“She sees with incredible clarity,” Aldous Huxley once remarked of Virginia Woolf, “but always as though through a sheet of plate glass; she never touches anything.” This evaluation seems especially accurate regarding The London Scene, a collection of lucid, insightful, and ironic essays on the peculiarities of life in London in the early 1930s. Woolf describes the city and its inhabitants with exceptional skill, but her sentiments are those of an observer, not a participant. These are the essays of a novelist: they portray the real world as if it were a fictional one.
The book begins at the docks, where ships return from their voyages around the world to deposit their goods: sugar, paper, iron, timber, wine, grain, and so many other things that will be sold to eager Londoners. Whatever romantic notions one might have of magnificent ocean liners are sure to vanish as one watches these ships come to rest here. “They lie captive,” Woolf writes, “like soaring and winged creatures who have got themselves caught by the leg and tethered on dry land.” Their cargo is unloaded in as efficient and thorough a manner as possible. Everything has a purpose, a function, an exact place to be; nothing is wasted or unaccounted for.
This is a gritty and materialistic London, a London Woolf describes as dismal, slimy, derelict, malodorous, and desolate. But even amid such unpleasantness, she appreciates little moments of beauty and sees the splendid things that have arisen. London is a city of contrasts and incongruencies, and Woolf delights in discovering them.
In the second essay, Woolf guides the reader through Oxford Street, a bustling, glittering thoroughfare full of modern enchantments. Everything is for sale here; the raw goods gathered from around the world have been turned into products for London shoppers. “Down in the docks one sees things in their crudity, their bulk, their enormity. Here in Oxford Street they have been refined and transformed.”
Woolf is skeptical of these things, perhaps even disgusted by them, but she shies away from saying so explicitly. Instead she remains aloof and ironic, saving any serious judgments for “the moralists.” She is clear about one thing, however: there is a certain cheapness to life on Oxford Street, an evanescence and frivolousness. “The mere thought of age, of solidity, of lasting for ever is abhorrent to Oxford Street.”
As an astute and detached observer of life in London, Woolf is especially attuned to its absurdities. While describing the oddities of Oxford Street, for example, she writes, “One infers that the desire of man for the tortoise, like the desire of the moth for the star, is a constant element in human nature. Nevertheless, to see a woman stop and add a tortoise to her string of parcels is perhaps the rarest sight that human eyes can look upon.” And later, in her essay “Great Men’s Houses,” she interrupts her dreary contemplation of housekeeping in Victorian London to make the following observation about certain writers: “Of artistic taste they may have none; but they seem always to possess a much rarer and more interesting gift—a faculty for housing themselves appropriately.” Many writers try to be funny because they are incapable of being serious. Woolf can be both, and in these essays she steps gracefully between the two.
One of the most remarkable things about Woolf's writing is how she is able to match her style to her subject. There is an elegant versatility to her prose, a quality that goes beyond chameleonic mimicry to demonstrate an extraordinary command of the English language. When describing the docks of London, for example, she is rough and unpolished; but when describing Keats’s little white house in Hampstead, she is appropriately poetic. In the fourth essay her tone becomes solemn as she visits St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. She separates herself from the present London scene to consider the past, the dead, the noble citizens of London’s history, and suddenly she is wistful and reverent. But by the fifth essay, as she observes the politicians in the House of Commons, her humor has returned. “How,” she wonders, “are any of these competent, well-groomed gentlemen going to turn into statues?”
At times Woolf seems a bit too concerned with appearances, but her superficiality, I suspect, is deliberate. Even so, her remarks about the statesmen in the House of Commons come across as unfairly judgmental. (Perhaps it is amusing to describe them as snub-nosed and red-jowled, but it is hardly relevant to the questions of virtue which she then considers.) Her irreverence becomes exaggerated, as if to overcompensate for any preceding solemnity, and what emerges is a worrisome display of detachment. One gets the sense that although the world might be affected by the decisions made in the House of Commons, Virginia Woolf is not.
But this is reading too deeply into what is essentially a shallow text. These essays, after all, were originally published in Good Housekeeping magazine. They are intended to be entertaining and informal guides to London life, not political, historical, or philosophical treatises. Nowhere is this more evident than in the final essay, “Portrait of a Londoner,” in which Woolf takes the reader inside the home of Mrs. Crowe, a woman whose life revolves around “a glorified version of village gossip.” Here we glimpse a private, personal London; we see actual people rather than abstract citizens. Upon first reading this essay I thought it was out of place among the other five, that it was an inappropriate way to end the book. Its tone seemed too whimsical, its subject matter too particular. But as I thought about it more I realized that it is in fact an elegant finishing touch, for it perfectly captures the essence of a significant part of London society. As Woolf concludes, “To know London not merely as a gorgeous spectacle, a mart, a court, a hive of industry, but as a place where people meet and talk, laugh, marry, and die, paint, write and act, rule and legislate, it was essential to know Mrs. Crowe.”
While describing the fleeting attractions of Oxford Street, Woolf writes, “The charm of modern London is that it is not built to last, it is built to pass.” The same could be said of these essays, for they are a pleasure to read largely because of their ephemeral nature. They have not endured as her other works have, nor were they intended to. The London Scene offers a playful glimpse of Woolf’s prodigious talents as a writer. It should not be read as a substitute for her more serious work, but as a diversion from it. For a far richer portrait of London, one must turn to her diaries and novels, in which the city truly comes to life. This is not to say that The London Scene is a failure, however. On the contrary, I believe it is a great success: for although it only offers a glimpse, it inspires one to continue looking.
A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Full Stop.