Memoirs of a Novelist by Virginia Woolf


This is a slim volume of five of Virginia Woolf’s earliest stories, offering glimpses of the themes and style to come in her later work.

It is a fairly diverse collection, but each story is beautifully drawn and will live on in your mind long after reading.

Phyllis and Rosamond are two of five Victorian sisters. They have been brought up in the expectation that they will marry. There is talk of love, but their place in society is paramount – a good marriage will give them freedom from their family, their own households and a role that they understand. A simple story, but it whets the appetite for what is to come.

The Mysterious Case of Miss V is the story of one of many London society ladies. She attends tea parties, concerts and functions and she always dresses and behaves appropriately, but this conformity serves only to render her invisible. Nobody notices that she is no longer there, that she has been sick and that she has died. This is more a fragment than a short story, but it is a particulary beautiful fragment that rings true.

The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn is by far the longest story in this collection. The narrator, Miss Merridew, is an academic studying the history of land tenure in mediaeval England and building a picture of what life was like then. While travelling through Norfolk visits an old house in the hope of finding more documents to further her research. And she does – masses of them. One document is a diary and in it is recorded the daily life of Joan Martyn, dating back the 15th century. She writes of her impending marriage and her daily life, but much more is going on around her. But while the owner will allow her to study the documents them he will not sell. Miss Merridew wants to build an objective history while he values his own family story. Different approaches to history …..

A Dialogue Upon Mount Pentelicus follows six Englishman on a trip, with local guides, to the mountain of the title. Are they tourists or are they visitors? The distinction is important! There are hints of satire as Woolf makes fun of her protagonists without ever losing her wonderful evocation of the land in which they travel.

Memoirs of a Novelist provides a thought provoking ending to this collection. Miss Willat is the titular novelist and her friend Miss Linsett is her biographer. Miss Willat did not want her life made public, but her friend persuaded her that she should write her biography. Rather than just telling the tale, this story reports on the biography and its writing. And so questions are asked, about the roles of writers of both fact and fiction.

A lovely collection!

4 responses

  1. I haven’t read any Virginia Woolf in a very long time but this sounds very good. I’m going to see if they have it at the library. I notice you’ve been reading lots of short stories lately and you are inspiring me to try some. Good review.

  2. Quite apart from the author being who she is, I can’t imagine a collection of stories more accurately aimed at my particular obsessions in my own fiction and others’ – thank you so much for pointing me towards it.

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