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Essay - Virginia Woolf and Poor Women by Alison Light

Virginia Woolf and Poor Women1

Alison Light


If my father was a blacksmith and yours was a peer of the realm we must needs be pictures to each other. We cannot possibly break out of the frame of the picture by speaking natural words.
Virginia Woolf, ‘Three Pictures’, June 1929

In an eloquent passage in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wrote of the ‘infinitely obscure lives’ of women which ‘remained to be recorded’, meaning not only the shabby genteel ‘Mrs Browns’, or the ladies whose often thwarted existences she had already limned in her own ‘Lives of the Obscure’, but working women, poor women.2 Encountering the denizens of the London streets she imagined feeling ‘the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life’

whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo, and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows.3

These figures, though, were safely removed from her private life. They were ‘the poor’, the eternal poor, the violet sellers and match-sellers, who would have been equally at home in Mayhew or Booth’s surveys, or peopling Shakespeare’s London or Defoe’s as much as the London of the 1930s. They could become figures of romance, like the old woman clutching a brown mongrel, who surfaces in Jacob’s Room and, in similar guise, the female derelict outside Regent’s Park Tube Station in Mrs Dalloway, ‘a rusty pump’, whose song is ‘the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth’, reiterating, ‘love which has lasted a million years’, and rendered by Woolf as pure sound and rhythmic impulse, thus:

ee um fah um so
foo swee too eem oo

Though her song issues ‘from so rude a mouth, a mere hole in the earth’, it replenishes the city, ‘all along the Marylebone Road , and down toward Euston, fertilising, leaving a damp stain’4 Of the same archetypal species is Mrs McNab (and her friend, Mrs Bast), the charwoman who comes ‘lurching and leering’, in the ‘Time Passes’ section of To the Lighthouse. Singing her tuneless song, Mrs McNab cleans the decaying house of the upper classes, sweeping out the dirt and detritus of the patriarchal past, ushering in the future. Not to inherit it herself, only to stave off destruction and open the doors to her betters. Her song is also wordless, ‘robbed of meaning, like the voice of witlessness, humour, persistency itself, trodden down but springing up again’. Mrs McNab, working against death is mythicised as a care-taking woman but like the exotic tramps of Woolf’s imagination, her presence does little to challenge the reassuring stereotype of the inarticulate lower orders - ‘she was witless, she knew it’. 5


1. What follows is an edited extract from the argument made at length in my Mrs Woolf and the Servants (2007).
2. It was one of many works by women in the period, especially by women historians, which addressed the exclusion of women from conventional accounts of the past. See for example, the medievalist Eileen Power’s bestselling Medieval People (1924), which begins: ‘This book is chiefly concerned with the kitchens of history’. Power was a close friend of Karin Stephen, Woolf’s sister-in-law, and Virginia mentions her in her diaries: Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, 5 vols., Hogarth Press, (1977-84), III, 14 June 1925.
3. A Room of One’s Own (1929), Penguin edition (1992), p.81. All references hereafter are to the Penguin editions of Woolf’s novels.
4. Mrs Dalloway (1925), p.89.
5. To the Lighthouse (1927), p.142