As today marks the 136th birthday of British writer Virginia Woolf, we look into how the Marble Arch area featured in her many writings. Most intriguing is how she pioneered stream of consciousness as a narrative device, allowing us to not only see what life was like but imagine Virginia Woolf in Marble Arch in the 20th century. This is the exciting beginning in our ‘Marvellous Matriarchs of Marble Arch’ series celebrating the women that have made the Marble Arch area what it is today.
Woolf played with the idea of the protagonist in her third novel, ‘Jacob’s Room’ (1922), in that the entirety of what we know of the main character – Jacob – is figured out through other characters’ impressions of him. Chapter Five describes the repetitive nature of the workforce when leaving for the day – to an almost humorous degree with how little it’s changed in nearly a century – stating “Innumerable overcoats of the quality prescribed hung empty all day in the corridors, but as the clock struck six each was exactly filled, and the little figures, split apart into trousers or moulded into a single thickness, jerked rapidly with angular forward motion along the pavement; then dropped into darkness”. The darkness being The London Underground and the different stations are pointed out on the Central Line of 1922. From the time period we know that Marble Arch was still the entrance to Hyde Park and from the novel’s description, it seems that the Marble Arch was a quiet and almost secluded area as it’s described stating, “large letters upon enamel plates represented in the underworld the parks, squares, and circuses of the upper. ‘Marble Arch — Shepherd’s Bush’— to the majority the Arch and the Bush are eternally white letters upon a blue ground. Only at one point — it may be Acton, Holloway, Kensal Rise, Caledonian Road — does the name mean shops where you buy things, and houses”. This is a very different idea of what we have of Marble Arch today as a bustling national monument acting as the home to Marble Arch Theatre, the entrance to Oxford Street from the west, and joining Hyde Park and the West End to Marylebone and Edgware Road.
In one of Woolf’s most popular novels, “Orlando” (1928), she satirically describes English history through the eyes of a poet that changes sex from male to female and travels throughout time to meet some of Britain’s famous literary figures. In Chapter Four, Orlando remarks that the route from Mayfair to Blackfriars is not well lit, but that it is a “great improvement upon that of the Elizabethan age” going on to say that one had to avoid the gravel pits in Park Lane, near where Lanes of London and Marriott Park Lane sits today – a far cry from a gravel pit in modern times. Later in Chapter Six Orlando enters Hyde Park, most likely through Marble Arch and fondly remembers a duel between “the Duke of Hamilton” and “Lord Mohun” from long ago.
‘The Years’ (1937), Woolf’s last published work, explores five decades of a family’s lifetime from the 1880’s to then ‘present day’ 1930’s by looking at little details and characteristics of the family members to provide insight on what was happening in Britain. Marble Arch features in four of the five decades as various events occur at the national monument. In 1880 the gates of Marble Arch are blocked by well-dressed men and women eagerly awaiting to wave to the the Princess as she passes by the Arch. In 1891, Eleanor, the eldest daughter in the family, is held in traffic at Marble Arch as horse-drawn carriages are leaving Hyde Park, providing insight to when Marble Arch was the grand entrance to the royal park from 1851 until 1908 when a new road scheme severed the Arch from the park. The year before the road scheme, in 1907 Woolf describes lines of cabs “taking people in evening dresses to plays, to dinner-parties, that was streaming towards Marble Arch”. In 1910, Woolf describes a lovely image of a British spring day with a lot of activity surrounding Marble Arch in which, “Men lay flat on the grass reading newspapers with their shirts open; on the bald scrubbed space by the Marble Arch speakers congregated; nursemaids vacantly regarded them; and mothers, squatted on the grass, watched their children play”.
It’s fascinating to have such wonderful descriptions from Virginia Woolf that allow us to imagine what the Marble Arch area was like through the centuries. Explore the rest of our Culture Blog to see the depth of cultural inspiration in the area.