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Virginia Woolf’s Armchair

Let everyone make h[er]self an amateur

—Clive Bell, Art, 1920[1]

Reading has changed the world and continues to change it.

—Virginia Woolf, “The Love of Reading,” 1931[2]

Virginia Woolf, photograph by Ottoline Morrell
Fig. 1. Virginia Woolf, photograph by Ottoline Morrell (ref. Ax141648), June 1924. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Virginia Woolf’s memoirs resonate richly with seating, beginning with the rocking chair from which she heard her father drop books to the floor at Hyde Park Gate.[3] Leslie Stephen had “written all his books lying sunk in that deep rocking chair,” Woolf would recall in the essay “A Sketch of the Past,” his feet clear of the ground, a writing board across his lap.[4] Yet Woolf did not herself begin as an armchair storyteller. She learned to write vertically, standing at a high desk at the family home in camaraderie with sister Vanessa at her easel; later, at Gordon Square, at a high desk that had been especially constructed.[5] She did, however, graduate to the sedentary, with her nephew Quentin Bell observing that her “habitual position” for writing was “seated in an easy chair with a board on her lap” (Diary 1: ix). From 1923, she worked at Tavistock Square “in a dishevelled armchair, surrounded by piles of Hogarth [Press] manuscripts.”[6] At Monk’s House in Sussex, the Woolfs’ sitting room has been preserved to include an armchair upholstered in a reprint of a pattern designed by Vanessa Bell, arranged by the fire where it would have originally sat. This, the National Trust brochure asserts, was “one of Virginia’s favorite reading chairs” and, when I visited the property, a guide showed me another armchair in Woolf’s bedroom—wooden-armed, low, draped in a floral shawl—where she wrote when the winter chill drove her out of her writing shed at the end of the garden.[7]

Woolf’s diaries reveal the armchair as her most preferred environment of all, a natural habitat, a site of sanctuary not to be interrupted by guests. “Sunk deep in our chairs” reads one disgruntled entry “we were interrupted in our books by Walter Lamb” (Diary, 1:137). Elsewhere, she records keenly felt regret at inviting those whose visits will inevitably lead to her “relinquishing [her] arm chair” (2:200). Duncan Grant’s ink sketch Virginia Stephen at Fitzroy Square (circa 1909) depicts Woolf in an armchair, book on her lap but eyes focused ahead, reading instead something beyond the frame of the picture.[8] An early sketch by Vanessa Bell for a 1934/5 oil portrait, Virginia Woolf at 52 Tavistock Square, pictures Woolf again seated in her armchair reading, although the book in her lap was removed for the final version.[9]

When Woolf is unwell, writing in her chair symbolizes triumph. It is a return to health, to the habitual: “But I am back again, after 2 months this very day, sitting in my chair after tea, writing; & I wrote Jacob this morning, & though my temperature is not normal, my habits are: & that is all I care for” (Diary, 2:170). The armchair is clearly favored in Woolf’s mental catalogue of furniture, denoting security and safety—the metaphorically as well as literally “solid,” like the stoical armchair described in her 1919 story “Sympathy”: “shabby but still solid enough, surviving us all.”[10] Penny Sparke has observed that furniture, and particularly that which we choose for our homes or grow up with, “expresses complex meanings.”[11] She elaborates: “The home is the most private of inhabited spaces—the focus for many of the psychological and social dramas we enact—and the pieces of furniture within it carry the full burden of that symbolical load” (Sparke, Furniture, 5). Here I argue that, for Woolf, the armchair’s symbolical load is charged by what she most needed to be solidly ordinary for her—reading and writing.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard argues that the potent resonance of the home in which each of us grew up lies largely in its function as “a resting-place for daydreaming” and further, that “often the resting place particularize[s] the daydream.”[12] Our original shelter and its furnishings, Bachelard posits, not only provides comfort but is responsible for shielding individuals as they learn to flex their imaginative faculties. In other words, material domestic structures not only nurture artists but also inform their eventual outputs. In her biography of Woolf, Hermione Lee observes that “looking at houses and their solid objects is, in fact, an eloquent method of ‘thinking the matter out,’ the ‘matter’ of what use the traditional Victorian answers—the old mental furniture—can be for the next generation” (Virginia Woolf, 45). I will argue here that Woolf uses the armchair as a way of reconfiguring the “old mental furniture” and mapping out new ways of seeing (and being) for her common readers.

How then should we read Woolf’s furniture, and her own engagements with “Subject and object and the nature of reality”?[13] In her book on objects in Victorian fiction, Elaine Freedgood sets out ways of reading “things” in terms of weak and strong metonymy. She describes the loose reading of objects as social signifiers—for example, in Jane Eyre the curtains in the Barton home categorize its residents as working class, while the “Negro head” tobacco in Great Expectations confirms Magwitch’s self-identification as a slave—as relying on their “weak metonymic function.”[14] Such weak metonymic readings place objects in subservience to fictional characters—they merely “suggest, or reinforce, something we already know about the subjects who use them” (Freedgood, Ideas, 2). Against this context, Freedgood introduces the thesis which underpins her book, a type of reading which is based on strong metonymy, in which textual things are investigated in terms of their “objectness” in an effort to “recover (or rather, imagine) the[ir] material qualities” (2). Freedgood’s strong metonymical reading involves reading textual objects as cultural artefacts which might speak to us beyond the author’s intention—for example, about the material cost of colonialism—so allowing the objects a plangency previously quashed by the tyranny of the subject. Here I propose a different way of reading objects—specifically Woolf’s armchairs—by mining them for their philosophical value. Looking at Woolf’s fictional armchairs, I intend, like Freedgood, to allow these pieces of furniture a voice not otherwise heard, but not one to be interrogated from a cultural-historical perspective. Instead, I will examine what they can tell us about Woolf’s thinking—her philosophy—and consider how they might direct readers to think in similar ways.

Woolf’s early conception of armchair is worth considering in the context of her essay of 1940, “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” not least because it is freighted with symbolic furniture and evidences Woolf’s elastic switching between material and metaphorical modes of thought. In this short but powerful piece, Woolf argues for “private thinking” as the most valuable weapon in war, which she also refers to as “tea-table thinking,” an activity which must remain undaunted by its seeming powerlessness in the face of the accepted, doughty significance of “officer tables and conference tables.”[15] If, as Woolf says, ideas are the “only efficient air-raid shelter” then the armchair and the space for thought it both creates and protects may be conceived of in similar terms (Death, 154). After William Blake, Woolf espouses “Mental fight [as] thinking against the current, not with it,” and the armchair affords necessary space away from that current, so that the strength required to think against it can be built and drawn upon (155). Victoria Rosner has observed that Woolf’s novels “offer portraits of women’s pleasure when they can claim their own private spaces”; here I argue that the short stories offer up private spaces within them to be claimed and, further, instruct readers on how to best to use it.[16] These instructions are, I suggest, even more vital today in our saturated information age, replete with its propaganda and election interference. We all bear individual responsibility to navigate the increasingly diverse components of modern life, to interrogate the narratives that are brought before us, and to locate and defend our position without succumbing to fatigue or disillusion. All this needs courage, a unique perspective and the intellectual curiosity of the beginner.

Virginia Woolf, photograph by Ottoline Morrell, 1926
Fig. 2. Virginia Woolf, photograph by Ottoline Morrell (ref. Ax142590), June 1926. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

The Armchair Critic and Critical Reading

On Wednesday January 7, 1931, having recently finished the first draft of The Waves, Woolf wrote with a sense of elation in her diary: “The high wind can’t blow, because I’m chopping & tacking all the time. And I’ve stored a few ideas for articles: one on Gosse—the critic as talker; the armchair critic; one on Letters” (Diary, 4:4). In one article believed to have flowed from this plan, “All About Books,” Woolf would explore a theme integral to her long-term beliefs and aesthetics—that of amateurism—one which manifested itself much earlier in her first experimental short fiction.[17] Written in a fireside chair, “All About Books” is an essay disguised as a letter, playfully embodying the amateurism it champions by seemingly getting the most basic things wrong. Disavowing its argument at its start by declaring that only exaggeration and inaccuracy is to follow, certainly not “considered judgment,” and attempting to deflate its conclusion with the phrase “That this is all great nonsense I am well aware,” the essay nonetheless seeks to convince readers of the dynamic, diverse and necessary force of the unprofessional (Essays, 5:219, 223). The essay has not received a great deal of critical attention, as if scholars have accepted its humble, self-deprecating gloss and moved on.

The article’s thesis is not immediately clear, demanding a careful eye and sensitivity to a tone which wavers between the satirical and directly serious as Woolf defines and redefines her own conceptions of amateurism and expertise, while all the time purportedly talking only about reading. Toward the beginning, we are told that “half the arm-chairs in England” come to emit a “purr of content and anticipation” at the publication of a reverend’s memoir (5:219). The book Woolf discusses refuses the wider revolutionary zeitgeist of its historical provenance to provide a disapproving commentary on Paris life in the 1760s that is laced with a mild xenophobia. While Mr. Cole, the author-reverend, visits Paris in body, his mind remains in his English armchair, resisting engagement. This is Woolf’s portrait of the received interpretation of the compound adjective “armchair”; first in common usage in the late nineteenth century and defined by the OED as follows: “Chiefly depreciative. Based or taking place in the home as opposed to the world or environment outside; amateur, non-professional; (hence) lacking or not involving practical or direct experience of a particular subject or activity. Also: comfortable, gentle, easy.”[18] Examples of its derogative use include “armchair critic,” “armchair politician,” and “armchair traveler.” Those emitting purrs of content from multitudinous armchairs draw their expertise from second-hand, partial and incomplete wisdoms, with confidence drawn from the emboldening well of ignorance which bad books feed, rather than engagement with the external world. If these armchairs contain critics, they are critical only in a disapproving sense, frowning upon diversity, alterity and conceptual difficulty.

Woolf’s gaze soon finds a new target, “the advancing and victorious hordes of youth” who are now writing their own books (Essays, 5:221). They are “well equipped” with access to the specialist apparatus of the professional, to “the libraries and laboratories; the observatories; the splendid equipment of costly and delicate instruments,” to the fortunes with which “more chairs” are funded (5:222, 124). Woolf argues that the academies they attend, however, make serious omissions in their teachings: pupils come to take “service under their teachers instead of riding into battle alone” (5:222). While once they came first to phenomenal knowledge, learning that “the sun was in the sky and the bird on the branch,” now they will instead first know “the whole course of English literature from one end to another” (5:222).[19] Woolf argues that such graduates are placid as writers, protected from the messy uncertainty of reality by an ability to unpick every mystery with logic. The essay builds to a lyrical cry—“where is the sound of the sea and the red of the rose; where is music, imagery, and a voice speaking from the heart?”—that, too bold, precedes an embarrassed apology (5:223). Notwithstanding the disavowal that follows, Woolf has successfully established this new breed of reader-writer as being as disconnected from the world as those purring comfortably from the armchairs of middle England.

Each generation of reader disappoints Woolf, in failing to think independently and engage fully with the world beyond the page. They are passive readers, and in accepting to too large an extent what they are told, they typify the conventional meaning of “armchair.” In each Woolf finds a “fatal defect; they do not lead, they follow” (5:222). To read passively is to surrender one’s individuality and agency where reading should be part of an active expression of individuality. “Where,” she asks, “is the adventurous, the intolerant, the immensely foolish young man or woman who dares to be himself?” (5:222). This adventurous, brave, and necessary type of individual which Woolf describes is also to be found reading in an armchair, only reading very differently—from page to world and back again. These individuals are amateurs in the truest sense, uncorrupted by taught ideologies or handed-down modes of seeing or being.

As Woolf wrote in the second volume of The Common Reader in 1932: “Doubtless great changes in psychology were needed and great changes in material comfort—arm-chairs and carpets and good roads—before it was possible for human beings to watch each other curiously or to communicate their thoughts easily.”[20] Watching curiously is perhaps the key activity the armchair enables and that which is so crucial to the enterprises of thinking, reading and writing. Woolf’s armchair critic is not a bombastic ignoramus, emboldened by safety; instead, she is a maverick, positioning values of domestic privacy, creativity, sensitivity and fresh, individual thought against existing structure and ideology. In short, she is an armchair critic capable of critical thought. Woof willed the armchairs of the world to be filled with “people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally,” those who could nurture the ability to “continue reading without the book before you,” which she saw as literature’s primary function (Second Common Reader, 270, 267).

Short Fiction, Armchair Literature

I would now like to explore the idea of short fiction as a type of armchair literature, as it is in her early experimental stories that Woolf first conceived her armchair philosophy.[21] Roger Fry once wrote to Woolf: “we can have no public art, only private ones, like writing and painting, and even painting is almost too public,” highlighting the necessity of an intensely personal aesthetic which only need satisfy itself.[22] It is a statement which better fits Woolf’s short fiction than her novel writing; she clearly conceived of her stories in terms of leisure rather than professional “work.” Similarly, Leonard Woolf described her short fiction as something specifically undertaken when “she required to rest her mind” from novel writing.[23] In a letter of October 1930, Woolf wrote to Ethel Smyth, not quite sure of the name of the only short fiction collection published during her life-time: “These little pieces in Monday or (and) Tuesday were written by way of diversion; they were the treats I allowed myself when I had done my exercise in the conventional style.”[24] We can observe a clear distinction in Woolf’s mind here between “work” and “play,” with short fiction falling definitively into the latter category. Due to illness, when she was writing Night and Day (eventually finished in the autumn of 1918), her “writing was rationed in the same way that the butter was rationed” (Harris, Virginia Woolf, 59).[25] However, in Woolf’s summation, short fiction doesn’t seem to “count” as writing, cunningly evading professional literary prescription. It is a view which pervades thinking about literature today: a 2017 Royal Society of Literature report found that readers today are least likely to think of short fiction as constituting literature as compared with the novel and poetry.[26]

The modernist canon has similarly allowed short fiction to hide in plain sight—to exclude it from the professional business of criticism. Despite its formal tendencies toward “disjunction, inconclusiveness and obliquity,” which might easily suggest the form as a resinous encapsulation or epitome of modernist aesthetics, it is surprising how often the short story is sidelined or disremembered by modernist scholarship except where it comprises a specialist concern.[27] For example, Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane’s seminal work on early modernism, Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890–1930 (1978), dedicates sections to lyric poetry, the novel, and drama, bypassing short fiction altogether, while Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy (2007) does not consider short fiction across its six hundred pages, describing Franz Kafka as a novelist.[28] Similarly, The Oxford Handbook of Modernisms (2010) dedicated bespoke chapters to drama, poetry, the novel, and criticism, but not the story.

These recurrent oversights are puzzling, especially as the short story has often been identified as a “specifically Modernist form” and because in the “modernist period the short form came to have, for the first time in its history, a status almost equivalent to that of the novel.”[29] They can only be partially explained by the logic of E. M. Forster’s comment that “one tends to overpraise a long book simply because one has got through it.”[30] In behavioral psychology, work on aesthetic judgments has established that “people will generally prefer larger objects over smaller ones” with such decisions “influenced by a simple ‘bigger is better’ heuristic.”[31] Of course, this theory does not explain the routine canonization of poetry, except if one argues that poetry secured its hierarchical standing at the inception of literary history and “familiar objects tend to be preferred over unfamiliar objects” (“Bigger is Better,” 189–90). As Mary Louise Pratt points out: “Genres are not essences. They are human institutions, historical through and through”—as such, the short story’s partial erasure from authoritative histories warrants examination.[32] One argument put forward for this disremembering is that short fiction’s “connections with folklore, with speech, humor, children’s literature, with didacticism, the very notion of lack that goes with shortness, all conspire to deny it the status of art” (Pratt, “The Short Story,” 110). Given the “high art” niche that modernism has been accorded, such theories may have particular relevance to this period. So too do notions of the short story as an “improper” or “amateur” form of literature.

It is a commonplace for short fiction to be considered a test ground for apprentice novelists before they graduate to the professional field of literature. Likewise, historically, Woolf’s short fiction has rarely been viewed as serious literary output, at times considered an infrequently practiced hobby to which too much attention need not be paid—as Nena Skrbic notes: “Woolf’s short story writing can be explained as a private rather than a public pursuit.”[33] The first Hogarth Press publication comprised short fiction, one piece by Virginia, one by her husband Leonard, under the simple yet bold title Two Stories (with the very existence of the press testament to the potential of the self-taught novice—Quentin Bell recording the fact that Virginia and Leonard were refused access to more formal education in the specialism because “Schools of Printing would not take middle-aged amateurs”).[34]

Importantly, the writer of whom Woolf felt most jealous was a short story writer: Katherine Mansfield.[35] Short fiction was where Woolf made herself a modernist—it was in the writing of “The Mark on the Wall” that she found a suitably experimental voice for her fast-roving meditations. Yet she often viewed her own short fiction with an excess of diffidence, describing her stories as mere “short things” (Letters, 2:167).[36] She spoke derogatively of accomplished, innovative stories such as “Kew Gardens” and “The Mark on the Wall,” describing the former as “vague,” “slight & short” and finding “a good deal of fault” with the latter, despite the praise each received (Diary, 1:271). When in 1921 the sales of Monday or Tuesday picked up and broke previous records, the stories themselves praised highly by Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry, Woolf found herself “not nearly as pleased as [she] was depressed” when it was first published, suggesting a negative economy of appraisal which could be read as generic (Diary, 2:109).[37] She alludes to historical prejudice towards the short story, or at least the experimentalism it encourages, when she reflects the following year that The Voyage Out is now held in high critical esteem and that if “they say the same of N. and D. [Night and Day] in 7 years I shall be content; but I must wait 14 for anyone to take Monday or Tuesday to heart” (2:169).

Yet perhaps precisely because it was a hobby rather than a serious enterprise, the short story was a form that brought to Woolf the unfettered enjoyment of the amateur enthusiast. In a letter to Ethel Smyth, she describes the ease with which “The Mark on the Wall” came to her after wrestling with Night and Day: “I shall never forget the day I wrote [it]—all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months” (Letters, 4:231). Although, as Hermione Lee indicates, this is a conflated memory—the novel was published before the short piece was written—the description conveys Woolf’s conception of the form as enabling unchecked fluidity and autonomy.[38] Short fiction was for Woolf an amateur, armchair category of literature deriving from the same freedoms it documents and promotes. In 1925, Woolf would similarly write of her desire “to dig deep down into [her] new stories, without having a looking glass flashed in [her] eyes”—to be left alone to her own devices without external criticism or self-regulation (Diary 3:9). For Woolf, short fiction affords a uniquely protected and private space, below the radar: a place of experiment where anything goes, where a neophyte has little to lose.

In her essay “The Short Story: The Long and the Short of It,” Pratt argues that the traditional conception of the short story as an experimental genre stems from its relation to the professional, established sphere of the novel. The story, she argues, is seen always in relation to “the (‘full-fledged’) novel,” and used as a “controlled lab for preliminary testing of devices before their release into the world at large” (Pratt, “The Short Story,” 97). She also posits the short story as a type of “craft,” rather than “art”—something which can therefore never be recognized as internal to the realm of aesthetics (110). The customary conception of the genre that Pratt describes is pertinent to the canonical view of Woolf’s work, which clearly privileges the novel (as, arguably, Woolf did herself). When Alexandra Harris writes “Virginia Woolf’s short stories look to have opened a new chapter in the history of literature,” it is Jacob’s Room, rather than the short fiction itself, to which she refers (Virginia Woolf, 70).[39] Similarly, Julia Briggs views the short fiction as a precursor to future successes, observing that the short story “remained for Woolf a place for experiment and an occasion for learning” and stating explicitly that “their value was primarily for her, rather than her readers.”[40] Leonard Woolf would also corroborate this view of his wife’s short fiction as sub-professional by stating in his foreword to A Haunted House and Other Short Stories that whenever an idea for a short story occurred to Woolf, she would “sketch it out in a very rough form and then . . . put it away in a drawer,” to later rescue the sketch and “rewrite it, sometimes a great many times,” suggesting short fiction as work which is never quite finished or presentable (7). Dominic Head too describes Woolf’s short fiction as having “an incomplete, investigative ‘workshop’ quality” about it, viewing the experimentalism of the stories in the scientific rather than artistic sense of the term—as products not tested or finalized.[41] This article treats Woolf’s stories as experimental and workshop-like without the corollary suggestion that they are either sub-literary or a rehearsal for longer fiction. It argues for Woolf’s short fiction as the form in which she found her voice as a writer, and where she envisioned her future readers. Anne E. Fernald has argued convincingly that “Woolf experienced literature and feminist politics as continuous” and that “her political stance derives from her reading and remaking of the literary past.”[42] Here I will speculate that in Woolf’s early experimental short fiction literature and feminism converge through the concept of amateurism. Through it, we can bear witness to her thinking through of what reading means and why it matters, an enmeshment that would prove fertile for her later thinking about art and politics, her writing, and the vision of the world it produced.

Critical Contexts

Before moving on, I should briefly explain that since conducting the initial research on which this article is based, I have encountered new publications which powerfully resonate with this direction of thought, and which deserve mention here: the first of which is Andy Merrifield’s The Amateur: The Pleasures of Doing What You Love (2017). In this lively and compelling work, Merrifield sets forward amateurism as “a vision of reality that’s more expansive and eclectic, that isn’t hampered by the conservatism of narrow expertise” and embodied in the individual “who engages for the pleasure of it.”[43] His chapter on Charles Baudelaire, “The Genius of Curiosity,” suggests the importance of amateur aesthetics to modernity, and the genealogy of modernism.

Merrifield’s work does not, however, consider Woolf, while Melani Micir and Aarthi Vadde’s article “Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism,” published in this journal in 2018, uses her work as a keystone. As its title suggests, the piece argues for a new type of amateur criticism with which “we can begin rethinking what expertise is and where it lies.”[44] Micir and Vadde see amateurism as a gendered enterprise, positioned against the patriarchal professions. They also view it as something indelibly linked to form, using as an example the scrapbooking technique employed by Woolf as background work for Three Guineas. To sum up with their own words: “amateurism turns vernacular patterns of expression into deliberate forms of subversion” (“Obliterature,” 541). This article engages with precisely these arguments as it looks to Woolf’s earlier writing as an evidence base and considers the short story genre as the vernacular form in question. In framing the short story as an amateur form, while exploring feminist themes, it chimes with a statement made by Kate Zambreno in 2012: “My scribbling sisters. We are amateurs. We are dilettantes. We are all those terms they use to dismiss the girl writing. We need, perhaps, to reclaim these terms, as well as these categories of ‘minor’ or ‘outsider’ or ‘illegitimate.’”[45] A spirit of reclamation pervades this consideration of the short form.

The collection The Critic as Amateur (2019), edited by Saikat Majumdar and Vadde, considers the role of amateurism in literary and cultural criticism asks: “What would it mean to claim the mantle of the amateur as a way of understanding knowledge better?”[46] It does so at a vexed time in history for ideas of the amateur, when—as Derek Attridge points out in the same collection—notions of expertise, such as those which predicted the disastrous economic effects of Brexit, are derided as irrelevant.[47] We exist in a world where politicians such as Nigel Farage (educated at Dulwich College and an experienced city commodity trader) and Donald Trump (millionaire by inheritance and recipient of masterclass training in capitalism since birth) pose with a great degree of success as self-made laypersons, apprentices made good, positioning themselves as a rallying force against the elite rather than the apotheosis of privilege. Corrupted notions of amateurism at the service of populism, orchestrated by the right-wing, the rich and the powerful, are a far cry from Woolf’s conception of the democratic potency of armchair thinking, but this very perversion might in itself be suggestive of its original force.

“The Mark on the Wall”: Armchair, Page, World

“The Mark on the Wall” was Virginia’s contribution to the Hogarth Press’s first publication of 1917, Two Stories. It describes a phenomenological adventure of raw, uninhibited interpretation which speculates on the eponymous mark on the wall from the viewpoint of the armchair.[48] It owes its adventurousness, its originality of thought and its intolerance of tradition, to a thoroughly armchair precocity. The story plots the course of a receptive sedentary subject, grappling with the object world, as Woolf did herself when the piece was written, exploring the everyday things around her. The story gradually reveals how the space of the domestic everyday, epitomized by the protective locus of the armchair, is the place where a basic but profound confrontation between individual and world can start to occur—this is not only reading but also a sort of phenomenology for beginners, a looking anew at the world as an alien. It is what Roland Barthes describes in his essay “Writing Reading” as “read[ing] while looking up from your book,” where the text stimulates the reader to think outside of it.[49] It is also what Fry would describe in Vision and Design (1920) as a way of seeing that “demands the most complete detachment from any of the meanings and implications of appearances.”[50] It is the “clean” perception of the amateur, free of preconception, which enables radical viewpoints to be established. “The Mark on the Wall” is concerned with the process of reading the world, a wider investigatory process that determines the relationship between self and world.

The story’s journey begins with a sighting of “a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece,” immediately linking textual reading to the act of phenomenological interpretation by invoking imagery of type on blank sheets, also mapping its site as specifically domestic (Woolf, Haunted, 77).[51] The page on which the armchair critic will learn to read is the wall of their home; an appropriate place to begin as a membrane between the intimate (subjective) interior and impersonal (objective) exterior worlds. Through this page, they will time-travel to compare histories of humans and objects and begin to get to grips with what it is to “be” either, climbing through the tumult of a “vast upheaval of matter” by using question marks as hooks, dismantling long-ossified tradition and administration as they go (83). Seated deep and low in an armchair, the narrator is afforded an unusual sightline—one which is at once unassuming and capacious. The direction of view is key—the oblique sightline positions the narrator below the matter for speculation and suggests the deferential, unobtrusive approach of the amateur to its elevated (yet accessible) subject. In making the subject reverential and their familiar surroundings peculiar through obliquity of perspective, Woolf induces a mode of receptivity in her readers that is the ideal primer for effective reading.

Low armchair in the library covered in “Clouds” fabric by Duncan Grant
Fig. 3. Low armchair in the library covered in “Clouds” fabric by Duncan Grant, photograph by Aimée Gasston, Charleston, East Sussex, August 2013. Courtesy of the Charleston Trust.

Prior to the story really taking flight, the protagonist stares into the fire from the pages of her book, and is overcome by an “old fancy” of red knights, black rocks, flags, and castles, before that whimsy is overtaken by observation of the mark on the wall (77). This interference from the external world inspires “relief” as it breaks off this “automatic fancy, made as a child perhaps,” as if reverie founded upon unexamined habit precludes the engagement with the here and now necessary for productive thinking and observation (77). The notion of tales or traditions so well-known that “words have been rubbed smooth of meaning” runs through this piece and acts as a continued source of narrative consternation as an obstacle to its wider ambition of ontological engagement (40).[52] When the protagonist recalls this “fancy,” she does so looking at the fire through the smoke of her cigarette, perhaps in literalization of the human tendency towards clouding mental habits. It is only once she has begun a productive relationship with the intricacy of the world in front of her that she is able to enjoy the cocoon of her armchair to “think quietly, calmly, spaciously” and “slip easily from one thing to another” to enjoy the limber liberty of a world where “nothing is proved, nothing is known,” but where one engages with it bravely nonetheless (79, 81). The narrator is free to imagine a “world without professors or specialists or house-keepers with the profiles of policemen, a world which one could slice with one’s thought as a fish slices the water with his fin”—a libertarian domain in which nothing is closed off (81). In this world, the armchair thinker can prevail over the specialist who has come to rely upon assumption, precedent and established interpretation, perhaps overly confident in their subject’s facticity and its ability to be known, instead invoking more instinctive and responsive modes of thought in the material present.[53]

This story’s narration avoids a sense of congealed meaning by eschewing the practiced certainty implicit to the past tense. Although it is clear that the story itself is a remembrance, beginning “Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall,” qualifiers disrupt narrative certainty and, in the third paragraph, the past tense is abandoned altogether for the present (77). Elsewhere, the narrator exclaims “how dull this is, this historical fiction!” and there is a wider suspicion for conclusive, sweeping statements that are rendered opaque by distance—whether historical, physical or mental—with “generalisations” described by the narrator as “very worthless” (77, 80). Such generalizations recall the entrenched routines of “Sunday afternoon walks, Sunday luncheons” where habit prevails above all else, such as the tradition of “sitting all together in a room until a certain hour, although nobody liked it” (80). The lone armchair reader is free to shirk such contrivances, that world in which there is “a rule for everything” (80). In the regulated (upper class, professional) world, materiality is even neutered by administration, with “Tablecloths of a different kind” not considered “real tablecloths” (80). These categorizations and standards, reinforced in the text by the recurring symbol of Whitaker’s Table of Precedency, only serve to hamper thoughtful engagement with the real because they undermine specificity and individuality. In this story, the smugly capitalized Table comes to symbolize patriarchal, administrative power, what Woolf calls “the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets the standard, which establishes Whitaker’s Table of Precedency, . . . which soon, one may hope, will be laughed into the dustbin where the phantoms go” (80).

Woolf also makes use of Whitaker’s Almanack in Three Guineas (1938), where she uses its data to evidence that those women who have entered the professions are dramatically underpaid as compared with their male counterparts, asking: “And does not Whitaker prove that half the work of educated men’s daughters is still unpaid-for work?”[54] Rather than simply recording information which proves inequality exists, Whitaker is shown to perpetuate injustice by actively establishing and approving norms and precedents which go unchallenged and therefore actively resist change. Woolf writes in the same long essay that femaleness seems “according to Whitaker, possessed of a curious leaden quality, liable to keep any name to which it is fastened circling in the lower spheres” (Three Guineas, 48). The role of the amateur is offered in this context as a radical alternative to those who would otherwise seek to inveigle a professional structure that is terminally patriarchal and impenetrable. As observed by Micir and Vadde, in Three Guineas “Woolf suggests that preventing war and promoting pacifism require the intellectual effort of the ‘untrained mind’”: one that “stays amateur,” “does not narrow its focus” but “wanders” and “gleans” (“Obliterature,” 524). The armchair critic is counterpoised against the dulling administrative force of Whitaker’s Almanack which seeks to professionalize and quash non-normative or oblique perspectives. The original, and therefore anarchic, force of the armchair reader works against the homogenizing force of Whitaker’s Table which seeks to present thought as something already taken care of, relegating interpretation as irrelevant and recategorizing the present as a stolid continuation of the past. Woolf shows that deadening generalization can only be avoided by replacing the abstract with an engaged grasp of the specifically material. Forster described Woolf’s experimental stories (specifically “The Mark on the Wall” and “Kew Gardens”) as embodying an “inspired breathlessness” which can yet “never express . . . the structure of society.”[55] If these short pieces cannot make room for the whole structure of society, this suits their purpose well, which is not to sustain but to undermine and destabilize such systems.

One of the subplots in “The Mark on the Wall” features an amateur archaeologist, a retired colonel who crosses counties to compare arrowheads with other enthusiasts, in a line of enquiry that proposes material engagement but fails. As the colonel dies, his “last conscious thoughts are not of wife or child, but of the camp and that arrowhead there, which is now in the case at the local museum” (Haunted, 81). The colonel’s implied wrong-footedness in his object relations seems to lie not only in his myopic fixation (at the expense of the world’s myriad other jostling things, including humankind) but also in his eventual wish to conquer the object, to pin down its provenance with taxonomy, to possess it with a type of knowledge that is at risk of missing holistic sense and meaning. Despite at first feeling “agreeably philosophic” in “accumulating evidence on both sides of the question,” he eventually abandons uncomfortable ambivalence to adopt a staunch position, choosing to believe in the existence of the camp over the tomb (81). In so doing, he abandons amateurism in favor of a singular professionalized view which orders and so neutralizes “the vast upheaval of matter” represented here by the physical remains of history randomly selected by time (83). His intellectual certainty is in stark contrast to the amateur viewpoint, articulated by the story’s narrator who catalogues a number of items in the local museum to conclude that this proves “I really don’t know what” because “nothing is proved, nothing is known” (81). Early on in the story, the narrator states: “once a thing’s done, no one ever knows how it happened” and this irreverent dismissal of historical interpretation again asserts the primacy of the emerging present as against historical taxonomy (78). The historian’s belief in one version of possible events over another works against a contingent understanding of “the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard” by seeking a fixity of logic and meaning where it may not dwell (78). As “there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number,” so there are an infinite number of arrowheads (79). In this way, a narrowly historicist approach is imperialist, with objects and their related biographies possessed and neutralized by singular hegemonic interpretation.

Instead of seeking to pinion (a tricky maneuver anyway, if seated), the armchair reader conversely lets her “thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw,” choosing veneration over domination (77). Elsewhere, the narrator speaks of “worshipping the chest of drawers, worshipping solidity, worshipping reality, worshipping the impersonal world which is proof of some existence other than ours” (82).[56] There is a rebalancing of the accepted subject-object hierarchy in progress in “The Mark on the Wall”—a revolutionizing of an ideology so entrenched it goes without mention in Whitaker’s Table—as well as thoughtful recognition and validation of the autonomous power of the object world.[57] Terry Eagleton, in a rare moment of sympathy with Woolf, notes that she, like D. H. Lawrence, has “an extraordinary receptivity to objects, a capacity to open herself up to their unique modes of being without foisting grand designs upon them.”[58] It is precisely this receptive, engaged, yet deferential attitude which “The Mark on the Wall” seeks to encourage in its readers.

As part of its wider project of redistribution, “The Mark on the Wall” reveals notions of ownership (either conceptual or material) as absurd. The narrator of the story declares: “how very little control of our possessions we have,” while “[o]pals and emeralds” are imagined to “lie about the roots of turnips” (Haunted, 78). This works to undermine the colonizer/colonized dynamic that has historically determined human attitudes to things (and people). If experiencing the “rapidity of life” is comparable to “being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour” then notions of stability and security associated with ownership become risible (78). If we are to wake up from a nightmare to “worship” the otherworldliness of the object world, it is because things revered for their alterity rather than their submission or as an extension of the ubiquitous “I.” Once more humility, lowliness, prevails.

“I feel a satisfying sense of reality,” our narrator sighs as a result of her material musing, “which at once turns the two Archbishops and the Lord High Chancellor to the shadows of shades,” the oblique, armchair perspective having turned the reverence usually accorded to public bureaucrats on its head (82). This feat is made possible despite the fact that just paragraphs earlier the narrator has planted the rhetorical question “who will ever be able to lift a finger against Whitaker’s Table of Precedency?” (82). The Table’s overturn is enabled by material engagement; by focusing on the titular mark on the wall, the narrator is empowered, feeling she has “grasped a plank in the sea,” as if meaning were a solid construct more likely found in actual rather than virtual tables (82). What appears to be a closed, rhetorical question (the only type of question Whitaker’s Table allows) is remarkably answered within the space of a few sentences. The Table’s contents are laughed out of the room, with the assistance of some solid objects and an armchair from which to contemplate them; the “solidity of objects dissolves the solidity of subjects.”[59]

Yet not everyone will desire their armchair to become a site of revolution. Towards the end of the story, the narrator advises sardonically: “if you can’t be comforted,” if you cannot accept the passive heteronomy that Whitaker’s Table confers upon you, if you insist on thinking for yourself, “if you must shatter this hour of peace, think of the mark on the wall” (Haunted, 82). The “peace” referred to here, as proffered by the consolation of Whitaker’s table is, though, a false one. Woolf suggests the quiet of a mind that is not composed but sedated, a mind immune to interference from trifles such as marks on walls, implying that it is a richer type of reward that is to be offered by mentally seizing the material fabric of the world, which offers the potential connection with “something definite, something real” (82). By these means, the narrator gains access to a different kind of peace rooted in liberty, a mental quiet enabled by the amateur’s protected freedom, where it is possible to “think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from [her] chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle,” to exploit the questioning mode without disruption and engage with the external world with all its disordered diversity (79). The armchair facilitates this engagement, and it is only when the privacy it aims to safeguard is shattered by a third party talking of generalized public constructions such as war, God, and newspapers that the text’s secular communion with multiplicitous materiality must end. The revealing of the mark on the wall as a snail—its classification—also puts a full stop to our protagonist’s thinking, replacing the proliferating question marks that precede it and demonstrating the reductive nature of professional taxonomy. Rather than functioning as a grand “reveal” of elucidation at the end of the story, the categorization of the mark as snail serves to close down rather than open up meaning.

With its circular plot, beginning and returning to the mark on the wall, the story makes the case for the armchair philosopher—an amateur, a beginner, ending up where she first started, prohibited the teleology of a more professional, orderly progression. Far from defining the “armchair” as lacking practical or direct experience, through her story Woolf redefines the term to suggest that practical, direct experience can and should occur from the site of the armchair. She even suggests that Shakespeare was perhaps just another armchair philosopher: “A man who sat himself solidly in an arm-chair, and looked into the fire, so—A shower of ideas fell perpetually from some very high Heaven down through his mind” (79). “The Mark on the Wall” shows that the armchair allows its occupant “an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom—if freedom exists” (80). The liberty it offers is the uncertainty that comes with the confidence to ask endlessly resonating questions.

The armchair, then, allows individuals freedom and space to look obliquely at the world, favoring a multiplicity of possibilities over the singular, rigid certainty of professional conclusion. It allows autonomy without anthropocentricity, accepting only that which is immediately presented and on its own terms. This enables a capacious aesthetic—an original, individual, amateur “creative power” with contingent rather than vested interests, working against administration and hegemony in whatever form, insistent on determining new perspectives and interrogating both world and self (Room, 74). It is, moreover, a mode of thinking that can be taken elsewhere, into the outside world. As the narrator of “The Mark on the Wall” reminds us in the story’s closing paragraphs: “I can think sitting still as well as standing up” (Haunted, 81, emphasis added).

Reading the World

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf writes that in a hundred years opportunities will come: “if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality” (Room, 98). The armchair is, then, both a primer for and springboard into the wider world. By safeguarding a private, protected space for her readers, conjuring armchairs in which they could properly connect with her stories and the world around them, Woolf set the scene for her reading experiments to occur. By planting her reader firmly in the armchair, even for a brief intensity of minutes, Woolf forces a halt to routine, busy life, pauses the public world, and allows the reader to confront the everyday on its own terms. The armchair protects the physical and mental space required by readers to work at the questions put to them by the text and the world at large.

Constantly aware of and delighting in the diverse and complex effects of subjectivity, of humanness, Woolf nonetheless projected a vision of a world where the human did not dominate, did not define objects and all else, imagining both pre- and post-human histories with serene delectation in her fictions.[60] She viewed the world phenomenologically—as a place made up of beings of various different types, which she observed with an equanimity which rendered hierarchy an irrelevance. Woolf’s “phenomenological approach” relied on “perception, cognition, reflection, and imagination.”[61] This is an armchair aesthetic—hunkered low and humble before the world, the armchair reader does not view external phenomena as a series of resources molded about individual need but instead as something to be reverently explored. Its unrestricted, democratic accessibility is key.

There is something inherent to the structure of the short story form that is especially pronounced in modernist stories: readers are never allowed to get too comfortable in their seats. Tessa Hadley has observed that “because a story is short, you can always feel the end coming, sooner rather than later,” which “makes for a more self-conscious immersion” and an awareness of “the edges of the fiction, and of how it’s made.”[62] The unblinkered awareness enabled by short fiction—here one never quite escapes material existence and is refused the luxury of cozy escapism because termination is always imminent—parallels the experience of the amateur who is forever finding her feet, refused the comfort of approval that comes with expertise. No matter how compelling the story, the reader is always aware of the armchair in which they are sitting, slightly uncomfortably.

In her review entitled “The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt,” Woolf describes the distraction afforded the reader of her fiction:

But where after all does dream end, and where does life begin? For when the buoyant armchair grounds itself at the end of the chapter with a gentle shock that wakes you and the clouds spin round you and disappear, does not the solid room which is suddenly presented with all its furniture expectant appear too large and gaunt to be submerged again by the thin stream of interest which is all that is left you after your prodigal expense?[63]

This clear dichotomy of the imagined and the real is not something allowed the reader of Woolf’s experimental fiction, where endings are always in view and anxiously anticipated. In the modernist short story especially, the “world in front . . . and the world ‘inside’ . . . are not merely adjacent but overlapping.”[64] The external is always seeping in, challenging and contextualizing the narrative.

Woolf’s diaries attest again and again to her appreciation of an all-encompassing “reality” that can only be fully grasped by the lone individual, such as one seated in an armchair, protected from group thinking. In a diary entry of September 30, 1926, Woolf remarks on the “mystical side of . . . solitude,” postulating that it is “not oneself but something in the universe that one’s left with” (Diary, 3:113). Over ten years later, she would theorize these deeply-felt moments of almost inscrutable yet meaningful perception in “A Sketch of the Past,” where she wrote of how her “shock-receiving capacity” was what made her a writer (Moments of Being, 72). There is a sense that, in her short fiction, Woolf offers this same gift to the reader—as if by placing the reader in an armchair, Woolf wishes to precipitate factors conducive to “receiving” the shock of reality. Reading here is about recognizing and rebalancing the relationship between self and world, with the reading encounter enabling experience of a more democratic vision and an increasingly receptive mode of being in the world.

In the closing pages of A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel includes a photograph from the Second World War, in which readers peruse the shelves of a library whose roof has caved in. Manguel asserts that these readers are “not choosing the books over the life outside”; they are “trying to persist against obvious odds; they are attempting to find once again—among the ruins, in the astonished recognition that reading sometimes grants—an understanding.”[65] In her early writing-reading experiments, Woolf not only demonstrates but unpacks and entreats understanding. To understand, one must approach from a position of not already knowing; to read, one must first surrender—watch curiously, pay attention, sit humbly, close to the ground, be an amateur. Woolf proposes an ethics of reading that extends beyond the page to the world at large. She urges her readers to leave their armchairs and apply their reading to the present, to the world we inhabit today which allows for the possibility of presidents who don’t read. She anticipates all of the debate we should be having today, and she proposes ways forward that involve deferent engagement and thinking through our connections with the wider world.


[1] Clive Bell, Art (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), 291.

[2] Virginia Woolf, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, ed. Stuart N. Clarke, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 5:274.

[3] See Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Vintage, 1997), 43.

[4] Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (San Diego, CA: Harvest, 1985), 119.

[5] See Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell with Andrew McNeillie, 5 vols (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977–84), 1:246–47n17.

[6] Alexandra Harris, Virginia Woolf (London: Thames and Hudson, 2013), 80.

[7] National Trust, “Virginia Woolf and Monk’s House” (Swindon, UK: Acorn Press, 2011), 9. In her book on Charleston and Monk’s House, Nuala Hancock reveals this armchair to be a facsimile rather than the original (Nuala Hancock, Charleston and Monk’s House: The Intimate House Museums of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell [Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2012], 155).

[8] See Frances Spalding, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2014), 65.

[9] See Pamela Todd, Bloomsbury at Home (London: Pavilion, 1999), 154–55, and Richard Shone, The Art of Bloomsbury (London: Tate Gallery, 1999), 224.

[10] Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed. Susan Dick (London: Vintage, 2003), 105.

[11] Penny Sparke, Furniture: Twentieth Century Design (London: Bell & Hyman, 1986), 5.

[12] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1994), 15.

[13] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1927), 38.

[14] Elaine Freedgood, The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 2.

[15] Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (London: Hogarth Press, 1947), 155. Woolf similarly refers to her own “tea-table training” in “A Sketch of the Past” when explaining the modest, self-effacing style she adopted in her first critical articles (Moments of Being, 150).

[16] Victoria Rosner, “Virginia Woolf and Monk’s House,” in The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts, ed. Maggie Humm (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 181–194, 187.

[17] Anne Olivier Bell, in editor’s note 4, postulates that “‘the armchair critic’ [article] was probably that published as ‘All About Books’ in the NS&N [New Statesman and Nation], 28 February 1931” (Diary, 4:4).

[18] OED Online, s.v., “armchair, adj.”

[19] A similar pointed comparison is made by Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, where it is noted that libraries and laboratories now stand where “where centuries ago the grasses waved and the swine rootled” (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own [London: Vintage, 2001], 7).

[20] Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1986), 59. This quotation is from the essay “Dorothy Osborne’s ‘Letters’” and taken from the introductory paragraphs which discusses the history of English literature.

[21] Although there is not space to explore them all here, by “early experimental stories,” I mean those which broke with more traditional narrative structure to adopt a more self-reflexive mode, from the creation of “The Mark on the Wall” in 1917 to 1921, when she published her only collection of short fiction, Monday or Tuesday. All evidence Woolf’s developing experimental aesthetic which established her as an innovator and preceded the publication of her first modernist novel, Jacob’s Room, which of course relies heavily on the figure of the armchair, in 1922. This group of stories is also picked out as distinct by Laura Marcus in her chapter on Woolf’s short fiction, noting that this “second group” of stories evidences “the centrality of her short fiction . . . to her literary formation” (Laura Marcus, “The Short Fiction,” in A Companion to Virginia Woolf, ed. Jessica Berman [Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016], 27–39, 28).

[22] Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry (London: Vintage, 2003), 238.

[23] Leonard Woolf, foreword to Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (London: Triad Grafton, 1985), 7–8, 7.

[24] Virginia Woolf, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann Banks (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977–82), 4:231.

[25] Woolf considered her diary writings similarly, writing in January 1919 that she is allowed “[o]ne hours writing daily” yet “this diary writing does not count as writing” (Diary, 1:233).

[26] According to the report, 12.90% of readers recognized the novel to be literature, 89% categorized poetry as such, compared with 78% for the short story. Short stories were more likely to be read, however, than poetry (Literature in Britain today [London: The Royal Society of Literature, 2017], 10). The initial finding of the report might have pleased Woolf—that “Literature is not just for specialists” (3).

[27] Re-reading the Short Story, ed. Clare Hanson (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 6.

[28] See Peter Gay, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy—From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 214.

[29] The British Short Story, ed. Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, and Ruth Robbins (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 155; Clare Hanson, Short Stories and Short Fictions 1880–1980 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1985), 56.

[30] E. M. Forster, “T. E. Lawrence,” in Abinger Harvest (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936), 141–47, 142.

[31] David H. Silvera, Robert A. Josephs, and R. Brian Giesler, “Bigger is Better: The Influence of Physical Size on Aesthetic Judgments,” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making vol. 15, no. 2 (2002): 189–202, 190.

[32] Mary Louise Pratt, “The Short Story: The Long and the Short of It,” in The New Short Story Theories, ed. Charles E. May (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994), 91–113, 92.

[33] Nena Škrbic, “A Sense of Freedom: A Study of Virginia Woolf's Short Fiction,” (PhD diss., University of Hull, 2000), 3.

[34] Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography, (St Albans, UK: Triad Paladin, 1976), 2:38. I have written elsewhere of the relationships between the Hogarth Press and short fiction—see “Virginia Woolf, the Hogarth Press and ‘Short Things’” in Virginia Woolf and the World of Books, ed. Nicola Wilson and Claire Battershill (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Press, 2018), 50–55.

[35] When Mansfield died, Woolf described her work in the entry of January 16, 1923 as “the only writing I have ever been jealous of” (Diary, 2:227). Woolf also observed in a diary entry of January 28, 1923 that she would need to go on writing “but into emptiness” as there was now “no competitor” (2:228).

[36] Later that month, Virginia wrote similarly to her sister, Vanessa: “it makes all the difference writing anything one likes, and not for an Editor” (Letters, 2:169).

[37] Although it should be noted that Woolf was generally acutely sensitive to the public reception of all her published works.

[38] See Lee, Virginia Woolf, 376.

[39] Woolf would also likely have agreed with Harris, conceiving of Jacob’s Room in her diary as “The Mark on the Wall,” “An Unwritten Novel,” and “Kew Gardens” “taking hands & dancing in unity” to become more than the sum of these individual parts (Diary, 2:14).

[40] Julia Briggs, Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2005), 81.

[41] Dominic Head, The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 108. Importantly though, Head does not locate this quality as one intrinsic to the genre, contrasting Woolf with Mansfield whom he considers “displays a greater control” and whose “major innovations in the genre, far from being experimental, display an accomplishment unsurpassed by other modernist writers” (108).

[42] Anne E. Fernald, Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 2.

[43] Andy Merrifield, The Amateur: The Pleasures of Doing What You Love (London: Verso, 2018), 15.

[44] Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde, “Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism,” Modernism/modernity vol. 25, no. 3 (2018): 517–549, 543.

[45] Kate Zambreno, Heroines (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012), 296.

[46] Aarthi Vadde with Saikat Majumdar, “Introduction: Criticism for the Whole Person” in The Critic as Amateur, ed. Saikat Majumdar and Aarthi Vadde (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 1–28, 5.

[47] See Derek Attridge, “In Praise of Amateurism,” in The Critic as Amateur, 31–48, 33.

[48] Although Dora Carrington illustrated this story with a woodcut illustration of a woman sitting on the floor warming her hands by the fire next to a dog, this picture bears scant relevance to the text (see L. S. and Virginia Woolf, Two Stories [London: Hogarth Press, 1917], 19). Vanessa Bell contributed woodcuts to Monday or Tuesday and the first image that appears is of an armchair, although it accompanies the story “A Haunted House” (see Virginia Woolf, Monday or Tuesday [London: Hogarth Press, 1921], 8).

[49] Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 29, italics in original.

[50] Roger Fry, Vision and Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 35.

[51] Later in the story, the mark is specifically referred to as punctuation: a “full stop to one’s disagreeable thoughts” (Haunted, 82).

[52] The quotation itself is taken from the 1906 story “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn.”

[53] Woolf’s continued skepticism towards the professional is evidenced in the self-scrutiny of a diary entry of December 1928 in which she worries she has become “too professional, no longer the dreamy amateur” (Diary, 3:210). As Jane Marcus observes of Woolf in the context of the literary criticism she produced: “Her notion of a ‘conspiracy’ between her ‘common reader’ and the writer against professors of literature and critics was not just a pretty rhetorical device, but a serious attack on professionalism, which she saw would be as dangerous to women as it had been to men” (Jane Marcus, “‘Taking the Bull by the Udders’: Sexual Difference in Virginia Woolf—a Conspiracy Theory,” in Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury: A Centenary Celebration, ed. Jane Marcus [Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1987], 146–169, 157.

[54] Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1966), 82.

[55] E. M. Forster, “The Early Novels of Virginia Woolf” in Abinger Harvest, 104–112, 107.

[56] This fragment is resurrected in The Waves (1931), in which Rhoda fixes on the materiality of the chest of drawers as a method of resisting numinous sleep: “Look, there is the chest of drawers. Let me pull myself out of these waters” (Virginia Woolf, The Waves [San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1931], 28).

[57] This is a key feature of another of Woolf’s object-oriented stories, “Solid Objects” (1920).

[58] Terry Eagleton, The English Novel: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 315.

[59] Peter Schwenger, The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 83.

[60] Clare Hanson is just one critic who has described Woolf’s vivid imagining of the possibilities of “a post-individualist and post-humanist future” (Clare Hanson, Virginia Woolf [Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1994], 195).

[61] Kathryn N. Benzel, “Verbal Painting in ‘Blue & Green’ and ‘Monday or Tuesday,’” in Trespassing Boundaries: Virginia Woolf’s Short Fiction, ed. Kathryn N. Benzel and Ruth Hoberman [Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004], 157–174, 159.

[62] Tessa Hadley, “Tessa Hadley’s Top 10 Short Stories,” The Guardian, September 11, 2013.

[63] Virginia Woolf, Books and Portraits: Some further selections from the Literary and Biographical writings of Virginia Woolf, ed. Mary Lyon (London: Hogarth, 1977), 207.

[64] Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read (New York: Vintage, 2014), 58.

[65] Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (London: HarperCollins, 1996), 306.