Virginia Woolf is of course very well-known as one of the most important Modernist writers. Her novels, including The Waves, To the Lighthouse, and Mrs Dalloway, continue to enjoy a strong readership, and she is firmly placed as canonical in the British literary tradition.
Her essays, with the possible exception of ‘A Room of One’s Own’ — a seminal text for the women’s movement at the beginning of the twentieth century — as well as a series of texts on literature such as ‘Modern Fiction’, ‘The Art of Fiction’, ‘Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown’, and ‘The Russian Point of View’ — are less well-known today. Woolf, however, was a very prolific writer of essays, and her two The Common Reader series (both anthologies of her essays), had a run of over 50,000 copies each when they were published.
‘Street Haunting’ (1930) is worth reading because of the ways in which Woolf experiments with literary techniques that became firmly associated with her, as part of her signature style. She builds the narrative framework for the essay around a simple walk around London at the beginning of the twentieth century. The aim of the walk is ostensibly the need to buy a pencil, but this narrative framework really has the function of allowing the essayist (a flaneuse in this case) to absorb and reflect on the cityscape and the peculiar individuals who inhabit it.
What is particularly impressive in this text is how Woolf experiments with voice and point of view. Before Woolf, the personal essay was traditionally associated with a strong, imposing voice (often male!), but Woolf manages to one at the same time create a voice and then dissolve it through weaving in and across different forms of consciousness that the essayist encounters on her walk. Her description of a ‘dwarf’ buying shoes is particularly striking as Woolf manages to capture both the exhilaration the woman feels at admiring her perfectly shaped feet as well as the pathos of her return to the less-than-fabled world outside the shop:
The shop girl good-humouredly must have said something flattering, for suddenly her face lit up in ecstasy. But, after all, the giantesses, benevolent though they were, had their own affairs to see to; she must make up her mind; she must decide which to choose. At length, the pair was chosen and, as she walked out between her guardians, with the parcel swinging from her finger, the ecstasy faded, knowledge returned, the old peevishness, the old apology came back, and by the time she had reached the street again she had become a dwarf only.
Also worth noting is the way London itself is conjured up by the essayist. It is both a London we recognise and we love, but also a city that appears in front of us, through the essayist, in a new light:
How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley. But this is London, we are reminded; high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow light — windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars — lamps; this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its peace, is only a London square, set about by offices and houses where at this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless correspondences; or more suffusedly the firelight wavers and the lamplight falls upon the privacy of some drawing-room, its easy chairs, its papers, its china, its inlaid table, and the figure of a woman, accurately measuring out the precise number of spoons of tea which —— She looks at the door as if she heard a ring downstairs and somebody asking, is she in?
There is, of course, much more to say about this essay, but the aim of the blog is to give you a taste. If you liked it, read the essay: ‘Street Haunting’, and come back to the blog for more, soon.