The London Scene by Virginia Woolf


In 1931 Virginia Woolf was was commissioned to write a series entitled “Six Articles on London Life” by the British edition of Good Housekeeping. Those six essays make up The London Scene.

Each piece is quite wonderful, painting beautiful pictures in vivid prose.

Some aspects of London that Virginia Woolf describes have vanished but others are unchanged and her words make me miss the city I left five years ago.

I have to share some of those words:

The Docks of London

“”Whither O splendid ship” the poet asked as he lay on the shore and watched the great sailing ship pass away on the horizon. Perhaps, as he imagined, it was making for some port in the Pacific; but one day almost certainly it must have heard an irresistable call and come past the North Foreland and the Reculvers, and entered the narrow waters of the Port of London, sailed past the low banks of Gravesend and Northfleet and Tilbury, up Erith Reach and Barking Reach and Galleon’s Reach, past the gas works and the sewage works till it found, for all the world like a car on a parking ground, a space reserved for it in the deep waters of the docks. There it furled its sails and dropped anchor.”

Oxford Street Tide

“The palaces of Oxford Street ignore what seemed good to the Greeks, the Elizabethans, to the eighteenth-century nobleman; they are overwhelmingly conscious that unless they can devise an architecture that shows off the dressing-case, the Paris frock, the cheap stockings and the jar of bath salts to perfection, their palaces, their mansions and motor-cars and the little Villas out at Croydon and Surbiton where their shop assistants live, not so badly after all, with a gramophone and wireless, and money to be spent at the movies – all this will be swept to ruin.”

Great Men’s Houses

“There are hills on the further sid in whose woods birds are singing, and some stoat or rabbit pauses, in dead silence, with paw lifted to listen intently to rustlings among the leaves. To look over London from this hill Keats came and Coleridge and Shakespeare, perhaps. And here at this very moment the usual young man sits on an iron bench clasping to his arms the usual young woman.”

Abbeys and Cathedrals

“Something of the splendour of St. Paul’s lies simply in its vast size, its colourless serenity. Mind and body seem both to widen in this enclosure, to expand under this huge canopy where the light is neither daylight nor lamplight, but an ambiguous element something between the two.”

“This is the House of Commons”

“Dipping and rising, moving and settling, the Commons reminds one of a flock of birds settling on a stretch of ploughed land. They never alight for more than a few minutes; some are always flying off, others are always settling again. And from the flock rises the gabbling, the cawing, the croaking of a flock of birds, disputing merrily and with occasional vivacity over some seed, worm or buried grain.”

Portrait of a Londoner

“When Mr Smedley, for instance, said that his daughter was engaged to Arthur Beecham, Mrs Crowe at once remarked that in that case she would be a cousin twice removed to Mrs Firebrace, and in a sense niece to Mrs Burns, by her first marriage with Mr Minchin of Blackwater Grange. But Mrs Crowe was not in the least a snob. She was merely a collector of relationships; and her amazing skill in this direction served to give a family and domestic character to her gatherings, for it is surprising how many people are 20th cousins, if they did but know it.”


Essay reading Challenge #1 to 6

3 responses

  1. Well, I have never had the pleasure of living in London (although it does remain a dream), but I have had the delight of visiting the city across the pond twice — so far (I should make another trip in 2010). I had no idea that Virginia Woolf wrote such a lovely collection – but I will definitely go in search of these essays and add them to my collection. Thank you for bringing them to my attention.

  2. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: March 21, 2009 at Semicolon

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