Rebecca Feng | Friday, September 9, 2016
The first time I met Mrs. Brown was in Virginia Woolf’s essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Woolf introduced to me this old woman, in her 60s, sitting in the corner of a train from Richmond to Waterloo. There was a line I dare not forget: “She gathers herself together with superb dignity.”
Woolf says, “The impression she (Mrs. Brown) made came pouring out like a draught, like a smell of burning.” I wonder what imposing beauty Mrs. Brown has that Woolf feels an urge to write a story about her. Yes, she is a small woman whose feet, “in their clean little boots, scarcely touched the floor.” Yes, she seems to be a neat woman — “everything buttoned, fastened, tied together, mended and brushed up.” What else?
Has she saved lives? Has she fought for world peace? Has she spent sleepless nights thinking about income equality in her country? Has she witnessed extreme poverty? Has she travelled around the world? Has she had the fortune of attending Notre Dame (or for geographical and transportation limitations at the time, Cambridge or Oxford)? If not, I wonder, what qualifies her to be in Woolf’s story or in anybody’s story really? Am I not better looking and more accomplished than Mrs. Brown? Why not me? I sigh — time is different.
I am too fast; sometimes I cannot even catch up with my own thoughts, as if someone else put those thoughts into me. So let me put my mind to rest for a moment and allow myself the leisure to sit down and think deeper.
First of all, what is a story? My advanced fiction writing professor wrote the following sentence on the board: “A and B, but C, then D.” My editor at Forbes commented at the end of my draft, “Does it create something new for the readers?” Virginia Woolf spoke through the yellow pages and fragrance of ink, “catch me if you can.” None of these says a story should be about a socially-defined successful person.
So when we finally sit down to conduct the sacred task of writing a story, what known or unknown person should we start with? Do we search our memory for a person we admire? Do we start from our closest friend because we know them best? Do we look back into the history to find a hero of the old times? Or do we look around our surroundings and finally set our eyes on a normal, withered, suffering, little woman and place our faith in her?
I think it depends on our confidence in our ability to discover and share beauty. The stories of great people have been observed and recorded by many but the story of an “old lady in the corner opposite” on the train remains untold. Is it because her emotions are not strong enough or her life is not valuable enough? No, at least none of us will admit to it. Then why is her story still hidden? Are there too many Mrs. Browns? But there are also a lot of us.
Who are we? That’s a question I have posted for myself and failed to answer.
Throughout the years, history has remembered those who fought and won and those who fought and lost, but it is quite oblivious about those who simply lived and died. We are not history. We are human beings, created to live and die, with one another. We should never desert Mrs. Brown.
Woolf believes that Mrs. Brown has “unlimited capacity and infinite variety.” However the majority of us, myself included, opt for the less time-consuming way of observing Mrs. Brown. We pass her by on the street, in the pub or in the library. We smile, be polite, trust our eyes have conveyed all the friendliness she needs and, in the end, we desert her. “But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself.” I heard Woolf protesting through the pages.
In our busy schedule, shall we start by observing Mrs. Brown’s blue patterned dress? Then maybe her white hair, painted by age? Then her two little feet, withered with time yet having walked on high mountains and wide plains. Eventually, maybe we will see her way, and indeed every Mrs. Brown’s way, of “gathering herself with superb dignity.”
Rebecca Feng is a senior at Notre Dame, double majoring in accounting and English, but traveling and living abroad is her real education. She read Shakespeare and old English poems in Scotland last semester and interned at Forbes Magazine Asia business channel in New York this summer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for story ideas and comments.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.