmatics …, 34. Lecercle's pragmatic theory of interpretation (his ALTER model) involves the five actants of situation of communication (A- speaker or author; L- language; T- text or message; E- encyclopaedia; R- hearer or reader), challenges the seven “doxic maxims” mentioned above and offers an alternative set of maxims (76-82): 1) the maxim of indirection based on the radical separation, in natural languages, between utterance meaning and utterer's meaning, a separation which renders the re-construction of authorial meaning impossible; 2) the maxim of vagueness (“natural languages have fuzzy rules and indulge in vague reference”) which has the same consequences as the previous one; 3) the maxim of recontextualisation (“meaning, far from being changeless, is recontextualized, and therefore varies, even if ever so slightly, with each new reading”); 4) the Derridean maxim of différance; 5) the Lacanian maxim of interpretance (“meaning is the product of a dialogue between two texts, the interpreted text and the interpretation that reads it, and the subjects involved, the author and the reader, are not free but assujettis in Althusserian parlance”); 6) the maxim of placing which “involves moving from the traditional concept of subject as centre (of consciousness, of control, of point of view) to a concept of subject as assujetti, captured at a place”; 7) the maxim of metalepsis according to which the text can recontextualize itself by changing its own ALTER structure; 8) the Althusserian maxim of conjuncture which notes that “there is a specific temporality of the ALTER structure, the temporality of recontextualisation, which historicises it”.

  15. J. Searle, Speech Acts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969, chap. I, section 5.

  16. O. Ducrot, Dire et ne pas dire …, 11-12: “La signification implicite apparaît et quelque fois même se donne comme surajoûtée par rapport à une autre signification”; “la signification implicite laisse toujours subsister à côté d'elle la signification littérale”. (A similar definition of the implicit can be found in Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni's L'Implicite (1986), Paris: Armand Colin, 1998, 6: “L'existence des contenus implicites présuppose unilatéralement celle des contenus explicites sur lesquels ils se greffent, et qu'éventuellement même ils détournent à leur profit.”) Oswald Ducrot's theory is here a good example of how a pragmatic approach to such notions as “the implicit” or “ellipsis” might advocate a conception of language as a “game” played everyday by its users according to their role and position (in his first chapter, Ducrot opposes Saussure's structural linguistics and his conception of language as a “code” to Benveniste's vision of language as an apprenticeship and a permanent practice in reciprocity and intersubjectivity (“un apprentissage et un exercice permanent de réciprocité et d'intersubjectivité”) while playing down the uncontrollable undecidability attached to the use of the implicit at every level of the situation of communication.

  17. V. Woolf, “Craftsmanship” …,

  18. My view of hermeneutics as an interpretative pattern may appear reductive here. It is nonetheless grounded in the German tradition as defined by Wilhem Dilthey and F. Schleiermacher who considered that hermeneutics should be in relation to the human sciences what scientific method is to the natural sciences, explanation being the mode of intelligibility of natural science while understanding is the mode of intelligibility of human science. (Besides, the term derives from Hermes, the messenger-God who is associated with the function of transmuting what is beyond human understanding into a form human intelligence can grasp.) I would also like to quote Gérard Dessons, in the above mentioned article, 19—“on trouve ici la démarche propre à l'herméneutique: comprendre, c'est retrouver un sens premier”—and Jean-Jacques Lecercle in the final pages of Pragmatics as Interpretation in which he distinguishes the hermeneutic theory of truth as “disclosure” from the hermeneutic theory of truth as “revelation” while insisting on the way the two theories account for “interpretation as translation and not as intervention” (232-237).

  19. V. Woolf, “A Haunted House”, 122.

  20. J.-J. Lecercle, Pragmatics as Interpretation …, 237.

  21. V. B. C. Rosenberg, “Woolf, Reading and Readers”, in M. Hussey, V. Neverow-Turk, (eds.), Virginia Woolf Miscellanies, New York: Pace University Press, 1992, 2.

  22. J.-J. Lecercle, R. Shusterman, L'Emprise des signes: débat sur l'expérience littéraire, Paris: Seuil, 2002, 235: “On définira l'éthique comme l'art ou la pensée de l'être ensemble.”

  23. Woolf, A Writer's Diary (1953), London: Grafton Books, 1978, 115.

Works Cited

Dessons, Gérard. «La Parole hantée: épistémologie linguistique de l'ellipse», 13-22, in «Ellipses, blanc, silences». Actes du colloque du CICADA, 6-7-8 déc. 1990. Presses Universitaires de Pau, 1992.

Ducrot, Oswald. Dire et ne pas dire: principes de sémantique structurale. Paris: Hermann, 1991.

Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Catherine. L'Implicite. Paris: Armand Colin, 1998.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. «Exprimable et inexprimé: le non-dit radical». Tropismes (6), 1983, 35-47.

———. «L'Écriture féminine selon Virginia Woolf». Études Britaniques Contemporaines. Octobre 1997, 16-29.

———. Interpretation as Pragmatics. New York: St Martin's Press, 1999.

Ligot, Marie-Thérèse. «Ellipse et présupposition». Poétique (44), Novembre 1980, 422-436.

Suhamy, Henry. «Le Dit et le non-dit: dilemmes et classification», Tropismes (6), 1983, 7-32.

Van Den Heuvel, Pierre. Parole, mot, silence: pour une poétique de l'énonciation. Paris: J. Corti, 1985.

Woolf, Virginia. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf (1985). Ed. Susan Dick. London, Grafton Books, 1992.

———. “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” (1923). A Woman's Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992, 69-87.

———. “Craftsmanship” (1937). The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942). San Diego, London, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1970, 198-204.

Leena Kore Schröder (essay date fall 2003)

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SOURCE: Schröder, Leena Kore. “Tales of Abjection and Miscegenation: Virginia Woolf's and Leonard Woolf's ‘Jewish’ Stories.” Twentieth-Century Literature 49, no. 3 (fall 2003): 298-327.

[In the following essay, Schröder explores elements of anti-Semitism in Woolf's short story “The Duchess and the Jeweller” and Leonard Woolf's “Three Jews.”]

There can be no straightforward account of attitudes toward Jewishness in the work of Virginia Woolf. This is a woman who lived happily married to a Jew and whose private references to Leonard as “my Jew” are marital jokes (Diary [The Diary of Virginia Woolf] 1: 11), yet whose diaries regularly efface the individual Jew and reduce him or her to an identity that is generalized and conceptual rather than unique. She reads a French novel, Et Cie, “by a Jew,” not by Jean-Richard Bloch (1: 134); Roger Fry's daughter Pamela marries “her Roumanian Jew,” not Micu Diamand (2: 188); it is only a “young Jewess [who] was attacked in bed at 4 last Sunday morning by a mad husband with a razor,” not Mrs. Sybil Starr (3: 268). Such labeling comes easily to Woolf, and even when names are ascribed, the Jewish tag is quickly tied on: Bruno Walter was a man whose name certainly could not easily be forgotten, but in her diary record of their meeting Woolf remembers him as “a swarthy, fattish, man. … Not at all the ‘great conductor’ … a little Slav, a little semitic” (4: 153). Other names not quite so eminent as Walter's are prone to slip her mind: whether “Hinder?” or “Hinckel?” Woolf can't remember (Dr. Rita Hinden had just left Monk's House after having tea), but in any case her guest was a “cheap hard Jewess” (5: 264-65).1

Without seeking excuses for Virginia Woolf, I want to study the complexities of her anti-Semitism first by considering the cultural and historical meanings of “the Jew” through a psychoanalytic understanding of subjectivity, then by reading her short story “The Duchess and The Jeweller” in these terms, and finally by discussing an earlier short story, “Three Jews,” by her husband Leonard.2 I am indebted in my analysis to Zygmunt Bauman's work on the “conceptual Jew” in Modernity and the Holocaust (especially chap. 2), which draws on Sartre's sense of the “viscosity” of “the Jew” in Being and Nothingness; to Mary Douglas's anthropological work on the cultural associations of “the Jew” with “sliminess” in Purity and Danger; and to Julia Kristeva's work on “abjection,” most notably in Powers of Horror. What all these writers address is the formation of boundaries: What is clean and what is unclean? What is pure and what is dangerous? What is order and what is chaos? More significantly, all of them point to the “in-between” as that which most tellingly reveals how such social and cultural boundaries are constructed and maintained. Through the sheer overdetermination of meanings ascribed to him, “the Jew” becomes a kind of in-between that defies location, a “semantically overloaded entity,” as Bauman puts it, “comprising and blending meanings which ought to be kept apart, and for this reason a natural adversary of any force concerned with drawing borderlines and keeping them watertight” (39). Bauman goes on to put his case more forcefully still: “I propose that the conceptual Jew has been historically construed as the universal ‘viscosity’ of the Western world” (40).

Such a statement corrects the familiar interpretation of “the Jew” as Other, as for example in Sander Gilman's explanation:

Anti-Semitism is central to Western culture because the rhetoric of European culture is Christianized, even in its most secular form. This made the negative image of difference of the Jew found in the Gospel into the central referent for all definitions of difference in the West.


Gilman's understanding of “the Jew” as Other operates by a strict bipolar model that disallows any sense of “viscosity” and any method that would foreground the disruption of categorization rather than the categories themselves. Such a method—operating in terms of the in-between—is practiced, for example, by Hannah Arendt in her analysis of how modern anti-Semitism responds to the fact that Jews were “a non-national element in a world of growing or existing nations” (22).3 Social and national identities do not stick to “the Jew,” for which reason Arendt argues that Jews are “non-national” or “inter-national”: they are the in-between. If we take the liberty of substituting Jew for woman in Woolf's ringing declaration in Three Guineas, then the threat of the in-between is yet clearer: “As a Jew, I have no country. As a Jew I want no country. As a Jew my country is the whole world” (313). Arendt's nonnational Jew and Woolf's woman outsider in Three Guineas are, by this argument, culturally threatening in the same way: both cut across the “clean” demarcations of self/other that regulate the various boundaries of identity, be they social, national, religious, or gendered. The threat is not that of the foreigner or the outsider as the discrete Other but rather that the foreigner and the outsider are already within, implicated in the foundations of identity. Arendt's Jew and Woolf's outsider are viscous, slimy, even polymorphous. One attracts anti-Semitism, the other misogyny.

Gilman's distancing of “the Jew” from Christianity as its “negative image,” therefore, fails to recognize the truly protean threat of the in-between, which Woolf taps into with her feminist polemic, Arendt perceives in her study of totalitarianism, and Zygmunt Bauman realizes as well:

The Jews were not just unlike any other nation; they were also unlike any other foreigners. In short, they undermined the very difference between hosts and guests, the native and the foreign. And as nationhood became the paramount basis of group self-constitution, they came to undermine the most basic of differences: the difference between “us” and “them.”

(52, Bauman's italics)

Gilman's analysis of “the Jew” as merely the “negative image” of Christianity misreads the complex interdependency of Christianity's relationship with Judaism. Jews, as Bauman observes, were simultaneously the “venerable fathers of Christendom and its hateful, execrable detractors”; they were, “so to speak, co-extensive and co-terminal with Christianity” (37). As such, Jews were implicated in the very construction of Christian identity. They are already and always within, not the negative of the Christian positive, but an aspect of that positive image itself.

An explanation that seeks to account for the operations of Western discourse in terms of a Jewish Other, as Gilman's does, also overlooks the fact that it is not necessarily the case that all the languages of the West are Christianized. Insofar as Christianity, like Judaism, is a socialized, symbolic discourse, a virtual “Law of the Father”—as, it should be remembered, is Judaism itself—it supersedes an earlier experience that psychoanalysis has addressed variously as the pre-Oedipal, the imaginary, or the semiotic. The defenses that maintain the separation of this “pre-Christian” or “pre-Jewish” self from the “Christian” or “Jewish” self are weak and keep breaking down, continually revealing the constructedness of the self to the self and reminding it of its frailty. If it is assumed, then, that the sense of individuality is formed as the infant becomes socialized and integrated into cultural organization and value systems, then the moment this process begins to develop is when the child realizes that aspects of its own being are “wrong.” As the child accepts that bodily products such as excrement and vomit are tabooed as repugnant and dirty, simultaneously it begins to form concepts of cleanliness and propriety that work toward defining the emergent sense of selfhood. Physical disgust is thus implicated in the very construction of identity, which is built upon the perilous foundations of the rejected self. Out of these spasms of revulsion Kristeva develops her theory of the abject, delineating the boundaries of selfhood in the interval between pleasure and disgust, presence and absence:

These bodily fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver.


It is precisely out of this sense of abjection that those impulses are generated which culturally drive anti-Semitism. Drawing on such analysis, I propose to read Virginia Woolf's own complex relation to Jewishness, taking into account not only her social attitudes of class and race but also matters of corporeality and psyche such as her anxieties over eating and sex.

To begin, let us set two diary entries side by side, one that records a visit from Virginia's Jewish mother-in-law, Marie Woolf, the other a visit to her intimate aristocratic friend, Vita Sackville-West. Leonard's mother figures in Virginia's diary with frequent regularity. This is a typical example, from September 1930:

Here of course, I begin to see very plainly how ugly, how nosey, how irreparably middle class they all are. Indeed, my aesthetic sense is the one that protests most obstinately—how they cheapen the house & garden—How they bring in an atmosphere of Earls Court & hotels, how impossibly out of place, & stuffy & towny & dressy & dowdy they look on the terrace, among apple trees & vegetables & flowers! But there I am pinned down, as firmly as Prometheus on his rock, to have my day, Friday 26th of September 1930, picked to pieces, & made cheap & ugly & commonplace; for the sting of it is that there is no possible escape—no escape that wont make old Mrs Woolf begin to dab her eyes & feel that she is not being welcomed—she who is so “painfully sensitive”—so found of cakes, so incapable of amusing herself, so entirely without any interest in my feelings or friends; so vampire like & vast in her demand for my entire attention & sympathy, while she sits over the fire, in her dreary furs & ugly bonnet & large boots, with her pendulous cheeks & red nose & cheap earrings, talking about Worthing every year, & will expect to come to tea with us. Lord Lord! how many daughters have been murdered by women like this! What a net of falsity they spread over life. How it rots beneath their sweetness—goes brown & soft like a bad pear!

(2: 320-21)4

Virginia's prejudices are made manifest in this account and become yet more pronounced if we compare it to her account of another visit a short while earlier, at the beginning of the month, this time to the home of Vita Sackville-West:

[Vita] was very much as usual [?]; striding, silk stockings, shirt & skirt; opulent; easy; absent; talking spaciously & serenely to the Eton tutor, an admirable young man, with straight nose & white teeth who went to bed, or to his room, early, leaving us alone. I remarked the boys calling him Sir & bending with salaams over his hand & then kissing Vita—how English—how summery & how upper class—how pleasant—how without accent. This has been going on a thousand years I felt; at least, I can remember summers like this—white flannels & tennis, mothers, & tutors & English houses & dinner with moths getting in the candles & talk of tennis tournaments & ladies asking one to tea all my life—so pleasant, so without accent … like a stream flowing deep & correct & unruffled through narrow banks. This kind of thing we now do to perfection. It is not interesting, but from its admirable completeness & sameness makes one tender towards it.

(3: 252-53)

Family rituals which in the first example are presented as suffocating and false here become “lifestyle statements” about ease and beauty; as often as Virginia remarks on the “cheapness” of the Woolfs, she admires the “Englishness” of the Nicolsons (and the straight nose of their Eton tutor). Her very insistence upon the Nicolsons' aristocratic Englishness marks off Leonard's relatives as common and foreign, just as their repeated (and supposed) “accentlessness” implies the heavily accented Jewish voice (“I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh,” Virginia had written in her diary 15 years earlier, of Leonard's sister Flora [1: 6]). All this is sufficiently clear, and Woolf's innate snobbishness has been noticed often enough. Indeed, the diary entry immediately following this account of the Nicolsons' gracious home life, for 16 September 1929, specifically sets Vita Sackville-West against Marie Woolf as the polar opposites of Virginia's social world: “I am more shattered & dissipated by an hour with Leonard's mother than by 6 hours—no, 6 days, of Vita. … The tremendous gear changing that has to take place grind's one's machinery to bits” (3: 253).

It is the demarcating line between these two attitudes, however, that is interesting, if what Vita represents is a kind of ego ideal beneath which lies the constant threat of the abject self, a threat that is made suddenly visible in the image of perishable fruit that associates Marie Woolf with the “brown & soft” pear. In this piece of rotting fruit is condensed Woolf's horror of corporeality itself—that is, nothing less than a horror of death. Thus, her nausea at the rotting pear is more the expression of her own inescapable corporeality than it is a reaction to the secondary physical characteristics of Leonard's Jewish family. Dirt and waste do not threaten from outside but rather present Woolf with her own vulnerable sense of self: a threat not of the foreign but of the foreign as already part of the self. The decomposing fruit is in this sense not so much an external object as it is that which determines identity from within, continually reminding her of what must be ejected or at best controlled in order to maintain the idea of self.

From her prolific private writing it quickly becomes apparent that Woolf's class and race opinions are almost always couched in such terms of physical revulsion. In her many diary and letter appearances, Marie Woolf becomes the conceptual Jew for Virginia, “spry as an old tramp” at age 80, representative of all Jewry who “cant die—they exist on a handful of rice and a thimble of water—their flesh dries on their bones but still they pullulate, copulate, and amass … millions of money” (Letters [The Letters of Virginia Woolf] 4: 195-96). Virginia Woolf's immediate association of sex and death with money is again revealing. Jews “cant die”; they “pullulate” and “copulate” and make money while their flesh dries corpse-like on their bones. What Woolf's associative thought process from sex to death to money reveals is the danger of that which is capable of trespassing the border: the viscous. Like sex with its emissions, penetrations, and confusions of inside and out, and like the corpse, which is both somebody and nobody, money too exists only as a function of exchange, insinuating itself indiscriminately into high and low, infiltrating the furthest reaches of legitimate and criminal transaction, infecting every social process and institution: filthy lucre. Kristeva, following Douglas, has argued that dirt and decay acquire their negative connotations only in so far as they relate to the cultural idea of a boundary whereby clean is delineated against unclean: “Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death” (71). Substances that cross this boundary are physically threatening, socially embarrassing, and culturally taboo, confusing the distinction between inside and outside that constitutes difference and structures the bounds of identity.

“The human body is always treated as an image of society and … there can be no natural way of considering the body that does not involve at the same time a social dimension,” writes Douglas in Natural Symbols. “If there is no concern to preserve social boundaries, I would not expect to find concern with bodily boundaries” (70). In this sense, the relation of body to identity becomes a kind of prototype for larger cultural experience and meanings. Therefore, whether the threat of the in-between is seen variously as a challenge from without or a transgression from within, an internal contradiction or a margin that is vulnerable, it leads from symbolic significance back to the primal boundaries between body and self. It is in this regard that “the Jew” is problematic in Woolf's work, revealing in socially specific terms how the plural and communal self that is recognizable throughout her fiction is always also subject to the experience of abjection. Thus, in a grim logic, it is the figure of the conceptual Jew in Virginia Woolf's work who embodies the abjection of the “clean and proper” self. These anxieties about abjection, which can be read through her unguarded comments on Marie Woolf, inform the very circumstances of writing “The Duchess and the Jeweller,” in which Virginia effectively found herself charged with anti-Semitism.


Virginia Woolf worked on “The Duchess and the Jeweller” intermittently throughout the 1930s and published it in Harper's Bazaar, both American and British editions, in 1938. Unusually for Woolf at this late stage of her writing career, she had trouble getting her story accepted. The New York literary agent Jacques Chambrun reported a nameless editor's objections to her overt Jewish typecasting of the story's protagonist, the jeweler:

This certainly is not for us. And what is more I am sure Mrs Woolf cannot make this a story for us. It is a psychological study of a Jew and as they have distinctive characteristics I dont think she could make it a psychological study of a Scotsman or an Irishman.

(qtd. in Lee 679)

The criticism was sharply conscious of the increasingly problematic political situation of the late thirties, and Woolf bowed to it, revising the story accordingly. The name of the world-famous jeweler of the story went through the emphatically foreign stages of Theorodoric, then Isadore, before she chose the safe anglophone anonymity of Oliver as first name and signaled his gentile status with the patronym Bacon. Other overt references to his Jewishness were erased: the detail of his pronunciation of the word bet as pet was removed; the recollection of his childhood as “a little Jew boy” was revised to “little boy”; and the “crowds of Jewesses, beautiful women, with their false pearls, with their false hair” was changed simply to “crowds” (Dick). Nevertheless, Oliver's profession casts him as a probable Jew, and the stereotype is confirmed in retained references to a London East End boyhood, Hatton Garden apprenticeship, and an unmistakable “nose, which was long and flexible, like an elephant's trunk” with a “curious quiver at the nostrils” (243). As Hermione Lee puts it, “the ‘jew’ in ‘jeweller’ was still pronounced” (679-80), but Woolf herself let as much slip in a letter to her sister: she suspects that the literary agent may yet “shuffle out of the Jew and the duchess” (Letters 6: 173). In the inverted title, the Jewish reality breaks through again. Much as the narrative tries to write out the Jew, it can't avoid foregrounding the terms of Jewishness.

In finding herself confronted with the commercial business of commission, contract, and payment, Woolf was forced to enter her narrative's own world of financial negotiation. Her sister Vanessa egged her on to drive a hard bargain and advised her to withhold the story unless “money is paid beforehand” (Letters 6: 157, 159, 191). Even the magazine in which “The Duchess and the Jeweller” appeared, Harper's Bazaar, marked a departure from the intellectual exclusiveness of her own Hogarth Press into the middle-brow commercial world of fashion and popular fiction. Leonard Woolf had himself been similarly confronted in the early twenties with propositions to write for the American market. The story that caught the attention of American literary agents in his case was “Pearls and Swine,” whose aphoristic title curiously anticipates the situation of Bacon the pearl dealer in “The Duchess and the Jeweller.” Leonard's story, recognizably similar to Conrad's Heart of Darkness in its narrative form and thematic intent, is a contemptuously critical tale of British imperial power. Set against the backdrop of pearl fishing in Ceylon as regulated and administered by the British, the story's handling of the colonial subject was deemed too brutal for the tastes of the American reader. In Downhill All the Way Leonard explicitly recalls the repeated and urgent advice that to “sugar-coat” his subject would carry great financial reward (88-90). He refused to be tempted by this opportunity, having no interest in tailoring his writing for profit, and “Pearls and Swine” remained unaltered and unpublished in the United States.5

Although this is not to suggest that Leonard's refusal is in any way morally superior to his wife's compliance (the personal and historical variables between the early twenties and late thirties are numerous and complex), nevertheless, with “The Duchess and the Jeweller” Virginia did not hold out for the high aesthetic standards of her usual self-directed publishing practice, and in terms of plot and style it does not bear the hallmark of a typical Woolfian short story. It makes one wonder what exactly she was responding to in her diary with the rhapsodic exclamation that “This morning I had a moment of the old rapture—think of it!—over copying ‘The Duchess & the Jeweller.’ … there was the old excitement, even in that little extravagant flash” (5: 107). The remark seems more fitting of literary experiments like “The Mark on the Wall” or “Kew Gardens” than of what has usually been recognized as one of her most “conventional” short stories (Hafley; Baldwin 61-62). Its sudden conclusion, which throws the tale into high dramatic and psychological relief, is a melodramatic device that Woolf disparaged when she thought she detected it in a story like Katherine Mansfield's “Bliss”: “she is content with superficial smartness; & the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the vision, however imperfect, of an interesting mind” (Diary 1: 179; Woolf is referring to the story's ending at the moment when Bertha realizes that her husband is having an affair). Certainly, it is generally true that Woolf's narratives do not turn on plot: here, however, the story pivots resoundingly on the transaction between the jeweler and his client, the Duchess of Lambourne, “daughter of a hundred Earls,” who, it appears, has been visiting him regularly to sell the family jewels in order to pay off her gambling debts (245). She is down to her last ten pearls, which the jeweler suspects to be false even as he hands over a check for £20,000 on the promise of an invitation to the Duchess's weekend house party; his weakness is that he is in love with her daughter Diana. The story ends with his suspicions confirmed. The pearls are indeed “Rotten at the centre—rotten at the core!” (247).

As untypical of Woolf as the story is, compared with her formally far more radical work, significantly it is this text that carries the most potential to surprise and offend. “You can still surprise people by telling them to read ‘The Duchess and the Jeweller,’” James Hafley wrote in 1956; “the fact that Virginia Woolf, of all people, wrote something with a ‘plot’ comes rather as a shock” (13). This almost 50-year-old observation still holds true today. Woolf continues to be read in terms of an ideological agenda that privileges “serious” against “popular” fiction, “highbrow” against “middlebrow,” intellectual creativity against commercial hackwork, aristocrat against tradesman: dichotomies that are neatly summed up by the choreographed positions she herself sets out in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Once again we are operating within the same polarity we observed in Gilman's positive/negative reading of Jewishness and Christianity. In order to move beyond this binary, we cannot simply read “The Duchess and the Jeweller” as a story that is not of the first water (like the pearls themselves). It is not so readily categorized. Something of the unease of its conditions of writing and publishing continues to unsettle it narratively as well. The story writes against sensationalism and sentimentality (showing their falsity and shallowness) even as the plot operates in these selfsame terms. If Woolf found the (melo)dramatic dénouement of Katherine Mansfield's “Bliss” “cheap,” then the conclusion of her own story both confirms and denies a similar response.

The readings of “The Duchess and the Jeweller” that I have offered thus far have all followed the same pattern of movement from the certainties of polarity and unity into the ambiguous and chiastic no-man's-land of the in-between. This pattern is repeated even in terms of its plot, which is established on the abject disturbance of “identity, system, order” (Kristeva 4), for not only has the Jewish, East End Oliver Bacon disrupted the polarities of London's commercial geography by penetrating the exclusive West End shopping district centered around Bond Street, but he also threatens to penetrate into the most intimate social demarcations in his pursuit of the aristocratic Diana. The Duchess's sale of the pearls secures his invitation to her country house, tempting him with access to political power (the prime minister will be his fellow guest) but even more desirably, with sexual access to her daughter. For all its denial of Oliver's Jewishness, therefore, the plot nevertheless enacts a miscegenation that is commercial, political, and sexual. Indeed, what is miscegenation but a facet of abjection itself? The fear of mixing—of class, of race, of belief—that is signified by miscegenation is thus at the heart of this Jewish/non-Jewish plot: a fear of the union of that which is culturally unassimilable, forever degenerating into ambiguity. In this sense, any reading of “The Duchess and the Jeweller” must remain ambiguous, viscous. The jeweler's simultaneous affirmation and repudiation of Jewishness collapses the binary into the same. The Jewish Other, with its connotations of trade and cheating, is in fact already miscegenated with the story's “clean” and “proper” self. In the end, the story enacts the seepage of one class into the other through money dealing, creating anxieties that carry through into the very conditions of the text's own production for the popular market. In its viscosity, money is itself an agent of miscegenation, keeping the world of the aristocrat and that of the Jew implicated one in the other, literally in exchange. If the jeweler as a boy partook of the common East End practice of reselling stolen dogs to their owners (“selling stolen dogs to fashionable women in Whitechapel” [242]; see also the abduction of dogs in Flush), so now it is the Duchess who sells already-sold pearls to him (“The Appleby cincture—hadn't she sold it already?” [246]). Even as he agrees to the deal, the jeweler is half-aware that he has seen these supposedly real pearls before (indeed he has), these pearls that come rolling out of her bag as if from a “slit” in a “ferret's belly” (246). The abject connotations of “filthy lucre” have already been considered in the first section of this essay. Take away a consonant, and pearl becomes pear: like the “brown & soft […] bad pear,” the pearls that pass between the Jew and the Duchess are rotten. Indeed, Woolf's choice of adjective, with its inappropriate vegetative connotations (pears can be rotten, but pearls can only be bad) gives the game away, mixing the rank world of ripening and decomposition with the symbolic world of commodity and finance.

Leonard Woolf's “Pearls and Swine” works in very similar ways. Though it concerns an ostensibly different subject, colonial power, this story also muddies the clean demarcations between self and Other, East and West. I am not suggesting a direct line of influence between Leonard's story and Virginia's, but Leonard's also casts the self/Other relationship in the suspect terms of money dealing and profiteering. Under the colonial supervision of the Ceylonese pearl fishing industry, oysters are divided up two thirds to the government, one third to the diver, and then left to rot in order to reveal whatever pearls may be in them. The riches of empire arise out of a putrid swarm of flies and maggots:

They [oysters] rot very well in that sun, and the flies come out and lay eggs in them, and maggots come out of the eggs and more flies come out of the maggots; and between them all, the maggots and the sun, the oyster's bodies disappear, leaving the pearls and a little sand at the bottom of the canoe. … But whatever it is, and whatever the reason, the result involves flies, millions of them and a smell, a stench—Lord! I can smell it now.


Against this sickening backdrop, the nature of colonial power is exposed through the abject impulses of nausea: the administrators can only fight back their retching as they try to carry out their duties in the stench of decomposition. Whatever produces nausea does so primarily because of the self's reflex horror at its own condition.6 The colonials in “Pearls and Swine” may assume superiority over the mass of “Tamils, Telegus, fat Chetties, Parsees, Bombay merchants, Sinhalese from Ceylon, the Arabs and their Negroes, Somalis probably, who used to be their slaves” (420), but their helpless vomiting collapses all such distinctions at the visceral level of physical disgust. All attempts to preserve the borders that maintain the superstructures of racial and national difference are rendered powerless by the body's spontaneous revolt at the invasion of the clean by the unclean. “Pearls and Swine” manages a subtle but devastating critique of what its narrator calls “the problem of East and West” (416); the point is that the problem lies with the West, not the East, and it is through abjection that the narrative manages its projection of discomfort onto the Western self. Leonard's story is more obviously politically inflected than Virginia's, but in their different ways both reveal how that which is repulsive to the socialized symbolic self is already a fundamental component of its identity. And wherever bodily boundaries are thus breached, we find that the social and the political are miscegenated as well.

It is important, therefore, that “The Duchess and the Jeweller” should be written so as to keep our sympathies with Oliver Bacon. In spite of playing on the swine metaphor of his name and describing him snuffling for jewels like some “hog in a pasture rich with truffles” (243), the narrative adheres strictly to the jeweler's point of view. The Duchess is the story's real criminal, bargaining with pearls she knows to be doubly false: not simply fakes, but goods which have in reality been sold already. Indeed, the shadowy Jew lurks in her background too, for the objectionable beautiful Jewesses with their “false pearls” that had to be excised from the preliminary drafts have in final copy become the Duchess herself. Moreover, we cannot help but feel sorry for the emotionally lonely jeweler who lacks a wife and is deserted even by his housemaid. Even more than our pity, however, it is abjection that qualifies the story's evident melodrama by inviting our compassion. The conclusion leaves the jeweler contemplating an uncertain future, his status and fortune in jeopardy, rubbing his hands together like a caricature Jew. Or then again, perhaps he is praying, penitent as he is in front of the picture of his mother, poignantly returning to his East End origins: “And again he was a little boy in the alley where they sold dogs on Sunday” (247). In the pause that concludes the story, it is his mother rather than Diana, the pitiless huntress, who maintains a presence in the jeweler's life, whose voice speaks directly through his memory of stealing dogs (“Oh, Oliver! When will you have sense, my son?” [242]) and whose image presides over his affairs: “‘Forgive me, oh my mother!’ he sighed, raising his hands as if he asked pardon of the old woman in the picture” (247).7 The maternal presence is infinitely stronger in the vigilant Jewish mother than in the aristocratic Duchess who dangles the prize of her daughter, reminding us that if Woolf is seeking for the tradition that “thinks back through its mothers,” as she famously proposes in A Room of One's Own, then it is emphatically affirmed by Judaism, which maintains itself through the maternal line.

Virginia's relationship with her mother has long been the starting point for much Woolf scholarship, from biographical to feminist studies. But in many ways, Woolf's real and continuing relationship with the mother was with her Jewish mother-in-law, who died at almost age 90 in 1939, less than two years before Virginia's own death. It is Marie Woolf who so often provoked Virginia's intellectual, class, and race prejudices, frequently at the most basic level of squeamish snobbery. Virginia could never quite extricate herself from the viscosity of Marie Woolf's clinging possessiveness, but the very fact that she regarded their relationship in these terms involved struggles of selfhood and identity at a far more visceral level than ever was possible with the idealized lost mother.

I do not wish to situate Julia Stephen and Marie Woolf as opposing maternal poles. On the contrary, the early absence of Julia ensured that the process of her expulsion could never be fully worked out by her daughter, and therefore the difficulties with Marie were very much a continuation of the relationship with the mother. Kristeva argues that the realm of the symbolic is never sufficiently absolute to maintain its own autonomy; such autonomy as it is able to claim is directly dependent on the abjection of the mother:

The abject confronts us … and this time within our personal archeology, with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language. It is a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling.


Julia and Marie are thus versions of the same, made all the more powerful without being defined by the “awkward” fact of her mother-in-law's Jewishness, which for Virginia came to represent, in the very construction of her prejudices, the terms of a necessary and never completed abjection of the mother. It is this struggle that is felt in the narrative and textual complexities of “The Duchess and the Jeweller.” The conceptualization of Marie Woolf as pesky Jewish mother-in-law, or Oliver Bacon as archetypal Jewish jeweler, exposes the operations of anti-Semitism, but at the same time they are both creations of an abject impulse which reveals that when Virginia Woolf writes about “the Jew,” she is always also writing about her own self.


Being Jewish was an issue in Woolf family history. Leonard's paternal grandfather had stipulated in his will that his children must marry within the Jewish faith in order to inherit. By the time Leonard married Virginia in 1912 both his grandfather and father were dead and the patriarchal edict had long since ceased to resonate through the generations. But neither was Leonard able to renounce his Jewishness altogether, for by his own account it formed his genetic code:

I have always felt in my bones and brain and heart English, and more narrowly a Londoner. … Yet my genes and chromosomes are neither Anglo-Saxon nor Ionian … my Semitic ancestors, with the days of their national greatness, such as it was, already behind them, were in Persia or Palestine. And they were already prisoners of war, displaced persons, refugees, having begun that unending pilgrimage as the world's official fugitives and scapegoats which has brought one of their descendants to live, probably die, Parish Clerk of Rodmell in the County of Sussex.

(Sowing 13)

Rather than dissociating himself from his “Semitic ancestors” through distanced and impersonal narrative, Leonard inscribes his Jewishness in fiction. Just as in his autobiography he declares his genes and chromosomes to be Semitic, so does his Jewish protagonist in The Wise Virgins (1914) assert his non-European origins in markedly physical terms: Harry Davis was “born that way twenty thousand years ago in Asia,” and is proud that “one can't be born again; once and for all one has one's father and mother in one, in every cell of one's body” (157). It is in this novel and the previous The Village in the Jungle (1913) that Roger Poole sees Leonard obsessively working out the problems of miscegenation in his own marriage to Virginia. Poole's reading is persuasive, given the contemporaneous circumstances of the Woolfs' recent marriage. The earlier novel concerns the desire of two Ceylonese lovers to marry across the caste system, while The Wise Virgins recasts the romance plot in England with a Jew and the daughter of an upper-class intellectual family: “In both novels, the plot hinges on an attempt made by a pair of lovers to cross, to dare, to brave, the doubly-reinforced taboos of caste and race: and in both novels the attempt fails” (Poole 76). Effectively, what both novels are really about is the cultural threat of miscegenation as the in-between.

Certainly, Leonard was acutely conscious of the differences between his Jewish background (which followed the popular stereotype of tailors with one grandfather and jewelers with the other) and that of the intellectually aristocratic Stephens: “I was an outsider to this class, because, although I and my father before me belonged to the professional middle class, we had only recently struggled up into it from the stratum of Jewish shopkeepers. We had no roots in it” (Beginning Again 74). More famously, Leonard's Jewishness was an issue for Virginia as well, who confessed to it in her momentous premarital letter to Leonard (“your being a Jew comes in also at this point. You seem so foreign” Letters 1: 496), and still vividly remembered her early difficulties with his perceived foreignness decades later: “How I hated marrying a Jew—how I hated their nasal voices, and their oriental jewellery, and their noses and their wattles” (Letters 4: 195).8

Five years into his marriage with Virginia, Leonard again addressed the problem of miscegenation in a narrative whose title immediately declared its Jewish subject, eliciting the facetious anti-Semitic remark of a family friend: “Three Jews—is not that rather too much of a good thing?” (Fredegond Shove, qtd. in Lee 313). The story reveals that the echo of his grandfather's pronouncement against gentile wives was still ringing in Leonard's memory, but here the Woolf patriarch's ban has been transferred to the mother. Significantly, the struggle is with the mother rather than the father. Just as in Virginia's narrative Oliver Bacon remembers his mother's words (“When will you have sense, my son?”), so is the voice of the third Jew's mother heard here, with similar nuances of expression:

I know my poor mother, God rest her soul, used to say: ‘My son,’ she said, ‘if you come to me and say you want to marry a good Jewish girl, I don't care whether she hasn't a chemise to her back, I'll welcome her—but if you marry a Christian, if she's as rich as Solomon, I've done with you—don't you ever dare to come into my house again.’


The third Jew perpetuates the maternal injunction, but for him it is now an issue of class rather than faith, and his anger is provoked by precisely the opposite case as that warned against by his mother: “I might have received his wife, even though she was a Goy. But a servant girl who washed my dishes! I couldn't do it. One must have some dignity” (11). Does establishing the Jew as socially superior to the Christian here really absolve Leonard of being read as making veiled references to Virginia's privileged Stephen background? After all, his relationship with Virginia informs the story throughout, from the level of plot to the very conditions of its production and publication.

“Three Jews,” together with Virginia's “The Mark on the Wall,” marked the launch of the Hogarth Press as a publishing house. On the title page husband and wife signaled their partnership as both publishers and writers in an undertaking that is shared and generic rather than specific to each:

L. S. WOOLF(9)

The publishing circumstances of Leonard's story thus couldn't have been more different from those of “The Duchess and the Jeweller.” Where Virginia's “Jewish” story appeared in a mass-market magazine, Leonard's was a “little press” pamphlet that was typeset, printed, bound, and distributed entirely by the Woolfs themselves. Where Virginia was required to meet the standards of an editor, Leonard had free rein to write what he pleased. However, in the historical moments of their publication—one toward the end of the First World War and the other on the brink of the Second—the two stories have in common a crucial denominator: both appeared at a time when the idea of the foreigner as enemy merged with the idea of the German, and in this ideology the figure of “the Jew” occupies a special place.

Leonard Woolf's “Three Jews” was written and published in England during World War I. Hostility to German aliens in Britain grew with each newspaper report of submarine attacks, use of poison gas, and ill treatment of prisoners. Its highest point came in May 1915 after the sinking of the Lusitania, which instigated a wave of riots and attacks on shops and businesses with German or German-sounding names. There was violence in Liverpool, Manchester, Yorkshire, Scotland, and London (primarily the East End, with its large immigrant population). Premises were ransacked and looted: in London alone almost 2,000 properties were damaged at a cost of nearly £2 million (Panayi 129). In the popular consciousness the distinction between foreignness and Germanness was clided; indeed, given the six-fold increase in Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to England in the pre-1914 decades (from 14,468 in 1880 to 82,844 in 1905), the speaking of Yiddish marked the Jew with a pronounced Germanic foreignness (Feldman 139). As John Stevenson observes,

the circle of targets widened to include Jews, Russians, Swiss and Chinese in riots which became as much anti-foreigner as anti-German. … The extension of the rioting to attacks on the shops of Jews and other non-German shopkeepers or workers illustrated a latent xenophobia which was to surface periodically after 1915.


For example, after conscription was introduced in 1916 (Leonard Woolf himself was exempted from service on medical grounds), Jews who opposed the war and were not conscripted were attacked in Leeds. This anti-Semitism was to continue throughout the interwar decades and after. By the late 1930s the distinction between German and Jew was amply clear, yet even after the Second World War, Holocaust survivors were unwelcome in Britain and were legislated against in the government's distinctly racial immigration policy.10 In the light of this history, we need to remind ourselves of Hannah Arendt's correlation of rising anti-Semitism with the growth of a politics that derived less from nationalism than from economic and ideological interests that exceeded the boundaries of the traditional nation-state. If she is right, then it is no surprise that by the time Virginia Woolf wrote “The Duchess and the Jeweller” in the late 1930s, the figure of “the Jew” was culturally no more secure than it had been during the First World War.

Leonard Woolf's “Three Jews” is remarkable in the context of this history. The story opens conventionally enough by establishing itself in time and place through a first-person narrator: it is the first day of spring in the present day (1917) in London. Yet there is something uncomfortable in the very cliché of this springtime, for the speaker seems peculiarly misplaced in the setting. From the start there is a marked restlessness in his voice and spirit, an even physical yearning to break free of London with its constricted and sooty streets, emphasized by the twice-repeated phrase “the first stirring of the blood” (4). The narrator is somehow more vigorously alive, more full-bloodedly vital, than the wan and modest London spring. He appreciates the bold primary colors of budding tulips and hyacinths “that even London could not rob” and utters an impatient “damn it” at the “delicate” sunshine and “pale blue sky” seen from his window: not for him the frail, pallid pastels of a London spring. Thus the decision to visit Kew Gardens is already by implication a compromise:

I wanted to see and smell the earth; above all I wanted the horizon. I felt that something was waiting for me beyond the houses and the chimneypots: I should find it where earth and sky meet. I didn't of course but I took the train to Kew.


By the third paragraph the narrative restricts itself to a narrow radius, circulating the same tedious words and phrases over and over again: “It was spring there, English spring with its fresh warm breath, and its pale blue sky” (we've read this before); “the quiet orderly English spring that embraced and sobered even the florid luxuriance of great flowers bursting in white cascades over strange tropical trees”; the gardens are visited by “quiet orderly English people” who are “happy in their quiet orderly English way”; the trees in the garden are similarly “quiet” as the visitors walk “slowly, quietly, taking care to keep off the edges of the grass because the notices told them to do so”; even at refreshment these people drink tea “quietly, soberly, under the gentle apple-blossom” (4-5; my emphasis). Nowhere in this extended description does the narrator explicitly signal his difference, and yet there is a perceptible tug between his vibrant longings and the placid, complacent Englishness (quiet, orderly, sober) that insistently keeps repeating itself in the visitors, the gardens, and even the weather. The narrator, therefore, writes against Englishness even as he invokes its setting, but his full foreignness is not registered until the arrival of a stranger, whom he describes in appreciative and markedly corporeal terms that are unmistakably Jewish and which immediately suggest the vibrancy and energy found wanting in Englishness:

There was a bustle and roll and energy in his walk. I noticed the thickness of his legs above the knee, the arms that hung so loosely and limply by his sides as they do with people who wear loose hanging clothes without sleeves, his dark fat face and the sensual mouth, the great curve of the upper lip and the hanging lower one. A clever face, dark and inscrutable, with its large mysterious eyes and the heavy lids which went into deep folds at the corners.


Speaking to the narrator, the man reveals a telling “slight thickness of the voice, the over-emphasis, and the little note of assertiveness in it,” and with that most phatic of opening lines on the weather, implicitly identifies the narrator as a fellow Jew: “Nothing to beat a fine English day.” What would normally constitute an innocuous remark here becomes yet another observation on Englishness, the very repetition of which puts the stranger in league with the narrator who, essentially, has been doing nothing but commenting on Englishness since the story began. The ease with which the two men take up the dialogue—as if in medias res—excludes the reader (we don't as yet know what they are talking about) and in fact constructs the reader as English. Against us, the narrator and the newcomer identify their common Jewish heritage: we are definitely the outsiders here. Henceforward, the two speak together as “we” and appeal to each other's Jewishness: “you knew me at once and I knew you. We show up, don't we, under the apple-blossom and this sky. It doesn't belong to us, do you wish it did?” With the recent emphasis on Englishness still resonating, the narrative now revolves familiarly and easily around the concerns of the Jewish community: Palestine, synagogue, Yom Kippur. At a time when foreignness, and particularly Germanness, were openly suspect, “Three Jews” signals its Jewishness with offhand references to “Schul,” by drawing attention to the Yiddish pronunciation of w as v, and by alluding to the contemporary real-life case of Mrs. Rosalie Straus, wife of the owner of Macy's department store in New York City, who had chosen to die with her husband Isidor (one of the preliminary names for Oliver Bacon) on the Titanic rather than be saved in a lifeboat. These Jewish/German inflections are all the more pronounced for the fact that in the same month that saw the publication of “Three Jews”—July 1917—the British royal family changed its surname from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor in order to avoid being stigmatized as German.

The story's foreignness picks up speed as its narrative voices succeed one another. The second Jew proceeds to introduce the third, specifying (even reveling in) precisely those same features of clothing and appearance that marked the second Jew out to the first:

You couldn't mistake him for anything but a Jew. His arms hung down from his shoulders in that curious, loose, limp way—you know it?—it makes the clothes look as if they didn't belong to the man who was wearing them. Clever cunning grey eyes, gold pince-nez, and a nose, by Jove, Sir, one of the best, one of those noses, white and shiny, which, when you look at it full face, seems almost flat on the face, but immensely broad, curving down, like a broad high-road from between the bushy eye-brows down over the lips. And side face, it was colossal; it stood out like an elephant's trunk with its florid curves and scrolls.


The repetitive characterizations layer the story's speakers into a communal Jewish identity. It is thus difficult to keep the various narrators distinct, particularly in the way that the narrative voices, all of them male, inexorably lead to the female. For all of them, the wife is the central issue. Jew Number Two has one dead wife and one living; Jew Number Three tells of the death of his wife; a fourth Jew, son of the third, marries a wrong wife, a “Goy”; even the real-life Mrs. Straus of the Titanic disaster continues the story's preoccupation with wives, whether good or bad, Jewish or Christian, living or dead. Against the obsessive repetition of the story's construction, these multiple wives show up the one noticeable absence: the only character not to specify a wife is the primary narrator, who also refrains from acknowledging his Jewishness. Indeed, only retrospectively and by inference can the first narrator be identified as being Jewish at all. Given the existence of the third Jew's errant son, it is even unclear exactly which three males the story's title embraces, as there are four Jews to choose from.

It is thus on the primary narrator's silence about his Jewishness and his wife, if any, that the story's construction of cultural and sexual identity founders. Whereas “The Duchess and the Jeweller” writes out the Jew, in “Three Jews” it is the wife that is written out. To some extent, all wives in the story are denied through absence, death, or disowning. The only “real” wife in the story is the second narrator's second one, but she too lives a curious half-life as faithful companion on his regular visits to his first wife's grave. Indeed, even in the Carrington woodcut that prefaced the first edition of the story, the absent wife is emphasized: it shows two heavy male figures (one a mourner, the other a grave digger) standing amidst Hebrew-inscribed headstones, solemnly staring into the abyss of an open grave.11 The person of the wife is consigned to the void, whether to the graves of the dead wives of the narrative's secondary Jews or to the aporia that represents the wife of its primary narrator. Interestingly, a female is present in Carrington's concluding woodcut: clearly a dishwashing servant girl like the Christian wife, this lithe and pert-breasted, apron-clad figure stands in front of a seated spectating man, turning her long neck provocatively under his evidently appreciative gaze. According to the story, the male spectator in this illustration should be the third Jew's son, but with his full beard and luxuriant head of hair he looks far more like a Jewish patriarch than a rebel. Thus we are left to wonder who exactly is spectating here.

The Jew in Carrington's first illustration, who stares so abjectly into the open grave, oddly evokes Leonard's memory of his own wedding. The brief description in his autobiography primarily recalls the fact that the “St. Pancras Register Office … looked down into a cemetery” (Beginning Again 69). Leonard's most vivid impression of his marriage is the view of the tombstones, which for him stood in place of the vows omitted in the civil ceremony:

In the ceremony before a Registrar one makes no promise “to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance”, but in the St. Pancras Office, facing the window and looking through it at the tombstones, behind the Registrar's head, one was, I suppose appropriately, reminded of the words “Till death us do part.”


In the same way that Leonard's memory metonymically turns omitted marriage vows into tombstones, so in his story does the grave stand in for the figure of the wife. These operations of metonym may be buried in personal memory, but they become suddenly visible when Carrington translates the narrative text of “Three Jews” into visual terms.

For the contemporary readership, these issues would also have resonated in the story's reference to Rosalie Straus, who willingly went to her death on the Titanic because she was a wife. She is written into the narrative only in the terms of being Jewish, a wife, and a mother:

Now look at the Titanic disaster: who was it refused to get into the boats, unless her husband went too? Who met death hand in hand with him? Eh? A Jewess! There you are. Her children rise up and call her blessed: her husband also and he praiseth her!


The narrative cannot mean this ironically. The quotation from Proverbs is but one of many citations of Old Testament scripture in the course of the story, none of which are offered critically, and as a tribute to Mrs. Straus's virtue it is supported by her own reported answer to her husband when offered a place in a lifeboat, echoing Naomi in Ruth: “Where you go, I go.” But again, this textual detail is curiously embedded in the history of Leonard's own courtship of Virginia, with whom he attended the public inquest on the sinking of the Titanic. The inquest occurred during the intense month of persuading Virginia to marry him, ten days after Leonard learned that he could not extend his absence from duties in Ceylon any longer and was thus faced with leaving the Colonial Service without certain knowledge that Virginia would accept his offer (his only reason for resignation). Moreover, the inquest took place a mere two days after Virginia's long and frank letter of 1 May 1912, in which she confessed the problem of his Jewishness and admitted her lack of sexual responsiveness (Letters 1: 496-97). It is by no means a firm acceptance of marriage, but it gave Leonard sufficient hope to risk his career. He put in his formal resignation the following day, 2 May. And on 3 May he went with Virginia to hear about the Titanic, perhaps a curious choice of outing under the circumstances, given their own emotional and sexual tensions of the moment. (It also seems curious because neither Leonard nor Virginia was particularly “voyeuristic” or so interested in public sensation that they would actively seek it out.) From that inquest Leonard carried with him the figure of the good Jewish wife who proves her loyalty with her voluntary death by drowning; Virginia, too, remembers a dead wife, but, typically, she gets it wrong.12

These tensions continued to trouble him five years later when he came to write “Three Jews.” This in itself is not surprising, but it provides a context for reading a story that, in spite of its transparent Jewishness, never openly declares its primary narrator to be a Jew; that affirms its masculinity thrice over in its narrative voice, yet cannot dispel the abject threat of the figure of the wife; and that repeatedly concerns itself with the issue of the wife, yet assigns no wife to its primary speaker. The story proclaims its terms of reference only to have those terms slide into ambiguity. Indeed, even in its setting it is not entirely on home ground, for it trespasses on Virginia Woolf's “Kew Gardens.” On the evidence of Katherine Mansfield, who read a draft of Virginia's story just one month after “Three Jews” was published, “Kew Gardens” was certainly already written in the summer of 1917 (Alpers 250-51). Leonard turns Virginia's diverse parade of Kew Gardens visitors into a promenade of Jews, but it remains her literary territory, not his; the gardens are more famously owned by Virginia, for whom “Kew Gardens” is one of the key short stories that remain the recognized prototypes of her ground-breaking modernist practice.13

Like “The Duchess and the Jeweller,” therefore, “Three Jews” is a stylistically and thematically “uncomfortable” story, whereby that which must be expelled or denied (the Jew in “Duchess,” the wife here) is still intimately part of how it produces meaning. In this sense the two stories are texts both of abjection and miscegenation, if these terms are taken together to signify the process of contamination through mixing. Abjection and miscegenation are thus social and cultural explanations of the treacherous in-between that collapses the poles that maintain the purity of identity and form. This essay has read “Three Jews” alongside “The Duchess and the Jeweller” in order to explore a complex politics of identity and selfhood that neither story can entirely resolve, either through race or gender. Each story addresses the anxieties of cultural purity in ways that are privately and publicly significant for Leonard and Virginia Woolf, singly as writers and together as husband and wife.

I declared at the beginning that I would seek no excuses for the anti-Semitism of Virginia Woolf. But I want to offer one last speculation, again based on an entry in Virginia's diary, from March 1936, when the writing of “The Duchess and the Jeweller” was already under way. In a long and detailed entry she records how a destitute young woman had fainted from hunger on the area steps of her home at 52 Tavistock Square:

I thought it was a little dressmakers apprentice come with my dress. But it was oh dear—a girl, fainting. Can I have a drop of water? She was hardly able to walk. Sat on the area steps while I got one. Then I took her in: got L.: hotted soup. But it was a horrible thing. Shed been walking all day to get work, had neuritis—cdnt sew, had had a cup of tea for breakfast, lived in one room alone in Bethnal Green. At first she cd hardly speak—“I'm hungry” she said. Gradually livened. Half dazed. Said You look like brother & sister, both have long noses. I'm a Jewess—a curious stress on the word as if a confession. So's he I said. Then she perked up a little. But my God—no one to help her, she said. Friends? Oh they only think of enjoying themselves. May I take this home? taking a bun. We gave her tongue, 2 eggs, & 5/-. Did you make this yourself—of the soup. Can you afford it—of the money. And a mere wisp—22—suffering. Never saw unhappiness, poverty so tangible. And felt its our fault. And she apologised. And what could we do. I shall stay in bed if I'm feeling bad & then go to the Labour Exchange. But I cant get any work. Think of our “class”: & this is what we exact.

Now it is raining, & I suppose … well, what's the use of thinking? As usual what was so vivid I saw it all the evening becomes stylised when I write. Some horror become visible: but in human form. And she may live 20 years … what a system.

(5: 19)

The tag of “Jew” is no longer glibly affixed: the particulars of the girl's condition are described until she herself, in the first person, is allowed to admit “I'm a Jewess.” Woolf not only records the fact of Jewishness in the girl's own voice, but also implicates her own self into this identity, firstly by acknowledging the girl's remark on the similarity between herself and Leonard, and secondly by identifying Leonard to the girl as her fellow Jew (at which she “perks up”). In thus admitting to her own resemblance to her husband (primarily through the stereotypical feature of the Jewish nose), which the girl assumes marks them as brother and sister, Virginia transforms the marriage bond into a blood tie that suggests her shared Jewishness with Leonard (and the entry does not record her contradicting this assumption, either). None of the self-distancing that is so evident in the diary descriptions of the Jewish Woolfs is present here. If anything, the entry is a personal working-out of how to write about the Jew in the first place. Virginia is fully aware of her tendency toward stereotyping (“what was so vivid … becomes stylised when I write”), and what so easily could have turned into a conceptualized description of the “wandering Jew” remains scrupulously personal to the girl by specifying her problems and conducting a conversation with her that ranges impartially from direct to indirect and free indirect speech between her own voice and that of the girl. Virginia's sensitivity to the grim reality of 1930s unemployment bears none of her typical abhorrence of the body; indeed, the fact that the girl's appalling physical condition is so succinctly and effectively conveyed is entirely due to the fact that Woolf feels it at her own corporeal level and confronts bodily needs with a frank itemization of eggs, tongue, soup, and buns that refuses the usual metaphorical extravagances of her “food writing” (of which the college dinners in A Room of One's Own are the best example). Here is Woolf writing of urban hunger and destitution as sympathetically and straightforwardly as Orwell did in such contemporaneous works as Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and A Clergyman's Daughter (1935). She does so with horror, but this is no longer the irrational, speechless horror of abjection. There is miscegenation here indeed (not only has Christian been mistaken for Jew and wife for sister, but more generally the East End has encroached upon Bloomsbury and the poverty-stricken lower class upon the educated upper-middle class), but the “horror made visible” is not embodied in the figure of the destitute Jewish girl but rather in the system that perpetrates such misery, a system of which Woolf knows herself to be a part. Tellingly, she did not register surprise when she first saw a figure on the steps, but merely assumed that it was the dressmaker's apprentice delivering her new dress. In the “hungry thirties,” however, the life of this apprentice would not have been substantially different from that of the unemployed Jewish girl. What Woolf perhaps would not have noticed, had she been visited by the dressmaker's apprentice, is suddenly called to consciousness and jolts her into the realization that for all the power that horror wields at the most primal level of the self, such horror can, and must, always be confronted at a level that is also social and political.


  1. Since this essay was written, Woolf's recently discovered notebook (1909) has been published as Carlyle's House and Other Sketches. One sketch of the seven is particularly unpleasant: “Jews,” an account of a dinner given by a Mrs. Loeb, to which the editor David Bradshaw assigns the “doubtful distinction of being Woolf's first significant anti-Semitic smear” (40). Indeed, “Jews” is a substantial addition to the anti-Semitic remarks in Woolf's diaries and letters, and in future will have to be included in any analysis that seeks to address her anti-Semitism. For my own argument it is an early example of Woolf's typically indiscriminate practice of reducing an individual to a generic Jewish identity with stereotypical features of appearance and voice. Her hostess Mrs. Loeb may be rich, but she seems to belong more appropriately “behind a counter” (14); her drawing room may be grand, but it is “florid.” Mrs. Loeb is “a fat Jewess, coarsely skinned, with drooping eyes, and tumbled hair,” who “flattered us and wheedled us, in a voice that rubbed away at the edges of all her words and had a falling cadence.” Food also becomes implicated in Woolf's cultural aversion: Mrs. Loeb forced it upon her guests, and “of course” (a telling remark), it “swam in oil and was nasty.” David Bradshaw's careful research into the identity of Mrs. Loeb and her son Sydney gives an entirely different impression of the Loeb household as a remarkably cultured establishment. Three years after this party, Sydney was to marry the youngest daughter of the conductor Hans Richter, and went on to be “one of the most consummate Wagnerians of his generation” (41) as well as an expert on Elgar and an amateur photographer whose albums of contemporary classical musicians and singers is now an invaluable archive of the period (41-44). Such information throws Woolf's prejudice into high relief.

  2. “The Duchess and the Jeweller” was first published in Harper's Bazaar (London in Apr. 1938 and New York in May 1938); the first drafts were probably started in 1932. “Three Jews” was first issued together with Virginia Woolf's “The Mark on the Wall” as Two Stories, the inaugural publication of the Hogarth Press in 1917.

  3. Arendt's book, first published in 1951, does not take its bearings from the establishment of modern Israel, nor does the second, enlarged edition published in 1958. Indeed, there is only one passing reference to Israel in the entire book. Rather, Arendt is concerned with the history and rise of twentieth-century totalitarian movements such as fascism and communism, as test cases of her more general thesis that anti-Semitism waxes in proportion to the waning of the traditional nation-state. Whenever the political map increasingly comes to be organized in terms of ideological configurations other than Virginia Woolf's and Leonard Woolf's “Jewish” Stories traditional nationalism, she argues, the “homeless” Jew becomes a particularly threatening figure.

  4. Although this lengthy description makes no explicit reference to Marie Woolf's Jewishness, familiarity with the mode in which Virginia habitually refers to her Woolf relatives throughout her diaries enables the recognition of features that she commonly associates with their Jewishness: their bourgeois tastes and “cheapness,” physical characteristics, clothes, jewelry, and perhaps most of all, the stranglehold (as she perceives it) of the Jewish matriarch over her large family. Oddly, Virginia never reads the equally (and famously) difficult relationship between Vita Sackville-West and her mother in such disdainful terms.

  5. “Pearls and Swine,” written in 1912, was published in Leonard Woolf's Stories of the East (London: Hogarth, 1921).

  6. The self-reflexive impulse is more apparent, for example, in such expressions for nausea and vomiting as the French mal au coeur (sickness of the heart), or Estonian süda on paha (my heart is bad).

  7. Interestingly, Leonard's mother Marie Woolf was the daughter of an Amsterdam diamond merchant, and her first married name (Sidney Woolf was her second husband) was Goldstucker, unmistakably Jewish and invoking the image of gold. Hermione Lee gives this information in Virginia Woolf (299), but Leonard Woolf is markedly silent on this point in his otherwise detailed and loquacious autobiography. Was the name too Jewish, compared to, for example, her much more aristocratic-sounding maiden name, de Jongh?

  8. This echoes the “pendulous cheeks & red nose & cheap earrings” that irritate Virginia so much in the previously discussed “bad pear” passage of her diary.

  9. The title page is reproduced in Leonard's Beginning Again 235.

  10. After 1945 Jewishness was still generally associated with suspect foreignness: the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, told the home secretary in 1945 that he was “anxious to avoid the concentration of large numbers of refugees from Europe, especially Jewish refugees, in the towns” (qtd. in Kushner 420-21). Government agreed with Bevin's opinion that Jews were of “inferior stock” and would not easily assimilate into English culture and identity, an attitude that, essentially, was anticipated by and inscribed into state policies already with the Aliens Act of 1905.

  11. The two Carrington woodcuts discussed here are reproduced in Spater and Parsons 98.

  12. The wife whom Virginia erroneously remembers drowning is Mrs. Stead, whose corpse she describes in her trademark imagery of underwater suspension: “ships don't sink at that depth, but remain poised half way down, and become perfectly flat, so that Mrs. Stead is now like a pancake, and her eyes like copper coins” (Letters 1: 495). Unlike Mrs. Straus, Mrs. Stead did not go down with the ship and so survived her husband.

  13. As Virginia Woolf was herself aware:

    conceive mark on the wall, K[ew]. G[ardens]. & unwritten novel taking hands & dancing in unity. What the unity shall be I have yet to discover: the theme is a blank to me; but I see immense possibilities in the form I hit upon more or less by chance 2 weeks ago.

    (Diary 1: 14)

Works Cited

Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982.

Arendt, Hannah. Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951. 2nd ed. 1958. London: Allen, 1962.

Baldwin, Dean R. Virginia Woolf: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity, 1989.

Bradshaw, David. Commentary on “Jews.” Carlyle's House and Other Sketches. Ed. David Bradshaw. London: Hesperus, 2003. 38-45.

Dick, Susan. Notes on “The Duchess and the Jeweller.” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. London: Hogarth, 1985. 301-02.

Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols. New York: Pantheon, 1970.

———. Purity and Danger. London: Ark, 1996.

Feldman, David. “Nationality and Ethnicity.” Twentieth Century Britain: Economic, Social, and Cultural Change. Ed. Paul Johnson. London: Longman, 1994. 127-148.

Gilman, Sander. The Jew's Body. London: Routledge, 1991.

Hafley, James. “On One of Virginia Woolf's Short Stories.” Modern Fiction Studies 5 (1956): 13-16.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Kushner, Tony. “Immigration and ‘Race Relations’ in Postwar British Society.” Twentieth Century Britain: Economic, Social, and Cultural Change. Ed. Paul Johnson. London: Longman, 1994. 411-426.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. London: Chatto, 1996.

Panayi, Panikos. “The Destruction of the German Communities in Britain During the First World War.” Germans in Britain Since 1500. Ed. Panikos Panayi. London: Hambledon, 1996. 113-30.

Poole, Roger. The Unknown Virginia Woolf. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. London: Methuen, 1969.

Spater, George, and Ian Parsons. A Marriage of True Minds: An Intimate Portrait of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. London: Harcourt, 1977.

Stevenson, John. British Society 1914-45. London: Penguin, 1984.

Woolf, Leonard. Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918. London: Hogarth, 1964.

———. Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939. London: Hogarth, 1967.

———. “Pearls and Swine.” Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature 1870-1918. Ed. Elleke Boehmer. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. 415-30.

———. Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1880-1904. London: Hogarth, 1961.

———. “Three Jews.” Virginia Woolf Bulletin 5 (Sept. 2000): 4-11.

———. The Wise Virgins. London: Edward Arnold, 1914.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie. 5 vols. London: Hogarth, 1977-84.

———. “The Duchess and the Jeweller.” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. London: Hogarth, 1985. 242-47.

———. “Jews.” Carlyle's House and Other Sketches. Ed. David Bradshaw. London: Hesperus, 2003. 14-15.

———. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. 6 vols. London: Hogarth, 1975-80.

———. Three Guineas. Published together with A Room of One's Own. Oxford: World's Classics, 1992.

Holly Henry (essay date 2003)

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SOURCE: Henry, Holly. “Maps, Globes, and ‘Solid Objects.’” In Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science: The Aesthetics of Astronomy, pp. 71-92. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Henry investigates the influence of Bertrand Russell's theories of material phenomena on her “Solid Objects.”]


In her short fiction experiments like “Solid Objects,” “Kew Gardens,” and “The Mark on the Wall,” Woolf explored the questions that Russell and Whitehead were working out in their own theories regarding what can be known of the material world. Ann Banfield, in a carefully researched and comprehensive study of Russell and the Cambridge debates regarding theories of knowledge of the material world, points out that along with G. E. Moore, “Russell and Whitehead define[d] the contours of philosophy as Bloomsbury understood it” (The Phantom Table 7). Russell examined the interface between humans, objects and events, and the parameters within which material phenomena might be articulated. Banfield comments, “The theory begins with an analysis of the common-sense world. Objects are reduced to ‘sense-data’ separable from sensations and observing subjects to ‘perspectives’” (The Phantom Table 1).

Alfred North Whitehead's The Concept of Nature, for instance, included a chapter, titled simply “Objects,” in which he theorized what can be known of material phenomena and events. Published in 1920, the same year Woolf published her story “Solid Objects,” Whitehead's volume argues that a scientific understanding recognizes the physical world as a network of sense data, which are effects of both the object and a percipient observer. “The constructions of science,” wrote Whitehead, “are merely expositions of the character of things perceived” (The Concept of Nature 148). However, Whitehead claimed, science could say little about “the ultimate character of reality” (The Concept of Nature 151). Phenomena must be understood as dispersed, as a multiplex of relations between an observer and a “perceptual object” in a specific “percipient event” (The Concept of Nature 155, 152). Interested in epistemological questions regarding perception and the material world, Russell also contended that material objects are better understood as the interchange between an observer, either human or instrument such as a camera, and some event at the point in space where an object exists. “It follows,” writes Russell, “that in one tiny region of physical space there is at every moment a vast multiplicity of occurrences corresponding to all the things that could be seen there by a person or recorded by an instrument” (My Philosophical Development 106). Thus, a more responsible scientific articulation of material phenomena would account for multiple perspectives of an object or event. As Banfield observes, Woolf was immersed in the Cambridge debates regarding the nature of physical phenomena and consequently developed a literary art that celebrates a multiplicity of perspectives.

Banfield meticulously traces Russell's investigations into “bridging the gap between matter and mind,” and the limits of human understanding of material phenomena, in part to an essay by Leslie Stephen titled “What is Materialism?” (The Phantom Table 38). In that essay, Stephen contends that adopting multiple perspectives can be deployed as a means to knowledge. In one example Banfield cites, Stephen recalls how “[Johannes] Kepler constructed the solar system” by imagining from various points of view the planets moving through their orbits: “he [Kepler] supplied the intermediate positions by discovering the curve which passed through all the observed positions” of the planets.1 Stephen argued that knowledge is not limited by the particular perspective space from which an event or object is observed. We can widen our understanding by “seeing in imagination what we should see through a telescope or a microscope, or should see if we moved to Sirius, or could touch a ray of light; what we should see if we could live a thousand years hence or had lived a thousand years ago; or if we could see the back of our heads as well as what lies in front of us. … We thus obtain formulae which are independent, in a sense, of our particular position” (An Agnostic's Apology 87).

Woolf's quasi-story, quasi-essay “Solid Objects” illustrates her own sense of the multiplicity of an object or an event, as well as her participation in the exchange between Russell and Whitehead regarding the multiple perspectives necessary for a more accurate articulation of material phenomena or the non-human. That Woolf responded in her fiction to Russell's work has been demonstrated by several literary scholars, including Banfield, Jaakko Hintikka, Judith Killen, and Joanne Wood.2 While these scholars have pointed up several of the interconnections between Woolf's fiction and Russell's work, what has not been fully explored is how her story “Solid Objects” traverses Russell's arguments on theories of knowledge of material phenomena.

In an insightful theorizing of Woolf's narrative strategies, Pamela Caughie contends that through her “multiform artwork” Woolf resisted adopting one narrative strategy over another in order to explore how narrative, in various configurations, shapes readers' understanding of natural phenomena, or social and political practices (Virginia Woolf & Postmodernism 49). One might argue that Woolf's use of multiple literary genres in a single text resulted from her persistent questioning of seemingly definitive articulations of phenomena. Even as The Waves develops as a “playpoem,” or Three Guineas unfolds as a hybrid of genres including fiction, documentary, news reportage, and political essay, “The Mark on the Wall” is neither simply short story nor only polemical essay (D[The Diary of Virginia Woolf]3: 203). What these texts reflect is Woolf's shared interest, particularly with Russell, in deploying multiple perspectives within a single work as a means of shaping other “possible worlds.”3


In November 1918, Virginia Woolf began sketching a bizarre little story about objects and human perception. She titled it simply “Solid Objects.” The story opens with the narrator's observation of a “small black dot” moving along the shore of a distant beach. That dot, the narrator notes, “possessed four legs; and moment by moment it became more unmistakable that it was composed of the persons of two young men” (“Solid Objects,” HH [A Haunted House and Other Stories] 79). The men happen to be engaged in a vehement political argument, evidenced by the violence of the discussion “issuing from the tiny mouths of the little round heads” (HH 79). “[N]othing,” the narrator comments, “was so solid, so living, so hard, red, hirsute and virile as these two bodies for miles and miles of sea and sandhill” (HH 79).

Despite the strange re-scaling of humans to the size of a dot, and the telescoping effect from which the reader sees the humans as little more than “tiny mouths,” the story maintains a simple plot. The younger of the two men is a promising politician, who becomes obsessed with objects. As the men pause in political debate, the young man sticks his hand into the sand and his fingers close around “a full drop of solid matter” (HH 80). “It was a lump of glass so thick as to be almost opaque; the smoothing of the sea had completely worn off any edge or shape, so that it was impossible to say whether it had been bottle, tumbler, or window-pane …” (HH 80). The young man gazes through the glass, holds it against his body and alternatively “against the sky” (HH 81). Marveling that the glass is “so hard, so concentrated, so definite an object” (HH 81), he takes the object home and places it on his mantle.

In time, similar peculiar and seemingly worthless objects attract the young man's attention. He takes to rummaging among alleys and junk heaps, where he finds a discarded “piece of china … resembling a starfish,” “broken accidentally, into five irregular but unmistakable points” (HH 83). “The colouring,” the narrator notes, “was mainly blue …” (HH 83). In another instance, the young man uncovers a remarkable star-shaped piece of iron, so “massy and globular, but so cold and heavy, so black and metallic, that it was evidently alien to the earth and had its origin in one of the dead stars or was itself the cinder of a moon” (HH 84). This strange and foreign chunk of dead star, or moon cinder, is placed on the mantle next to the other collected objects. “[I]t weighted the mantelpiece down,” we are told, “it radiated cold” (HH 84). Ultimately, the young man becomes so obsessed with his objects that his promising political career is smashed.

Dean Baldwin locates the genesis of “Solid Objects” in a July 1918 visit by Woolf to the studio of the artist Mark Gertler, a painter whom the Woolfs met at Ottoline Morrell's Garsington salon, and who had been Virginia and Leonard's guest on several occasions that year.4 Woolf commented on that visit:

I was taken to Gertler's studio & shown his solid ‘unrelenting’ teapot. … Form obsesses him. He sees a lamp as an imminent dominant overwhelming mass of matter. Ever since he was a child the solidity & the shapes of objects have tortured him. I advised him, for arts sake, to keep sane; to grasp, & not exaggerate, & put sheets of glass between him & his matter. This, so he said, is now his private wish.

(D1: 175-6)

Woolf's curious recommendation regarding the “sheets of glass” may have stemmed from her familiarity with Russell, who used an analogy of looking at an object through blue glass, or blue spectacles, to pose a series of arguments on the multiplicity of the appearances of an object and its physical materiality. “We can shut one eye, or put on blue spectacles, or look through a microscope. All these operations, in various ways, alter [an object's] visual appearance,” Russell argued (Our Knowledge of the External World 85).5 More importantly, at least for Woolf, Russell had conjured forth the blue spectacles analogy to explore the question of how objects might be understood as the interchange between material phenomena and the multiple perspectives of subjective experience.6 Woolf perhaps had in mind to suggest that Gertler's obsession with form could be managed and converted into art through the altering vision he might obtain by allowing himself alternative perspectives.

In December 1921 Woolf recorded in her diary an engaging exchange with Russell, which possibly took place at Garsington: “So Bertie Russell was attentive, & we struck out like swimmers who knew their waters” (D2: 146).7 She admired Russell for his sharp intellect. His was a “mind on springs,” she wrote, so she “got as much out of him as [she] could carry” (D2: 147). They found easy agreement on the superfluity of social gatherings like those at Garsington. “‘All of this is mush[,]’” Woolf recalled telling Russell, “‘& you can put a telescope to your eye & see through it’” (D2: 147). He responded, “‘If you had my brain you would find the world a very thin, colourless place’” (D2: 147). Their conversation, Woolf noted, ranged from the literature of Milton to Russell's notion that mathematics “is the most exalted form of art” (D2: 147).

Woolf also knew of Russell's work through the literary journal, the Athenaeum,8 in which Russell published essays, and through her added associations with the 1917 Club, a gathering of liberal Cambridge scientists and literary types.9 Virginia frequented the club, which Leonard Woolf helped found and which was located at 4 Gerrard Street. In January 1918, Woolf wrote to her sister, “The centre of life I should say; is now undoubtedly the 17 Club” (L[The Letters of Virginia Woolf]2: 210).10 There she and Lytton Strachey mingled with Russell, Cambridge physicist J. D. Bernal, social biologist Lancelot Hogben, and classical archaeologist Jane Harrison (Hussey, A to Z 192). Hogben, whom Woolf described as a “youth of genius,” wrote popular science books and later published Mathematics for the Million (1936) (L2: 298 and n. 1). Fredegond Shove, daughter of Woolf's first cousin, as well as Alix Strachey, a psychoanalyst and translator of Freud, and Melanie Klein were also members.

By May 1919, the year Woolf began drafting “Solid Objects,” Russell's public lectures had become the rage among 1917 Club members. She reported in her diary that “the touchstone of virtue” among club members, including Lytton, Alix, and James Strachey, “is whether you attend Bertie's lectures or not” (D1: 273). The lectures, a series of eight public talks titled ‘The Analysis of Mind’ were held in Bloomsbury “on Tuesdays in May and June” (D1: 270, n. 4), and covered topics such as perception, sensation and mental phenomena.11 Despite Woolf's claims that she “preferred the songsters of Trafalgar Square” to Russell's talks, she nevertheless had a considerable understanding of, and apparent respect for, Russell's philosophical investigations (D1: 270).

Joanne Wood, who has identified elements of Russell's work in Woolf's texts, points out that for Russell “the fundamental reality, in and out of the brain, consists of ‘events,’ neutral with respect to the physical or the mental.”12 In Our Knowledge of the External World (1914), for instance, Russell asserted:

What occurs when I see a star occurs as the result of light-waves impinging on the retina, and causing a process in the optic nerve and brain; therefore the occurrence called “seeing a star” must be in the brain. If we define a piece of matter as a set of events … the sensation of seeing a star will be one of the events which are the brain of the percipient at the time of perception. … [F]rom the physical point of view, whatever I see is inside my head. I do not see physical objects; I see effects which they produce in the region where my brain is.


Elsewhere, Russell explained, “[P]erception gives us the most concrete knowledge we possess as to the stuff of the physical world, but what we perceive is part of the stuff of our brains, not part of the stuff of tables and chairs, sun, moon, and stars” (An Outline of Philosophy 292).

In “Solid Objects,” Woolf explored the implications of Russell's investigations. Regarding those pieces of blue-tinted glass and moon-like rock, the narrator of the story notes, “Looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain when we least expect it” (“Solid Objects,” HH 82). The narrator's “stuff of thought” evokes Russell's comments regarding the “stuff of our brains,” even as the star-shaped objects of Woolf's story are suggestive of Russell's many analogies gleaned from astronomy.

Russell frequently formulated his epistemological investigations of the material world on examples drawn from astronomical phenomena. He persistently evoked images of stars and starlight, planets, the sun, eclipses, even planetariums to stage his arguments. This is true for early publications such as Our Knowledge of the External World (1914) and The Analysis of Mind (1921), as well as later works such as An Outline of Philosophy (1927), and My Philosophical Development (1959). Russell, like Woolf, was clearly fascinated by astronomy and cosmological phenomena. He commented on his uncle Rollo Russell, who lived in Bertrand's childhood home, and whose conversations with Bertrand “did a great deal to stimulate [his] scientific interests” (The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell 1: 21). The Honorable Rollo Russell “was a meteorologist, and did valuable investigations of the effects of the Krakatoa eruption of 1883, which produced in England strange sunsets and even a blue moon” (Autobiography 1: 21).13 At a very young age, Bertrand knew something of the planets. He noted that at about age five or six, he would wake early in the morning to watch Venus rise: “On one occasion I mistook the planet for a lantern in the wood” (Autobiography 1: 30). “The world of astronomy,” Russell once observed, “dominates my imagination and I am very conscious of the minuteness of our planet in comparison with the systems of galaxies” (My Philosophical Development 130).14 This fascination with the stellar universe would be productive for Russell's philosophical inquiries into the nature and multiplicity of physical phenomena.

To make his point, for instance, that sense-datum do not reveal qualities intrinsic to an object, Russell recreates the scene of an observer looking at “stars” in a planetarium:

The world of astronomy, from the point of view of sight, is a surface. If you were put in a dark room with little holes cut in the ceiling in the pattern of the stars letting light come through, there would be nothing in your immediate visual data to show that you were not ‘seeing the stars’. This illustrates what I mean by saying that what you see is not ‘out there’ in the sense of physics. … What you see when you see a star is just as internal as what you feel when you feel a headache.

(An Outline of Philosophy 145)

In one humorous example used to illustrate how knowledge is premised largely on subjective experience, and not objective data, Russell recounted the occasion of explaining to his son the size of the planet Jupiter:

When my boy was three years old, I showed him Jupiter, and told him that Jupiter was larger than the earth. He insisted that I must be speaking of some other Jupiter, because, as he patiently explained, the one he was seeing was obviously quite small. After some efforts, I had to give it up and leave him unconvinced.

(An Outline of Philosophy 136)

Thus, Russell contended, both the percipient observer and the event comprise knowledge of an object. According to Russell, an object might be understood as an “entire system of [its] appearances” and the location of a percipient observer.15 “There is,” Russell argued, “no reason to single out one percipient [be it human or photographic camera] as seeing the thing as it is. We cannot, therefore, suppose that the physical thing is what anybody sees” (My Philosophical Development 103).

With postmodern insight, Russell asserted that cameras and photographic plates could be just as reliable percipient observers as humans since “[s]ensitivity is not confined to living things” (An Outline of Philosophy 62). In support of this he noted, “A photographic plate is sensitive to light, a barometer is sensitive to pressure, a thermometer to temperature, a galvanometer to electric current, and so on” (An Outline of Philosophy 62). In order to demonstrate that material objects might be understood as events occurring at multiple sites, Russell later deployed a fascinating analogy in which he theorized what cameras, located in the depths of space, might “observe” of a star. “Any star can be photographed at any place from which it would be visible if a human eye were there. It follows that, at the place where a photographic plate is put, things are happening which are connected with all the different stars that can be photographed there” (My Philosophical Development 106). Should it be possible to set up an array of cameras in space, each photograph would capture a different image of a star from a specific point of view, and the phenomena those cameras recorded would be different from what the human or camera eye perceives from the surface of the earth. Or as Joanne Wood observed, “[W]hat we ordinarily think of as one object—in this case a star—is in fact a manifold of innumerable events which are related to and constitute that the star.”16 A scientifically responsible depiction of any given star would have to account for the multiple perspectives from which that star could be photographed.

Woolf too had probed the difficult questions regarding the limits of human knowledge and suggested like Russell that phenomena must be understood only in their multiplicities and not from a single perspective. Especially in “The Mark on the Wall,” written three years before “Solid Objects,” Woolf called into question a notion which Russell too resisted: that human knowledge is of “cosmic importance” and “that mind has some kind of supremacy over the non-mental universe” (My Philosophical Development 16).17 In her quasi-story, quasi-essay, the narrator sees a mark on a wall, and initially perceives it to be a nail. “I cannot be sure,” the narrator says of the mark, “but it seems to cast a perceptible shadow, suggesting that if I ran my finger down that strip of the wall it would, at a certain point, mount, and descend a small tumulus, a smooth tumulus like those barrows on the South Downs which are they say, either tombs or camps” (“The Mark on the Wall,” HH 42).

That perceptible shadow launches the narrator into a contemplation of what the barrows on the South Downs might contain, and of the scientific uncertainty concerning them. The contents of those barrows, so carefully framed and on display “in the case at the local museum,” only demonstrate, the narrator states, that “nothing is proved, nothing is known” (HH 43). The passage recalls Woolf's delight in the inability of historians or scientists to definitively determine the origin or purpose of Stonehenge. “[B]ut the thing that remains in ones mind, whatever one does,” wrote Woolf of those monoliths, “is the stupendous mystery of it all” (PA [A Passionate Apprentice] 200). Likewise, the narrator of “The Mark on the Wall” queries: “And what is knowledge? What are our learned men save the descendants of witches and hermits who crouched in caves and in woods brewing herbs, interrogating shrew-mice and writing down the language of the stars” (HH 43). As the story suggests, Woolf preferred more provisional articulations of her world, which she effected through multiple genres and perspectives within a single text.


  1. Leslie Stephen, An Agnostic's Apology 87; Ann Banfield, The Phantom Table 312.

  2. Ann Banfield's The Phantom Table (2000) is by far the most comprehensive study of Woolf's work in relation to that of Bertrand Russell. See also Jaakko Hintikka, “Virginia Woolf and Our Knowledge of the External World,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 31.1 (Fall 1979): 5-14 and Joanne Wood, “Lighthouse Bodies: The Neutral Monism of Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell,” Journal of the History of Ideas 55.3 (July 1994): 483-502. Killen in “Virginia Woolf in the Light of Modern Physics” comments on Woolf's conversations with Russell and the scientific debates driven by advances in atomic physics.

  3. I borrow this phrase from J. B. S. Haldane's essay “Possible Worlds,” which is discussed in the pages that follow. According to Russell, the phrase, which also happened to be a favorite phrase of Edwin Hubble's, was drawn from the work of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World 190).

  4. Gertler's work was revered by Vanessa Bell, as well as art critic Roger Fry and artist Duncan Grant (Hussey, Virginia Woolf A to Z 101).

  5. James Jeans also apparently referred to Russell's blue spectacles to make the point that mathematics provides one means by which cosmologists can create models of the physical universe. …

  6. Russell contended that mental phenomena, or the various appearances of an object, are just as real as physical phenomena: “It is supposed that the table (for example) causes our sense-data of sight and touch, but must, since these are altered by the point of view and the intervening medium [the blue spectacles] be quite different from the sense-data to which it gives rise … The first thing to realise is that there are no such things as ‘illusions of sense.’ Objects of sense, even when they occur in dreams, are the most indubitably real objects known to us” (Our Knowledge of the External World 92-3). Interestingly, Vita Sackville-West dedicated to Woolf her novella Seducers in Ecuador (1924), in which the protagonist, Lomax, finds the world radically transformed by the colored spectacles he wears. From the story's beginning, Lomax takes up the tourist's habit of wearing colored glasses. “He already had his blue pair, bought in London; in Cairo he bought an amber pair, and a green, and a black. … [B]ut soon it ceased to be an amusement and became an obsession—a vice” (Sackville-West 14). The colored glasses change Lomax's view of reality. However, there is a point of convergence between Seducers in Ecuador and “Solid Objects” (which does not include blue spectacles) and has to do with where the obsession is located, either in the perception itself as with Lomax, or in the object as with the young man of Woolf's story.

  7. While this diary entry for 3 December 1921 does not mention where Woolf had conversed with Russell, she wrote to Vanessa on Nov. 13, “We've been asked to Garsington” (L2: 493).

  8. See Chapter One on Woolf's association with the journal the Athenaeum. “Solid Objects,” for instance, was published in the Athenaeum in 1920. Judith Killen comments on Woolf's exchanges with Russell (“Virginia Woolf in the Light of Modern Physics” 36-7).

  9. Mark Hussey characterized the 1917 Club as a group of “leftist intellectuals, artists and politicians” (Virginia Woolf A to Z 191). I am grateful to Judith Killen for pointing out to me the existence of the 1917 Club and Virginia and Leonard's association with it.

  10. Woolf spent so much time at the club that she could write to Vanessa at length about scandal among its members (See L2: 209-13).

  11. The lectures were collected into a volume and published under the same title in 1921.

  12. Joanne Wood, “Lighthouse Bodies: The Neutral Monism of Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell,” Journal of the History of Ideas 55.3 (July 1994): 492.

  13. In August 1883, the Krakatau volcano, located near the islands of Sumatra and Java, erupted. The blast produced huge tsunamis, the waves of which reached 140 feet above sea level and caused more than 34,000 fatalities.

  14. Russell further noted, “I have always ardently desired to find some justification for the emotions inspired by certain things that seemed to stand outside human life and to deserve feelings of awe … the starry heavens … the vastness of the scientific universe …” (My Philosophical Development 262).

  15. “Lighthouse Bodies: The Neutral Monism of Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell,” 490.

  16. Joanne Wood, “Lighthouse Bodies: The Neutral Monism of Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell” 492.

  17. Regarding the fallacy of the importance of human knowledge, Russell commented “that the great processes of nebular and stellar evolution proceed according to laws in which mind plays no part” (My Philosophical Development 16). Russell's considerations of the problems of mind versus matter span his writing career and of course changed over time. While this text by Russell was not published in Woolf's lifetime, his commentary reflects Woolf's similar sentiments in “The Mark on the Wall.”


Banfield, Ann. The Phantom Table: Woolf, Fry, Russell and the Epistemology of Modernism. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Caughie, Pamela. Virginia Woolf & Postmodernism: Literature in Quest & Question of Itself. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Haldane, J. B. S. Possible Worlds and Other Essays. London: Chatto & Windus, 1928.

Hintikka, Jaakko. “Virginia Woolf and Our Knowledge of the External World.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 31.1 (Fall 1979): 5-14.

Hussey, Mark. Virginia Woolf A to Z: A Comprehensive Reference for Students, Teachers, and Common Readers to Her Life, Work, and Critical Reception. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Killen, Judith. “Virginia Woolf in the Light of Modern Physics.” Dissertation. University of Louisville, November 1984.

Russell, Bertrand. Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy. London: Open Court Publishing, 1914.

———. The Analysis of Mind. 1921. London: George Allen & Unwin.

———. An Outline of Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin.

———. My Philosophical Development. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.

———. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. Vols. 1-2. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967, 1968.

Sackville-West, Vita. Seducers in Ecuador. London: The Hogarth Press, 1924.

Stephen, Leslie. An Agnostic's Apology, and Other Essays. London: Watts, 1937.

Whitehead, Alfred North. The Concept of Nature. Tarner Lectures Delivered in Trinity College November 1919. Cambridge University Press, 1920.

Wood, Joanne A. “Lighthouse Bodies: The Neutral Monism of Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell.” Journal of the History of Ideas 55.3 (July 1994): 483-502.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. I-V Ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew MeNeillie. New York: Harcourt, 1980-4.

———. A Haunted House and Other Short Stories. New York: Harcourt, 1949.

———. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Vols. I-VI Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. New York and London: Harcourt, 1978-80.

———. A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1879-1909. Ed. Mitchell Leaska. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

Heather Levy (essay date spring 2004)

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SOURCE: Levy, Heather. “‘These Ghost Figures of Distorted Passion’: Becoming Privy to Working-Class Desire in ‘The Watering Place’ and ‘The Ladies Lavatory.’” Modern Fiction Studies 50, no. 1 (spring 2004): 31-57.

[In the following essay, Levy argues that “The Watering Place,” “The Ladies Lavatory,” and “The Cook” reveal Woolf's exploration of the “fricative interrelationships between class, lesbian desire, and the occupation of public and private space.”]

The bodies and minds of working-class women are elided in most of Virginia Woolf's earliest shorter fiction and then only partially or unflatteringly staged in most of her middle and final shorter fiction. Only in rare moments of resistance in the unpublished A13d version of “The Cook,” in “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” in “The New Dress,” and in “The Shooting Party” do they manage stirring moments of strategic resistance or at least a partial articulation of their ideas and desires, rather than recalcitrant episodes of reported speech. Yet Virginia Woolf was interested in both the bodies and minds of working-class women. This interest boils over into prurient absorption in one of her many appraisals of the character of her cook, Nelly Boxall:

Of course, one is right about Nelly—right that she is, in bad moods almost insufferably mean, selfish & spiteful; but—& this is an interesting psychological remark, she is in a state of nature; untrained, uneducated, to me almost incredibly without the power of analysis or logic; so that one sees a human mind wriggling undressed—which is interesting; & then, in the midst of one's horror at the loathsome spectacle, one is surprised by the goodness of human nature, undressed; & it is more impressive because of its undress.

(Woolf, Diary 241)

In this passage, Woolf anatomizes all of Boxall's perceived psychological flaws, and rather than just continuing the unflattering description, she switches gears. Suddenly Nelly begins to resemble Rousseau's Noble Savage: “she is in a state of nature.” Despite the fact that Woolf prefaced this observation with the remark that, even though she was a writer, she lacked “narrative power,” she points out to her future readers that her observation about Nelly is “an interesting psychological remark” (qtd. in Bell 241). Woolf used her diaries and letters to exercise the range of her feelings for nearly everyone she was interested in, cared for, or temporarily despised. Arguably, she was egalitarian in her flashes of disappointment and judgment. Even her most beloved women, including the privileged Vanessa Bell, Octavia Wilberforce, and Vita Sackville-West sometimes met with hostile mockery. However, like the economically disenfranchised Nelly Boxall, they never seemed to be dismissed outright from her affections or concern. Boxall and Woolf frayed each other's nerves for several years but in spite of Woolf's assessment of Boxall as “mean, selfish and spiteful,” Woolf did ride with her in the ambulance when she suffered from kidney stones. Correspondingly, Boxall wrote an affectionate and compassionate letter to Leonard Woolf after Virginia Woolf's suicide and signed it along with her companion Lottie Hope, who also fondly remembered sharing Boxall's bed under Virginia's roof from 1916-1924. Woolf's demonstrations of frank and periodically brutal characterizations in her diaries and letters of various classes of people sometimes became demonstrations of narrative power in her shorter fiction. It may initially appear that Woolf is trivializing Boxall as an “interesting psychological remark.” However, a careful examination of Woolf's later short stories, including “The Watering Place,” “The Ladies Lavatory,” and both versions of “The Cook,” reveal a Woolf who was carefully working through her narrative responsibilities and the fricative interrelationships between class, lesbian desire, and the occupation of public and private space.

Although Virginia Woolf did not publish any of her short fictional exercises of representing cooks or lavatory attendants, she did diligently revise them. Susan Dick notes that “Woolf cared enough about ‘The Cook’ to revise it several times” and that this effort was an “expression of her growing sense, in the nineteen-thirties, of the importance of the unrecorded lives of domestic servants” (123). Initially, perhaps these revisions look like hesitation or a lack of confidence in the accuracy of her representations. However, Woolf's observations about Nelly Boxall do not reveal hesitation. Woolf is confidently advancing a social theory based on her perceptions of Boxall's character. This authoritative tone can also be found in her 1930 essay “Street Haunting,” where the narrator confidently reassures the presumed middle-class reader:

Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can briefly put on for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath the brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?

(Essays [The Essays of Virginia Woolf] 165)

Here, once again, Woolf links the body of the working-class woman with red in tooth and claw Nature. The working-class woman can be pursued and apprehended if the upper-middle-class searcher is willing to leave the straight lines of personality. The reader may also be reminded of the lower-middle-class lesbian dramatist, Miss La Trobe, who spends most of the actual pageant in Between the Acts crouching in the brambles and bushes. “Street Haunting,” like Between the Acts, stresses the performative aspect of pursuing the working-class woman whose body and mind can be “briefly put on for a few minutes” (Woolf, “Street Haunting” 165). The convenience and versatility of this “exercise” is stressed. The journey can be accomplished in “only a few minutes” (165) compared to the week that Castalia in “A Society” spent “disguised as a charwoman” (Woolf, “A Society” 127).1

This essay examines Woolf's reoccurring trope of using nature to mark economic and sexual otherness in her final short stories, “The Watering Place” and the previously unpublished “The Ladies Lavatory.” Can we agree with Harold Nicolson that Virginia Woolf (despite her vociferous rhetoric in Three Guineas and A Room of One's Own) was not really interested in social equality? That she was really just playing a lukewarm game of snakes and ladders, where the servants are the quarrelsome, greedy snakes and the masters are the fatigued ladders? Or should we agree with Marder, Bowlby, Squier et al. that Woolf oscillated on many political paradigms in dangerously difficult times? Andreé Pages spatially locates this struggle as an agonized procession: “authors leave the footprints of their lives and their demons all over their work. The connections between Woolf's work and her life are not unhappy coincidences. When a person is doing ‘deep work,’ the concerns s/he grapples with, as well as those s/he is trying to avoid, are everywhere evident” (66).

On Wednesday, February 26, 1941, thirty-two days before Virginia Woolf committed suicide, she observed in her diary:

There is no echo in Rodmell—only waste air. I spent the afternoon at the school, marbling paper. Mrs. D. discontented. & said, Theres no life in these children, comparing them to Londoners, thus repeating my own comment upon that long languid meeting at Chavasses. No life: & so they cling to us. This is my conclusion. We pay the penalty for our rung in society by infernal boredom.

(Diary 357)

Her disapprobation for the children of the Rodmell villagers is raised half an octave to a full-throttled resentment of lower-middle-class women in the same entry that opens with a description of her visit to the Sussex Grill in Brighton: “They were powdering & painting, these common little tarts, while I sat behind a thin door, p—g as quietly as I could.” Woolf categorically decides that “Brighton is a love corner for slugs.” In the middle of this misanthropy, Virginia Woolf remarks, “People daily. And rather a churn in my mind. And some blank spaces. Food becomes an obsession.” This was one of her last visits to Brighton, and Woolf seems to have spent most of it secretly observing lower-middle-class diners at the Sussex Grill and middle-class “fat, smart” women at Fuller's. Everyone appears to be eating, except Woolf, who notes in a self-castigatory way that she “grudges giving away a spice bun.” In a Doris Kilman-like way, she observes the “fat, smart” woman who is “consuming rich cakes. Her shabby dependent also stuffing. Hudson's van unloading biscuits opposite. The fat woman had a louche large white muffin face, t'other was slightly grilled. They ate and ate.” Woolf has just come from the grill and is now observing diners relishing their desserts. She sees them as hoarders: “Something scented, shoddy, parasitic about them. Then they totted up cakes. And passed the time o' day with the waitress, where does the money come to feed these fat white slugs” (Diary 357).

Here the features, clothing, and body of the waitress are not described, and in contrast to the conversations of the lower-middle-class women that Woolf diligently reports, none of the waitress's conversation is recorded. There isn't even a passage of reported speech, which is common in Woolf's usual portrayal of working-class women. We know that the “muffin faced” woman is wearing a “red hunting cap, pearls, check shirt,” but we do not even know the color of the waitress's uniform (Diary 357). And the waitress does not appear to be working either. Instead, she appears to only be chatting with the customers. This is consistent with Woolf's leisurely portrayal of maids, waitresses, and servants in “Phyllis and Rosamond” (1906), “The String Quartet” (1921), “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” (1923), “The Evening Party” (1925), and “Kew Gardens” (1927). The only sign of industry or real work in this diary entry is her observation of the man who is unloading a van filled with biscuits immediately across from Fuller's. His labor seems faintly detestable to the observing Woolf since technology is helping to furnish a smooth supply of baked goods for the already engorged diners. The “fat, smart” women in the narrator's eyes seem to become shabbier or more “shoddy and parasitic” through their long conversations with the nameless waitress.

A week later, almost like Castalia, Virginia returns for another round of investigations. The anthropological tone of the excursion dovetails nicely with Anne Olivier Bell's footnote that Leonard was lecturing to the WEA on “Common Sense in History” (Woolf, Diary 357). This time Virginia Woolf chooses a teashop and marvels at “a pretty hat in a teashop—how fashion revives the eye!” (357). Here she is not “undercover” formulating her scathing social observations behind the thin bathroom door, but is instead openly enjoying the first spring day. She almost seems to position herself as a tourist “in a foreign town.” And this time the customers are not “parasitic” or overindulged. Her previous contempt is leavened with pity: “And the shell encrusted old women, rouged, cad[a]verous at the tea shop. The waitress in checked cotton” (357). This time she has noticed a detail about the working woman's clothing. The diners seem be at the end of their cycle of relentless consumption; their greed has fatally hardened them, in contrast to the soft but sturdy fabric of the waitress's uniform. Her misanthropy dissolves into a sad resolve: “No: I intend no introspection. I mark Henry James's sentence: Observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency” (357).

There are only two other entries in the last volume of Virginia Woolf's diary. The penultimate entry finds her constructing mild rebukes for her own soul and observing her relief that anxieties about Between the Acts can be soothed by preparing the evening meal herself: “It is a question of being open sleepy, wide eyed at present—letting things come one after another. Now to cook the haddock” (358). The final entry on March 24, 1941 reveals a Woolf who is once more observing the working-class woman:

She had a [face] nose like the Duke of Wellington and a great horse teeth & cold prominent eyes. When we came in she was sitting perched on a 3 cornered chair with knitting in her hands. An arrow fastened her collar. And before 5 minutes had passed she had told us that two of her sons had been killed in the war. This, one felt, was to her credit. She taught dressmaking. Everything in her room was red brown & glossy. Sitting there I tried to coin a few compliments. But they perished in the sea between us. And then there was nothing.


Virginia Woolf is demonstrating her awareness of the partial failure of her previous model of “putting on the body” of the working class woman (“Street Haunting” 169). The brevity of the experience remains constant—except this time it is the seamstress who seems ready to stage the performance. Perhaps she is aware of the fact that she has already been objectified. She has installed herself as a tableau vivant in her own room. Within five minutes, she tells her upper-middle-class observers that she has sacrificed her sons in the war. In spite of the pacifism annunciated in Three Guineas, Woolf concludes, “[t]his one felt was to her credit.”

Woolf's choice of Arthur Wellesley's nose as a focal point for her initial observations of the seamstress also contains colonial undertones. Wellesley was sent to India in 1796, where he defeated an Indian uprising. The British Empire rewarded him for this and other illustrious naval victories by installing him as Irish Secretary in 1807. During his brief tenure as Irish Secretary, he conceded to Catholic emancipation in Ireland, but would not permit a more democratic system for the House of Commons (“Napoleon Guide”). He was nicknamed “Old Hookey” because of his prominent nose. In addition to defeating Bonaparte at Waterloo in the One Hundred Days Campaign, he was also famous for routinely hanging any of his own malingering or disobedient soldiers. In this final diary entry, Woolf uses avian, reptilian, and equine imagery to situate the seamstress in nature, but she is also caricaturizing her by alluding to her efficient cruelty and subtly suggesting that her existence poses a threat to the upper middle classes. Woolf notes that the seamstress fastens her collar with an arrow, that she is surrounded by “red brown” objects, and that she is holding knitting needles in her hands. These needles may be a sign of her industriousness, but are also an emblem of her potential destructiveness. Woolf tries to assume the role of satisfied spectator by trying to “coin a few compliments.” However, the nameless seamstress is not accepting any payments of flattery for her performance.2 The seamstress is more than just coldly aloof. Her “great horse teeth” and amphibian-like eyes are “cold and prominent,”3 and they both captivate and repel her observers. She is also perched like a bird on her three-cornered chair. However, in the middle of this vengeful portrayal, the narrator provides the humanizing detail that the seamstress is wearing a collared blouse.

In spite of the fact that Virginia Woolf characterized Brighton as a “love corner for slugs” (Diary 357), one of the final paragraphs in this last diary entry finds her wishing that she could be with Vanessa, who was at that moment visiting Brighton. Instead of the ebullience that marked the first half of the March 8, 1941 description of her visit to the Brighton teashop, here Virginia Woolf finds herself thinking of the entire world as a place where all people, regardless of their class, are “leaning against the wind, nipped and silenced. All pulp removed” (359). Woolf, after her “deep work,” finds herself stalemated—separated from the working classes, her more Bohemian sister who is away in Brighton, her upper-class friends who have just sent letters that she doesn't have the energy to open, and even Leonard, who is outside tending the rhododendrons.

A stalemate in life can sometimes be written through or over. If we look at Woolf's critically neglected shorter fiction, we can find examples of her trying to write through the feeling of “all pulp removed” while concomitantly revising her strategies of writing the working-class woman's body. Woolf wrote her observations about what she overheard in the Sussex Grill washroom just thirty-two days before her death. In spite of her anxiety about the artistic merit of Between the Acts, she also found time to work up two versions of her Sussex Grill experience—“The Watering Place,” which was published by Susan Dick in 1985, and the unpublished “The Ladies Lavatory.” Dick states that these exercises “may be the last works of fiction that VW wrote” (“Notes” 311). Given the fact that only thirty-two days remained in Woolf's life, I think we can be certain that they are her last works. The fact that she was using her final time to work on questions of representing the bodies of working-class women meant that she did not consider the issue resolved. Woolf is not clinging to her role as the bored upper-class woman on her well-polished rung. However, when she moves down from this position she is rejected—there is only a sea of nothingness in between the two classes of women.

Woolf has made a cryptic note at the end of “The Ladies Lavatory” that reads, “Of these ghost figures of distorted passion.” After this enigmatic observation there is just empty space, not the “and some blank spaces” of the March 1941 letter, but an absolute chilling blankness that is amplified by the last lines of “The Ladies Lavatory”: “There is no empathy tossed up and down like a piece of seaweed. She has no unkindly. The rush of water is always floating her up and down” (19). This description emotionally resonates with the last March 24, 1941 diary entry of “a curious seaside feeling in the air today. … Everyone leaning against the wind, nipped & silenced. All pulp removed” (Diary 359). This is not the lyrical view of water that marked her Tuesday, November 5, 1940 diary entry, which reads like a description of a Millet landscape: “The haystack in the floods is of such inevitable beauty … when I look up I see all the marsh water. In the sun, deep blue, gulls caraway seeds; snowberries [?]: atlantic flier: yellow islands: leafless trees: red cottage roofs. Oh may the flood last for ever—a virgin lip; no bungalows; as it was in the beginning” (336). Instead, it reads like a suicide note or an epitaph.4

Woolf's novels, diaries, and essays have been meticulously mined, yet the shorter fiction remains critically neglected. “The Ladies Lavatory” offers different possibilities for the apprehension of the working-class body than “The Watering Place.” Although the actual body of the lavatory attendant is included in “The Ladies Lavatory,” there is a hopelessness that is not present in “The Watering Place.” Although Woolf observes that the “memories of the lavatory attendant have never been written,” in writing them she concludes that “they can have no settled relations with their kind” (“Ladies” 18). Here Woolf is back on the upper-class rung of her ladder, but this time the boredom is replaced with fatalism and perhaps regret. If the lavatory attendant can have no lasting relationships with other equally disenfranchised workers, then there seems to be no hope for acceptance outside of these social ranks.

Scholars and common readers can benefit from having the opportunity to compare Woolf's social equations or oscillations between oppositely charged poles of the vilification of the working-class woman's body and prurient absorption in a strategic staging of the same. These performances appear to have been staged for the emotional and sexual gratification of the middle- and upper-class eye. Having access to the entire version of “The Ladies Lavatory” and the lushly enigmatic “The Watering Place” provides a valuable illustration of a more complicated Woolf. The nameless lavatory attendant of “The Watering Place” is a somewhat joyful transposition of the Harridan fish odors of Miss La Trobe. Susan Dick notes that the undated typescript of “The Watering Place” is written on the back of one of Woolf's final drafts of Between the Acts in the Berg Collection (“Notes” 313). The seaside town is “pervaded by the smell of fish” and features many fish restaurants where “the consumption of fish in that dining room must have been enormous. The smell pervaded even that room that was marked Ladies on the first landing” (Woolf, “Watering” 291). However, the two-stalled room becomes the site of convivial gossip, and where three customers admire the physical beauty of men and women in equal portions.

The lower-middle-class women linger over each other and their own reflections. Their beauty and conversation fascinate the lavatory attendant, who is invisible in the published version of “The Watering Place.” The lavatory attendant transforms what some might consider an unpleasant task, similar to one of the twelve labors of Hercules, into a sensual experience. Her erotic absorption in the atmosphere and the women is evident in the remarkably sexual passage: “The tide in the watering place seems to be for ever drawing and withdrawing. It uncovers these little fish; it sluices over them. It withdraws and there are the fish again, smelling very strong of some queer fishy smell that seems to permeate the whole watering place” (292).

David Sibley argues that “those threatening people beyond the boundary represent the features of human existence from which the ‘civilized’ have distanced themselves—close contact with nature, dirt, excrement, overt sexuality—but these same characteristics are exaggerated in the portrayals of the ‘uncivilized’ which employ negative images of smell, colour and physical form” (51). In “The Ladies Lavatory,” Virginia Woolf places a working-class woman in the position of delighting in the bodies and conversations of lower-middle-class women in an atmosphere that depends on close contact with dirt and excrement. Dick states that Woolf's diary reveals that she first thought of the idea for the stories when she was trapped in the bathroom of the Sussex Grill (“Notes” 313). There is no evidence of Woolf having seen an actual lavatory attendant in the Sussex Grill. In her diary entry, she is functioning as the eavesdropper in place of the attendant, whom she either didn't notice in real life, or who perhaps wasn't actually working at this lower-middle-class establishment. The transmogrification from diary entry to short story is a compelling example of Woolf actually pretending to put on the body of the working-class woman. Why is she sitting there so quietly and almost gleefully attending to her own bodily functions? Why doesn't she emerge from the little stall after she has finished, simply ignoring the gossiping women, and leave the lavatory? She will not leave because she is very interested in their conversation and her covert ability to hear and not be seen or perhaps more erotically, to imagine and not be seen. The toilet stall becomes a hidden viewing closet. How does she know behind her closed toilet door that they are “powdering and painting?” (Diary 257). The rituals and gossip of “these common little tarts” prove to be a compelling opportunity for the upper-middle-class mind that was interested in penetrating and seeing the undressed minds of women of lower classes. In “The Watering Place,” Woolf imagines fully assuming the body of the invisible lavatory attendant, using her brief occupation of the stall as an equivalent of the working woman's experience.

Here it is useful to remember two other salient details from Woolf's life. The first is an observation that Woolf made of herself in 1933 that she “was one who loved the smell of the rubbish heap” (qtd. in Lee 450). Although she was playfully and callously using this image in the context of T. S. Eliot's final committing of his wife, Vivien, to an institution, she was also revealing a gleeful delight in both sordid details of others' lives, as well as an appreciation for fecund waste. In this same 1933 letter she described Vivien as a “bag of ferrets.” Woolf also used a similar rank animal metaphor to describe Katherine Mansfield, writing with gleeful wickedness that she “stank like a civet cat” (qtd. in Lee 450). However, Woolf was fascinated with Mansfield's roguishness and prolific writing and welcomed Mansfield's rare visits. Miss La Trobe confesses a similar appreciation for the sordid mixed with a scatological prurience when she compares her role as a dramatist to one who “scrapes in the dunghill for six penny fares” (Woolf, Between the Acts 187).

The second relevant detail from Woolf's life is the fact that she first fell in love with Vita Sackville-West while they were grocery shopping near Long Barn, around Christmas of 1925. Lee states that “Virginia saw Vita striding into the fishmonger's shop, wearing pink and pearls, ‘with candlelit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung’” (486). Lee argues that this “vision in the fishmonger's became a kind of password to intimacy” (486). The image of pink jewels and the fishmonger's shop first appeared in the 1923 draft of “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street.” Here Clarissa Dalloway muses that Bond Street provided the exquisite nexus of everyday sustenance and opulence that enticed her mother and father to become lovers. Upper-class heterosexual desire needs to feed upon the basic, yet erotic wares that are strategically displayed by the working-class merchants: “the thick pink salmon on the ice block at the fishmonger's” (Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” 155).

Clarissa situates her own “street haunting” as part of a pageant of upper-class processions that stretches back into centuries of privilege and curiosity: “Down Bond Street the Parrys had walked for a hundred years, and might have met the Dalloways (Leighs on her mother's side) going up” (“Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” 155). Clarissa flirts with the nameless glove shop attendant but is ultimately transfixed by the regal figure of the privileged Miss Anstruther.

By 1925, Woolf's procession of prosperous street haunters who were able to leisurely collect passwords to intimacy begins to gradually include the working-class woman. Doris Kilman tries to captivate Elizabeth Dalloway during their walk down the budget undergarment shops that line Victoria Street but Elizabeth easily flees up the Strand in her airy streetcar perch in Mrs. Dalloway. Rarely does anyone “happily get the girl” for a sustained period in Virginia Woolf's shorter fiction or novels. Just as Setons turn to Rossiters and fantastic pink jewels quickly turn to paste under Clarissa Dalloway's evaluative gaze; desire—whether heterosexual or lesbian—always gets damaged. The imagery of Woolf's diary entries and short stories reflects this disappointment.

Woolf's romantic relationship with Sackville-West was ostensibly over in 1935. Lee observes that Woolf returned to the image of the fishmonger's and decided “[t]here she hangs, in the fishmongers at Sevenoaks, all pink jersey and pearls; & that's an end of it” (qtd. in Lee 486). The emotional disappointment that Woolf felt at the end of the lesbian affair is evident in her strategy of permanently locating the aristocratic Vita in the rank fish shop. The softness and opulence of her body is amplified by the description of her pink sweater and pearls. However, Vita's initial tenderness has faded and left her transmogrified into the daily catch displayed on a very real hook. The reader may also be reminded of Woolf's early caveat to Sackville-West that she might find the crevices of her dolphin lined with hooks. Later this image resurfaces in Isa Oliver's struggle to balance the suffocating domesticity of ordering the luncheon fish with her secret wish to look like Sappho or a handsome male model in a fashion magazine in Between the Acts.5 The strategy of using fish as a secret password for intimacy is also at work in “The Watering Place” and “The Ladies Lavatory.” The attendant sees the customers with tenderness and absorption—they are “little fish” that are erotically sluiced and “uncovered” (“The Watering Place” 292). The eroticism of the verb “sluiced” is amplified in “The Ladies Lavatory” by the erotic noun “lubricity” (13).

In the critically ignored “The Watering Place,” Woolf eroticizes a pungent fish restaurant and the equally pungent women's lavatory. However, the invisible lavatory attendant is miraculously fortified by her close contact with the toilets and the young women. How can we read this? Is it the 1941 equivalent of the upper-middle-class narrator imagining maids leisurely dallying by twilight mailboxes in “The Evening Party” of 1918? It is not a simple transposition of the idealization of the working-class body because here the lavatory attendant (who is positioned in one of the most humble public spaces) manages to enjoy her contact with the diners. At the end of the shift, she is delivered into a transformed landscape, as the town becomes a miniaturized Impressionist painting: “There are hoops and coronets in the streets” (“The Watering Place” 292).

This is the most optimistic reading of “The Watering Place.” Wartime paper shortages are in all likelihood responsible for Woolf's decision to type this short story on the blank backs of the typescript of Between the Acts. However, the fact that the short story and the pages from the novel physically occupy the same sheets of paper is curiously appropriate since both feature protagonists whose primary passion is for women. La Trobe and the nameless lavatory attendant occupy similarly marginalized positions. La Trobe is a sexual outsider and the lavatory attendant is economically vulnerable. However, ultimately Woolf decided to remove all direct references in the text to the lavatory attendant “whose memoirs, the narrator observes have never been written. When in old age they look back through the corridors of memory, their past must be different from any other. It must be cut up: disconnected. The door must always be opening and shutting. They can have no settled relations with their kind” (qtd. in Dick, “Notes” 313).

This excised passage certainly goes a long way in establishing Woolf's oscillation between callous indifference and prurient absorption in the working-class woman's body. Woolf decides that the lavatory attendant's life would make interesting reading in any novel, just as she earlier mused that Nelly Boxall's life would be equally compelling. However, perhaps since she feels she lacks the range to write universal and accurate (read working-class) dialogue, she does not publish either “The Ladies Lavatory” or “The Watering Place.” Ultimately, Woolf's narrator chooses to briefly put on the body of the woman at the very bottom of the social and economic pile; the toilet cleaner at a Brighton fish restaurant. The nameless and featureless lavatory attendant works where other people holiday. The excised passage unequivocally demarcates the lives of working-class and middle-class women. The narrator suggests that even retired lavatory attendants have different memories and that the corridors of old age that they walk will be different. She does not mention that in all likelihood the corridors of the retired lavatory attendant will be more narrow and confining than the corridors occupied by the old women who had the economic means to dine in the fish restaurant rather than tidy up the remains of the day. Even after they retire, Woolf speculates that the minds of the retired lavatory cleaners will be irretrievably marked by their former occupation.

The dimensions of the lavatory door and its opening and closing will be indelibly burnt into the consciousness of the attendant, who is permanently marked by her occupation of odiferous semiprivate public space. The excision of the references to the lavatory attendant and the information-retrieval model of putting on the body of the working-class woman are reminiscent of “A Society.” After all, what did Castalia do with the body of the real Oxbridge charwoman that she replaced for two weeks? She was not relieved of her duties to go and frolic with the welcoming, devastatingly handsome undergraduate.

The excised portions of “The Watering Place” appear in the holograph draft of “The Ladies Lavatory” written on the reverse side of the 21 July 1931 notebook, The Life, Character and Opinion of Flush. The notebook has a large marbled cover with faded blue paper and red left-hand margin lines that curiously have not faded. Woolf's tendency to situate her writing body in precise physical space is apparent in her first notation on the inside of the notebook—51 Tavistock Square, March 13, 1931. However, it is also worth considering how appropriate it is that a story of a working-class woman should occupy the reverse pages of the story of a pampered heterosexual woman and her indulged pure bred dog. A reader literally has to turn the marbled exercise book upside down to read this potentially lesbian exercise. The eeriness of how Woolf's tight, small script simply ends and is replaced with the blank space of two thirds of the rest of the reverse side of the notebook is augmented by two margin notes. The first cryptic note appears in the left-hand margin of the first page of “The Ladies Lavatory”: “Than the fox hound with hares put out in the man.” The second previously mentioned provocative margin note appears at the very end of “The Ladies Lavatory” in darker ink, which has not faded at the bottom of the page: “Of these ghost figures of distorted passion.”

Dick has carefully noted that all direct references to the lavatory attendant have been removed from “The Watering Place,” but she does not speculate the reason or the impact of this removal. She also refers to the fact that Woolf “recorded in her diary on February 26, 1941, a conversation that she overheard in a ladies lavatory in a Brighton restaurant which is very like the one in ‘The Watering Place’” (“Notes” 313). However, she does not provide the more salacious details that Woolf recorded in the rest of the entry. Virginia Woolf observed that the life of a cook not been written, an observation similar to the narrator's commentary in “The Watering Place” that the lavatory attendant's memoirs “have never been written.” After observing this gap in literature, she proceeds to try and write them herself, produces two drafts, but never publishes them. Possibly this is the same tendency that led her to write two drafts of “The Cook,” which she never tried to publish. She cared enough to work on the question of how an Irish lesbian cook occupied private and public space and how a lavatory attendant would occupy social space, but she did not try to publish any of the exercises. It is possible that she did not try to publish either “The Watering Place” or “The Ladies Lavatory” because she would only be alive for less than one more month. Conversely, in 1931, she submitted “The London Scene” to Good Housekeeping. This sketch included her cross-section of London's urban decay, including a hard-boiled look at slum dwellers and barges toiling under the weight of the crass wastefulness of humanity. Good Housekeeping enthusiastically published it in 1931. Perhaps death was the primary reason that prevented her from publishing either “The Watering Place” or “The Ladies Lavatory.” However, it is curious that more Woolf scholars have not examined “The Ladies Lavatory,” especially since it is one of Woolf's last works.

Dick does focus briefly on “The Watering Place” at the end of her 1926-41 section, as well as in her Notes and Appendices in The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. She notes that Woolf excised all direct appearances of the lavatory attendant, but does not specify how many times. The lavatory attendant is mentioned directly three times in “The Ladies Lavatory,” deleted twice, and alluded to in a substantial paragraph at the end of the story. In fact, as we watch the lavatory attendant silently go from youthful energy to middle-age complacency, and finally find herself living out her isolated retirement in one room, we may be reminded of a working-class version of the riddle of the Sphinx, or the three ages of the lavatory attendant. Even the title is more prosaic and less whimsical than “The Watering Place.” The attendant appears in the second paragraph of the very first page of “The Ladies Lavatory”: “As usual there was an attendant—one of those women who are forever opening doors, fancy a wife in a hat a wife: of their private lives nothing is known” (13). The narrator's pragmatic observation that every toilet in a popular seaside restaurant must have an attendant is quixotically undercut by the enigmatic reference to a wife in a hat; presumably one of the customers using the facilities after dining. The hat is a class marker, as is the narrator's observation that the women diners are the type who shop in “seashore ferrys but with high heeled shoes” (14). They are the lower middle class with enough money to take day excursions to the salacious paradise of Brighton. They have enough money to dine out, but only in one of a rash of cheap fish-and-chips restaurants near the dock. The narrator reveals that they are more accustomed to preparing their own food, since they spend the time when they are not gossiping heartily anticipating their meal. Those who are accustomed to frequently dining in restaurants do not spend their brief private moments before the meal mentally reviewing and relishing the menu. The toilet is not a gustatory space for the frequent diner in a middle-class restaurant that serves long, elegant dinners, rather than rushed and practical lunches of a fish-and-chips joint.

The lower-middle-class diner briefly visits the lavatory attendant's small workspace. Of course, the lavatory attendant is not wearing a hat, and intriguingly enough, the narrator does not note if the lavatory attendant is wearing gloves. The nameless lavatory attendant would not be wearing Clarissa Dalloway-like gloves, but might be wearing cleaning gloves to protect her hands from the toilets and bathroom floors that she scours. The lavatory attendant is immediately situated in a fecund and pungent semiprivate space. The smell of fish hauled up from the ocean and loaded on Brighton's docks permeates the restaurant and is recycled in odiferous waste in the lavatory. On the first page of the sketch, the lavatory attendant is described in a servile frame in this pungent workspace as “one of those women who are forever opening doors” (13). However, the narrator does not just leave her there but acknowledges that this lower-class woman does have a private life; even if nothing of it is known. There is an eerie resonance here with the narrator's comment in “The Mark on the Wall” that nothing is proven, nothing is known.

The second age of the lavatory attendant begins on the second page of “The Ladies Lavatory.” The narrator begins this section by alluding to the lavatory attendant. However, now she is not just an isolated solitary worker but instead joins a legion of silent, retired toilet cleaners. Even in old age the narrator positions them in a restricted space—their memories are personified as narrow corridors and they are still fixed in restricted physical space: “It must be cut up: disconnected.” The dynamics of their lifelong service in small toilets has followed them even into their old age and irrevocably shaped even the process of their memories. The narrator suggests that they can never fully escape from the opening and shutting doors of the cubicles: “The human race to them must be always running in hastily” (14). However, this brings us to an important, practical question. Why is it that only those who apply rouge and powder, chatter, and fantasize about menu cards be considered the hastily running in the human race? Surely the lavatory attendant sometimes had to use the facilities herself. The important class-bound distinction that the narrator makes is that the diners run in. The lavatory attendant is always there, and so there is no urgency in her ablutions. No meal is awaiting her in the dining room, although perhaps she may have kitchen scraps at the end of her shift in a back room.

In the second paragraph of “The Ladies Lavatory,” the narrator first wrote that these lower-middle-class diners leave the “lavatory attendant to prepare for the next women” (“Ladies Lavatory” 13). This passage is later deleted—making the sketch more hopeful. Just as the unpublished A13d version of “The Cook” allowed Biddy Brien to cut a wide swath of social freedom from the narrow dark kitchen of her domestic service to the bright parks and cheerful tourist sites in London after her retirement, the deletion of the chronic servitude of the lavatory attendant has been removed from the final version of “The Ladies Lavatory.” This makes the sketch more egalitarian, at least for that moment in the text.

Yet there is also something sexual about the phrase, “Leaving the lavatory attendant to prepare for the next women.” This sexual innuendo is amplified by the description of lubricity in the first and second paragraphs of the sketch, as well as erotic phrases like “tweaked, slippery sweet stuff” (13) and the narrator's interventions that the talk of the women in the lavatory is interrupted by “climatic flush of water in the next compartment” (14). In “The Watering Place” the narrator simply describes the flushing of toilets as a gushing and a foaming, withdrawing tide.

The third page of this sketch features a description of the lavatory attendant's face. It is more of a psychological than a detailed description of outer surfaces—like the one provided in the A13e version of Biddy Brien's steel glasses and blue eyes in “The Cook.” This psychological description also enigmatically dovetails with the passage about the soldiers deceiving the young girl with the lure of promising her the opportunity to see a fanciful green-tailed horse in Between the Acts. Woolf based this incident in the novel on a real life gang rape of a young woman in a British barracks. This story continues to haunt Isa from the very first moment that she glances at it on the patriarchal Bart's discarded newspaper until after the end of La Trobe's pageant. In “The Watering Place” the women gossip about the handsome blue-eyed Bert who has returned from an unknown location. He has committed some misdemeanor that is only alluded to in the women's half-horrified, half-intrigued reference to his crooked teeth, a diabolical grin, and an injunction that “he ought to be more careful. If he's caught doing it, he'll be courtmartialled” (Woolf, “The Watering Place” 291-92).

“The Ladies Lavatory” is more explicit about the details of Bert's misdemeanors and he is marked as a habitual offender by the phrase: “If he does it again he will be courtmartialled” (“Ladies Lavatory” 14). In this version Bert's actions, rather than just the toilet, have the “strong savour of decaying fish” (“Ladies Lavatory” 14). In “The Watering Place,” the explicit details of Bert's crimes are covered over by the flushing toilets. However, in “The Ladies Lavatory” his offenses are not covered over. The lavatory attendant had heard many stories of soldiers' sexual crimes “when the regiment was all the rage and long before that” (“Ladies Lavatory” 15). She hears these accounts of men's sexual brutality from their girlfriends, sisters, female acquaintances. This is not a newspaper account of rape—instead it is whispered in toilet cubicles and underneath vanity mirrors. “The Ladies Lavatory” reveals that Bert was not a successful officer—instead he was a “hanger on about the regiment.” The link with the green-tailed horse ruse in Between the Acts is reinforced here with the enigmatic phrase, “He wore twigs and there was a strong scent of the old rubbish heap” (“Ladies Lavatory” 15). Twigs are of course green and it appears that Bert hid in the forest or preferred the furtive undercover of brush to attack his prey. Woolf decided to eliminate the twig phrase and replaced it with the olfactory symbol of the rubbish heap.

“The Ladies Lavatory” also makes the direct connection between peoples' words and their actions: “This infects everything. It gets into the soup or the joint” (15). This is an odd observation for a fish restaurant since fish (although they have many bones) do not have recognizable joints. Perhaps the narrator is having an insight similar to the Boeuf en Daube moment in Mrs. Dalloway, when only the cook realizes that it has taken her three days to prepare the meat that is consumed in less than one hour at the Dalloway's dinner party. Or perhaps the narrator is making a more visceral allusion to the body of the working-class woman. Her joints have been literally infected both with repetitive stress injuries of scrubbing toilets and floors and spiritually infected with generations of accounts of male sexual violence. Her face is lined with the weariness of hearing these accounts: “Bert is a perennial figure; that accounts for the expression on the face of the lavatory attendant” (“Ladies” 15). The fish on the third page of “The Ladies Lavatory” are not “little” like their compatriots in “The Watering Place.” Instead, they are “bitter.”

The description of the lavatory as a dark green cave that is lit up and glowing with “people … who float into this cave, are always passing through” (“Ladies Lavatory” 15) resembles the description of Biddy's kitchen, which glows with the greenish tint of a small gas fire in both versions of “The Cook.” The narrator notes, however, that the inhabitants who populate the cave are a “fluctuating water world” (15). This the same totalizing impulse that defined humanity on the third page of the sketch—one's humanity is directly proportional to the amount of time that one spends in the lavatory. If you leave the two compartments that are separated only by one door and one mirror and order something from a menu and have enough guineas in your purse to settle or share the check, then you are human. If you rush to consume, then you are human. If you labor and continually occupy the lavatory as a worker and not a lower-middle-class visitor, then you have lost your humanity and will not have (in the narrator's eyes) “settled relations” even with your own kind (other lavatory attendants) (15). This allusion to unhappy lesbian relationships is a curious counterpoint to the description of the married, nicely accessorized lower-middle-class woman that the narrator imagines that the lavatory attendant will admire.

This mantra is repeated twice in “The Ladies Lavatory,” once on page fourteen and then, significantly, at the very end of the sketch. “The Watering Place” closes with the lyrical, fanciful note of the Picasso Blue period ending of the hoops and coronets in the streets. However, “The Ladies Lavatory” locates social change in interior landscapes. Here the reader may be reminded of Woolf's observation about the progress of the leviathan-like Georgian cook to the sun-beamed, socially mobile Victorian cook. The lavatory attendant was visibly present in “The Ladies Lavatory,” although she did not speak directly. Curiously enough, she does not have her own cleaning supplies and is not actually seen cleaning the lavatory. The only buckets mentioned are the ones used to gather shells in the opening paragraph of the sketch. But who is gathering the shells? In all likelihood, it is not just the case of children of cheerful revelers gathering memories, but may very well be women, children, and men combing the beach for shells fit for shellacking and sale in a tourist boutique or one of the seaside shops that the narrator mentions in the opening paragraphs of “The Ladies Lavatory.”

In the “Watering Place,” the narrator states that both the seaside inhabitants and villagers are only shells. The old men on parade are not authoritarian Captain Braces; instead they wear riding breeches and spy glasses that make them look like toys. The narrator imagines that the lower-middle-class shoppers are really shopping for household groceries rather than tourist souvenirs. These shoppers also wear trousers and becoming pearl necklaces and could resemble Vita Sackville-West laying in provisions for a Christmas tryst with Virginia Woolf. In “The Ladies Lavatory,” the narrator clearly identifies the lower-middle-class shoppers and does not give them fanciful identities. They are day excursion shoppers dining in budget fish restaurants, oblivious to the continuous presence of the cleaning attendant. “The Ladies Lavatory” does not end on the idyllic note of “The Watering Place.” Just as sexual violence seems an indelible part of human nature in this sketch, the lavatory attendant never really escapes her economically deprived life. She does manage to leave the lavatory (for more than a night's sleep) when she is old and retires. However, like many of the cooks, maids, and servants of Woolf's fiction, she must retire to a very small space. She spends the rest of her days in one small room and, unlike Biddy Brien, does not have the energy to go out and explore parks and rivers. The narrator has also not revealed whether the lavatory attendant has been able to acquire literacy. However, like “Kew Gardens,” there is a momentary unity of all classes of women who live in “a fluctuating water world” at the end of the sketch (“Ladies Lavatory” 15). There is “no empathy” for anyone, regardless of his or her class. In fact, the narrator seems to scorn empathy, comparing it to a useless piece of seaweed that is tossing up and down. The lavatory attendant is also not immune from the fluctuating water world: “The rush of water is always floating her up and down” (“Ladies Lavatory” 15).

This is not the ethereal, fanciful world of the Picasso-like ending of “The Watering Place.” The image of the town as a sunken green body complements Bert's body, which is camouflaged in green twigs before he commits sexual assault. Here the reader may consider the closeness between the name of Bart in Between the Acts and Bert of the regiment. Bart spent his youth in India “shooting the Natives” and his old age in England tyrannizing his grandchildren, encouraging his stockbroker son to discriminate against the homosexual William Dodge, and encouraging his dog sister and daughter-in-law to either cringe or bite. Bert spent his youth hiding in green twigs near rubbish heaps ambushing sexual prey while malingering as a soldier on the cusp of a court martial.

“The Ladies Lavatory” is a valuable counterpoint to the equations that Woolf was trying to work out about the relationship among class, lesbian desire, and the occupation of private and public space in “The Watering Place.” In “The Ladies Lavatory,” sexual violence is real and not fanciful. Class divisions don't just melt away; one's economic status marks the size of rooms in which one sleeps and the amount of books and parks to which one has access. Although “The Ladies Lavatory” does have moments of the narrator's middle-class myopia that marked the idyllic description of the working-class woman's life in Woolf's early short fiction, it also has startling moments of social realism. The lavatory attendant occupies the fishy bathroom for her entire working life in “The Ladies Lavatory.” At the end of her servitude, she retires to an economically marginalized existence in one room, which is only slightly larger than the cubicles that she scrubbed for so many years. Although she does not appear in “The Ladies Lavatory” with a broom, a mop, a rag, a bucket, or other cleaning supplies, her body and mind are permanently marked by her occupation of the lavatory. The narrator carefully notes that her face is distorted by the overhearing of incidents of sexual violence.

Scholars could turn to “The Ladies Lavatory” to find new models of Woolf's attempts at writing out the life of the socially marginal—a practice that she already admitted to having radical flaws if attempted by a middle-class pen in her 1931 introductory letter to Life As We Have Known It By Co-operative Working Women. The editor, Margaret Llwelyn Davies, prevailed upon Woolf to contribute a foreword. Woolf initially refused but then relented and wrote the preface but disguised it as a letter. Woolf's social biases were preserved. Perhaps the seaweed in “The Ladies Lavatory” provides a useful image. Woolf's narrator ultimately dismisses the value of empathy in the water world where all classes of people live. In “The Watering Place,” the fish magically arrive on the plates of the breezy diners. Just like many of the party and dinner scenes in the novels, meals seem to serve themselves. However, in “The Ladies Lavatory,” at least there is an indication of the process of meals arriving since the narrator mentions a menu but not the hand that brings it to the table. The real process of how fish are caught, gutted, and filleted is not described in “The Watering Place.” Even though the fish have been killed and eaten in prodigious quantities, more “little fish” arrive alive to replenish the ranks. These fish also do not seem destined for dinner plates since they are magically swimming through the fanciful lavatory that is always clean without the visible presence of the cleaner.

In this passage, we may also be reminded of the chicken casserole that Hugh Whitbread is anxious to consume during his luncheon with Lady Bexborough and Richard Dalloway. Even though the chickens are clearly dead, they seem to be magically resurrected in the narrator's descriptions of their swimming heads. Chicken heads are heavy and sink to the bottom of broth. Yet here they fancifully remain whimsically consumable, like many of the stagings of working-class women's bodies in the short fiction and the novels.

The lavatory attendant is visible in “The Ladies Lavatory.” The impact of her lifelong labor in the toilets of the lower middle class shapes her body and face. Even if the description of the killing of the fish is not detailed in “The Ladies Lavatory,” there are signs of the process: the narrator briefly alludes to the process using phrases like “drawn up nets” (13) and “the corks of net on the sea” (15). The tide reveals “bitter” dead fish rather than the merry group of fanciful little fish in “The Watering Place.”

Woolf's narrator's putting on the body of the working-class woman and sweeping away of the real worker allows her to stage a maneuver similar to Woolf's mock preface to Life As We Have Known It. In chess this move is known as the Queen's gambit; a pawn is sacrificed to advance the Queen; later if convenient, the Queen can easily regain the material advantage by capturing an enemy pawn (Hooper 107). Direct references to the lavatory attendant are sacrificed so that the narrator can gain a more omniscient, apparently classless position. The lavatory attendant is scrapped on the cutting room floor in “The Watering Place.” Her actual life (like the dallying maids in the early shorter fiction) can easily and strategically be imagined by the prurient middle-class observer who has the moxie and the financial wherewithal to sumptuously occupy all echelons of private, semiprivate, and semipublic space. Woolf did get her fresh evening cream (since Nelly Boxall cycled over rough and narrow roads to Lewes to fetch it), and even in the midst of the severe rationings of the Second World War, Vita managed to circumvent the gas rationings and gallantly motor over with a pat of contraband butter on Christmas Day.

The sweetness of the 1928 “Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points” twilight piano practice rooms has been replaced by the hardcore hunger of noon and carnivorous erotic impatience in the final shorter fiction. Nihil humanum is the rallying cry for the post-1929 short fiction, and this grim mantra replaces the ebullient spaces cleared for lesbian tenderness in the pre-1929 short fiction. This desolate oscillation reaches a feverishly violent crescendo with the “Incomplete Stories and Sketches,” including the brutally enigmatic spaces of “English Youth,” where an older sister quixotically bribes her younger sister with the false promise of sixpence so that she will curse at the dining room table in front of an Abel Pargiter-like disciplinarian. Who is the narrator who coldly delights in the sadistic “He raised his hand over her bare bottom?” (“Incomplete” 338). What does it mean when the secluded lower-middle-class library becomes the site of a brutal sexual punishment, which is literally spelled over the exposed body of the youngest child? Although Woolf oscillates in the amount of space in which she allows her narrators to illustrate lesbian desire and she sometimes equivocates about the possibility of this desire freeing itself from class demarcations, she remains convinced that private spaces in the patriarchal home may be easily used as sites of sexual tyranny. The repressive spaces that young women must occupy in the earliest 1906 short stories “Phyllis and Rosamond” and “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn” find their correlatives in Woolf's final shorter fiction. The certainty of the grim potential for domestic space to quickly digress into sites of patriarchal repression and violence is perhaps the one thing that Woolf's narrators unanimously agree upon from 1906 to 1941.

In Woolf's pre-1917 and 1922-26 short fiction, the enigmatic functions as an annex of pleasure—it is a provocatively lesbian space that opens up into even more light-filled spaces of lesbian tenderness. Yet, after the heraldic outside views of insider's intimacy in women's dormitories, squalid sewing rooms, cramped glove counters, and dim piano practice rooms “things fall apart / the center will not hold” (Yeats 187). Enigmas that once opened up into the luxury and urgency of lesbian tenderness are now contorted spaces of univocal deception and middle-class sexual greed. Why?

Josephine Donovan in “Everyday Use and Moments of Being: Towards a Nondominative Aesthetic” discusses the importance of Erwin Panofsky's model of the aesthetic theory that governs Renaissance painting: “Panofsky notes that objects in Renaissance painting take on significance according to their alignment on a perspective pyramid. ‘Their being,’ he says is ‘functional but not substantial,’ and space is a mathematical construction” (Donovan 261). Thus the sleeve on the virgin's dress is of significance because of its geometrical positioning and not because of its sacred being or ontic intensity. Panofsky calls this the triumph of a “distancing and objectifying sense of reality” (Donovan 62). In “The History of the Theory of Human Proportions,” Panofsky elaborates upon two insightful ideas. The first one is that it is necessary to “examine the history of the canon of proportions” (Panofsky, Meaning 55). His second useful suggestion is that

If in considering the various systems of proportions known to us, we try to understand their meaning rather than their appearance, if we concentrate not so much on the solution arrived at as on the formulation of the problem posed, they will reveal themselves as expressions of the same “artistic intention” (Kuntswollen) that was realized in the buildings, sculptures and paintings of a given period or a given artist. The history of the theory of proportions is the reflection of the history of style.

(Meaning 55-56)

Christopher Wood in his Introduction to the 1991 English edition of Perspective as Symbolic Form praises Panofsky for his inability to resist the “systematically expedient concept of Sehbild or internal visual image” (22).

What artistic intention was Woolf revealing in her short fiction landscapes? Can we guess at the internal visual image that animated her construction of squalid tailor workshops, small dimly lit bedrooms and piano practice rooms that quixotically inspired lesbian tenderness? Why is it that Woolf opens the pre-1906 shorter fiction with the portrait of the autonomous servant Anne sitting in front of the Martyn hearth; one of the most fully embodied servants in the shorter fiction, yet closes it with the 1943 silence of the lavatory attendant? The 1906 portrait of the feudal house servant has the power to interrupt. This opening gambit would prepare the reader for more portraits of fully embodied working-class women; however, they do not readily appear since the shorter fiction is replete with a cast of either invisible workers, or workers who do not really work but are idyllically posed on the margins of narrative space as erotic props, silent attractive standard-bearers, or vilified Others who arouse the narrator's indignation and prurient lust.

The margin note on the holograph draft of “The Ladies Lavatory” in the Berg Collection provides some suggestions. The phrase “the ghost figures of distorted passion” could serve as an apt description of both Woolf's artistic intention and internal visual image. Donovan's description of Panofsky's model of the visual aesthetics governing Renaissance painting provides a very useful description of the space that the working-class woman occupies in much of Woolf's shorter fiction. Although Woolf opened up the shorter fiction with the image of Anne—the fully embodied working-class woman—she quickly shut down this space by opening up the narrative frame and positioning working-class women as dallying figures—one of the many lamentable shadows that she regretted in her image of “even the crudest snapshot” (qtd. in Lyons 221) in her 1920 essay “Body and Brain.” Woolf was rejecting attempts at either hagiography or verisimilitude in her portrayal of the working-class body in space and this is perhaps why she built so many playful scaffolds or devices: the door keeper at the Globe, the third-class railway carriage, the medieval hearth, the salmon-colored, E-shaped crumbling mansion, and the rank cubicles at a wildly popular fish-and-chips restaurant. Although Anne is fully embodied, she is also not moving either. She is just sitting by the fire.

The lavatory attendant in “The Watering Place” is most powerful in her Derridean absence. In the “Watering Place,” her actual physical body has been deleted from the text but supposedly her consciousness is informing the reader of the lesbian fertile landscape that the fecund toilet becomes. At the end of the day, she is released with the shelly Brighton villagers and whimsical strollers into what Panofsky might imagine as the process of “the picture has become a mere slice of reality, to the extent and in the sense that imagined space now reaches out in all directions beyond represented space, that precisely the finiteness of the picture makes perceptible the infiniteness and continuity of space” (Perspective 61).

In “The Ladies Lavatory,” the body of the working-class woman is not deleted from observable narrative space. However, she does not get to be released with the other classes of people at the end of her shift, and the narrator offers the iron-clad indictment that the lavatory attendant cannot even have “settled relations” even with her “own kind” (“Ladies” 15). The narrator does not award her with the infiniteness and continuity of space. Her work permanently marks her soul and limits even her social possibilities. Even after she retires, the restrictive dimensions of the pungent lavatory become the final mental grid of her old age. She is locked into what Panofsky might imagine as a “representation of closed interior space, clearly felt as a hollow body” (Perspective 55). This hollow body absorbs the shock of the full knowledge of Bert's sexual aggression and doesn't appear to even wish any longer for open space, leisure, or intellectual enrichment. Her body and soul have become the vanishing point that guarantees the perspective of the sketch.

But again how to read Woolf's artistic intentions or internal visual images here? Was Woolf applauding the chronic diminishing of the lavatory attendant's soul and body? Is this another example of what Christine Darrohn argues, that “For Woolf, as for her contemporaries, the image of a society in which barriers between classes … are broken is a comforting balm but also a mask that hides the classicism which the war has aggravated. Desired and imaginatively reveled in, the projected classless community is also feared and resisted” (103). Can we read “The Lavatory Attendant” as the script that Woolf hoped for or feared? Elizabeth Primamore in her reading of Miss Kilman as ultimately empowered by her education and tenacity argues that “Woolf promotes a certain amount of awareness with regard to social injustice through this conflict” (129). Neither version of the story was submitted for publication. Perhaps this may be read as what Natania Rosenfeld describes as “leaving the plot open” (153). Woolf is not resting on qualified ambiguity in either “The Watering Place” or “The Ladies Lavatory.” Each social vision is remarkably different, but both lead to what Sharon O'Dair pinpoints: “social space is anxious space and … it generates social antagonisms and conflicts” (343). Ultimately, Woolf resisted the presence in absence whimsical script of “The Watering Place” and the soul-destroying gridlock that chronic presence in a lavatory in “The Ladies Lavatory” might induce in a worker. In “The Watering Place,” the labor of the attendant is neither seen nor recognized. Conversely, “The Ladies Lavatory” suggests that the body and soul are damaged by chronic exposure to gossip and stark apprehensions of the sexual brutality that seems to dominate the world, even in what is for the lower middle class a place of recreation and for the working-class woman the site of daily tasks that guarantee a bare subsistence.

Perhaps Panofsky might read both “The Watering Place” and “The Ladies Lavatory” as “triumphs of a distancing and objectifying sense of reality” (Donovan 54). It is tempting to quickly conclude that since Woolf is attempting to apprehend the real life of a lavatory attendant, she is sincerely moving toward a rejection of the outright classicism and philanthropic concern that her Preface to Life as We Have Known It unflinchingly expressed. However, the fact that she did not settle on a definitive version of the lavatory attendant's life and that she did not try to publish either story suggests that she was equivocal in her own framing of the question of how working-class women should occupy private and public space and if they could or should articulate their desires. Perhaps the most helpful thing here is to look to The Monks House Papers and the Berg Collection to consider other critically neglected examples of “the formulation of the problem posed” (Panofsky, Meaning 55).


  1. Castalia in “A Society” engages in two investigative sessions at Oxbridge. During her first visit, she gathers evidence (under the cover of her charwoman's uniform) about the sumptuous comforts that male professors enjoy. She marvels at Hobkin's egregious defenses of Sappho's chastity and the level of material indulgence available to the male professors. Her next visit lasts for three months and this time Castalia does not ask questions; “she answers them” (129). She becomes impregnated by a “divinely beautiful” undergraduate who is twenty-one. There is no mention of her charwoman's disguise.

  2. Here the reader may be reminded of Miss Milan and her marginalized existence as a seamstress in “The New Dress” (1927). Mabel Waring tries to repay Miss Milan with admiration for her emotional generosity, but Miss Milan is self-sufficient with her paltry earnings and happy with her modest diet of cabbages and hemp seeds for her canary.

  3. Miss Milan, Crosby, Doris Kilman, Biddy Brien, and Miss La Trobe were all assigned bulging or distinctive eyes. All of these women were outsiders because of their economic status or sexualities. An interesting medical interpretation might involve the fact that hypothyroidism, an autoimmune disease, results in bulging eyes, weight gain and myxedemia (swollen legs). Here it is useful to remember Miss La Trobe's overly thick ankles and Doris Kilman's plumpness. Goya's 1812 “Portrait of The Duke of Wellington” also reveals bulging eyes. It is compelling that Woolf used this visual image, which depends upon the reader valorizing military and colonial history, and used it in her construction of the seamstress in her last March 24, 1941 diary entry.

  4. I am grateful to Minrose Gwin who drew my attention to this eerie parallel.

  5. Or we may also think of Mrs. Ramsay who chooses not to notice Lily Briscoe's passion for her, and instead reads the cautionary tale of “The Fisherman and the Flounder” to her favorite son, James. The story in itself is also a fable of the unsatisfied wife who keeps pressing her recalcitrant husband for more opulent surroundings.

I would like to thank The Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, The Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations and The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf for giving me permission to quote from “The Ladies Lavatory.” This article could not have been written without the spiritual munificence of Jessica Lynn Dodge, M.D.

Works Cited

Bowlby, Rachel. Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997.

Darrohn, Christine. “‘In a Third Class Railway Carriage’: Class, the Great War and Mrs. Dalloway.” Virginia Woolf: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Eileen Barrett and Beth Rigel Daugherty. New York: Pace UP, 1996. 99-103.

Davies, Margaret Llwelyn, ed. Life as We Have Known It By Co-operative Working Women. New York: Norton, 1975.

Dick, Susan. “A Book She Never Made: Editing the Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf.” Editing Virginia Woolf: Interpreting the Modernist Text. Ed. James M. Haule and J. H. Stape. Houndsmills: Palgrave, 2002. 114-26.

———. “Notes.” Woolf, Complete Shorter Fiction 295-313.

———. “Virginia Woolf's ‘The Cook.’” Woolf Studies Annual 3 (1997): 122-42.

Donovan, Josephine. “Everyday Use and Moments of Being: Towards a Nondominative Aesthetic.” Heine and Korsmeyer 53-67.

Heine, Hilde, and Carolyn Korsmeyer, eds. Aesthetics in Feminist Perspective. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

Hooper, David. Oxford Companion to Chess. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. London: Chatto, 1996.

Lyon. Mary. Ed. Virginia Woolf Books and Portraits: Some Further Selections from the Literary and Biographical Writings of Virginia Woolf. New York: Harvest, 1977.

Marder, Herbert. The Measure of Life: Virginia Woolf's Last Years. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000.

“Napoleon Guide Online.” 2003. 31 July 2003

Nicolson, Nigel. Virginia Woolf. New York: Penguin, 2000.

O'Dair, Sharon. “Beyond Necessity: The Consumption of Class, the Production of Status, and the Persistence of Inequality.” New Literary History 31 (2000): 337-54.

Pages, Andreé. “Putting a New Dress on Derrida: Reconstructing the Urge to Deconstruct, with the Help of Virginia Woolf.” Global City Review 1 (1993): 50-73.

Panofsky, Edwin. Meaning in the Visual Arts. Woodstock: Overlook, 1974.

———. Perspective as Symbolic Form. New York: Zone, 1991.

Primamore, Elizabeth. “A Don, Virginia Woolf, the Masses.” Literature, Interpretation and Theory 9.2 (1998): 121-37.

Rosenfeld. Natania. “Links into Fences: The Subtext of Class Division in Mrs. Dalloway.Literature, Interpretation and Theory 9.2 (1998): 139-60.

Sibley, David. Geographies of Exclusion. London: Routledge, 1995.

Squier, Susan M. Virginia Woolf and London: The Sexual Politics of the City. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1985.

Wood, Christopher. Introduction. Panofsky, Perspective 3-26.

Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. 1941. London: Harvest, 1970.

———. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. New York: Harvest, 1989.

———. “The Cook.” Ts. draft A13d and A13e. The Monks House Papers. Sussex U, Brighton.

———. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. Vol. 5 (1936-41). New York: Harcourt, 1984.

———. “Incomplete Stories and Sketches.” Woolf, Complete Shorter Fiction 324-41.

———. The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 3 (1919-24). Ed. Andrew McNeillie. New York: Harcourt, 1986.

———. “Introductory Letter.” Davies xv-xxxix.

———. “The Ladies Lavatory.” 21 July 1931 notebook. The Berg Collection of English and American Literature. New York Public Lib., New York.

———. “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street.” Woolf, Complete Shorter Fiction 152-59.

———. “A Society.” Woolf, Complete Shorter Fiction 124-36.

———. “The Watering Place.” Woolf, Complete Shorter Fiction 291-93.

Yeats, W. B. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Vol. 1 Ed. Richard Finneran. New York: Scribner, 1996.


Special Commissioned Essay on Virginia Woolf, Philip Tew


Woolf, Virginia (Feminism in Literature)