‘Whither, O splendid ship’ the poet asked as he lay on the shore and watched the great sailing ship pass away on the horizon.
The six essays in The London Scene were first written by Woolf in late 1931 and then published in Good Housekeeping between December 1931 to December 1932. This edition includes a 2013 Introduction by Hermione Lee, where she describes Good Housekeeping as an ‘unliterary magazine‘ which explains the ‘anecdotal, conversational tone‘ taken by Woolf across the six pieces. Lee goes on to capture all the reasons why Woolf loved London from enjoying the ‘new century’s freedoms‘ to ‘relishing the noise and energy of City life.’
Woolf had also just finished The Waves and relished the chance to work on something lighter.
According to Lee, Woolf was concerned that The Waves was too class-bound. Something she was conscious of as she wrote these essays and her next two books, Flush and The Years.
What fascinated her was the connection between London’s surfaces and its depths, its lavish displays and its iron grid of production and systems, its wealth and its poverty.
Woolf was fascinated by London’s very old history, that endlessly and constantly reinvented itself. Signs of this concern are woven into each and every essay in this slim collection.
The Docks of London:
The liners…take their way majestically through a crowd of tramp streamers, and colliers and barges heaped with coal and swaying red sailed boats, which, amateurish though they look, are bringing bricks from Harwich or cement from Colchester – for all is business; there are no pleasure boats on this river.
So begins our cruise down the Thames, with Woolf as our captain and tour guide. She waxes lyrical about ‘the big ships and the little ships, the battered and the splendid‘ that have come from all around the world, through ‘danger and loneliness‘ to finally arrive safe and sound in the docks of London. Lining the banks of the river are the ‘dingy, decrepit-looking warehouse‘ where once, earth and fields and crops reigned.
We pass old churches, old inns, and the refuse barges and dredgers heading in the opposite direction. The majestic presence of Greenwich Hospital comes into view and ‘makes the river again a stately waterway where the nobility of England once walked at their ease on green lawns, or descended stone steps to their pleasure barges.
Tower Bridge and the city comes into view, where one can hear ‘the roar and the resonance of London itself‘ as the cranes work at emptying the holds of their cargo. ‘Rhythmically, dexterously, with an order that has some aesthetic delight in it’, barrels and casks and cases and sacks are unloaded. Hidden in the cargo are the ‘oddities‘ – snakes, scorpions, beetles, lumps of amber, an elephant tooth – that have travelled the world – and mammoth ivory. Who knew? I did not! But apparently mammoth tusks where often shipped in with elephant ivory. It was considered inferior due to its brown colour and its tendency to warp, so it was only used for cheap umbrella handles or a ‘looking-glass not of the finest quality.’
Woolf takes pleasure in the usefulness of every thing – how the iron hoops wrapped around the wool bales from Australia are sent on to Germany to be made into razor blades. The wine vaults that take on an almost religious aspect with their gas jet flares that light up the ‘beauty of the green and grey arches‘, but are designed to heat and mellow the wine; ‘use produces beauty as a by-product.‘
Language has also changed to accommodate these industrial processes. New words are created to describe and label the continually evolving trade. This whole process is designed purely for us. ‘It is we – our tastes, our fashions, our needs – that make the cranes dip and sing, that call the ships from the sea.’
Yet, it is the portrait of London between the wars, that particularly drew my attention.
Lorries jostle each other in the little street that leads from the dock – for these have been a great sale, and the cart horses are struggling and striving to distribute the wool over England.
Oxford Street Tide:
Down in the docks one sees things in their crudity, their bulk, their enormity. Here in Oxford Street they have been refined and transformed.
Oxford Street Tide picks up where The Docks finishes. The various goods stacked in the warehouses by the river, have now been moved and made into consumerables. Woolf declares early on that Oxford Street is ‘not London’s most distinguished thoroughfare‘. There are ‘too many bargains, too many sales‘ and she finds the ‘buying and selling too blatant and raucous‘.
I loved the reminders of an older time when Woolf talks about how the ‘first spring day brings out barrows frilled with tulips, violets, daffodils in brilliant layers.’ Yet, she tells us again that Oxford Street is not refined, but a ‘breeding ground, a forcing house of sensation‘ and the new ‘Lords of Oxford Street‘ promoters of ‘excitement, of display, of entertainment, of windows lit up by night, of banners flaunting by day.’
Oxford Street changes almost every day. Workmen constantly build, rebuild and renovate. Is this a sign of the ‘haste and irresponsibility of our age‘ or is part of the ‘charm of modern London‘ that nothing is built to last, but is ‘built to pass.‘ A city street designed to please us now, rather than with our descendants in mind, ‘the mere thought of age, of solidity, of lasting for ever is abhorrent to Oxford Street.’
And in 1931, it was possible to buy a live tortoise on Oxford Street!
Great Men’s Houses:
Or the art of preserving old houses once lived in by famous writers.
Woolf discusses the home of the Carlyle’s, Thomas and Jane, in Chelsea, noting the lack of running water, electricity, gas but ‘full of books and coal smoke and four-poster beds‘. To every house is a season, and this house is winter. Whereas spring is for Hampstead and the house that Keats, Brown and Brawnes lived in. A house and a place where no-one ‘makes money, or goes when one has money to spend.’
Having spent quite a bit of time in and around Hampstead in 1991, I loved the descriptions of the views from the hill back into London. Like Woolf, I found it to be ‘a view of perpetual fascination at all hours and in all seasons.’
One sees London as a whole – London crowded and ribbed and compact, with its dominant domes, its guardian cathedrals; its chimneys and spires; its cranes and gasometers; and the perpetual smoke which no spring or autumn ever blows away. London has lain there time out of mind scarring that stretch of earth deeper and deeper…yet from Parliament Hill one can see, too, the country beyond.
Abbeys and Cathedrals:
It is a commonplace, but we cannot help repeating it, that St Paul’s dominates London.
As in The Docks essay, Woolf harkens back to a time when London, and St Paul’s, was surrounded by ‘sheep grazing on the greensward; and inns where great poets stretched their legs and talked at their ease.’
I’m reminded that every age has their time to feel nostalgic about and that every age baulks, at times, against the rush of modernity. Woolf struggles with the shrinking of space and the shrinking of time and ‘even men and women seem to have shrunk‘.
a million Mr Smiths and Miss Browns scuttle and hurry, swing off omnibuses, dive into tubes. They seem too many, too minute, too like each other to have a name, a character, a separate life of their own.
Woolf finishes the essay with a walk through St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey and St Clement’s Dane, finally coming to rest in ‘the only peaceful places in the whole city‘ – the old graveyards now turned into parks and playgrounds – ‘for here the dead sleep in peace, proving nothing, testifying nothing, claiming nothing save that we shall enjoy the peace that their old bones provide for us.’
This is the House of Commons:
Outside the House of Commons stand the statues of great statesmen, black and sleek and shiny as sea lions that have risen from the water.
However, inside the House are real life men, who Woolf struggles to see ever becoming worthy of a statue out the front, for there is ‘nothing venerable or time-worn, or musical, or ceremonious here.’ A hundred years later, it’s hard to see that anything has changed, except for the worse. The same laws and licences, the same secrets and codes.
Portrait of a Londoner:
Nobody can be said to know London who does not know one true Cockney – who cannot turn down a side street, away from the shops and the theatres, and knock at a private door in a street of private houses.
I adored Woolf’s description of a regular private house. In 1991, when I was nannying for a family in Highgate, I too, for a while lived in a house that had a door that opened onto a dark hall, and from ‘the dark hall rises a narrow staircase; off the landing opens a double drawing-room, and in this double drawing-room are two sofas on each side of a blazing fire, six armchairs, and three long windows giving onto the street.’
Portrait of a Londoner is a little tale about a fictional Mrs Crowe who takes callers for a tête-à-tête around the blazing fire, every day of the week.
The truth was she did not want intimacy; she wanted conversation. Intimacy has a way of breeding silence, and she abhorred silence….if anyone said a brilliant thing it was felt to be rather a breach of etiquette – an accident that one ignored, like a fit of sneezing, or some catastrophe with a muffin.
Woolf is reminding us that London is more than a ‘gorgeous spectacle‘ or a busy hive of activity; it is also a place where people live their lives – to ‘meet and talk, laugh, marry, and die, paint, write and act, rule and legislate‘.
The collection was mostly a very delightful, nostalgic excursion into 1930’s London. A couple of odd notes were struck around Woolf’s consciousness of class, though, as her tone often veered very close to snobbishness and condescension. In particular, the idea of knowing at least one true Cockney, in the final essay, smacked of slumming it.
However, this has not dimmed my fascination.
I feel like I should foreshadow to my ever patient readers, that I can feel a Virginia Woolf mini-obsession coming on.
After my recent love, love, love of Square Haunting, I picked up this book, then a small biography on her written by Vita Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicholson. Which has caused my to pull out Hermione Lee’s HUGE biography on Virginia, to compare observations. And during a quiet moment, caught without a book, I read Woolf’s 1917 short story The Mark on the Wall on my phone. Plus, I’m spotting VW quotes being used in other books I’m reading right now, from epigraphs to comments by other authors.
All of which is making me reassess my author page for Woolf.
That is for another day.
Right now, let me finish by saying that the lovely cover design and chapter illustrations were created by Alice Laurent.
London perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play and a story and a poem, without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets….To walk alone through London is the greatest rest.Virginia Woolf
Book 4 of #20 Books of
Book: The London Scene: Six Essays on London Life Author: Virginia Woolf (Introduction by Hermione Lee) ISBN:9781907970429 Publisher: Daunt Books Date: 2013 (first published this edition 1982; originally published 1931) Format: Hardback