Two Stories | Leonard & Virginia Woolf #1917

Two Stories was the first publication produced by the Hogarth Press (named after the Woolf’s house in Richmond). One hundred and fifty copies were produced. They consisted of 32 pages, bound together using three different papers that the Woolf’s had to hand – a plain yellow paper, a red and white geometric limp linen and a blue Japanese tissue.

Two Stories was released for sale in July 1917. As one would expect from the first work produced by two self-taught printers, it was amateurish with irregular spacing and ink blots throughout.

According to Nigel Nicolson in his biography on Virginia, they brought their first press in April 1917 as a ‘diversion‘ for Virginia. Leonard ‘intended it not so much as therapy, to avert another mental attack, but as a recreation.’

It was physically demanding work, yet Virginia declared in a letter to Margaret Llewellyn-Davies: “I should never do anything else, you cannot think how exciting, soothing, ennobling and satisfying it is.” Virginia was the compositor while Leonard worked the handpress.

Dora Carrington, a student from Slade School of Fine Art, and a friend of Lytton Strachey, created the four woodcut illustrations that accompanied Two Stories. In her diary entry for June 1918, Virginia described Carrington as “odd from her mixture of impulse & self consciousness. I wonder sometimes what she’s at: so eager to please, conciliatory, restless, & active…. [B]ut she is such a bustling eager creature, so red & solid, & at the same time inquisitive, that one can’t help liking her.”

The second book published by the Woolf’s was by Katherine Mansfield, Prelude. The third was Poems by T. S. Eliot and the fourth, Virginia’s Kew Gardens. They went on to publish Eliot’s The Waste Lands as well as works by E. M. Forster, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Robert Graves, John Maynard Keynes, Rose Macaulay, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, H. G. Wells, Vita Sackville-West, Cecil Day Lewis and Rebecca West, just to name a few. Sadly they had to reject James Joyce’s book, Ulysses as it was far too long for their small press to manage.

But what to say about these two short, two very different stories?

Three Jews | L. S. Woolf (1917)

It was a Sunday and the first day of spring, the first day on which one felt at any rate spring in the air.

Leonard’s story is all about belonging and includes a story within a story. A gentleman is strolling around Kew Gardens in the springtime, observing the English who “were happy in their quiet orderly English way, happy in the warmth of the sunshine, happy to be among quiet trees, and to feel the soft grass under their feet. They did not run about or shout, they walked slowly, quietly, taking care to keep off the edges of the grass because the notices told them to do so.”

When he stops to rest, he is joined by another stroller, and they start to chat. They acknowledge that they are both from Palestine, “You knew me at once and I knew you. We show up, don’t we, under the apple-blossom and this sky. It doesn’t belong to us.” He believes that the traditions of their faith are vanishing and goes on to tell the story of another Palestinian, living and working in London as a “cemetery-keeper.”

“This man,” I thought to myself, “a mere keeper of graves is touched by it as much as I am. He isn’t a Jew now any more than I am. We’re Jews only externally now, in our black hair and our large noses, in the way we stand and the way we walk. But inside we’re Jews no longer. Even he doesn’t believe, the keeper of Jewish graves! The old spirit, the ancient faith has gone out of him.”

However, the cemetery-keeper undergoes a series of personal tragedies and we discover that his Jewish faith is stronger and more resilient than first thought.

I’m curious to learn more about Leonard’s own feelings and thoughts about his Jewish heritage, as this short story was a curious mix of parable and racial stereotyping, that verges on the distasteful to the modern reader.

The moral of the story seems to be that adhering to the strict tenets of your religious beliefs leaves you feeling secure and righteous, however it comes at the expense of happiness and family.

The Mark On The Wall | Virginia Woolf (1917)

Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall. 

One of the pleasures of having their own printing press, was the freedom it gave Virginia, in particular, to write and then publish exactly what she wanted, without any (male) editors telling her what to do. The Mark on the Wall can therefore be seen as one of her early attempts at stream-of-consciousness narrative in the modernist style.

Our narrator observes a mark on the wall, ‘a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece.‘ A number of possibilities come to mind. A nail for a picture, a leaf, a crack? But, of course, the story is not really about the mark on the wall. In between wondering what the mark could be, our narrator ponders much bigger ideas. The nature of reality, life and death no less, and Shakespeare, writing and inspiration, ‘O dear me, the mystery of life! The inaccuracy of thought! The ignorance of humanity!

This is Virginia playing with modernism and how best to depict multiple thoughts and feelings passing through the mind at the same time. She allows her narrator to fall down a rabbit hole of musings and ruminations.

I wish I could hit upon a pleasant track of thought, a track indirectly reflecting credit upon myself, for those are the pleasantest thoughts, and very frequent even in the minds of modest mouse-coloured people, who believe genuinely that they dislike to hear their own praises.

(US band, Modest Mouse, took their name from this sentence. ‘Float On’ was one of my favourite songs of 2004.)

When we discover what the mark on the wall really is (see Dora’s woodcut illustration above for a clue!) we see that it is our thoughts and feelings that give meaning to life. A mark on a wall is nothing but a mark on the wall, an external reality, ‘with its hard separate facts‘, that has no meaning or value until we give it some. However, what passes through our minds…well, that’s another matter entirely!

Here is something definite, something real. Thus, waking from a midnight dream of horror one hastily turns on the light and lies quiescent, worshipping the chest of drawers, worshipping solidity, worshipping reality, worshipping the impersonal world which is a proof of some existence other than ours. 

As Virginia well knew, the fleeting thoughts that pass through our mind are not always our friend. Dark thoughts can become more real than a mark on the wall. The trick is how to turn these thoughts and feelings into something meaningful and positive and constructive.

The Mark on the Wall was included in the 1921 collection of Woolf’s short stories, Monday or Tuesday. 1000 copies were printed and the book included four full-page woodcuts from Vanessa Bell (Virginia’s sister).

Title: Two Stories 
Authors: Virginia Woolf  & Leonard Woolf 
Illustrator: Dora Carrington
Imprint: Hogarth Press
Published: 18 September 2020 (originally published 1917)
Format: Project Gutenberg  epub
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

6 thoughts on “Two Stories | Leonard & Virginia Woolf #1917

  1. To be both English upper middle class and Jewish would generate some tension you would think. The prejudice would be oh so genteel, but still definitely there. I think I can forgive Woolf for exploring it, and the stereotypes.

    Loved that you discuss Virginia and early modernism. Two Stories is available on Proj Gutenberg so I have no excuse for not reading them.


    1. I enjoyed doing a little research on modernism. I still have a lot to learn, but want to understand it better, all the better to appreciate the rest of VW’s novels.

      And the ePub version has all 4 woodcuts by Dora included. Lovely.


  2. I don’t think I realised that this story was first published in a little collection of two – or, I probably read it back in the 1970s but have forgotten. Thanks for that little history – and thanks for the link. It’s a challenging little story to write about, as I recollect.


    1. I have to thank the very pompous Nigel Nicholson and his bio, for alerting me to this ‘first’ book printed on the Woolf’s new press. He included a whole thing about having a copy that VW had given his mother, that he then inherited. An item that he kept on display at Sissinghurst, and that after showing a group of tourists through (& skiting about the book), he discovered later that it had gone missing.

      I read The Mark on the Wall several times to try and find the best angle to talk about it, but writing about someone else’s stream of consciousness is not easy. Do you just list the topics covered? Tackle the issues underlying each and every one?
      It was an interesting exercise though.

      Liked by 1 person

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