Virginia Woolf’s earliest stories and experiments
Memoirs of a Novelist is a charming collection of short stories written in the earliest phase of Virginia Woolf’s career as a writer of modernist fiction when she was only twenty-four years old. Up to that point she had only produced essays and book reviews. And in fact the spirit of the essay lingers over these meditations and fictional constructs which have in common the role of women in society. It is interesting to note the continuity between these early exercises and the same themes she pursued in her mature works.
Phyllis and Rosamond for instance introduces many of the issues she explored in her later writings – the apparently empty lives of ordinary young women who went unrecognised by history; everyday life as a subject for fiction; the inequality of the sexes; and (almost as if Jane Austen were a contemporary) the ambiguous prospect of marriage as the only possible career structure for young females.
The authorial voice is witty and allusive, and the narrative sparkles with clever generalisations and quasi-philosophic reflections offered in a satirical mode.
They seem indigenous to the drawing-room, as though, born in silk evening robes, they had never tread a rougher earth than the Turkey carpet, or reclined on a harsher ground than the arm chair or the sofa To see them in a drawing room full of well dressed men and women, is to see the merchant in the Stock Exchange, or the barrister in the Temple.
Another story, The Mysterious Case of Miss V deals with the theme she would develop later in her 1924 essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown – the unknown life of an ordinary person. In this version the narrator reflects on the life of a woman whom she has seen occasionally but knows nothing about. Fired by a sudden inclination to discover at least something about her, she visits the building where she lives – only to discover that she has just died.
The longest piece in the collection is The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn It was written when Woolf was visiting Blo’ Norton Hall in Norfolk, and conjures up a picture of the idealised fictional past she was to bring to a state of high art in Orlando. Mistress Joan feels a deep rapport with the rhythms and concerns of everyday life as she faces the prospect of leaving her status as a single woman behind (which is something Woolf would do only a few years later).
The finest item in the collection is its title story Memoirs of a Novelist, which is a complex meditation on the nature of biography, something she would go on exploring throughout her life. The complexity comes from Woolf’s deft handling of the layers of fictionality within the story.
An unnamed narrator gives us an account of a two volume biography of a Victorian lady novelist Miss Willatt, written by her friend Miss Linsett (both of course completely fictitious). In ony a few pages Woolf manages to conjure up an amusingly unflattering picture of the author, and by criticising the conventions of biography as it was conducted in the late nineteenth century, she offers a critique of both the biographer herself and what can be known about human being from the record left by others. These were issues that Woolf would pursue in her own fiction and biographies (Orlando, Flush, Roger Fry) throughout the rest of her life.
The story was turned down by the Cornhill Magazine when she submitted it for publication. Since that time Virginia Woolf has established a reputation which far outstrips the writers they accepted. This is a unique glimpse into the workshop of an artist who went on to become the greatest writer of her generation, and one of the most important innovators in the genre of the short story.
© Roy Johnson 2011
Virginia Woolf, Memoirs of a Novelist, London: Hesperus, 2006, pp.96, ISBN: 1843914239
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