Thursday 18 June 2015

Virginia Woolf's "Portrait of a Londoner"

Native Londoner Virginia Woolf penned six essays about her hometown, five of which were published by Good Housekeeping in 1931.  The sixth went missing, and was rediscovered in 2004 when it was first printed.

Portrait of a Londoner describes a London legend named Mrs. Crowe, a Cockney who has lived in the same house for 60 years, employed the same butler and maid for 60 years.  There is no action in the essay, just sheer description.  Yet, Woolf knows how to paint a scene.  "All the pages of London life for the past 50 years were being shuffled for our entertainment," she explained.

Mrs. Crowe sits in the same chair in the same room from the hours of five to seven where she receives guests and engages in meaningless chatter.  She tells us what is going on in her neighbourhood:  she omits nothing.  "Mrs. Crowe's greatest gift consisted in making the vast metropolis seem as small as a village with one church, one manor house and 25 cottages."  While London is big, it consists of smaller neighbourhoods, just like New York City.

Here is an excerpt from Portrait of a Londoner (

"That she was born in the country seems, though strange, to be a fact.  That she sometimes left London, in those summer weeks when London ceases to be London, is also true.  But where she went and what she did when she was out of London, when her chair was empty, her fire unlit and her table unlaid, nobody knew or could imagine.  To figure Mrs. Crowe in her black dress and her veil and her cap, walking in a field among turnips, or climbing a hill where cows were grazing, is beyond the scope of the wildest imagination."

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