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The Oxford Handbook of Virginia Woolf

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18 The Essays

Beth C. Rosenberg is Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is the author of Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson: Common Readers (1995) and co-editor of Virginia Woolf and the Essay (1997). She is currently working on a comparative study of Virginia Woolf and Elena Ferrante.

  • Published: 11 August 2021
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Woolf’s essays fall into many genres, including book reviews, literary criticism, biography, memoir, and occasional pieces. As a student of the essay and its history, she studied the form from Montaigne, Hazlitt, Pater, and Beerbohm and through their work she learned to make the essay her own, reinventing the genre to argue for a uniquely female and feminist perspective. Woolf’s deep understanding of the essay’s form, her drive to construct a female literary history and female narrative form, culminate in A Room of One’s Own (1929), where she employs a feminist rhetoric of affect and emotion. Woolf’s particular contribution to the essay includes a new kind of literary history that focuses on women, gender, and politics. Hers is a uniquely feminine and feminist voice created through a visceral and sensual rhetoric that addresses the body’s response to experience and exploits emotions in order to persuade her readers.

Virginia Woolf’s essays fall into many genres, including book reviews, literary criticism, biography, memoir, and occasional pieces. Her topics range from the home of Thomas Carlyle in ‘Great Men’s Houses’ (1932) to aerial battles in ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’ (1940) to the nature of sickness in ‘On Being Ill’ (1926). She documents seemingly trivial events, like a moth’s struggle to escape a window frame in ‘The Death of the Moth’ (1942) or a walk to a stationer’s store in ‘Street Haunting’ (1927). Her memoirs ‘A Sketch of the Past’ (1939) and ‘Am I a Snob?’ (1936) are highly personal narrative essays. She theorizes the nature of fiction in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1923) and ‘Modern Fiction’ (1925). She writes the biographical essays in ‘Lives of the Obscure’ and essays on women writers who were unstudied in Woolf’s time, such as ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’ and ‘Dorothy Wordsworth’, as well as women writers she revered like ‘Jane Austen’ and ‘George Eliot’. Woolf’s deep understanding of the essay’s form and history, her drive to construct a female literary history and female narrative form, culminate in A Room of One’s Own (1929), where she employs a feminist rhetoric of affect and emotion. Woolf’s particular contribution to the essay includes a new kind of literary history that focuses on women, gender, and politics. Hers is a uniquely feminine and feminist voice that is created through a visceral and sensual rhetoric that addresses the body’s response to experience and exploits emotions in order to persuade her readers.

As a student of the essay and its history, Woolf studied the form from the only models available to her, and these were almost exclusively male. Montaigne, Hazlitt, Pater, and Beerbohm are among her greatest models—and through their work she learns to make the essay her own, turning from the masculine tradition that she was trained in and reinventing the genre to argue for a uniquely female and feminist perspective. Woolf’s theory of the essay, what it should say and do, includes an emphasis on voice and personality, a conversational tone, and a style that is clear yet visual and aesthetic. Ultimately, she breaks from her predecessors by expanding nineteenth-century aestheticism to include tropes of emotion—anger, love, and enthusiasm, among others—that are commonly associated with women. Rather than weaken her rhetoric, the use of emotion empowers it, making her prose appeal to a visceral and bodily knowledge in the reader.

Woolf’s essays do not deploy the detached critical tone or a sense of absolute authority that her friend T.S. Eliot affected. Compared to her contemporaries, Woolf’s essays were considered impressionistic and antiquarian. Her casual conversational tone, where the reader is her peer, and her subjective responses to art and life were misunderstood and dismissed. She strove for a personal voice that the common reader understands. She refers to the soul, the inner self, but it is really the psychological and aesthetic self that she describes; Woolf’s inner self is defined by her gender and, through style and voice, she presents a female experience. She also uses fictional techniques, creating story out of her subject, to engage the reader and stimulate both the imagination and emotions. Her form of argumentation is based on an intuitive logic, where she emphasizes affective responses to cultural and economic conditions. This mode of writing, for Woolf, is the antidote to the masculine essay of reason, logic, and ego, flaws she found even in the male essayists she adored.

Woolf’s earliest exposure to the essay was through her father, Leslie Stephen. Stephen, an influential essayist and biographer in his own right, introduced the idea of the essay as an integral part of literary history. Not only did he write full-length biographies of figures such as Samuel Johnson and George Eliot, but he published essays on literature, history, biography, and agnosticism. Woolf was intimately familiar with his Hours in a Library (1874–1879), An Agnostic’s Apology and Other Essays (1893), Studies of a Biographer (1898–1902), and his contributions as editor to The Dictionary of National Biography (1882–1891). Through Stephen, Woolf was introduced to the notion of literary history, which is not only a guiding principle of many of her essays but essential to her use and critique of the essay form.

Woolf began her essay-writing career as a book reviewer. 1 While she published reviews as early as 1904, and while, from the start, she strove to do more than simply assess a book but to put it in a larger context and develop her point of view as a critic, she always had the essay and its form in mind. Some of her early works, such as ‘Haworth, November, 1904’ (1904), ‘Journeys in Spain’ (1904), and ‘A Walk by Night’ (1905), take the tone of her later more personal and occasional essays. The style of the book reviews is more conventional, limited to space, topic, and an editor’s hand. The essays, on the other hand, have a clear and definitive voice, point of view, and personality, and they engage with the reader in a more affective and sensory way. Her apprenticeship in essay writing taught Woolf to use greater aesthetic and visual language to make abstract ideas and experiences concrete; she also develops and refines the novelist’s sense of story and character in her non-fiction. It is in the essays too that she follows her attraction to nineteenth-century aestheticism, which she learns from Pater and Hazlitt, and where she vividly articulates the rhetoric of emotional response to and in non-fiction.

Woolf revised and collected some of her reviews and published them as collections of essays, The Common Readers , first series (1925) and second series (1932). Anne Fernald notes the ‘difficulty in comprehending this impressive collection as a whole’, arguing that the essays are organized according to a voice and point of view that belong to ‘a kind of every person, a blank common reader’ and yet Woolf ‘slips in’ women writers and unknown female histories. 2 Future work on Woolf’s self-edited collections will help us to understand her as an essay writer with agency and purpose, one who makes her own aesthetic and structural choices, not the passive, imitative subject of a male-dominated literary history.

Early critics such as Winifred Holtby and Ruth Gruber recognized the significance of Woolf’s essays. 3 Leonard Woolf would later collect the essays in four volumes and publish them between 1966 and 1967. 4 Leonard’s Collected Essays , as Andrew McNeillie points out, was a kind of extended Common Reader , 5 without annotations or even notes on date and place of first publication. However, in 1989 McNeillie began to edit a six-volume series of collected essays, including footnotes and appendixes. It took over twenty years for the collection to be completed, with Stuart N. Clarke editing the last two volumes. 6

The 1970s and 1980s focused more on Woolf’s feminism, politics, and novels. 7 None address Woolf’s use of the essay to create literary history, let alone a specifically female history. Woolf began to articulate her theories of the essay long before she wrote her own. Her focus, throughout her essay-writing career, was on voice and the speaking ‘I’. She rejected what she calls the ‘egotistical’ I of her contemporaries to argue for a more authentic personality that could communicate her experience to her audience, whether that experience was aesthetic, personal, or in the world. Woolf believed that essays should deal with truth, not fact, reflect the movement and change of our being, be passionate and emotional, have a ‘fierce attachment to an idea’ ( E 4 224), and, ultimately, give pleasure to their readers. In the 1920s, she not only refined her first-person voice but brought a more self-consciously gendered perspective, first by writing about women and their unknown histories, and then by finding the means to create a uniquely feminine subjective voice and rhetorical style.

The female voices and styles she creates in ‘Street Haunting’ and ‘The Death of the Moth’, for example, illustrate her innovative approach to the essay. Both essays are ostensibly about small, trivial subjects and use first person to suggest an intimacy with the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. Though the underlying themes about death and the nature of the self are abstract, the language she uses in both essays is concrete and specific. The power of a moth that struggles against death is compared to the human struggle: ‘One could watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death’ ( E 6 444). Woolf is concerned with the metaphysical, and her use of first person brings a personal tone often associated with the feminine. A walk to buy a pencil can allow us to ‘leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men’ ( E 4 490–1). Here the narrator talks of empathy for ‘those wild beasts, our fellow men’, also a traditionally female emotion. Metaphor and connotation, diction, the appeal to the reader’s senses to see, hear, and feel what she is describing, allow her style to become highly aesthetic as it persuades on intuitive and emotional levels through the colour of her prose.

To write her own feminine and feminized version of the essay, Woolf culled from her male predecessors techniques that they themselves did not identify as ‘feminine’. From Pater, Beerbohm, Montaigne, and Hazlitt, she learns techniques that bring a confidential trust between the author and her reader: a voice that reflects the personality of the author, the desire to create pleasure for the reader with a conversational and accessible tone, movement of thought, artful, sensuous, and emotional language, and the use of a painter’s visual imagery. Though she gives the most detailed attention to male essayists, she is aware of her own historical position. Woolf applies the lessons she learns to many essays about individual woman writers and the obscure women who made writing possible for men, including ‘Lives of the Obscure’, ‘The Duchess of Newcastle’, and ‘Outlines’ in The Common Reader , but it is not until A Room of One’s Own that she confronts the problems of writing as a woman about women through a distinctly female rhetoric where emotion and affect become modes of persuasion.

Woolf’s more detailed thoughts on the essay’s power to move its readers are sketched out in ‘The Modern Essay’, written in 1922 for the Times Literary Supplement ( TLS ), which covers fifty years of essay writing, is historical and chronological in structure, and theoretically frames Woolf’s ideas about how ‘certain principles appear to control the chaos’ ( E 4 216) of the essay’s form. In this essay she writes of two Victorian essayists, Pater and Beerbohm, whom she greatly admires. She spends a considerable amount of space defining the history and nature of the essayist’s audience. According to Woolf, the most significant change in audience came at the turn of the nineteenth century, when the Victorian reader changed to a modern one. The change ‘came from a small audience of cultivated people to a larger audience of people who were not quite so cultivated’ ( E 4 220). The modern ‘public needs essays as much as ever … The demand for the light middle not exceeding fifteen hundred words, or in special cases seventeen hundred and fifty, much exceeds the supply’ ( E 4 222). The ‘light middle’ brow reader wants to read but hasn’t the time to wade through a beautifully wrought essay of more than fifteen hundred words. Woolf states that to ‘write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heart-breaking task for men who know good writing from bad’ ( E 4 223). The challenge for the modern essayist is how to bring pleasure to a reader preoccupied by modern life while revealing the true personality of the writer.

The guiding principle of the essay is that it should ‘give pleasure’, and everything in the essay ‘must be subdued to that end’. A good essay will ‘lay us under a spell with its first word’ and in ‘the interval we may pass through the most various experiences’. It must ‘lap us about and draw its curtain across the world’. This is seldom accomplished by the essayist, Woolf claims, though the reader is partially to blame: ‘Habit and lethargy have dulled his palate’. To produce pleasure in the reader, the essayist must know ‘how to write’. This is not just a matter of reproducing knowledge on a page, but an essay ‘must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture’ ( E 4 216). Though the essay’s purpose is to reproduce knowledge, pleasure is derived from the writer’s ability to communicate knowledge while nothing blatant, explicit, or jarring appears on the writing’s surface.

The knowledge communicated is ‘some fierce attachment to an idea. It is on the back of an idea, something believed in with conviction or seen with precision and thus compelling words to shape it’. The good essay ‘must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out’ ( E 4 224). The way the essay does this is to let the personality of the writer come through and embrace the reader, an act seemingly so easy but difficult to achieve. How does an essay achieve its ‘permanent quality’? It is through concrete and visual language, according to Woolf, that the essayist can provoke an affective response from her reader. No phrase is wasted, no word is lost. Her study of the essay’s history, and her attention to her male precursors, taught her how to use language to move her reader’s emotions.

The first writer who taught Woolf how to appeal to affect is Walter Pater, and her response to him defines a style she tries to achieve in her own essays. Perry Meisel’s study on Woolf and Pater establishes Pater’s influence on Woolf by way of Pater’s aestheticism. He traces Pater’s figurative language, particularly the image of the ‘hard gemlike flame’ of aesthetic experience, in Woolf’s novels. 8 Her notion of the ‘moment’, Meisel argues, is Pater’s influence. 9 Woolf also learned from Pater the power of nineteenth-century aestheticism, its use of colourful rhetoric as well as its focus on the reader’s visceral and bodily experience of language. Woolf borrowed from Pater techniques that make her prose appeal to our senses—taste, sight, sound, touch—to give something other than a concrete fact. It is through our bodies’ senses that Woolf communicates to us. If our senses help to define our experience, then the emphasis of emotions, too, are expressions of our physical bodies and part of the vocabulary of aestheticism.

Woolf describes Pater’s aestheticism and how he uses it in his essay on Leonardo da Vinci:

[H]e has somehow contrived to get his material fused. He is a learned man, but it is not knowledge of Leonardo that remains with us, but a vision. … Only here, in the essay, where the bounds are so strict and facts have to be used in their nakedness, the true writer like Walter Pater makes the limitations yield their own quality. Truth will give it authority; from its narrow limits he will get shape and intensity. ( E 4 218)

Even within the conventions of the essay, which limits Pater to ‘facts’, he is able to give these facts their own quality that Woolf names ‘vision’ and ‘truth’. These abstract qualities—not objective facts—are what the essay writer must strive for. Even as Woolf moves through the history of the essay into the twentieth century, she demands these qualities and ultimately passes harsh judgement on the essay writer who can’t achieve them.

Woolf goes on to quote images from Pater’s work, like ‘ “the smiling women and the motion of the great waters” ’, as examples of how Pater’s concrete language appeals to our senses and emotions; his writing reminds us ‘that we have ears and we have eyes’. Pater’s style is one where ‘every atom of its surface shines’ ( E 4 218), a style Woolf finds grounded in the physical world and is also found in her own intensely visual style, her use of metaphor and connotation, and her desire to give the reader a visceral, bodily experience of language. If Pater has flaws for Woolf, it is his insistence on detachment and objectivity in his tone and his inability to write as himself, to use the human, individual voice to speak to his audience.

Unlike Pater, Woolf’s essays distinguish themselves by their constant intimate tone, loaning itself to a more feminine point of view. Her use of first person, singular and plural, is deliberate. It is a rhetoric that appeals to affect and emotion, the visceral response that moves the reader along a train of thought. She learns this from Beerbohm who, unlike Pater, is an essayist who cultivates a speaking voice in his essays. Woolf writes that in Beerbohm’s essays readers of the 1890s found themselves ‘addressed by a voice which seemed to belong to a man no larger than themselves’. Beerbohm uses the ‘essayist’s most proper but most dangerous delicate tool’ by bringing ‘personality into literature’. He does so ‘consciously and purely’ ( E 4 220). We know that the ‘spirit of personality permeates every word he writes’. It is only ‘by knowing how to write that [Beerbohm] can make use in literature of [the] self; the self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous opponent’. There are many essayists who show ‘trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print’, though Beerbohm ‘possessed to perfection’ the art necessary to bring personality to the essay ( E 4 221). Although the use of first person, especially to write about experience, is typically understood as the feminine mode of writing, Woolf learns from Beerbohm how to bring personality and voice to her writing. Her use of a personal voice is most obvious, for example, in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924), where she speaks in first person to pull her reader into her experience of observation on the train. In this essay she also brings to our attention the imaginative impulse that goes into creating a personality, as she does with the character of Mrs Brown, whose personality is so clearly defined that it resonates in the mind long after we have finished reading.

Woolf continued to develop her narrative voice and personality studying other essayists. Two years after publishing ‘The Modern Essay’ Woolf published ‘Montaigne’, which was first a review of Essays of Montaigne for the TLS in 1924 and later published in The Common Reader . She explains the vitality of voice in Montaigne’s essays. We ‘never doubt for an instant that his book was himself’ ( E 4 72). He brings art to ‘this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfections’ ( E 4 71). The revelation of the self, to ‘tell the truth about oneself, to discover oneself near at hand’ through language is ‘not easy’ ( E 4 71). Montaigne teaches Woolf that the essayist does not condescend or tell others how to live their lives, but rather traces the flexibility of identity and its ability to reflect self-consciousness in the narrative.

When Woolf writes of Montaigne’s determination to represent his ‘soul’, she is referring to his subjective self, his personality, his voice. This inner self is ‘the strangest of creatures … so complex, so indefinite’ that a man might spend his life trying to discover her ( E 4 74). Yet there is the ‘pleasure of pursuit’ of the self. Montaigne can say nothing of ‘other people’s souls’ since he can ‘say nothing … about his own’ ( E 4 74). Woolf learns from Montaigne how to focus on her personality, her own truth and perception of the world and experience; it is the art of presenting a unique self through the writer’s voice that Woolf practices throughout her essay-writing career.

Montaigne’s essays are then an ‘attempt to communicate a soul’ for ‘Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness’ ( E 4 76). A version of this assertion will reappear in Mrs Dalloway (1925), when Septimus contemplates suicide and his message for the world in Regents Park ( MD 75). The ability to communicate the self is healthy, truthful, and brings contentment. But real communication is difficult. The successful essayist can share her thoughts, ‘to go down boldly’ into the self and ‘bring to light those hidden thoughts which are most diseased; to conceal nothing; to pretend nothing’, to tell her own truth and therefore connect with others ( E 4 76). The essayist’s most authentic communications reveal what is most difficult for the reader to acknowledge—dark thoughts that potentially tell us things about ourselves we don’t want to be aware of. We are all ‘ordinary men and women’ in Montaigne’s essays ( E 4 77). Montaigne shows Woolf how to look deeply into her own responses and feelings, to communicate those to her readers without demanding that they follow her.

For Woolf, William Hazlitt brings together voice and style, and he models for her how to make her language visual and engaging. His essays are written with the language of a visual artist and stylist. It is Hazlitt’s self-consciousness as he writes that Woolf feels is his greatest contribution to the essay form. In her essay ‘William Hazlitt’, a revised TLS review that was republished in The Common Reader: Second Series , she introduces Hazlitt’s essays favourably: ‘His essays are emphatically himself. He has not reticence and he has no shame. He tells us exactly what he thinks’ ( E 5 494). He also tells us ‘exactly what he feels’ ( E 5 494) and has ‘the most intense consciousness of his own experience’ ( E 5 494).

In addition to Hazlitt the thinker there is ‘Hazlitt the artist’. This man is ‘sensuous and emotional, with his feeling for colour and touch … with his sensibility to all those emotions which disturb the reason’ ( E 5 498). As she did with Pater, Woolf comments on the aesthetic qualities of Hazlitt’s essays. She calls attention to the sensuality and emotionality of his language, his ‘feeling for the colour’ of language, and how his ‘sensibility’ is open to all ‘emotions’ that overcome reason ( E 5 499). Hazlitt’s inner conflict is reflected in his style as he vacillates between thinker and artist. In his essays, we sense the movement of his thought: ‘[H]ow violently we are switched from reason to rhapsody—how embarrassingly our austere thinker falls upon our shoulders and demands our sympathy’ ( E 5 499). It is this movement of tone and mood, from logic to emotion, which Woolf admires.

It is Hazlitt’s visual language that Woolf attempts to imitate. Hazlitt has the ‘great gift of picturesque phrasing’ that allows him to “float … over a stretch of shallow thought’ ( E 5 500). He has the ‘freest use of imagery and colour’ and the ‘painter’s imagery’ that keeps his reader engaged. And though there are weaknesses in his essays—they can be ‘dry, garish … monotonous’—each essay has ‘its stress of thought, its thrust of insight, its moment of penetration’. His aim is to ‘communicate his own fervour’, and according to Woolf he succeeds ( E 5 501). Hazlitt’s ability to articulate his ideas through his visual language, to pursue his ideas in the finest detail, allow ‘the parts of his complex and tortured spirit [to] come together in a truce of amity and concord’ ( E 5 502). In the end, there ‘is then no division, no discord, no bitterness’. Hazlitt’s ‘faculties work in harmony and unity’. His sentences are constructed with determination and energy: ‘Sentence follows sentence with the healthy ring and chime of a blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil’. His ‘words glow and the sparks fly; gently they fade and the essay is over’ ( E 5 503). Hazlitt is a craftsman who cobbles his words together with such expertise that they explode with energy. He brings passion to his essays through his imagery, figurative language, and consistency of style. The tension between the thinker and artist is refined and unified with his prose. These qualities become useful for Woolf’s essays and her feminist rhetoric.

Woolf adapts the essay form to express a woman’s experience, sometimes her own, sometimes others’, in literature, education, marriage, and the domestic sphere. From her male precursors and teachers she borrows their more ‘feminine’ and unconventional techniques of style and rhetoric. The freedom to use an individual voice and personality, to show thoughts moving and changing, to communicate a truth that is not a fact, to use language visually and sensually to appeal to our visceral senses are the lessons she learned. These things are used most forcefully in A Room of One’s Own , which on the one hand is a personal essay that utilizes first person, and other hand is a treatise, a call for a collective history of women in culture, meant to appeal to a woman’s sensibility and experience. She not only lists a range of writers who might be considered part of her great tradition of women’s writing—Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës, among others—but she analyses the historic and socioeconomic conditions of women in society. Woolf introduces specific themes, such as female friendship and love, women’s education, the desire to write, and the inability to do so, financial, social, and economic barriers the female artist must confront. These themes have been well discussed by feminist and modernist literary scholars from the time of its publication to the present. In addition to the critical issues that confront women writers, Woolf addresses other innovative and provocative qualities in this long and experimental essay. It is Woolf’s reinvention of the essay form that really reflects her genius and ingenuity. Unlike male essayists before her, she brings gender to her understanding of form, and she goes beyond their influences by adding to and amplifying the rhetoric of affect and emotions.

Written in 1929, A Room of One’s Own challenges our understanding of the personal essay with its mixture of non-fiction and fiction. 10 From the first paragraphs, Woolf undermines our assumptions about the narrator in her essay. Based on a series of lectures Woolf gave in 1928 at Newnham and Girton, the essay immediately calls into question the authority of the speaker: ‘ “I” is only a convenient term for somebody who has not real being’ ( ARO 4). It contains a full-voiced narrative persona whose thought represents the movement of an active and lively mind in direct conversation with her audience.

The accessibility of the speaker is found in her playful tone: ‘But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?’ ( ARO 3). The first sentence is an equivocation, an uncertainty, a small rebellion. We know from the start that Woolf does not plan to make us secure in her meaning. Her narrative wanders like the river she sits by to contemplate her subject. The narrator alludes to Montaigne’s tenet that truth and fact are not the same things. She will not be able to tell her audience the ‘truth’ about women and fiction; nor will she be able to hand them ‘after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of [their] notebooks’ ( ARO 3). This is because ‘fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact’, and she proposes ‘making use of all the liberties and licences of a novelist’ to tell the ‘story’ of the two days that preceded her lecture ( ARO 4).

She tells us that hers is an ‘opinion upon one minor point’, an idea she is fiercely attached and loyal to throughout the essay, ‘that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ ( ARO 3). Like Hazlitt, she will develop in our presence (if we as readers should consider ourselves part of her audience) ‘as fully and freely’ as she can ‘the train of thought that led [her] to think this’ ( ARO 4). At this point she undermines any confidence the reader might have that Woolf is the narrator or that the speaking ‘I’ is identified with the author. The ‘I’ in A Room of One’s Own becomes a fictional construct, one meant to engage and entertain the reader. In fact, ‘lies will flow’ from her lips, though ‘there may be some truth mixed up with them’ ( ARO 4). It is her audience’s responsibility to ‘seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping’ ( ARO 4). Here the influence of her predecessors is clear—the essay is meant to address truth, reflect a mind in process, and contain a clear speaking voice (even if the ‘I’ of the narrative is fictional).

She begins to narrate the extended argument A Room of One’s Own will make about the importance of a female literary tradition for women writers. It is not only what she says, but the way she presents her case by appropriating the techniques of essayists like Montaigne and Hazlitt; she never dwells too long on any subject, and her thoughts move along to Oxbridge, an invented university modelled on Oxford and Cambridge. Also invented is Fernham, the women’s college she compares with Oxbridge. Her aesthetic and sensory language to make a socioeconomic argument provokes readers into a visceral and instinctual realm, the realm of connotative and fictive language, where we can see, taste, and feel the differences in social class. The narrator walks by the library at Oxbridge and admires the grand spires and buildings of this awe-inspiring institution. She contemplates how much gold and silver it has taken to build it and eventually describes the sumptuous meal she eats. These images are tangible, vivid, and appeal to a range of senses. In comparison, the language used to describe the women’s college is stark, empty, and has no aesthetic attraction. Colourful, concrete, sensory language is associated with the power and authority of one institution while the lack of aesthetic description reflects the powerlessness of the other. This is done to make an argument, using a more feminine, concrete language to point to inequities of experience.

The use of aesthetic language in her essays, encouraged by Pater and Hazlitt, resembles what we find in Woolf’s great novels from the 1920s, Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (1927), where she also tries to convey some abstract truth for her readers. What we do not find in those novels, or in many of her earlier essays, is a tone of disaffection with the status quo . What begins in A Room of One’s Own as a kind of restlessness, like the narrator who unconsciously walks off the path, quickly grows into discontent and frustration, dissension, hostility, and anger, and then back. In this essay, Woolf alludes to and describes a range of emotions and uses them as rhetorical tropes to persuade her readers of a female logic, one that is visceral, sensual, and bodily. For Woolf, emotions are the body’s response to experience, and aestheticism’s attachment to the senses is a way Woolf exploits emotions to her purpose.

A Room of One’s Own appeals to the reader’s emotions, names and discusses emotions, and employs tropes of emotion and affect to move the reader to a female and feminist point of view. There is the appeal to enthusiasm, for example, found at the end of the essay when Woolf calls on her readers to work in ‘poverty and obscurity’ ( ARO 86) to help Judith Shakespeare come into being. The most powerful and disturbing affect that Woolf invokes is anger. It is the affect of anger, an emotion that is most provocative, aggressive, inappropriate, and unreasonable that she uses most successfully. Woolf names anger, both in women and men, when she visits the British Museum to research the history of women.

Woolf’s representation of anger has been discussed by feminist critics Jane Marcus and Brenda Silver, among others, who argue that Woolf’s anger (emotion) is repressed, sublimated, or destructive. 11 These readings view anger as a psychological construct rather than a rhetorical figure. They see these passages as Woolf’s expression of her personal anger instead of a rhetorical trope functioning within the tradition of the essay. Rhetorician and feminist Barbara Tomlinson argues for a ‘socioforensic discursive analysis’. 12 Discursive analysis, by focusing on how emotions function rhetorically, allows us to reveal underlying ideologies and authority in social discourse. It demands that we analyse ‘textual emotion in the light of larger discourses about social power’. 13 Narratives move through a ‘modulation’ of emotion, some moments stronger than others, and textual markers of anger in Woolf’s essay reveal what Tomlinson calls its ‘textual vehemence’, a critique of the institutional forces that undermines traditional modes of writing and argument. 14

Sara Ahmed’s work on emotion and affect also helps us to look at what she calls the ‘emotionality of texts’. 15 Her method calls on us to investigate how ‘texts name or perform different emotions’. 16 Most important to understanding Woolf’s use of emotion is Ahmed’s ideas that emotions are ‘performative’ and that they ‘involve speech acts’. She argues that emotion is not ‘in’ texts, but rather ‘effects of the very naming of emotions’. 17 Woolf’s essay names anger, her own and others’, and by doing so reveals and exposes what is hidden under the rhetoric she critiques. In what ways does she ‘perform’ anger in her essay and how does it affect the reader?

In A Room of One’s Own , Woolf hypothesizes that emotions, while expressed through the body’s physical responses and grounded in an aesthetic ethos, are tools of persuasion. In acknowledging the rhetorical power of emotion, Woolf reverses a Victorian taboo against emotional prose, tempts her critics to dismiss her, and, at the same time, evokes an older history of the essay as a genre open to recording a range of responses. The contribution Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own makes to the history of the essay is an increased awareness that we cannot separate gender from personality, voice, and point of view, since these things are a function of the body. Building on Pater’s aestheticism and Hazlitt’s painterly language, Woolf writes a careful, sensual, sensory, detailed prose; in addition to the reader’s aesthetic response, Woolf hopes for an emotional one, where emotion resides in the interaction between the naming of emotion and emotion itself. Woolf’s representation of emotions reveals the ways she makes her own theory of personality in non-fiction; not only does her essay contain a distinct voice and strong sense of audience but she also uses affect to communicate the power of her experience.

The first time we see the representation of anger is in the second chapter of A Room of One’s Own . We find the narrator at the British Museum researching her talk on women and fiction. Woolf takes us through her argument that institutions of great literature, like the British Museum, contain nothing to help the female writer develop as an artist and individual—there is no tradition for her to follow. Her frustration is revealed in her unconscious sketching of Professor X, and the sketch itself reflects her own, as yet unacknowledged, anger. She describes her sketch of the Professor: ‘His expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote. … Whatever the reason, the professor was made to look very angry and very ugly’ ( ARO 24). In the physical expression of his body, we see his anger as he jabs his pen, a phallic allusion, to kill the ‘noxious insect’ he condescends to write about. Not only is he angry, but his anger makes him ‘ugly’, much in the same way women’s anger has historically been represented.

Woolf consciously uses the trope, if not of the ‘angry feminist’, then of the ‘angry woman’. She subverts this highly charged metaphor to argue against the ideological power of the male intellectual institutions by making the Professor angry too, with all the traditional associations of irrationality and inappropriateness. Not only does the narrator become aware of men’s anger toward women, but with a conscious reflection on the sketch, she becomes aware of her own. The narrator knows that what she has done is transfer her anger onto her drawing. The sketch is a manifestation of an emotion, a symptom communicated through her body with her pen to her page. When she reads about the inferiority of women the first thing she notices is her bodily response: her ‘heart leapt’, her ‘cheeks had burnt’, and she was ‘flushed’. Not only are her emotions felt through her body but she understands how it is an anger that ‘mixed itself with all kinds of emotions’ ( ARO 25). The narrator’s anger is expressed through her body and senses and is inextricably linked to the aesthetic response Woolf wants to inspire in her reader. Her sketching begins the act of naming emotion.

Where Professor X is angry at women, and the narrator becomes aware of her anger toward him, the story of Judith Shakespeare escalates anger to violence and rage. Through this visual anecdote Woolf comments on the psycho-manipulation of anger toward women by men. Judith Shakespeare endures her father’s anger through his violence: ‘She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage’ ( ARO 36). Judith’s ‘hate’ is manifested through her cries, and her body becomes the site of emotion and severe punishment. Knowing that his anger will not change Judith’s mind, her father turns her pain into his ‘hurt’ and ‘shame’, emotions he uses to persuade her. These appeals do not stir pathos in Judith, but rebellion. Judith seeks freedom, circumstances lead to suicide, and the narrator asks: ‘[W]ho shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?’ ( ARO 37). Anger is trapped in the body, which literally feels the sensation of ‘heat’, of passion and fury, but finds no expression. However, Woolf has expressed it for us, by naming the emotion and connecting it to female experience and allowing the reader to feel Judith’s rage through a language that is sensory, visceral, and undoubtedly female.

Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own that it is ‘useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure’, just as she goes to the male essayists Montaigne, Pater, Beerbohm, and Hazlitt for pleasure. She too ‘may have learnt a few tricks from them and adapted them to her use’ ( ARO 57). From the history of male essayists Woolf inherited—and reinvented for her own use—the sensual, visceral, and painterly language of aestheticism. Hers is a rhetoric of affect and emotion, and she makes a literary space for herself and the women essayists who follow through a decidedly female strategy—the employment of emotions that in the past were considered weak and unconvincing. The narrator’s anger at the Professor and Judith’s anger with her father reverses conventional readings of the trope of the angry woman by showing how anger moves the subject to action. By making anger explicit, Woolf gives it new power. It is an anger of one’s own and is used both as resistance and a vehicle for change.

Not only does she use anger and rage to illustrate the socioeconomic inequities women suffer but Woolf’s notion of a female literary history also hinges on the emotion of anger. In chapter 4 of A Room of One’s Own , Woolf begins to piece together her literary history. Intense emotions, like anger and fear are flaws in the fiction of women who precede Woolf. She begins with the seventeenth-century poet Lady Winchilsea. Woolf finds her poetry ‘bursting out in indignation’ ( ARO 44). Had she ‘freed her mind from hate and fear and not heaped it with bitterness and resentment’ ( ARO 45) her poetry would have been much better. By the nineteenth century women writers had ‘training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion’ ( ARO 51 ). She praises Jane Austen for writing ‘without hate, without bitterness, without fear’ ( ARO 71), while she finds Charlotte Brontë unable to transcend her emotions in writing. Describing Brontë’s anger, Woolf cites a long passage from Jane Eyre that explains how ‘women feel just as men feel … they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer’ ( ARO 52). The entrance of Grace Poole at this point in the novel is an ‘awkward break’ that represents the ‘marks and jerks’ of the novel, and by noticing these ‘one sees that [Brontë] will never get her genius whole and entire’. Woolf finds that Brontë writes ‘in a rage where she should write calmly’ ( ARO 52). But Woolf also acknowledges that ‘she puts her finger exactly not only upon her own defects but upon those of her sex at that time’ ( ARO 53). For Woolf, anger is a deformity in women’s fiction—it scars and stains it.

Woolf was conflicted about the purpose and role of emotions in women’s writing, but she knew that it is through affect that the woman writer writes. Naming emotion engages the reader and influences her to see the world differently. Like the ‘dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister’, the contemporary woman essayist must draw ‘her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners’ ( ARO 86). Woolf sees herself as part of a cultural family, where the physical body expresses the emotions of experience. Using the techniques of clear prose, the speaking voice, the portrayal of a mind in the process of thought, and concrete and aesthetic imagery to help express the passionate intensity of her subject, she creates A Room of One’s Own , an essay that has profoundly influenced female essayists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Woolf’s late nineteenth-century education in biography, history, and literary criticism creates a foundation for her interest in genealogy, lineage, and canon formation. Her own essays helped her to understand the tradition and development of the genre. She disregarded gender in her evaluations of male essay writers because, beyond techniques and formal qualities she found helpful to her own writing, there were no allusions to gender in their work. She uses her inheritance from Montaigne, Pater, Beerbohm, Hazlitt, and others to create in her own essays, including A Room of One’s Own , what she herself lacked, a defined tradition of women’s essay writing that allows further possibilities in content and form.

Selected Bibliography

Brosnan, Leila , Reading Virginia Woolf’s Essays and Journalism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999 ).

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Dubino, Jeanne , ‘Virginia Woolf from Book Reviewer to Literary Critic, 1904–1918’, in Beth Carole Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino , eds, Virginia Woolf and the Essay (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997 ).

Fernald, Anne , ‘ A Room of One’s Own, Personal Criticism, and the Essay’, Twentieth Century Literature 40, no. 2 (Summer 1994 ), 165–89.

Goldman, Mark , The Reader’s Art: Virginia Woolf as a Literary Critic (Paris: Mouton & Co., 1976 ).

Gualtieri, Elena , Virginia Woolf’s Essays (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000 ).

McNees, Eleanor , ed., Virginia Woolf: Critical Assessments , 4 vols. (Mountfield: Helm Information, 1994 ).

Rosenberg, Beth , and Jeanne Dubino , eds, Virginia Woolf and the Essay (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997 ).

Saloman, Randi , Virginia Woolf’s Essayism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014 ).

For more on Woolf as a reviewer, see Chapter 17 ‘Woolf as Reviewer-Critic’ in this volume, where Eleanor McNees describes in detail Woolf’s history as a book reviewer. See also Jeanne Dubino , ‘Virginia Woolf from Book Reviewer to Literary Critic, 1904-1918’ in Beth Carole Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino , eds, Virginia Woolf and the Essay (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 25–40 .

  Anne Fernald , ‘ “Writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own”: The Common Reader as Writer’s Manual’, in Eleonora Basso , Lindsey Cordery , Emilio Irigoyen , Claudia Pérez , and Matías Núñez , eds, Virginia Woolf en América Latina: Reflexiones desde Montevideo (Montevideo: Librería Linardi y Risso, 2013), 219–43 .

  Ruth Gruber , Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman (New York: Avalon Publishers, 1935) ; Winifred Holtby , Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir (London: Bloomsbury, 2007) .

  Virginia Woolf , Collected Essays , ed. Leonard Woolf , 4 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1967) .

  Andrew McNeillie , Introduction to The Essays of Virginia Woolf 1904-1912 , vol. 1 (New York: Harcourt, 1989) explains the need for republishing Woolf’s essays. Since the publication of Leonard’s 1967 collection, Woolf’s journals, diaries, and shorter fiction, as well as her reading notebooks and a bibliography and guide to her literary sources and allusions have been published. McNeillie’s and Stuart N. Clarke’s editions of the essays are complete with annotations and references.

For a survey of earlier criticism of Woolf’s essays, see Mark Goldman , The Reader’s Art: Virginia Woolf as a Literary Critic (Paris: Mouton & Co., 1976), 1–6 . See also Eleanor McNees , ed., Virginia Woolf Critical Assessments , 4 vols (Mountfield, East Sussex: Helm Information, 1994) .

A series of studies began to emerge in the mid-1990s that re-evaluated the importance of the essays, including Beth Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino , Virginia Woolf and the Essay (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997) and Leila Brosnan , Reading Virginia Woolf’s Essays and Journalism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999) ; Elena Gualtieri , Virginia Woolf’s Essays (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) ; and Randi Saloman’s   Virginia Woolf’s Essayism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014) . These works situate Woolf within the traditions of the essay and non-fiction prose and illustrate Woolf’s deep understanding of the genre. They focus primarily on the aesthetic nature of her essays, her feminism, her journalistic impulses, and the influence of European ‘essayism’.

  Walter Pater , Conclusion to The Renaissance , in Harold Bloom , ed., Selected Writings of Walter Pater (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 60 .

See Perry Meisel , The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980) .

  Anne Fernald , ‘ A Room of One’s Own, Personal Criticism, and the Essay’, Twentieth Century Literature 40, no. 2 (Summer, 1994), 165–89 . Fernald outlines the qualities of personal prose, which she distinguishes from personal criticism and autobiography. Woolf wrote about ‘thinking as a deeply personal act in her criticism’ (168). Fernald’s discussion ‘of the personal in Virginia Woolf emphasizes thought’ and why ‘various readers come to take Woolf so personally’ (172).

  Jane Marcus , Art and Anger: Reading Like a Woman (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988) . Brenda Silver , Virginia Woolf Icon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) .

  Barbara Tomlinson , Feminism and Affect at the Scene of Argument: Beyond the Trope of the Angry Feminist (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 19 .

  Tomlinson, Feminism and Affect , 19.

  Tomlinson, Feminism and Affect , 57.

  Sarah Ahmed , The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 13 .

  Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion , 13.

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A walk through Cambridge with Virginia Woolf

Visit the orchard tea garden where her grantchester group met, the girton and newnham women’s colleges where she lectured, the fitzwilliam museum with her manuscripts, and a few pubs to recharge your batteries.


In her autobiographical essay A Sketch of the Past (1940) Virginia Woolf describes herself emerging from a chrysalis. Rather than emphasizing its beautiful transformation, she described the vulnerability of the unprotected creature. With trembling legs and antennae, it pushes outward and emerges from the chrysalis. It waits by the broken cocoon momentarily, becoming damp with its wings still folded and its eyes dazzled, incapable of flight. This is how the British writer saw herself at the age of 13 after her mother’s death. Virginia Woolf could have settled for being a well-educated woman of the late Victorian era. Instead, her career took a decisive turn in 1928 when she went to the University of Cambridge to give lectures at two women’s colleges — Girton and Newnham. These lectures gave birth to A Room of One’s Own (1929), a book-length essay that is considered a key work of feminist literary criticism.

Apart from her famous Cambridge lectures, Woolf had other connections with the city. She often visited her aunt, Caroline Stephen, a renowned Quaker philanthropist who resided there. Although Virginia missed out on university education (which bothered her tremendously), her father, Leslie Stephen, her brothers, and her husband were all graduates of Cambridge’s famous Trinity College. She personally knew various Cambridge academics, some of whom were also members of the illustrious Bloomsbury Group of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists. Woolf was also part of the Grantchester Group, which included economist John Maynard Keynes, poet Rupert Brooke, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and writer E.M. Forster, among others. They met for tea in The Orchard near Cambridge to have genteel discussions that sometimes turned into lively parties.

Our tour begins at The Orchard in Grantchester, a pleasant tea garden where you can enjoy a scone with cream and jam or relax on a lounger under the apple trees. People say that Rupert Brooke and Woolf used to go skinny-dipping at midnight in Byron’s Pool nearby. Brooke described life in Cambridge as idyllic, wandering barefoot and living on honey, eggs and milk. The Grantchester Group’s story is posted on an outdoor signboard, and The Orchard’s pavilion houses books, photos and memorabilia of the group.

virginia woolf essay on walking

Following Virginia Woolf’s trail, we head next to Girton College . Founded in 1869 as England’s first women’s college, it’s where Woolf delivered her first lecture in 1928. The building, about 10 minutes from downtown Cambridge by car, may not be as impressive as Trinity or St. Johns, but walking through the hallways is a moving experience. Photos of the first female students, dressed in long skirts to play cricket and work in the laboratory, are a jarring reminder of a different time. When Woolf arrived at Girton with her friend and lover, writer Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962), 10 years after women gained the right to vote, women were still discouraged from pursuing higher education. The room where Woolf delivered her lecture has chairs arranged in a circle and walls adorned with tapestries of birds and flora. One senses the presence of the writer with big gray eyes and melancholic look, uttering ironic and pithy observations about how men write about women, and how “a woman needs money and a room of her own if she’s going to write fiction.”

Not far away in Cambridge is Newnham College , where the writer delivered her second lecture. The gardens here are truly impressive and worth a visit. Starting with the original mid-Victorian garden and its fragrant winding paths, you’ll then discover the Arts and Crafts and rose gardens. Everything remains mostly unchanged since Woolf’s visit in 1928. For her talk to 40 students, the dining room was chosen as the venue — an expansive and bright space that is open to the public.

Cambridge University

Just a short walk from Newnham College, near the River Cam, is The Granta pub. Although it’s unclear if Woolf ever dined there (there’s no plaque saying so), it’s a comfortable place to rest and recharge that won’t disappoint. Enjoy stunning views while savoring Scotch eggs, cauliflower in curry sauce, or chicken and leek pie.

To digest your meal, walk over to another spot that always intrigues Virginia Woolf enthusiasts and scholars. The Fitzwilliam Museum occupies a neoclassical building on Trumpington Street. Its collection includes Woolf’s manuscript of A Room of One’s Own , complete with the writer’s strike-throughs and margin notes. While it’s not on public display, the manuscript can be viewed in the University of Cambridge’s digital library. The Fitzwilliam Museum boasts diverse collections of antiquities, paintings, drawings, prints, decorative arts, numismatics, manuscripts and books. Notably, there’s a captivating post-impressionist painting by Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Stephen.


Cambridge has many attractions: romantic punt tours on the rivers, famous colleges like Trinity College , the Market Place for snacks, The Eagle pub (founded in 1525) for fish and chips, and numerous bookstores. Don’t miss the Corpus Clock, a fascinating contraption by John C. Taylor outside the Taylor Library on the corner of Bene’t and Trumpington Streets. It features a metallic insect sculpture that appears to “eat” seconds while blinking with satisfaction. Physicist Stephen Hawking inaugurated the Corpus Clock in 2008, and though Virginia Woolf never saw it, she would have loved this unique way of measuring time.

The Corpus Clock at Corpus Christi

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The Unsaid: The Silence of Virginia Woolf

By Hisham Matar

Photograph courtesy Heritage Images via Getty

This essay is from an introduction to a new Italian translation,  by Anna Nadotti, of “To the Lighthouse,” which will be published later this month by Einaudi.

Here is where the artist Adeline Virginia Stephen was born. She lived in this house, at 22 Hyde Park Gate, in west London, for the first twenty-two years of her life. The whitewashed Victorian façade holds the sunlight brightly when the weather is good. It’s a short walk from here to Yeoman’s Row, and in July, 1902, when she was twenty, she went there to have her portrait taken. She was accompanied, I imagine, by her seventy-year-old father, the noted man of letters Sir Leslie Stephen. I picture them moving side by side: she in the white summer dress worn in the portrait, and he in one of the dark suits he was often cased in, his long, unkempt beard hiding the knot of his black silk necktie. They might have gone around the giant dome of the Royal Albert Hall and into Kensington Gore. Then left on to Princes Consort Road, crossing Exhibition Road, continuing to Princes Gardens, before needling through the quiet back mews till they reach Brompton Road. Second on the right is Yeoman’s Row, where the photographer George Charles Beresford had set up his studio that same year.

It was no doubt an anxious time for Beresford. This was an unexpected turn in his career. After spending four years working as a civil engineer in British India, he had contracted malaria and was forced to return to England. He studied art, and now was hoping to establish himself as a leading photographic portraitist. He would do well. A few days from now, the grand Auguste Rodin would walk through the door and sit facing slightly up, pointing his large temple, with its clump of bulging veins, toward the light. Beresford succeeded in capturing something frivolous and majestic in the French sculptor. The following year, he photographed a somewhat bored and melancholy young Winston Churchill. The year after that, Joseph Conrad sat looking into his lens, unable to altogether conceal his quiet, exile’s anxiety. Between 1902 and 1932, Beresford photographed some of the most noted artists, politicians, intellectuals and socialites of the time. Many of the negatives are now held at the National Portrait Gallery.

What Beresford couldn’t have known that day was that his twenty-year-old sitter, Sir Leslie Stephen’s fourth daughter, was destined to become a writer without whom the pantheon of literature would be incomplete. And certainly it couldn’t have occurred to her, least of all to her father, in the fifteen or twenty minutes it would have taken them to walk from Hyde Park Gate to Yeoman’s Row, that one of the photographs Beresford was to take that afternoon was going to become the most iconic likeness of the artist we would later come to know as Virginia Woolf.

In all the four portraits Beresford took, he had the author sitting and looking away from the camera. He was obviously inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites. Or perhaps, what with the strong and abundant hair tied loosely in a bun, and the jaw running in an uninterrupted arc from the careful chin to the over-attentive ear, it was his sitter’s profile that brought to mind those Victorian painters. It’s the first of these pictures—I suspect it was the first because it lacks the self-consciousness of the other three—that was to be the most successful. In it she is looking away more naturally than in the others, as if a private thought had caught her attention. There is determination in the neck. The open shell of the ear is unusually large, tensing the rim. It hints at the great danger of listening, as if acknowledging that ears cannot choose not to hear what is directed at them. More than most, she would have known the danger of that, the lasting stain of language. She seems to be concerned with this, trying to accept the vulnerability. Her cheek, occupying the central space in the photograph, seems full with utterance. Those shut lips are concealing an ocean of words. What Beresford managed to capture, and what eludes him in the following three portraits, is depth and its promise; an instinctive devotion to reality, to what Woolf was to later call “the white light of truth.”

One cannot help but read in the portrait signs of the conflicting forces the author was to contend with for the remainder of her life: the discrepancy between the reality of men and women; the need as an artist to be veiled yet available, attentive to her individual potential yet resistant to public prescriptions and constraints; and one’s exposure to history and madness. Seen from our time, the photograph is a classical representation of the artist at the dawn of the twentieth century—the century of two world wars—where death and horror threatened to obliterate art and poetry. Here is the fragile, androgynous figure of a great novelist silently and only obliquely aware of the arsenal of her gifts and the demands of her time. It is as if Beresford had shone a light into a psychological space rather than onto a body. His lens is looking down into the depth, from which a light bounces back. It brings to mind a sentence about Mrs. Ramsay, one of many extraordinary sentences in “To the Lighthouse”:

It could not last, she knew, but at the moment her eyes were so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and their feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging, trembling.

In “To the Lighthouse,” Woolf’s fifth novel, she mastered a sort of sentence that she had been edging toward, a sentence we can now call her own: a freely progressing, long, fractured series of observations and insights, unburdened and unhurried by the need to tell the “story,” yet moving with the unrelenting progression of a scalpel. It steals away, like “a light stealing under water,” revealing not merely information but the cadence and temper of inner lives, and how they resonate against the images and sensations of the physical world. It has a precise power that is disinterested in overpowering reality. The momentum sweeps you away till that last word, “trembling,” and the echo it sends back. That earlier “at the moment” hinges it to the subjective, freeing it from any claim of authority. Yet the result is superbly authoritative. The acoustic quality of Woolf’s prose in “To the Lighthouse” reverberates, and therefore her sentences are not easy to drop or leave behind. They mark indelibly.

The book tells of a family, very much like Woolf’s own, vacationing at their summer home by the sea in the Scottish Hebrides. Mr. Ramsay is a London professor, much admired; and Mrs. Ramsay is beautiful but no longer young. Along with their eight children and servants, the Ramsays are joined by a number of guests: friends and several young devotees of the professor. Among the guests is Lily Briscoe, a painter. She conceives of color as “the light of a butterfly’s wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral.” Trying to explain her painterly intentions to the widower and botanist William Bankes, she says, “A light here required a shadow there,” a statement that could apply to every human enterprise. It is echoed later, when Mrs. Ramsay notes, “Wherever they put the light (and James could not sleep without a light) there was always a shadow somewhere.” James is “her youngest, her cherished” six-year-old son. Reading to him, Mrs. Ramsay notices that “it was getting late. The light in the garden told her that; and the whitening of the flowers and something grey in the leaves conspired together, to rouse in her a feeling of anxiety.” Later, when Lily Briscoe suspects what Mrs. Ramsay was thinking—that Lily would marry Mr. Banks—the painter feels exposed and, observing the others, perceives that “for one moment, there was a sense of things having been blown apart, of space, of irresponsibility as the ball soared high, and they followed it and lost it and saw the one star and the draped branches. In the failing light they all looked sharp-edged and ethereal and divided by great distances.” Light is a reoccurring motif in the book. It flutters and is impermanent. Concealing and revealing. It is the unpredictable and forever changing temperament of the physical world. Light, in “To the Lighthouse,” is what history is to human life. Indeed, the entire novel is like a flash of lightening that momentarily floods the forest. Instead of disbanding the dark, it leaves an unforgettable recognition of it.

Several flashes preceded the lightening. Woolf’s first book, “The Voyage Out,” published in 1915, when the author was thirty-three, tells of the misunderstandings and mismatched yearnings of a group of Edwardians aboard a ship for South America. It has traces of what will come to interest Woolf in later books, such as the distance that exists between what is thought and what is spoken; the tragic lack of correspondence between intention and expression; and what these reveal about the nature of love. As we are told of Helen, one of the characters aboard the ship: “She tried to console herself with the reflection that one never knows how far other people feel the things they might be supposed to feel.” The consolation is that of truth. In the opening pages, there is a vivid description of the ship pulling away from the coast, dislodging itself from London through the River Thames till it leaks naked into the open sea. It is a fitting image of what Virginia Woolf helped do to the novel, stripping it from convention. One of the characteristics of modernism, in which she played a central role, is the detachment from the subject, the cleaving away from a sense of unitary existence. From this first book, you can see her interest in discontinuities and consciousness. Embedded in it is the melancholic acknowledgment of the impossibility of ever having a complete view. Like the fall of Adam and Eve, modernism is a loss of innocence. It doesn’t accept only that God’s view of things is unattainable; it doesn’t believe such a view exists. It refuses to ignore the rupture.

In 1919, four years after “The Voyage Out,” Woolf published her second novel, “Night and Day.” Again, Edwardian society, class, love, marriage, and the uncertainty of emotional intentions are among the themes developed further in this long novel, which, in length at least, contradicts its author’s later advice that “women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men.” Modelled loosely on the author’s family and their circle, the novel tells of the intertwining loves and affections of four main characters: Katharine Hilbery, Mary Datchet, Ralph Denham, and William Rodney. It takes literature’s old interest in the misapprehensions and unrequited sentiments of lovers and turns them into a meditation on the question of whether it is ever possible to know anyone’s true feelings; whether love and marriage can be trusted to mean what we think they mean; and the curious discrepancies between the body and the heart. Although, like “The Voyage Out,” “Night and Day” remains, in its structure, its scenes and dialogues, a conventional narrative, reading it you get the sense of the modern novel jarring against its romantic antecedent. In this exchange between Katharine Hilbery and William Rodney, you can almost hear the author thinking about the subject:

“What is this romance?” she mused.
“Ah, that’s the question. I’ve never come across a definition that satisfied me, though there are some very good ones”—he glanced in the direction of his books.
“It’s not altogether knowing the other person, perhaps—it’s ignorance,” she hazarded.
“Some authorities say it’s a question of distance—romance in literature, that is—”
“Possibly, in the case of art. But in the case of people it may be—” she hesitated.

Katharine Hilbery never finished her sentence. It hangs suspended for eternity. Perhaps to hesitate is the most appropriate modern gesture. Perhaps, in the face of our inequality, in the face of our unknowability, and in the absence of God, everything is infused with doubt.

But here Virginia Woolf is at the border, yet to achieve the required transformation. Her first encounter with James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which took place at the time of writing “Night and Day,” perturbed her. She reacted to the book even before she’d had a chance to read it. Watching her husband Leonard reading it, she noted in her diary: “[He] is already 30 pages deep. I look, and sip, and shudder.” This animalistic fear, which only a novelist knows, that sets in when sensing some other’s pen edging toward a glorious prey, is a sickness but also an augury. She admitted that she was “bewildered and befogged” by Joyce, who was “about a fortnight younger than I am.” (In fact, he was only a week younger.) She noted that her friend T. S. Eliot, the other protagonist in the modernist revolution, “was for the first time in my knowledge, rapt, enthusiastic,” on reading “Ulysses.” Later, she tried in her diary to protect herself. Turning to a common English reflex, snobbery, she pretended to have arrived at a conclusion about the Irishman’s magnum opus: “I bought the blue paper book, & read it here one summer I think with spasms of wonder, of discovery, & then again with long lapses of intense boredom.” “Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water… . It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.”

But it was “Ulysses,” and the bewilderment caused by “Ulysses,” a novel that restricts itself to a day in the lives of two characters, that showed Woolf a new path. Whatever she professed to think of it, everything she was to write from then on owes if not debts of influence then debts of provocation to James Joyce. It was engaging with his work that helped her write, in the essay “Modern Fiction,” what is possibly one of the most lucid and passionate advocacies for fiction:

If a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.

So one does not need the epic. You can do as much, perhaps more, with as little as two characters and a day. And you no longer cast your net in order to catch the whole sea. Instead, you angle for the one perfect fish.

The industrious intellect and imagination of a novelist might at times be superficially motivated by a fervor for recognition, or the desire to compete with an admired contemporary, but few works of any worth were sustained by vanity alone. What is required is the persistent need to envisage the world anew, to remake the self, or reorientate her, like a sitter adjusting her posture in order to gain a different view. Once ego’s noise subsides, the old obsessions return. One of the most persistent of these was the political and private life of women. She revealed with savage accuracy the patronizing tactics of men. The effect is not only the result of her talent for social satire—shown in abundance in her earlier fiction—but also of the rebellious instinct of a curious and unsentimental consciousness trapped inside the confines of feminine domesticity. How would she have written if she were not a member of the sex, as she tells us in “A Room of One’s Own,” that had to sit “indoors all these millions of years”? In the same essay, Woolf offers her recommendations for what a woman writer needs: “Five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door.” A poignant and pragmatic conclusion, but a domestic one, a private remedy to a public problem.

In the end, what transformed the place of women in Britain was not “five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door” but the most cataclysmic event of the time, the First World War. The war exposed the extent and danger of social inequalities. Forty per cent of the men who volunteered for military service were not physically fit to serve. The dire state of the health of the nation was revealed, and suddenly the collective well-being of society began to gain precedence over individual liberty. It paved the way toward a nationalized health service. And the men who went to fight left behind their jobs. No less than a third of the male workforce joined the Army. Women filled the gap. As the suffragette Ray Strachey, Woolf’s sister-in-law, put it: “Middle-aged women who had been quiet mothers of families were suddenly transformed into efficient plumbers, chimney sweeps, or grave diggers; flighty and giggling young girls turned into house-painters and electricians; ladies whose lives had been spent in the hunting-field turned into canal boatmen and ploughmen.” Nearly a million of them went into engineering. After the war, it became no longer acceptable to have half of the population indoors. It was women’s extraordinary contribution to the war that granted them the vote. When the men returned, male resentment in the workplace grew. Feminism became necessary to secure and advance the gains made by women. Virginia Woolf was one of its most eloquent exponents. In fact, “A Room of One’s Own,” what is still today a necessary and powerful argument for women’s rights, would not have been possible were it not for the historical transformations the war forced through. Her referring to the war as a “preposterous masculine fiction” was a tactic to elevate and distinguish feminine reason. The war killed nine hundred and fifty thousand men from Britain and the Empire and left 1.5 million wounded. The economic and military might of the British Empire was no longer supreme.

Yet the war offered Woolf the novelist an opportunity to turn the restrictions of her gender to an unexpected advantage. She did not have the option to write directly about the war: the story of its conflicts and the drama of its battles. Instead, in her next novel,” Jacob’s Room,” she becomes a miniaturist: interested in the tremors of the war on the intimate lives of men and women. Gearing up for the challenge, she wrote in her diary, “I figure the approach will be entirely different this time: No scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, the humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist.” The word “crepuscular” brings to mind a line from Samuel Beckett, when Pozzo tells Vladimir, in “Waiting for Godot,” “But I see what it is, you are not from these parts, you don’t know what our twilights can do.” “Jacob’s Room” inhabits the twilight. It tells the early life of Jacob Flanders through the women who knew him. He later dies in the war, but we don’t follow him there. It’s Woolf’s first modernist novel, a Joycean experiment in how much one can exclude.

When your power is limited, when you cannot vote, when your opinions and contributions are dismissed solely because of your gender, then the disgrace of witnessing your own people butcher and be butchered must not only cause you to revisit everything you assumed about human nature but also asks you to view it from the distance of the outsider. The war, like a flame eating moths, annihilated those presumptions. It delivered Woolf, perhaps more vividly and abruptly than her male contemporaries, to the hard face of the truth, of what we are capable of doing. It is hard not to in part attribute her sobriety and keenness of vision to her marginal status as a woman. Her prose becomes more sharply invested with the visual and material world. It fills up with shifting and precise, unfixed and yet vivid resonances. Her writing comes to have the double effect of heightening our sense of reality and making that reality seem questionable or impermanent. This is the departure that “Jacob’s Room” achieves. It does not do away entirely, as was Woolf’s intention, with conventional narrative structure—scenes are set with relatively familiar descriptive modes of places, objects, how people are seated—but her doubts mature into a sort of existential uncertainty. The scalpel grows sharper.

This method of hinting obliquely and only through suggestion at horror has influenced the course of the novel. The profound works of W. G. Sebald, for example, a German writer burdened with the question of how to address the ruination of the Second World War, is a literary event made in some way possible by Virginia Woolf. She helped show him how direct documentation is not necessarily the best course to follow. In the last interview he gave before his untimely death, in 2001, Sebald credited the insight to reading Virginia Woolf, and particularly her essay “The Death of the Moth,”

the wonderful example of her description of a moth coming to its end on a windowpane somewhere in Sussex, and this is a passage of some two pages only, I think. And it’s written somewhere, chronologically speaking, between the battlefields of the Somme and the concentration camps erected by my compatriots. There is no reference made to the battlefields of the Somme in this passage, but one knows as a reader of Virginia Woolf that she was greatly perturbed by the First World War, by its aftermath, by the damage it did to people’s souls—the souls of those who got away and, naturally, of those who perished. I think that a subject which at first glance seems quite far removed from the undeclared concern of a book can encapsulate that concern.

Sebald was an inheritor of a dark history, interested in the shame of the progeny. Like the South African author J. M. Coetzee, his contemporary, Sebald was concerned with how to convey not savagery and guilt but their inheritance. Woolf, excluded from the vote and therefore from politics and the decisions that lead countries to war and peace, shared with them the condition of being implicated in the actions of others. It seems every great novelist is conscious of being both implicated in and subject to history. The war helped Woolf understand this. Still, she was heavily criticized for what was perceived as an evasion. She was subjected to passionate calls by noted figures, such as her esteemed friend Katherine Mansfield, to write directly about the war. She kept her poise. Hers is a singular example of literary independence. And now we can see that her decision of expressing the tremors of the masculine epic of war through domestic life was poignantly subversive, true, and truly free.

As a sentence in “Jacob’s Room” puts it, “There is something absolute in us which despises qualification.”

There was a relationship between Woolf’s mental illness and her writing. Bouts of mental crises hit her between novels. The edges of sanity revealed what seemed to her to be the true workings of the mind. With each book she became more obsessed with language and how when we speak we often fall short of or else exceed what we intended to express. Talking as a betrayal: saying too much, or not enough. The birth of psychoanalysis at the time added to this. Woolf knew of the writings of Sigmund Freud. Her friend Lytton Strachey’s brother, James Strachey, was the Austrian’s translator. To Woolf and her Bloomsbury friends, psychoanalysis must have confirmed what they already suspected, that social norms and accepted forms of behavior were often there to veil the gulf that exists between what is professed and the truth. Perhaps it confirmed Woolf’s instinct, one that persisted from the start, and to which she often attributed her estrangement from the world, that all is not what appears. Woolf was aware of Freud’s proposition that close observation of uncensored thought and speech, the ways in which we reveal and interrupt ourselves, can cause deeply buried truths to arise. She was aware of the danger. She might have agreed with Karoline von Günderrode who, in Christa Wolf’s novel “No Place on Earth,” scans the large room where a party is gathered and thinks, “How fortunate that our thoughts do not dance in visible letters above our heads. If they did, any contact between human beings, even a harmless social gathering such as this, could easily become a convocation of murderers.” But Woolf cannot be reduced to a psychoanalytical novelist. She sort of discards Freud or, as the expression goes, she takes him in her stride. In this way, she is truer to our time where, if we look at Freud at all, then it is perhaps with gratitude but also with that amused affection one pays an eccentric uncle. Nonetheless, Uncle Freud nudged her along a little.

Three years after “Jacob’s Room,” in 1925, when Virginia Woolf was forty-three, she resurrected Clarissa Dalloway, a character from “The Voyage Out,” and placed her centre stage. It was to be her best novel yet. Instead of the hills where the grass softens the heavens and in the late evening “the flamingo hours fluttered softly through the sky,” in “Mrs. Dalloway” the most passionately described landscape is that of the city. One of the novel’s principle characters is the noisy, rumbling, chaotic, and democratic London. As in ancient Greek drama, and Joyce’s “Ulysses,” the novel takes place in a single day. There’s an inward drive to the narrative. The exceptional sensitivity toward the smallest turns of mind and the piercing perceptions of the most agile twists in moods are illuminated. What takes our breath away in literature is not the new but the encounter with what has been silently known. “Mrs. Dalloway” is extraordinary, but it is not Woolf’s finest novel.

She was right in that “books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately”; we ought to take the writer in her totality. But in my mind “To the Lighthouse” is the culmination of everything Woolf has been working toward. She spoke about the interdependence of words, how they color and infect one another, that there is no pure meaning, that each word is nudged and changed by those strung to it. Like the words we have invented, we, too, cannot exist outside history. But what also appears here is a new silence. All great writing is infected with silence, but it is very rare indeed to observe a master wielding that vacuum blankness of the unsaid with such elegant precision. Part of the effect is that you feel you are inside a mind, inhabiting another’s interiority. But there also is the register of history, in the vast expanse of the sea welded in a continuous fabric to the sky. Everything out there is unknown, and the lighthouse has no hope to illuminate where we are heading. All it does is call attention to itself and the rock it stands on. It is a perpetual circular warning, a white scream. We are trapped in history, poised between two world wars.

Novelists often find themselves or themselves create situations in which they are obliged to speak about one of their books, a book they are no longer writing. A process of justification and rationalization and remembering ensues. More often than not, this ends up with over-defended stories that attempt to explain motives and intentions that are now long in the past, and therefore might be accurately remembered but are, more often than not, invented under obligation to explain oneself or else to retrospectively attempt to reenter that pure space where one was a servant of and a contributor to, with all one has got, the mechanism of a work of fiction. It is very rare to hear a novelist speak accurately about writing a novel because it is extremely difficult to explain.

Virginia Woolf was a rare example. She wrote well about her writing. She described working on “To the Lighthouse” as a process “without any premeditation.” And I believe her. What she arrived at here was not the outcome of calculated stylistic intent but, rather, the result of a long process of observation and then surrender and fidelity to the outcomes. History—the horrific events of a war that ravished the world with monstrous appetite, and the great social changes that followed—might have accelerated her progress in the form. But mostly it was the unique talent and keenness of vision that made her write some of the most luminous fiction of the twentieth century.

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Walking Virginia Woolf’s London

An Investigation in Literary Geography

  • Lisbeth Larsson 0

University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

Offers a formidable body of criticism on the subject of Woolf’s London including over 20 maps and detailed discussions of her novels and other works

Combines the emerging field of literary spatial studies with theories on mobility and geography

Sheds light on a vastly overlooked scholarly gap in Woolf Studies

Includes supplementary material: sn.pub/extras

Part of the book series: Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies (GSLS)

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Table of contents (8 chapters)

Front matter, introduction.

Lisbeth Larsson

What Virginia Woolf’s Lost Essay Can Teach Us About City Life

virginia woolf essay on walking

Her rare collection about armchair travel shows that it’s the people who make a place

virginia woolf essay on walking

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.

virginia woolf essay on walking

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.

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virginia woolf essay on walking

“Street Haunting” (1927) is an essay by modernist English author Virginia Woolf. She is known for being one of the first prominent English female writers and for her use of stream of consciousness in storytelling. “Street Haunting” follows an evening excursion in the crowded streets of London while Woolf searches…

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Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

“Street Haunting” (1927) is an essay by modernist English author Virginia Woolf . She is known for being one of the first prominent English female writers and for her use of stream of consciousness in storytelling. “Street Haunting” follows an evening excursion in the crowded streets of London while Woolf searches for a pencil.

Stream of consciousness – a literary technique or narrative mode in which the narrator seamlessly moves from internal thoughts to external reality.

“Street Haunting”: Virginia Woolf

The author of "Street Haunting" Virginia Woolf was born on January 25th, 1882. She grew up in a wealthy home and was educated by her father, Leslie Stephen. At an early age, she studied classics and Victorian English literature. In adulthood, she formed part of the Bloomsbury Group, an association of writers and intellectuals. In 1912, she married journalist Leonard Woolf. Together, they started Hogarth Press, which published nearly all her written work. The group profoundly influenced Woolf's writing, encouraging her to experiment and challenge storytelling conventions.

Street Haunting, Virginia Woolf Portrait, Vaia

“Street Haunting”: Summary

Woolf decides that she needs to take an excursion through the streets of London with the pretext of needing a pencil. It’s really just an excuse to escape her room and solitude. The ideal time for a walk in London is in the winter evening. There’s no heat to hide from in the shade, and one can take their time ambling along. By joining the vast multitude of pedestrians, one becomes anonymous.

She reflects on a time that she bought a piece of china and how it marked a memory for her in Italy. Items throughout one’s home help record experiences and define a person. This all vanishes once a person leaves their home and joins the masses on the streets. Woolf takes in the sights and sounds of London winter, falling leaves, and palely lit streets. She imagines the life of an office worker, thumbing through papers and answering correspondences.

Street Haunting, London Winter, Vaia

Woolf reflects on the power of the eye and the mind’s eye and how it’s drawn to beauty. One must try to counter that impulse and search for more obscure curiosities that are less noticeable and tucked away. She sees (or imagines) a dwarf escorted by two larger friends. The dwarf carries herself with the usual manner Woolf sees in others who experience deformities. However, once inside a shoe shop, the dwarf proudly thrusts out her beautiful feet. The shopkeepers scurry around to find her shoes, and everyone is impressed by the beauty of her feet. Woolf laments that this moment becomes lost the minute the dwarf dresses herself and disappears into the outside world.

The dwarf seems to conjure up other people experiencing difficulties. Blind men, being led by a boy, pass by. She notes a hunched-back elderly woman draped in a cloak across the stairs of a building. A bedraggled homeless man stares nowhere in particular. This is contrasted with the “bright” legs of dancers and diners at the theaters nearby.

Woolf then imagines the perspective of a well-to-do Londoner, watching from their balcony the many interactions on the street and neighboring buildings. Statesmen shake hands, “footmen” stand guard and the Prime Minister speaks with an aristocrat regarding the “affairs of the land” while a cat slinks along a garden wall.

Woolf reflects on the absurdity of it all. Nature created man. Did nature intend for man to be the spectator or the walker? Which is his true identity? Does an occupation define a person, or can wandering “mystic” be just as valid of a life?

Street Haunting, London Park, Vaia

Through these musings, Woolf returns to reality, specifically a secondhand book store. The bookkeeper talks about hats. Endless rows of books are without a home. We never know what sort of literary adventure we will encounter. These books record a memory of a person who may have vanished since. She imagines travelers and their exploits in Wales, Greece, and China.

The number of books in the world is “infinite,” just like the stories overheard from other streetwalkers. Woolf remarks how a passerby may catch a word and never hear the rest of the story. City pedestrians must obey the flow of foot traffic. Two men share the latest “wire” from the news, and she wonders if they are hoping to catch good fortune with this information. Woolf watches the flow of walkers across the Strand and the Waterloo Bridge onto trains, where she imagines they’ll travel to some “prim little villa” on the outskirts of London.

Woolf stops to watch boats on the River Thames and two lovers enamored with themselves. Then she remembers the pencil and hopes that the shop is still open. She enters a shop and senses that the elderly owners had previously been arguing. The man cannot find the box with pencils and asks his wife. She quickly finds them. Woolf watches the woman return to sew, and the man to read a newspaper, feeling the “quarrel” has resolved itself.

Woolf returns to the streets to find them empty. She wonders about all the lives she has passed. Returning home, she takes stock of her familiar surroundings and reveres the one “treasure” she has retrieved, the pencil. 1

“Street Haunting”: Meaning

“Street Haunting” is about the joy of walking through the city streets of London. The essay follows her taking a walk to buy a pencil in the streets of London. The errand is an excuse for her to traverse the streets of London to escape the domesticity of her home.

Woolf extensively uses stream of consciousness in the essay. Reality and Fantasy are not distinctly demarcated. Woolf describes in detail the appearances of others while launching into fantasies of their imagined lives.

“Street Haunting”: Themes

There are three themes in “Street Haunting”: people watching, escapism, individuality, and urban anonymity.

People Watching

The most obvious recurring theme throughout “Street Haunting” is observing others. Woolf delights in watching denizens go about their business. She describes in detail the people she passes. She often imagines their life and how their environment changes them. The dwarf is apologetic and small on public streets. Yet once inside the shoe shop, she is confident and proud, showing off her perfect feet and relishing the attention of others.

Woolf delights in the Fantasy of imagining her life as other people. She dives so deeply into the imagined minds of others that it’s not clear to the reader which is fiction and which is reality. When she steps inside the shop for a pencil, she notes that the atmosphere of the room feels like the “distilled” essence of the people who own it. She believes that the two owners have been arguing, but it is at once resolved as she buys a pencil. The story ends and begins with the pencil, with a brief mention in the middle. However, the pencil serves as an excuse for Woolf to escape the confines of her domestic life and go on an adventure in the city streets.

Individuality and Urban Anonymity

Cities, with their seemingly endless amounts of inhabitants, provide an opportunity for one to be an individual, yet lost within a crowd. Woolf describes the flow of pedestrians as something larger than life that cannot be defied. Observations of others are fleeting as the flow forces Woolf to continue onward. For a moment, people have distinct identities. In the theater district, she sees performers, yet once they fold into the crowd, they lose that identity and become indistinguishable from the rest. The dwarf goes from quiet to confident in the shoe shop, but back to quiet once she returns to the streets. For Woolf, she can assimilate any identity she chooses as she imagines the life of others, remaining aloof as she flows along the streets with the rest.

“Street Haunting”: Quotes

Here are a few quotes from Virginia Woolf's "Street Haunting."

The good citizen when he opens his door in the evening must be banker, golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in the slums of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with skepticism and solitude. When he opens his door, he must run his fingers through his hair and put his umbrella in the stand like the rest.”

Woolf describes the dichotomy between public and private life. When one enters the public realm, one must take on a respectable appearance. However, as a wanderer on the streets, she matches the latter description of a nomad or a pariah. Ultimately, though, one must “stand like the rest” and become anonymous once they mix with the crowded streets.

The number of books in the world is infinite, and one is forced to glimpse and nod and move on after a moment of talk, a flash of understanding, as, in the street outside, one catches a word in passing and from a chance phrase fabricates a lifetime.”

Woolf is referring to the power of escaping into imagined worlds of others. From very little information, one can discern the trials and tribulations of another. Whether they are accurate or not is beside the point. Woolf is delighting in the escapism offered by minute and passing details of others on the street.

Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others”

This quote echoes the theme of Individuality and Urban Anonymity. Living in the city one can assume the identity of the crowd, that of a multitude of walkers, with their single-mindedness towards a specific errand. Yet, each individual becomes mysterious within the flow of the crowded streets and less distinguishable, losing some of their individuality but gaining the “bodies and minds” of the city streetwalkers.

Street Haunting - Key takeaways

  • "Street Haunting" is an essay by modernist English author Virginia Woolf.
  • Woolf employs stream of consciousness throughout the essay.
  • The essay is about the joy of walking through the busy streets of London in winter.
  • Woolf intersperses observation with the imagined lives of pedestrians.
  • Three themes are People Watching, Escapism, and Individuality and Urban Anonymity.
  • Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting” (1927).

Frequently Asked Questions about Street Haunting

--> what is "street haunting" by virginia woolf about.

"Street Haunting" is an essay by Virginia Woolf about the joy of walking the streets of London in winter.

--> Is "Street Haunting" an essay?

“Street Haunting” is an essay by Virginia Woolf.

--> Does Virginia Woolf get her pencil?

In “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf indeed gets her pencil.

--> When did Woolf write "Street Haunting"?

“Street Haunting” by Virginia Woolf was published in 1927.

--> What is Virginia Woolf shopping for in "Street Haunting": A London Adventure?

Virginia Woolf is looking to buy a pencil in “Street Haunting.”

Final Street Haunting Quiz

Street haunting quiz - teste dein wissen.

What is "Street Haunting" by   Virginia Woolf   about?

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"Street Haunting" is an essay by Virginia Woolf about the joy of walking the streets of London in winter.

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"Street Haunting" is

When did Woolf publish "Street Haunting"?

What is Virginia Woolf shopping for in "Street Haunting"?

When was Virginia Woolf born? 

January 25th, 1882.

Why does Woolf need a pencil?

It's just an excuse to go for a walk

What are the two identities of man that Woolf wonders about?

Before she arrives at the store for a pencil, Woolf enters a

secondhand bookshop

Woolf believes the number of books in the world are

Woolf watches the flow of walkers across the Strand and the Waterloo Bridge onto trains, where she imagines they’ll travel to 

some “prim little villa” on the outskirts of London.

In the end, Woolf wonders about all the lives she has passed and reveres what  one “treasure”?

How is one of the themes Escapism?

Woolf delights in fantasizing about the lives of others on the street.

How is the dwarf an example of the theme Individuality and Urban Anonymity?

When outside, the dwarf is defined by her deformity. Inside the shop, she is proud and appreciated for her beautiful feet.

In "Street Haunting" Woolf is describing the dichotomy between

public and private life.

The quote "...one catches a word in passing and from a chance phrase fabricates a lifetime.” refers to which theme?

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A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf Novel Pairings

We’re kicking off our month of Virigina Woolf with an episode exploring Woolf’s dense and sprawling extended essay, “A Room of Own’s Own.” At just over one hundred pages, Woolf gives herself ample space on the page to explore and consider the issues that keep women from the forefront of the literature and what might be done to give them the creative freedom to write unencumbered. In today’s episode, we’re following along closely with the text while helping our fellow readers pull out key takeaways from Woolf’s work. We share our own experiences reading and teaching this seminal piece of feminist critique, Woolf's use of figurative and practical language to provide compelling arguements, and limitations of the essay, including who was included in Woolf’s critique and who was left out.  If you love our extra nerdy discussion on the podcast today, we have even more content to enjoy over in our Novel Pairings Patreon community. Our Patreon is a great space to take part in public scholarship and talk about books with a smart, eclectic group of readers. Subscriptions start at just $5 a month, and yearly discounts are available. To learn more about our Patreon, visit patreon.com/novelpairings. Listeners can also stay in the loop with all things Novel Pairings by giving us a follow on Instagram and subscribing to our weekly newsletter on Substack. Thank you for supporting public scholarship! Books Mentioned: The Baby on the Fire Escape by Julie Phillips  Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde How to Think Like A Women by Regan Penaluna Cross Stitch by Jasmina Barrara The Marriage Question by Claire Carlilse

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Photo of Virginia Woolf reading a book

Pilgrimage participants walk through the English countryside. Courtesy Stephanie Paulsell

What the anthropologists say about pilgrimages is that pilgrimages subvert the hierarchies by which we structure our lives when we’re at home. When we’re on the road with other people, we might come into different kinds of relationships than we would at home, slotted into our usual social location. Vanessa and I went on pilgrimage with a group of strangers that we’d never met before, and that had never met us. And one of the things I learned through that pilgrimage was how a book can become a kind of portable sacred space around which a new community can form.

I’m still in touch with all those people. The only time we spent together was that one week in England, yet we’re knit together through our reading, our talking, our hiking, our jokes, and we have an ongoing conversation that’s built out of that book and out of the life of Virginia Woolf, because that’s what we share.

One really hard part of this time is not being able to move our bodies through the world in the way that we’re used to. But there’s something about having a shared book with a bunch of other people that does create a community. It gives you language, and it gives you something to love, or something not to love, or something to resist—it can gather you up. A book really can be a pilgrimage, whether you’re moving your body through the world or not. Even if you’re just sitting in your room, you definitely feel like you’ve been somewhere and broken fresh ground.

In laying out her Interior Castle , Teresa of Avila tells her nuns that they can make this interior journey whenever they want—“you can enter it and walk about in it at any time,” she writes, “without asking leave from your superiors.” 7 It’s like what Virginia Woolf says about literature: it’s no one’s private ground, it’s common ground, and you can travel it—trespass upon it—whenever you’d like.

Bulletin: It’s as if any place, but also any moment, can become the occasion for a pilgrimage.

Paulsell: Exactly. There’s a great line in one of Woolf’s essays, “Poetry, Fiction, and the Future,” where she says every moment is the center and meeting place of an extraordinary number of perceptions that have not yet been expressed. What she’s trying to do is make more of life visible—even the hidden stuff that’s going on inside us, what she considered our spiritual lives. She was a bit scornful of so-called realistic literature because she said it wasn’t at all realistic. Nobody’s life has these nice, neat plot points and a climax and denouement. Nobody’s life unfolds like that. It’s much more chaotic. She was trying to write more realistically.

At first, though, reviewers often said that her characters didn’t seem real because she didn’t describe what they wore. She didn’t describe what she called “this appalling narrative business of getting on from lunch to dinner.” 8 She was describing other things that go unnoticed and unexpressed, other moments not often touched by literature.

Bulletin: Woolf brings the sublime and the hidden pockets of strangeness into the mundane. Maybe for her, every moment can become a site of revelation that’s deserving of our attention and care.

Paulsell: Yes, all these moments deserve our attention. She distinguishes between these “moments of being,” which are supersaturated with presence and reality, where the real breaks through, with the “cotton wool” of the rest of our existence. 9 But I feel, with Woolf, almost any moment could potentially be a moment of being if you bring to it the right attention and care.

Bulletin: Right, and it seems like there’s a natural synergy between your work on Woolf and your study of Simone Weil: if you bring the right quality of attention to any moment, it can become a moment of being, and if you bring the right quality of attention to any task before you, it can become a space of devotion. What are some of the parallels you’ve found between Woolf and some of the religious thinkers you teach, like Weil and Merton?

Paulsell: This semester I teach Woolf and Merton on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and when I’m in Woolf I find myself thinking about Merton, and when I’m in Merton I find myself thinking about Woolf. Maybe it’s because they’re both writers, and they’re both trying to find language for things that haven’t been described, or things that elude description. Despite all their differences, they do have similar kinds of preoccupations with the real—with using writing as a way to move toward some sort of access to what’s really real, or to open up a space to be able to pay attention to it.

There was something about this time period—early to mid-20th century—where a lot of people were thinking these thoughts. Part of it was the dehumanization that’s going on around them in these two world wars, and the attempt to imagine new forms of community that would be more life giving and more just. And undergirding all of that, I think, is what Simone Weil calls attention—to bring this kind of rigorous presence to other people’s experience and honor it.

I feel like devotion is a good word to use with Woolf, although she doesn’t use it much. But she does seem, to me, so devoted to what she’s doing—religiously so. And this she gets from her evangelical forebearers, who believed you should have a vocation and bend your life in that direction. And it should matter to more than just you, and it ought to contribute something to the world beyond your life. She doesn’t inherit the doctrinal religious beliefs surrounding that, but she certainly does inherit that conviction. She apprenticed herself to writing as a young person. In her autobiography, she writes about how she became a writer because she was susceptible to these moments of being which left her shattered. And she healed herself by putting the pieces back together through writing. As she grew older, that became her response to these often painful moments of the real breaking through into ordinary life—to find words for them. It was how she healed.

Bulletin: It sounds like she was so attuned to the healing power of writing in the face of trauma and loss and moments too painful to bear. What can Woolf teach us about the pastoral function of reading and writing in this moment of personal and collective grief?

Paulsell standing in front of a fireplace

Stephanie Paulsell in Virginia Woolf’s bedroom. Vanessa Bell painted the tiles on the fireplace to commemorate the publication of To the Lighthouse . Courtesy Stephanie Paulsell

Woolf helps us think about how we’re going to respond to this time of grief and how we’re going to mourn what we’ve lost, individually and societally. She helps us ask: How do we pay attention with reverence to all the injustices that have been exposed through this pandemic? And whose lives are we paying attention to?

She envisions a society of outsiders that rethinks society from the ground up, from its basic institutions. And she sees universities as places not of specialization, but of combination, where people are looking for the combinations that are most fruitful for human life. And I love that vision of what we could do—rather than separating ourselves into our specializations, to come together to see how we can create something out of all our fragments. This is one way to understand religion—the creation and binding together of fragments, from religare , to bind together.

In her writing, Woolf wanted to make herself more available to reality and not just paper it over with exciting plots, but to cherish the life that we have and the opportunities we have to come together and cross the boundaries of our own individual lives. She was very clear that we don’t have access to each other’s interior life, but, at the same time, every so often, we do. Every once in a while those boundaries are crossed, and we ought to learn as much as we can from those moments and find language for them. I think she’s a good religious thinker for our time.

Bulletin: As we’re navigating various forms of fragmentation, then, maybe Woolf can show us how to view these fragments as possibilities for coming together anew. She can be a guide for us for those moments of overflowing boundaries, those transient revelations.

Paulsell: Yes, exactly. In To the Lighthouse , Lily Briscoe, the painter, thinks that maybe the great revelation she’s been waiting for isn’t ever going to come. Instead, she reflects, “there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. . . . Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent—this was of the nature of a revelation.” 10

  • Virginia Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (Hogarth Press, 1990), 393.
  • Ibid., 107.
  • Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary (Hogarth Press, 1953), 350.
  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Hogarth Press, 1929), 112.
  • Virginia Woolf, “The Leaning Tower,” in The Moment and Other Essays (Hogarth Press, 1952), 125.
  • Woolf, A Writer’s Diary , 81.
  • Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle , trans. E. Allison Peers (Image Books, 1961), 239.
  • Woolf, A Writer’s Diary , 136.
  • Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past,” in Moments of Being (Hogarth Press, 1972), 71.
  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (Hogarth Press, 1927), 161.

Sarah Fleming , MDiv ’21, is an editorial assistant at the Bulletin and an interfaith chaplain. She studies synergies between religious reading practices and models of caregiving.

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virginia woolf essay on walking

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Virginia Woolf’s Pencil

snowy park at night with streetlamps

Woolf’s pencil reminds me of what psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called “transitional phenomena,” those objects like the child’s tattered blanket, or a well-worn teddy bear, that exist at the threshold of the self—substitutes for the mother’s body that are still perceived as separate but not fully recognized as belonging to the outside world. They are not-me objects that mediate between one’s inner reality and the shared external world, “a resting place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate and interrelated.” In “Street Haunting,” the mind drifts as the body drifts, and yet the pencil remains the point of departure and return.

“Street Haunting” starts with the escape from the house, the room of one’s own. To enter the public sphere, the anonymity of the crowds, is to shed soft domestic comforts, the familiar sense of oneself: “For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforces the memories of our own experience.” Woolf’s room—with its china bowl and the brown stain on the carpet—is a place of fixity, whereas the street knows nothing but movement and flow, the self unsplit and uncontained. The search for the pencil, the transitional object, is the search for connectedness, for undifferentiated oneness, when the boundaries between self and world thin to their most tenuous.

In her diary, Woolf once wrote, “How immense must be the force of life which turns a baby who can just distinguish a great blot of blue and purple on a black background, into the child who thirteen years later can feel all that I felt on May 5th 1895—now almost exactly to a day, forty-four years ago—when my mother died,” and it could be that “Street Haunting” is such a prelapsarian return—to the early colorful sensual experiences of the child, to the phenomenological aspects of the world released from the burden of understanding.

Fundamentally, to street haunt is to be momentarily dispossessed. To street haunt is to be lifted from the confines of the self, swept up in the stream of the collective (tellingly, she uses the pronoun “we,” not “I.”) To street haunt is to feel weightless, immaterial, and unbounded. “Am I here or am I there?” Woolf asks at one point, “Is it the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June?” To street haunt is to briefly forget the fact of the body doomed to live in time.

Part of street haunting is also dipping into consciousnesses that are otherwise remote (“inaccessible lanterns” she calls them later). Points of view become fluid. Woolf was interested in giving voice to those small zones of mystery known as other people, through a sort of imaginative projection that we might today label a form of psychic colonization. Midway through the essay, the narrator temporarily inserts herself into the mind of a dwarf trying on shoes in a shop. “What, then, is it like to be a dwarf?” she asks. Afterwards, she describes seeing two blind men, an old woman, a bearded Jew. With a fair amount of bourgeois condescension, she speculates about their “fantastic” lives and in the process exoticizes their vulnerability—they cannot escape their bodies as easily as Woolf. For her, they symbolize the fringes of society, a state that both excites and unsettles her, giving physical form to the “outside” she craves to know. “Walking home through the desolation one could tell oneself the story of the dwarf, of the blind men, of the party in the Mayfair mansion, of the quarrel in the stationer’s shop. Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others,” she writes.

The divisions between self and other, past and present, the perceived and the real, are blurred in “Street Haunting;” all flows together. It is as if the conventional boundary markers we have come to expect in literature, the traditional means of organizing experience, have been mostly dissolved. We ride and float and swell, cresting wave upon clausal wave, pulled deeper and deeper into the currents of thought, until the moment when the syntax can longer sustain such intensity; something breaks and the object resurfaces. The pencil, like a fussy bureaucrat, reorients the reader in time and space.

“It is, in fact, the stroke of six; it is a winter’s evening; we are walking to the Strand to buy a pencil.”

When the pencil returns, the prose has a way of stiffening back into shape. Woolf’s sentences become shorter, and the distinctions between individuals become clearer as reality slowly chisels itself out again. The pencil ballasts the narrator to the social world, a weight upon the free-floating eye/I. This is the essay’s primary tension, endowing it with a sense of narrative momentum: we wander, looking and daydreaming, forgetting about the pencil until it reappears again.

The repetition of the pencil, the story of its loss and reappearance, works as the essay’s organizing principle. Woolf’s treatment of it is similar to the fort-da game described by Freud in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in which the child similarly rehearses small acts of disappearance:

“The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied round it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skillfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive ‘o-o-o-o’. He then pulled the reel out of the cot again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful ‘da’ [‘there’]. This, then, was the complete game-disappearance and return.”

The wooden reel, like Winnicott’s transitional phenomena, is a surrogate for the displaced mother, and the child’s casting away of it is seen as a way of reconciling, and gaining mastery over, this essential lack. We know the death of Woolf’s own mother—the inspiration for Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse —was a great trauma. In her diaries, she mourned what she had lost: “To be a family surrounded; to go one exploring and adventuring privately while all the while the family as a whole continued its prosaic, rumbling progress.” The death of her mother Woolf framed as kind of expulsion from Eden, the event after which Woolf “tumbled out of the family shelter” that had become “cracked and gashed.” She describes the scene in the stationer’s shop, when buying the pencil, as searching for a ghost.

The pencil is the joint between autonomy and connectedness, freedom and security, and the individual and the collective. Woolf limns the transcendent pleasures of traveling toward the outermost precincts of the self only to be reeled back again into the world of solid forms. I think she was looking for the furthest edge of solitude, its utmost ecstatic limit, before it crosses into madness. Insanity, after all, is the tragic point at which one’s personal signs supersede the shared reality. It is the point at which we are flooded; when there is nothing solid to grab onto, the water overcoming us.

At the conclusion of “Street Haunting,” with the streets emptied, the narrator returns home. She returns to the safety of objects, the self once again securely bordered and housed. “Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet.” Perhaps we invent disappearances only in the hope of being retrieved.

In the end, Winnicott argues, children outgrow the blanket but not the need for it. In fact, he claims, our blankets only become more complex, evolving into the greater and more intricate abstractions we call art. Works of art, shared and yet solitary, commonly experienced and yet privately felt, enact a deep paradox: our need to be connected and separate both. What passes between the primal ruptures of birth and death are a long succession of symbols created to redeem these losses; as Woolf wrote of her mother in her diary, “It is perfectly true that she obsessed me, in spite of the fact that she died when I was thirteen, until I was forty-four.” It is significant that the lost object in “Street Haunting” is a tool for writing—only after To The Lighthouse did she declare herself purged: “I wrote the book quickly, and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed with my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.”

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virginia woolf essay on walking

Virginia Woolf: There Are Way Too Many Personal Essays Out There

Just because you can write it, doesn’t mean you have to publish it.

Every now and again, an article appears on the internet that stops the literary world in its tracks, filling up Facebook and Twitter timelines with hot takes, cold takes, bad takes… Thus it was with Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker piece, “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” Prior to her gig at the New Yorker Tolentino was an editor at Jezebel and also worked at The Hairpin, both sites that contributed significantly to that boom with all manner of personal essay.

In 1905, Virginia Woolf wrote a bad-tempered essay entitled “ The Decay of Essay Writing ” in which she bemoaned the proliferation of personal essays in the excess of reading materials. “One member of the household is almost officially deputed to stand at the hall door with flaming sword and do battle with the invading armies,” she wrote. “Tracts, pamphlets, advertisements, gratuitous copies of magazines, and the literary productions of friends come by post, by van, by messenger—come at all hours of the day and fall in the night, so that the morning breakfast table is fairly snowed up with them.”

When I first discovered this essay several years ago, after buying a complete collection of Woolf’s works for a buck from Kindle, I thought it had been written as satire, at first reading it as some kind of Woolfian defense of a woman’s right to write. But as I read further into the essay, I realized that Woolf was serious in her grumblings that too much writing was being produced. I made notes at the time that Woolf would have hated the internet, but forgot it as a potential essay as other projects captured my imagination.

Tolentino’s essay made me retrieve the Woolf to discover that the two were speaking to one another across a century.

Woolf mentions the age’s fiction and other literary devices but soon settles on the source of much of the paper on her table: the personal essay. It is true that it originated with Montaigne, she says, but it has become so popular a literary device that “we are justified in looking upon it as something of our own.”

But just because a lot of personal essays are getting written doesn’t mean that they’re particularly good as literature. She admits that the essay’s “peculiar form” lends itself to a wide variety of writing, although it is characterized primarily by its “egoism.”

“Almost all essays begin with a capital I—‘I think,’ ‘I feel,’—and when you have said that, it is clear that you are not writing history or philosophy or biography or anything but an essay, which may be brilliant or profound, which may deal with the immortality of the soul, or the rheumatism in your left shoulder, but is primarily an expression of personal opinion.”

Readers may note that Woolf’s idea of an absurd essay is someone writing about the rheumatism in their left shoulder. For Tolentino, the nadir was the woman who wrote about having a clump of cat hair removed from her vagina. One wonders if Edwardian editors had not been so constrained by obscenity laws of their time if they might not have published an essay about vaginas full of cat hair.

Woolf argues that her time is not more egotistical than previous ages, but that her contemporaries have the advantage of having “manual dexterity with a pen.” She contends that the proliferation of writing is due to the large number of people who know how to write and have access to pen and paper.

“There are, of course, distinguished people who use this medium from genuine inspiration because it best embodies the soul of their thought. But, on the other hand, there is a very large number who make the fatal pause, and the mechanical act of writing is allowed to set the brain in motion which should only be accessible to a higher inspiration.”

In other words, people are of the opinion that because they can move a pen across paper, they can therefore write. But as any writing teacher can tell you now, as Woolf could tell you then, “it ain’t necessarily so.”

Woolf writes that one of the consequences of this flooding into publication of written productions is the dumbing down of arts criticism. Anyone feels themselves capable of declaring whether they like or don’t like something, so that criticism has taken on “the amiable garrulity of the tea-table—cast into the form of essays.”

So it turns out that the recent gnashing of teeth over over the decreasing intellectual levels of arts criticism are yet another criticism anticipated by Woolf in 1905.

She pleads that if people are going to write essays, that they stop sharing their opinions about the arts and instead, learn to tell the truth about themselves on the page. She notes that the biggest problem with contemporary autobiographies and writing of that kind is a failure of nerve.

“Confronted with the terrible specter of themselves, the bravest are inclined to run away or shade their eyes.” For Woolf, the rottenness at the core of the personal essay was that people thought they could write well on subjects they had only obtuse opinions of. And the real writing to be done in a personal essay—to tell the truth about one’s life—was being avoided. Essays failed in “the cardinal virtue of sincerity,” while writers pretended an “oracular and infallible nature.”

A century on, however, Tolentino says that the essays that reach deep to tell a truth about a life have contributed to a genre that has gotten out of hand. And she makes the point that most of the people who wrote these personal essays were women, who were willing to do what Woolf had demanded of her contemporaries a century before: to confront the terrible specter of themselves, and to not blink, but to write fearlessly about it. The problem arose when these essays became a commodity that content sites on the outside of the dot.com boom came to rely on, creating a daily need of women who would bare their souls in exchange for a byline and a small amount of money. Many of these women may have thought of themselves as “serious” writers who were starting out on a career track, doing what writers are told to do: build a portfolio. Tolentino says that editors—desperate for “clicks” to increase revenue—exploited naïve writers and published material that should have been left as private journal entries rather than shared with the voyeuristic internet.

While many did not reap writing careers from their sharing, some of our celebrated women writers got their start writing personal essays for the internet. For many, those personal essays—be they stories of busted relationships, death in the family, or revelations of the self—became a way to being recognized as a writer.

While editors were willing to publish crappy writing if it had a sensational story to tell, editors also tell stories of discovering great writers who responded to their calls for personal writing. It’s a point Tolentino herself admits when she writes at the end, “I am moved by the negotiation of vulnerability. I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason. I loved watching people figure out if they had something to say.”

The problem is that few of the writers who made themselves naked on the page were able to turn that moment of internet recognition into a writing career. It’s one of the problems with the internet in general: it has such a huge appetite for content that an article that can move you to tears one morning simply creates an expectation in the reader that there are other essays out there capable of doing the same. And while a number of writers developed enormous followings on the internet that turned into book contracts and literary success, others may have felt that they had made themselves vulnerable as a literary exercise, only to have it treated as a form of cheap entertainment.

Tolentino and Woolf are both speaking to the writers of their day. Woolf urged writers to stop writing crappy book and theatre reviews and put something real on the page when they wrote personal essays. Tolentino is telling writers to stop writing personal essays where the “I” on the page has an experience that cannot be related to the greater structures in which we’re operating. If writers want to write about the personal, she seems to be saying, it’s time for us to consider how our experiences are shaped by the forces of racism or gender or class that distort the “I” we present to the world.

Woolf didn’t really want the personal essay to go away , she just wanted it to get better, and Tolentino is making a similar argument. The personal essay has to evolve; we are living in a time when the government is inserting itself into personal decisions that range from where our children go to school to what women allow in their vaginas. These things are still worth writing about. But we need to treat the personal essay with more dignity than we have done. There are infinite glimpses of human truth to be had in personal writing, but it really is okay not to publish every single thing you write. To adapt Woolf for our age: just because you can type it into your computer doesn’t mean you have to.

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For the love of books

Beyond Words: A Look At Virginia Woolf’s ‘On Being Ill’

In continued observance of Chronic Disease Awareness Month, let’s discuss one of Virginia Woolf’s most thought-provoking, insightful essays: “On Being Ill.”

virginia woolf essay on walking

Virginia Woolf is particularly famed in the literary world for her pioneering of the stream-of-consciousness narrative. Indeed, she had an incomparable talent for translating the organic flow of thought onto the page. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that she tackled one distinct theme that frustratingly tends to go beyond words: illness.

Woolf was no stranger to life’s ups and downs of well-being. She struggled long-term with her mental health, recurrent migraines, and successive bouts of influenza. The latter was the impetus behind Woolf’s profound essay, “On Being Ill,” which she penned in 1925 at age 42.

The essay was first published in early 1926 in T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion . Then, years later, it was published again in Woolf’s own Hogarth Press as a standalone piece. The first edition cover, designed by her sister, Vanessa, can be seen below.

virginia woolf essay on walking

Illness As A Literary Theme

The principal object of Woolf’s essay addresses the need for illness to stand as a core literary theme. Her opening sentence notes the very universal takeaway of “how common illness is,” thus inquiring into why the literary world explores it so little.

It becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill”

Lucidly, when it comes to the human condition, illness is an inescapable reality for all individuals at some point. We’ve all had a particularly horrible flu season, stomachache, injury, etc. Not to mention the tumultuous, ongoing navigation of a global pandemic (Woolf, herself, lived through the 1918 pandemic).

From Woolf’s standpoint, the perpetual avoidance of addressing illness, despite its universality, is tied to the vulnerability it induces in us. In the essay, Woolf relays that there is this “childish outspokenness in illness.” It temporarily removes us from our accustomed state of agency in the world and over our own lives.

As someone who has been shakily traversing life with a chronic illness for three years, I must concur that illness condenses oneself to the moment in a very harsh but internally revealing way. According to Woolf, this vulnerability accompanying illness is not something to run and hide from but something to lean into. Why? Because it engenders a very unique state of mind, where our external circumstances slow down, where life gets quiet. In short, it’s a state that leaves us solely alone with ourselves.

Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monk's House

This is the situation Woolf herself was in when she wrote “On Being Ill,” confined to her bed and tuned in to her mind in a visceral way. Clearly, it was a state in which she thought most profoundly and succeeded in bringing the resonant truths of human experience to light.

Mind and Body

With pen in hand, writers walk a line between tuning out the world and being hyperaware of everything around them. Virginia Woolf’s essay testifies to this balance in an extraordinary way.

All of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness prose reveals an astute observance of the world around her. At the same time, she indulges this insular quality of the mind, this peaceable solitude. Most important to her commentary on illness is the recognition that mind and body are far from separate. The way our body feels (or, rather, suffers) affects our mind. We don’t perceive and process our maladies distantly and objectively. Therefore, per Woolf’s argument, literature should recognize that connection rather than try and emphasize this false sort of dualism.

Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible, and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record. Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill.”

The missing literary record of these swings between “health and illness,” which constitute life as we know it, was something Woolf wanted to draw attention to. In many ways, she was the perfect voice to do so, given her personal health experiences and her resounding talent for capturing the nature of thought in her stream-of-consciousness style.

Virginia Woolf portrait from 1902

Illness and Language

Undoubtedly, within Woolf’s essay, there is a challenge to be found. She recognizes that one part of the literary hindrance in earnestly writing about illness is that “there is the poverty of the language.” It is invariably difficult to describe our pain in a way that feels satisfactory. Complete. In many ways, it is something we can never fully communicate and share with another person. Therein lies the trouble, but also a call to revitalize how we think about illness and evolve “a new language” of the body and mind that best translates the complexity of “being ill.”

To conclude, if there’s one line from Woolf’s essay that particularly stuck out to me in navigating my own health struggles, it would be that “In illness, words seem to possess a mystic quality.” I have long felt, when my health was at its worst, that words were my lifeline. Language serves as my tether to the moment and the ultimate gateway to understanding and expressing myself.

Writers like Woolf emphasize the importance of undertaking the literary challenge of unabashedly addressing and exploring topics that, too often, go beyond words. In many ways, that is the main roadblock of the human experience – the inability to feel fully and completely understood. However, Woolf gives us the inspiration to tackle that roadblock by leaning into the interlocking dynamic of mind and body, which holds a magnitude of inner truths vital to the literary canon.

Finally, for more reading recommendations spotlighting chronic disease awareness, click here .

To read about my personal experience on the mind/body connection when managing a chronic illness, please click here .



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  1. Street Haunting, an essay by Virginia Woolf

    In Virginia Woolf 's 1927 essay 'Street Haunting', the narrator explores this imaginative act of dipping in and out of people's minds as they move through the city's wintry, twilight streets. From prime ministers to the homeless, the narrator examines the city's inhabitants and the spaces they occupy.

  2. Walking in Virginia Woolf's footsteps: Performing cultural memory

    Abstract. The past two decades have seen the rise of the walking tour as a tourist practice that stands in uneasy and contradictory relation to commodity culture. Focusing on the guided tour to Virginia Woolf's London, this article examines what happens when we literally go back to Bloomsbury, walking the literary text as we write the urban one.

  3. Walking Into the River

    The voices of Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves ring out from the dark to insist on the humanity of the characters. Readers get no marking beyond the character's name, so sometimes characters blend and blur together, but then we get markers of individuality: a banker father in Brisbane, a consciousness of beauty, a desire to care for wild things.

  4. The Essays

    Woolf's deep understanding of the essay's form, her drive to construct a female literary history and female narrative form, culminate in A Room of One's Own (1929), where she employs a feminist rhetoric of affect and emotion.

  5. A Room of One's Own

    A Room of One's Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf, first published in September 1929. [1] The work is based on two lectures Woolf delivered in October 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College, women's colleges at the University of Cambridge. [2] [3]

  6. PDF Street, Haunting

    Street, Haunting Street, Haunting The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream. Virginia Woolf There is a church I like on Cochran Avenue. Little street-corner church, adobe-style, like a mission in some minor key.

  7. A walk through Cambridge with Virginia Woolf

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  8. The Unsaid: The Silence of Virginia Woolf

    The Unsaid: The Silence of Virginia Woolf. By Hisham Matar. November 10, 2014. Photograph courtesy Heritage Images via Getty. This essay is from an introduction to a new Italian translation, by ...

  9. Walking Virginia Woolf's London

    About this book. This innovative volume employs theoretical tools from the field of literary geography to explore Virginia Woolf's writing and the ways in which she constructs her human subjects. It follows the routes of characters from The Voyage, Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and more as they walk around London ...

  10. Street Haunting: A London Adventure

    "Street Haunting: A London Adventure" is a 1930 essay written by Virginia Woolf, inspired by observations made whilst walking the streets of London. Adeline Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an English writer. She is widely hailed as being among the most influential modernist authors of the 20th century and a pioneer of stream of consciousness narration.

  11. What Virginia Woolf's Lost Essay Can Teach Us About City Life

    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.

  12. Street Haunting: Summary, Analysis & Themes

    Street Haunting - Key takeaways. "Street Haunting" is an essay by modernist English author Virginia Woolf. Woolf employs stream of consciousness throughout the essay. The essay is about the joy of walking through the busy streets of London in winter. Woolf intersperses observation with the imagined lives of pedestrians.

  13. Virginia Woolf

    Adeline Virginia Woolf (/ w ʊ l f /; née Stephen; 25 January 1882 - 28 March 1941) was an English writer.She is considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device.. Woolf was born into a very affluent household in South Kensington, London, the seventh child of Julia Prinsep Jackson and Leslie Stephen ...

  14. Virginia Woolf

    Virginia Woolf, (born January 25, 1882, London, England—died March 28, 1941, near Rodmell, Sussex), English writer whose novels, through their nonlinear approaches to narrative, exerted a major influence on the genre.. While she is best known for her novels, especially Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), Woolf also wrote pioneering essays on artistic theory, literary history ...

  15. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

    Novel Pairings. Books. We're kicking off our month of Virigina Woolf with an episode exploring Woolf's dense and sprawling extended essay, "A Room of Own's Own.". At just over one hundred pages, Woolf gives herself ample space on the page to explore and consider the issues that keep women from the forefront of the literature and what ...

  16. 'Literature is Common Ground': On Reading Virginia Woolf

    Woolf's work has echoes of these ancient religious reading practices that hardwire sacred texts into the body through repetition and meditation. Reading and writing were really the foundational spiritual practices of Woolf's life. She figured out very early on as a child that she could reorient her life through reading.

  17. Virginia Woolf's Pencil

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  18. Virginia Woolf Essays

    Adeline Virginia Woolf (25 January 1882 -28 March 1941) was an English writer and one of the foremost modernists [ 1] of the twentieth century. During the interwar period [ 2], Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a central figure in the influential Bloomsbury [ 3] Group of intellectuals.

  19. 'A Word to Start an Argument with': Virginia Woolf's Craftsmanship

    Abstract. This paper explores Virginia Woolf's 1937 radio broadcast (and later essay) 'Craftsmanship' in the context of craft culture. As Woolf considers the word judiciously and playfully throughout 'Craftsmanship', it becomes a nexus point for an entanglement of ideas around making, creating, and producing.

  20. An Ode to Women Who Walk, From Virginia Woolf to Greta Gerwig

    I think of Virginia Woolf whenever I walk in Bloomsbury and how she loved a night-walk. She wrote that the best time to walk at night is winter, and she was, of course, right. I love being wrapped up and anonymous as I wind my way to somewhere warm and sociable.

  21. Virginia Woolf: There Are Way Too Many Personal Essays Out There

    In 1905, Virginia Woolf wrote a bad-tempered essay entitled " The Decay of Essay Writing " in which she bemoaned the proliferation of personal essays in the excess of reading materials. "One member of the household is almost officially deputed to stand at the hall door with flaming sword and do battle with the invading armies," she wrote.

  22. Essay about Virginia Woolf

    1250 Words. 5 Pages. Open Document. An Author's Brush. Virginia Woolf is not unlike any other truly good artist: her writing is vague, her expression can be inhibited, and much of her work is up to interpretation from the spectator. Jacob's Room is one of her novels that can be hard to digest, but this is where the beauty of the story can ...

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  24. Virginia Woolf's view on women in

    The point is that it has changed and that women play a much different role in literature today than they did even just a century ago during Woolf's time. Woolf saw just a glimpse into the social turn that has led to the present day and the feminist views that have inundated our society. Her era was still filled with male dominated ideas.

  25. Street Haunting Virginia Woolf Analysis

    1071 Words5 Pages. In Virginia Woolf's "Street Haunting", the reader follows Woolf through a winter's walk through London under the false pretense to buy a new pencil. During her journey through the streets of London, she is made aware of a number of strangers. The nature of her walk is altered by these strangers she encounters.