An Unwritten Novel

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

An Unwritten Novel was mentioned in Virginia Woolf’s diary entry for 26 January 1920. It was first published in the London Mercury in July 1920 and reprinted in Monday or Tuesday (1921). It was also later collected in A Haunted House (1944).

An Unwritten Novel

Virginia Woolf – portrait

An Unwritten Novel – critical commentary

This is a short modernist fiction that celebrates the life of the imagination, and points to its shortcomings. As a narrator, Woolf was in the habit of thinking aloud and talking to herself, as well as to her imaginary readers. Here she takes the process one stage further by ‘talking’ to her own fictional creations.

She also shows the process of the artistic imagination at work, raising doubts about its own creations, asking questions, and posing alternative interpretations. She even develops lines of narrative then backtracks on them as improbable or cancels them as invalid, mistaken interpretation, or rejects them as inadequate.

In other words, the very erratic process of ratiocination – all the uncertainties, mistakes, hesitations – are reproduced as part of her narrative. She even addresses her own subject, silently, from within the fictional frame, and reflects on fictional creations which ‘die’ because they are rejected as unacceptable:

Let’s dodge to the Moggridge household, set that in motion. Well, the family boots are mended on Sundays by James himself. He reads Truth. But his passion? Roses — and his wife a retired hospital nurse — interesting — for God’s sake let me have one woman with a name I like! But no; she’s of the unborn children of the mind, illicit, none the less loved … How many die in every novel that’s written — the best, the dearest, while Moggridge lives.

This is also another of her early experimental stories in which it is virtually impossible not to conceptualise the narrator as someone like Woolf herself, travelling between her two homes in central London and Lewes (which is mentioned in the story). In one sense it is Woolf allowing readers a glimpse into the mind of the novelist, shaping fictions out of everyday observations.

And even if the imagined character, in this case, turns out to be (within its own fictional construction) not a true interpretation of the events ‘behind’ the overt narrative – then no matter. Minnie Marsh’s is no less convincing as an imaginary construct of the narrator’s imagination, even if (beyond the frame of the story) she goes off to have a completely happy and fulfilling engagement with her son.

An Unwritten Novel – study resources

An Unwritten Novel The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics – Amazon UK

An Unwritten Novel The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics – Amazon US

An Unwritten Novel The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon UK

An Unwritten Novel The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon US

An Unwritten Novel Monday or Tuesday and Other Stories –

An Unwritten Novel Kew Gardens and Other Stories – Hogarth reprint – Amazon UK

An Unwritten Novel Kew Gardens and Other Stories – Hogarth reprint – Amazon US

An Unwritten Novel The Mark on the Wall – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon UK

An Unwritten Novel The Mark on the Wall – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon US

An Unwritten Novel The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf – Kindle edition

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK

Red button Virginia Woolf – Authors in Context – Amazon UK

Red button The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK

An Unwritten Novel An Unwritten Novel – an alternative reading

An Unwritten Novel – story synopsis

An un-named first-person narrator is travelling on a commuter train between London and the south coast. Whilst reading the Times, the narrator notices a woman opposite with an unhappy expression, and thinks that her character can be interpreted, especially from the expression in her eyes. The woman becomes agitated, and the narrator begins to echo her gestures.

The narrator begins to imagine that this woman (who is given the name Minnie Marsh) is paying a visit to her sister-in-law (Hilda). The family group are imagined at the dinner table, at which the narrator pushes her imagination forward, to avoid the inessential details. Minnie goes upstairs to unpack her meagre belongings, and stares out in a despairing state across the rooftops of an Eastbourne suburb on December afternoon, and thinks of God.

The narrator find difficulty in fully imagining God, but comes up with the idea that Minnie has committed some sort of crime. The question is, what sort of crime would a woman such as Minnie commit? The narrator settles on a scene where Minnie lingers in a Croydon draper’s shop and arrives home late to discover that her baby brother has died from scalding.

The narrator then checks her construction with the figure in the railway carriage, who is pretending to be asleep. The scene returns to Eastbourne, where the petty constraint of her sister-in-law’s house drive Minnie outdoors.

The narrator wonders if she is capturing the essence of the woman, and likens the effort to that of a hawk flying over the Sussex Downs. The story then loops back to pick up where it left off. Minnie takes a boiled egg and starts eating it in her lap.

The narrator loses grasp of the story and realises that something must be done to maintain its interest. Rhododendrons and commercial travellers are considered, then she invents a salesman James Moggeridge who takes his meals with the Marshes on a particular day when he is in Eastbourne. Moggeridge’s home life is predicated, then rejected as being unsuitable.

The narrator thinks of Minnie looking back over the events of the imaginary scene, then darning a hole in her glove. Imagining that Minnie would be disappointed not to be met at the station, the narrator offers to help her with her luggage.

But it transpires that the woman is being met by her son, and the narrator realises that the invented biography was quite inaccurate. Nevertheless, the narrator goes on observing people and ends on a note of celebration for the life of the imagination.

Monday or Tuesday – first edition

Monday or Tuesday - first edition

Cover design by Vanessa Bell

Further reading

Red button Quentin Bell. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Red button Hermione Lee. Virginia Woolf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Red button Nicholas Marsh. Virginia Woolf, the Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Red button John Mepham, Virginia Woolf. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Red button Natalya Reinhold, ed. Woolf Across Cultures. New York: Pace University Press, 2004.

Red button Michael Rosenthal, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Study. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Red button Susan Sellers, The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Red button Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader. New York: Harvest Books, 2002.

Red button Alex Zwerdling, Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Other works by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf To the LighthouseTo the Lighthouse (1927) is the second of the twin jewels in the crown of her late experimental phase. It is concerned with the passage of time, the nature of human consciousness, and the process of artistic creativity. Woolf substitutes symbolism and poetic prose for any notion of plot, and the novel is composed as a tryptich of three almost static scenes – during the second of which the principal character Mrs Ramsay dies – literally within a parenthesis. The writing is lyrical and philosophical at the same time. Many critics see this as her greatest achievement, and Woolf herself realised that with this book she was taking the novel form into hitherto unknown territory.
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Virginia Woolf OrlandoOrlando (1928) is one of her lesser-known novels, although it’s critical reputation has risen in recent years. It’s a delightful fantasy which features a character who changes sex part-way through the book – and lives from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Using this device (which turns out to be strangely credible) Woolf explores issues of gender and identity as her hero-heroine moves through a variety of lives and personal adventures. Orlando starts out as an emissary to the Court of St James, lives through friendships with Swift and Alexander Pope, and ends up motoring through the west end of London on a shopping expedition in the 1920s. The character is loosely based on Vita Sackville-West, who at one time was Woolf’s lover. The novel itself was described by Nigel Nicolson (Sackville-West’s son) as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature’.
Virginia Woolf - Orlando Buy the book at Amazon UK
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Kew GardensKew Gardens is a collection of experimental short stories in which Woolf tested out ideas and techniques which she then later incorporated into her novels. After Chekhov, they represent the most important development in the modern short story as a literary form. Incident and narrative are replaced by evocations of mood, poetic imagery, philosophic reflection, and subtleties of composition and structure. The shortest piece, ‘Monday or Tuesday’, is a one-page wonder of compression. This collection is a cornerstone of literary modernism. No other writer – with the possible exception of Nadine Gordimer, has taken the short story as a literary genre as far as this.
Virginia Woolf - Kew Gardens Buy the book at Amazon UK
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Virginia Woolf: BiographyVirginia Woolf is a readable and well illustrated biography by John Lehmann, who at one point worked as her assistant and business partner at the Hogarth Press. It is described by the blurb as ‘A critical biography of Virginia Woolf containing illustrations that are a record of the Bloomsbury Group and the literary and artistic world that surrounded a writer who is immensely popular today’. This is an attractive and very accessible introduction to the subject which has been very popular with readers ever since it was first published..
Virginia Woolf - A Biography Buy the book at Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf - A Biography Buy the book at Amazon US

Virginia Woolf – web links

Red button Virginia Woolf at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides to the major works, book reviews, studies of the short stories, bibliographies, web links, study resources.

Virginia Woolf web links Blogging Woolf
Book reviews, Bloomsbury related issues, links, study resources, news of conferences, exhibitions, and events, regularly updated.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf at Wikipedia
Full biography, social background, interpretation of her work, fiction and non-fiction publications, photograph albumns, list of biographies, and external web links

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf at Gutenberg
Selected eTexts of her novels and stories in a variety of digital formats.

Virginia Woolf web links Woolf Online
An electronic edition and commentary on To the Lighthouse with notes on its composition, revisions, and printing – plus relevant extracts from the diaries, essays, and letters.

Virginia Woolf web links Hyper-Concordance to Virginia Woolf
Search texts of all the major novels and essays, word by word – locate quotations, references, and individual terms

Virginia Woolf web links Orlando – Sally Potter’s film archive
The text and film script, production notes, casting, locations, set designs, publicity photos, video clips, costume designs, and interviews.

Virginia Woolf web links Women’s History Walk in Bloomsbury
Tour of literary and political homes in Bloomsbury – including Gordon Square, Gower Street, Bedford Square, Tavistock Square, plus links to women’s history web sites.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain
Bulletins of events, annual lectures, society publications, and extensive links to Woolf and Bloomsbury related web sites

Virginia Woolf web links BBC Audio Essay – A Eulogy to Words
Charming sound recording of radio talk given by Virginia Woolf in 1937 – a podcast accompanied by a slideshow of photographs.

Virginia Woolf web links A Family Photograph Albumn
Leslie Stephen compiled a photograph album and wrote an epistolary memoir, known as the “Mausoleum Book,” to mourn the death of his wife, Julia, in 1895 – an archive at Smith College – Massachusetts

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf first editions
Hogarth Press book jacket covers of the first editions of Woolf’s novels, essays, and stories – largely designed by her sister, Vanessa Bell.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf – on video
Biographical studies and documentary videos with comments on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group and the social background of their times.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf Miscellany
An archive of academic journal essays 2003—2014, featuring news items, book reviews, and full length studies.

© Roy Johnson 2013

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