‘The String Quartet’, which was published in Virginia Woolf’s short-story collection Monday or Tuesday in 1921, is one of her strongest evocations of music and its links to memory and imagination. You can read ‘The String Quartet’ here before proceeding to our summary of the story’s ‘plot’ below.
The ‘plot’ of ‘The String Quartet’ is very easy to summarise, for hardly anything ‘happens’ as such: the narrator attends a classical music concert given by a string quartet, listens to the snatches of conversation around her, and reflects upon the different moods and responses that listening to music can inspire. Then, after the concert is over, the narrator and the other audience members leave the theatre. And that, in one sense, is that.
But of course, as so often with a modernist story and a Virginia Woolf story, the importance of the story lies less in ‘what happens’ than in how the event is described, and what impact it has upon the character(s). In ‘An Unwritten Novel’, another of Woolf’s short stories included in Monday on Tuesday, the focus is on a female narrator sitting in a train carriage and observing her fellow passenger: this is the starting-point for a series of impressions, guesses, and imaginings involving this other woman’s life, her family, her work, her past. In ‘The String Quartet’, the focus is not a train carriage but a music concert, but the narrator (also, one presumes, female) is similarly a people-watcher, interested in the conversations going on about her as well as the music being played.
We might divide ‘The String Quartet’, for the purposes of this summary, into three related sections or stages: the beginning of the concert while the narrator and other audience members are waiting for the musicians to take to the stage (during which time the narrator listens to what people are saying around her); the start of the concert, during which time the narrator overhears the reactions of her fellow listeners to the music being played; and the narrator’s more personal and introspective daydream while she listens to the music. The narrator has been transported to some sort of chivalric world involving princes, seneschals, knights with swords, and women wearing pretty dresses:
He followed me down the corridor, and, as we turned the corner, trod on the lace of my petticoat. What could I do but cry ‘Ah!’ and stop to finger it? At which he drew his sword, made passes as if he were stabbing something to death, and cried, ‘Mad! Mad! Mad!’ Whereupon I screamed, and the Prince, who was writing in the large vellum book in the oriel window, came out in his velvet skull-cap and furred slippers, snatched a rapier from the wall—the King of Spain’s gift, you know—on which I escaped, flinging on this cloak to hide the ravages to my skirt—to hide …
The mention of a ‘vellum book’ and an ‘oriel window’ suggest the Middle Ages: the music has taken the narrator outside of the present time of London, 1919 and into an imagined past of courtly romance.
As we’d expect at a music concert taking place in 1919 (the year in which ‘The String Quartet’ is set: we know this because of the reference early on to the ‘Treaty being signed’, the treaty in question being the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in June 1919), the people in the audience are overwhelmingly upper-class: the sort of people who could afford to go to a music concert a hundred years ago. So the talk is about people bumping into old acquaintances they last saw while holidaying in Venice, or about a female friend who’s just bought a house at Malmesbury, and so on.
This chatter gives way to less trivial matters once the music begins, until by the end of the story, the narrator is sharing her intimate romantic thoughts with us. But we’ll leave off saying more about that until Thursday, when we’ll offer some more thoughts on ‘The String Quartet’.