Portrait of a Londoner
Postcard of The Pool of London, 1938. Image via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
by Virginia Woolf
Nobody can be said to know London who does not know one true cockney – who cannot turn down a side street, away from the shops and the theatres, and knock at a private door in a street of private houses. Private houses in London are apt to be much of a muchness. The door opens on a dark hall; from the dark hall rises a narrow staircase; off the landing opens a double drawing-room, and in this double drawing-room are two sofas on each side of a blazing fire, six armchairs, and three long windows giving upon the street. What happens in the back half of the drawing-room which looks upon the gardens of other houses is often a matter of considerable conjecture. But it is with the front drawing-room that we are here concerned; for Mrs Crowe always sat there in an armchair by the fire; it was there that she had her being; it was there that she poured out tea.
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 or 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.
There by the fire in winter, by the window in summer, she had sat for 60 years – but not alone. There was always someone in the armchair opposite, paying a call. And before the first caller had been seated 10 minutes, the door always opened and the maid Maria, she of the prominent eyes and prominent teeth, who had opened the door for 60 years, opened it once more and announced a second visitor; and then a third, and then a fourth.
A tete-a-tete with Mrs Crowe was unknown. She disliked tete-a-tetes. It was part of a peculiarity that she shared with many hostesses that she was never specially intimate with anyone. For example, there was always an elderly man in the corner by the cabinet – who seemed, indeed, as much a part of that admirable piece of 18th-century furniture as its own brass claws. But he was always addressed as Mr Graham – never John, never William: though sometimes she would call him “dear Mr Graham” as if to mark the fact that she had known him for 60 years.
The truth was she did not want intimacy; she wanted conversation. Intimacy has a way of breeding silence, and silence she abhorred. There must be talk, and it must be general, and it must be about everything. It must not go too deep, and it must not be too clever, for if it went too far in either of these directions somebody was sure to feel out of it, and to sit balancing his tea cup, saying nothing.
Thus Mrs Crowe’s drawing-room had little in common with the celebrated salons of the memoir writers. Clever people often came there – judges, doctors, members of parliament, writers, musicians, people who travelled, people who played polo, actors and complete nonentities, but if anyone said a brilliant thing it was felt to be rather a breach of etiquette – an accident that one ignored, like a fit of sneezing, or some catastrophe with a muffin. The talk that Mrs Crowe liked and inspired was a glorified version of village gossip. The village was London, and the gossip was about London life. But Mrs Crowe’s great gift consisted in making the vast metropolis seem as small as a village with one church, one manor house and 25 cottages. She had first-hand information about every play, every picture show, every trial, every divorce case. She knew who was marrying, who was dying, who was in town and who was out. She would mention the fact that she had just seen Lady Umphleby’s car go by, and hazard a guess that she was going to visit her daughter whose baby had been born last night, just as a village woman speaks of the squire’s lady driving to the station to meet Mr John, who is expected down from town.
And as she had made these observations for the past 50 years or so, she had acquired an amazing store of information about the lives of other people. When Mr Smedley, for instance, said that his daughter was engaged to Arthur Beecham, Mrs Crowe at once remarked that in that case she would be a cousin twice removed to Mrs Firebrace, and in a sense niece to Mrs Burns, by her first marriage with Mr Minchin of Blackwater Grange. But Mrs Crowe was not in the least a snob. She was merely a collector of relationships; and her amazing skill in this direction served to give a family and domestic character to her gatherings, for it is surprising how many people are 20th cousins, if they did but know it.
To be admitted to Mrs Crowe’s house was therefore to become the member of a club, and the subscription demanded was the payment of so many items of gossip every year. Many people’s first thought when the house caught fire or the pipes burst or the housemaid decamped with the butler, must have been, I will run round and tell that to Mrs Crowe. But here again, distinctions had to be observed. Certain people had the right to run round at lunchtime; others, and these were the most numerous, must go between the hours of five and seven. The class who had the privilege of dining with Mrs Crowe was a small one. Perhaps only Mr Graham and Mrs Burke actually dined with her, for she was not a rich woman. Her black dress was a trifle shabby; her diamond brooch was always the same diamond brooch. Her favourite meal was tea, because the tea table can be supplied economically, and there is an elasticity about tea which suited her gregarious temper. But whether it was lunch or tea, the meal had a distinct character, just as a dress and her jewellery suited her to perfection and had a fashion of their own. There would be a special cake, a special pudding – something peculiar to the house and as much part of the establishment as Maria the old servant, or Mr Graham the old friend, or the old chintz on the chair, or the old carpet on the floor.
That Mrs Crowe must sometimes have taken the air, that she did sometimes become a guest at other people’s luncheons and teas, is true. But in society she seemed furtive and fragmentary and incomplete, as if she had merely looked in at the wedding or the evening party or the funeral to pick up some scraps of news that she needed to complete her own hoard. Thus she was seldom induced to take a seat; she was always on the wing. She looked out of place among other people’s chairs and tables; she must have her own chintzes and her own cabinet and her own Mr Graham under it in order to be completely herself As years went on these little raids into the outer world practically ceased. She had made her nest so compact and so complete that the outer world had not a feather or a twig to add to it. Her own cronies were so faithful, moreover, that she could trust them to convey any little piece of news that she ought to add to her collection. It was unnecessary that she should leave her own chair by the fire in winter, by the window in summer. And with the passage of years her knowledge became, not more profound – profundity was not her line – but more rounded, and more complete. Thus if a new play were a great success, Mrs Crowe was able next day not merely to record the fact with a sprinkle of amusing gossip from behind the scenes, but she could cast back to other first nights, in the 80s, in the 90s, and describe what Ellen Terry had worn, what Duse had done, how dear Mr Henry James had said – nothing very remarkable perhaps; but as she spoke it seemed as if all the pages of London life for 50 years past were being lightly shuffled for one’s amusement. There were many; and the pictures on them were bright and brilliant and of famous people; but Mrs Crowe by no means dwelt on the past – she by no means exalted it above the present.
Indeed, it was always the last page, the present moment, that mattered most. The delightful thing about London was that it was always giving one something new to look at, something fresh to talk about. One only had to keep one’s eyes open; to sit down in one’s own chair from five to seven every day of the week. 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.
Nothing was more characteristic and perhaps a little disconcerting than the eagerness with which she would look up and break her sentence in the middle when the door opened and Maria, grown very portly and a little deaf, announced someone new. Who was about to enter? What had he or she got to add to the talk? But her deftness in extracting whatever might be their gift, her skill in throwing it into the common pool, were such that no harm was done; and it was part of her peculiar triumph that the door never opened too often; the circle never grew beyond her sway.
Thus, to know London not merely as a gorgeous spectacle, a mart, a court, a hive of industry, but as a place where people meet and talk, laugh, marry, and die, paint, write and act, rule and legislate, it was essential to know Mrs Crowe. It was in her drawing-room that the innumerable fragments of the vast metropolis seemed to come together into one lively, comprehensible, amusing and agreeable whole. Travellers absent for years, battered and sun-dried men just landed from India or Africa, from remote travels and adventures among savages and tigers, would come straight to the little house in the quiet street to be taken back into the heart of civilisation at one stride. But even London itself could not keep Mrs Crowe alive for ever. It is a fact that one day Mrs Crowe was not sitting in the armchair by the fire as the clock struck five; Maria did not open the door; Mr Graham had detached himself from the cabinet. Mrs Crowe is dead, and London – no, though London still exists, London will never be the same city again.
Essay first published in Good Housekeeping Magazine, 1931, now under a Public Domain licence.