Sunday 14 May 2023

Two Stories – The Mark on The Wall

Two Stories 100th anniversary edition published 2017

Two Stories was published in 1917 and was the first publication printed by the Hogarth Press. I saw the actual Hogarth press a few years ago when I visited Sissinghurst and was taken back by how manual this process must have been. We take for granted now how easy it is to print a document but setting the type by hand and printing each page is a very labour-intensive process, something we just don’t think about. I’ve wondered before what Virginia would have made of digital technology in relation to publishing. Would she have written a blog? Or had an Instagram account? Her work challenged what a novel needed to look like, I’m sure she would have been influenced by the impact that new technology had on how we chose to tell stories. 

Like most of the books I’ve read, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this story and it went into a completely different direction than I expected it. Like many of Virginia Woolf’s short stories, this book is something of a sketch. A moment on a cold evening where she observes the objects around her and allows her thoughts to drift to new ideas. 

As with all the books, I’m reading in this project. I’ve tried not to find out too much about them so that my first read is entirely shaped by my own experience, rather than preconceived ideas and yet I’m still surprised by what each story has to offer and how unlike what I think of Woolf to be. The melancholy and illness she experienced loom large over my impression of her, and yet so much of her writing is about the joy and privilege of life. Yes, it is intense, thought-provoking, and challenging, but there is also something about the vastness of the world and what it means to be alive that makes her work very uplifting. 

Two stories was the first book Virginia and Leonard published on the Hogarth press. They literally set the type and printed the pages themselves. They made 134 copies which required over “4000 pulls on the printer on Leonard’s part” and it was sold to their network of friends. It was the start of the Hogarth press as a publisher, which is still in existence today. Both Leonard and Virginia wrote a story, and they were printed alongside woodcuts created by their friend, Dora Carrington. 

I read The Mark on the Wall several times because, although it is the shortest of stories, at just 23 small pages, there is so much packed into each sentence and on so many levels

The following section contains spoilers

On the surface, the story is the wandering thoughts of the narrator who is sat in front of a fire on a January afternoon. Their musings on life are interrupted when they notice a mark on the wall “7 inches above the mantelpiece.”  Rather than get up to see what it is. They contemplate what it could be from their seat. As they do this, their thoughts flit from topic to topic. These few moments on a sunny afternoon, letting their thoughts wander, take us through hundreds of years of history and they contemplate how the world might be significantly changed in the years to come. 

The last page is a jolt into reality “curse this war” when you realise that these moments of daydream have been an escape from the horror of the war, that would’ve filled the newspapers every day. This piece was written in 1917. The great war was raging in Europe, and it was a time of huge social change. The war and the flu epidemic of 1918 caused huge numbers of death which led to societal change. Women would begin to get the vote in 1918, although not all women, and changes in class, art and literature all occurred. I think Woolf sensed that change was on the way and being able to print her own work opened up a freedom to write what she wanted. Without the restriction of a publisher. She talks about the “intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom that could come from the letting go of old conventions in society.”

And then the story ends with the light-hearted realisation that the mark on the wall is in fact, a snail, which is accompanied by a lovely woodcut illustration. 

The more I read the story the more I see themes of what Woolf will write about in the coming years, challenging convention, both in society, and in the field of novel writing. You can also see how she reflects on the role of women in the world, and of course, a stream of consciousness style of writing, where authors of the future will be “leaving the description of reality, more and more out of their stories.” 

The book was originally published alongside a story by Leonard Woolf called Three Jews. Unsurprisingly I don’t have one of the 134 hand printed editions, although you can see one at the The British Library here.  The edition I have read was published by Hogarth, who are part of Penguin Random House, in 2017 celebrating 100 years since the original publication of the book. The Leonard story has been bumped for a new story called St Brides Bay, by Mark Haddon, who is a fan of Virginia Woolf. He also created a linocut of Virginia Woolf to compliment Carrington’s linocuts in the original edition. 

I really enjoyed The Mark on The Wall, possibly my favourite thing I have read so far, and I’m delighted that I have a Mark on My wall that mentions this piece

Woodcut from 2008 to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. 

Sunday 20 February 2022

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

I wrote this piece in April 2020 but never published it, so it is getting its first outing almost two years on….

April 2020

We are living in a strange time in April 2020, the whole of the country is in lockdown and the pace of life has slowed down considerably. We are surrounded by the invisible threat of Coronavirus, Covid-19, but for those of us like me, who are lucky enough to be able to continue to work and live in houses with outside space, we have the luxury of the world slowing down and so much more time to sit and read. 

I have been drawn back to this project, in part because I have the time to sit and think about it, but also because I want to think about how Virginia Woolf dealt with challenging times in her life. I wondered if the Spanish flu of 1918 was something that touched her life (it gets a brief mention in a 1918 diary) and I’ve also been thinking about the periods of confinement that Virginia was subject to when she was unwell. All of these thoughts led me to picking up and reading Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris. I was given it as a birthday present last August, but having such a busy life has meant it has sat languishing on the “to be read” pile for some months. 

It has been a long time since I read a biography of Virginia Woolf, you can read about Hermione Lee here and Quentin Bell here and Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris was the perfect way to get back into reading about this author who I have been fascinated by for so long. 

Each chapter of the book represents a period in Virginia Woolf’s life and makes mention of the books she was writing and the wider things going on at the time. Having already read Hermione Lee’s ‘Virginia Woolf’ and Lyndall Gordon’s ‘Virginia Woolf: A Writers Life’, I knew a lot of the detail of her life, but this biography presented it in a different way to me. Being shorter, I was better able to see the connections between her life and her writing, understanding how each book fitted in with her life. 

It has reinvigorated me in my project to read all of Virginia Woolf’s work. I’ve had Virginia Woolf as a companion for a long time, but with more of a focus for the last 11 years after starting this blog in March 2009. As I read her diaries, I  was fascinated by the fact that we were born 100 years apart, it was easy to see how old she was as it matched my age (plus 100 years) and as it has taken me so long to tackle this project I am just about reading her books in the time it took her to write them. I love exploring her life at the time when we are the same age, seeing how she changes with age and how I have changed too. More so than men, a woman’s choices in life are often judged in relation to her age.  

I’ve am just about to start reading Night and Day (which I’m slightly behind on as it was published October 2019) and have a few blog posts to write about Two Stories, which features The Mark on the Wall and Kew Gardens, which I have read but not yet written about.

Reading this book has also inspired me to get walking again, after not having left the house for over a week. I went for a walk this evening whilst listening to Alexandra Harris on her radio series A Walk of One’s Own for BBC Radio 4, you can listen here.

Sunday 15 November 2015

Back from Sea... The Voyage Out

I will be writing about the entire plot of The Voyage Out in this post, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want any spoilers please save this post for another time!

I have just finished reading The Voyage Out for the second time and only five years since I first started it! Interestingly, The Voyage Out was first published in 1915, so I have finished it 100 years after it was written.  Virginia Woolf started writing this book around 1910 and got married to Leonard Woolf in 1912, half way through writing it, so it has taken me the same amount of time to read and write about it as it took her to write the whole book!

I was born 100 years after Virginia Woolf, so it is very easy to see myself in her shoes 100 years on. In 2015 I live alone in a house that I am paying the mortgage for and live in a world with so many more choices but also some of the same struggles.  It might just be that I am reading lots about the choice or women to marry or not, and facing those questions in my own life, but I really found this book to be an exploration of what it means to a woman to get married (or not) and how big a decision in your life that can be.

A quick plot summary

The central character of this book is Rachel Vinrace, her mother died when she was eleven and she was brought up by her father and her aunts in Richmond. Now, aged 24, she is setting off on a voyage to South America on her father’s ship with her aunt and uncle (her mother’s younger brother.) Her aunt is shocked to learn of the sheltered life she has been living. Rachel has never been kissed and has no idea about men or sex. Her aunt Helen takes her under her wing and starts to educate her in life and encourages her to think for herself and form her own opinions of the world. Her voyage into womanhood begins on her father’s ship when she is kissed by the married Richard Dalloway, unlocking a whole new world to her. Once she has arrived in South America she meets two men, Hewet and Hirst, who along with Helen continue to challenge her assumptions about life and what it means to be a woman. After many conversations Hewet and Rachel are engaed to be married. But their happy little life in England will never happen as Rachel develops a fever and dies.


The first thing that struck me about the book was that the central characters were almost exclusively women and the male characters were mostly on the edge of the action, making a comment here or there but largely remaining silent (Ambrose) or absent (Willoughby). The only men to get any real attention are Hewet and Hirst, the love interest and his friend.  The other thing that struck me about all these women is that they represent the variety of choices in life that a woman could make at that time:

Helen Ambrose – wife, and mother, intelligent, inquisitive and bold
Mrs Thornbury – married, lots of children, probably anti-suffrage
Mrs Elliot – married and very conventional but childless (not through choice)
Mrs Flushing – married, eccentric upper class
Miss Allan – a spinster, more interested in her work than married life
Susan Warrington – on the path to becoming a spinster but now engaged
Evelen M – not sure that she wants to get married at all and would rather conquer the world.
Rachel Vinrance – our heroine, 24, never been kissed, naive about the world but curious and full of excitement.

The lower classes don’t really get a mention! We have a small glimpse into the life of Emma Chailey when we see her room on the boat out, but otherwise we know very little about her or any of the other servants.

I think that Woolf uses these women to explore the choices that women have about their lives, how they might feel about them and the sacrifices they have to make that just don’t apply to men in the same way.

I was also struck that the Dalloway’s feature in The Voyage Out. The pompous Richard Dalloway, his character made me really angry. I don’t know if this is the same Richard and Clarissa Dalloway of Mrs Dalloway, but I like to think of Woolf having all of those characters with her for years before they come out on the page. In The Voyage Out the Dalloway’s join the ship part way through the voyage and Richard reveals a whole new part of the world to Rachel. Whilst the rest of the ship are taken out with sea sickness Richard and Rachel talk together before he kisses her and then blames her for doing it saying “you tempt me”!!!

The difference between men and women

St John Hirst discusses with Rachel the reasons why women might be different to men

“It’s actually difficult to tell about women, how much I mean is due to lack of training, and how much is native incapacity... you’ve led an absurd life until now.”

St John Hirst seems to want women to be his equal, his friendship with Helen and her liking of him is very important

“Few things at the present time mattered more than the enlightenment of women.”

It’s odd to think that this was written at a time when women didn’t have the vote and the suffrage movement was in full swing. There are some interesting observations about the impact of women achieving the vote which were very perceptive. Hewett remarks that

“It’ll take at least six generations before you’re sufficiently thick skinned to go into law courts and business offices. Consider what a bully the ordinary man is, the ordinary hard working, rather ambitious solicitor or man of business with a family to bring up and a certain position to maintain. And then, of course, the daughters have to give way to the sons, the sons have to be educated; they have to bully and slave, for their wives and families and so it all comes over again. And meanwhile there are the women in the background.”

Woolf asserted that it would take 6 generations for this problem to be solved. 100 years later we are only 4 generations on and the place of women in the workplace (or lack of), particularly in more senior roles is still very relevant today. We’ve made huge progress in terms of women’s rights in the last 100 years but there is still a long way to go. I’ve just finished reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and in it she talks about both the environment of the office and the role of men in providing for their families. She suggests that until it is completely accepted that the role in the home is just as important as the work outside of the home, and men play an equal role in this, then women won’t be able to achieve equality in the workplace.

Where are all the women?

Woolf also makes an observation about the fact that the lives of women generally go unrecorded in the history books. There is a long passage by Hewett about how men never properly record women’s history and women don’t have a voice either

“of course, we’re always writing about women – abusing them, or jeering at them or worshipping them, but it’s never come from women themselves. It’s the man’s view that’s represented you see... Doesn’t it make your blood boil? If I were a woman I’d blow someone’s brains out. Don’t you laugh at us a great deal? Don’t you think it all a great humbug?”

Again, this still rings true today. I am slowly discovering more and more women who have seemingly vanished from the history books. Where growing up I assume that very few women were able to achieve great things, I am now discovering that their achievements have been hidden and lost to history. Take the photographer Gerda Taro, she worked with Robert Capa (indeed some of his photos may have been taken by her) but her name is not as well recorded. She was killed during the Spanish civil war and her achievements were lost, unlike Robert Capa who when he died was immortalized in numerous books and exhibitions. Or Lee Miller, (who is now getting more recognition, there is an exhibition at the ImperialWar Museum at the moment) who too was an incredible photographer in her day, establishing new photography techniques that Man Ray took all the credit for, she is recorded as his lover. Her work fell into obscurity until her son discovered all of her negatives after his parent’s death and he has now made sure her achievements are remembered.

The BBC has just produced a four part documentary called The Ascent of Woman which looks at the history of women in the development of the world and in particular focuses on how their stories have been lost, forgotten or retold to minimize their achievements.

Will you marry me?

The main theme of the book seems to be marriage and challenging the idea that his is what people should do. Evelyn M is an interesting character as she seems to challenge the idea of marriage entirely.

“Just because one’s interested and likes to be friends with men, and talked to them as one talks to women, one’s called a flirt.”

She has a proposal of marriage from two men and rather than worrying about which one to accept she is more concerned that she was asked in the first place and doesn’t quite know how to say no to either of them. She admires Garibaldi and other great explorers and I think she would rather explore the world than settle down. Hewet says

“the women he most admired and knew best were unmarried women. Marriage seemed to be worse for them that it was for men.”

Again it is interesting that 100 years on the ideas and views of marriage haven’t changed a great deal. Although now couples can live together, marry and divorce with little comment from others, and with access to contraception marriage doesn’t mean a family of thirteen children, it is still very much seen as the done thing. Spinster by Kate Bollick which has just been published in the UK this year examines the single life through the eyes of five female authors and explores how marriage (or not marrying) affected them and their work, as well as exploring what it means to be a spinster in 2015.

Towards the end of the book Evelyn sums up her feelings about marriage and how it is not for her

“Love was all very well,... but the real things were surely the things that happened in the great world outside, and went on independently of these women.”

The life that Evelyn wants is very reminiscent of the life Virginia and her siblings were leading, she wants to be able to meet with other people and discuss the world

“A nice room in Bloomsbury preferably where they could meet once a week.”

Till death us do part

The death of Rachel is really the death of an alternative way of living married life together to that of previous generations. Hewett was insistent that in their marriage Rachel would be free to be herself and that they would be happy together. Does the fact that Rachel dies suggest that Woolf didn’t think that this was a possibility? One thing that stuck out when I read this passage when Rachel dies is what Hewett says immediately following her death

“No two people have ever been so happy as we have been.”

This is very similar to the words Virginia used in her letter Leonard before she took her own life in 1941. You can see a copy of the letter and a transcript here

I saw the letter at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition about Woolf in 2014 and it was incredibly moving to read.

It seems odd that she wrote almost the same thing 26 years later to describe her life with Leonard in the same way as she had written about two characters in her first novel. Leonard must really have made her very happy.

Saturday 14 November 2015

When life gets in the way

I’ve not written here for five years. It feels like the longest time and no time at all. The truth is I haven’t really been able to read or write or concentrate on anything very much. I had a period of stress in my life, including a bereavement, which left me physically and mentally exhausted, and I just couldn’t face writing anymore. It turned out that I had an underlying health problem which wasn’t helping things either. 

It has taken a lot of time but I am now in a really good place with my life and the urge to write and read has now returned.I didn’t have a breakdown like Virginia did, and to the outside world I was still able to function perfectly well, but it did give me an insight into what it feels like to want to be able to do something but your body and your mind just won’t let you do it.  It makes you realise how much you take for granted when you are feeling well.

I took The Voyage Out with me on holiday, determined not only to read it (which I had managed to do before) but also to write about it. I was in the South of France and the weather was 23 degrees and sunny which meant sitting in the sunshine with a beautiful view reading was very easy indeed. Once I had finished reading it I sat outside to write about it and to my surprise words just kept pouring out. It felt so good to have thoughts again and to be able to articulate them. I’ll be posting my thoughts here soon…

Sunday 28 March 2010

I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been

On the 28th March, 1941, Virginia Woolf left her house in Rodmell Sussex and drowned herself in the river Ouse just a short walk from her garden. She left two suicide notes behind, one for her husband Leonard and one for her sister Vanessa. She was 59 years old and had just finished her last novel Between the Acts which was published after her death.

Last summer I walked from Rodmell, along the river Ouse and over the South Downs to Charleston Farmhouse, the house that Virginia's sister Vanessa lived in. It is a walk Virginia would have done many times herself and I thought a lot about how last journey to the river and her decision to end her life. You can't quite see the river in this picture at the bottom of the downs.

There has been a lot of discussion about Virginia Woolf's suicide and I feel sometimes that her "moods" and suicide somewhat dominate the perception of her and her writing so I wont dwell on this any longer, I just took moment to think about it with today being 28th March.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Drifting in the Euphrosyne somewhere off the South American coast...

I am still here and reading Woolf but I can't seem to find the words to post about The Voyage Out. It has almost taken me as long to write about it as it took Woolf to write it in the first place. I am almost there and will be posting shortly.

In the meantime can I draw your attention to a Woolf online reading group and discussion that is taking place from 15th January. Four bloggers are going to be reading and reviewing four of Woolf's novels over two months; Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando and The Waves.

If you would like to join them, details can be found here: Woolf in Winter: An Invitation

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Virginia Woolf's First "Novel" - Hiterhto Unpublished

I recently discovered the Bloomsbury Heritage Series, which is a series of short booklets about all things Bloomsbury and the people that were part of this group. It was set up by Leonard Woolf’s nephew Cecil Woolf and it is a really delightful collection of books. The series is published very much in the spirit of the Hogarth Press, each book is bound in card and the front cover has a design similar to those that Vanessa Bell designed for The Hogarth Press.

The idea of the series is to bring together pieces of writing about and around the Bloomsbury group. It explores all aspects of their lives and has many contributors. There is something very charming about them and I love that you send off for them by post, It is a real pleasure to wait for it to arrive through the letter box, the anticipation, something that we have lost in the age of the internet, download it now, next day delivery. Mr Woolf is a real character too, and he recently attended the International Virginia Woolf Conference in New York, coverage of this can be seen here and here -Thank you to Blogging Woolf for the links.

I had ordered a catalogue by e-mail and was pleasantly surprised when I had a reply from Cecil Woolf to say that it was in the post. When I placed my order for the first book in the series ‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ I had read that Mr. Woolf would be attending the annual Virginia Woolf conference so I did not expect an immediate response. About a week later I received another e-mail apologising for the delay in sending out my order, it was a lovely touch and by far the best customer service I have received in a long time.

‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ which is “Virginia Woolf’s first ‘novel’ - Hitherto Unpublished” as pronounced on the front cover, was written when she was just ten years old. Virginia Woolf decided at a very early age that she would be a writer and from that point onwards she was always writing, early attempts at stories, the Hyde Park Gate News, with her siblings, diary entries, fiction, critical essays - she was always writing.

The book itself is a delight to read and you sometimes forget that it was written by a child, as some of the language is quite sophisticated and yet at other times it is very childlike. It is difficult to know how much of this is due to the different use of language (this was, after all, written 110 years ago) and how much is down to Virginia being a very bright and capable child. Despite what she felt in later life about her education, compared to many of today’s ten year olds her education was very broad and thorough.

The introduction, written by Suzanne Henig is very informative about Virginia Woolf and her siblings early writings as well as making comparisons to Woolf’s later works. This seems a little unfair, (how many of us would want to be judge on our achievements aged ten?) but at the same time fascinating to see the seeds of ideas which would go on to become ground breaking novels.

The book itself is actually two stories, both a only a few chapters long. ‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ tells the story of a Cockney and his wife who decide to buy a farm in Buckinghamshire. They don’t know anything about farming but “we were then lately married and very energetic and hopeful” (P15) The story tells of the various trials and tribulations that the Cockney farmer faces, but it all turns out right in the end when he inherits “ a jolly lot of money” (P 20) from an Aunt who has just died.

The second story is a sequel entitled “The Experiences of a Pater-familias (A sequel to A Cockney’s Farming Experiences.) which takes place three years later and is about the arrival of the farmer’s son Alphonso, who he dislikes and is rather jealous of.

There is a lot of emphasis on the relationship of the husband and wife

“nothing worth recording happened except that Harriet did not say one nasty word to me during the whole day” (P17 )


“I got a blowing-up from Harriet for half an hour afterwards as I had burnt the toast to a cinder.” (P16)

The poor farmer never seems to be able to do anything right!

I have really enjoyed reading this first attempt by Virginia Woolf at writing a novel, it certainly gives you an insight into what she might have been like as a child. The story was started by both Thoby and Virginia, but Suzanne Henig has suggested that Thoby quickly got bored and that the story was completed by Virginia alone.

I have also got the second book in the Bloomsbury Heritage series, ‘Roger Fry: A Series of Impressions’ which was written by Virginia about her great friend Roger Fry after he died in 1934. I shall be returning to this later on.