Sunday, 26 April 2009

Knole Park - a day out

Last Saturday I visited Knole Park in Kent with family friends who have recently moved to Bromley. The day started off a bit grey and cold but by the time we had visited the house and started to wander in the grounds the sun had started to shine.

Knole Park was the childhood home of Vita Sackville-West who in later life would become a close friend of Virginia Woolf. It is also the place that inspired Virginia Woolf to write Orlando, a fictional biography, in 1928.

I wont say too much about it now as I want to come back when I am reading Orlando, but I was very excited as I saw the original manuscript for Orlando. Virginia gave it to Vita as a present and she in turn gave it to the National Trust to be kept at Knole Park. It is shown in a display case in the great hall. Whilst we were there most people were looking at the large paintings on the wall and admiring the decorative wood panelling. If you didn’t take the time to read the label on the case you wouldn’t know what is there, but for me it was a real treat.

The manuscript is in a large leather bound book and it is open at the passage where Knole Park is described for the first time. Virginia Woolf’s handwriting is quite neat but tricky to read in places and there are lots of words crossed out and revisions to the writing. I can see why she was inspired to write about the place, it is absolutely huge and full of character and history.

I will definitely be coming back to Knole Park, to read Orlando in the place that inspired it to be written and also just to enjoy the park itself. There are deer living in the park and it is very relaxing to wander about the grounds and watch the deer.

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.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Journal Of Mistress Joan Martyn 1906

Image taken from this website about Blo Norton Hall.

The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn was written in August 1906 at Blo Norton Hall, East Harling, Norfolk.

I love the beginning of this story as I too am a bit of a geek when it comes to other peoples family histories. The story begins with a woman in her 40’s, Miss Rosamond Merridew, travelling around Norfolk looking for documents relating to 13th, 14th and 15th century land tenure. She stumbles across a run down manor house and after having dinner with the owners is shown their collection of family documents which include a diary, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn” after which the story is named.

The first half of the book is written from Miss Merridew’s perspective, describing the finding of Joan Martyn’s diary and the second half takes you back to the 15th century with extracts from this diary written by Joan herself.

After her discovery of the house, Miss Merridew is shown round by the lady of the house and very little is given away as to it’s history and whether it contains the treasures of papers that Miss Merridew is looking for. When the man of the house returns for dinner, Miss Merridew is delighted by his interest in his family history. He leads her around the house, showing her his family paintings. At the end of this tour Miss Merridew thinks it is a good time to leave, but a surprise is in store. It is at this point that she is shown Joan’s diary and is allowed to take it away with her to read. It is at this point that the narrator then switches from Miss Merridew in the 20th century to Joan Martyn in the 15th century.*

At the beginning of the story, Miss Merridew explains that when writing about land tenure, she likes to digress into the details about what life might have been like at the time periods that she was studying.

“My researches into the system of land tenure in the 13th (,) 14th and 15th centuries have been made doubly valuable, I am assured, by the remarkable gift I have for presenting them in relation to the life of the time” (p34)


“here I knock at the serf’s door, and find him roasting rabbits he has poached; I show you the Lord of the manor setting out on some journey, or calling his dogs to him for a walk in the fields, or sitting in the high backed chair inscribing laborious figures upon a glassy sheet of parchment. In another room I show you Dame Elinor, at work with her needle; and by her on a lower stool sits her daughter stitching too, but less assiduously.” (p34)

She, goes on to comment that she is criticised for doing this because it is not relevant to the study of land tenure, the main subject of investigation but also that

“It is well known that the period I have chosen in more bare than any other of private records.” (p35)

meaning that the details that she is referring to are not based on factual documents, but from her imagination. This sets the scene nicely for her later discovery of Mistress Joan’s journal, as this provides her with a detailed account of a year in the life of the 15th century. The dialogue is sparse, but filled in with descriptions of how the characters speak, their accents and the tone of their words.

There is a marked contrast between the fist half of the story, written from the perspective of the narrator and the second half, which is extracts of Joan Martyn’s journal. I like the distinct styles of each section and the fact that the narrator hands over entirely from Miss Merridew to Joan allows two very different atmospheres to be created.

Joan’s diary is divided into 7 sections which each look at a different time of the year and a different aspect of her life; a description of her house; the journey her father makes to London; contemplating marrying a neighbour; encountering local people whom she will one day rule over; a meeting with a poet with romantic ideas about love; a pilgrimage to a shrine and acceptance that her life will not be a fairytale of princes and princesses.

Virginia Woolf takes her time to set the scene for the story, describing who the narrator is, what her inertest are and the way that she writes. In fact, the first paragraph is made up of only four sentences.

Once again it is women who are the focus of this story, from the roving narrator Miss Merridew at the beginning, to a year in the life of Joan Martyn. Furthermore, in the diary of Joan it is just an account of her daily life, nothing very out of the ordinary happens but this is what is interesting. As in Phyllis and Rosamond, Joan is also contemplating her marriage and what life with her future husband will be like.
There may also be autobiographical elements to the story, it was written when Virginia was staying in Norfolk so she may well have taken inspiration from her surroundings.

I enjoyed reading this but finishing it left me wanting more. I wanted to go back to Miss Merridew and read about her thoughts on the diary. This is the problem with reading some of Virginia Woolf’s earlier, unpublished work, it was not written as a complete piece to be read so is not perhaps as she would have intended it to be.

*There are some discrepancies here with the dates, the diary is said to be for the year 1480 but Joan’s date of birth is given as 1495. Susan Dick (editor) suggests that this us an unrevised story and that Virginia Woolf would have amended the dates if she had revised the work.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Mysterious Case of Miss V. 1906

The Mysterious Case of Miss V. is a very short story, indeed running to only two and a bit pages, it is really a short character study. Miss V. is in fact the Misses V, two sisters who are always at the social functions that the narrator attends, but who blend into the background, “melt into some armchair or chest of drawers” (p31) When the sisters stop attending these functions the narrator is aware that something is not quite right but is not able to put her finger on it. The ending of the piece has a supernatural quality to it, so I wont spoil it. I love Virginia Woolf’s style of writing, she is not afraid to use long sentences, with lots of punctuation which gives a very distinct rhythm to the words and dictates how you read it.

The opening line

“It is a commonplace that there is no loneliness like that of one who finds himself along in a crowd; novelists repeat it; the pathos is undeniable; and now, since the case of Miss V. I at least have come to believe it.” (p30)

Semi-colons seem to have been a favourite of Virginia’s. Matt from A Guy’s Moleskine has been reading Mrs Dalloway and comments here on her frequent use of semi-colons.

At first this use of punctuation can make her work difficult to read, but I have found that as you get used to it being forced to slow down and read everything more carefully actually makes reading the piece more interesting and you get more out of it.

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.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Short Stories

Virginia Woolf wrote a lot! Apart from the fiction, novels and short stories she also wrote critiques and reviews for various publications such as the Times Literary Supplement, as well a various biographies, the most known of which is her biography of her good friend Roger Fry. Her first published work was a review of ‘The Son of Royal Longbrith by W.D. Howells” published in The Guardian, 14th December 1904 when she was 22.

I am not going to attempt to read everything she wrote, just the main books that were published and a selection of the short pieces that she wrote. For these, I will be refereeing to ‘The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf’ put together and edited by Susan Dick.

This is a fantastically comprehensive book that not only puts these works into chronological order, but it is also supplemented with a wealth of information about the text, when it dates from and it also details the changes to the manuscripts that Virginia Woolf made. It even goes into the detail of words, punctuation and passages of text that are crossed out. Susan Dick must have spent many an hour reading and re-reading Virginia’s original manuscripts to decipher what her intended meaning was. On it’s own it would be a fascinating read, but I am going to use it to supplement my reading of her longer works.

Many of these short stories have been published in collections such as ‘Monday or Tuesday’ and ‘ A Haunted House and Other Short Stories’ but what this book does is to bring them together in the order that they were written, rather than published so you are able to see the progression of Virginia Woolf’s work.

So to begin, I am going to read five short stories written between 1906 and 1909, and a piece written about her sister Vanessa for her nephew Julian in 1908, but I shall begin with Phyllis and Rosamund written in 1906…