Monday, August 07, 2006

A Small Disappointment

Short Story Sunday was a busy day for things other than short stories like painting. I hate painting but I love picking out colors and I love the way things look afterwards. Nonetheless, I did read one Virginia Woolf story, "The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn." I had high expectations due to the previous two stories and this time Woolf let me down. But even a bad Woolf story is good. Part of the reason the story wasn't as good is because it was written in 1906 while on holiday with her sister. Woolf never published the story. Publication didn't happen until after her death when the story was found in her papers. As a result it is not worked up into a shining gem. The story has two parts. The first part is sort of fun. We are in the hands of Miss Rosamond Merridew aged 45 and a famous expert on the system of land tenure in medieval England. She is very chatty and a bit of a rebel. To make her books more interesting she doesn't just talk about who owned what piece of property and when, she puts it all in context, adding information about the daily lives of the people. Such a thing creates gossip and controversy among her peers, but Miss Merridew is undaunted and she sails merrily on. While on her way somewhere else she comes across an old manor house and stops to ask if she could have a look around. One thing leads to another and Mr. Martyn, whose family has lived on the land since the 15th century, allows Miss Merridew to read the diary of Joan Martyn written over the course of the year 1480. Here we come to the second half of the book, Joan's diary. There are eight entries for the year. Joan is a little too educated for having been taught by a father who isn't that well educated himself. The diary portion of the book just doesn't work. We have a young girl, far from a city of any size and about to be married, remarking on the roles of women and regretting that she has to become a wife. One of the interesting things about the story is an idea that to people whose families have lived in the same house and on the same land for generations, their ancestors are not dead. Miss Merridew observes as she is being shown about my Mr. Martyn that he behaves as though any one of his grandfathers might show up at any time for dinner. They are all still very much alive for Mr. Martyn. And in Joan's diary she has a conversation with her father about diary keeping and he tells her that his fathers "might walk in at the door this moment, and I should know 'em, and should think it nothing strange." These are fascinating thoughts for a person like myself who doesn't even live in the same state as my parents let alone look forward to living in their house. I envy the history of a life like the Martyns, but also fear the confinement of it. It would be a neat life to visit but I don't think I'd want to live it. Even though this Woolf story is not a complete success, it is still interesting to try and figure out what she was up to. And it is fun to imagine what the story might have been if Woolf had ever revised it for publication.