Virginia Woolf: A street of one’s own
Eighty years on from her great-aunt Virginia’s untimely death, Emma Woolf considers how she would have coped with the coronavirus lockdown
25 March, 2021 — By Emma Woolf
George Charles Beresford’s photograph of Virginia Woolf in 1902
“TO walk alone in London is the greatest rest…”
We’ve all found different ways to cope with lockdown. Confined to our homes for the past year, many of us have taken up baking, gardening or other hobbies. And with the injunction to avoid using public transport “unless your journey is essential” many have taken to walking. Walking as a way to get from A to B, to break the monotony of long days at home, or just to pass the time.
As we approach the 80th anniversary of my great-aunt Virginia’s suicide (on March 28, 1941) it got me thinking, how would she have coped with lockdown?
A well-known London writer and walker – as her 1927 essay Street-Haunting reminds us – she would surely have taken to pounding the pavements. One of Virginia’s greatest pleasures in London was rambling through the streets; it provided inspiration for her writing and solace when she felt depressed. In a low moment in 1934, she wrote: “I’m so ugly. So old. Well, don’t think about it, and walk all over London; and see people and imagine their lives.”
As a writer myself, I know that walking can be a therapeutic activity, a way of sorting through ideas or storylines, escaping the writing desk and the blank page, and hopefully allowing inspiration to flow. The plot of her most successful novel, Mrs Dalloway (1925) is centred around a London stroll, with Clarissa Dalloway setting out across Westminster to buy flowers for her party that evening. “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
On the one hand, Virginia would have coped well in lockdown. Even though she’s known as a depressive – in her own words “insane” – and finally took her own life, she had considerable mental resilience and a rich inner life.
She was a Londoner to her core, from her earliest years in Hyde Park Gate, the childhood walks around Kensington Gardens and the Round Pond, and visits to the South Kensington museums.
On her father’s death she moved with her siblings across town to Bloomsbury. She immortalised the area, living in many of its elegant squares (Gordon, Fitzroy, Brunswick, Tavistock and Mecklenburgh). Her daily walks along Piccadilly and Whitehall and through the Royal Parks, closely mirrored by Mrs Dalloway’s fictional progress, provided both physical and mental exercise.
Later in life when Virginia and her husband Leonard moved to Richmond she missed the central London hub-bub and enjoyed satirising the dullness of the suburbs: “Between Richmond and death, I choose death.”
She listened to conversations on the top deck of the omnibus, finding inspiration for her fictional characters, she experienced flashes of dislike for her fellow Londoners on the Underground, writing in The Waves: “Oh, life, how I have dreaded you, oh, human beings, how I have hated you… how hideous you have looked in Oxford Street, how squalid sitting opposite each other staring in the Tube!”
On the other hand, despite her recurrent bouts of “madness” which required total rest and seclusion, Virginia was also extremely sociable. This side of Virginia is often overlooked: she adored the social whirl, flirtations with men and women, the stimulation of talk and human interaction.
Her letters and diaries refer constantly to her busy social life, teas with TS Eliot, dinners with Maynard Keynes, parties and lectures and weekends with friends in the country, trips abroad. In that sense the current restrictions on meeting friends and family would have been as testing for her as it is for most of us.
And she loved unusual sights and people, altercations and crowds: “A fine spring day. I walked along Oxford Street. The buses are strung on a chain. People fight and struggle. Knocking each other off the pavement.” She would have found our lockdown streets and closed shops extremely dull.
Virginia not only thrived on walks through the city, but also travel abroad. In Street-Haunting, rambling past London bookshops, she stops to look at travel books and reflects: “So restless the English are, with the waves at their very door.” The Woolfs spent several summers in Cassis in the late 1920s, and almost bought a villa out there.
As to the fear felt by many in this global pandemic, it’s hard to know how the Woolfs would have responded. Both World Wars unfolded in Virginia’s lifetime, with German strategic bombing in January 1915 and Zeppelin raids over London, so she was no stranger to genuine threat. The sound of guns across the Channel echoes through her 1922 novel Jacob’s Room, and five years later in To The Lighthouse.
In February 1915, walking through Green Park she witnessed an explosion that brought people running onto the streets, and noted her own sense of immunity: “It always seems utterly impossible that one should be hurt.”
And yet, throughout the very cold winters of 1917 and 1918, the Woolfs spent many nights in their basement during the bombardments with “clothes, quilts, a watch and a torch”, sitting on wooden boxes in the coal cellar or lying on mattresses.
It’s undeniable that they lived in anxious times, with millions of people losing their lives in the war. At the time of Virginia’s suicide, newspaper headlines attributed it to the frightening events in Europe: “Sussex Novelist Victim of War Strain”.
Eighty years on from her untimely death, we face a very different kind of global emergency, but the streets are still there for the solitary writer or walker, providing solace and escape.