Virginia Woolf’s Soho: Extract from ‘Nights Out’ by Judith Walkowitz

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, a regular Soho denizen

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, a regular Soho denizen

Judith Walkowitz, author of Nights Out, a new book on the history of Soho, discusses Virginia Woolf’s interactions with London’s sophisticated (and subversive) district.

Extract from Nights Out by Judith Walkowitz

Virginia Woolf loved Soho. In the early 1920s, her favorite urban itinerary brought her to this old, foreign quarter of central London, located to the west of Bloomsbury. Her “usual round,” as she put it, involved a journey from Gordon Square, where her sister Vanessa still lived, to the bookish fringes of Soho. While rummaging through the stalls of used books along the Charing Cross Road, Woolf might encounter Roger Fry with four or five yellow French books under his arms. Woolf would then cross Cambridge Circus, walk up Shaftesbury Avenue, and turn into Gerrard Street to visit the 1917 Club, a socialist establishment co-founded by her husband Leonard that brought intellectuals and political activists together under the banner of free speech. Some of the less high-minded members of her club availed themselves of Soho’s dubious commercial attractions and popped across the road for an illicit drink at Mrs. Meyrick’s notorious 43 Club. Woolf’s participation in Soho’s nightlife stopped short of shady night clubs like The 43, but Virginia and Leonard often went behind the Palace Theatre in Cambridge Circus to meet friends at a Franco-Italian “Soho restaurant” in the area of Old Compton Street.

Soho’s appeal extended well beyond this bohemian cultural geography. Woolf frequently made detours north and west into Berwick Street Market, discovered by her on a trip to have her watch repaired in Rupert Street. The colors and the noise of the market roused in her vivid mental pictures, which she processed into fiction. Woolf took pride in her ability to haggle over the price of slightly defective silk stockings with the Jewish stall-keepers and aggressive shop touts known as schleppers. Berwick Street Market’s stocking stalls were chiefly kept by Jewish Londoners, but their patrons were more ethnically diverse. According to one travel writer, they were decidedly “cosmopolitan—French, Swiss, Italian, Greek and suburban.”

Woolf was undoubtedly drawn to Soho’s blend of old and new London. Soho was a physical remnant of the old Georgian city, full of “queer people” and “curious trades,” its reputation for raffish nonconformity stretching back to the early modern period. However, apart from her watchmaker, whose craft placed him squarely within Soho’s long tradition of skilled artisanal trades, the Soho sites visited by Woolf were modern establishments. The Charing Cross Road, her point of entry into Soho, opened in 1887 as a late Victorian street improvement. Its secondhand booksellers were not traditional features of the locale but had settled there after 1906. Berwick Street Market was also of recent vintage, only officially recognized by municipal authorities in 1892, even though there had been some street trading there for over two hundred years. Since the Great War, the market had expanded and diversified its merchandise to include up-to-date, ready-to-wear fashion, and acquired a mixed-class clientele. Its aggressive traders sold accessories and dance frocks to shop girls and clerks who dreamt of becoming actresses once they quit their desks and counters for the day.

Berwick-Street

A Berwick Street stocking stall, a fetishistic sign of modern female desire and a barrier/screen between buyer and seller.

The Soho dining places patronized by Virginia and Leonard Woolf were another sign of Soho’s new consumer economy, most of them dating from the final two decades of the previous century and thereafter. Originally enterprises catering to immigrants, Soho restaurants like Roche’s and Petit Riche went on to carve out a distinctive marketing niche in the metropolis by offering economical versions of haute cuisine in a quaint Old London setting. By the 1920s, most of them had “deviated” from French to Franco-Italian cooking, as Italians established themselves as the “masters” of Soho and headquartered their “very active Fascism” in the Italian club on Greek Street. But twenties Soho also served as a meeting place for other political tendencies. The 1917 Club chose a Soho address as much for its longstanding associations with radical and refugee London as for its relative cheapness and centrality.

Woolf’s journey through the streets also signaled Soho’s modern geography. She did not follow any established route, nor did she limit her rambles to the parish boundaries of St. Anne, which had established the traditional civic and ecclesiastical identity for Soho since the early modern period. Her usual round extended beyond St. Anne’s western limits to the Berwick Street area, still officially part of the parish of St. James, Westminster, but informally annexed to Soho as a result of the building of Regent Street in the 1820s. In effect, her itinerary testified to the imaginative remapping of Soho in the nineteenth century as a parallelogram bounded by the heavily commercialized West End thoroughfares of Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the west, the Charing Cross Road to the east, and Coventry Street and Leicester Square to the south. Rather than segregate and contain Soho, the illuminated West End thoroughfares opened up Soho to commercial development and encouraged movement in both directions, even enabling middle-class women like Woolf to join the “republican” army of ramblers in Soho.

Nights Out revisits the clothing stalls, restaurants, clubs, and other spaces of encounter that formed the backdrop to Woolf’s urban rambles in Soho. It poses the following question: how did this tiny space, no more than 130 or so acres on the eastern edge of the fashionable West End and never exceeding 24,000 residents in the twentieth century, become a potent incubator of metropolitan change?

To find the answer, Nights Out examines the modern commercial economies that linked Soho to its peripheries, and to the world beyond. It charts how these economies enabled Soho to gain fame as a relaxed zone of freedom and toleration, as the one place in the metropolis where the usual rules did not apply, while also producing a social scene marked by segregation, tensions, and inequalities. Featuring vivid characters and striking narratives, Nights Out retells London’s story from the perspective of Soho residents and its habitués. It shows how people of different ethnicities lived together and apart, decades before this social heterogeneity became a commonplace of multicultural London.

Despite its diversity, Soho was not so much a cultural melting pot as a space of intimate and sometimes tumultuous interaction between men and women of many walks of life: rich and poor, unschooled émigrés and Bloomsbury literati, moral purity campaigners and libertarian anarchists, undercover police and dance hostesses, fascists and anti-fascists, queers and heterosexuals, Italians, Jews, Greeks, Americans, Germans, Swiss, black GIs, and white Britons.

Nights Out

Nights Out

Judith Walkowitz is professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of City of Dreadful Delight. She lives in New York.

Night Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London is out now from Yale University Press.

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  • December 19, 2013

    Rebecca Brooks

    What an interesting history of London. Pretty much everything I know of London’s history I learned from Virginia’s diaries. I can see why she loved it so much. It is an amazing city.

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