The London Scene by Virginia Woolf

londonscene

I love reading other people’s impressions of my home city, and I particularly enjoy experiencing the London of the past through the eyes of those who actually walked the streets when horse drawn cabs were the main form of transport and the glowing orbs of gas light along the newly cut Embankment were a novelty. I can’t imagine a London without the London Eye, without the crush at Oxford Circus tube station, and without Southbank and its brutalist architecture, but there was a time before all of these and there will be a time in the future when the London I know now will have become a thing of the past, and new structures would have become my Eye and my Southbank. Such is the ever changing nature of cities; constantly evolving to the needs of new generations, they dissolve and are rebuilt again and again upon the footprints of the past.

Woolf’s choices of topic in this very pretty volume of essays are rather eclectic; from the long gone docksides to the all too familiar scenes of frantic, surging crowds of shoppers on Oxford Street, she offers a snapshot of her London, already much changed in the early 1930s from what it must have been in her Victorian youth. There are many observations expressed beautifully in the way only Woolf can, that elevate the banal to the sublime: ‘what with artificial light and mounds of silk and gleaming omnibuses, a perpetual sunset seems to brood over the Marble Arch – the garishness and gaudiness of the great rolling ribbon of Oxford Street has its fascination.’ Westminster Abbey becomes a thing of ethereal beauty through her pen: ‘Lights and shadows are changing and conflicting every moment. Blue, gold and violet pass, dappling, quickening, fading. The grey stone, ancient as it is, changes like a live thing under the incessant ripple of changing light.’ The statues of the Houses of Parliament take on a life of their own: ‘white statues, gazing from white eyes at the old scenes of stir and bustle,’ and Hampstead is captured perfectly: ‘Hampstead has always remained not a suburb or a piece of antiquity engulfed in the modern world, but a place with a character peculiar to itself.’ There are so many delightful observations that had me contemplating familiar sights in new ways, and determined to go and revisit the sights Woolf so evocatively describes.

However, there was one aspect of this collection of essays that left me feeling disappointed. The more I read of and about Woolf, the more I am disgusted by her snobbery. I remember reading the marvellous Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light several years ago, and being shocked by the highly unpleasant prejudices Woolf held towards the working and middle classes. Here these attitudes rear their ugly heads once more; the ‘middle class woman…grab[s] and pounce[s] with disgusting greed’ and the shop assistants live in ‘little villas out at Croydon and Surbiton…not so badly after all, with a gramophone and wireless, and money to spend at the movies’ – because obviously that is all middle class people aspire to. Her life in the day of a ‘typical’ Londoner is that of an upper class woman with a horrid little maid, who spends her life at leisure gossiping and enjoying the endless whirl of London life. No working class people feature – apart from the horrid little maid – despite the majority of Londoners in the early 1930s  living hand to mouth in decrepit housing, with a shopping trip to Oxford Street or the tube fare to Hampstead to poke around in Keats’ House an impossible dream. Woolf makes no attempt to see the London beyond her own highly privileged milieu, and her assumptions about the mean little lives lived by the grasping middle classes left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. For the London Woolf describes is a London of rose tinted glasses and unthinking privilege, revealing through what it omits a city of massive social divide and convenient blindness of the rich to the needs of their impoverished neighbours. Plus ca change, it seems.

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29 comments

  1. I’ve read a lot of Woolf but not The London Scene, and you make me think I need to read it in order to know London better in the way I’ve always wanted to. Couldn’t agree with you more about Woolf’s snobbism – intellectual snobbism as well as social snobbism, despite her genius and the way she makes her world come alive, it’s why I have never loved her as I do Jane Austen…who (as Woolf herself was aware) accomplished more: and without such stratospheric levels of snobbism. She was too interested in people and the human comedy to be truly snobbish, though of course she couldn’t avoid having some patches of it. Woolf I think was more interested in herself, charting her own every reaction (brilliantly, but…)

    1. Yes Diana that is exactly the distinction – Woolf was only interested in herself. She seemed to have the sort of cool detachment that is perfect for observation but not so much empathising with others. As much as I love her way with words, I can’t help but miss the heart. That’s why I can re-read Austen with pleasure but often find Woolf a chore.

  2. Living Downunder I suspect I don’t have the same cultural cringe I might have if I was from the UK. My take on it is that in reading this book, we are observing London life through Virginia’s eyes, so it is her impressions of London we read about, which are, of course, taken from her more privileged position in society. I suspect her snobbish observations based on hearsay and assumption cannot be fully understood in the context of our modern society. In other words her view of the world was limited, her snobbishness was in assuming otherwise. Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader explores this concept.

    1. Interesting idea, Kerry, about her inability to see beyond her own worldview. Can we criticise someone for that? I think so…but I take your point that Woolf was writing about her London, and I can’t expect her to be able to recreate a London she never knew. Even so…a little less mockery of others would have been appreciated!

  3. Thanks for the heads up because I didn’t know about this one. I think Woolf’s attitude was common at the time – middle class was sneered at and working class didn’t exist. Yes, we don’t always like the attitudes of our writers but I tend to make allowances because of the beauty of her prose.

    1. Oh yes, of course it was – she was a product of her time and I do bear that in mind when I read her work…however, for someone who was supposedly so intelligent, educated and ‘enlightened’, she shows a remarkable lack of ability to appreciate the value in the lives of those outside of her own circle! I expect better of her!

  4. she sounds like a total snob. I read only one book of hers Mrs. Dalloway and I found her voice insufferable. I thought I was the only one who felt this way about her.

  5. If Virginia found store bought cake to be vulgar then it comes as no surprise she was incredibly snobbish about people or places outside of her sphere. But oh what a shame. Having said that, whenever my neighbour brings me back wool from her vacations I say any colour will do but nothing vulgar. What does that say about me?!
    I so enjoyed both of the books you mention in your post but have placed a hold on The London Scene for another look. With each trip to London I get further and further off of the beaten path which has only enhanced my fascination for the city. Virginia had it all at her feet and probably missed most of it.

    1. I think we’re all guilty of a bit of snobbery, Darlene! Me more than most! Pots and kettles spring to mind…Yes. Nothing new in here for you to discover, that’s for sure. Her London walks probably didn’t go much further than Chelsea or Bloomsbury!

  6. Ooooh, I don’t like this discussion – I LOVE Virginia Woolf! Was she really that bad?! Or is a certain snobbishness just typical for her time? I think we should keep in mind under what circumstances people who were in the privileged situation to write and live exclusively for their art were born and raised. And consider when she was born. The world changed so radically after 1918, and maybe we have to consider that Woolf was a child of the 19th century. Even if she developped in quite a radical way, too – think of her influence on the feminist movement…
    So maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh with her? Please?!
    And: how many non-snobbish writers are there in those years? All that come to my mind without much thinking are at least as snobbish as her or even more (maybe I read the wrong stuff?). Here in my country, there was Thomas Mann. I adore him, but he was definitely a snob. And what about Marcel Proust? Or Vita Sackville-West? Stefan Zweig?
    (I would love to learn about non-snob writers – any ideas, dear fellow-commenters?)
    And consider one more thing: at least, she is mentioning those working people at all. For many other contemporaries, maids or “common” housewifes were invisible.
    So, now coming to the book at last ;-): I loved it. Accidentally, I read it only a few weeks ago for the first time and I really liked the pictures, smells, and associations it evoked. And I liked the shortness of it, also – I am a little overwhelmed by her novels and it was great to enjoy this special “Woolfness” in a form I could easily manage on the train.
    Love your blog, Rachel!

    1. Hello Martina! Have you ever read ‘The Intellectuals and the Masses’ by John Carey? I was deeply upset by it at the time, but now I feel I can acknowledge Woolf was a snob without minding too much. Of course I’d love it if she were perfect in every way, and more liberal than so many of her peers, but she’s not. :)

      I think that it’s worth remembering that, although she might not have been aware of her class attitudes – maybe she was, I don’t know – she was intensely self-critical in her diaries and some of her unkindness may have stemmed from insecurity. I can think of many things I’ve said or written which wouldn’t show me in the best light… Also, I haven’t read this book but I think that these essays were originally journalistic pieces written for Good Housekeeping, VW’s knowledge of her audience might have informed some of her expressions. But maybe that’s excusing her too much?

      1. Thank you, Helen! I will order the book you suggested on Monday as well as the one by Alison Light Rachel mentioned. Instead of reading just the novels, it might do me some good to think about them from a different point of view.
        (And I am delighted to have found a Goudge reader! Thought I am the only one! I wanted to comment on your blog, but couldn’t!)

      2. Thanks Helen – excellent point about the audience of the articles, though that does make me a little surprised as surely the women reading Good Housekeeping would have been the ‘grasping’ middle class women looking for bargains in Selfridges? Or was GH aimed at a slightly more chi-chi audience back then? I am hard on Woolf, I know, but as I have said to others in the comments, it’s because I expect better of someone who had such access to enlightened thought.

    2. Hi Martina! I think there is much to be said for her being a product of her time. And she is certainly not alone in her sentiments – she was typical of most people of her class and status I suppose. However that is what grates me – I expect her to be more liberal and open minded – and I find it strange that she wasn’t. You’d have thought that someone so intelligent and thoughtful would have been kinder to those who were less privileged, wouldn’t you? I just can’t forgive her for it, despite her brilliance!

      1. Virginia Woolf was extremely liberal, get your head out of your own elitist vision and read more. I would think that as someone who calls themselves a “book snob” you would be more in touch with Woolf’s modernist view of writing. Maybe read a bit more on an author before your condemn their position and beliefs. Try reading “Modern Fiction,” ” A Room of One’s Own,” or “Three Guineas.” Or, if you find her writing so insufferable, try Hermione Lee’s biography on Woolf – there is no human being on earth today that understands the inner workings of Virginia Woolf’s mind than Lee – she has literally dedicated her life’s work to it!

        Woolf was extremely open minded about politics, religion, sexuality, and social classes – I guess you just don’t understand her subtle writing technique that constantly works at questioning the social systems and illustrating the problems among the classes.

        Some book snob.

      2. Hi Tamara, thanks for contributing so positively (!) to the discussion on this thread. I am sure Virginia Woolf was open minded in many ways, but it is an established fact, backed up by her own writings and by people’s experiences of her, that her liberality did not extend to the lower classes. I’ve read everything you mention and more and my opinion has been formulated by a thorough exploration of her writings and of her life. Just because I don’t agree with your perception of Woolf, doesn’t make me ignorant or elitist and I’m sorry that you feel the need to be so aggressive towards those who don’t share your opinions.

  7. What a gorgeous looking edition. I too love Virginia Woolf but know what snobs the whole Bloomsbury group was. They all were enclosed in their own circle so they never experienced other people’s lives ie those who were not part of their artistic and lover swopping group. They were like the Mitfords all snobs and sure of their own place in society but nevertheless I love Woolf and her circle and count my visits to Charleston and Rodmill as highlights of my life!

    1. The snobbery doesn’t put me off my fascination either, Enid! There is still something irresistibly appealing about the Bloomsbury set, despite their faults!

  8. What an interesting discussion. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love the passion in your book reviews Rachel.

  9. I was tempted by this book when Christmas shopping, but resisted, thank you for reminding me. I’ve found the comments here fascinating & thought provoking. Maybe one should read this & Maud Pember Reeves Round about a pound a week together?

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