The Watering Place

tutorial, critical commentary, plot, and study resources

The Watering Place was not published during Virginia Woolf’s lifetime, and it is possibly the last thing she ever wrote. She records in a diary entry for 16 February 1941 overhearing a conversation in a Brighton restaurant very much like the one in the story. It is one of her short, non-dramatic stories which records a mood through a collection of related images – and for Woolf it has a rather unusual setting.


The Watering PLace

Mont Blanc pen – the Virginia Woolf special edition


The Watering Place – critical commentary

Running through all three sections of the story are images of fish – the smell of fish in the town; the ‘enormous’ consumption of fish in the restaurant; the ‘queer fishy smell’ that permeates the ladies room; and the ‘skeleton’ of the town left at night.

Along with the fish imagery, there is recurrent mention of the sea – the ‘depths of the sea’ in the opening, then the ‘surge of an indrawing tide’ with which the flushing toilet is compared, and then the town itself, at night, ‘has sunk down into the water’.

It is amazing enough to think of Virginia Woolf writing a story based on a conversation in a women’s toilet, but what is really remarkable about the story is the similarity of the crucial ‘overheard conversation’ with T.S.Eliot’s bar room chat in ‘A Game of Chess’, the second part of The Waste Land:

Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart,
He’ll want to know what you’ve done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.

The common factors are a serviceman and a lower class woman. Eliot’s Albert is ‘coming back’ from the first world war; Woolf’s Bert is in danger of being ‘courtmartialled’ for something he is doing. Eliot’s Lil needs to get a new set of teeth, whilst Woolf’s Gert (a ‘simpering little thing’) is more fortunate, with a set to match Bert’s:

Bert never did care about big women … Ave you seen him since he’s been back? … They’ve both got the same teeth … Are He’s [sic] got such beautiful white teeth … Gert has em too … But his are a bit crooked

It should be noted that Virginia Woolf herself set Eliot’s entire poem in type when it was published by the Hogarth Press in 1923. This was in the early years of the Press, when all production was hand-crafted by Woolf and her husband Leonard.


Study resources

The Watering Place The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics – Amazon UK

The Watering Place The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics – Amazon US

The Watering Place The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon UK

The Watering Place The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon US

The Watering Place 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


The Watering Place – synopsis

The first paragraph of the story is an evocation of seaside life presented as a satirical account of its inhabitants described in terms of the seashells used to decorate holiday gifts and memorabilia.

The second paragraph starts in the fishy interior of a restaurant, and then proceeds to the ladies room, where three young women are applying make-up and exchanging gossip. Fragments of their conversation are punctuated by the sound of a flushing toilet.

The story ends with a description of the town at night, illuminated only by fairy lights.


Virginia Woolf podcast

A eulogy to words


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.


Virginia Woolf's handwriting

“I feel certain that I am going mad again.”


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.
Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse Buy the book at Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse Buy the book at Amazon US

 

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
Virginia Woolf - Orlando Buy the book at Amazon US
 

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
Virginia Woolf - Kew Gardens Buy the book at Amazon US
 


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 – 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 2014


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