Tag Archives: virginia woolf

Housing as Character in Edwardian Writing

There is a splendid quote from Virginia Woolf’s ‘Character in Fiction’, in which she gently mocks a fashion in building character through the nature of the home they lived in. She writes:

Here is Mr Bennett making use of this common ground in the passage which I have quoted. The problem before him was to make us believe in the reality of Hilda Lessways. So he began, being an Edwardian, by describing accurately and minutely the sort of house Hilda lived in, and the sort of house she saw from the window. House property was the common ground from which the Edwardians found it easy to proceed to intimacy. Indirect as it seems to us, the convention worked admirably, and thousands of Hilda Lessways were launched upon the world by this means. (48)

Housing as character. I confess, being slightly obsessive about how people shape cities and cities shape people, in many ways I find this trait immensely wonderful and charming — especially as they often describe places that are no longer here, or that have changed dramatically over the past decades.

At the same time, writing this at some distance from actually reading the essay, I am often all muddled up about who is an Edwardian, who Victorian, who in between… This of course recalls long passages of Gissing, especially In The Year of the Jubilee (1894), maybe Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth (1897) or W. Pett Ridge’s Mord Em’ly (1898). I just finished Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff Dwellers (1893) about Chicago, which draws the same connections between social position and housing, but then, it is in many ways a story of real estate and the growth of American citiesThey’re all a bit early though, I suppose I haven’t read many in full throttle. I enjoyed Pett Ridge most and there is the most movement there really both in how characters grow and how they find themselves, but for the first two there is very much a sense of social position matching, or even defined by the type of home occupied.

The structures are rigid, and entirely depressing, in the same way the buildings that mark social stratification stand tall and immovable.

Suddenly it is all less charming. Especially as in some circles, I don’t know at all that it has changed very much…

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)


Outcast from Struggle: Virginia Woolf and Christopher Isherwood

Literature is mostly written from the upper stratospheres of class looking down, so it is often bewildering reading it from the bottom looking up. Frustrating. Enraging. Sometimes sad.

SRB_0004I was struck once again, reading this passage describing Virginia Woolf‘s feelings sitting in a meeting of a working women’s guild, how terrible capitalism is for the wealthy as well as the poor. How unhealthy.

If every reform they demand was granted this very instant it would not touch one hair of my comfortable capitalistic head. hence my interest is merely altruistic. It is thin spread and moon coloured. there is no lifeblood or urgency about it. However hard I clap my hands or stamp my feet there is a hollowness in the sound which betrays me. I am a benevolent spectator. I am irretrievably cut off from the actors. (148)

But the barrier is impassable. And nothing perhaps exacerbated us more at the Congress (you must have noticed at times a certain irritability) than the thought that this force of theirs, this smouldering heat which broke the crust now and then and licked the surface with a hot and fearless flame, is about to break through and melt us together so that life will be richer and books more complex and society will pool its possessions instead of segregating them–all this is going to happen inevitably, thanks to you [Margaret Llewellyn Davies], very largely, and to Miss Harris and to Miss Kidd–but only when we are dead. (153, ‘Memories of a Working Women’s Guild’)

Margaret Llewelyn Davies and her assistant in the Guild’s office at Kirby Lonsdale


Being a great reader of Mark Bould’s blog (because I like him so much), this immediately resonated with a quote he had posted from Christopher Isherwood — which I shall steal without compunction because life is too short for me to ever read the book:

The hall was very full. The audience sat there in their soiled everyday clothes. Most of the men wore breeches with coarse woollen stockings, sweaters and peaked caps. Their eyes followed the speaker with hungry curiosity. I had never even been to a communist meeting before, and what struck me most was the fixed attention of the upturned rows of faces; faces of the Berlin working class, pale and prematurely lined, often haggard and ascetic, like the heads of scholars, with thin, fair hair brushed back from their broad foreheads. They had not come here to see each other or to be seen, or even to fulfil a social duty. They were attentive but not passive. They were not spectators. They participated, with a curious, restrained passion, in the speech made by the red-haired man. He spoke for them, he made their thoughts articulate. They were listening to their own collective voice. At the intervals they applauded it, with sudden, spontaneous violence. Their passion, their strength of purpose elated me. I stood outside it. One day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it. At present I just sat there, a half-hearted renegade from my own class, my feelings muddled by anarchism talked at Cambridge, by slogans from the confirmation service, by the tunes the band played when my father’s regiment marched by the railway station, seventeen years ago. And the little man finished his speech and went back to his place at the table amidst thunders of clapping. (Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories. New York: New Directions, 1963. 48-49)

At least Virginia Woolf recognises, with sadness, that she and the women like her are part of the structure that oppresses. ‘…the thought that this force of theirs, this smouldering heat which broke the crust now and then and licked the surface with a hot and fearless flame, is about to break through and melt us together … all this is going to happen inevitably … but only when we are dead,’ she writes. There is no such recognition in Isherwood.

Does this knowledge appear in Woolf’s fiction? What struck me most about The Years was the silences, the things that could not be expressed. Her characters danced around issues of class and oppression and Empire. There is another revealing passage about this to be found here:

But the great obstacle to asking questions openly in public is, of course, wealth. The little twisted sign that comes at the end of a question has a way of making the rich writhe; power and prestige come down upon it with all their weight. Questions, therefore, being sensitive, impulsive and often foolish, have a way of picking their asking place with care. They shrivel up in an atmosphere of power, prosperity and time-worn stone. They die by the dozen on the threshold of great newspaper offices. They slink away to less favoured, less flourishing quarters where people are poor and therefore have nothing to give, where they have no power and therefore have nothing to lose. (161, ‘Why?’)

It is an interesting displacement to people in poverty, the power and ability to ask questions. If only wealthy people would yield the power of creating solutions to them as well. It is a strange (and not entirely praise-worthy) yielding of responsibility, but yet an unexpectedly honest one. Woolf doesn’t go into what she has to lose, but clearly this is part of what stops speech, prevents full expression and I can imagine the pain of that. It is what oppressed in the streets of Kensington, and Bloomsbury does not escape it. Perhaps this is part of her withering, and her death.

The Co-operative Women’s Guild still exists, you can find them here. Really the point is, I think, that it is in struggle and in speaking  that a hope of full life lies.

Virginia Woolf, Women, and Writing

3371792Virginia Woolf’s essays are delightful. Even better, perhaps, after reading The Years, because they resonated so much with the thoughts that the novel provoked in me about that struggle for certainty and voice, the feeling of being unable to feel or think clearly, to communicate. Most fascinating of all, is that in this struggle over what the novel should do, how a novel should be written and read, the role of the author — Virginia Woolf, it turns out, has most decided opinions and a great clarity about the necessary uncertainty of modern writing.

It’s such a strange juxtaposition of security and insecurity.

There is this lovely passage on writing the stream of consciousness, capturing thus the feel and experience of our moments as they shift and change and vanish:

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this’. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all side they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? (9, ‘Modern Fiction’).

This is certainly the most pure expression of what prose can do but more importantly, what life itself is. How it is lived. What she is trying for in her writing as an expression of that life. It is as luminous as she believes our lives to be.

Most of the essays are less personal, removed from literature as she directs her gaze at it.  She writes of how literature has changed, with much firmness:

And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December 1910, human character changed. …
In life one can see the change, if I may use a homely illustration, in the character of one’s cook. The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. (39, ‘Character in Fiction’)

It of course bothers me that she is clearly writing for those who have cooks, not those who are cooks (coming from a family of at least one cook, I’m glad to see life was finally looking up for them), but I have more thoughts on the class issues in another post. Back to her descriptions on this change in 1910 (and surely this must be written before the war, my only fault with this book is that there is no short introduction for each essay giving the time and place published nor is that in the contents — perhaps it is buried in the extensive timeline of Woolf’s life). She writes that Samuel Butler is characteristic of it (and oh the tone of this comment!):

No sooner had the Victorians departed than Samuel Butler, who had lived below-stairs, came out, like an observant bootboy, with the family secrets in The Way of All Flesh. It appeared that the basement was really in an appalling state. Though the saloons were splendid ad the dining-rooms portentous, the drains were of the most primitive description. (33, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’)

she includes in this change the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Could it be that they have recognised their own privilege, the limitations of their own experiences and perspectives? A realisation that there is a wonder of other worlds out there beyond their own, and they have value? I wonder, it is food for thought.

In another essay she unpicks further the differences between the novels of an earlier age and her own:

Only believe, we find ourselves saying, and all the rest will come of itself…if you believe it implicitly and unquestioningly, you will not only make people a hundred years later feel the same thing, but you will make them it as literature. For certainty of that kind is the condition which makes it possible to write. To believe that your impressions hold good for other is to be released from the cramp and confinement of personality…
So then our contemporaries afflict us because they have ceased to believe…They cannot make a world, because they are not free of other human beings. They cannot tell stories because they do not believe that stories are true. They cannot generalise. They depend on their sense and emotions, whose testimony is trustworthy, rather than on their intellects whose message is obscure…Set down at a fresh angle of the eternal prosper they can only whip out their notebooks and record with agonised intensity the flying gleams, which light on what? and the transitory splendours, which may, perhaps, compose nothing whatever. (29, ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’)

Here is another passage in which she ponders the modern in relation to what has come before:

And it is true of the Elizabethan dramatists that though they may bore us–and they do–they never make us feel that they are afraid or self-conscious, or that there is anything hindering, hampering, inhibiting the full current of their minds.
Yet our first thought when we open a modern poetic play–and this applies to much modern poetry–is that the writer is not at his ease. He is afraid, he is forced, he is self-conscious. (77, ‘Poetry, Fiction and the Future’)

These articulate so well the struggles faced by the characters in The Years, afraid of speaking, unable to grasp clarity in their thoughts, awash with a patter of internal dialogue and finding refuge only in feelings.It is the character of an age we experience through them, and through contemporary fiction and poetry.

Like Joyce. She has some quite wonderful digs at Joyce:

Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe–immense in daring, terrific in disaster. (26, ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’)

Mr Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy! And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is  not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public-spririted act of a man who needs fresh air! (52, ‘Character in Fiction’)

I enjoyed those too much really.

The essays on women and writing held two of my favourite passages — where she is not forced to waste time demolishing idiotic and patriarchal ideas about what and how women should be writing — if they should be writing at all.

The Angel in the House. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her. You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her–you may not know what I mean by the Angel of the House. I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all–I need not say it–she was pure. (141, ‘Professions for Women’)

I am not nearly grateful enough to all of the women who have fought and made possible the freedom I feel today, but this is still true for us I think:

Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against. (144, ‘Professions for Women’)

There are a few additional insights, overcome to a greater or lesser extent by women writers over the years:

Even in the nineteenth century, a woman lived almost solely in her home and her emotions. And those nineteenth-century novels, remarkable as they were, were profoundly influenced by the fact that the women who wrote them were excluded by their sex from certain kinds of experience (134, ‘Women and Fiction’).

This, her vision for the future:

So, if we may prophecy, women in time to come will write fewer novels, but better novels; and not novels only, but poetry and cirticism and history. But in this, to be sure, one is looking ahead to that golden, that perhaps fabulous, age when women will have what has so long been denied them–leisure, and money, and a room to themselves. (139, ‘Women and Fiction’)

I don’t know about fewer and better novels, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing either that much of women’s writing still centres on the home and her emotions — it is only when that becomes normative, right? But ah, leisure, money and a room to themselves? That is as elusive as ever.

Two other quotes I liked, this one on genre (and why we should stop being so uptight about putting things into just one box):

Books have a great deal in common; they are always overflowing their boundaries; they are always breeding new species from unexpected matches among themselves. (64, ‘How Should One Read a Book?)

And this:

Thus in order to read poetry rightly, one must be in a rash, an extreme, a generous state of mind in which many of the supports and comforts of literature are done without. (70, How Should One Read a Book?)

Just reading this sentence makes me feel a little rash and extreme…bring on the poetry!

For more on women and writing…


The Years of Virginia Woolf

10357431I didn’t like Virginia Woolf’s work when I first read it long ago. It was Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, I can’t remember. It seemed all a big fuss about nothing to me, and I thought if she had poverty or a job grinding the life out of her she might well be better off.

I’m not sure I was wrong. Still, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

A year or so ago my partner convinced me to read Orlando and I loved it, found it hilarious and imaginative and thought provoking.

The Years explained some of this disconnection to me. I had the same early frustrations in the opening chapter. I then sat on a very uncomfortable coach next to a barely-if-at-all overweight woman who still managed to spill into my seat and who didn’t seem to mind just what she was doing with her elbows for over two hours and read and read (after I had passed that sleepy stage) and my mind fell into the same cadences as the prose and my new older and wiser self recognised that swift passing of years, the ellipsing of time, the changing of things and the diverging of people, and I thought maybe I loved this book too. I walked from Victoria coach station to the underground with Woolf’s narrative voice in my head, describing the branches bare against the leaden skies and the bitter winds that crept down the neck of my coat and I wondered why I had not thought to bring a scarf, which I only like to wear on the very coldest of days but the day was very cold. The blue one, a beautiful and mathematically-amazing wool moebius strip that my mother knitted for me and I wore for the very first time in Limerick.

The priggishness of Belgravia took a little of the joy away. Martin lives on Ebury St, only one street away from my path between buses and trains, which she describes as a gloomy thoroughfare. But for their former servant Crosby in 1913, now working with another family:

She felt more herself in Ebury Street than in Richmond. A common sort of people lived in Richmond she always felt (169).

Ebury St

The pigeon cheered me up when I took this picture at least. I wondered too if Crosby would have found Ian Flaming common, when he lived on this street.

I spent one extremely terrible post-rave-on-the-Thames-Beach-can’t-let-the-party-stop-cocktails-and-card-playing night in one of the terraced houses one street over through some bizarre ironies of circumstance. I found it opulent without being interesting or revealing of character, and very oppressive.

I do love Woolf’s beautiful descriptions of London though, the groundedness of them as she replays us her memories, perhaps saying goodbye to them in a way. I’ve added my favourites at the end of the post.

The distance between some of them and what the places actually evoke in me perhaps explains why I finished the last fifty pages or so that night, and they helped crystallise my dislike. These pages bring us current, when the younger generation does the thinking, tries to muddle through it all. The year is unspecified, some time after the war, perhaps closer to the book’s date of publication in 1937?

I had been thinking, in that walk between coach and tube, that absolutely no one had been able to communicate, to speak openly and frankly about their troubles, to gain clarity of meaning either in their own thoughts or in their expression. With one exception (that one time Maggie and Martin sit beneath a tree one fine day, and he tells her everything that is troubling him).

But no one else can speak.

No one else can clarify what they want, what they believe, what they need.

No one can unburden themselves of the pressure of words, things unspoken.

It occurred to me suddenly that this stream of consciousness, these descriptions lathered across page after page that jumped from image to incident to thought and back again, reflect an uncertainty in the author as strong as that seen in Eleanor. Perhaps it is simply a way to characterise this generation, to set a mood and a tone. But perhaps Woolf has thrown everything on the page for us, everything that crosses her mind, everything she sees and hears she feels somehow are important and all the thoughts that come skipping along, hoping that out of it we can find some pattern, some deeper meaning.

At the end it felt almost like a yielding of her own agency, a releasing of frustration. That War and Peace moment with the general far removed from battle as everything is let go into the flow of time passing and the movement of nature and humankind. But in miniature, with nothing at stake. It is left for the next generation to struggle to give her words meaning. To find her life’s purpose.

In the final pages North and Peggy hammer and hammer away at this inability to understand, to speak, to get to the truth of their own desires. They do so at a party of pleasure and immense privilege, the upper middle classes at their sparkling leisure. It’s thrown by Delia, the most interesting character to me by far fighting for the cause of Irish independence, but she appears only at the beginning and the end. I think because Delia’s edges are too sharp for the novel’s effect of blurriness, she knew struggle and heartbreak even though her marriage casts a shadow across the strength of her ideals. Instead we cast about with other Pargiters unable to grasp their own beliefs:

He paused. There was the glass in his hand; in his mind a sentence. And he wanted to make other sentences. But how can I, he thought — he looked at Eleanor, who sat with a silk handkerchief in her hands — unless I know what’s solid, what’s true; in my life, in other people’s lives? (313)

Then he shut up. It’s no go, North thought. He can’t say what he wants to say; he’s afraid. They’re all afraid; afraid of being laughed at; afraid of giving themselves away. He’s afraid too, he thought, looking at the young man with a fine forehead and a weak chin who was gesticulating too emphatically. We’re all afraid of each other, her thought; afraid of what? Of criticism; of laughter; of people who think differently… (315)

This party…it filled me with disdain, I confess, for brittle enjoyment and all of the things people of this class could not allow themselves to say. That stopped their minds and lips completely. Their silences became self-serving. I thought about their servant Crosby who served them but in old age was let go and made to serve others, I thought about their pettiness, their ambition, their privilege. Their unquestioning natures, even as they focused on detail and minutiae. Their multiple and mutual dislikes and discomforts.

The novel opens with the father figure, Colonel Pargiter in his club chatting with other members also returned from the business of Empire. Three fingers on the one hand are stumps, lost in his fighting to put down the mutiny. He dies never having told his children what really troubles him, though he yearns to speak to someone. In the novel it appears to be the trouble of his mistress, but I couldn’t help but feel the silence is one not just of male privilege and desire (and loneliness), but also of Empire. He leaves his friends abruptly in the club to think his own thoughts. Remember his own stories.

Stories we never hear. War and death stories. (I found out more here).

Perhaps this is the foundational silence. He is where this novel begins, where everything begins for Eleanor, and the generations that follow. The wealth of conquest is the basis for this position in society, a way of life that permits both the freedom and sets the limits for their thoughts. Their mother dying seems nothing but a weight to them all. A silent one.

Eleanor’s realisation — that in fact is the opposite of realisation —  comes at the end:

There must be another life, she thought, sinking back into her chair, exasperated. Not in dreams; but here and now, in this room, with living people. She felt as if she were standing on the edge of a precipice with her hair blown back; she was about to grasp something that just evaded her. There must be another life, here and now, she repeated. This is too short, too broken. We know nothing, even about ourselves (325).

We know nothing. Everything is broken. All we have are these moments, impressions, fleeting happinesses that we cannot explain.

The back of my book says that this was Woolf’s most popular work in her lifetime…this must have resonated.

But ah, her descriptions of the city. Like this one on the Strand, 1891, walking from the courts of justice…I love this street too, could share in this.

The uproar, the confusion, the space of the Strand came upon her with a shock of relief. She felt herself expand. It was still daylight here; a rush, a stir, a turmoil of variegated life came racing towards her, in the world. It was as if something had broken loose — in her, in the world. She seemed, after her concentration, to be dissipated, tossed about. She wandered along the Strand, looking with pleasure at the racing street; at the shops full of bright chains and leather cases’ at the white-face churches; at the irregular jagged roofs laced across and across with wires. Above was the dazzle of a watery but gleaming sky. The wind blew in her face. She breathed in a gulp of fresh wet air….

Cabs, vans and omnibuses streamed past; they seemed to rush the air into her face; they splashed the mud on to the pavement. People jostled and hustled and she quickened her pace in time with theirs (85).

and then she reads that Parnell is dead…

To Covent Garden, 1907: Covent Garden when it was still a market, when this kind of business still took place in the city and its connection to the countryside and the origins of its food still strong, I love this too:

All along the silent country roads leading to London carts plodded; the iron reins fixed in the iron hands, for vegetables, fruit, flowers traveled slowly. Heaped high with round crates of cabbage, cherries, carnations, they looked like caravans piled with the goods of the tribes migrating in search of water, driven by enemies to seek new pasturage. On they plodded, down this road, that road, keeping close to the kerb. even the horses, had they been blind, could have heard the hum of London in the distance; and the drivers, dozing, yet saw through half-shut eyes the fiery gauze of the eternally burning city. At dawn, at Coven Garden, they laid down their burdens; tables and trestles, even the cobbles were frilled as with some celestial laundry with cabbages, cherries and carnations (101).

Wandsworth, 1913:  Some thoughts on class and place, a little self-defensive snobbishness as Eleanor sells the house in Abercorn Terrace where she grew up and took care of her father:

As he went downstairs, she noticed the red ears which  stood out over his high collar; and the neck which he had washed imperfectly in some sink at Wandsworth. She was annoyed; as he went round the house, sniffing and peering, he had indicted their cleanliness, their humanity, and he used absurdly long words. He was hauling himself up into the class above him, she supposed, by means of long words (165-166).

Milton St, Present Day, North visiting Sarah:  and more reflections on class and housing (if this is actually today’s Milton St it has been swallowed by the Barbican, nothing left that is dusky or old):

This was Milton Street, a dusky street, with old houses, now let out as lodgings; but they had seen better days.


‘What a dirty,’ he said, as sat still in the car for a moment — here a woman crossed the street with a jug under her arm — ‘sordid,’ he added, ‘low-down street to live in. (237)’

…There was a curious smell in the hall; of vegetables cooking; and the oily brown paper made it dark. he went up the stairs of what had once been a gentleman’s residence. The banisters were carved; but they had been daubed over with some cheap yellow varnish (238).

‘Why d’you always choose slums–‘ he was beginning., for children were screaming in the street below, when the door opened and a girl came in carrying a bunch of knives and forks. The regular lodging-house skivvy, North thought; with red hands, and one of those jaunty white caps that girls in lodging houses clap on top of their hair when the lodger has a party (240).

Abercorn Terrace, Present Day, Eleanor to Peggy in a cab

‘That’s where we used to live,’ she said. She waved her hand towards a long lamp-starred street on the left. Peggy, looking out, could just see the imposing unbroken avenue with its succession of pale pillars and steps. The repeated columns., the orderly architecture, had even a pale pompous beauty as one stucco column repeated another stucco column repeated another stucco column all down the street (254).

Abercorn Terrace (which doesn’t exist in London, though a Lord Abercorn was head of the British South Africa Company) is ‘a replica of 22 Hyde Park Gate where Woolf grew up’ writes Nuala Casey, who sees this as a book of ghosts — I like thinking of this book like that. But while the house itself might be a replica, the street is certainly not. Because this is the street:

Hyde Park Gate

I imagine the new buildings are from bomb damage, but seems that this was always an odd street of unique homes. Lived in by four more blue plaque winners, Winston Churchill, Robert Baden-Powell the founder of Scouts, Enid Bagnold the author of National Velvet and sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (Blue plaques are so damn useful).

Woolf’s house is bigger, far grander than I was expecting from her description, I could not fit it into a camera view, there is another floor above and the main entrance is down the stairs on the lower level:

22 Hyde Park Gate

22 Hyde Park Gate

I perhaps could have tried for a better picture, a different angle, but I didn’t like this street, didn’t feel comfortable here. Two men in suits stood talking at the end of it. Most of Kensington, in fact, looms above you in wealth and monumental architecture of five stories and higher. Inequality hiding the sky from you. I found relief only in the winter stripped branches of trees beautiful against the tarnished clouds at the end of the street and across the road in Kensington Gardens. But then there is this, this massive gilded gaud of a thing:

Albert Memorial

The Royal Albert Memorial facing the huge red brick mansions of Kensington Gore alongside the Royal Albert Hall. Everywhere monuments of wealth and ambition, and perhaps a strange kind of love. Perhaps.

I thought to myself that this place, this wealth and ambition written into architecture, this inequality looming large, this is no place to raise children. And perhaps that is just the trouble, this intertwining of mental health and power and privilege into something that harms everyone.