By Lauren Holmes
Monday or Tuesday, published in 1921, is the only collection of Virginia Woolf’s short stories that appeared during her lifetime, though she wrote stories and sketches throughout her life. It contains eight short stories:
A Haunted House
Monday or Tuesday
An Unwritten Novel (first published in 1920)
The String Quartet
Blue & Green
Kew Gardens (first published in 1917)
The Mark on the Wall (first published in 1917)
The experimental prose of the stories marks a departure from the realism of Woolf’s first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day. This departure was not met with great critical acclaim, and the collection sold only 300 copies during its first week of publication. Woolf anticipated this reception in a diary entry shortly before the collection’s publication: “Then in the Westminster, Pall Mall, other serious evening papers I shall be treated very shortly, with sarcasm. The general line will be that I am becoming too much in love with the sound of my own voice: not much in what I write: indecently affected; a disagreeable woman.”
Harold Child, a reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, wrote, “we complain of ‘Monday or Tuesday,’ not that it means too little that is intelligible to the plain mind, but that it cannot help meaning too much for its purpose. Prose may ‘aspire to the condition of music’: it cannot reach it.” This criticism was aimed at the experimental nature of the title story, but the connection between Woolf’s prose and Pater’s dictum about music may have been brought to mind by “The String Quartet.” In this story, a narrator attends a performance of a Mozart string quartet. In between the narrator’s thoughts and snatches of overheard conversation, each movement of the piece is rendered in words that attempt to imitate and represent in images the sound of the music, rather than describe it. Other art forms also make an appearance in the collection, as can be seen in the visual aspects of “Blue & Green,” a short lyrical sketch that abandons narrative entirely, instead offering two impressionistic passages, first of images involving green, then of blue. These short stories are early reflections of Woolf’s interest in merging literature with other arts, particularly music and the visual arts, a theme that can be found in many of her later works (see, for example, the role of painting in To the Lighthouse and that of music in The Waves).
The two stories in the collection that have been considered the most successful are “Kew Gardens” and “The Mark on the Wall.” The first alternates between descriptions of a flower-bed in Kew Gardens and the couples who walk by it over the course of an afternoon, while the second follows the thoughts of a narrator who considers different explanations for a mark on the wall, each possibility sparking a new train of thought, until a second character enters and reveals the mark to be a snail. In a letter to Ethel Smyth on 16 October 1930, Woolf called these two pieces the “generally acclaimed successes” of the collection, and “Blue & Green” and “Monday or Tuesday” “wild outbursts of freedom, inarticulate, ridiculous, unprintable mere outcries,” adding that she did not intend to reprint the latter two. In the same letter, Woolf explains that she wrote the stories of Monday or Tuesday while writing Night and Day, allowing herself these diversions when she “had done with [her] exercise in the conventional style.”
Though “Kew Gardens” and “The Mark on the Wall” were generally acclaimed, it was “An Unwritten Novel” that Woolf credited with her stylistic breakthrough. In it, the narrator sits across from an unhappy woman on a train and creates an elaborate background for her, imagining her whole life story and naming her Minnie Marsh. This exercise is interrupted when the woman exits the train and is met by her son, shattering the fantasy world that was predicated on Minnie Marsh’s spinsterhood. The short story is reminiscent of a passage from “The Mark on the Wall” that also uses the image of sitting across from strangers to reflect on the difficulty of connecting to others: “As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our 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…” “An Unwritten Novel” was Woolf’s first attempt at capturing these reflections, and led her to discover a new method of writing novels.
Also in the letter to Smyth, Woolf wrote, “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 – not that I have ever reached that end; but anyhow I saw, branching out of the tunnel I made, when I discovered that method of approach, Jacobs Room, Mrs Dalloway etc – How I trembled with excitement.” This discovery is also recorded in Woolf’s diary from the time. On 26 January 1920, “having this afternoon arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel,” she describes it: “but conceive ‘Mark on the Wall,’ ‘K.G.’ 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 I hit upon more or less by chance two weeks ago.” This new novel was to be Jacob’s Room. The success of Woolf’s attempt to create a new form using the style of her short stories was confirmed by a comment of T. S. Eliot’s after its publication, when he congratulated her on having “bridged a certain gap which existed between your other novels and the experimental prose of Monday or Tuesday.”
- ↑ James King, Virginia Woolf (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994), 301.
- ↑ Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. II, (London: The Hogarth Press, 1978), 98.
- ↑ Harold Child, “New Novels,” Times Literary Supplement, 7 April 1921, 227.
- ↑ Virginia Woolf, Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, (San Diego: HBJ, 1989), 274-275.
- ↑ Ibid.
- ↑ Virginia Woolf, The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, 2nd ed., (San Diego: Harcourt, 1989), 85-86.
- ↑ Virginia Woolf, Selected Letters, 274.
- ↑ Virginia Woolf, Diary, Vol. II, 13-14.
- ↑ Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Vol. II (New York: HBJ, 1972), 88.