Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Review: Memoirs of a Novelist by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf
Memoirs of a Novelist

Published by Hesperus Press

Reviewed by Drew Gummerson

You feel you should go easy on Virginia Woolf these days. After all it is not too long ago that she was played by Nicole Kidman with a large prosthetic nose. Woolf herself wouldn’t have liked it, I’m sure. I can’t imagine her having approved of antipodeans.

‘Memoirs of a Novelist’ is a collection of five of Woolf’s early short stories. Each of them deals with the lives of women, the hidden lives that is, what goes on after the tea-party has finished, when the men are to bed or out at work.

‘Phyllis and Rosamond’, the eponymous heroes of the first story, are two of five sisters. They are the ones without the brains, the ones who have only been bred to marry, and to be happy that this is their lot in life.
They attend a bohemian party. Opinions are aired and there is talk of love. What is love to them? They must think of their place in society. A good marriage will give them freedom from their family, their own homes and own tea parties. If not perhaps they will end up like Mrs V in the second story, ‘The Mysterious Case of Mrs V’.
She is another society lady. She does the rounds of parties, concerts, events. She is like a well-dressed chair, part of the background. She is there and not there. When she stops attending no one really notices. It would take an investigation to find that she has been sick, she is, in fact, now dead. Not noticed.

Perhaps if she had kept a diary like Joan Martyn in ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’ she would have been remembered. This is both the longest and most interesting of the stories.

The narrator, a Miss Rosamond Merridew, aged forty-five, is a writer of the history of land tenure in mediaeval England. She is somewhat idiosyncratic. From these dry and dusty old formal documents she will extrapolate the lives she imagines.

While travelling through Norfolk she takes an impulsive detour and happens upon an old house. She is excited by what documents she may find and when after dinner she is taken into the study and is confronted by rack after rack of old pages she can’t believe her luck.

One document is a diary. In it is recorded the daily life of Joan Martyn, dating back from 1450. Miss Martyn writes of her impending marriage. Like ‘Phyllis and Rosamond’ this will not be for love but for status.

Miss Martyn wonders why she should write of her life. She would rather surely write of battles and princesses? But it is precisely this daily life that Woolf is concerned with. The untold history that goes on in the background, too little spoken about or given a voice.
Drew Gummerson lives in Leicester, England. In 2002 his first book 'The Lodger' was published. It was a finalist in the Lambda Awards in the States. Drew’s next book 'Darts' was a finalist in the UKA/PABD Great Read Novel Competition. Drew’s latest novel 'Me and Mickie James' is due to be published in July 2008 by Jonathan Cape.



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