A summary of a classic modernist story
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was drawn to railway carriages. In her 1924 essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, in which she champions a more ‘spiritual’, impressionistic – what we would now call modernist – approach to fiction, in opposition to the more stolidly materialist approach of a popular writer like Arnold Bennett, she presents us with a hypothetical railway journey, outlining the attitude she would take to an imagined female passenger, ‘Mrs Brown’, and how such an attitude differs from that taken by a writer like Bennett. Bennett would be interested in Mrs Brown’s appearance, her occupation, her income; Woolf is interested in what it feels like to be Mrs Brown. In her 1922 novel Jacob’s Room, Woolf once again presents us with a railway carriage scene, this time involving the young Jacob Flanders as he travels to Cambridge to begin his studies there. The older woman who shares the carriage with him tries, and fails, to analyse him. But perhaps Woolf’s greatest railway narrative occurs in ‘An Unwritten Novel’, a 1920 short story she wrote in defence of her new modernist method. It is a story that invites endless interpretation and analysis.
‘An Unwritten Novel’ doesn’t really have a ‘plot’ as such, but its substance can be summarised as follows. The female narrator is travelling on the train from London to the south coast. She is a people-watcher, and takes an interest in her fellow passengers, all of whom are trying to avoid making eye contact with the other people in the carriage. All, that is, except one: a woman sitting across from the narrator, who stares straight ahead, and who, the narrator surmises, harbours some secret. Christening this female stranger ‘Minnie Marsh’, the narrator proceeds to invent a whole life for this unknown woman, based on the look that the narrator reads in her eyes. She builds up a ‘picture’ of the woman: unmarried, childless, going to visit her sister-in-law at Eastbourne. She believes that ‘Minnie’ has committed some sort of crime, memories of which she carries around with her, and decides that the dark secret Minnie carries around with her is that she was negligent when looking after her baby brother, and left him unattended, with the result that he died from scalding. The narrator then invents other personages from Minnie’s life – a travelling salesman who lodges with Minnie’s sister-in-law, whom she names James Moggridge – but struggles to pin them down.
But in any event, her analysis of the woman’s life turns out to be wrong: when the train pulls into the station at Eastbourne, the narrator expects that ‘Minnie’ will not be met by anyone, but is surprised to see that Minnie is met at the platform by a young man who appears to be her son. She isn’t childless, after all, and is probably not heading off to stay with her sister-in-law. Woolf’s narrator has got it all wrong. But after lamenting her mistakes for a few moments, she then pulls herself together and celebrates ‘life’ for being so mysterious and elusive: life is far more fascinating and difficult to pin down than her creative flights of fancy had supposed. She is back where she started, but that’s how she likes it: always guessing, always imagining, with real life constantly surprising her and eluding her grasp. The life of the imagination, after all, is what truly matters.
The narrator of ‘An Unwritten Novel’ is the worst Sherlock Holmes imaginable. All of her deductions (though Holmes’s method isn’t technically ‘deduction’) prove to be wide of the mark. Interestingly, Woolf, in a later public correspondence with Arnold Bennett in the wake of the publication of her novel Jacob’s Room (which Bennett had reviewed critically), would challenge Bennett’s idea that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are ‘real’ characters who contain ‘life’, who are living, breathing creations who leap off the page. (She dismissively describes poor Dr Watson as ‘a sack stuffed with straw’.) It’s almost as if she is consciously taking the ‘deductive’ technique of Victorian and Edwardian fiction’s most popular ‘materialist’ – for Holmes’s technique is founded not on psychological insight but on material detail – and inverting this materialist method in order to prepare us for her impressionistic approach.
The title ‘An Unwritten Novel’ carries two meanings: the story is ‘an unwritten novel’ because although it has the potential to form the narrative of a novel, that novel remains unwritten (as it did when Woolf was writing: she was yet to put these new techniques into practice and write Jacob’s Room); but the story is also an unwriting of the novel as a form – that is, it undoes the very fabric of the novel as we know it, as practised by Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells (the three writers Woolf singles out in her 1919 essay ‘Modern Fiction’ and her 1924 essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’).
But the story might also be analysed as a counter-response to the Arnold Bennett style of creating character. Although the putative subject of the story is the woman whom the narrator observes sitting opposite her in the train compartment, really the life of the story is located in the narrator herself: in other words, the fact that the narrator completely misreads her fellow passenger, but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is ‘the life of the mind’, what’s going on in the narrator’s head, the movement of thoughts, the acts of creative imagination which the other passenger has prompted. It’s more important to get to the core of the ‘truth’ of human experience than it is to guess the factual, materialist details of a person. If it had been Arnold Bennett sitting in that train carriage in place of the narrator, he would have observed what ‘Minnie’ was wearing, guessed at what her job was, and probably left it at that. He wouldn’t be curious as to what she was thinking, how she felt about her life, whether she thought she was a success or a failure, whether she nurtured any ambitions to do something else with her life.
Woolf collected together these short stories, including ‘A Haunted House’ and ‘An Unwritten Novel’, in a slim volume, Monday or Tuesday (1921), which she and her husband self-published through their own publishing company, the Hogarth Press (they had also published T. S. Eliot’s second volume of poems in 1919). Monday or Tuesday marks the turning point in Woolf’s development as a writer. Leonard Woolf called this volume one of the worst books that had ever been printed, because it contained so many typographical mistakes (it was one of the first books to be published by the Woolfs’ own printing press). But the stories in the volume showed to Woolf that she could write a new kind of fiction.
You can read Woolf’s best short stories in the collection The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction (Oxford World’s Classics). Continue to explore the world of modernist literature with May Sinclair’s forgotten 1922 masterpiece, Sinclair’s imagist verse novel, and Dorothy Richardson’s underrated fiction.