Virginia Woolf (18821941). Monday or Tuesday. 1921.
4. An Unwritten Novel
SUCH an expression of unhappiness was enough by itself to make ones eyes slide above the papers edge to the poor womans faceinsignificant without that look, almost a symbol of human destiny with it. Lifes what you see in peoples eyes; lifes what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware ofwhat? That lifes like that, it seems. Five faces oppositefive mature facesand the knowledge in each face. Strange, though, how people want to conceal it! Marks of reticence are on all those faces: lips shut, eyes shaded, each one of the five doing something to hide or stultify his knowledge. One smokes; another reads; a third checks entries in a pocket book; a fourth stares at the map of the line framed opposite; and the fifththe terrible thing about the fifth is that she does nothing at all. She looks at life. Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the gamedo, for all our sakes, conceal it!
As if she heard me, she looked up, shifted slightly in her seat and sighed. She seemed to apologise and at the same time to say to me, If only you knew! Then she looked at life again. But I do know, I answered silently, glancing at the Times for manners sake. I know the whole business. Peace between Germany and the Allied Powers was yesterday officially ushered in at ParisSignor Nitti, the Italian Prime Ministera passenger train at Doncaster was in collision with a goods train... We all knowthe Times knowsbut we pretend we dont. My eyes had once more crept over the papers rim She shuddered, twitched her arm queerly to the middle of her back and shook her head. Again I dipped into my great reservoir of life. Take what you like, I continued, births, deaths, marriages, Court Circular, the habits of birds, Leonardo da Vinci, the Sandhills murder, high wages and the cost of livingoh, take what you like, I repeated, its all in the Times! Again with infinite weariness she moved her head from side to side until, like a top exhausted with spinning, it settled on her neck.
The Times was no protection against such sorrow as hers. But other human beings forbade intercourse. The best thing to do against life was to fold the paper so that it made a perfect square, crisp, thick, impervious even to life. This done, I glanced up quickly, armed with a shield of my own. She pierced through my shield; she gazed into my eyes as if searching any sediment of courage at the depths of them and damping it to clay. Her twitch alone denied all hope, discounted all illusion.
So we rattled through Surrey and across the border into Sussex. But with my eyes upon life I did not see that the other travellers had left, one by one, till, save for the man who read, we were alone together. Here was Three Bridges station. We drew slowly down the platform and stopped. Was he going to leave us? I prayed both waysI prayed last that he might stay. At that instant he roused himself, crumpled his paper contemptuously, like a thing done with, burst open the door, and left us alone.
The unhappy woman, leaning a little forward, palely and colourlessly addressed metalked of stations and holidays, of brothers at Eastbourne, and the time of year, which was, I forget now, early or late. But at last looking from the window and seeing, I knew, only life, she breathed, Staying awaythats the drawback of it Ah, now we approached the catastrophe, My sister-in-lawthe bitterness of her tone was like lemon on cold steel, and speaking, not to me, but to herself, she muttered, nonsense, she would saythats what they all say, and while she spoke she fidgeted as though the skin on her back were as a plucked fowls in a poulterers shop-window.
Oh, that cow! she broke off nervously, as though the great wooden cow in the meadow had shocked her and saved her from some indiscretion. Then she shuddered, and then she made the awkward angular movement that I had seen before, as if, after the spasm, some spot between the shoulders burnt or itched. Then again she looked the most unhappy woman in the world, and I once more reproached her, though not with the same conviction, for if there were a reason, and if I knew the reason, the stigma was removed from life.
Her lips pursed as if to spit venom at the word; pursed they remained. All she did was to take her glove and rub hard at a spot on the window-pane. She rubbed as if she would rub something out for eversome stain, some indelible contamination. Indeed, the spot remained for all her rubbing, and back she sank with the shudder and the clutch of the arm I had come to expect. Something impelled me to take my glove and rub my window. There, too, was a little speck on the glass. For all my rubbing it remained. And then the spasm went through me I crooked my arm and plucked at the middle of my back. My skin, too, felt like the damp chickens skin in the poulterers shop-window; one spot between the shoulders itched and irritated, felt clammy, felt raw. Could I reach it? Surreptitiously I tried. She saw me. A smile of infinite irony, infinite sorrow, flitted and faded from her face. But she had communicated, shared her secret, passed her poison she would speak no more. Leaning back in my corner, shielding my eyes from her eyes, seeing only the slopes and hollows, greys and purples, of the winters landscape, I read her message, deciphered her secret, reading it beneath her gaze.
Hildas the sister-in-law. Hilda? Hilda? Hilda MarshHilda the blooming, the full bosomed, the matronly. Hilda stands at the door as the cab draws up, holding a coin. Poor Minnie, more of a grasshopper than everold cloak she had last year. Well, well, with too children these days one cant do more. No, Minnie, Ive got it; here you are, cabbynone of your ways with me. Come in, Minnie. Oh, I could carry you, let alone your basket! So they go into the dining-room. Aunt Minnie, children.
Slowly the knives and forks sink from the upright. Down they get (Bob and Barbara), hold out hands stiffly; back again to their chairs, staring between the resumed mouthfuls. [But this well skip; ornaments, curtains, trefoil china plate, yellow oblongs of cheese, white squares of biscuitskipoh, but wait! Half-way through luncheon one of those shivers; Bob stares at her, spoon in mouth. Get on with your pudding, Bob; but Hilda disapproves. Why should she twitch? Skip, skip, till we reach the landing on the upper floor; stairs brass-bound; linoleum worn; oh, yes! little bedroom looking out over the roofs of Eastbournezigzagging roofs like the spines of caterpillars, this way, that way, striped red and yellow, with blue-black slating]. Now, Minnie, the doors shut; Hilda heavily descends to the basement; you unstrap the straps of your basket, lay on the bed a meagre nightgown, stand side by side furred felt slippers. The looking-glassno, you avoid the looking-glass. Some methodical disposition of hat-pins. Perhaps the shell box has something in it? You shake it; its the pearl stud there was last yearthats all. And then the sniff, the sigh, the sitting by the window. Three oclock on a December afternoon; the rain drizzling; one light low in the skylight of a drapery emporium; another high in a servants bedroomthis one goes out. That gives her nothing to look at. A moments blanknessthen, what are you thinking? (Let me peep across at her opposite; shes asleep or pretending it; so what would she think about sitting at the window at three oclock in the afternoon? Health, money, bills, her God?) Yes, sitting on the very edge of the chair looking over the roofs of Eastbourne, Minnie Marsh prays to Gods. Thats all very well; and she may rub the pane too, as though to see God better; but what God does she see? Whos the God of Minnie Marsh, the God of the back streets of Eastbourne, the God of three oclock in the afternoon? I, too, see roofs, I see sky; but, oh, dearthis seeing of Gods! More like President Kruger than Prince Albertthats the best I can do for him; and I see him on a chair, in a black frock-coat, not so very high up either; I can manage a cloud or two for him to sit on; and then his hand trailing in the cloud holds a rod, a truncheon is it?black, thick, thorneda brutal old bullyMinnies God! Did he send the itch and the patch and the twitch? Is that why she prays? What she rubs on the window is the stain of sin. Oh, she committed some crime!
I have my choice of crimes. The woods flit and flyin summer there are bluebells; in the opening there, when Spring comes, primroses. A parting, was it, twenty years ago? Vows broken? Not Minnies!... She was faithful. How she nursed her mother! All her savings on the tombstonewreaths under glassdaffodils in jars. But Im off the track. A crime.... They would say she kept her sorrow, suppressed her secrether sex, theyd saythe scientific people. But what flummery to saddle her with sex! Nomore like this. Passing down the streets of Croydon twenty years ago, the violet loops of ribbon in the drapers window spangled in the electric light catch her eye. She lingerspast six. Still by running she can reach home. She pushes through the glass swing door. Its sale-time. Shallow trays brim with ribbons. She pauses, pulls this, fingers that with the raised roses on itno need to choose, no need to buy, and each tray with its surprises. We dont shut till seven, and then it is seven. She runs, she rushes, home she reaches, but too late. Neighboursthe doctor baby brotherthe kettlescaldedhospitaldeador only the shock of it, the blame? Ah, but the detail matters nothing! Its what she carries with her; the spot, the crime, the thing to expiate, always there between her shoulders. Yes, she seems to nod to me, its the thing I did.
Whether you did, or what you did, I dont mind; its not the thing I want. The drapers window looped with violetthatll do; a little cheap perhaps, a little commonplacesince one has a choice of crimes, but then so many (let me peep across againstill sleeping, or pretending sleep! white, worn, the mouth closeda touch of obstinacy, more than one would thinkno hint of sex)so many crimes arent your crime; your crime was cheap; only the retribution solemn; for now the church door opens, the hard wooden pew receives her; on the brown tiles she kneels; every day, winter, summer, dusk, dawn (here shes at it) prays. All her sins fall, fall, for ever fall. The spot receives them. Its raised, its red, its burning. Next she twitches. Small boys point. Bob at lunch to-dayBut elderly women are the worst.
Indeed now you cant sit praying any longer. Krugers sunk beneath the cloudswashed over as with a painters brush of liquid grey, to which he adds a tinge of blackeven the tip of the truncheon gone now. Thats what always happens! Just as youve seen him, felt him, someone interrupts. Its Hilda now.
How you hate her! Shell even lock the bathroom door overnight, too, though its only cold water you want, and sometimes when the nights been bad it seems as if washing helped. And John at breakfastthe childrenmeals are worst, and sometimes there are friendsferns dont altogether hide emthey guess, too; so out you go along the front, where the waves are grey, and the papers blow, and the glass shelters green and draughty, and the chairs cost tuppencetoo muchfor there must be preachers along the sands. Ah, thats a niggerthats a funny manthats a man with parakeetspoor little creatures! Is there no one here who thinks of God?just up there, over the pier, with his rodbut notheres nothing but grey in the sky or if its blue the white clouds hide him, and the musicits military musicand what they are fishing for? Do they catch them? How the children stare! Well, then home a back wayHome a back way! The words have meaning; might have been spoken by the old man with whiskersno, no, he didnt really speak; but everything has meaningplacards leaning against doorwaysnames above shop-windowsred fruit in basketswomens heads in the hairdressersall say Minnie Marsh! But heres a jerk. Eggs are cheaper! Thats what always happens! I was heading her over the waterfall, straight for madness, when, like a flock of dream sheep, she turns tother way and runs between my fingers. Eggs are cheaper. Tethered to the shores of the world, none of the crimes, sorrows, rhapsodies, or insanities for poor Minnie Marsh; never late for luncheon; never caught in a storm without a mackintosh; never utterly unconscious of the cheapness of eggs. So she reaches homescrapes her boots.
Have I read you right? But the human facethe human face at the top of the fullest sheet of print holds more, withholds more. Now, eyes open, she looks out; and in the human eyehow dyou define it?theres a break-a divisionso that when youve grasped the stem the butterflys offthe moth that hangs in the evening over the yellow flowermove, raise your hand, off, high, away. I wont raise my hand. Hang still, then, quiver, life, soul, spirit, whatever you are of Minnie MarshI, too, on my flowerthe hawk over the downalone, or what were the worth of life? To rise; hang still in the evening, in the midday; hang still over the down. The flicker of a handoff, up! then poised again. Alone, unseen; seeing all so still down there, all so lovely. None seeing, none caring. The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages. Air above, air below. And the moon and immortality.... Oh, but I drop to the turf! Are you down too, you in the corner, whats your namewomanMinnie Marsh; some such name as that? There she is, tight to her blossom; opening her hand-bag, from which she takes a hollow shellan eggwho was saying that eggs were cheaper? You or I? Oh, it was you who said it on the way home, you remember, when the old gentleman, suddenly opening his umbrellaor sneezing was it? Anyhow, Kruger went, and you came home a back way, and scraped your boots. Yes. And now you lay across your knees a pocket-handkerchief into which drop little angular fragments of eggshellfragments of a mapa puzzle. I wish I could piece them together! If you would only sit still. Shes moved her kneesthe maps in bits again. Down the slopes of the Andes the white blocks of marble go bounding and hurtling, crushing to death a whole troop of Spanish muleteers, with their convoyDrakes booty, gold and silver. But to return
To what, to where? She opened the door, and, putting her umbrella in the standthat goes without saying; so, too, the whiff of beef from the basement; dot, dot, dot. But what I cannot thus eliminate, what I must, head down, eyes shut, with the courage of a battalion and the blindness of a bull, charge and disperse are, indubitably, the figures behind the ferns, commercial travellers. There Ive hidden them all this time in the hope that somehow theyd disappear, or better still emerge, as indeed they must, if the storys to go on gathering richness and rotundity, destiny and tragedy, as stories should, rolling along with it two, if not three, commercial travellers and a whole grove of aspidistra. The fronds of the aspidistra only partly concealed the commercial traveller Rhododendrons would conceal him utterly, and into the bargain give me my fling of red and white, for which I starve and strive; but rhododendrons in Eastbournein Decemberon the Marshes tableno, no, I dare not; its all a matter of crusts and cruets, frills and ferns. Perhaps therell be a moment later by the sea. Moreover, I feel, pleasantly pricking through the green fretwork and over the glacis of cut glass, a desire to peer and peep at the man oppositeones as much as I can manage. James Moggridge is it, whom the Marshes call Jimmy? [Minnie, you must promise not to twitch till Ive got this straight]. James Moggridge travels inshall we say buttons?but the times not come for bringing them inthe big and the little on the long cards, some peacock-eyed, others dull gold; cairngorms some, and others coral spraysbut I say the times not come. He travels, and on Thursdays, his Eastbourne day, takes his meals with the Marshes. His red face, his little steady eyesby no means. altogether commonplacehis enormous appetite (thats safe; he wont look at Minnie till the breads swamped the gravy dry), napkin tucked diamond-wisebut this is primitive, and, whatever it may do the reader, dont take me in. Lets 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? Rosesand his wife a retired hospital nurseinterestingfor Gods sake let me have one woman with a name I like! But no; shes of the unborn children of the mind, illicit, none the less loved, like my rhododendrons. How many die in every novel thats writtenthe best, the dearest, while Moggridge lives. Its lifes fault. Heres Minnie eating her egg at the moment opposite and at tother end of the lineare we past Lewes?there must be Jimmyor whats her twitch for?
There must be Moggridgelifes fault. Life imposes her laws; life blocks the way; lifes behind the fern; lifes the tyrant; oh, but not the bully! No, for I assure you I come willingly; I come wooed by Heaven knows what compulsion across ferns and cruets, table splashed and bottles smeared. I come irresistibly to lodge myself somewhere on the firm flesh, in the robust spine, wherever I can penetrate or find foothold on the person, in the soul, of Moggridge the man. The enormous stability of the fabric; the spine tough as whalebone, straight as oaktree; the ribs radiating branches; the flesh taut tarpaulin; the red hollows; the suck and regurgitation of the heart; while from above meat falls in brown cubes and beer gushes to be churned to blood againand so we reach the eyes. Behind the aspidistra they see something: black, white, dismal; now the plate again; behind the aspidistra they see elderly woman; Marshs sister, Hildas more my sort; the tablecloth now. Marsh would know whats wrong with Morrises... talk that over; cheese has come; the plate again; turn it roundthe enormous fingers; now the woman opposite. Marshs sisternot a bit like Marsh; wretched, elderly female.... You should feed your hens.... Gods truth, whats set her twitching? Not what I said? Dear, dear, dear! these elderly women. Dear, dear!
Dear, dear, dear! How beautiful the sound is! like the knock of a mallet on seasoned timber, like the throb of the heart of an ancient whaler when the seas press thick and the green is clouded. Dear, dear! what a passing bell for the souls of the fretful to soothe them and solace them, lap them in linen, saying, So long. Good luck to you! and then, Whats your pleasure? for though Moggridge would pluck his rose for her, thats done, thats over. Now whats the next thing? Madam, youll miss your train, for they dont linger.
Thats the mans way; thats the sound that reverberates; thats St. Pauls and the motor-omnibuses. But were brushing the crumbs off. Oh, Moggridge, you wont stay? You must be off? Are you driving through Eastbourne this afternoon in one of those little carriages? Are you man whos walled up in green cardboard boxes, and sometimes has the blinds down, and sometimes sits so solemn staring like a sphinx, and always theres a look of the sepulchral, something of the undertaker, the coffin, and the dusk about horse and driver? Do tell mebut the doors slammed. We shall never meet again. Moggridge, farewell!
Yes, yes, Im coming. Right up to the top of the house. One moment Ill linger. How the mud goes round in the mindwhat a swirl these monsters leave, the waters rocking, the weeds waving and green here, black there, striking to the sand, till by degrees the atoms reassemble, the deposit sifts itself, and again through the eyes one sees clear and still, and there comes to the lips some prayer for the departed, some obsequy for the souls of those one nods to, the people one never meets again.
James Moggridge is dead now, gone for ever. Well, MinnieI can face it no longer. If she said that(Let me look at her. She is brushing the eggshell into deep declivities). She said it certainly, leaning against the wall of the bedroom, and plucking at the little balls which edge the claret-coloured curtain. But when the self speaks to the self, who is speaking?the entombed soul, the spirit driven in, in, in to the central catacomb; the self that took the veil and left the worlda coward perhaps, yet somehow beautiful, as it flits with its lantern restlessly up and down the dark corridors. I can bear it no longer, her spirit says. That man at lunchHildathe children. Oh, heavens, her sob! Its the spirit wailing its destiny, the spirit driven hither, thither, lodging on the diminishing carpetsmeagre footholdsshrunken shreds of all the vanishing universelove, life, faith, husband, children, I know not what splendours and pageantries glimpsed in girlhood. Not for menot for me.
But thenthe muffins, the bald elderly dog? Bead mats I should fancy and the consolation of underlinen. If Minnie Marsh were run over and taken to hospital, nurses and doctors themselves would exclaim.... Theres the vista and the visiontheres the distancethe blue blot at the end of the avenue, while, after all, the tea is rich, the muffin hot, and the dogBenny, to your basket, sir, and see what mothers brought you! So, taking the glove with the worn thumb, defying once more the encroaching demon of whats called going in holes, you renew the fortifications, threading the grey wool, running it in and out.
Running it in and out, across and over, spinning a web through which God himselfhush, dont think of God! How firm the stitches are! You must be proud of your darning. Let nothing disturb her. Let the light fall gently, and the clouds show an inner vest of the first green leaf. Let the sparrow perch on the twig and shake the raindrop hanging to the twigs elbow.... Why look up? Was it a sound, a thought? Oh, heavens! Back again to the thing you did, the plate glass with the violet loops? But Hilda will come. Ignominies, humiliations, oh! Close the breach.
Having mended her glove, Minnie Marsh lays it in the drawer. She shuts the drawer with decision. I catch sight of her face in the glass. Lips are pursed. Chin held high. Next she laces her shoes. Then she touches her throat. Whats your brooch? Mistletoe or merry-thought? And what is happening? Unless Im much mistaken, the pulses quickened, the moments coming, the threads are racing, Niagaras ahead. Heres the crisis! Heaven be with you! Down she goes. Courage, courage! Face it, be it! For Gods sake dont wait on the mat now! Theres the door! Im on your side. Speak! Confront her, confound her soul!
Well, but Im confounded.... Surely, Minnie, you know better! A strange young man.... Stop! Ill tell himMinnie!Miss Marsh!I dont know though. Theres something queer in her cloak as it blows. Oh, but its untrue, its indecent.... Look how he bends as they reach the gateway. She finds her ticket. Whats the joke? Off they go, down the road, side by side.... Well, my worlds done for! What do I stand on? What do I know? Thats not Minnie. There never was Moggridge. Who am I? Lifes bare as bone.
And yet the last look of themhe stepping from the kerb and she following him round the edge of the big building brims me with wonderfloods me anew. Mysterious figures! Mother and son. Who are you? Why do you walk down the street? Where to-night will you sleep, and then, to-morrow? Oh, how it whirls and surgesfloats me afresh! I start after them. People drive this way and that. The white light splutters and pours. Plate-glass windows. Carnations; chrysanthemums. Ivy in dark gardens. Milk carts at the door. Wherever I go, mysterious figures, I see you, turning the corner, mothers and sons; you, you, you. I hasten, I follow. This, I fancy, must be the sea. Grey is the landscape; dim as ashes; the water murmurs and moves. If I fall on my knees, if I go through the ritual, the ancient antics, its you, unknown figures, you I adore; if I open my arms, its you I embrace, you I draw to meadorable world!