One of the first books produced by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, Monday or Tuesday, a collection of short stories, is representative of Woolf’s style, relying on her ranging interior narrative voice, the stream-of-consciousness technique for which she and other modernist writers have become famous (see Modernism). There are eight stories in the collection: “A Haunted House,” “A Society,” “Monday or Tuesday,” “An Unwritten Novel,” “A String Quartet,” “Blue and Green,” “Kew Gardens,” and “The Mark on the Wall.” Some of the stories reveal Woolf’s interest in gender. “A Society” is about a group of women who meet every week to debate issues of the day. The story also raises questions about female creativity. This is also the theme of the important story “An Unwritten Novel,” which Woolf claimed marked a breakthrough in her invention of a modern style. She described the lightning-speed composition of “An Unwritten Novel” as a “great discovery [that] showed me how I could embody all my deposit of experience in a shape that fitted it” (letter to Ethel Smyth, October 18, 1930).
“An Unfinished Novel” is the story of one woman trying, on a train ride, to imagine a how a stranger lives. The narrator stares over her newspaper and creates a name and story for the passenger sitting across from her, calling her “Minnie Marsh” and deciding that she is going to visit her brother John, sister-in-law Hilda, and their children Bob and Barbara in Eastborne. Working as a novelist does, she imagines what Minnie’s private sins might be and forms an antagonist for the story, James Moggridge. Here Woolf essentially compares any attempt at communication with the creative act of writing a novel: A good novel, like a good relationship, builds the hidden personality that Woolf calls the “figure behind the ferns” in “An Unwritten Novel” (16). The narrator’s observation of “Minnie” over the top of the Times, in which she’s reading a story about the Peace Conference, echoes Woolf’s own later, famous claim in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” that “in or about December, 1910, human character changed.” The wartime switch from Victorian to modernist style meant a switch from structuring a truth from reportage and physical details to reconstructing the truth of inner lives. The story ends when the narrator watches “Minnie” step off the train to meet her actual son. The reality does not match what the narrator predicted, and she feels her distance from this other human being, coupled with an ongoing need to imagine what others feel. “It’s you, unknown figures, you I adore,” Woolf writes (21).
“An Unwritten Novel” also rehearses some lines that find development in later novels such as Mrs. Dalloway, including the narrator’s musing that Minnie “committed some crime!” (12) and that there was “a parting, was it, twenty years ago” (12) and her image of Minnie’s shopping in a store alone, fingering rose print. Some of Woolf’s other prominent themes also appear, including the importance of the body (in Minnie’s uncontrollable twitch), the metaphor of knitting socks as creation inside the passing of time, and the empathetic gap between social classes (Minnie’s lower social standing keeps her unknowable for the narrator).
Monday or Tuesday was generally positively received. Harold Child wrote in the Times Literary Supplement (April 7, 1921) that Woolf constructed a map of realistic psychological detail in which “all [is] so trivial, all so significant.” In New Statesman (April 9, 1921), Desmond MacCarthy credited Woolf with framing the inner life as “incomparably . . . more vivid and real” than mere physical details. An unsigned review in Dial (February 1922) critiqued some of the stories for lack of form. The reviews did, however, acknowledge what Woolf was trying to do with the short story. These stories can also be read as Woolf’s own answers to the problems she poses in “Modern Novels” (Times Literary Supplement, 1919; later revised and printed as “Modern Fiction,” 1925) and later in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (New York Evening Post, 1923). In both of those essays, Woolf calls for a fiction that deemphasizes physical details in favor of greater psychological acuity. She blames popular genre expectations for disconnecting fiction from the sloppier experience of real mental life.
Virginia Woolf. Letter of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 4. Edited by Joanne Trautman. New York: Harcourt 1981.
———. Monday or Tuesday. New York: Dover, 1995.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story