For most of you who know me, and even for those who don’t, you will know or come to know of my love for Virginia Woolf’s writings. A while back, probably ten or so years ago, I wrote a short story imagining sitting with her at her home, Monk House. The story was for a submission for a grant in her name (which I did not win, unfortunately, but the exercise of my imagination was so entrancing.
Here is the story, I hope you enjoy it!
A Visit to Monk House
Virginia Woolf sat across from me. Touching her slender fingers to her cheek as she turned her stare out the window, she answered my questioning look in a soft, yet resolute, voice.
“Women have sat indoors all these years, so that by this time, the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.” The corner of her mouth curled in a slight, awkward, smile. “Yes, I remember writing that.”
“And, Mrs. Woolf, what were your thoughts when you wrote that line?”
I prodded, hoping that she did not notice the nervous waiver in my voice and the insistent clicking of the silver knob on the end of my ink pen; an on and off whereby my hand struggles to write words in her presence, thus lending to my thumb’s pressing habit. Yet, of course, she noticed. How could she not? Even with her contemplative eyes staring through the unveiled window, over the untamed reaching arms of hollyhocks and tulips bowing over the garden path, and onward set on some distant thought in the passing cloud, she saw and heard.
She answered quick. “Oh no, my dear, that is not why you are here. You are here to answer for yourself. Tell me, if you can, what were your thoughts when you read that line?”
I felt overcome with clarity, like the sudden warmth rushing through your veins and flushing your cheeks when someone discovers you in a lie. My arm twitched and crooked to scratch an annoying itch at the spot between my shoulders. I paused in mid-scratching as her eyes rested on me with a knowing look. Oh dear, I thought, she saw that too. Of course.
“Well,” I said, swallowing down my fear, “I think women sometimes are their own masons.”
She struck a match and leaned her head back against the cushioned chair back; the end of her cigarette glowed orange as she sucked. “Too simple. You’re a writer, give me more,” she answered in a cloud of smoke, forming an aura around her loosely cinched brown hair.
I knew what she wanted. That connection. Perhaps she looked for the same electricity flying on the words of Henry James as he sat in her company. Perhaps he sat in this very chair. I crossed my legs and arms, fidgeting at the thought.
“You’re right, Mrs. Woolf, that is too simple. And yet, sometimes it is the simplest things that bind us in. Maybe not in your generation or even in my mother’s generation. Times were different then. Then, maybe women were among the trivial things of life, sitting within their four walls, cooking, cleaning, having babies, with men standing guard to make sure that his woman didn’t see that chink in the wall. For some, like you, their creative force found their way to pens and brushes, but, more often than not, so many suffocated in the darkness. I think of my grandmother. She was a college graduate, an
English teacher, a writer on the verge, yet her little brick and mortar house and her sitting did nothing but turn her into a sad spirit. Where did her creative force go? It ebbed away down the drains and lay like dust on the floors waiting to be swept under the rugs. Whether you know it or not, Mrs. Woolf, but writers such as you laid the cornerstones of writer’s rooms today. Now, when we sit and our creative force permeates the walls, harnessing to pens, the vibration shudders across our gardens, into our towns, and floods national and international boundaries. Your sitting in that room of your own has opened the doors for my generation. As I said before, I think writers build their own barriers today because there are so many more opportunities for this generation. In some cases, not all. There are still those who because of circumstance, choice, or mental and emotional problems, who have no idea of the freedom enjoyed in the spinning of a potter’s wheel, or slapping a bold slash of color on a canvas, or the releasing of demons onto a blank page. That is why writers need other writers, and artists need other artists. Reminds me of a scripture that says, ‘one mans face sharpens the face of another as iron sharpens iron.’ As writers who have been there, we can help those who cannot see beyond their walls and shuttered windows. It is amazing what a gift of a journal and a pen can do in the hands of a person who is battered, abused, abandoned, alone, sad, feeling unloved, unworthy, scared, tired, or hollow. You were one of the fortunate ones, Mrs. Woolf, to have a husband give you the freedom of a room of your own.”
She took another slug of her cigarette and looked across at me with those dark eyes. “Fortunate? How can you call me fortunate when every morning I awoke with shackles about my brain?”
I found it difficult to look into her sad face; so turning my head to gaze through the front window, I rested my cheek on my palm. The sun broke in little shafts of light through the dancing elm leaves, casting shadows on the windowsill, and a sudden unexpected roll of thunder shook the pane. I lifted my gaze to the sky. A dark cloud edged over the tops of the trees, already streaking gray far in the distance where the River Ouse slumbers along. I knew what she was thinking, so I answered her question.
“Yes, I know. I have imagined you, Mrs. Woolf, sitting in your room, the hours passing by, the temporary consolation in the scribbling of your pen, your creative force throbbing within those four walls like the rising bubble of magma just before an eruption. You wanted a freedom beyond words, something that you could bear, and yet, when the struggle seemed hopeless, you chose death. Like so many incredible artists and writers of your day and before, geniuses who struggled with the gift of the divine chained in a human form, very like Hamlet crawling between earth and heaven, and opting for the quiet rest from a thundering brain. Some would say that your writing benefited from your suffering, for in those four walls you struggled for us all, over those common threads that link us: childhood, parents, relationships, triviality, inequality, sadness, humanity, and death. Therefore, you gave us a gift, the gift that so many writers sitting in their rooms have given: their minds gushing onto a page. Yet, if you look closer, you will see the core behind mere words, something real, something true, something lasting beyond death woven into every letter and every sentence. The gift of their soul. You left us, Mrs. Woolf, and yet, you still live for the writers after you to learn. You left a legacy, just like my grandmother. Although she cleaned away her ambition with a rag and a broom, it hid like a film of dust hiding way on
the top of a bookshelf, waiting for my sticky young fingers to leave a mark and pick up my grandmother’s dust bunny soul. And this is me, now, sitting in your armchair at Monk House.”
The smell of smoke mellowed and I felt suddenly alone. I turned my head to see that Mrs. Woolf had risen from her seat and drifted away from me without notice. I ran to the window upon hearing the front door click shut and pressed my forehead to the cool glass. She paused at the front gate with her hand on the latch and looked up to catch my eye. The tilt of her head, the suggestion of a smile and the slight nod moved me beyond words. She stuffed her hands in the pockets of her coat just as the clouds burst open, drowning her fading form in gray.
As for me, I sighed and let my gaze caress over the items in the living room, the mementos of her past. Sucking a deep breath to soak in the lingering smell of her cigarette smoke, I brushed my forefinger over a certain dusty spot on the bookshelf: the spot where she left her final words. Like the sizzling pop of electricity, my brain throbbed, and, for a brief moment, I thought I felt her presence behind me. My tongue felt tacky and bitter from the ink pen clenched between my teeth and I imagined I heard her voice whisper into my left ear. Two words only, but they were enough.