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.