Friday, June 13, 2008

The New Dress

Even though I'm in the middle of another book, I couldn't resist reading the Virginia Woolf section of Women & Fiction: Short Stories By and About Women. Born in London in 1882, Virginia Woolf was educated at home, and had the benefit of her father's great library, as well as the company of her father's friends, prominent people such as Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Ruskin.

In the introduction of Women & Fiction editor Susan Cahill quotes Virginia Woolf:

". . . living as she did in the common sitting-room, surrounded by people, a women was trained to use her mind in observation and upon the analysis of character. She was trained to be a novelist and not be a poet."
~Granite and Rainbow, Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf believed that women were better suited to write novels rather than poetry because of their role in society as observers in parlors and sitting-rooms, rather than adventurers out in the world that "belonged" to men. Woolf's fiction centers around the consciousness of women--their thoughts, the people and relationships in their lives, and social appearances and customs. This was her world, her experience, and although it may have been limiting in certain respects, she used her sensitivity to generate a prolific career as a fiction writer. Women & Fiction features her short story, The New Dress, in which the main character, Mabel Waring, agonizes over her decision to wear her new dress to an afternoon tea at Mrs. Dalloway's. It's brutally honest and real, and painful to read as Mabel, who feels like a "dowdy, decrepit, horribly dingy old fly" reveals her true thoughts and insecurities.

Written in 1924 (but not published until 1927), The New Dress is one of Virginia Woolf's most popular short stories, still widely read today; you can even read it online. What did Virginia Woolf think about short stories? She never prioritized this genre, although she wrote short fiction throughout her writing career. For Virginia Woolf, short stories may have been projects to sustain her between novels. Her husband, Leonard Woolf, said she "used at intervals to write short stories. It was her custom, whenever an idea for one occurred to her, to sketch it out in a very rough form and then to put it away in a drawer. Later, if an editor asked her for a short story, and she felt in the mood to write one (which was not frequent), she would take a sketch out of her drawer and rewrite it, sometimes a great many times. Or if she felt, as she often did, while writing a novel that she required to rest her mind by working on something else for a time, she would either write a critical essay or work upon one of her sketches for short stories." In 1921, Virginia and Leonard Woolf published Monday or Tuesday, (which you can read online), a volume of eight short stories, the only collection of Woolf's stories published during her lifetime.

Monday or Tuesday


  1. I'm reading the little dress, and I think short story is way harder than writ,ng a novel. because you have say what you wanna say in a limited way. and the little dress really says what she wanted to say

  2. Suko-thanks so much for this information-I feel another project coming on!

  3. Mel, I have linked to The Reading Life Virginia Woolf Project in my Sundry Short Stories post: (at last!).


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