Selected Short Stories by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf is best known for her novels, the writing of which often caused a huge amount of strain to her already fragile health. Her short stories were often written as a kind of relaxation, during or after a novel, and she often seemed to dismiss them, unsure of their quality. However, my memories of reading them (many moons ago) is that they were anything but minor works, and a chance stumble upon a copy of “Selected Short Stories” made me determined to return to her shorter writings.
I first read Woolf’s short stories in a collected volume “A Haunted House and other Stories”, collected by Leonard Woof after Virginia’s death (my edition was a small Triad Panther copy – in fact, most of my first Woolfs were from this publisher). This collected together many of the stories which are in the Penguin Selected Short Stories volume I have, but as I can remember so little about my early readings I thought in some ways this might be like a fresh reading.
And fresh is the word! The Selected volume is a lovely one, with an excellent introduction by Sandra Kemp setting out the background to the stories. The book reproduces Woolf’s 1921 collection “Monday or Tuesday”, complete with original woodcuts by Vanessa Bell; and in addition there are 7 extra stories, in order of publication. The notes are informative, giving original publication dates, background and context plus specifics about each piece.
But what of the stories themselves? Well, some are short experimental pieces, no longer than a page; others are more substantial works; all are dazzling and brilliant. Woolf used her shorter fiction to make early experiments in writing, using techniques she would later incorporate into her novels as she became more adventurous. The short prose pieces are the results of a writer playing with words, seeing how she can stretch sentences into different shapes to catch those moments of being, those everyday pieces of life that seem more vivid that the quotidian.
And Woolf could play with words like no other, using them to draw out thought processes and tease meaning out of the seemingly banal. Some of the stories have plot (“Lapin and Lappinova”, still one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read; “The Duchess and the Jeweller”, something of a parable about how we deceive ourselves and each other). Some are meditations, capturing the way mind flits around from subject to subject, musing randomly (“The Mark on the Wall”). Each is a joy to read, and it’s wonderful to see Bell’s woodcuts complementing her sister’s words, and also to encounter the quite beautiful prose of word paintings like “Blue and Green”.
I was spellbound by this collection and came out of it stunned once again by the genius of Woolf’s writing; her way with words, her spiralling flight of fancy, is truly unique and I don’t think there’s another writer to touch her. Picking out quotes would defeat the object and spoil the effect of reading her pieces, where every word is considered and perfectly placed. It’s all too easy to get distracted by the many books you read, to forget how truly great some authors’ works can be; but going back to Virginia Woolf’s shorter fictions was a revelation, and I’m certainly not going to leave it so long before re-reading more of her writing.