Archive | Coming to London II by Leonard Woolf

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Selected images including The Shakespeare Society at Trinity College and portraits of members of the Bloomsbury Group

The following piece was first published in The London Magazine October 1955 Volume 2 No. 10 as “Coming to London — II”, part of an at-the-time regular series about London life.

Leonard Woolf


Coming to London

            I ‘came to London’ embryonically, I presume, in February 1880, for I was born in the West Cromwell Road on November 25, 1880, and I have lived in London—except for seven years in Ceydon—ever since. Thus I am a Cockney born and bred, and to ask me to recall my first impressions of coming to London or any segment of it is like asking a humble herring to recall his first impressions of coming to the sea. I have lived in Kensington, Putney, Bloomsbury, Fleet Street and Westminster, and they have left me the smell of London (including Gower Street station on the Underground 60 years ago) in my nostrils and its strange, austere, homelike spirit in my bones. I love it profoundly and, as with all real love that goes deep into the entrails, I hate it profoundly.

            One of the things which I have been asked to deal with in this article is my ‘first impressions of the London literary world’. My feelings towards that world are probably also ambivalent. It is sometimes represented as composed of literary personages, major and minor, endlessly talking, eating, and drinking in pubs and Soho restaurants, in rooms and flats and parties. Into that world, if it exists, I have not penetrated, and I can only remember two occasions upon which I felt that I was in the real London literary world, even though not of it. The first was when, latish in life, I was sometimes invited to the Sitwells, a dinner, say, with Osbert Sitwell or a party given by Edith Sitwell to meet Gertrude Stein. This was, of course, not in the least like the imaginary would of the literary personages in Soho, but it was a literary world into which I went as an intruder feeling the inferiority complex of the amateur minnow among the great, confident, professional pike. To be led up to Gertrude Stein sitting on a kind of throne and to be given five minutes’ conversation with her was what an old Edinburgh Writer to the Signet used to call ‘an experience’. When he took me as a boy to see Abbotsford and halted me outside to survey that fantastic monument of literary fame and success, he said: ‘This is an experience which ye’ll do well to remember—O Ay, an experience ye’ll do well to remember.’ Gertrude Stein, I felt, was the same kind of experience.

            My only other memory of entering the real London literary world recalls a more trivial and to me discreditable experience than a Sitwell party. Virginia and I accepted an invitation to dine with a well-known novelist whom we liked very much. We expected to dine with her alone or at most another guest, and late, dirty, and dishevelled we dashed from printing in the basement in a taxi to her flat—and found ourselves at a formal dinner of twelve or fourteen distinguished writers all in full evening dress. I suppose it was nervousness which made us fail the entrance examination to literary London. At any rate first, when one of those curious collective silences suddenly fell upon the company, Virginia’s extremely clear voice was heard to say: ‘The Holy Ghost?’ to which the distinguished Catholic writer sitting on her left replied with indignation: ‘I did not say Holy Ghost; I said the whole coast.’ Almost immediately after, thinking that the distinguished lady writer sitting on my left had dropped her white handkerchief on the floor, I leant down, picked it up, and handed it to her, to find, to my horror, that it was the hem of her white petticoat which had protruded below her skirt. As soon as we decently could, we slunk off home, feeling that we had both disgraced ourselves in literary London.

            Very different was my first meeting with a real literary personage. It was in a barber’s shop and I must have been about 15. When I was 12 my father died and my mother, no longer affluent, moved with her nine children to a house in Putney. One day I was having my hair cut in a shop near Putney station and Putney Hill when the door opened and everyone in the shop, including the man cutting my hair, turned and looked at the person who had come in. A tiny little man in a black cape and a black sombrero-like hat, below which hung lank curls, stood in the doorway. I had a sharp feeling of the fear and pain in his pale blue eyes and pallid face. He stood silent in the doorway and looked at us and all of us looked at him. He turned and went out, and, as he shut the door, the hairdresser, beginning again to snip at my hair, said: ‘That is Mr Swinburne, the writer; he lives at The Pines round the corner.’ Swinburne, of course, lived with Theodore Watts-Dunton, the author of Aylwin, at The Pines, at the foot of Putney Hill, and could be seen occasionally walking up to Wimbledon Common and stopping now and then to kiss a baby in a pram. Our doctor, who was a famous Rugger international half-back, was also Swinburne’s doctor; he told me that when he was summoned by Watts-Dunton to come and see the poet, Swinburne could rarely be induced to say a word to him; he would sit up very right in a rather high chair and continually play an inaudible tune with his two hands on the polished dining-room table. The only other literary personage whom I met in those days was Compton Mackenzie, but he had not yet written anything and I had no idea that he would; we were both at St Paul’s and I first met him in a football scrum on a cold wet November afternoon. We have often met since in much more pleasant and more literary surroundings. He once told me that I am included as one of the characters in one of his Four Winds of Love novels.

            In 1894 I managed to win a scholarship and entered St Paul’s School, where, under the highmastership of the savage and eccentric Mr Walker, the engines of education were applied violently and strangely to our tender minds. As classical scholars and potential winners of classical scholarships at Oxford or Cambridge, we were treated like Strasbourg geese, except that of being stuffed with food in order to fatten our livers, our minds were stuffed for eight or ten hours every day with the grammar, syntax, language and literature of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. No educational training and regimentation of the human mind could be more drastic, more ruthless than that to which we were subjected at St Paul’s between the ages of 14 and 19, and when I went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1899, I had an astonishingly thorough knowledge of the classical languages and literatures. And yet, though we spent so many hours every day in the study of some of the greatest literary masterpieces which had ever been produced, interest in or even recognition of literature as literature or of ‘the arts’ was certainly not in general encouraged. The mental atmosphere was eminently English, a kind of chastened and good-tempered barbarism, a contemptuous Philistinism, based upon a profound, devout veneration of the art of playing cricket or football and distrust of everything connected with the mind and intellect. Up to the age of 16, though my mind was, I think, eager and active, I lived intellectually in a trance, dimly aware that the pleasure I got from books, literature, even work was vaguely discreditable and should be concealed from my companions and teachers.

            At the age of 16 I escaped from this land of the Philistines and its dim intellectual twilight with the help of one of the masters, A.M. Cooke, who was the brother of a distinguished journalist, E. T. Cooke, editor of the Daily News. Cooke was a civilized, cultured, kindly, disillusioned schoolmaster, and an admirable teacher of the more intelligent boys. When I got into his form, he liked my English essays and got into the habit of walking round the playground with me during the ‘breaks’. He talked to me as to an equal, sometimes about life and people, but more often about books and writing. He encouraged me to believe that a passion for great literature, even an aspiration to write oneself, was not discreditable. Under his gentle stimulation I read voraciously English and French masterpieces, and one of the things which I am peculiarly grateful that he taught me was to combine with the highest standards of judgement the widest possible catholicity of appreciation and enjoyment. It was characteristic of him that he gave me as a personal parting gift when I went up to a higher form Bacon’s Essays bound in pale blue leather by Zaehnsdorf while approving my love of Borrow, and that he was eager that I should enjoy both Montaigne and Tristram Shandy.

            It was largely due to Cooke that I had a wide acquaintance with and intense enthusiasm for literature when I went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of 18. Cooke himself had been practically the only outlet for my enthusiasm and for my eagerness to talk about books. It is true that in my last year I had the great honour of being invited to join a small debating society which met on Saturday afternoons in the houses of the members in rotation. It had been founded by G. K. Chesterton and his friends when they were at school, and Chesterton and E. C. Bentley, the author of Trent’s Last Case and inventor of the clerihew, often came to our meetings. Bentley was then at Oxford and President of the Union, and Chesterton on the Daily News rapidly making a name for himself by his brilliantly paradoxical articles. But he and our society were passionately interested, not in books, but politics. I cannot remember ever discussing literature, but we had a ‘mock parliament’ and my recollection is of Gilbert Chesterton, a tall and at the time comparatively slim young man, making inordinately long, rather boring, Liberal speeches on local government, public houses, foreign policy, etc, and, as he spoke, tearing up sheets of paper into tiny pieces which he scattered on the table in front of him.

            When I got to Trinity, I was astonished and delighted to find that among many of my contemporaries and seniors a love of literature and a desire to write books, intensive criticism and aesthetic speculations were accepted as natural and creditable for intelligent persons. Here for the first time I entered what might be called a literary world, a provincial literary world—even though it was Cambridge University—but which yet had connections with the great metropolitan literary world of London. In 1899, a literary constellation of some brilliance or promise of brilliance centred in Trinity and King’s. Among my seniors who were in residence as Fellows or frequently came up and stayed in Cambridge and whom I got to know well were George and Bob Trevelyan, G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and Desmond MacCarthy of Trinity and Goldie Lowes Dickinson and E. M. Forster of King’s. Lytton Strachey and Thoby Stephen came up to Trinity in the same year as I did and through them I got a glimpse of an old Victorian London literary world which was just on the point of extinction. Thoby was the son of Leslie Stephen, the author of An Agnostic’s Apology, English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, and Hours in a Library, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and of the Cornhill. I met Leslie Stephen when he came and stayed with Thoby in Cambridge and again once or twice in London at his house in Hyde Park Gate. To a nervous young man he was, when one first met him, a terrifying old man, for he was stone deaf and you had to talk to him down an ear trumpet and his bearded face looked as if it had been engraved for three score years and ten with all the sorrows of the world; and when not talking he occasionally groaned. In fact he was gentle and kind and went out of his way to put us at our ease and interest us. His talk enabled one to catch a last glimpse of that incredibly ancient London literary world of ladies and gentlemen which went right back to Thackeray and Dickens, to Mr and Mrs Carlyle, to Mill and Huxley. It was the world of the Quarterly and Fortnightly and Cornhill. It died with Leslie Stephen and John Morley, but later I met two relics or ghosts which survived from it into our dishevelled age, Thomas Hardy and Edmund Gosse.

            Lytton was the son of Sir Richard Strachey, an extraordinarily eminent, intelligent, cultured, amusing Anglo-Indian soldier and administrator. When I knew him, he sat all day long, winter and summer, in a large chair in front of a large fire reading novels. Lytton’s mother, Lady Strachey, was a remarkable woman and I came to have a great affection for her. She liked playing billiards with me or for hours reading aloud to Lytton and me masterpieces of English prose or poetry. In their house in Lancaster Gate or some country house which they took for the summer she would sit at the head of the table around which her five sons and five daughters together with a certain number of their wives or husbands argued at the top of their Stracheyan voices with Stracheyan vehemence. Lady Strachey seemed entirely oblivious to or unaware of the terrific din. She delighted to tell one about the vanishing literary world in which she had been the intimate friend of Lord Lytton, Browning and Tennyson.

            In 1904 I went for seven years to Ceylon as a Civil Servant. The literary world of London faded far away into the background of my youth and my memories. Then in 1911 I came back on a year’s leave and decided not to go back to Ceylon, but to settle in London and try to earn a living by writing. I found a London which motor cars and taxis and new buildings seemed to have changed fundamentally from the London of my youth. I went to live in Brunswick Square and there I found what I suppose has to be described as a new literary world. It came in time to be called popularly Bloomsbury. It consisted of Vanessa and Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, E. M. Foster, Maynard Keynes, Virginia and Adrian Stephen, Lytton Strachey. We all wrote books or painted pictures and I sat myself down in Brunswick Square and wrote The Village in the Jungle. On Morgan Foster’s advice I sent it to his publishers, Edward Arnold. It was accepted and published in 1913.

            So I reach the goal set me by the editor of this article, my first publication and the London literary world of Bloomsbury. I do not propose to say anything about either because, as Montaigne said so many years ago, it is not the goal, not the destination, not the arrival which is interesting, but the journey.


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