An Unwritten Novel
An Unwritten Novel: an extract
An Unwritten Novel is a short story from The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. It is a mere ten pages long so I figured, how hard can it be? I had been reading it, very slowly, for about twenty minutes and my husband asked the question, ‘what is it about?’ I looked at him and replied ‘I haven’t the faintest idea’.
Well, I read it to the end, rather in the manner of a four year old learning to read but stopping short of pointing with my index finger; and then read it again and then a third time and well, it started to mean something to me, sort of. This sentence made me laugh:
‘So we rattled through Surrey and across the border into Sussex’
It is about a woman on a train who you can’t help but think of as being Virginia herself, as the train is travelling from London to Lewes, which were the locations of Virginia’s homes. This woman is reading a newspaper and, over the top of the paper, she catches sight of a fellow passenger, another woman, who looks unhappy. The newspaper lady creates an imaginary life for the unhappy lady, who she calls Minnie, and gives her a fictional sister in law, Hilda, and a home life where she is introduced to children at Hilda’s dinner table and showed upstairs to unpack. The newspaper lady then imagines that Minnie has committed a crime, but what crime she doesn’t settle on; and that her baby brother has been killed by scalding water.
This is how Virginia ‘tells’ us her narrator’s thoughts about the plans she has for this imagined character’s life.
Neighbours – the doctor- baby brother – the kettle -scalded – hospital – dead.
What we have is a fictional piece of work with a fictional lady on a train who is creating a fictional character within this fiction. Virginia’s newspaper lady narrator goes on to create another character in Minnie’s life, James Moggridge and we see how she has got completely carried away in creating a fictional life for this unhappy lady on the train.
When the journey ends for ‘Minnie’ at Eastbourne the newspaper lady offers to help her with her bags but is then surprised when actually the lady is being met by her son. The invented biography of ‘Minnie’ did not correlate with the fictional ‘real life Minnie’.
Gosh, a difficult one, but I somehow felt that I had been inside Virginia’s mind, seeing her imagination at work and her thought processes … and it was a fascinating place to be.