The Fly In the Teacup: Sketching Virginia Woolf

I’ve learned to love collections of short stories. I used to balk at reading shorter pieces by famous authors, thinking that I was shortchanging myself by reading “The Mark on the Wall” by Virginia Woolf rather than everyone’s favorite “A Room of One’s Own” (just shoot me now; I still haven’t read it). But after having been jilted, inspired, struck to spooning chocolate brownie fudge icecream out of the carton without realizing what I was doing for fifteen minutes at a time as I just… wanted… to finish… this short… short… story…

I’ve had a reawakening.

I love the short story. The short, short story, to be exact.

Why? The way you can look at a writer’s writing under the microscope. The rich comparative analysis it offers. The tiny pieces that are there for you to sift through — to linger on some pieces, to move more quickly through others. To get a quick character sketch, decide you like the way she pours her tea with her hand hovering over the other’s cup so as not to splash the other’s napkin, or how you don’t like the way he called his wife “Lapinova” – a rabbit is, after all, a hare, for Pete’s sake.

What did The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf teach me about her writing? That to Ms. Woolf, the first line is essential.

“People should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms any more than they should leave open cheque books or letters confessing some hideous crime.” (You can only imagine what comes next.)

“Since it had grown hot and crowded indoors, since there could be no danger on a night like this of damp… Mr. Bertram Pritchard led Mrs. Latham into the garden.” (Cha-ching! Makin’ the move.)

And what of Ms. Woolf’s use of color? She constantly uses color in description — everything seems to be red and blue, with touches of gold here and there — but it’s never tawny gold or fire engine red or cerelean blue. Just blue. Just red. Just purple. Yet you realize that the sky doesn’t really need to be robin’s egg blue, does it? No. Virginia, thanks for saving us the cliche. But then, she does use color in ways that make me scratch my head. “The lines deepened on his red and blue shaven cheeks…” What?

And her focus on the outdoors is immutable. The lake, the country, the linden tree. These vistas are larger than life. In her character development she pits lovers of country to city (they can never live side-by-side, of course). “The heath would so long outlast all people…” “He really did not like churches at all… [referring to Westminster Abbey, the monstrosity in downtown London].”

And more on her ability to focus. She’s a master at threading through a theme, an object to which we compare everything. She is a master of allusion. The fly in the teacup, for example, in The New Dress. How she keeps harping about that fly! The fly swimming in the milk. Can’t it get out? It’s just swimming and swimming round and round in there. She hates her dress: “I feel like some dowdy, decrepit, dingy old fly…” she says. “We are all like flies trying to crawl over the edge of a saucer…” she says. Or her use of the white thread in Happiness: “As Stuart Elton stooped and flicked off his trousers a w hite thread…” (that’s the first line!) and then “I went to Kew this afternoon… bending his knee again and flicking his knee, not that there was a white thread there…” What is the purpose of the white thread? Really.

And then men are like moons and women are like cherry trees.

And portraits. One story is a composite of her reflections on portraits, as if she is stiting in a gallery, taking in the paintings and making up stories about the people in this one or that one: “Monsieur and Madame Louvais stared at the mustard pot and the cruet; at the yellow crack on the marble-topped table.”

As Woolf progressed from her earlier stories to later ones, she further refined her use of the first line to set us up, to stage the entire climax of the story. She also more brilliantly cast and clarified her characters and took us deeper into the heads of them.

Brilliant, Virginia. There  is a master in the HOUSE!


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