Street Haunting: Woolf’s London Adventure

Street Haunting - Virginia Woolf‘Street Haunting’ is such a lovely yet also immensely frustrating essay on wandering the streets — I have separated it from the other essays that it found itself in. I love the title. Somehow I am made so happy that her favourite time is winter, that we share this love of champagne air, bare branches against the sky, the beauty of lighted windows.

It begins in a room well loved and the need for a pencil. We are invited first into the room, a glimpse into Woolf’s life and the home she has created, and then we escape with her.

The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful. We are not then taunted as in the summer by the longing for shade and solitude and sweet airs from the hayfields. The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience. That bowl on the mantelpiece, for instance, was bought at Mantua on a windy day. We were leaving the shop when the sinister old woman plucked at our skirts and said she would find herself starving one of these days, but, “Take it!” she cried, and thrust the blue and white china bowl into our hands as if she never wanted to be reminded of her quixotic generosity. So, guiltily, but suspecting nevertheless how badly we had been fleeced, we carried it back to the little hotel where, in the middle of the night, the innkeeper quarrelled so violently with his wife that we all leant out into the courtyard to look, and saw the vines laced about among the pillars and the stars white in the sky. The moment was stabilized, stamped like a coin indelibly among a million that slipped by imperceptibly. There, too, was the melancholy Englishman, who rose among the coffee cups and the little iron tables and revealed the secrets of his soul–as travellers do. All this–Italy, the windy morning, the vines laced about the pillars, the Englishman and the secrets of his soul–rise up in a cloud from the china bowl on the mantelpiece. And there, as our eyes fall to the floor, is that brown stain on the carpet. Mr. Lloyd George made that. “The man’s a devil!” said Mr. Cummings, putting the kettle down with which he was about to fill the teapot so that it burnt a brown ring on the carpet.

But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell-like
covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye. How beautiful a street is in winter! (177)

I like thinking of home as a shell, an expression of myself and the places I have been and the kinds of things I love excreted in a glowing spiral. Perhaps because I grew up in the nautilus house. But you have to leave home.

And she does, and carries me with her in her wanderings and her musings, into a flow of reflections so similar to my own yet also into her prejudices and views of people I do not share. In fact, that I hate:

Here, perhaps, in the top rooms of these narrow old houses between Holborn and Soho, where people have such queer names, and pursue so many curious trades, are gold beaters, accordion pleaters, cover buttons, or support life, with even greater fantasticality, upon a traffic in cups without saucers, china umbrella handles, and highly-coloured pictures of martyred saints. There they lodge, and it seems as if the lady in the sealskin jacket must find life tolerable, passing the time of day with the accordion pleater, or the man who covers buttons; life which is so fantastic cannot be altogether tragic. They do not grudge us, we are musing, our prosperity; when, suddenly, turning the corner, we come upon a bearded Jew, wild, hunger-bitten, glaring out of his misery; or pass the humped body of an
old woman flung abandoned on the step of a public building with a cloak over her like the hasty covering thrown over a dead horse or donkey. At such sights the nerves of the spine seem to stand erect; a sudden flare is brandished in our eyes; a question is asked which is never answered. Often enough these derelicts choose to lie not a stone’s thrown from theatres, within hearing of barrel organs, almost, as night draws on, within touch of the sequined cloaks and bright legs of diners and dancers (181).

I know and love this piece of London, have wandered it many times. I hate the phrases ‘a bearded Jew’, ‘these derelicts’, ‘a question is asked which is never answered’. Woolf never answers these big questions. The silence continues, maintained through walking, superficially thinking in her streams of words and the passing of images. But I am grateful for these images, these city landscapes preserved.

She finds the old bookstores, they must be the ones on Charing Cross Road that now have lost so much of their magic, imagines the contents of rows of dusty books:

A tour in Cornwall with a visit to the tin mines was thought worthy of voluminous record. People went slowly up the Rhine and did portraits of each other in Indian ink, sitting reading on deck beside a coil of rope; they measured the pyramids; were lost to civilization for years; converted negroes in pestilential swamps. This packing up and going off, exploring deserts and catching fevers, settling in India for a lifetime, penetrating even to China and then returning to lead a parochial life at Edmonton, tumbles and tosses upon the dusty floor like an uneasy sea, so restless the English are, with the waves at their very door. The waters of travel and adventure seem to break upon little islands of serious effort and lifelong industry stood in jagged column upon the floor (184).

How are all of these things equal? I wonder. Travelling up the Rhine and converting ‘negroes’ and somehow returning to Edmonton with nothing changed but really you know the conquest of China and the view of the children dying in the tin mines surely must have changed everything, didn’t it? Are the picturesque poor not right to grudge you your prosperity?

She asks the questions but does not answer, does not think them through. I love walking for the way that your mind travels like this, lightly touching on a multitude of thoughts and impressions. I like to come home and write then, think deeper, explore further. Woolf uses the streets to open up her mind but then closes it all back down again, comes home and shuts the door behind her and so these questions just go on and on and nothing is ever done.

I love this sense of homecoming, but not of closing doors ensuring that the only treasure found was the pencil.

That is true: to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet. And here–let us examine it tenderly, let us touch it with reverence–is the only spoil we have retrieved from all the treasures of the city, a lead pencil. (187)


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