Virginia Woolf
The London Scene

By Isobel Shirlaw

The London Scene is a beautifully packaged sequence of six essays that Virginia Woolf composed for Good Housekeeping magazine in 1931. Collected together in this edition for the first time, these carefully sketched windows on London are so distinctively Woolfian you can almost hear her reading them aloud.

From the first piece to the last, we are given contrasting impressions of the city that was always Woolf's first home. We see London as an abstract industrial machine in the first essay, inspired by a day spent watching the cranes and the ships in the Docklands in March 1931. And in the last, where Woolf paints a portrait of Mrs Crowe – an imagined londoner – glimpsed accidentally through a window, we see the whole of London embodied in an old woman.

The London Scene is an essential addition to the canon, largely due to the characteristic way in which Woolf's complete writings converge both thematically and stylistically. These pieces expand her other works – in particular her short writings. In her 1930 essay a street haunting (collected in The Death of the Moth), Woolf walks out in a trance-like state down a twilit Oxford street to look for a new lead pencil. But it is London itself that seizes her imagination, along with the anonymous selves that haunt its streets. In each piece, she connects the mechanisms of the city with the human: "It is we – our tastes, our fashions, our needs – that make the [Docklands'] cranes dip and swing, that call the ships from the sea. Our body is their master... because one chooses to light a cigarette, all those barrels of Virginian tobacco are swung on shore... as for the umbrella that we swing idly to and fro, a mammoth who roared through the swamps fifty thousand years ago has yielded up its tusk to make the handle." The city and the citizen are inextricable. The bright lights and shop fronts of Oxford Street are, of course, inanimate, and yet at the same time, "the mere thought of age, of solidity, of lasting for ever is abhorrent to Oxford Street". It is paradoxically the most vibrant impression of London that she paints.

The very architecture of the city interacts with the psyche of the characters Woolf draws. In all her works, rooms and living spaces take on an enormous significance, as they at once house and embody the inhabitant. In Great Men and Great Houses, the Carlyles' house has been opened to the public, and she observes the ways in which their home shaped them psychologically – crafting Mr Carlyle into the austere old sage she took such relentless delight in ridiculing. They "had no water laid on. Every drop used... had to be pumped by hand from a well in the kitchen[.] Carlyle with water laid on would not have been Carlyle".

But we are also left with another Woolfian phantom – that of the empty room as a prefiguration of the morbidity that occupied her so intensively. Mrs crowe, like the eponymous hero of Jacob's Room, cannot sit entertaining her neighbours for ever – she can only witness a mere moment of London's vast lifetime. But it is this moment that makes living worthwhile. It is the dichotomy at the heart of Woolf's aesthetic; on the one hand, we can never really know one another – there are too many neuroses – too many unarticulated desires and fears – so many that we cannot truthfully even claim to know ourselves. And yet at the same time, this must not stop us trying. Mrs Crowe, Clarissa Dalloway, and Mrs Ramsay all shy away from intimacy; conversation is kept light and sociable, but through their parties and gatherings, people are brought together, and in contrast to the modernist paranoid fear of the city's alienating properties, human contact is made. It is a tentative illustration that we are not eternally alone.
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