Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, June 4, 2010

Virginia Woolf-"Kew Gardens" and "How Should One Read a Book"

Two short works by Virginia Woolf (1889 to 1941)

"How Should One Read a Book"-essay-12 pages 1932
"Kew Gardens" -short story-10 pages-1921

I recently read a short story, "The Mark on the Wall" and a novel, The Waves by Virginia Woolf.    These were the first two works by Woolf I have read.   Woolf  was connected socially to my new literary love, Katherine Mansfield and to Ford Madox Ford who I spent some time with in April and May on my read along on Parade's End.     I hope now to read three or four of her major novels, all of her shorter fiction and some of her essays within a year.   I am currently getting to know the short story as a literary art form after a very long  avoidance.   

I decided to read "Kew Gardens" for two reasons.    One is that it is considered one of her best short stories and secondly because I have been there so I thought I could visualize the setting as I read.    The story is set in the famous London Botanical Gardens, Kew Gardens.    There is no action, no traditional plot.   We get  a brief look at four sets of two people that pass in front of a garden bed.     Woolf begins the story describing vividly a snail in the garden:

The snail had now considered every possible method of reaching his goal without going round the dead leaf or climbing over it. Let alone the effort needed for climbing a leaf, he was doubtful whether the thin texture which vibrated with such an alarming crackle when touched even by the tip of his horns would bear his weight; and this determined him finally to creep beneath it, for there was a point where the leaf curved high enough from the ground to admit him

The first couple to pass in front of our observant snail are a married couple.   Their marriage seems way past the first bloom of ardor and the man talks to his wife about another day 15 years ago in Kew Gardens when another woman refused his marriage proposal.    The wife flashes further back to memories of a first kiss received in the garden long before she met her husband.

Next we meet two men, one old and one young.   We are not told what their relationship is but we see they have a long and deep connection.    I just loved this passage in which Woolf conveys to us as only she really can part of the stream of consciousness of the older man:
He began talking about the forests of Uruguay which he had visited hundreds of years ago in company with the most beautiful young woman in Europe. He could be heard murmuring about forests of Uruguay blanketed with the wax petals of tropical roses, nightingales, sea beaches, mermaids, and women drowned at sea, as he suffered himself to be moved on by William, upon whose face the look of stoical patience grew slowly deeper and deeper.

We meet two other sets of garden visitors also but I will give no more of the story away.    We do see in this story the Bloomsbury condescension toward the poor (the lower classes)  in its treatment of two older simply dressed women.    "Kew Gardens" is a wonderfully realized short story I greatly enjoyed.   Her short stories can also be seen as kind of a way of learning to read Woolf  so we can appreciate her masterworks more.

Woolf is also famous for her essays on literary topics.    I was browsing through one her essay collections,   The Common Reader, Second Series (1932), and I saw one essay that I wanted to read right away.   It is the last essay in the collection, "How Should One Read a Book".   The essay is simply brilliant as one would expect.    I decline the fool's errand of paraphrasing her essay but there is one passage that caught my eye.   I follow a lot of book blogs.    I often see debates about whether or not it is mean spirited to due a negative review on a book by a living author or on a book that others like.   Here is what I think we should keep in mind when blogging on any book or story:

We are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe. Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy; are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease? Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind. There they hang in the mind the shapes of the books we have read solidified by the judgments we have passed on them — Robinson Crusoe, Emma, The Return of the Native. Compare the novels with these — even the latest and least of novels has a right to be judged with the best.  

If anyone has any suggestions for additional short stories I might read (preferably ones I can read online) please leave a comment-thanks

Mel u 


Suko said...

Mel, I'm glad that you're reading some shorter works by Virginia Woolf. May I recommend one more, her short story, The New Dress? You can read it online. The essay paragraph you quoted surprised me--I expected her to be a bit more sympathetic.

Frances said...

I am a huge Woolf fan so I will excitedly watch your way through her work. Just love that quote at the bottom of the post by the way. It may seem elitist to some but rings true to me. I want so much from my books, and find it difficult to feign regard or write something vague and polite so as not to offend. My failing I suppose.

Suko said...

(P.S. Mel, I have many links to short stories by Virginia Woolf in this post: and also some of her thoughts about this genre of fiction.)

Rebecca Chapman said...

I have never read Woolf, but I would love to read that second essay that you mentioned. Do you know if you can get a link to it online?

Mel u said...

Suko-I will read and post in the story you suggested soon-thanks

Frances-I am glad you like the quote-I really like it a lot


Rebecca Chapman said...

Thanks so much for sending me the link. It was an amazing essay. What I got most from it was how she began. Don't take advice from anyone, freedom is key (I'm paraphrasing obviously). I love that having said that straight up she then says its ok to give out some advice. It reminds me of all the 'how to' blog posts around - how to write a good review, how to get followers - I see a lot of people make comments that they don't like these how to posts because everyone should do what they want. My perspective has always been that it is ok to listen to other people's opinions, but to stick to whatever you like best. I think that in a slightly different way, that is what Woolf is trying to say about reading