Lecture 2: Woolf’s London

Virginia Woolf was born and raised in London and lived there all her life, mostly in the central London neighborhood called Bloomsbury, but for one long period in the London suburb of Richmond.  London was immensely important to Woolf in many respects and is the setting of several of her novels, notably Mrs. Dalloway.  Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s Virginia Woolf’s London (1987), a textbook for this course, explores the significance of London to Woolf’s life and work.  Wilson’s Introduction collects a variety of Woolf’s comments about London from her novels and private writings.  Chapter 1 tells the story of Woolf’s life in terms of the places she lived in London, with drawings of all of those houses, some of which no longer exist.  Chapter 2 explores the role of London in Woolf’s writing, and Chapter 3 examines London’s symbolic significance.


This lecture relies heavily on two sources: 1) Wilson’s Introduction and Chapter 1, reviewing some of what Woolf had to say about London and then summarizing her life in terms of her London houses; and 2) Sonita Sarker’s essay “Locating a Native Englishness in Virginia Woolf's The London Scene,” in NWSA Journal 13.2: 21 p.  The London Scene collects five of six essays Woolf wrote about London for Good Housekeeping magazine, published 1931-32.  The collection is now out of print (though readily available online in used copies), but Sarker’s essay is available online at http://iupjournals.org/nwsa/nws13-2.html .  The Wilson book is required reading for students, and I recommend the Sarker essay for its perspective on Woolf’s feminism and her critique of class.  You can learn a lot about Woolf  from Sarker without reading The London Scene itself.


The lecture begins with some of Woolf's thoughts about London and what it meant to her, then goes into to the connections Woolf made between life, literature, and London. The third part describes some of the places Woolf lived in London, telling some of the story of her life along the way. The last part of the lecture draws on Sarker's essay about Woolf's critique of Englishness. [This last section was incomplete as of May 23, 2004.]



Woolf on London

Life, Literature, and London, “Being Cockney”

Woolf’s London, “The Houses We Live In”

Woolf’s Critique of Englishness



Woolf on London


Jean Moorcroft Wilson argues that London had mystical significance for Woolf as a place that both stood for and was in itself “life,” “truth,” and “reality,” all loaded terms.  Something of this is reflected in these lines from Woolf’s diary in the year she moved back to Bloomsbury after living ten years in the London suburb Richmond:


London is enchanting. I step out upon a tawny coloured magic carpet, it seems, & get carried into beauty without raising a finger. The nights are amazing, with all the white porticoes & broad silent avenues. And people pop in & out, lightly, divertingly like rabbits; & I look down Southampton Row, wet as a seal's back or red & yellow with sunshine, & watch the omnibus going & coming, & hear the old crazy organs. One of these days I will write about London, & how it takes up the private life & carries it on, without any effort.

Diary, vol. 2, p 301


Woolf thrived on the bustle and diversity of this city that she loved and knew so well.  It fed her imagination, providing stimulation and creative inspiration for the three novels we will be reading, all written in the 1920s during the first six years after she returned to Bloomsbury.  In some complicated way, life and literature were one thing for Woolf, and she was constantly making life into literature. For her, London was as much about literature as about life—great literature as she honored it in the work of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickens, all Londoners.  But great literature for her was all of a piece with the daily ordinariness of life, the details, especially the conversations of ordinary people.  Here she is writing in her diary in 1927, recording part of a conversation overhead on a bus: “talk about quality & state of gentlemaness; & you would call me Sir; as I you Madam. This to a working woman, dowdy pasty plush with a baby. ‘Had more'n 8’ she said to the conductor; whom she called young man; & he called her Ma. This is Dickens, or Shakespeare, or simple English cockney: whichever it is I adore it; & warm the cockles of my heart at it.” (Wednesday 30 November 1927, Diary, vol. 3, p 165).

Walking the streets of London as she did for hours every day, Woolf absorbed the minutiae that is life and transformed it into art.  When she was in London, she felt connected to the writers who had walked those same streets and written about that same milieu.  This was “reality,” this was “truth,” the particulars of daily life and common people, not so much facts as ephemeral details.


Life, Literature, and London, “Being Cockney”


In an article about Woolf’s “Englishness,” Sonita Sarker quotes a letter Woolf wrote to Ethel Smyth from her country home in Rodmell, after her last Bloomsbury house had been damaged by bombs in 1940:

“How odd it is being a countrywoman after all these years of being Cockney! For almost the first time in my life I've not a bed in London. . . . You never shared my passion for that great city. Yet its what, in some odd corner of my dreaming mind, represents Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens. It's my only patriotism.”  (12 Jan 1941, Letters  vol. 6, p. 460, emphasis added). 


Woolf’s idea of Englishness lies in that term “Cockney.” Literally, Cockney refers to natives of the East End of London, a working class neighborhood whose denizens speak a distinctive dialect made famous in Shaw’s character Eliza Doolittle (Shaw’s play Pygmalion, 1913, became My Fair Lady in the U.S. in 1957).  Eliza is taught to get rid of that accent by an upper middle class professor, Henry Higgins, who wants to demonstrate that he can pass her off as an upper middle class lady.  Woolf certainly was no Eliza Doolittle, but that she claims Cockney for herself in this letter suggests how she claims London (and Englishness) in opposition to the colonizing Englishness that someone like Henry Higgins represents.  Unlike Higgins, Woolf values the distinctiveness of Cockney cultural heritage.  The very ordinary commonness and anonymity of it would have appealed to something she valued highly, “the habit of freedom,” as she terms it in A Room of One’s.  This habit of freedom, plus a room of one’s own and £500 a year, are what it takes to be a writer:


For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton's bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity is worth while. (my emphasis; AROO 113)


In these closing lines of A Room of One’s Own, Woolf evokes an idea of “reality” that is inseparable from literature, which is itself intimately connected to daily life and “the lives of the unknown.”  Probably the most memorable (and certainly the most anthologized) part of A Room of One’s Own is chapter 3, in which Woolf imagines what life would have been like for a woman born in the English Renaissance with the literary genius of Shakespeare.  This imaginary woman she calls Shakespeare’s sister and speculates that she would have run away from home to avoid an arranged marriage, and gone to London as Shakespeare did, for “her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways” (AROO 48).  But a woman seeking to be a playwright, let alone an actor, in Shakespeare's day would have been laughed at and abused for being a woman, and these circumstances Woolf imagines would have been intolerable to a person of Shakespeare's genius:  "who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?" (AROO 48).  This woman would have had the gift that Shakespeare had (and that Woolf herself had) for turning ordinary life into literature.  Here is how she puts is in the opening lines of that chapter about Shakespeare’s sister:


fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.  (AROO, 41-42)


Woolf’s London, “The Houses We Live In”


I hope that you now have a general sense of London’s importance to Woolf as a place that fed her writing.  I want to turn now to some of the particulars of Woolf’s London, including some of the places we will visit, particularly Bloomsbury.  Much of the material about Woolf’s houses is condensed from Wilson’s chapter 1, and I have supplemented with historical material about London.


Four districts of London have special significance for Woolf or for the Woolf novels we will study: Kensington, where she grew up; Bloomsbury, where she lived most of her adult life; The City of London, the setting for part of Orlando; and Whitehall/Westminster, the setting for much of Mrs. Dalloway.


Kensington is the London district where Woolf grew up at 22 Hyde Park Gate, which borders Kensington Gardens on the north and Chelsea on the south. (In today’s guidebooks, this will be South Kensington and Knightsbridge.)  Woolf associated both Kensington and Chelsea with the stuffy respectability and upper middle class Victorian values that she rejected when she moved to Bloomsbury.  Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was a very distinguished man of letters, well known as the editor of Cornhill Magazine  and of the Dictionary of National Biography.  Her mother, Julia Jackson Stephen (1846-1895) had been a great beauty, painted by Edward Burne-Jones and G.F. Watt (she is the model for the Virgin Mary in Burne-Jones' The Annunciation). Both Julia and Leslie had been married before and widowed, and they had four children between them when they married.  In the first five years of their marriage, they had four more (Virginia was the third of those four), so the  house at Hyde Park Gate was pretty crowded with 8 children, and nearly as many servants.  It was a very upper middle class Victorian household, full of dark furniture covered in red velvet.  It was run efficiently by Julia Stephen, whom Woolf  characterized later as a central presence who somehow made everything work:  "She was keeping what I call in my shorthand the panoply of life--that which we all lived in common--in being" ("A Sketch of the Past," in Moments of Being, 83).  Julia's sudden death of influenza at age 49, when  Virginia was 13, shook the household.  Julia's oldest daughter, Stella Duckworth, took over housekeeping for awhile, but then she married, moved into another house on the same street, and then herself suddenly died of peritonitis when Virginia was about 15.  The years after Julia's death in 1895 were gloomy ones for the Stephen children.

    Near 22 Hyde Park Gate are the Royal Albert Hall, the Natural History Museum, the Albert Memorial, and the Victoria and Albert Museum (the “V&A”).  Knightsbridge is the location of Harrod’s department store.


Bloomsbury is the neighborhood to which Woolf moved with her sister and two brothers when Woolf was 22, when the death of Sir Leslie Stephen (he had recently been knighted) possible for the four Stephen children to make a new and different life.  At that time Bloomsbury was considered very Bohemian and slightly disreputable.  It is still associated with the arts and with learning.  Central to the district is the British Museum, the oldest public museum in the world, best known for the collection of Egyptian mummies and the Elgin Marbles, brought from the Parthenon in Greece by Lord Elgin in 1816.  In Woolf’s day, the building still housed the British Library, where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital and where the narrator of A Room of One’s Own goes to look up books about the status of women in history.  “Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?  What effect has poverty on fiction?  What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?” (AROO 25), she asks, and turns for answers to the British Museum, for “If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, pickup up a notebook and a pencil, is truth?” (AROO 26). 

             Woolf lived in five different houses in Bloomsbury, three of them still standing (see the Bloomsbury Walk handout).

            46 Gordon Square is the house where the Bloomsbury Group began.  Woolf’s older sister Vanessa Stephen picked it out and set up housekeeping for the four Woolf siblings in 1904.  They began to invite friends in for “Thursday evenings,” and some of the people who came there for conversation about literature, art, and politics became known as the Bloomsbury Group.  Most of these were Cambridge friends of Thoby Stephen, Virginia’s older brother.  The household broke up in 1907 when Thoby died of typhoid fever at the age of 25, and Vanessa very soon after married.  Vanessa continued to live at #46 for some years after her marriage, and  for decades various members of the Bloomsbury Group lived in houses around Gordon Square. Woolf lived there from 1904 to 1907, and always tried to find London housing near Gordon Square.

            29 Fitzroy Square, a few blocks south of Gordon Square, is where Virginia Stephen set up housekeeping with her younger brother Adrian after Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell in 1907.  The artist Duncan Grant lived on the same square then, later joined by his lover Maynard Keynes (pronounced like “canes”), one of the major economists of the 20th century.  Duncan Grant would later become Vanessa’s lover, father of her daughter, and lifetime companion.  Vanessa, Duncan, and the art critic and painter Roger Fry started the Omega Workshops in 33 Fitzroy Square (1913-1919) as a place for young artists to work, especially those interested in the decorative arts.  All of these people are considered “Bloomsberries,” and all of the men except Duncan Grant had known each other at Cambridge.

            38 Brunswick Square (no longer there) was the house that Virginia and Adrian moved into in 1911, sharing it with Duncan Grant, Maynard Keynes, and Leonard Woolf, who had recently returned on leave from Ceylon, where he was a civil servant.  Leonard had been another Cambridge classmate of Thoby’s, and he had briefly met Virginia at 46 Gordon Square in 1904, the year he went out to Ceylon.  At Brunswick Square, they became friends, he living on the top floor, she on the floor below.  In 1912, he proposed marriage.  She put him off, but he went ahead and resigned from the Colonial Civil Service in April, and that May she agreed to marry him. 

            The wedding was August 10, 1912, at St. Pancras Registry Office in Bloomsbury.  After several months honeymoon in Europe (during which they concluded that Virginia was unable to enjoy sex), they returned to London and set up housekeeping, not in Bloomsbury but at Clifford’s Inn, off Fleet Street, in the City (qv).  They liked it there, and Virginia was able to finish the novel she had started back at Fitzroy Square.  Just as The Voyage Out was accepted for publication, she began to have severe headaches, insomnia, and various other symptoms that led to a suicide attempt (with veronal), from which Leonard rescued her, and a major mental breakdown, from which she would not recover for years.


            Most people credit Leonard with saving Woolf’s life, not only from the drug overdose but for keeping her under round the clock nursing care and out of a mental institution during this her most serious breakdown.  She had had at least two previous breakdowns, one after her mother’s death in 1895 and another after her father’s death in 1904.  Modern scholars believe she suffered from bipolar disorder (“manic depression”), which was then treated primarily with rest and over-feeding, both of which she resisted.  Leonard concluded that she needed to be away from the stimulating environment of London, so they moved to the suburb of Richmond, on the western border of London near Kew Gardens.  It was an easy bus ride into the city, and at that time was still quite rural and peaceful.  Leonard established a careful daily routine, and Virginia was able to see The Voyage Out through to publication by 1915, and start on her second novel, Night and Day, which the same publisher brought out in 1919. 

            In 1917, Leonard bought a small handpress with the idea that operating a printing press would be good therapy for Virginia, who by then seemed to be recovering her equilibrium.  This became the Hogarth Press, their own publishing company, which would publish her third novel, Jacob’s Room (1922) and all of her subsequent work.  By the 1920s, Virginia had become very bored with the quiet life in Richmond, and finally talked Leonard into returning to Bloomsbury in 1924, when she began her richest creative period.


            52 Tavistock Square (no longer there), Woolf’s home from 1924-1939, is where she wrote all but her last novel, beginning with Mrs. Dalloway.   After nearby houses were bombed, the Woolfs moved to 37 Mecklenburg Square, but soon moved out of London entirely to their summer home, Monk’s House, in Rodmell, Sussex (more on this later).  The Mecklenburg Square house, too, was damaged by bombing and has since been rebuilt in a different fashion.  It was at Rodmell in 1941, with German planes flying bombing patterns into London nightly, that Woolf felt another breakdown coming on and decided to end her life by drowning herself in the nearby river Ouse.  She was 59.  [Note: The recent movie The Hours conflates Richmond with Rodmell and makes it appear that Woolf committed suicide while living in that London suburb shortly after writing Mrs. Dalloway.  In fact, she lived to write six more novels.]


The City of London (the City) is the oldest part of London, Chaucer’s London.  Since Woolf’s day it has been the financial and legal district. There are the “Inns of Court,” where barristers train for the law. Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s first home as a married couple was Clifford’s Inn (no longer there), between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane, close to Fleet Street, the center of London journalism.  Jean Moorcroft Wilson writes that The City was Woolf’s favorite place to walk in London, and that “St. Paul’s alone justified living in London for Virginia” (163).  The City is also the setting for parts of Orlando, in which Woolf meticulously recreates City scenes at various moments in English literary history. 


The history of The City begins with the Roman invasion of England in 55-54 BCE.  The Romans built the first city on this site, Londinium, bounded on the west by the Fleet River, the south by the Thames, the north by Ludgate Hill, and the east by Corn Hill.  The Roman bridge across the Thames was the only one until the 18th century.  Around 100 AD the Romans built a 2-mile wall around the city, a wall maintained for over a thousand years. 


Medieval London dates from the 12th century, when William I granted a charter and independence to the City of London and built three castle fortresses along the Thames.  Only one of these remains, the White Tower within today’s Tower of London, which still marks the southwestern border of The City.  St. Paul’s Cathedral marks the western border of the City.  There has been a church on this site since 604, and two major cathedrals on this site have been destroyed by fire, one in 1087 and the second in 1666, in the Great Fire of London.  The St. Paul’s we will see is the work of Christopher Wren and is one of the great architectural masterpieces of western Europe. 


 Whitehall/Westminster. Unlike Kensington, Bloomsbury, and the City, Whitehall is not a London district, but the name of the street that runs from Trafalgar Square down to Westminster Bridge, where the Houses of Parliament are (the name for this district is Westminster).  Many government offices are located on or just off of Whitehall (e.g., Downing St., where the Prime Minister lives), so “Whitehall” is shorthand for the seat of British government.  The Dalloways live in Whitehall, and Richard Dalloway is a Conservative Member of Parliament.



Woolf’s Critique of Englishness

Sonita Sarker argues that for Woolf London and those great writers she revered—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens-- are a metaphor for Englishness.  But Woolf was in no sense a flag-waving promoter of all things English.  As a lifelong pacifist, she had been in conflict with English imperialism all her adult life.  She was extremely sensitive to the way that class privilege (like male privilege) oppresses women, and she was an acute observer of people of all classes, but particularly of the contrast between the British working class and the British upper middle class, where her family were securely fixed. 


Sarker calls the six essays about London “a feminist history of Englishness that is contiguous but discontinuous with masculinist history” (Sarker, 6 of 21) and that show Woolf as a cosmopolitan “who is strongly place-based but not place-bound” (Sarker, 6 of 21).  She summarizes the content of six essays about London that Woolf wrote for an American audience and published in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1931-32: "The Docks of London" (December 1931, about imperial mercantilism), "Oxford Street Tide" (January 1932, about the transitoriness of commercial display), "Great Men's Houses" (March 1932, about the mundane side of fame), "Abbeys and Cathedrals" (May 1932, about the religious-monumental), "'This Is the House of Commons'" (October 1932, about the men who run Parliament), and "Portrait of a Londoner" (December 1932, about Mrs. Crowe)” (Sarker, 5 of 21).


To be continued



Updated May 26, 2004             Copyright 2004 Rose Norman
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