Today, I am thinking about Virginia Woolf. Her diary, her short stories and her second novel Night and Day.
Let’s start with Night and Day. I had never even heard of this book before I put together all the reading lists for my Woolf project. And I suspect that along with The Voyage Out, it isn’t often read unless someone is doing what I’m doing, or maybe for a class. Truth be told, it isn’t remarkable in the way her other novels are. I’m thinking of To The Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway, novels which begin with a full head of steam and sort of charge forward with that recognizable Woolfian prose. (Have I mentioned that I dislike the word Woolfian…how to write about her without using it? Ugh.)
I am only about a third of the way through the book, so obviously my thoughts will shift and change, but for now, Night and Day feels like Woolf restrained. There is something almost too straightforward about the descriptions and the narrative. More so than The Voyage Out, which was her first novel and as I mentioned before, similar to a 19th century society novel and ‘tamer’ than I expected. But even The Voyage Out had more narrative wandering and plenty of those unique narrative insights and descriptions I so love compared with Night and Day.
This is not to say I’m not enjoying the novel. It is just quieter, and has less of that typical Virginia Woolf feeling. It is a novel about class, and a bit about politics also, and most definitely about love. I’ll have more to say, and hopefully with more enthusiasm, as I get further in.
On to the short stories. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf is organized chronologically and begins with five pieces written before 1917. I don’t think any of these were published with her first collection in 192, which makes sense as they all feel a bit like experiment pieces. Different tones, different POVs, different subjects.
I wrote a little about Phyllis and Rosamond earlier, and I’d just like to mention one of the others, The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn. It is a two-part story, beginning with the description of an older woman interested in British history who comes across a manuscript from 1520. The manuscript is the diary of a young woman, who we learn from the manuscript’s keeper, a distant relative, never married and died at the age of thirty.
Knowing about her early death and spinsterhood before we begin to read Joan Martyn’s journal is a neat trick on Woolf’s part, because much of the diary is about her impending marriage to one of her father’s associates. She is a practical young woman although some of her dreams are quite big, and since we know that none of it will come to anything, it is quite a bittersweet little story.
But aside from the story, which is richly imagined and involves a variety of ideas from poverty to literacy, it is mostly just intriguing to see Woolf write in the voice of a young woman from the 1500s. This is what I meant about these early pieces feeling like experiments. It’s clear she is trying to imagine what someone like herself – a reader, a writer, an independent thinker, would have felt under different, more severe restrictions. In that sense it is intensely felt. The ending is lovely and reveals the inner life Woolf gives her fictional Joan, who is standing in their family church, admiring the tombstones, where she will be taken in a shorter time than she realizes:
As a child I know the stark white figures used to frighten me: especially when I could read that they bore my name; but now that I know that they never move from their backs, and keep their hands crossed always, I pity them; and would fain do some small act that would give them pleasure. It must be something secret, and unthought of – a kiss or a stroke, such as you give a living person.
Finally, just a few quick words on her diary. I’m curious about how little Woolf writes in her diary about her writing and I wonder if this is because of the era. Would it have been strange in the early 1900s for her to be obsessing over the details of her writing decisions, her characters and her ideas for fiction in her personal diary? She writes mainly about the people they see, stories about friends, a little bit of news about her and Leonard’s printing work. It’s all very interesting to read, but I am struck with the absence of her literary thoughts. Does she begin to do this later?