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Writing Out of Place: Wordsworth and Woolf in London

Wordsworth et Woolf à Londres: écritures en dé-placement
Laurent Folliot et Juliana Lopoukhine


On se propose ici de mettre en lumière certaines affinités, inattendues mais assez profondes, entre William Wordsworth et Virginia Woolf – en particulier leur amour commun pour la marche. Si les randonnées champêtres de Wordsworth ont souvent été associées au type de culture patriarcale incarné par le père de Woolf, Leslie Stephen (qui signa d’ailleurs un « Éloge de la marche »), les vagabondages londoniens décrits au livre VII du Prélude présentent des analogies suggestives, ainsi que des contrastes, avec l’heuristique urbaine et moderniste de Woolf. Tous deux sont, en un sens, situés à la marge de l’espace métropolitain qu’ils négocient par l’écriture, et tous deux ont une conscience aiguë de vivre en un temps de crise et de possibilités nouvelles. On espère, en lisant Wordsworth et Woolf en regard l’un de l’autre, éclairer autrement l’histoire de la flânerie urbaine dans la littérature britannique, en suggérant quelles lignes de force idéologiques et de genre en ont façonné l’évolution, et aussi quelles incertitudes pérennes accompagnent l’écrivain dans sa confrontation avec la grande ville moderne.

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  • 1 Although the continuities between Romanticism and Modernism have long been a subject of critical in (...)

1One common point between William Wordsworth and Virginia Woolf is their love of roaming.1 With unfailing gusto, Woolf found inspiration across the streets of London, whilst Wordsworth notoriously favoured the country. Yet Book VII of The Prelude, at least, is based on the poet’s experience of the metropolis, an experience which, like Woolf’s outings in post-war Bloomsbury, took place during a period fraught with revolutionary changes both political and aesthetic. Wordsworth’s stay in London is poised between his first trip to the Continent, in 1790, at the time of the Fête de la Fédération, and the longer residence in France (1791-92) which would result in a fuller engagement with “Jacobin” hopes and principles, as well as in the poetic displacement of revolution that came to be known as Romanticism. Woolf, on the other hand, wrote at a time when the traumatic effects of the First World War coexisted with a moment of literary and aesthetic renewal, but also of socio-political change, with the emerging emancipation of women, in particular, which could be glimpsed nowhere quite as tangibly as in the city. In both cases, therefore, roaming the city was a liminal, and even inaugural, experience – with the city itself, perhaps, envisioned as a threshold of subjective and historical change. Yet both writers, albeit for different reasons, shared an ambivalent position towards the place they were negotiating or recreating in writing. Woolf elaborated an ambivalent and even paradoxical position towards the city that was at once the centre of the British Empire, the symbol of a “male literary and social heritage” (Squier 3), and the public stage on which women arrived. Wordsworth in London was still a drifting provincial from the Lake country, who had left Cambridge without a degree and without a calling; to that extent, it is perhaps noteworthy that in her 1940 essay “The Leaning Tower,” Woolf would omit Wordsworth from her list of college-taught, middle-class writers exemplifying the cultural security of the nineteenth-century author she refused to identify with, but rather cites his lines as a sample of what she calls “poet’s poetry” (Woolf 2011, 272).

  • 2 Although Walter Benjamin’s canonical account of the flâneur centers on Baudelaire’s Paris, it might (...)
  • 3 Woolf, indeed, singled him out for praise in her essay on Hazlitt in The Common Reader (Woolf 2003, (...)

2Both Wordsworth and Woolf, indeed, wrote as relative outsiders about a city – London – which had long held pride of place not just in British politics, but also in British literature, from William Dunbar’s late-Medieval celebration of “the flour of Cities all” to what might be termed the invention, around 1700, of modern flânerie by the likes of Ned Ward’s London-Spy or Addison and Steele’s Spectator.2 That this observational, peripatetic approach to London, in particular, was solidly established and alive by the early nineteenth century might be evidenced from the works of Charles Lamb, a Wordsworth associate and Woolf favourite.3 Reading Wordsworth and Woolf alongside each other, in fact, should provide us with an opportunity to revisit the history of urban flânerie in British literature, by suggesting how its course was shaped along various ideological and gender fault lines – from the young republican Wordsworth’s reluctant fascination with the “illimitable” city to Woolf’s embrace of the multiple creative possibilities that modern London offered –, and also what enduring perplexities beset the writer’s task of engaging with the modern city, in all its triviality and apocalyptic significance. It might also remind us of the deep-seated affinities that, in some respects, connect Romanticism with Modernism, not least in their search, in eras of revolution, trauma and change, for an ever-problematic “common ground” – “literature is common ground,” Woolf wrote in “The Leaning Tower” (Woolf 2011, 278) – most acutely epitomized by the metropolis.

Roaming, dallying: flânerie as liminal experience

3Wordsworth was not primarily an urban writer; rather, he was a Nature and a regional poet, a country Whig in love with the mountain-nymph Liberty. Yet he wrote some important pieces about London, especially Book VII and part of Book VIII of The Prelude, at which he began working in late 1804, after the long interruption that had followed his decision to expand the five-book version into the much-longer one that most readers are now familiar with. Although this change of plan is best known for leading to the detailed evocation of Wordsworth’s stay in revolutionary France, with his subsequent (near-traumatic) dejection, it is his “residence in London” (the title of Book VII) which provides the first of the trials the poet undergoes in the new, expanded text. It has, indeed, an inaugural or a liminal value, in more than one sense. The resumption of autobiographical writing echoes the transition from early youth to manhood, since Wordsworth’s first long stay in London took place as, still uncertain about his professional future and having “[a] little space of intermediate time” before him, he resolved to “[pitch his] vagrant tent, / A casual Dweller and at large, among / The unfenced regions of society” (Wordsworth 1991, 195): out of academic bowers, then, and into the urban wilderness, in a drifting move which could easily appear perilous. Now this sense of exposure is mitigated by Wordsworth’s immediately following statement that he remained, for the most part, exterior to the whole scene, and thus could innocently, cheerfully enjoy it, in the same way he enjoyed the life of Nature on his rambles across the Lake District.

4From that point of view, Book VII of The Prelude can partly be read as a flâneur’s rhapsody in the London literary tradition (on which see Murail 2017); and it may read, at times, as though the poet were tarrying or dallying with his main theme, using the pageants of the metropolis in order to defer the moment of crossing over effectively into the world of experience. His evocation, in fact, is ushered in by a half-humorous recollection of the various fancies the teenage Wordsworth had previously cherished about London, building up a magic city of words from the mention of its most famous landmarks: the “green groves, and wilderness of lamps,” the “gorgeous Ladies, fairy cataracts, / And pageant fire-works” of Vauxhall and Ranelagh, along with a list of wonders ending with “The Monument, and Armoury of the Tower.” And though some disappointment arose from the poet’s encounter with the actual city, he can still recall it with pleasure, as a kind of private album whose charms are further enhanced by memories of youth itself: “that motley imagery, / A vivid pleasure of my youth, and now, / Among the lonely places that I love, / A frequent day-dream for my riper mind” (Wordsworth 1991, 197).

5Yet the sense of leisure that pervades Book VII is complicated by its narrative and historical context, in a way that, as in Woolf over a century later, lends it added liminal value. In Book VI, Wordsworth had related his first trip to the Continent, another phase of truancy that had led him from Cambridge to Switzerland through rural France in the optimistic aftermath of the 1790 Fête de la Fédération. It is, thus, understandable that the poet’s youthful hopes for the regeneration of the human race (expounded at more length in Books IX and X) should register, even indirectly, in his musings on London life and London crowds. The city, in his verse, might be said to be pre-revolutionary – in both senses of the term, especially as Wordsworth’s ambivalence towards London can be seen as tinged with the more apocalyptic feelings associated with later phases of the French Revolution. Wordsworth’s London is, as we shall see, a fundamentally ambivalent “mighty place,” always held back at a distance, yet still inviting and still baffling interpretation, where the traditional imagery and categories that the text affably invoked to begin with threaten to break down before those more inscrutable aspects of urban modernity that would feature prominently in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, or in so many of Dickens’s novels (Murail and Thornton). The possibility of an unspecified mental revolution is always lurking within London’s immensity. In Book VIII, Wordsworth exclaims: “Great God! / That aught external to the living mind / Should hold such mighty sway! yet so it was” (Wordsworth 1991, 228). And he roams the streets with a latent restlessness, perhaps closer to Woolfian heuristics than to the secure contemplation the Inns of Court had long afforded to at least some London men of letters: “privileged Regions and inviolate, / Where, from their aery lodges, studious Lawyers / Look out on waters, walks, and gardens green” (Wordsworth 1991, 199).

  • 4 See Catherine Bernard’s reading of those “moments of being,” especially the section entitled “fulgu (...)

6“Life; London; this moment of June.” Those famous three words from the first pages of Mrs. Dalloway, one of Virginia Woolf’s much quoted and most canonical London novels, could be read as containing all the delight she took in her beloved city, its “swing, tramp, and trudge,” its “bellow and […] uproar” (Woolf 2000, 4). Exclamations of surprise and pleasure pepper the pages of her famous 1925 novel whose characters seem to be constantly moving from one place in London to another, tasting the exquisite pleasure of walking the city’s streets, parks, monuments, enjoying the endless spectacle, unexpected events and encounters. Living in a post-traumatic context, Woolf’s endeavours to capture the present moment – which, in a phrase reminiscent of Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” she terms her “moments of being”4 in her autobiographical 1939 essay “Sketch of the Past” (Woolf 2002, 83) – express the necessity to live intensely in the modern city as a tank of unprecedented experiences, and to welcome the infinite possibilities which the streets of London offer to the daring explorer.

  • 5 This was also true of Dickens, who needed the labyrinth of London to be able to write, as Walter Be (...)
  • 6 On the multiple mentions made by Virginia Woolf of her enthusiastic relationship to London in her d (...)

7Indeed traces of Virginia Woolf’s love and need for the stimulation of London, both as a person and as a writer,5 can be found in multiple places in her diary.6 Every trip she took to the countryside, for holidays or for reasons of health, was impregnated with a longing to go back to the city that appeared as the very fuel sustaining her creative energy and which, in a 1924 diary entry, she compared to a “magic carpet”: “I step out upon a tawny coloured magic carpet, it seems, and get carried into beauty without raising a finger. One of these days I will write about London, and how it takes up the private life and carries it on, without any effort” (Woolf 1982, 61). Such an ode to the city in fact turns it into a phantasmagoric space very much reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s surrealistic recreation of Paris in The Arcades Project, in which imagination and language both transform the city and, in turn, are transformed by its subjective experience. Woolf’s imaginary representation of London appears as an endless co-creative process enhanced by unpredictability and chance, which is potentially renewed at every instant, as this famous quote from Jacob’s Room epitomizes: “The streets of London have their map; but our passions are uncharted. What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?” (Woolf 1992, 89-90)

8The year 1924, when Virginia Woolf returned to Bloomsbury after a long period of absence, appears as a key moment, as nearly all of her most famous novels, starting with Mrs. Dalloway, would be written in her house in Tavistock Square in the course of the next fifteen years. Indeed, Woolf had then reached full maturity as a modernist writer, after publishing what has been recognised as her first truly experimental novel, Jacob’s Room, in 1922. This new stage in Virginia Woolf’s writing is inseparable from the city, from the aesthetic and literary discussions carried out by the Bloomsbury group, but also from a historical moment during which the city crystallised what was at once a temporal crisis and a period rich in potential in the context of the emergence of avant-gardes in the 1910s and 20s: another revolutionary period, in which the Romantic preoccupation with literature’s power to act as a dialectic space for the expression of historical and existential anxiety found renewed relevance. A laboratory for a new Modernist aesthetics in literature, the city was also the stage on which women “took place” at last. Virginia Woolf was highly conscious of the inaugural quality of the years in which she lived, and in many of her novels, the city is presented as the ambivalent site of new potentialities for women, as well as the primary material for a new experimental poetics. In this, her explorations of London echo Wordsworth’s complex sense of the city as a threshold, as a heuristic space teeming with undetermined possibilities.

  • 7 Already in “Wordsworth’s Letters,” Woolf playfully asserts that “Wordsworth, when he was not inspir (...)

9Although Woolf devoted two essays specifically to Wordsworth very early in her career, and quoted his poems regularly in other essays, she never wrote one specifically on his poetry. In “Wordsworth and the Lakes,” published in 1906, she pronounced that few writers “would not seem to write diluted English after the terse veracity of the poet’s prose” (Woolf 1986, 108), and in “Wordsworth’s Letters” (1908), she wonders at his correspondence being such a “cautious record of daily life and accumulating experience” (Woolf 1986, 185); yet in neither does she actually discuss his verse. Interestingly, her keenest insights about Wordsworth would feature in the 1929 essay she wrote on his sister Dorothy (Woolf 2003, 164-172) – an essay in which William appears as a somewhat clumsy, almost comic, yet endearing character,7 thoroughly dependent as a poet on his sister’s diary entries and everyday presence. In fact, Virginia Woolf’s choice to dedicate essays to the sisters and daughters of canonical Romantic poets – she wrote one on Sara Coleridge in 1940 (Woolf 1942, 73-77) – underlining their struggles to negotiate between their creative appetite and the demands of domesticity, could almost be interpreted as an attempt to revise the male literary heritage by sketching what might have been an alternative, female canon of British Romanticism. It can be read, in any case, as a sign of her being deeply concerned with the forgotten women writers whose creative potentialities never met with a favourable social and cultural context.

10Indeed, despite belonging to the London establishment herself, Virginia Woolf’s celebration of the energy and life provided by the modern city is coloured by an enduring, if non militant, distance from the spatial configurations determined by the modalities of masculine power, especially in its historical and symbolical places. At the same time, both Woolf’s and Wordsworth’s liminal positions, keeping them on the threshold of the city’s public space, become a writing force, we will argue, an “out of place-ness” that is both a refusal to be fully assimilated in the existing structures of the city, and a certain spirit of humility – with etymological overtones in Wordsworth’s case, perhaps – that they share, both in their acknowledgement of the many creative possibilities offered to them by the city, and in their criticism of its power effects. In both cases, indeed, this humble position as “outsiders within” is no longer a place to which one would be passively confined, but rather a liminal position to inhabit and write from, a position which both places the Romantic poet and the Modernist writer in a long tradition of English urban writers, yet at the same time sets them apart from other English writers who are well-known for their depictions of the city of London. Both used this liminal position to venture a political vision and critical reading of their time.

11Wordsworth’s engagement with the multitudinous sights of London is, initially at least, tinged with a dizziness which bears affinities with Woolf’s exhilaration: “The broad high-way appearance, as it strikes / On Strangers of all ages; the quick dance / Of colours, lights and forms; the Babel din; / The endless stream of men, and moving things” (Wordsworth 1991, 197-198). On the one hand, the motley spectacle of London streets makes for a kind of entertainment that is – although merely fanciful – enthralling in its variety. It is, first of all, an inexhaustible jumble of commodities and advertisements:

     […] the string of dazzling Wares,
Shop after Shop, with Symbols, blazon’d Names,
And the Tradesman’s honours overhead:
Here, fronts of houses, like a title-page,
With letters huge inscribed from top to toe;
Stationed above the door like guardian Saints,
There, allegoric shapes, female or male,
Or physiognomies of real men,
Land Warriors, Kings, or Admirals of the sea,
Boyle, Shakespear, Newton, or the attractive head
Of some Scotch Doctor, famous in his day. (Wordsworth 1991, 198)

  • 8 Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and “Oxford Street Tide” have also been analyzed by Reginald Abbott i (...)
  • 9 On semiotic dispersal and Wordsworth’s strategy of “blockage” against it, see Neil Hertz 53-60.

12The picturesque, fantastic hotchpotch of “wares” and “names” that is the city does provide a stimulus for reverie, in which, however, essential distinctions (between men and words and things, between the sacred and the profane, between sterling and debased cultural value) are constantly jeopardised. London’s numberless inscriptions are, by the same dint, numberless erasures, making for a world of transience where the difference between poetry and advertisement, between sense and nonsense, may ultimately collapse, as in the less-frequented suburb where Wordsworth observes the printed stuff of yesterday: “Here files of ballads dangle from dead walls; / Advertisements, of giant size! from high / Press forward in all colours on the sight” (Wordsworth 1991, 199). We may well detect, at the heart of Wordsworth’s London, the phantasmagoria of the commodity that Marx would dissect, and whose heartless lure, according to Walter Benjamin, saturates the background of Baudelaire’s flâneur persona (Benjamin 1990, 82-85) ;8 indeed, it is significant that the Romantic poet should have stationed, at the very centre of “[t]he wealth, the bustle and the eagerness […] midway in the Street / The Scavenger, that begs with hat in hand” (Wordsworth 1991, 198). Yet this phantasmagoria is, above all, a semiotic one, an endless deferral of meaning against which Wordsworth, ultimately, makes a sturdier stand – a less playful or more conservative stand – than Woolf later would.9 Indeed, this “perpetual flow / Of trivial objects” does have its spectator in thrall, its facticity threatening the autonomy of the imagination with sensory overload and – in an act of further distancing – turning the inhabitants of the metropolis into “[t]he slaves unrespited of low pursuits” (Wordsworth 1991, 210). Wordsworth, it is true, does bestow some praise on the shows of London, which he evokes at considerable length in Book VII, for they bear witness, whatever their naivety and triteness, to man’s deep-seated longing for the natural and the sublime (as in his evocation of the panoramas which then were one of the significant innovations in metropolitan culture), and more generally to the rudimentary or residual stirrings of the imagination (as when he pays tribute to the enchantment of cheap theatres like Sadler’s Wells). These provide a kind of counter-focus in the midst of London, an imperfect counterweight to the baleful spell of “differences / That have no law, no meaning, and no end” (Wordsworth 1991, 210). Yet the ultimate London performance, described in a much-anthologised purple patch, is Bartholomew Fair, the giant freak-show that had loomed large in Augustan satire, and which Wordsworth likens to a “Parliament of Monsters”: a “Promethean” and even “infernal” chaos that threatens not just aesthetic, but also political subversion, since it is the closest to a revolutionary mob London has to offer in those deceivingly quiet times: “What say you then / To times when half the City shall break out / Full of one passion, vengeance, rage, or fear, / To executions, to a Street on fire, / Mobs, riots, or rejoicings?” (Wordsworth 1991, 209).

  • 10 “The motor omnibuses were locked. Mr. Spalding going to the city looked at Mr. Charles Budgeon boun (...)

13Wordsworth’s revulsion from the sights of the Fair is not merely counter-revolutionary. For the structural disorder which makes Bartholomew Fair, with its “blank confusion,” into a “type not false / Of what the mighty City is itself” (Wordsworth 1991, 210) signals a breakdown of place and community, at least of the kind of place and community the young Wordsworth would have posited as the basis for, and ideal of, any kind of revolutionary hope such as he was at first to experience in France in 1792. London’s most salient characteristic, the “one feeling […] which belong’d / To this great City by exclusive right,” is the dizzying anonymity resulting from its sheer numbers: “How often in the overflowing Streets / Have I gone forwards with the Crowd, and said / Unto myself, the face of every one / That passes by me is a mystery!” (Wordsworth 1991, 208). This, of course, is the very phenomenon that, as Benjamin noted, simultaneously enabled the experience of the nineteenth-century flâneur and gave it its lurking sense of precariousness (Benjamin 1990, 164-175 especially). In The Prelude, this feeling is bound up with a deep sense of the wear and tear in those innumerable, insulated human lives which seems to anticipate Woolf’s vision in Jacob’s Room of commuters glimpsing one another from the top of omnibuses bound in opposite directions:10 “Here, there, and everywhere, a weary throng, / The comers and the goers face to face— / Face after face” (Wordsworth 1991, 208).

The poetics of shock : adventures streets and jarring encounters

14In Wordsworth, we may add, this sense of innumerable lives is also an awareness of invisible lives, both reified and festering, glimpsed backstage, as it were, from the main urban theatre, in “[p]rivate Courts, / Gloomy as coffins, and unsightly Lanes / Thrill’d by some female Vendor’s scream” (Wordsworth 1991, 198-199): an almost Blakean insight, conflating in one powerful ellipsis the bare cycle of life and death with the omnipresence of vice and misery. Yet Wordsworth’s own street-roaming carries his exploration of the anonymous city to an apex of ambivalence, simultaneously unmanning and illuminating: his encounter with “a blind beggar, who, with upright face, / Stood propped against a wall, upon his chest / Wearing a written paper, to explain / The story of the man, and who he was” (Wordsworth 1991, 208). Here the anonymity of London is both heightened, since the beggar, who is nameless, is the ultimate instance of the isolation and deprivation so rife in the city, and held in check, with its “endless flow” suddenly suspended in near-monumental fixity (although Wordsworth mentioned “statues” in “vast squares” earlier on, a case might be made that this is his own, dissenting work of statuary in the London landscape). Similarly, the beggar’s identity is both stripped to its essentials and brought to the utmost degree of genericity, as Wordsworth goes on to comment: “it seemed / To me that in this label was a type / Or emblem of the utmost that we know / Both of ourselves and of the universe” (Wordsworth 1991, 208). This encounter with what Benjamin would later call the “mere life” (Benjamin 1999, 250) is experienced as a revolution in the mind (“My mind did at this spectacle turn round / As with the might of waters”), or perhaps as a conversion of sorts (“I looked, / As if admonished from another world”). Indeed, the ambiguity is lasting: what Wordsworth faces may be construed as the essential facticity of human life, an ontological vagrancy which takes from the human subject “all the ballast of familiar life, / The present, the past, hope, fear, all stays, / All laws of acting, thinking, speaking men” (Wordsworth 1991, 208), and equally it may provide the starting-point for the rediscovery of transcendence (“admonished from another world”). To which may be further added that the encounter opens up a possibility for empathy, for a projection into strange and marginal lives, whilst immediately withholding it in the reciprocal incommunicability of singular experience. The whole passage, at the very least, may illustrate how the place/no place that is London – T.S. Eliot’s “Unreal City” – has jolted or shocked modern authors into writing, in order to make sense of it, or perhaps to bear witness to its resistance to meaning.

  • 11 According to Janet Wolff and Doreen Massey, “the flâneur is irretrievably male,” at least in the ni (...)

15A comparable urge to capture the city through the act of writing, though less ambivalently and with a desire to grasp tiny fragments rather than reach a stable meaning, is to be found in Woolf’s testimony of the effects of London’s semiotic and narrative potentialities: “London itself perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play & a story & a poem without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets,” she writes in her diary in 1928 (Woolf 1982, 126). By connecting so explicitly the act of writing with that of walking, Woolf seems to place her reflection in the wake of a long line of male poets and writers; yet, in her case, the figure of the flâneur as a spectator and peintre de la vie moderne is made problematic by its historical and cultural construction as an explicitly male archetype enjoying a freedom bestowed upon him by his gender, which may hinder the elaboration of its feminine counterpart.11

  • 12 This is put forcefully in Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” (“Le Peintre de la vie moderne”) ci (...)
  • 13 In her recent book on Virginia Woolf and London, Lisbeth Larsson writes that [b]eing on the move – (...)
  • 14 Andrew Thacker analyzes what he calls Woolf’s “surface-depth mode” which, he argues, “is endemic th (...)

16Yet in her 1930 essay “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” Virginia Woolf does celebrate a pleasure in escaping from the constraints of one’s body, in “shed[ding] the self our friends know us by” in order to “become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers” (Woolf 1942, 19). The modern incognito of the “tramper,” emphasized by Baudelaire and Benjamin,12 is identified by Woolf as an important condition for the attainment of a true freedom of perception.13 The essay starts with an irrepressible call to “go street rambling,” and the pretext still needed to make this possible is the purchase of a “lead pencil”: “when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: ‘Really I must buy a pencil,’ as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter – rambling through the streets of London.” (Woolf 1942, 19) The “excuse” of the “lead pencil” playfully and homographically becomes what “leads” the writer/rambler on her “London adventure,” as Chantal Delourme writes in her essay on “Street-Haunting” (Delourme 124). As “dallying” in the streets and “dallying” on the page become one and the same operation, walking and writing being no longer consecutive but simultaneous, Virginia Woolf’s invitation is of course both to “leave the straight lines of personality” by venturing into strange bodies and lives,14 the “straight lines” of the streets, as well as the “straight lines” of traditional narrative.

17While Woolf’s “rambling,” “tramping” and “dallying” could be read as answering Wordsworth’s “roaming,” they also echo the etymological meaning of flânerie, stemming from an Old Norse nautical term that means drifting, having severed all boundaries linking one to solid ground. Unlike Wordsworth, as an inhabitant of the upper class quarters of London, Woolf was still highly conscious of being subjected to relative social constraints in her relationship to the city. And indeed, it is mainly in their relationship to the collective, social categories of time that her characters experience a freedom similar to the drifting of the flâneur, in which the traveller loses him- or herself in the streets and in imagination, traversing the city with no other aim. Indeed, like the persona of “Street-Haunting,” who needs the “excuse” of the “lead pencil” to “indulge safely” in the pleasure of walking, Clarissa Dalloway still needs an alibi, to justify taking her famous stroll: “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (Woolf 2000, 3).

18Her daughter Elizabeth, however, impulsively decides to break free from the limitations of the clock, which summons her to her mother’s party, and boards a random omnibus on the street, a gesture in fact reminiscent of the “little space of intermediate time” which allowed the young Wordsworth to take his London trip. By making this bold gesture, Elizabeth does not so much break with the linearity of her set schedule, or radically escape from the demands of her class and family into a new future, since her escapade is still pervaded with her own acute sense of her duty to the social expectations that weigh on her, but rather defers their satisfaction and welcomes randomness into her day:

Buses swooped, settled, were off—garish caravans, glistening with red and yellow varnish. But which should she get on to? She had no preferences. […] Suddenly Elizabeth stepped forward and most competently boarded the omnibus, in front of everybody. She took a seat on top. (Woolf 2000, 114)

  • 15 Rachel Bowlby writes that Elizabeth Dalloway “is the bearer of new opportunities for her sex, a wom (...)

19Randomness becomes the paradoxical means to open out a space for adventure in the etymological sense: ad venire, to “take place,” symbolically appropriating unknown parts of the city and inaugurating a new temporality. Indeed, because “no Dalloways came down the Strand daily,” Elizabeth feels like “a pioneer, a stray, venturing, trusting” (Woolf 2000, 117). Even though the subjective construction of the daughter of wealthy Tories living in Westminster is still very incomplete and tainted with the naivety of youth, “venturing” out of place still becomes synonymous with disrupting the limits of her normalized self into new possibilities and opening new lines of flight that “leave the straight lines of personality” (Woolf 1942, 19), by leaving the straight lines of the well-known streets to which her sort have kept:15 “So she might be a doctor. She might be a farmer” (Woolf 2000, 115). Yet more than an act of socio-political affirmation, her escapade, which she indulges in without the “safety” of any “excuse” but the irresistible call of the city that Woolf expresses in “Street-Haunting”, is an intense subjective journey that she allows herself through little delays stolen from the demands of collective time but that, paradoxically, contain the infinite potentialities of desire: “Oh, she would like to go a little further” (Woolf 2000, 115). With each delay, a new line of flight is opened up, pushing back the geographical, temporal and subjective frontiers. And that is the exact moment when, at the climax of potentiality, the return journey is announced: “She must go home. She must dress for dinner. But what was the time?—where was a clock?” (Woolf 2000, 116)

20However ephemeral, the resistance to the tyranny of prearranged time still makes room for the possibility of a different, subjective temporality, a movement that is further exemplified in another slight deferral Clarissa Dalloway perceives “before Big Ben strikes”; an “indescribable pause” or “suspense” (Woolf 2000, 3) that welcomes the booming with an exclamation of surprise, as if it were unexpected: “There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air” (Woolf 2000, 4). The tragic or “leaden” irrevocability of time still leaves space for a lighter, more fluid perception that introduces a potentially creative dissonance. The character is both bound by the collective temporality that structures the places of the city, and animated by her own, subjective receptivity which, on the contrary, fragments the city, whose micro-scenes both feed and interrupt the character’s thoughts, piercing through the thick canvas of her stream of consciousness, as in this much-quoted passage:

In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead. (Woolf 2000, 4)

21The light-heartedness of the character is in fact congruent with the joyful, jingling, effervescent mosaic of time resulting from the random juxtaposition. A highly discontinuous space rather than the site of a historical monumentality and permanence, Virginia Woolf’s London appears as a network of tiny incidents interjected into the character’s own thoughts and leaving a fleeting mark on the page. Those seem to be mirrored metaphorically by the transient hieroglyphics, written in the sky by the aeroplane that advertises a brand of toffees, and whose traces disappear almost before onlookers have time to decipher them (Woolf 2000, 17).

  • 16 Walter Benjamin discusses the value of “an experience that is ephemeral” in his 1918 essay “On the (...)

22Like Wordsworth’s London, Woolf’s own representation of the city as text is another jumble of signs, a continuous thread between the two authors, and the two literary periods, in that both writers express an enduring sense of the overwhelming experience of the always modern city as text. In her essay “Oxford Street Tide,” the quick change of news on the walls is metaphorized by “the press of people passing seems to lick the ink off the placards” (Woolf 1975, 21). While, like her contemporary Benjamin, she celebrated the liberating lack of continuity of an experience that has become ephemeral,16 Woolf also acknowledged its disruptive power, a difficult equation she experienced throughout her life when, after mental breakdowns, doctors would advise her to retreat from the city. Indeed, London is also accused of “swallow[ing]” human beings (Woolf 2000, 72), or features as a place where “the mere process of keeping alive needs all our energy” (Woolf 1975, 45). Despite the enthusiastic beginning of “Street-Haunting,” as the persona plunges with relish into the winter-time London streets, its reader is also led to bump into the alienating encounters that puncture the city rambler’s peripatetic delights:

[…] when, suddenly, turning the corner, we […] pass the humped body of an old woman flung abandoned on the step of a public building with a cloak over her like the hasty covering thrown over a dead horse or donkey. At such sights the nerves of the spine seem to stand erect; a sudden flare is brandished in our eyes; a question is asked which is never answered. (Woolf 1942, 23)

  • 17 On the “haunting” quality of those shock encounters in Woolf’s essay, see Chantal Delourme’s articl (...)

23There is a latent critique in the strong affect expressed here and in the anxious question which registers contemporary unease and “haunts” the persona and the reader.17 The blessed incognito of the “anonymous trampers” suddenly turns into a dehumanizing modernity when, as in Wordsworth’s own shock encounters, the pleasurable receptivity in Woolf’s text is exposed to the dissonance of the sight. What is even more striking (although no comment is made in the text) is that, however invisible, the body is clearly identified as a woman’s body, thus making gender suddenly return to the surface of subjectivity. Woolf turns the impossibility of answering the silent question into a mode of writing about those humble figures of “unrecorded life” which she describes in A Room of One’s Own: “the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo,” “the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways,” the “drifting girls” (Woolf 2019, 73).

24In an interesting convergence with Book VII of Wordsworth’s Prelude, Woolf’s tribute to those “obscure lives” culminates in her sublimation of singing beggar women, of which two striking occurrences are to be found in Jacob’s Room, where “an old blind woman sat on a camp-stool […] clasping a brown mongrel tight in her arms and singing out loud, not for coppers, no, from the depths of her gay wild heart” (Woolf 1992, 61), and another one, who could be her sister, in Mrs. Dalloway, standing outside Regent’s Park Tube station, “singing of love” (Woolf 2000, 69). The “absence of all human meaning” (Woolf 2000, 69) from their song, this time, is not part of a deadly dehumanization, as was the case with the old woman’s body in “Street-Haunting,” but rather the celebration of a preverbal creativity of language and a body in which life survives and regenerates both writing and place: “As the ancient song bubbled up opposite Regent’s Park Tube station still the earth seemed green and flowery; […] still the old bubbling burbling song, […] streamed away in rivulets over the pavement and all along the Marylebone Road, and down towards Euston, fertilising, leaving a damp stain.” Instead of embodying the Benjaminian concept of the “mere life,” (Benjamin 1999, 250) the outcast beggar women seem to be transformed into the sublime figures of primeval goddesses, or prophetesses, revitalizing present-day London with the resurgence of immemorial times.

The weight of ages: versions of time and apocalypse

  • 18 For a feminist approach to Wordsworth’s poem, see, e.g., Mary Jacobus’s Romanticism, Writing and Se (...)

25Like Woolf, who always reluctantly left the city and included it as a major feature in most of her novels, Wordsworth does not easily let go of London, and vice-versa: Book VIII of The Prelude returns to the metropolis after a long evocation of the poet’s adolescence in the Lakes. This is in keeping with one of the main purposes of the whole Prelude – namely to show how “love of Nature [led] to love of Mankind” (Wordsworth 1991, 211). (Although Wordsworth’s “love of Man” seemingly fails to take sexual difference into account,18 one of the main shows of London in Book VII includes the story of Mary of Buttermere, a young girl from the Lakes whose seduction by an unscrupulous adventurer had become a subject for cheap London melodrama by the time the poet was there; fortunately, and contrary to current stereotypes of the fallen woman, she had survived her ordeal, as Wordsworth himself happily points out. Of course, Wordsworth’s scattered references to unhappy females in the course of Book VII may appear partly motivated by the fact that he – now rather (in)famously – begat an illegitimate child upon a French woman during his stay at Blois, only a year after his “residence in London”). Yet what this somewhat unexpected doubling in the structure of the Prelude suggests is that London represents a peculiar challenge that takes some time to negotiate, in a further elaboration that takes several different forms. One relies on what we might call his poetics of disappointment. Wordsworth’s London perplexities are revisited some 800 lines later through a simile, that of a celebrated cave in Yorkshire whose subterranean vaults at first disenchant the tourist with their “lifeless” appearance, until he looks again and finally accesses the full delight of their kaleidoscopic phenomena:

[…] the senseless mass
In its projections, wrinkles, cavities,
Through all its surface, with all colours streaming,
Like a magician’s airy pageant, parts,
Unites, embodying everywhere some pressure
Or image, recognis’d or new, some type
Or picture of the world; forests and lakes,
Ships, rivers, towers, the Warrior clad in Mail,
The prancing Steed, the Pilgrim with his Staff,
The mitred Bishop and the thronèd King,
A Spectacle to which there is no end. (Wordsworth 1991, 229)

26Just so, his first glimpse of London triggered a reaction of awe (“A weight of Ages did at once descend / Upon my heart, no thoughts embodied, no / Distinct remembrances, but weight and power, / Power, growing with the weight,” [Wordsworth 1991, 228]), quickly followed by “a blank sense of greatness passed away” (Wordsworth 1991, 229), until he looked and thought again, and better, and became sensible of an actual wealth of beauty in the place. This is Wordsworth’s own variation on the old trope of the lusus naturae, but what is significant is the storied character of the beauty he perceives, as the natural imagery of the simile gradually morphs into the idealised London of some Chaucerian procession: “The prancing Steed, the Pilgrim with his Staff, / The mitred Bishop, and the thronèd King.” Now this sounds very much like Wordsworth’s endorsement of the city’s monumental importance as a political and historical centre – an interpretation borne out, it would seem, by the following lines, with their evocation of:

           […] that vast Metropolis,
The Fountain of my Country’s destiny
And of the destiny of Earth itself,
That great Emporium, Chronicle at once
And Burial-place of passions, and their home
Imperial, and chief living residence. (Wordsworth 1991, 229)

27Imperial, indeed; and yet, although the “weight of ages” that London bears acts like the ballast the poet lacked in the midst of the crowd, rather than as sheer oppression, this is far from a straightforward celebration of Empire. In fact, Wordsworth in his subsequent reflections declares that the “history of [his] native land” had “never much delighted [him],” even calling its events “harsh and unaffecting in themselves” (Wordsworth 1991, 230); and in his vision of the city’s massive historical presence, the sense of active achievement is nicely balanced by that of suffering: the “weight of ages” is never quite far from the harrowing “burthen of the mystery” mentioned in “Tintern Abbey” (Wordsworth 1992, 117).

28At any rate, the historical sense of the poet is carefully distinguished from the official narratives, in a way that might be said to prefigure Virginia Woolf’s own critical distance from the monumentalities of imperial London. And at the opposite end of the imaginative spectrum, Wordsworth’s professions of continued faith in human nature also rely on its sudden, most immediate and humble manifestations in the daily life of the common people, as Woolf, interestingly, noted in her essay about Wordsworth’s letters. Where the narrator in Jacob’s Room had her gaze suddenly arrested by an old woman with a mongrel in her lap, Wordsworth’s gravitates towards the unexpected sight of a working man in the midst of a square, with “a sickly Babe / Upon his knee, whom he had thither brought / For sunshine, and to breathe the fresher air”: a revelation of “unutterable love,” which still betrays the harshness of London life – since Wordsworth emphasizes the social condition of the “Artificer” with his “brawny Arms,” and notes that this moment of care must have been “stolen” from the demands of work – but also cancels and transcends it, if only for a while, into a higher existence (Wordsworth 1991, 231).

29Yet Wordsworth’s deepest, most enduring response to London, perhaps, is to envision it within what must be termed a subdued apocalyptic perspective. For this we have to return to Book VII, where it is first suggested immediately before the encounter with the Beggar, when the figures in the crowd become – in an image that Woolf would later echo, this time to distance herself from the rituals of patriarchal society – “A second-sight procession, such as glides / Over still mountains, or appears in dreams” (Wordsworth 1991, 208). It recurs again, unobtrusively, just before the description of Bartholomew Fair, when Wordsworth shows the city transfigured at liminal hours between night and day, between life and death:

                       […] the solemnity
Of nature’s intermediate hours of rest
When the great tide of human life stands still,
The business of the day to come unborn,
Of that gone by, lock’d up as in the grave:
The calmness, beauty of the spectacle;
Sky, stillness, moonshine, empty streets, and sounds
Unfrequent as in deserts. (Wordsworth 1991, 209)

30And it returns once more, in a sense, at the very end of Book VII, when Wordsworth invokes the poet’s ability to keep “among least things / An under sense of greatest,” in other words to order unruly or unsightly parts into “[c]omposure and ennobling harmony” (Wordsworth 1991, 211), into a grand whole typically analogous to “the forms / Perennial of the ancient hills.” Here Wordsworth’s imaginative reaction towards London consists in transfiguring, but also in annihilating it, by superimposing upon it the vision of the “ancient hills” that were there before history, perhaps even before mankind, began – much like the old beggar-woman in Mrs. Dalloway conjures up a glimpse of the time when “the pageant of the universe would be over” (Woolf 2000, 69). Out of the urban space, then, and partly against it, Wordsworth’s writing unearths new and powerful resources for the imagination. This, of course, may be construed as an easy, escapist way of getting around London’s complexities by pretending it is simply not there. But it also testifies to the apocalyptic streak in Wordsworth’s poetic vision, heralding, like Woolf’s shock encounters and subsequent unanswered questions in “Street-Haunting,” the historical anxieties of the nineteenth century: as Walter Benjamin remarked, the nineteenth-century metropolis is haunted by the thought of its own ruin, by the catastrophe, which is the ultimate horizon of flânerie (1991, 124-25). And it is significant, from this point of view, that Wordsworth’s transfiguration of the city in the pre-dawn dark should lead immediately, as we saw, to thoughts of the city “breaking out” in frenzy, and eventually, one may surmise, working its own ruin. This is perhaps Wordsworth’s greatest expression of ambivalence towards London – and also, we may add, towards the idea of Revolution. Such ambivalence, at any rate, contributed powerfully to the renewal of urban representations and sensibilities heralded by the Romantic period. It is remarkable, however secondary London’s importance may have been in the mind of the stubborn provincial Wordsworth, that such a shift should so clearly be taking place in his own writing.

31A century after Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf’s experimental poetics re-creates the old city with what one might call a dissonant lyricism, that is equally aware of the city as a bottomless reservoir of images and tropes. Dissonance as a poetic force, associated with Woolf’s own liminal position, as a woman writer and “tramper” in a place historically structured and appropriated by men, can be read both as the site of a critical stance and of a joyful inauguration that at last allows women to “take place” as subjects, and as writers. Their movement “out” of the private house as a political movement is dramatized in a striking manner at the beginning of Three Guineas through two spatial metaphors that emphasize movement rather than places and break the traditional gendered dichotomy between the private and the public space: the threshold of the private house whose door is at last “thrown open” by “an act which unbarred the professions” (italics ours) (Woolf 1966, 16), and the “bridge between the old world and the new” on which the female persona in Three Guineas takes her station (Woolf 1966, 16). By rather focusing on the intermediary place that both separates and “connects the private house with the world of public life” (Woolf 1966, 18), and offers a strategic, and safe, vantage point, Woolf lays the focus on the process rather than finality, on questions rather than answers, on paradoxes rather than oppositions.

32It is on that bridge that Woolf stages her resistance to any assimilation and absorption into the existing structures of power, as the female persona pauses there to ask herself “certain questions” (Woolf 1966, 62); these start with doubt as to the consequences of women joining the solemn sight of the “procession of the sons of educated men” (Woolf 1966, 60), at the end of which looms the apocalyptic horizon of the war, while at the same time celebrating women’s newly found financial independence that allows them to choose their place and to make their own dissonant voice be heard. The intermediary place of the bridge, as a symbolical threshold, becomes a paradoxical place of one’s own, in which one can think freely, precisely because one does not belong there; this idea takes shape in Virginia Woolf’s proposal to create an “Outsiders’ Society” (Woolf 1966, 106).

33Woolf’s chosen position as an outsider within, who enters the city without ever completely stepping across the threshold, but rather cultivates and explores the site of her own difference, is illustrated in a double movement of inauguration and hesitation that is already contained in this passage from her 1922 novel Jacob’s Room in which a female figure suddenly appears on the street:

Bright yet vague. She is perhaps twenty-two. She is shabby. She crosses the road and looks at the daffodils and the red tulips in the florist’s window. She hesitates, and makes off in the direction of Temple Bar. She walks fast, and yet anything distracts her. Now she seems to see, and now to notice nothing. (Woolf 1992, 109)

  • 19 See Larsson’s description of the monuments and statues on the map of London in Jacob’s Room (81-106 (...)
  • 20 One of the most famous occurrences appears in her 1925 essay “Modern Fiction” (Woolf 1994, 159).

34What this short vignette seems to illustrate is in fact the paradigmatic loitering fraught with irresolution, or perhaps should we call it reserve, which echoes what Benjamin calls “that association of wingedness with the feeling of indecision,” characteristic of “the peculiar irresolution of the flâneur” (Benjamin 2002, 425). This “irresolution,” or reserve, is particularly resonant in the irony and iconoclastic humour of the narrative voice when it gives shape to Virginia Woolf’s own scepticism in relation to the imperialistic weight of the marble statues and monuments of London.19 She does not, however, part with a certain tenderness, as through the re-appropriation of the highly symbolical names of statues, now no longer key elements on the historical map, like Nelson’s which, the narrative voice remarks, “looks a little smug” (Woolf 1975, 46), or in the library of the British Museum where “Plato is […] cheek by jowl with Aristotle; and Shakespeare with Marlowe” (Woolf 1992, 102), where Miss Marchmont joyfully greets the Elgin Marbles, “waving her hand and muttering a word or two of salutation which made Jacob and the other man turn round. She smiled at them amiably.” (Woolf 1992, 102) In a manner that is comparable to Wordsworth’s unexpected depictions of the daily life of common people as a counterpart, and perhaps antidote, to the imperialistic grandeur of the city, Woolf’s sudden manifestations of benevolent, mildly comic irony keep bringing back the humility and humanity of what Woolf called “life.”20

35Thus divested of the “weight of ages” that, in young Wordsworth’s words, made “power [grow] with the weight” and could be used as ballast in his poetry, the monuments in Woolf’s city are freed from the deadly fixity of immutable stone and the sclerosis of time. Through Woolf’s dissonant poetics, what Benjamin called “the integrity of an experience that is ephemeral” (Benjamin 1999, 100) becomes a value, building an imaginary space made of images that no longer emphasize permanence, but rather celebrate a new conception of the “charm of modern London,” which is that it “is not built to last” (Woolf 1975, 24). Churches become volatile – St Paul’s cathedral “swells like a grey bubble” (Woolf 1975, 43), is “like the volute on the top of the snail shell” (Woolf 1992, 59), or even “floating on the uneven white mist” (Woolf 1992, 68) – or are repeatedly described as being made of paper (“those churches, like shapes of grey paper,” [Woolf 2000, 116]; “two or three narrow, paper-white […] spires,” [Woolf 1992, 68]).

  • 21 On the recurrent theme of prehistory in Woolf’s novels, see Beer 6-28.

36Woolf’s poetics disperse the mineral gravity of the building as a symbol of political power to welcome a mystery that no longer depends on the past and is no longer, as Wordsworth saw it, a “burthen”. Woolf rather re-opens the historically determined places to the plasticity of space and time and the possibilities of language. Time expands towards an immemorial past or a future beyond imagination with fleeting visions, superimposed on the city landscape, of mammoths roaming in Piccadilly in a pre-civilized wilderness,21 or brief glimpses of an apocalyptic post-historical future “when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth” (Woolf 2000, 14) radically obliterate what Wordsworth called “a blank sense of greatness passed away.”

  • 22 On tortoises in Woolf’s city, see Pollentier 20-30.

37The power of imagination that is rid of the pressures of monumental time unravels not only the spatial configurations of power, but also space’s obligation to play its part in the construction of plot. Woolf’s city is not the site of a clearly structured plot, but rather a mosaic of embedded narrative embryos that do not unfold into actual stories, but rather leave untapped the narrative resources contained in the city. This untimely interruption of little potential “unwritten novels,” as when tortoises appear now and then on the streets of London,22 or “three elderly men” “run spiders along the pavement” (Woolf 1992, 59), or the dwarf who buys shoes and whose strange gait makes everyone on the street join “in the hobble and tap of the dwarf’s dance” (Woolf 1942, 22), constantly brings the narrative out of step and out of place.

38Rather than trying to stabilize the overwhelming experience of London, Woolf’s poetics of dissonance, crafted from the liminal site of the very “difference” she advocated, seek to capture its little fragments, as in this emblematic triptych, “life; London; this moment of June,” turning each little splinter of time and the city into an evanescent place of her own.

39“Why do I dramatize London perpetually?” Woolf wondered (Woolf 1975-1980, 434). Wordsworth, Lake poet though he was, thought that “Earth ha[d] not anything to shew more fair” than London (Wordsworth 1983, 147). For both, London offered the site and material necessary to create new images, which, in the words of Woolf, “one can dismantle […] in the twinkling of an eye,” (Woolf 1942, 23) or, in the words of The Prelude, “things that are, are not” (Wordsworth 1991, 209). Yet however unlimited the resources of the city, we will bring this article to a close by once more taking our cue from Woolf: “it is vain to try to come to a conclusion in Oxford Street.” (Woolf 1975, 27)

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1 Although the continuities between Romanticism and Modernism have long been a subject of critical interest, for instance in John Beer’s Romantic Influences: Contemporary – Victorian – Modern, specific studies of Wordsworth and Woolf are still infrequent. Robert Langbaum’s influential article, “The Epiphanic Mode in Wordsworth and Modern Literature,” made a cogent point about the affinities between the Romantic poet’s “spots of time” and the lyricism of Modernist fiction and poetry, but only considered Woolf in a peripheral way. More recently, Ali Güneş has argued that Wordsworth’s autobiographical “double consciousness” in The Prelude should be seen as a template for the fluidity with which Woolf wove past and present together in Mrs. Dalloway; the aim of the present article, while taking these valuable insights into account, is to emphasize the more disruptive elements in these two writers’ lyrical or epiphanic mode, with a specific focus on its urban or metropolitan context.

2 Although Walter Benjamin’s canonical account of the flâneur centers on Baudelaire’s Paris, it might be argued that the early nineteenth-century representational framework upon which Benjamin drew had to a large extent been imported from London. For instance, Restif de la Bretonne’s Nuits de Paris (1788-94) bore the Addisonian subtitle of Le Spectateur nocturne, while the success of Parisian physionomies had been foreshadowed by the equally Addisonian vignettes of Etienne de Jouy’s L’Hermite de la Chaussée-d’Antin (1812-14).

3 Woolf, indeed, singled him out for praise in her essay on Hazlitt in The Common Reader (Woolf 2003, 173-185), as well as in “On Being Ill,” where she wrote, doubtless with her own ambitions in mind, that “some prose writers are to be read as poets” (Woolf 1994, 324). She also referred to his essay “Oxford in the Vacation” in the first pages of A Room of One’s Own (Woolf 2019, 4).

4 See Catherine Bernard’s reading of those “moments of being,” especially the section entitled “fulgurance de l’instant” (Bernard 152-161).

5 This was also true of Dickens, who needed the labyrinth of London to be able to write, as Walter Benjamin notes in The Arcades Project (Benjamin 2002, 436). On the possible connections between Virginia Woolf’s haunting streets and Dickens’s or De Quincey’s mythical, labyrinthic London, see Chantal Delourme’s article (Delourme 123).

6 On the multiple mentions made by Virginia Woolf of her enthusiastic relationship to London in her diary, see Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s work (Moorcroft Wilson 11).

7 Already in “Wordsworth’s Letters,” Woolf playfully asserts that “Wordsworth, when he was not inspired, had the mind of a country clergyman’s wife” (Woolf 1986, 185).

8 Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and “Oxford Street Tide” have also been analyzed by Reginald Abbott in terms of her view of consumerism, a more historicist approach than the one we have chosen to adopt here. (Abbott 193-216).

9 On semiotic dispersal and Wordsworth’s strategy of “blockage” against it, see Neil Hertz 53-60.

10 “The motor omnibuses were locked. Mr. Spalding going to the city looked at Mr. Charles Budgeon bound for Shepherd’s Bush. The proximity of the omnibuses gave the outside passengers an opportunity to stare into each other’s faces. Yet few took advantage of it. Each had his own business to think of. Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title, James Spalding, or Charles Budgeon, and the passengers going the opposite way could read nothing at all – save ‘a man with a red moustache,’ ‘a young man in grey smoking a pipe.’” (Woolf 1992, 59)

11 According to Janet Wolff and Doreen Massey, “the flâneur is irretrievably male,” at least in the nineteenth century, because the flâneur was an observer, whereas women were one of the objects of his gaze (Massey 234). In her analysis of flânerie in Woolf’s writing, in the light of Baudelaire’s and Proust’s passante, Rachel Bowlby suggests the possibility of an emancipation of the female city rambler as a writer, observing rather than being observed (Bowlby 193-219). Lauren Elkin attempts to straightforwardly feminize the Baudelairean figure in her book Flâneuse, Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London.

12 This is put forcefully in Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” (“Le Peintre de la vie moderne”) cited by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project (Benjamin 2002, 443).

13 In her recent book on Virginia Woolf and London, Lisbeth Larsson writes that [b]eing on the move – in taxis, buses, or on foot – is always something positive in Virginia Woolf’s texts. This is when she allows her characters to free themselves from their intellectual and material straitjackets (Larsson 147).

14 Andrew Thacker analyzes what he calls Woolf’s “surface-depth mode” which, he argues, “is endemic throughout modernism” (Thacker 166).

15 Rachel Bowlby writes that Elizabeth Dalloway “is the bearer of new opportunities for her sex, a woman who will be able to go further than her mother, still bound to the conventional femininity of the Victorian Angel in the House” (Bowlby 70). Catherine Bernard, however, sees Elizabeth Dalloway less as a figure of emancipation than a member of the social establishment who therefore sees everything through the lens of her own social background and remains a prisoner of patriarchal discourse (Bernard 103).

16 Walter Benjamin discusses the value of “an experience that is ephemeral” in his 1918 essay “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy” (Benjamin 1999, 100).

17 On the “haunting” quality of those shock encounters in Woolf’s essay, see Chantal Delourme’s article (Delourme 129).

18 For a feminist approach to Wordsworth’s poem, see, e.g., Mary Jacobus’s Romanticism, Writing and Sexual Difference: Essays on The Prelude.

19 See Larsson’s description of the monuments and statues on the map of London in Jacob’s Room (81-106).

20 One of the most famous occurrences appears in her 1925 essay “Modern Fiction” (Woolf 1994, 159).

21 On the recurrent theme of prehistory in Woolf’s novels, see Beer 6-28.

22 On tortoises in Woolf’s city, see Pollentier 20-30.

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Laurent Folliot et Juliana Lopoukhine, « Writing Out of Place: Wordsworth and Woolf in London »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 27 | 2019, mis en ligne le 25 décembre 2019, consulté le 23 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Folliot

Sorbonne Université (VALE)
Laurent Folliot is currently a Senior Lecturer at Sorbonne Université. His Ph.D dissertation was devoted to the nature poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and he has published a monograph on Lyrical Ballads, as well as various articles on Romanticism and 18th/19th century literature (De Quincey, Hazlitt, Austen, Dickens, William Gilbert, Thomas Gray). He has also worked on a number of translations, including most recently a French verse rendition of Thomson’s Seasons (Classiques Garnier, 2018).

Juliana Lopoukhine

Sorbonne Université (VALE)
Juliana Lopoukhine is a Senior Lecturer at Sorbonne Université. Her Ph.D dissertation was devoted to the metropolitan writings of four Modernist women writers (Rose Macaulay, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf), and she has written articles on various other aspects of their works. She has produced a critical edition of Mrs. Dalloway for Garnier-Flammarion (2013).

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