Monday, 4 April 2016

Modern Fiction and Monday or Tuesday by Virginia Woolf.

'Modern Fiction' is an essay by Virginia Woolf written in April of 1919 and published in The Common Reader First Series in 1925. One of its sentences gave the title to Monday or Tuesday, a short story by Woolf from her collection (the only short story collection she selected herself) of the same title, first published in 1921. 

To start, 'Modern Fiction'. It begins with a dig at the Edwardian writers, H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy (those who have already read 'Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown', 1923, will be already familiar with her attack):
Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy have excited so many hopes and disappointed them so persistently that our gratitude largely takes the form of thanking them for having shown us what they might have done but have not done; what we certainly could not do, but as certainly, perhaps, do not wish to do. No single phrase will sum up the charge or grievance which we have to bring against a mass of work so large in its volume and embodying so many qualities, both admirable and the reverse. If we tried to formulate our meaning in one word we should say that these three writers are materialists. It is because they are concerned not with the spirit but with the body that they have disappointed us, and left us with the feeling that the sooner English fiction turns its back upon them, as politely as may be, and marches, if only into the desert, the better for its soul.
(If I could just say at this point: I do wish she'd leave Bennett and Wells alone. Having not read Galsworthy yet I'm in no position to comment)

These materialists, she argues, "write of unimportant things ... they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring". But, in Woolf's need to strike out, move forward, and, hopefully, tread the path that leads to the "fertile land", she argues for 'catching life', something the Edwardians, she argues, failed to do. Rules and expectations hinder, she writes,
The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all his figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour. The tyrant is obeyed; the novel is done to a turn. 
So what to capture? is the obvious question. What is life like? She goes on,
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? 
From here she praises James Joyce (specifically singling out Ulysses), for his effort in capturing the "spiritual", and Russian novelists (who she later praised in 'The Russian Point of View'), of whom she writes, "If we want understanding of the soul and heart where else shall we find it of comparable profundity?". She then concludes,
"The proper stuff of fiction" does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. And if we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her, as well as honour and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured.
And that brings us to Monday or Tuesday. In this very short piece she attempts to capture "an incessant shower of innumerable atoms" as they fall and shape "into the life of Monday or Tuesday". She writes contrasts the ease of the life of a heron with the hustle and bustle of London life. There the heron is,
Lazy and indifferent, shaking space easily from his wings, knowing his way, the heron passes over the church beneath the sky. White and distant, absorbed in itself, endlessly the sky covers and uncovers, moves and remains. 
And there is London,
... a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)—for ever desiring—(the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales; children swarm)—for ever desiring truth. Red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry "Iron for sale"—and truth?
It is, as promised, a 'myriad of impressions' in such a small space, it captures the contrasts, the peace and purity of the white heron and the rainbow and clusters of humanity in one single shot. A fascinating glimpse, confusing and even overwhelming, but, as Woolf would hope, very much like life. 

Over the coming months I'll be reading the other stories from this collection:
  • A Haunted House
  • A Society
  • An Unwritten Novel
  • The String Quartet
  • Blue & Green
  • Kew Gardens
  • The Mark on the Wall

This was my fourteenth title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: An Unwritten Novel by Virginia Woolf - it seems I'll be reading another story from Monday or Tuesday a little earlier than I'd anticipated!


  1. Oh ho! Well, I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with her first quote in this review, although I can only speak to my experience with Wells. One of the reasons that he frustrates me is that you can tell that he had deep insight and some wisdom, but for some reason they aren't developed or communicated in a profound way to the reader. I think that Woolf's bang on when she says, "....It is because they are concerned not with the spirit but with the body that they have disappointed us,...." However, then her and I part ways. She appears to want everyone to write like her, or the trend of the time, which I say is short-sighted. People can be deep or profound in different ways (heavens, some children's books are very profound) and not everyone engages their spirit as she thinks they should.

    As always, Woolf's thoughts are stimulating. Thanks for sharing these two essays!

    1. I need to read more Wells - I've only read the sci fi ones. Going to read Ann Veronica this week (I hope) and report back! :) And I must get to Galsworthy, but I bet it won't be til next year...

      Got to say I find Woolf's criticism of authors she doesn't like rather off-putting. She did a lot of damage to Bennett with Modern Fiction and Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.

  2. Cleo pins it down rather well; i would only add that vw's reference to atoms may indicate a bit more than a random metaphor might. in "the waves", "the years" and others of her later works i seemed to detect an interest in theories of time and the quantum world; she struggled all her life to formulate a way of describing reality in a more accurate way; my impression is that she was not successful in her own mind and got tired of trying, in the end...

    1. "an interest in theories of time and the quantum world" - I agree, it was something that passed me by the first time I read Woolf's novels (quite a while ago now). And her perceived lack of success in Between the Acts did make her give up (well, partly that, I wouldn't attribute her suicide entirely to Between the Acts of course!).

    2. Great observations, Mudpuddle. I'll keep this in mind as I read more Woolf. When I read "atoms" I immediately though of Woolf's microscopic examination of thoughts in her stream-of-consciousness style.


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