shapers of a purely undefinable intuitive shape
not unlike a gesture of
pure thoughtless good intent
“About Bats”, Martin Harrison
I’m really interested in people as animals.
And I’m the hare, a long way ahead of the hounds my critics.
Virginia Woolf, 1931
Sometimes an image will find us when we’re not looking for it, an image that can instantly make succinct an evasive argument. Time and again in Flush—a biography (of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel), for example, Virginia Woolf laments this elusive shortfall of words. “The fact was that they could not communicate with words, and it was a fact that led undoubtedly to much misunderstanding. Yet did it not lead also to a peculiar intimacy?”(Flush, 27). The consummate modernist extends her delicious tropology and vestigial Victorian anthropomorphism. In Flush Virginia had, as model, used her own spaniel, Pinka, given to her by Vita Sackville-West in 1926; a “portrait” photograph is the frontispiece of the first Hogarth Press edition of 1933 and used on the cover of the 2002 Vintage edition.
I had finished making intensive notes to round off and tie up this essay through studying Flush, but I was relying on words and they weren’t complying or adequate. They eventually agreed, in light of the proximity of the anniversary of Virginia’s birth, to lift and gather like birds and shape-shift into three resonating, call and response subheadings, as follows.
Double portrait, Mongoose and Narcissus
It remains tricky to write about this “peculiar intimacy”. One of my poems, “Dürer”, about bathing my shaved, and newly unstitched, old “white heeler”—“some stitches he removed himself / like a tailor”—as an act of devotion on my birthday after his cancer surgery, again, relies on an image: the delicate beauty, though passive and lamb-like, of Dürer’s dogs.
Though I recognise and admire his collie-dingo smarts (pensive depths, shallow guile, unabashed hope and want), I don’t, unlike Elizabeth Barrett Browning who had as a child read Virgil in Latin and gravitated towards metaphysics, imagine that he can fundamentally read. She had, also, before the arrival of Robert Browning and his supersedence, imagined her “Flushie” as Pan himself in Arcadia and she a nymph. Without speech, he epitomised her prepubescent ideal and never discussed the mundane. Although her poem, “To Flush, My Dog”, is by modern standards “on (Victorian jet) stilts” and may appear grandiose and mawkish, it offers these lines: “After, – platforming his chin / On the palm left open.” Right there repeats my unsought clarifying image: Double Portrait, found in Robert Hughes’s Lucian Freud paintings, a book I had found, or had found me, in a Lifeline Store wrapped in clear plastic with a handwritten “graphic nude content” warning sticker, the simple white text of its thin plain spine had caught my eye. (A small copy, as labelled and quenched with a similar warning, of that zoometric transfiguration of sinuous pleasures, in graded variations, the Kamasutra, was tightly wrapped in coarse brown paper and also subtly tendered.)
Lucian Freud’s impasto unsentimental Double Portrait, 1985–1986, is of his sleeping adult daughter and nestling whippet, incidentally bearing the barred markings of a mackerel, Virginia’s trademark Rosetta stone. Their simple pleasure is in the presence of “the other”. They are painted as equals, their forelimbs entwine and counterbalance. The dog’s one-upmanship game of pure gesture has been played, its forepaw rests upon her forearm, its head rests on her shoulder, her chin rests upon its head, its suppliant gamer’s nose rests “on the palm left open”. It is without a constructed composition and beautifully illustrates that inter-specific shelter, intimate rest and sympathetic languor. The dog’s hind legs have left a tracery in the sheet through their hardwired movements, their re-running, as they descend / ascend into sleep. The plaintive drama of its shifting nervous system’s stifled shuddering barks, shrill whimpers and yelps, the vague wagging of the tail has subsided. It has found the gentle rest of the sequestered wolf.
Flush can be a deceptive read and unforgiving of the simplistic reader and reviewer who may misrepresent its substance by quoting out of context. Although written to further the iconoclasm of (the Bloomsbury’s star debunker) Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, as a psychodrama it gently revives Barrett Browning and is also a tangential treatise on control and captivity, racism, classism, sexism and tyranny through the objectification, transference and infantilism of “the animal” or “pet”. It does not pretend to be one of Woolf’s major works and perhaps this triggered the jump to contempt and “female fiction” condescension by its various reviewers.
Flush was written after Woolf read the “Browning love letters” while resting after her exhausting completion of the exquisite The Waves, which she was sure would fail. She immediately realised the possibility of using “the dog” or “animal mind” as a voice of reason and witness, much like the subsequent Gert Hofmann’s “child”, and enjoyed the sympathetic physical, almost mirroring likeness, of dewy-eyed Barrett Browning’s ear-like banks of ringlets and the spaniel’s. She also tired of “polishing off” Flush and on 3 January 1933 confessed to her diary of wanting to “wipe off the intensity of concentration trying to re-write that abominable dog Flush in 13 days”. On 26 January the book was “despatched”. On 15 January, she had wondered “why should Flush stiffen the back of my neck?”
Twenty-four-years earlier, at age twenty-four, Virginia had—in a review of Percy Lubbock’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning In Her Letters (1906)—written of the almost, it would seem, forgotten and certainly trivialised eminent Victorian poet and political activist, who had campaigned for the abolition of slavery (despite her family’s Jamaican interests) and for women’s rights, and whose influence helped to reform child labour legislation. Barrett was perhaps mostly remembered, however, as a sickly, breathless Romantic, cinched into hoops, on laudanum, and “saved” from the extended childhood of an unmarried Victorian woman, at age forty, by Robert Browning and sensual Italy. In Flush Virginia gives Barrett Browning’s commitment to her work and correspondence artisan proportions.
She satirises, with equal balance, the renown and theatre of Victorian mediums and Barrett Browning’s uninhibited spiritualism, through Flush’s sceptical observation; at the end of his life, and true to form she closes with this: “The drawing-room table, strangely enough, stood perfectly still.”
Flush is decidedly Dickensian through its scratched-at Victorian hypocrisy’s elitist “surface” and its apparent injustices without a turned or blinded eye. Virginia brilliantly juxtaposes with Barrett Browning’s world, the squalor of “the Rookery” slums in Whitechapel, where Jack The Ripper would strike and disappear in forty-years or so, and where Flush is held for ransom when stolen. This was a common practice if coddled dogs were not lead on a chain amongst the four-storeys and mahogany doors of The Barrett’s Wimpole Street, in Westminster, “not a stone’s-throw”, but a world away. Typhus and cholera would intermittently “clear” these desperate and “dissolute” areas. Dickens had roamed these streets during his curative and journalistic “Night Walks” as a temporary insomniac and, much earlier, as a lost child in his essay, “Gone Astray”. It was here he met homelessness and the diverse homeless with his customary humanitarian empathy.
Although Barrett Browning had some social awareness, she is unaware of the true squalor and “types” that Flush—who although bred to catch rabbits considers himself “an aristocrat”—experiences there. She cannot quite imagine the realities of it. Into the chaos of a hellish room the matchless Virginia confines a cockatoo, of all things, with “its great yellow-stained dove-grey wings in frenzy”.
But Flush was also written to pay the bills—and it did, firstly serialised in The Atlantic Monthly in July, August, September and October of 1933 and then published by Hogarth Press in October, 1933. Including its coinciding American Harcourt Brace Janovitch edition release, it sold around 35,000 copies after the three printings and reimpressions of that year alone (Flush, xlv). It was distributed as an alternative selection of The Book of the Month Club Inc., New York. Sadly, it would seem, Woolf also derived professional embarrassment from both its critical reception and commercial success.
Flush is a clever little shrine to restrained simplicity like an illuminated silky tuft of russet fur weighted by a small smooth pebble on a Wimpole Street windowsill. The pebble is from St Ives, Cornwall, where Virginia spent her early happy (and sweetly feral) summers until the crushing death of her mother. The book redraws the line between the very distinct exteriors and interiors of her extraordinary early short stories, in which she herself is more obviously present and still pushing at her own boundaries, craft and form. These echo in her later well-known, faultless and fearless masterworks in which her innate anthropomorphism doesn’t merely dazzle and delight, it unravels the DNA of, and rinses beneath an icy scullery tap (in The Waves), her Rosetta.
Tenderly, the beautiful child Rhoda is constructed thus: “Her shoulder-blades meet across her back like the wings of a small butterfly.” (The Waves, 15) Frighteningly, the battle-fatigued Septimus Warren Smith’s hallucinations extend to a Skye terrier “turning into a man”—“He could not watch it happen! It was horrible, terrible to see a dog become a man!”(Mrs Dalloway, 59). Fanny Elmer deliciously has “the ankles of a stag” (Jacob’s Room, 99). Mr Ramsay wants to prepare his children for “that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished” (where they’ll need “courage, truth, and the power to endure”) and where “our frail barks founder in darkness” (To the Lighthouse, 10).
Idiosyncratic (and with a Victorian childhood’s response) Virginia and Leonard Woolf endearingly delighted in pet-naming themselves, family, friends and others by employing shared histories, noted quirks, zootaxia and either their fondness for, or aversion to, various resonating animals through this vivid ethology. Within their menagerie they had Lucian Freud’s grandfather, Sigmund, whom as his English publisher they had corresponded with and eventually met shortly before his death in 1939 as a Jewish refugee in London, and had mutually liked each other. Freud had given Virginia a narcissus, and she had attributed to him “a monkey’s light eyes” (Flush, xiii). (I would presume that any gift from a psychoanalyst could be perceived as “loaded” and in the Language of Flowers the narcissus does convey “egotism”, but also “formality” and “stay as sweet as you are”. Perhaps he just liked the flowers; or didn’t, though he liked The Woolfs.)
Virginia’s sister, Vanessa, was Sheepdog, Marmot or Dolphin. To Vanessa, Virginia was variously Billy, Billy Goat, The Goat (given in early childhood and used by many), the Wallaby, the Barbary Ape, the apes, the singes, the singerie—a French term for “monkey trick”, a satirical clothed primate tableau. Virginia referred to herself by using a range of little rodents’ names, or Towser, a sheepdog. Their letters are delightful.
To Leonard, or Mongoose, Virginia was Mandril (sic) or Mandy. Sometimes, on paper, Leonard would be M’s M—Mandy’s Mongoose. Such was their fantasy life, or perhaps closer to reflective “life”, such were their fantasy lives. A note from Leonard (to Virginia) reads, “I hope the Mandril went to its box early and isn’t worried by anything in the world. The end is as the beginning was and as it always will be, that it’s for me the dearest and most beloved creature in the world.” After Leonard’s proposal and while needing bed-rest and isolation to decide, and knit, she resolved that she felt “very clear, calm, and moved slowly, like one of those big animals at the zoo”.
Virginia often took the role of the male animal. Vanessa wrote in a note to her within days of her and Leonard’s 1912 wedding night, “Of course I should have expected him (Leonard) to be in the 7th heaven of delight … As long as the ape (Virginia) gets all he wants, doesn’t smell too much and has his claws well cut, he’s a pleasant enough bed-fellow for a short time.” This plasticity and shift of gender, this mercury, was yet to facilitate the androgynous conception, in 1927, of Virginia’s tour de force, Orlando.
After a debilitating and (new marriage) disrupting relapse of Virginia’s “neurasthenia” she wrote to Leonard:
Would it make you very conceited if I told you that I love you more than I have ever done since I took you into service, and find you beautiful, and indispensable? … Goodbye Mongoose, and be a devoted animal, and never leave the great variegated creature. She wishes to inform you delicately that her flanks and rump are now in finest plumage, and invites you to an exhibition. Kisses on your dear little pate, Darling Mongoose.
And later while away after weight-loss and severe headaches during a depression (Leonard’s) Virginia wrote to him, “I love your little ribby body, my pet.”
This intimate and insular bent spills into Virginia’s short story, “Lappin and Lapinova”, written (revised) in 1938 and first published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1939. At just under ten pages long, it begins, “They were married.” “They”, being Rosalind and Ernest Thorburn. Rosalind begins to notice how like a rabbit Ernest is, like her pet rabbit, though he is a wild rabbit, when eating toast. From this honeymoon observation a rewilding of their tamed selves begins and an underlying “other life” keeps them cosseted and tenderly interested in one another and distances the onset of domestic monotony.
“Lettuce, rabbit?” she asks, she hasn’t named him yet, “Come and take it out of my hand,” she added, and he stretched out and nibbled the lettuce and twitched his nose. “Good rabbit, nice rabbit,” she said, patting him, as she used to pat her tame rabbit at home.
Here, again, is Barrett Browning’s “the palm left open” to “the other”.
Though he is not tame, Rosalind reminds herself, she tries to name him appropriately. This seems important. She calls him the French Lapin, but he is not French, he is English; she tries Bunny, but this won’t do, he was not “plump and soft and comic”. Lappin, she decides, is perfect. He becomes King Lappin.
She begins to reveal, ad lib, while sitting by the fire one evening, the whole vigorous story of the Lappin tribe; he begins to join in, their whole complex lives manifest by speech, the wood, prairies and swamp of their existence. “‘And what’, said Rosalind, on the last day of the honeymoon, ‘did the King do today?’”
Yes, exactly, it turned out, and “‘Ah, Lapinova,’ Rosalind murmured.” With “the real Rosalind” fleshed out and named, Ernest “looked at her. He felt very much in love with her”. With the name “Lapinova” Virginia concocts, with her enjoyment of, and engagement with, the exotic: the red berries, gold leaves, black ground of the Khokhloma, the forest floor of Russian folk art; Anna Pavlova (and in 1922 a principal dancer with the Ballets Russes, Lydia Lopokova had entered the insular and resistant Bloomsbury “circle” as John Maynard Keynes’s lover and, in 1925, his wife); and perhaps, shamelessly pedantically, rabbit+eggs—the expectation of sure fecundity is there. Ovaries present. There is conjecture as to why a doe hare “boxes” with a buck—some say that she will only accept a buck who can “outbox” her or boxes to fend off mating. I would hazard a guess at both.
It is “settled”—he is King Lappin and she, Queen Lapinova. “They were the very opposite of each other; he was bold and determined; she wary and undependable. He ruled over the busy world of rabbits; her world was a desolate, mysterious place, where she ranged mostly by moonlight.”(86)
This private, recondite world of rabbits, with the exception of one white hare, made them feel “in league together against the rest of the world”. Virginia begins to introduce some intruding forces, “people’ and relatives who speak of hunting and the price of rabbits “skins and all”.
They begin secretly putting these “others” into their scenarios when they need “a gamekeeper, or a poacher or a Lord of the Manor”. Ernest’s mother, modelled on Leonard’s, was cast as “the Squire”.
Ernest’s “fruitful” family of prolific breeders, he has nine siblings, “many themselves married and also fruitful”, gather for his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary (modelled on Leonard’s mother’s eightieth birthday celebration). Rosalind “an only child and an orphan at that” feels outnumbered and estranged. She and Ernest had not bred like, well, rabbits. They are childless.
A week or so before the Woolfs’ marriage, in a state of great excitement, which would soon give way to a “headache” and the need, again, for quiet isolation, Virginia had decided on a list of her and Leonard’s planned “labour and factories”, interests and writing goals, and declared, “but next year I must have a child”. Leonard questioned this, given Virginia’s mentally vulnerable states, although he too wanted children. In 1913 it was recommended that they wait a year and a half before “starting a baby”. In 1919 when they were captivated by, and bought Monk’s House in Rodmell, Virginia described it as “after the fashion of a mongrel who wins your heart” some of its household goods were also auctioned, which Leonard successfully bid for. One of these was an early nineteenth-century, primitive unframed painting of “a line-up of children”. Asheham House, their previous home, they felt, was complete with “a pair of ghostly lovers” who would serve Virginia as the “residents” in her short story (just over two pages), “A Haunted House”, published in 1921 by Hogarth Press in Monday or Tuesday, the only slim volume of her short stories printed in her lifetime. It begins, “Whatever the hour you woke there was a door shutting”. To Virginia and Leonard the perceived presence of these children evoked their longed-for own, and inhabited Monk’s House with them. Ultimately, he removed the painting during Virginia’s lifetime and restored it there later.
In Leonard’s, An Autobiography, vol II, he writes of it:
It was of four children heavily swaddled in hats and coats standing stiffly in a line in front of the house. They were, I am sure, the Glazebrook children (a family who had once owned Monk’s House) of a hundred years ago. Their spirits, I almost felt and feel, walk in the house, clattering up and down the narrow stairs, now deeply worn by the countless comings and goings of Clears, Glazebrooks, and Verralls. At the top of the stairs you can see the place where they had once put a small gate to prevent the children plunging downstairs. And once when a floorboard was taken up by a workman we found a tiny little wooden eighteenth-century shoe …
Children surrounded them in Rodmell; Virginia, in her writing room in the garden which backed onto a lane leading to a church and a school for children between the ages of five and eleven, would have heard all their to and fro and play during the day.
After a child-filled Christmas 1925 at Charleston, Virginia and Vanessa, though close, envied one another, as sisters often do, for what they didn’t have. Vanessa, with three children, cruelly wrote to Virginia of her own maternal instincts as “animal and remorseless” and “[b]ut how can one avoid yielding to these instincts if one happens to have them? Perhaps you manage to.” She suggests Virginia write a book about it. Perhaps she blithely accepted fertility as a given and couldn’t see far beyond her own unrequited contretemps.
In her diary, on September 5, 1926, Virginia would write: “My own fault too—a little more self-control on my part, we might have had a boy of 12, a girl of 10: this always makes me wretched in the early hours”. She was sad for Leonard too; on October 23, 1929, she wrote with a clear insight when thinking of a similar couple they knew: “the pathos, the symbolical quality of the childless couple; standing for something, united”.
Leonard’s capacity to cope with childlessness was to dote on their dogs and their beloved marmoset, Mitz (also known as “the Zet”), theirs since 1934, who would, possessively and constantly, ride on his shoulder or be cradled “babylike, inside his jacket”.
Virginia noted Mitz’s death in her diary entry of “Monday 9 January” (1939) with, “Mitz was found on Boxing Day I think: her white old woman’s face puckered; eyes shut; tail wrapped round her neck. L. buried her in the snow under the wall.” The mention of “tail” is grave and aloof; without it, it is the stumbled upon death of a beloved old friend; the little body buried beneath the snow is evocative of a child’s.
For the Thorburns, all is “golden”, her mother-in-law is “sumptuous in yellow satin” at the anniversary gathering; the breeders, the gifts all deeply bitten at by hallmarks. Rosalind feels her “tribute”, “a little pinchbeck box pierced with holes; an old sand caster, an eighteenth-century relic” is slight and “senseless”. Pinchbeck, named after its inventor, a seventeenth-century watchmaker, is an imitation gold made from a copper and zinc alloy and has come to simply mean “sham”.
With its proffer, she remembers the “stubby black handwriting” on the note written by her mother-in-law at the news of their engagement; her expressed hope was that “My son will make you happy.” But Rosalind was not happy. (The expectation of happiness can be like that “Drink me” option that Alice, another rabbit cohort, accepted; it can delight; it can spoil.)
Virginia would have been familiar with the handwriting of all of her circle. Pen and paper is where they flourished pet-names, exchanged confidences and admissions, revelled in implicit conversation with such art, play, nakedness, embellishment, viciousness and tenderness. These brilliant fluid exchanges were this clique’s “social media” in hard copy, folded into their hands and kept in pockets, between the pages of books and under pillows; and perhaps torn to pieces.
Downstairs at dinner, Rosalind “dipped her spoon in a plate of clear golden soup. The raw white fog outside had been turned by the lamps into a golden mesh that blurred the edges of the plates and gave the pineapples a rough golden skin”. (88) She drifts from the conversation until mention of the propensity to breed: “‘The Thorburns—yes; they breed so, she echoed’ and rabbits. Ernest’s brother shouts, ‘Little devils! Shoot ’em! Jump on ’em with big boots! That’s the only way to deal with ’em … rabbits!’” (88)
Across the table she sees Ernest’s nose twitch through the chrysanthemums. At this, “The golden table became a moor with the gorse in full bloom; the din of voices turned to one peal of lark’s laughter ringing down from the sky. It was a blue sky—clouds passed slowly.” All “The Thorburns” are changed; a scenario unfolds, one is a poacher, one is “a white ferret with pink eyes, and a nose clotted with earth”. “The Squire” returns. They all raised their glasses and “then it was over”.
On the way home Rosalind cries, “‘Oh, King Lappin! … If your nose hadn’t twitched just at that moment, I should have been trapped!’” He reassures her that she is safe “pressing her paw” and she accepts this safety, pressing his.
A year or two later (during which Ernest’s mother has died and the family house let), Ernest comes home from the office to their “half a house above a saddler’s shop in South Kensington, not far from the tube station”. Rosalind, sewing by the fire, asks “What d’you think happened to me today?” She starts to tell him about “crossing the stream” when he interrupts with, “What stream?” Ernest has remained Ernest and, forgotten, Rosalind feels “a load on the back of her neck, as if somebody were about to wring it”. Ernest’s nose finally twitches and they spend the evening “roaming the woods much as usual”.
This lapse on Ernest’s part greatly disturbs Rosalind. She cannot sleep; she thinks King Lappin is dead as she watches Ernest sleep without twitching. On waking him to tell him so, he coldly dismisses her. “She lay curled up on her side of the bed, like a hare in its form.” (Hare do not burrow, they hollow out a nest or “form” on the ground). She imagines the grove alone.
From here on in there is dislocation, confusion, an unsettling dystopia. Furniture seems larger; she knocks against its “odd angles”. Rooms seem smaller—a kind of paralysis besets Rosalind, her “joints seems stiff”, and with fixity gone, “[s]he felt as if her body had shrunk; it had grown small, and black and hard”.
She walks to the Natural History Museum (one of Virginia’s favourite places), as she walks, all the front rooms she passes look like the Thorburn’s, and on arriving, shudders at the sight of “a stuffed hare standing on sham snow with pink glass eyes”.
She waits for dusk. At home, she sat
over the fire, without a light, and tried to imagine that she was out alone on a moor; and there was a stream rushing; and beyond the stream a dark wood. But she could get no farther than the stream. At last she squatted down on the bank on the wet grass, and sat crouched in her chair, with her hands dangling empty, and her eyes glazed, like glass eyes, in the firelight. Then there was the crack of a gun … It was only Ernest turning his key in the door .(91)
“‘Well, what’s up now?’ he asks briskly, warming his hands by the fire. Rosalind, anguished, explains about Lapinova, “She’s gone, Ernest. I’ve lost her!” Ernest is glib and off-hand, “smiling rather grimly”, and then stands silent as she feels “hands tightening at the back of her neck”.
“Poor Lapinova …” He straightened his tie at the looking-glass over the mantelpiece.
“Caught in a trap,” he said, “killed,” and sat down and read the newspaper.
Here Virginia ends the story in the same matter-of-fact tone as she began: “So that was the end of that marriage.” It begins; it ends. That last sharp sentence snaps shut around the idyll, their gentle paradox, just as fatally at Ernest’s “trap”.
Are Edward Albee’s sad and sadistic George and Martha, in his venomous 1962 play, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Ernest and Rosalind some exhausting, illusory years on? Leonard had, on being asked, given Albee permission to use Virginia’s name and referred him to her Lappin and Lapinova—had he read it?—and had found the play “moving”. After a drunken, flaying evening of what George calls “games” (which began as a campus gathering) for the four players, cuckolded and spent George kills off their imaginary child with an imaginary telegram, which he has hypothetically eaten. He, a thwarted academic, an associate history professor, relishes giving Martha the news in the company of others: a young, newly-appointed, idealistic couple—nauseous, dim Honey, it seems, expedited their nuptials by “hysterical pregnancy”, although George suspects a sly abortion; quarterback and boxing champion, Nick, who Martha has compromised and then sexually derided, is none the wiser. Martha, fifty-ish, has never been pregnant.
George and Martha’s “son” had been the vestigial consummation and conception of the hare and rabbit illusion. There were no little creatures to stroke and feed and love; but there were living, breathing issues. They twitched, renamed, pressed the other’s paw, saw gorse where there was gilded domesticity, anticipated a wrung neck at the withdrawal of the other “player”; little alphas need backup by the stream, another pair of (flopsy or cocked) long, velvet ears. Amongst the gorse there are bees.
Gravity and the homeless snail
It has been suggested that Virginia is at her most authentic in Lappin and Lapinova and had felt so exposed and emotionally vulnerable that she had kept it in a drawer for almost ten years before being able to consider publishing it. The story was her admission of fallibility, of fruitless wanting and hurts; her tender, domestic, and rather romantically coy, “self” uncovered and open to forum; a personal ode to infertility and its wounding depths, but also a richly furred anthropomorphic leap from a crouching woman. However, it is her joyous, introspective, stream-of-consciousness free fall, “The Mark On The Wall”, that is considered the closest to her scintillating, polymathic, multi-level conversation, or “flight”. “The Mark On The Wall” was first published in 1917 in what would become their own press’s thirty-two page booklet, Two Stories (the other, “Three Jews”, by Leonard); they hand-printed and sewed one hundred and fifty copies in their Richmond—on Paradise Road—dining room, sold by subscription, reprinted in 1919, which afforded them the ordering, by Leonard, of a brass plate, “The Hogarth Press”, for their front door, and reprinted in 1921 in Monday or Tuesday. The writing of “The Mark On The Wall”, and “The Unwritten Novel”, first published in 1920 in The London Mercury, and also in Monday or Tuesday, had thrilled and freed her, although she felt they were unprintable:
I shall never forget the day I wrote “The Mark on the Wall”—all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months. “The Unwritten Novel” was the great discovery, however. That—again in one second—showed me how I could embody all my deposit of experience in a shape that fitted it.
A woman sitting by the fire considers a “mark on the wall”. This is what happens, what is done, for the entirety of the story; what is considered is Virginia’s virtuoso grasp and reach and ecopoetic sense of place, of life. It is, at first, an introspective exercise in memory; she establishes the time of year; it is January; it is “winter time”. She focuses on the flowers in the bowl, there are three, they are chrysanthemums, the bowl is round, it is glass. A book is open. A cigarette held. I think of Martin Amis’s “iceberg” observation / study mention at the Perth Writers Festival—how we usually show about 5% of ourselves. It is, also, a war memoir. An exercise in sureties and doubts.
The “mark” on the wall, just above the mantelpiece, interrupts her staring into the burning coals, “an automatic fancy”. Was it a nail? A mark made by a nail? Too lowly placed for a picture, perhaps for a miniature? This eye-caught exaggerated detail stresses the deep and fluid distortion, the black definition like Indian ink, of firelight; of transient reveries (the ‘fraud’ miniature, she decides, would have ‘white powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, and lips like red carnations’); of organically malleable and reforming interior and furnishings. Her thoughts are extramural.
Now Virginia’s neurons, at full throttle, begin to stripe like the flashing waves of pigment through cuttlefish; and then steep like the slow pavonine chemistry of long-buried glass. Those “who had this house before us” are thought of—but “what happened next”?
“[W]e were torn asunder, as one is from the old lady about to pour the tea and the young man about to hit the tennis ball in the back garden of the suburban villa as one rushes past in the train.”(3) Soon she / we will be the train.
Objects lost are mulled over, “the most mysterious of losses”, “three pale blue canisters of bookbinding tools”, she begins, and lists a disparate graduating group of “gone” things, surmising with, “[o]pals and emeralds, they lie about the roots of turnips”. She wonders at having “clothes on my back, that I sit surrounded by solid furniture at this moment” And then, my favourite of Virginia’s analogies:
Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour—landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one’s hair flying back like the tail of a racehorse. Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard. (4)
Apparently, as Homer remembers in the Odyssey, the Asphodel Meadows are one of the three divisions of Hades of the Underworld. It is the realm of neither the wicked nor the virtuous; it is for those who were, like most of us, a mixture of both. For this reason, it is often planted on graves. Gods wore white asphodel crowns; its bulbs were eaten with figs. It is considered divine and remedial.
And now, here, Virginia shifts from incredulous exuberance to hallowed profundity.
But after life. The slow pulling down of thick green stalks so that the cup of the flower, as it turns over, deluges one with purple and red light. Why, after all, should one not be born there as one is born here, helpless, speechless, unable to focus one’s eyesight, groping at the roots of the grass, at the toes of the Giants? As for saying which are trees, and which are men and women, or whether there are such things, that one won’t be in a condition to do for fifty years or so. There will be nothing but spaces of light and dark, intersected by thick stalks, and rather higher up perhaps, rose-shaped blots of indistinct colour—dim pinks and blues—which will, as time goes on, become more definite, become—I don’t know what … . (4)
Again she considers the mark on the wall. It is not a hole. She thinks of the dust covering the mantelpiece and “buried Troy”, the “fragments of pots utterly refusing annihilation”. She wants to “think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts.”(5)
She wants to grab the first idea that passes; it is “Shakespeare … Well, he will do as well as another.” I think of the mystery sitter writing “at the servants’ dinner table”, “whose ruff was a thought dirty”, dressed in “hodden brown” and the shimmering, palpable awe with which she clothes him in Orlando (Orlando, 9). She contemplates “a track indirectly reflecting credit upon myself”; she lists a self-tripping scenario, decides self-protection from idolatry keeps ridicule away and a self “too unlike the original to be believed in any longer”. She thinks of a smashing “looking-glass”: “As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes.” (6) White’s included, behind X-ray specs.
She guesses at the attention paid to and the grappling with this “reflection” of future novelists—predicts White perhaps. (Orlando easily slips androgynously, into “something comfortable” and bohemian of the sylphlike, jaded Eudoxia’s in White’s 1979 The Twyborn Affair.)
The reliably real, “standard” and “generalizations”, comes into Virginia’s equation. “How shocking, and yet how wonderful it was to discover that those real things, Sunday luncheons, Sunday walks, country houses, and tablecloths were not entirely real, were indeed half phantoms, and the damnation which visited the disbeliever in them was only a sense of illegitimate freedom.” (6) Her doubts extend to “freedom”.
Her doubts extend to “that” mark on the wall. It “seems to cast a perceptible shadow”; seems to project; doesn’t seem “entirely circular”. She imagines running her finger over it. It would, she decides, “mount and descend a small tumulus”, as though over a mound and trough of earth. Her thoughts turn archaeological, to tombs, and “desiring of melancholy like most English people, and finding it natural at the end of a walk to think of the bones stretched beneath the turf ….” “Some antiquary must have dug up those bones and given them a name …” whose
last conscious thoughts are not of wife or child, but of the camp and that arrow-head there, which is now in the case at the local museum, together with the foot of a Chinese murderess, a handful of Elizabethan nails, a great many Tudor clay pipes, a piece of Roman pottery, and the wine-glass Nelson drank out of—proving I don’t really know what.(8)
She wonders what she would gain by standing to “ascertain” what the mark actually is. She is guessing at “the head of a gigantic old nail, driven in two hundred years ago, which has now, owing to the patient attrition of many generations of housemaids, revealed its head above the coat of paint; and is taking its first view of modern life”. She “can think sitting still as well as standing up”, so she continues to deflect “knowledge”. She considers the rudimentary “learned men … who crouched in caves and in woods brewing herbs, interrogating shrew-mice and writing down the language of the stars”. She contemplates “a world which one could slice with one’s thought as a fish slices the water with his fin, grazing the stems of the water lilies, hanging suspended over nests of white sea eggs …” (This aquatic detail is both chilling and crystallising. In the days following her suicide, before her body was found by a group of cycling, picnicking teenagers throwing sticks into the river, Vita Sackville-West had mused, “The river is tidal, so she has probably been carried out to sea. She loved the sea.”) She stops this “train of thought”, this “collision with reality” and scoffs at Whitaker’s Almanack’s Table of Precedency, (first published in 1868, Whitaker’s 2015 is its one-hundred-and-forty-seventh edition and still includes “The order of succession”), by which the (then cheap) wide accessibility of reference disseminated male agenda and pomp, attributing it to “knowledge” and nature.
Everybody follows somebody, such is the philosophy of Whitaker; and the great thing is to know who follows whom. Whitaker knows, and let that, so Nature counsels, comfort you, instead of enraging you; and if you can’t be comforted, if you must shatter this hour of peace, think of the mark on the wall. (9
Her conjecture on the “mark” has extended—“a nail, a rose-leaf, a crack in the wood?”—she feels that she has “grasped a plank in the sea”.
She describes “waking from a midnight dream of horror” and after switching on the light “worshipping the chest of drawers, worshipping solidity, worshipping reality, worshipping the impersonal world which is proof of some existence other than ours. That is what one wants to be sure of … Wood is a pleasant thing to think about.” (9) Her beautifully detailed observation and intimate knowledge of a living, breathing tree’s life follows; trees “paint rivers so green”; here too, there are more underwater places where she sends her thoughts: “I like to think of the fish balanced against the stream like flags blown out; and of water-beetles slowly raising domes of mud upon the bed of the river.” “The song of birds must sound very loud and strange in June”; she thinks of the cold feet of insects and concluding her biography: “One by one the fibres snap beneath the immense cold pressure of the earth, then the last storm comes and, falling, the highest branches drive deep into the ground again.” (Should we further extend its body to polished jet?) Her thoughts digress to subsequence, to what’s next as they retrace and retract: “Even so, life isn’t done with; there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree, all over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, on the pavement, lining rooms where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes. It is full of peaceful thoughts, happy thoughts, this tree.” (10) She would like to “take each one separately” but something interrupts:
Where was I? What has it all been about? A tree? A river? The Downs? Whitaker’s Almanack? The fields of asphodel? I can’t remember a thing. Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing … There is a vast upheaval of matter. Someone is standing over me and saying—“I’m going out to buy a newspaper.” (10)
The ambiguity of the mark on the wall is simply clarified in a throwaway line by this standing speaker, after offering salient reasons why not to buy newspapers: “All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall.”
I imagine that Virginia and “the sitter” knew exactly why they should have a snail on the wall—a dull, brown, almost imperceptible trailing whorl, Volutidae, a self-determining, merely visiting, adventurous mollusc from the sea negating any wounding invention of precedence. Its keeled cousin, the leopard slug’s high-wire gastropodous, florescent burlesque, two ruminant creatures slow-spinning as one; a consummate act of adaptation, reversion to the sea, bewildering and ethereal as a mushroom.