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Virginia Woolf's short fiction : a study of its relation to the story genre, and an explication of the known story canon Tallentire, David Roger


The short stories of Virginia Woolf have never received serious scrutiny, critics determinedly maintaining that the novels contain the heart of the matter and that the stories are merely preparatory exercises. Mrs. Woolf, however, provides sufficient evidence that she was "on the track of real discoveries" in the stories, an opinion supported by her Bloomsbury mentors Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey. A careful analysis of her twenty-one known stories suggests that they are indeed important (not merely peripheral to the novels and criticism) and are successful in developing specific techniques and themes germane to her total canon. One of the reasons why the stories have never been taken seriously, of course, is that they simply are not stories by any conventional definition— but are nonetheless "short fiction" of interest and significance. The stories derive from three distinctly separate chronological periods. The earliest group (1917-1921) was published in Monday or Tuesday and included two stories available only in that volume, now out of print. (To enable a complete assessment, I have made these stories available as appendices II and III of this thesis, and included Virginia Woolf's lone children's story as appendix IV since it too is of the early period). This phase of creation utilized one primary technique—that of evolving an apparently random stream of impressions from a usually inanimate and tiny focussing object, and was generally optimistic about the "adorable world." The second phase of her short fiction (those stories appearing in magazines between 1927 and 1938) illustrates a progression in both technical virtuosity and in personal discipline: the fictional universe is now peopled, and the randomness of the early sketches has given way to a more selective exploitation of the thoughts inspired by motivating situations. But vacillation is here evident in the author's mood, and while optimism at times burns as brightly as before, these stories as often presage Mrs. Woolfs abnegation of life. The third group, posthumously published by Leonard Woolf in 1944 without his wife's imprimatur (and recognizably "only in the stage beyond that of her first sketch"), still reveals a desire in the author to pursue her original objective suggested in "A Haunted House"--the unlayering of facts to bare the "buried treasure" truth, using imagination as her only tool. In one respect, and one/Only, the critics who have neglected these stories are correct: the pieces are often too loosely knit, too undisciplined, and too often leave the Impression of a magpie's nest rather than one "with twigs and straws placed neatly together." In this the stories are obviously inferior to the novels. But by neglecting the stories the critics have missed a mine of information: herein lies an "artist's sketchbook,” which, like A Writer's Diary, provides a major avenue into the mind of one of the most remarkable writers of our age.

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