Sunday, 5 April 2009

Phyllis and Rosamond 1906

The first piece of Virginia Woolf writing that I have read is a short story called Phyllis and Rosamond written in 1906. It is a short study of the lives of two sisters in their early twenties, Phyllis and Rosamond, as they go about their daily routine. The story follows them preparing, ultimately, to find a husband, but a meeting with two other sisters, the Tristrams, leads them to take look at their own lives through different eyes.

The first half of the story follows Phyllis and Rosamond going about their daily tasks, organising lunch, calling in on people, making arrangements all in the pursuit of finding a husband. The characters of Phyllis and Rosamond lead a life that Virginia and Vanessa could very well have ended up living, where your role in life is to attend parties to find a suitable husband. They describe themselves

“We are daughters, until we become married women.” (p27)

After a dinner, Phyllis joins Rosamond at the Miss Tristrams for a very different sort of party. The party scene that Phyllis describes as she enters the Tristrams is very much the Bloomsbury group in full swing. The two Tristram sisters live a lifestyle more like Virginia and Vanessa were living when Virginia Woolf wrote the story.

The first thing that struck me about Phyllis and Rosamond is that it is very deliberately being written about women, more specifically women who have not been educated outside of the home.

“As such portraits as we have are almost invariably of the male sex, who strut more prominently across the stage, it seems worth while to take as model one of those many women who cluster in the shade.” (p17)

The first three stories that I am reading are all predominantly about women. It is also interesting to note how much emphasis is put on women being educated and encouraged to do something.

I was intrigued by the way Phyllis and Rosamond are treated, their pursuit of a husband is seen very much as a job and in turn the “frivolities” of the parties that they go to have a different meaning.

The lives of the Miss Tristrams are very similar to Virginia and Vanessa, the older sister is “a young woman of great beauty, and an artist of real promise” (P25) and the younger sister writes. For me, the most interesting part of the story is when the younger Miss Tristram Sylvia goes over to Phyllis to engage her in conversation. If you assume that this character is based on Virginia Woolf it gives a real insight into her thoughts on the role of women in the society of her time. She questions Phyllis on why she cannot do things to change her life if she is not happy with them, and is puzzled when the response is that it is too late or that is her purpose in life.

This story was written at a pivotal moment in Virginia Woolf’s life, she had begun an independent lifestyle due to the death of both of her parents and along with her siblings, she was embarking on a life that was in great contrast to the life she may have led had her parents lived.


  1. hi there, you commented on my blog for the penguin competition a couple of weeks ago and i've only just noticed it! thanks a lot for the comment - i took a break from that project for a while as i was too busy doing other things but the deadline is next week so i'm back into it now.

    i really like how you're reading all of virginia woolf's work in chronological order, that's quite something to take on - and really interesting too. i find your post about old books and book covers interesting, i'm glad people judge a book by its cover as that's something i have to exploit when designing one!

    anyway thanks again, have you read the secret history?


  2. I join you in your journey.

    It is strange that I found your blog in such a preliminary stage of your journey through the literary works of Virginia Woolf, because I too have decided to read her and you have inspired me to sync my reading with yours.

    I read " Phyllis and Rosamond" today and was searching around the internet to find what I could about the backstory and what others had to say about it.

    my email:

    I'd love to keep in contact with you, if you wouldn't mind.


  3. Hi Zak

    It would be great to hear your thoughts on her work, please keep posting as you read your way through.

    looking forward to reading your comments


  4. I was sort of disappointed in this story, but I'm not sure why. I am making an unfair comparison but, it is not as densely written or as shifting in point of view, not as blurring of the line between internal thoughts and objective description, which I found so mesmerizing in To the Lighthouse.

    Viriginia Woolf's stories are not that much about the plot. What you do get is the rich internal life of the characters. There is a storyline of sorts, but I wouldn't call it a plot. Rosamund and Phyllis get ready for a visit by two gentlemen, meet them, then to a party, then home. Their life revolves around looking for a husband. End of plot. However, within that story you find out that they don't like any of the men their parents have brought before them, yet, they are under pressure to get married.

    The sisters were so humble, calling themselves “brainless” and “even if they had brains they wouldn't know how to use them.” That shocked me. They call themselves “just accomplished” because they believe having brains means you go to college and if you don't go to college you have no brains. Amazing thought today, but it probably reflects the story’s time and place. Don't know if they cared about having brains or not; certainly Virginia did, so what does it mean for her to put those words in Phyllis’s mouth: “I cannot make you understand that for one thing we haven’t the brains; and for another, if we had them we couldn’t use them. Mercifully the Good Lord made us fitted for our station.”