Tuesday, 14 April 2009

A Dialogue Upon Mount Pentelicus 1906

This story was possibly written in the Autumn of 1906 following a holiday to Greece. Virginia Woolf’s journal from the time notes that along with her sister and brothers, she climbed Mount Pentelicus and also that they encountered some monks.

I found this story more difficult to read, partly I think, because I have not really studied any Greek history or mythology. It is however, a very amusing sketch of the British abroad:

“To address them in their own tongue as Plato would have spoken it had Plato learned Greek at Harrow.” (p64)

It reminds me a little of E. M. Forsters A Room With a View, particularly with the reference to Baedeker.

The story begins as a group of “tourists” are descending Mount Pentelicus, although the narrator states that the group of people would not refer to themselves as tourists.
The group pauses for a rest under the shade of some trees and the narrator describes the Greek guides resting in the sun. A debate then begins between the English about what Greece is today but are interrupted by the appearance of a monk.

Virginia Woolf comments on the difficulty in capturing a true account of the dialogue of the debate on paper so she instead records fragments of what is said and fills the reader in on the rest of the conversation. This is similar to the approach in The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn, where the essence of the conversation is given rather than a complete dialogue.
The appearance of the monk interrupts the debate and the group moves on in their descent of the mountain. The pieces finishes in a very domestic way

“The talk was of supper and a bed.” (p68)

I’m not really sure what I think about this piece yet so I think I may come back to it at a later date to have another look at it.


  1. The way she does dialogue is something I also find unusual and fascinating. She seems to slip freely between the inner thought of the person, that person's spoken words and her own thoughts and feelings about the character.

  2. I liked the way she said the Mount was carved with an image that everyone from Socrates to the donkey herders had seen, which I understand as a way of saying that its accessibility within the Greek culture gave everyone since time immemorial the opportunity to reflect upon it. Whether they did or not is up to them and what they gain from that reflection is a matter of personal character and education.

    I also liked the way she differentiated English tourists from French and Germans; she said the English tourists would not consider themselves tourists but Greeks. Then she poked fun at their speaking Greek they learned in Harrow, presumably an English school, to the donkey herders though the donkey herders didn't understand it. At first I thought she was saying that the English were pompously trying out an ancient Greek tongue that was no longer current. I'm not sure, on second thought, however, that she was so much making fun of the English as saying something about modern day Greeks loss of their noble heritage. If they had lost the language of Socrates time when the highest values were the beautiful and the good--forget about charity, religion, domestic life, learning and science—than they had lost something priceless.

    The other point of striking interest was the appearance of the monk in his brown robes, rising out of the shrubbery like a strange animal. His presence dominated the last part of the story because in that miraculous way Virginia Woolf has of going from the particular to the eternal, she describes the gaze he casts on the Englishmen and all that it signifies.