Mini-Lesson Monday: Lesson #170 (Part 1): Virginia Woolf’s ‘Moments of Being’ – Modal Verbs to Express Regrets for the Past and Hopes for the Future

📜 Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties– one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: “This is what happened”; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened. Who was I then? Adeline Virginia Stephen, the second daughter of Leslie and Julia Prinsep Stephen, born on 25th January 1882, descended from a great many people, some famous, others obscure; born into a large connection, born not of rich parents, but of well-to-do parents, born into a very communicative, literate, letter writing, visiting, articulate, late nineteenth century world; so that I could if I liked to take the trouble, write a great deal here not only about my mother and father but about uncles and aunts, cousins and friends. But I do not know how much of this, or what part of this, made me feel what I felt in the nursery at St Ives. I do not know how far I differ from other people. That is another memoir writer’s difficulty. Yet to describe oneself truly one must have some standard of comparison; was I clever, stupid, good looking, ugly, passionate, cold – ? Owing partly to the fact that I was never at school, never competed in any way with children of my own age, I have never been able to compare my gifts and defects with other people’s. …

–          ‘A Sketch of the Past’ (1939), from Moments of Being: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing by Virginia Woolf

🕰️ Today marks what would have been British writer Virginia Woolf’s birthday (1882-1941). One of the greatest modernist writers, her writings are reputed (generally held) to be the most widely studied works of any female writer in the English language. I love her works for their deep psychological insight, their sensitivity and thoughtfulness towards people. 📚

Of course the more rich the writing, the more nuanced (subtle, with tiny differences) is its choice of words. In today’s lesson in 2 parts, we will look at how modal verb forms ‘should/should have’, ‘could/could have’, and ‘would/would have’ are used to talk about regrets for things that happened (or didn’t happen) in the past, and desires for the future

Virginia Woolf’s writings – spanning essays, novels, and biographical writings – are full of interesting examples of modal verbs which she used to talk about uncertain ideas and develop them clearly for her readers or listeners. ✒️

👉 Side observation: One of the most noticeable things about Woolf is just how seriously she took writing, putting her pen to paperdaily regardless of how ‘important’ or ‘unimportant’ her topic seemed to her. As we can see from the excerpt above, taken from her memoirs, she was constantly thinking, drafting, writing, clarifying her thoughts in this way whenever she had the chance. I think there is a lesson for us – English language students included – in her regular discipline of writing something every day; even if we never aspire (dream) to become writers in English, surely we can only improve from adopting such a habit! (You can find some of my tips on how to improve your writing in a lesson I wrote here).

✏️ In part 1 of today’s Mini-Lesson Monday, we are going to be looking solely at some of her memoir drafts, specifically ones in the book Moments of Being (published posthumously in 1972) which describe her earliest childhood memories of going with her family to a summer holiday home called Talland House, by the sea at St Ives, Cornwall (in southwest England).

In part 2 (see next post), we will continue to analyse these passages alongside a few others from her most famous essay, A Room of One’s Own (1929).


📘 Two days ago – Sunday 16th April to be precise – Nessa said that if I did not start writing my memoirs I should soon be too old. I should be eight-five, and should have forgotten – witness the unhappy case of Lady Strachey. As it happens that I am sick of writing Roger’s life, perhaps I will spend two or three mornings making a sketch. There are several difficulties. In the first place, the enormous number of things I can remember; in the second, the number of different ways in which memoirs can be written. As a great memoir reader, I know many different ways. But if I begin to go through them and to analyse them and their merits and faults, the mornings – I cannot take more than two or three at most – will be gone. So without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself – or if not it will not matter – I begin; the first memory.

– Virginia Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’ (1939), from Moments of Being (emphases mine)

✏️ In this first part of the lesson, we are going to focus on how she uses the modal verb forms ‘should’ and ‘should have’. We will begin by observing the tones and moods found in Virginia Woolf’s excerpts.

As you can see, Woolf’s writing in these passages is somewhat fragmented (disjointed, not smooth, broken into different portions) and even nostalgic (dreaming of the past in a longing way). This is because she is trying to remember an early period in her life when her mother was still alive (she would die when Virginia was 13 years old). In her first memory, beautifully described in the passage below, Virginia as an adult remembers what it was like to be a very small child, waking up in the nursery to the sound of the rooks (black birds) making a ‘cawing’ sound, the waves beating on the shore, and the soft greens and yellows of the room and sunlight:

📘 If I were a painter I should paint these first impressions in pale yellow, silver, and green. There was the pale yellow blind; the green sea; and the silver of the passion flowers. … I should make curved shapes, showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline. Everything would be large and dim; and what was seen would at the same time be heard; sounds would come through this petal or leaf – sounds indistinguishable from sights. Sound and sight seem to make equal parts of these first impressions. When I think of the early morning in bed I also hear the caw of rooks falling from a great height. … The rooks cawing is part of the waves breaking – one, two, one, two – and the splash as the wave drew back and then it gathered again, and I lay there half awake, half asleep, drawing in such ecstasy as I cannot describe.

– ‘A Sketch of the Past’ (1939), Moments of Being: by Virginia Woolf (emphases mine)

But I would like you to notice something else too.

👉 These passages aren’t just about her feelings towards the past: they show that Virginia Woolf, as a 47 year old writer (removed from the scene of her childhood), is thinking about what she could write, what would happen if she delays writing down her memories, and what she should include. In other words, we see here a combining of two timeframes or tenses: the past memories and the present act of remembering; the present thoughts being connected with future possibilities.

‘Should’ and ‘should have’ help to express these combined timeframes. They tend to express one or another of the following:

📝 #1 A strong advice either about present or future action, given to someone you are familiar with or who is younger than you, or even to yourself:

E.g., 📘 ‘I should make curved shapes, showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline.’

– Virginia Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’ in Moments of Being 

📝 #2 Polite advice, especially when used with a modifying adverb such as ‘probably’, ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’:

E.g., You probably should write something every day, no matter how unimportant or imperfect, if you want to really improve your English skills.

📝 #3 To express expectation, especially in the form ‘should have’:

E.g., As someone who has been studying English for two years, I should have more confidence in speaking and writing in English.

📝 #4 To express regret for something that is past

E.g., Virginia Woolf should have written more about her siblings in her memoir.  

📝 #5 To show that one choice or statement is better, more desirable or significant than another

E.g., They knew that the exam was important; they should have studied more for it. 

📝 #6: There is yet another way in which ‘should’ and ‘should have’ can be used – the way in fact that Virginia Woolf uses it in the passage at the start of this section. It can be used as a subjunctive, because it describes a situation that isn’t real but could actually happen if certain events fall into place

📘 ‘Nessa said that if I did not start writing my memoirs I should soon be too old. I should be eight-five, and should have forgotten – witness the unhappy case of Lady Strachey.’

– Virginia Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’, from Moments of Being (emphases mine)

We can also exchange ‘would’ for ‘should’ in such a sentence: e.g., ‘Nessa said that if I did not start writing my memoirs I would soon be too old.’ This manner of putting it is actually fairly common in spoken English nowadays. However, it misses something: ‘would’ indicates more decisively than ‘should’ that something is almost certainly going to happen. So ‘should’ is a much nicer option here because it shows that her sister Nessa was not emphasising that Virginia ‘would become too old’ but rather highlighting ‘the importance of writing down memoirs now in case it would not be possible to do this later (because she became too old)’. 

Now look at this sentence:

📘 ‘If I were a painter I should paint these first impressions in pale yellow, silver, and green.’

– Virginia Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’, from Moments of Being (emphasis mine)

Do you see how ‘should’ reflects the subjunctive here too? Again it could be substituted (especially in spoken English) with ‘would’, since ‘painting these first impressions’ is an activity which is conditional only on the first clause being fulfilled. ✍️ But ‘would’ gives a stronger idea of the influence of a subject’s will and effort, while ‘should’ emphasises a kind of response – if something happens, then something else should happen. So by using ‘should’, Woolf is stressing here the idea of being a painter and acting like a painter, rather than emphasising what she would desire or will to do as one. 

👉 Join me in part 2 of this lesson as we look more closely at the uses of two other modal verb forms – ‘could’ and ‘would’ – that are essential for expressing regrets or hopes in the past or future.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)