An Unwritten Novel by Virginia Woolf
An Extract From
SUCH AN EXPRESSION of unhappiness was enough by itself to make
one's eyes slide above the paper's edge to the poor woman's face?
insignificant without that look, almost a symbol of human destiny with
it. Life's what you see in people's eyes; life's what they learn, and,
having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware
of? what? That life's like that, it seems. Five faces opposite? five
mature faces? and 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 fifth? the 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 game? do, 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 Paris? Signor Nitti, the Italian
Prime Minister? a passenger train at Doncaster was in collision with a
goods train...' We all know? the Times knows? but we pretend we don't."
My eyes had once more crept over the paper's 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, death, marriages, Court Circular, the habits of
birds, Leonardo da Vinci, the Sandhills murder, high wages and the cost
of living? oh, take what you like," I repeated, "it's 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
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 ways? I
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 me? talked of stations and holidays, of brothers
at Eastbourne, and the time of the 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 away? that's the drawback of it?" Ah, now
we approached the catastrophe, "My sister-in-law"? the bitterness of
her tone was like lemon on cold steel, and speaking, not to me, but to
herself, she muttered, "nonsense, she would say? that's what they all
say," and while she spoke she fidgeted as though the skin on her back
were as a plucked fowl's in a poulterer's 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.
"Sisters-in-law," I said?
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 ever?
some 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 chicken's skin in the poulterer's 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
winter's landscape, I read her message, deciphered her secret, reading
it beneath her gaze.
Hilda's the sister-in-law. Hilda? Hilda? Hilda Marsh? Hilda 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 ever? old cloak she had last year. Well, well, with two children
these days one can't do more. No, Minnie, I've got it; here you are,
cabby? none 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
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 we'll skip; ornaments,
curtains, trefoil china plate, yellow oblongs of cheese, white squares
of biscuit? skip? oh, 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 Eastbourne?
zigzagging roofs like the spines of caterpillars, this way, that way,
striped red and yellow, with blue-black slating]. Now, Minnie, the
door's 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-glass? no, you avoid the
looking-glass. Some methodical disposition of hat-pins. Perhaps the
shell box has something in it? You shake it; it's the pearl stud there
was last year? that's all. And then the sniff, the sigh, the sitting by
the window. Three o'clock on a December afternoon; the rain drizzling;
one light low in the skylight of a drapery emporium; another high in a
servant's bedroom? this one goes out. That gives her nothing to look
at. A moment's blankness? then, what are you thinking? (Let me peep
across at her opposite; she's asleep or pretending it; so what would
she think about sitting at the window at three o'clock in the
afternoon? Health, money, hills, her God? ) Yes, sitting on the very
edge of the chair looking over the roofs of Eastbourne, Minnie Marsh
prays to God. That's all very well; and she may rub the pane too, as
though to see God better; but what God does she see? Who's the God of
Minnie Marsh, the God of the back streets of Eastbourne, the God of
three o'clock in the afternoon? I, too, see roofs, I see sky; but, oh,
dear? this seeing of Gods! More like President Kruger than Prince
Albert? that's 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 clouds holds a
rod, a truncheon is it? ? black, thick, horned? a brutal old bully?
Minnie's 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 fly? in summer there
are bluebells; in the opening there, when Spring comes, primroses. A
parting, was it, twenty years ago? Vows broken? Not Minnie's!...She
was faithful. How she nursed her mother! All her savings on the
tombstone? wreaths under glass? daffodils in jars. But I'm off the
track. A crime...They would say she kept her sorrow, suppressed her
secret? her sex, they'd say? the scientific people. But what flummery
to saddle her with sex! No? more like this. Passing down the streets of
Croyden twenty years ago, the violet loops of ribbon in the draper's
window spangled in the electric light catch her eye. She lingers? past
six. Still by running she can reach home. She pushes through the glass
swing door. It's sale-time. Shallow trays brim with ribbons. She
pauses, pulls this, fingers that with the raised roses on it? no need
to choose, no need to buy, and each tray with its surprises. "We don't
shut till seven," and then it is seven. She runs, she rushes, home she
reaches, but too late. Neighbours? the doctor? baby brother? the
kettle? scalded? hospital? dead? or only the shock of it, the blame?
Ah, but the detail matters nothing! It's 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, "it's the thing I did."
Whether you did, or what you did, I don't mind; it's not the thing
I want. The draper's window looped with violet? that'll do; a little
cheap perhaps, a little commonplace? since one has a choice of crimes,
but then so many (let me peep across again? still sleeping, or
pretending to sleep! white, worn, the mouth closed? a touch of
obstinacy, more than one would think? no hint of sex)? so many crimes
aren't 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
she's at it) prays. All her sins fall, fall, for ever fall. The spot
receives them. It's raised, it's red, it's burning. Next she twitches.
Small boys point. "Bob at lunch to-day"? But elderly women are the
Indeed now you can't sit praying any longer. Kruger's sunk beneath
the clouds? washed over as with a painter's brush of liquid grey, to
which he adds a tinge of black? even the tip of the truncheon gone now.
That's what always happens! Just as you've seen him, felt him, someone
interrupts. It's Hilda now.
How you hate her! She'll even lock the bathroom door overnight,
too, though it's only cold water you want, and sometimes when the
night's been bad it seems as if washing helped. And John at breakfast?
the children? meals are worst, and sometimes there are friends? ferns
don't altogether hide 'em? they 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 tuppence? too much?
for there must be preachers along the sands. Ah, that's a nigger?
that's a funny man? that's a man with parakeets? poor little creatures!
Is there no one here who thinks of God? ? just up there, over the pier,
with his rod? but no? there's nothing but grey in the sky or if it's
blue the white clouds hide him, and the music? it's military music? and
what are they fishing for? Do they catch them? How the children
stare! Well, then home a back way?"Home a back way!" The words have
meaning; might have been spoken by the old man with whiskers? no, no,
he didn't really speak; but everything has meaning? placards leaning
against doorways? names above shop-windows? red fruit in baskets?
women's heads in the hairdresser's? all say "Minnie Marsh!" But here's
a jerk. "Eggs are cheaper!" That's what always happens! I was heading
her over the waterfall, straight for madness, when, like a flock of
dream sheep, she turns t'other 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 home?
scrapes her boots.
Have I read you right? But the human face? the 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 eye? how d'you define it? ?
there's a break? a division? so that when you've grasped the stem the
butterfly's off? the moth that hangs in the evening over the yellow
flower? move, raise your hand, off, high, away. I won't raise my hand.
Hang still, then, quiver, life, soul, spirit, whatever you are of
Minnie Marsh? I, too, on my flower? the hawk over the down? alone, 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 hand? off, 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, what's your name? woman? Minnie Marsh; some such name as that?
There she is, tight to her blossom; opening her hand-bag, from which
she takes a hollow shell? an egg? who 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 umbrella? or
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
eggshell? fragments of a map? a puzzle. I wish I could piece them
together! If you would only sit still. She's moved her knees? the map's
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 convoy? Drake's booty, gold and silver. But to
To what, to where? She opened the door, and, putting her umbrella
in the stand? that 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 I've hidden them all
this time in the hope that somehow they'd disappear, or better still
emerge, as indeed they must, if the story's 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 Eastbourne? in December? on the
Marshes' table? no, no, I dare not; it's all a matter of crusts and
cruets, frills and ferns. Perhaps there'll 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
opposite? one's as much as I can manage. James Moggridge is it, whom
the Marshes call Jimmy? [Minnie, you must promise not to twitch till
I've got this straight]. James Moggridge travels in? shall we say
buttons? ? but the time's not come for bringing them in? the big and
the little on the long cards, some peacock-eyed, others dull gold;
cairngorms some, and others coral sprays? but I say the time's not
come. He travels, and on Thursdays, his Eastbourne day, takes his meals
with the Marshes. His red face, his little steady eyes? by no means
altogether commonplace? his enormous appetite (that's safe; he won't
look at Minnie till the bread's swamped the gravy dry), napkin tucked
diamond-wise? but this is primitive, and whatever it may do the reader,
don't take me in. Let's 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? Roses? and his wife a retired
hospital nurse? interesting? for God's sake let me have one woman with
a name I like! But no; she's of the unborn children of the mind,
illicit, none the less loved, like my rhododendrons. How many die in
every novel that's written? the best, the dearest, while Moggridge
lives. It's life's fault. Here's Minnie eating her egg at the moment
opposite and at t'other end of the line? are we past Lewes? ? there
must be Jimmy? or what's her twitch for?
There must be Moggridge? life's fault. Life imposes her laws; life
blocks the way; life's behind the fern; life's 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, tables 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
oak-tree; 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 again?
and 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; "Marsh's sister, Hilda's more my sort;" the
tablecloth now. "Marsh would know what's wrong with Morrises..." talk
that over; cheese has come; the plate again; turn it round? the
enormous fingers; now the woman opposite. "Marsh's sister? not a bit
like Marsh; wretched, elderly female....You should feed your
hens....God's truth, what's set her twitching? Not what I said? Dear,
dear, dear! These elderly women. Dear, dear!"
1Yes, Minnie; I know you've twitched, but one moment? James
"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, "What's your pleasure?" for though Moggridge would
pluck his rose for her, that's done, that's over. Now what's the next
thing? "Madam, you'll miss your train," for they don't linger.
That's the man's way; that's the sound that reverberates; that's
St. Paul's and the motor-omnibuses. But we're brushing the crumbs off.
Oh, Moggridge, you won't stay? You must be off? Are you driving
through Eastbourne this afternoon in one of those little carriages?
Are you the man who's walled up in green cardboard boxes, and
sometimes has the blinds down, and sometimes sits so solemn staring
like a sphinx, and always there's a look of the sepulchral, something
of the undertaker, the coffin, and the dusk about horse and driver? Do
tell me? but the doors slammed. We shall never meet again. Moggridge,
Yes, yes, I'm coming. Right up to the top of the house. One moment
I'll linger. How the mud goes round in the mind? what 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, Minnie?"I 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 world? a 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 lunch? Hilda? the
children." Oh, heavens, her sob! It's the spirit wailing its destiny,
the spirit driven hither, thither, lodging on the diminishing carpets?
meagre footholds? shrunken shreds of all the vanishing universe? love,
life, faith, husband, children, I know not what splendours and
pageantries glimpsed in girlhood. "Not for me? not for me."
But then? the 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....There's the vista and the vision? there's the distance? the
blue blot at the end of the avenue, while, after all, the tea is rich,
the muffin hot, and the dog?"Benny, to your basket, sir, and see what
mother's brought you!" So, taking the glove with the worn thumb,
defying once more the encroaching demon of what's 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 himself? hush, don't 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 twig's 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
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. What's your brooch? Mistletoe or merry-thought?
And what is happening? Unless I'm much mistaken, the pulse's
quickened, the moment's coming, the threads are racing, Niagara's
ahead. Here's the crisis! Heaven be with you! Down she goes. Courage,
courage! Face it, be it! For God's sake don't wait on the mat now!
There's the door! I'm on your side. Speak! Confront her, confound her
"Oh, I beg your pardon! Yes, this is Eastbourne. I'll reach it down
for you. Let me try the handle." [But, Minnie, though we keep up
pretences, I've read you right? I'm with you now].
"That's all your luggage?"
"Much obliged, I'm sure."
(But why do you look about you? Hilda won't come to the station,
nor John; and Moggridge is driving at the far side of Eastbourne).
"I'll wait by my bag, ma'am, that's safest. He said he'd meet
me....Oh, there he is! That's my son."
So they walked off together.
Well, but I'm confounded....Surely, Minnie, you know better! A
strange young man....Stop! I'll tell him? Minnie!? Miss Marsh!? I don't
know though. There's something queer in her cloak as it blows. Oh, but
it's untrue; it's indecent....Look how he bends as they reach the
gateway. She finds her ticket. What's the joke? Off they go, down the
road, side by side....Well, my world's done for! What do I stand on?
What do I know? That's not Minnie. There never was Moggridge. Who am
I? Life's bare as bone.
And yet the last look of them? he stepping from the kerb and she
following him round the edge of the big building brims me with wonder?
floods 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 surges? floats 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, it's you, unknown figures, you
I adore; if I open my arms, it's you I embrace, you I draw to me?