Pleasures and Perils of Imagination

One scorching day in July, Ms. Arachne shot a despairing glance at the open copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House and Other Stories on her navy blue lacquered desk with the now-dull brass fittings. “Late again,” she murmured with a sigh. Ms. Arachne enjoyed Ms. Woolf’s fiction, so why did she find it so difficult to write about it?

Maybe it is because the main character in most of the stories isn’t a character at all, she thought. No, the main character was usually the thoughts, the reveries, the philosophizing, or the flights of fancy in the mind of one or more of the characters. The human characters usually played supporting roles in a plot that had more to do with the trajectory of the character’s train of thought than with any overt external action.

A slight movement in her periphery caught Ms. Arachne’s eye. She looked out the window at the neighbor’s miraculously still-verdant maple tree, the broad leaves barely stirring in a whisper of breeze. The very greenness of the leaves stood in defiance of the sweltering afternoon heat. This put Ms. Arachne in mind of a passage from “Kew Gardens.”

How hot it was! So hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul. (p.35)

One thing I like about Ms. Woolf’s approach to stream-of-consciousness writing is the way she provides a thread to follow through the rising, eddying, and ebbing tides of the narrative, thought Ms. Arachne. In this case, the thread is the painstaking progress of a snail’s journey through the public garden in which blades of grass, stones, birds, and the human visitors appear as obstacles to its progress. The narrator may be omniscient, thought Ms. Arachne, but the viewpoint is that of the snail. It is as if the snail is eavesdropping on the couples, friends, and family members who impede the snail’s progress when they stop to admire the plants, get lost in their thoughts, and chat briefly before whisking away without even noticing the poor snail and its struggles.

Ms. Arachne stirred from her reverie and started to rifle through her notes. For once her tardiness was a boon. A few days ago, @woolfwriter at Blogging Woolf posted a link to an online article on the Kew Gardens blog about Vanessa Bell’s cover and interior illustrations to the Hogarth Press publications of the story “Kew Gardens” and a new edition of the story illustrated by artist Livi Mills with accompanying photographs of the illustrations. Ms. Arachne made a note to share the link with the other Common Readers.

Feeling restless, Ms. Arachne got up and turned on the stereo to listen to some music. She sat back and closed her eyes. She found herself thinking of “The String Quartet” and how Ms. Woolf perfectly captured the hustle and bustle of distracted social chat and fussing before a concert until the music begins:

…the first violin counts one, two, three —

Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! The pear tree on the top of the mountain. Fountains jet, drops descend. But the waters of the Rhone flow swift and deep, race under the arches, and sweep the trailing water leaves, washing shadows over the silver fish, the spotted fish rushed down by the swift waters, now swept into an eddy where — it’s difficult this — conglomeration of fish all in a pool; leaping, splashing, scraping sharp fins; and such a boil of current that the yellow pebbles are churned round and round, round and round — free now, rushing, downwards, or even somehow ascending in exquisite spiral into the air; curled like thin shavings from under a plane; up and up … (p. 23–24)

And then

…Falling. Ah, but they cease. One rose leaf, falling from an enormous height, like a little parachute dropped from an invisible balloon, turns, flutters waveringly. It won’t reach us.

“No, no. I noticed nothing. That’s the worst of music—these silly dreams. The second violin was late, you say?” (p.25)

Ms. Arachne smiled to herself. This was exactly how she experienced listening to instrumental music, hearing stories in the music that were probably never intended by the composer. Her friends found it bizarre when she tried to describe it. She had genuinely believed that she was the only one who experienced music this way until she read “The String Quartet.”

This won’t do at all, she thought with a shake of her head. What one wants is to write an assessment of this entire collection, not to drift off into daydreams all afternoon. That may be what one wants, thought Ms. Arachne, but one probably won’t get it here. The best I can offer is my varied impressions of these stories.

“Monday or Tuesday” is the perfect distillation of Ms. Woolf’s project as a writer and for this collection. Throughout the story is the writer’s search for truth amid all the concrete details and hustling activity outside the narrator’s window. “From ivory depths words rising shed their blackness, blossom and penetrate” describes perfectly for me the way reading a book gives way to vivid images. “But truth?” the writer asks or are these descriptions and imaginings merely “content with closeness?” (p. 7)

Which gets us closer to the essential truth of a person, a situation, or a relationship: factual reality or poetic imagination? Virginia Woolf deftly explored the tension between the two as well as the many other pleasures and perils of an active imagination with both humorous and tragic results in the short stories collected in A Haunted House and Other Stories.

Leonard Woolf complied A Haunted House and Other Stories after Virginia Woolf’s death. He put together six of the stories in Monday or Tuesday, seven stories previously published in magazines, and five unpublished and unfinished stories. The common thread connecting them all is the power of the imagination in all its facets from harmless flights of fancy to all-consuming obsessions.

HALT! Spoilers Ahead. If you haven’t read A Haunted House and Other Stories by Virginia Woolf yet and don’t wish to be spoiled, please turn back now (but please come back after you’ve read it). If you can’t resist, proceed at your own risk.

The most pleasurable surprise of this collection is the title story, which describes the most unusual haunted house in literary history. This house is no “Amityville Horror” filled with vengeful ghosts determined to drive out intruders. Instead, the house is haunted by the happiness of the love-filled lives of the previous occupants.

Another pleasure of the collection for Ms. Woolf’s fans is Dalloway-spotting. Four of these stories take place at Dalloway parties. While neither character plays a significant role in any of the stories, they do make cameo appearances in three of the stories. Clarissa briefly appears in “The New Dress” and makes introductions in “Together and Apart.” Richard issues an invitation and later introduces guests in “The Man Who Loved His Kind.” In these stories, Ms. Woolf brilliantly captures the awkwardness and anxieties of party guests eager to make a good impression while desperately trying to make conversation with strangers with varying degrees of success.

Among the perils of the imagination is the temptation to entirely retreat from the world around one, a peril that is explored to tragic effect in “Solid Objects” in which a man’s imaginative engagement in the secret life of objects turns into an obsession that alienates him from his friends and destroys his career. “Solid Objects” also serves as a cautionary corollary to stories such as “The Mark on the Wall” or “The Searchlight” or “An Unwritten Novel.”

The best stories all contain a tug-of-war between poetic imagination and factual reality in the search for essential truth.  My favorites tend to be the stories in which poetic imagination appears to win out.

For example, “Moments of Being” explores the power of imaginative empathy to connect people. As Fanny Wilmot searches for a dropped pin, her speculations lead her to see her piano teacher not as a pathetic, impoverished spinster but as an independent woman “obstinately adhering, whatever people might say, in choosing her pleasures for herself. She saw Julia—” (p. 111) The moment ends in a surprising embrace.

And a chance remark about Canterbury sparks a fleeting connection between Miss Anning and Mr. Serle in “Together and Apart.”

Their eyes met; collided rather for each felt behind the eyes the secluded being, who sits in darkness while his agile companion does all the tumbling and beckoning, and keeps the show going, suddenly stood erect; flung off his cloak; confronted the other. It was alarming; it was terrific. (p. 141)

However, the poetic imagination also has the potential to lead us astray, which Ms. Woolf explores in more than one story in this collection.

“The Mark on the Wall” presents rather harmless flights of fancy and speculation that are abruptly and comically punctured by a quick observation. This puncturing of fantasy (and often of vanity as well) by a bracing dose of factual reality is a recurring theme in the stories. It plays to comic effect in stories such as “An Unwritten Novel” in which the narrator’s attempts to create a novel about a stranger on the train are repeatedly confounded by the actions and interactions of the stranger and other passengers. It plays to a more tragic effect in stories such as “The New Dress” and “The Lady in the Looking Glass.”

Mabel in “The New Dress” learns that what makes someone ridiculous is the precise distance between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Mabel sees her new dress as feminine in a charmingly vintage style until she sees herself in the mirror at Mrs. Dalloway’s party. Seen through the eyes of others, the dress is merely unflattering and hopelessly unfashionable. The dress symbolizes Mabel’s inner struggle over the value of the illusory glamorous life she wishes for and the good but mundane life she actually has.

It is easy to get caught up in the pleasure of the vivid, even exuberant, descriptions but there is also an uneasy sense of cynicism in these stories. At first poetic imagination makes factual reality seem lackluster in comparison, but eventually factual reality becomes literally dis-illusioning in these stories and poetic truth seems merely delusional.

In “The Looking Glass,” a waiting visitor gazes around the room at the exotic objects collected by his rich unmarried hostess and imagines her as a glamorous world traveler receiving letters from many far-flung friends and former lovers. Then, as the hostess comes into the house, the visitor concludes,

Here was the woman herself. She stood naked in that pitiless light. And there was nothing. Isabella was perfectly empty. She had no thoughts. She had no friends. She cared for nobody. As for her letters, they were all bills. Look, as she stood there, old and angular, veined and lined, with her high nose and her wrinkled neck, she did not even trouble to open them” (p. 93)

The consequences of getting it wrong in “Lappin and Lapinova” reminded me of the epiphany in “The Hand” by Colette. In both stories, a young bride on her honeymoon suddenly suspects that she has made a terrible mistake. An opportune nose twitch allows Rosalind to imagine her new husband Ernest (a name she dislikes) as a hunting rabbit named King Lappin and herself as a magical silver hare named Queen Lapinova. Rosalind believes these characters get at the poetic truth of who they are and Ernest indulges her belief for a time. Finally, though, Ernest cruelly asserts the factual reality of who he is that Rosalind wished to avoid. Ms. Woolf ends the story with a flippant “So that was the end of that marriage.” (p.78)

Perhaps the most ironic and cynical take on this tension is in “The Man Who Loved His Kind” in which a man and a woman thrown together at a Dalloway party make small talk that inadvertently reveals their prejudices and exposes the self-serving motives behind his noble deeds and her ineffectual sympathies, forcing both to realize that they are not exactly the person they imagine themselves to be.

Finally, the poetic imagination is rejected in favor of factual reality in “A Summing Up.”

She looked at the dry, thick Queen Anne House; she did her best to remember what she had read at school about the Isle of Thorney and men in coracles, oysters, and wild duck and mists, but it seemed to her a logical affair of drains and carpenters, and this party —nothing but people in evening dress. (p. 174)

A lingering sense of disillusionment made me struggle with how to write about A Haunted House and Other Stories. That is probably just down to my temperament, though, and others may feel differently. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this worthy collection and heartily recommend it to you, dear Common Readers.

5 thoughts on “Pleasures and Perils of Imagination

  1. A nice review of this collection of short stories! Although The Haunted House and Moments of Being sound like stories I would enjoy reading, many of the other stories seem so sad. Imagination is an interesting theme to explore and it seems that Ms. Woolf approached the subject from a few different angles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, BJ!

      I think you’d like “An Unwritten Novel” and “The Mark on the Wall” too. Oh, and “The Searchlight.” It was dreamy and a little spooky but in a good way.

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  2. Thank you for a wonderful explication of the way Woolf works. It’s so often difficult to write about how art “works” for us (I wanted to use a more exciting verb than “works”). I think of the opening of “Jacob’s Room” where the sea and the boats and the sun and sky all melt together. Woolf is describing perception through actual tears and she does it brilliantly.

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    • Thank you! Yes, you’ve hit on it exactly: it’s difficult (for me at least) to write about Virginia Woolf’s fiction because it “works” in a unique way and so it defies conventional ways of discussing fiction. Thank you for that. I haven’t read “Jacob’s Room” yet but I may tackle it during the last stage of the #Woolfalong. Would you recommend it?


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