Virginia Woolf in the Bomb-scarred City

After the air raid, Virginia Woolf went for a walk. ‘The greatest pleasure of town life in winter – rambling the streets of London,’ she had written, a decade before. She called it ‘street haunting’, and in the essay of that title she gives instructions on how this should be done. ‘The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful,’ she wrote; ‘The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.’ Picture her, then, stepping out into the bombed city. It is perhaps a little earlier in the day than she might have liked, this afternoon in the middle of January 1941, and in less than three months she will be dead, but today she is here to take a quiet pleasure in the ruins.

‘I went to London Bridge,’ she notes in her diary:

I looked at the river; very misty; some tufts of smoke, perhaps from burning houses. There was another fire on Saturday. Then I saw a cliff of wall, eaten out, at one corner; a great corner all smashed; at Bank; the Monument erect; tried to get a Bus; but such a block I dismounted; & the second Bus advised me to walk. A complete jam of traffic; for streets were being blown up. So by tube to the Temple; & there wandered in the desolate ruins of my old squares; gashed; dismantled; the old red bricks all white powder, something like a builders yard. Grey dirt & broken windows; sightseers; all that completeness ravished & demolished.

She is watching carefully, making her way north and then west, through traffic jams and rubble, and she pauses for a while in ‘my old squares’, the wide and orderly spaces of Bloomsbury where she used to live. But then, quite simply, life interrupts: ‘So to Buzsards where, for almost the first time, I decided to eat gluttonously. Turkey & pancakes. How rich, how solid. 4/- they cost. And so to the L.L. where I collected specimens of Eng. litre [English literature].’ From Bloomsbury, she walked past the Air Ministry on Oxford Street on her way to Buzsards, a café known for its wedding cakes and before the war its tables out on the street. After lunch, she goes on to the London Library in St James’s Square. The fastest route is straight down Regent Street, and she had work to do on a new book.

Woolf ’s diaries, as the war begins, tell of a growing fascination. On the Sunday that Britain declared war, she was sewing blackout curtains at Monk’s House, the cottage in Sussex she shared with her husband Leonard, and she wrote: ‘I suppose the bombs are falling on rooms like this in Warsaw.’ Three days later: ‘Our first air raid at 8.30 this morning. A warbling that gradually insinuates itself as I lay in bed. So dressed & walked on the terrace with L. Sky clear. All cottages shut. All clear.’ The bombs did not come that morning, but she waits and she watches. ‘No raids yet,’ she recorded on Monday, 11 September, but she saw ‘Over London a light spotted veil’ of the silver barrage balloons on steel ropes, to defend the city from low-flying planes. The winter comes, and then the spring; a German bomber flies over Monk’s House; Holland falls, and Belgium, and Chamberlain resigns. She is always looking at the skies. ‘The bomb terror,’ she writes in her diary: ‘Going to London to be bombed.’ In May 1940 there are rumours of invasion, and at the end of the month: ‘A great thunderstorm. I was walking on the marsh & thought it was the guns on the channel ports. Then, as they swerved, I conceived a raid on London; turned on the wireless; heard some prattler; & then the guns began to lighten.’ Transformed by her poised imagination, the rain becomes a raid, and then the falling bombs return to rain. ‘I conceived a raid,’ writes Virginia Woolf, the great novelist, thinking bombers where there were none.

Of course, in these fixated times she was at work on a novel. She called it ‘Poyntz Hall’ but it was published after her death as Between the Acts, and it too imagines bombers. After the countryhouse pageant which is the centre of the novel, the Reverend Streatfield stands on a soap box to address the audience on the subject of funds for ‘the illumination of our dear old church’, and as he begins to speak:

Mr Streatfield paused. He listened. Did he hear some distant music? He continued: ‘But there is still a deficit’ (he consulted his paper) ‘of one hundred and seventy-five pounds odd. So that each of us who has enjoyed this pageant has still an opp . . .’ The word was cut in two. A zoom severed it. Twelve aeroplanes in perfect formation like a flight of wild duck came overhead. That was the music. The audience gaped; the audience gazed. The zoom became drone. The planes had passed. ‘. . . portunity,’ Mr Streatfield continued, ‘to make a contribution.’

The duck-like passing planes gently, ironically, interrupt the platitudes of village life, but they are not wholly fictional. Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, Woolf had been watching the fighters scrambling over the Downs, to the Battle of Britain, and hearing the distant music as the bombers came and went. Some days that summer, her diary is little more than a war report: ‘Nightly raids on the east & south coast. 6, 3, 12 people killed nightly.’ And even on the nights when there are no bombers – ‘Listened for another; none came’ – she begins to imagine them, to transform them into something useful. On the last Thursday of May 1940 she went out for a walk and ‘Instantly wild duck flights of aeroplanes came over head; manoeuvred; took up positions & passed over.’

So much of Woolf ’s diaries reads as the roughs for so much of her published writing, and the notes on bombing from 1940 find their way into an essay, ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’. She wrote it in August for an American symposium on women in the war, and here she returns to the moment when the bombers are above. As she narrates: ‘The sound of sawing overhead has increased. All the searchlights are erect. They point at a spot exactly above this roof. At any moment a bomb may fall on this very room. One, two, three, four, five, six . . . the seconds pass.’ Here we are, waiting and watching, as so often she was, and this time, as always before, the bombs do not fall, and she goes on:

But during those seconds of suspense all thinking stopped. All feeling, save one dull dread, ceased. A nail fixed the whole being to one hard board. The emotion of fear and of hate is therefore sterile, unfertile. Directly that fear passes, the mind reaches out and instinctively revives itself by trying to create. Since the room is dark it can only create from memory. It reaches out to the memory of other Augusts – in Bayreuth, listening to Wagner; in Rome, walking over the Campagna; in London. Friends’ voices come back. Scraps of poetry return.

In the moments after the air raid, the frozen imagination – nailed to one hard board – awakes again, and it does so by remembering, and creating; by making something new from fragments of the past, a memory of music, a line of poetry. In the last week of August 1940, the weather was hot, and every day in Woolf ’s diary there are air raid warnings. On the afternoon of Saturday, 7 September, the Blitz begins, and two days later she and Leonard go to London. ‘Left the car & saw Holborn,’ she writes:

A vast gap at the top of Chancery Lane. Smoking still. Some great shop entirely destroyed: the hotel opposite like a shell. In a wine shop there were no windows left. People standing at the tables – I think drink being served. Heaps of blue green glass in the road at Chancery Lane. Men breaking off fragments left in the frames.

The bombs continue to fall on the city. In the middle of October, she and Leonard return to London once more. They pass their old flat, in Tavistock Square, now open to the sky – ‘I cd just see a piece of my studio wall standing: otherwise rubble where I wrote so many books,’ she notes – and go on to their apartment at Mecklenburgh Square. Here, the windows had been blown out by a near bomb – ‘All again litter, glass, black soft dust, plaster powder’ – and they retrieve a few of their possessions: some diaries and notebooks; ‘Darwin, & the Silver, & some glass & china’; her fur coat, now dusty; at half past two they climb back into their little car and drive out to Sussex. She had long been ready to leave the city. In September, she had written to her old friend Ethyl Smith: ‘When I see a great smash like a crushed match box where an old house stood I wave my hand to London.’ Now, ‘Exhilaration at losing possessions’, she writes, and ‘I shd like to start life, in peace, almost bare – free to go anywhere.’

Virginia Woolf was haunted by air raids, and after she killed herself at the end of March 1941, some were quick to blame the bombers. Violet Dickinson wrote to Virginia’s sister Vanessa: ‘I think she was dreadfully bothered by the noise and aeroplanes and headaches’, and Malcolm Cowley, reviewing the posthumously published Between the Acts in the New Republic, called her ‘a war casualty’. The raids for her were a dark fascination, and in a long diary entry written on Wednesday, 2 October 1940, she is sitting at Monk’s House watching the sunset and thinking of her death in an air raid. ‘Oh I try to imagine how one’s killed by a bomb,’ she writes, and furnishes the scene:

I’ve got it fairly vivid – the sensation: but cant see anything but suffocating nonentity following after. I shall think – oh I wanted another 10 years – not this – & shant, for once, be able to describe it. It – I mean death; no, the scrunching & scrambling, the crushing of my bone shade in on my very active eye & brain: the process of putting out the light – painful? Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so – Then a swoon; a drum; two or three gulps attempting consciousness – & then, dot dot dot

Yet there is no full stop, and if there is a death-wish here it is overwhelmed by an opposite desire: to imagine the moment and to tell what comes after the air raid. She calls it ‘the process of putting out the light’, the last moments of consciousness, but she is not quite willing to let go of her deep literariness, for she is quoting Othello’s words before he strangles Desdemona. ‘Put out the light,’ he curses her, and ‘then put out the light’. It is a scene impossible to render, but ‘I’ve got it fairly vivid’: here is a trace of writerly pride.

After the air raid, a scrap of poetry returns, and a memory of August in Rome. There are sightseers in the rubble, picking at the fragments of blue-green glass, and perhaps a taste of wine from the blown-out wine shop. Later in the afternoon, perhaps, a plate of turkey and pancakes at a café on Oxford Street.

This is not to say that the things we recover from the ruins are easy, or even necessarily good for us. On the day of her death, Virginia Woolf walked out to the river that runs near her house in Sussex and collected a stone from the bank. Putting the stone into the pocket of the fur coat she had retrieved from the flat at Mecklenburgh Square five months earlier, she drowned herself.

But it is to say that we do not only find death in the ruins. That day in Mecklenburgh Square, Woolf took her books and china too, and the stationer’s ring-bound journal in which she wrote her final diary entries. In the last months of her life, Woolf was planning an ambitious new book, a study that was to be about all of literature and all of her reading.

This was her grandest bid to bring something back from the ruins. She was not reading despite the bombs; she was reading with them, and the two – reading and bombs – are jumbled together in one of her last letters. ‘Did I tell you I’m reading the whole of English literature through?’ she wrote to Ethyl Smith on 1 February 1941:

By the time I’ve reached Shakespeare the bombs will be falling. So I’ve arranged a very nice last scene: reading Shakespeare, having forgotten my gas mask, I shall fade far away, and quite forget . . . They brought down a raider the other side of Lewes yesterday. I was cycling in to get our butter, but only heard a drone in the clouds. Thank God, as you would say, one’s fathers left one a taste for reading! Instead of thinking, by May we shall be – whatever it may be: I think, only 3 months to read Ben Jonson, Milton, Donne and all the rest!

She called this last book ‘Turning the Page’ or ‘Reading at Random’, and according to her biographer Hermione Lee it was planned as ‘a collection of essays which would make up a version of English literary history’. She only completed fragments of the first two chapters.

What survives the air raid? The imagination, and then the scrunching and scrambling as the mind seeks to re-create itself. Hermione Lee records an anecdote told by Somerset Maugham that reveals much of Woolf ’s appreciation of bombing. ‘After a dinner party in Westminster,’ he recalled, ‘she insisted on walking home alone during an air-raid. Anxious for her safety, he followed her, and saw her, lit up by the flashes of gun-fire, standing in the road and raising her arms to the sky. She is beckoning to them, come closer.