Throughout ‘Kew Gardens’, which has been described as a modernist short story, the narrator returns to the very English flowerbed, focusing on a snail as it moves through the flowers offering a ground-level perspective of the world on a hot, July day. The story relays the unfolding of a moment or a series of moments, rather than a grand, unified narrative or plot. Flowers and shrubs and the garden are essential features in this story, but they are not named, and despite the precise descriptions they are not easily identifiable:
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, 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. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour.
The narrative shifts from the flower bed to the couples walking past in turn, four couples – a husband and wife, an old and a younger man, two women, a courting couple, none of whom have much communication between them. Are the unnamed flowers supposed to signify something or are they just there as ‘real’ flowers in the environment of the story? Woolf remains elusive about this.
First published privately in 1919, and collected in Monday or Tuesday, Hogarth Press, 1921. Later collected in A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, 1944. Now available in an illustrated edition from Kew Publishing, 2016, The Mark on the Wall and Other Stories, Oxford, and Selected Stories, Penguin Classics
“Evening is kind to Sussex, for Sussex is no longer young, and she is grateful for the veil of evening as an elderly woman is glad when a shade is drawn over a lamp, and only the outline of her face remains. The outline of Sussex is still very fine. The cliffs stand out to sea, one behind another. All Eastbourne, all Bexhill, all St. Leonards, their parades and their lodging houses, their bead shops and their sweet shops and their placards and their invalids and chars–á-bancs, are all obliterated. What remains is what there was when William came over from France ten centuries ago: a line of cliffs running out to sea. Also the fields are redeemed. The freckle of red villas on the coast is washed over by a thin lucid lake of brown air, in which they and their redness are drowned. It was still too early for lamps; and too early for stars.”
Published in a posthumous essay collection, ‘Evening Over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car’ blurs the line between narrative essay and nonfiction short story. Though the gorgeous descriptions of Sussex are enough of a draw on their own, the real wonder here is Woolf’s evocation of technology’s ability to transform modes of perception and categories of aesthetic experience. In this case, the new technology explored is the automobile. Woolf’s “reflections” catalogue our anxious need to name and classify in the face of excessive beauty, though they also get at something very particular to my interests as an avid roadtripper, an aspect of driving that I’ve rarely seen discussed, but know all too well: the way the self proliferates, consciousness splits, while one drives on a lonely road. In the solitude of the car, we multiply. It’s not just that Woolf is the first writer I know of to describe this phenomenon, but that she remains its best chronicler in this brief, elegiac story/essay.
First published in Woolf’s collection The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays, 1942, Hogarth Press, available now in numerous print editions, and also available online at Berfois
Much of Woolf’s writing frustrates me. I’m a great lover of Aristotle’s notion of plot. The notion of a turn. Beginning, middle and end. Even though Orlando transports me for the ambition and gender fuckery – and the fact that it was conceived as a love letter – it also feels so elaborate (cut to the chase). ‘A Room of One’s Own’ has power because it talks about position and gender equality in the way that many of Wolf’s texts don’t being bound up in class. It acknowledges the position and changeability of money, but its intent is also clear: “It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare”. However, the sense of hope still resonates in the essay and the sense of the baton being passed on, for generations to come: “This poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and me and many other women who were not here tonight.” It’s the timeless quality of imparting wisdom and historical context that moves me.
First published September, 1929 in a Canadian quarterly literary based on two lectures Woolf delivered at Newnham and Girton Colleges, then by the Hogarth Press. Now widely available, including as a Penguin Modern Classic and a Vintage Feminism Short Edition
I taught ‘Kew Gardens’ to undergrads and even they liked it. I’ll just quote it:
Even when she wondered what sort of tea they gave you at Kew, he felt that something loomed up behind her words, and stood vast and solid behind them; and the mist very slowly rose and uncovered–O, Heavens, what were those shapes?–little white tables, and waitresses who looked first at her and then at him; and there was a bill that he would pay with a real two shilling piece, and it was real, all real, he assured himself, fingering the coin in his pocket, real to everyone except to him and to her; even to him it began to seem real; and then–but it was too exciting to stand and think any longer, and he pulled the parasol out of the earth with a jerk and was impatient to find the place where one had tea with other people, like other people.
First published privately in 1919, then in the collection Monday or Tuesday, The Hogarth Press, 1921. Widely available since, including as a standalone edition from Kew Publications, 2015, and in the Selected Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000
This is the short story I have read more times than any other. Since Katherine Angel has also included it in her own Personal Anthology, and her introduction to its beauty, its simplicity, and its playful examination of perception is as perfect an introduction as you will find, I’ll tell you a different story instead.
‘The Mark on the Wall’ kept me strong at a time I felt my weakest. I was living in rented accommodation with my three pre-school-aged children. One night, not long after we moved in, I noticed a mark on the ceiling directly above my bed. It was small and black and freckled, and when I woke each morning it had grown visibly bigger, shifting form like a dark cloud or a nebula, and eventually spreading itself across my bedroom ceiling. I reported it to the landlord who sent someone to look at it. The man stood on my bed and, using a roller on a long pole, covered it up with several deep sweeps. He told me it was special paint that would kill the mould and seal it in so it wouldn’t come back. About a month later, I noticed a small mark on the ceiling above my bed.
I don’t need to tell you about the number of times the landlord sent the man with special paint to cover it up. I don’t need to tell you about the respiratory problems we developed while we lived there. I don’t need to tell you about the housing crisis in the UK or the lack of affordable, safe homes. But every night as I looked at that ceiling I thought, “I have a mark! A mark of my own!” I hoped, someday, to write about it, and that it would mean something.
First published in 1917. Collected in A Haunted House and Other Stories, The Hogarth Press, 1943. Now in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000
…one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed…
This is a very simple, very short story set in Kew Gardens. As a snail makes his steady way around a flowerbed, a number of groups pass by and we are given a brief snapshot of their conversations. This is not an easy sell, but it works beautifully as an introduction to modernism and provides a valuable opportunity for younger readers to think about the impact (and practicalities of) narrative structures and devices.
Quite a lot of hand-holding is required, admittedly, but once it clicks it really clicks.
Why does the author keep coming back to the snail and the colourful shadows made by the flowers? Would this story make sense if the descriptions of the snail were removed? Can you see any links between Kew Gardens and any other texts you have read? What do you notice about the dialogue? In what ways is it similar to dialogue you are used to reading? In what ways is it different?
First published 1919, collected in Monday or Tuesday, Hogarth Press, 1921
The first short story Woolf published, in 1917 – and it is pure Woolf. It has many of the preoccupations of her lifetime’s writing, among them the instability of perception. This story has some lines that capture so much of her sensibility, such as the whimsical: “Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour – landing at the other end with a single hairpin in one’s hair!”
The line “I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts” is exactly the kind of thing she would write in letters to her friends, or in a kind of self-knowing tantrum in her diary. Woolf would often present her philosophical musings with a tone of lightness and self-mocking flightiness, but they were philosophical through and through. Hermione Lee argues in her biography that, similarly, Woolf’s political views were often expressed through statements that appeared to negate politics, or separate herself from it. Woolf’s need for privacy and her bent towards singularity made her mistrust, whether in herself or others, overt and determined political positions that demanded consensus, but her writing is always political and philosophical, even when it is at its most playful.
And then there are the moments of breathtaking beauty and simplicity. Writing about trees towards the end of the story, she says: “the cows swish their tails beneath them on hot afternoons; they paint rivers so green that when a moorhen dives one expects to see its feathers all green when it comes up again. I like to think of the fish balanced against the stream like flags blown out.” And “a naked mast upon an earth that goes tumbling, tumbling, all night long.” What I love in this story is what I love in Woolf in general: her ability to roam and wander, while also to be unerringly, shatteringly precise.
In A Haunted House and Other Stories, The Hogarth Press, 1943.