What Virginia Woolf’s Lost Essay Can Teach Us About City Life
Her rare collection about armchair travel shows that it’s the people who make a place
When the padded envelope showed up in my mailbox in September, I tore it open immediately. At the time I’d just started research on my master’s thesis about Virginia Woolf and walking. Mrs. Dalloway intrigued me, as did To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own. But Woolf’s short essays aren’t read as frequently, which is why The London Scene caught my attention while I paged through Goodreads for works by Virginia Woolf.
This collection wasn’t available at any of the bookstores in my area. The only way I could get a copy was a third-party seller who only sold used editions. The jacket copy informed me that I was holding the book’s only U.S. edition printed within the last three decades.
That night, I tore through those 77 pages. Woolf writes about everything from expectations when visiting the homes of famous authors to the distinct sensation of standing in Westminster Abbey. The map inside the front cover includes landmarks for armchair travelers: Hyde Park, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Tower Bridge. A collection of six essays commissioned by Good Housekeeping in 1931, the series is more conversational than Woolf’s other work. Woolf invites us to walk London with her, moving us from the flânerie of wandering a street to the interiority of a drawing room.
It wasn’t until 1981 that five of the essays were collected and published in book form. The last essay, “Portrait of a Londoner,” was missing from that edition. Emma Cahill discovered it at the University of Sussex in 2004. It’s this rare essay that ends the 2006 reissue of the collection, and the one that captured me most as a reader.
In just 1900 words, Woolf immortalizes a bygone London and the ways in which the circumscribed space of a living room can tell us everything we need to know about the heart of a city. We’re introduced to the elderly Mrs. Crowe, the ideal English hostess who shares her thoughts on everything from the latest theatre showing to her days in the company of Henry James. As Woolf explains, “Mrs. Crowe’s great gift consisted in making the vast metropolis seem as small as a village with one church, one manor house, and twenty-five cottages.”
Woolf immortalizes a bygone London and the ways in which the circumscribed space of a living room can tell us everything we need to know about the heart of a city.
She embodies an idea of London from a time before World War II. Even though it’s the 1930s, Mrs. Crowe hasn’t shaken her Victorian ways. Each evening from five to seven, she receives guests in her drawing room for tea. Woolf gives tips for conversing with Mrs. Crowe: subjects must not be too personal because intimate conversation leads to silence, and gossip about other people is always more welcome than your personal issues.
It’s an odd essay, short enough to leave you wanting more, yet self-contained in such a way that Woolf’s ideas don’t need further elaboration. It is also reminiscent of her more famous works: like many of Woolf’s essays, “Portrait” starts with a character. Though fictional, Mrs. Crowe embodies London as it was at that time. It’s referential to the rest of a collection that centers on walking the city, which is why it’s such a surprise that this is the essay that was forgotten.
As a writer, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to inhabit and describe places I’ve never been. Travel has always seemed to me the closest you can get to being a different version of yourself. And if you can’t travel, reading is the next best thing. Virginia Woolf has shown me the beauty of writing about space, and her work is still the best way to immerse myself in London, a city I have yet to visit.
Travel has always seemed to me the closest you can get to being a different version of yourself. And if you can’t travel, reading is the next best thing.
Take this description of Mrs. Crowe and her drawing-room window:
As she sat in her chair with her guests ranged round she would give from time to time a quick bird-like glance over her shoulder at the window, as if she had half an eye on the street, as if she had half an ear upon the cars and the omnibuses and the cries of the paper boys under the window. Why, something new might be happening this very moment. One could not spend too much time on the past: one must not give all one’s attention to the present.
Woolf’s intimate knowledge of place is often part of the conversation surrounding her work. Yet “Portrait of a Londoner” does not spend time guiding us through the city streets. Why was this the essay that ended a collection about adventuring through London? Mrs. Crowe’s drawing room detaches us from what we expect. Woolf populates her nonfiction with characters that make it possible for us to imagine the city as a place of possibility, a place alive.
As Francine Prose points out in the 2006 introduction to the collection, “while it might not list the hottest restaurants and the newest boutique hotels, The London Scene gives us an amalgam of intelligence and beauty that few, if any, guidebooks, provide.”
The London Scene can still act as a guidebook. But its wider appeal has less to do with landmarks: it’s self-evident that a city is more than just push-pins on a map. What “Portrait” gives us that the other essays don’t is the feeling that it’s possible to experience a city through conversation with another person. Woolf is saying that it’s the people that make a place, and that’s why this piece should be read alongside her more well-known essays and stories.
Woolf is saying that it’s the people that make a place, and that’s why this piece should be read alongside her more well-known essays and stories.
I think of “Street Haunting,” an essay Woolf wrote in 1927 just a few years before The London Scene, which centers around an evening when Woolf decides she needs a pencil and uses this as an excuse to wander the early evening streets. Her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway is also aware of London: that story could not take place anywhere else. The connection between these works and “Portrait” is that they each start or end with an interior space. They also deliver some of the best last lines in English literature. Consider how the essay ends:
But even London itself could not keep Mrs. Crowe alive forever. It is a fact that one day Mrs. Crowe was not sitting in the armchair by the fire as the clock struck five … Mrs. Crowe is dead, and London — no, though London still exists, London will never be the same city again.
At first, I didn’t see why Mrs. Crowe’s death deserved to close out this collection. As an armchair traveler, I wanted writing to make me feel the physicality of a place I’d never visit in person. But the more I thought about it, I came to see how heavily this loss is weighted: the expected routine, the safe space of the drawing room, is gone forever.
I’ve realized that some of the best literature we have about cities isn’t about the street names and name-dropping, but the composite experience a place can give you.
Like the streets Google Maps keeps in its archive with snapshots of people mid-stride on their way in or out of the three-dimensional scene, “Portrait of a Londoner” preserves a moment. In that sense, it’s fitting that “Portrait” should end the collection. We are the guests at teatime, invited into a space that bridges the space between private home and public meeting place. The character of Mrs. Crowe is the way Woolf invites us to experience her city as she sees it. Woolf’s essay taught me that knowing a city from a window is just as important as meeting it head-on in the streets.
I haven’t been to London, but it’s the first place outside the U.S. I really wanted to go. After the thesis, maybe I’ll finally see the places I’ve read about. I’ve realized that some of the best literature we have about cities isn’t about the street names and name-dropping, but the composite experience a place can give you. And sometimes that experience takes place within.