Tuesday, September 26, 2017

By Water, by Land

Childish Canal Month is drawing to a close.  Given that it was inspired by visions of earnest canoeists on the Gowanus at sunrise, reciting extracts from The Waves as they paddled the canal's oily waters, I thought I should see if canals actually appear much in the Woolf canon.

I could find very little mention of them, and what I did find was second-hand and incidental. In "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown", Woolf's famous essay comparing Edwardian novelists to the more creative Georgians, she decries "materialist" Edwardians like Arnold Bennett, who look, but do not perceive. She quotes a passage from Bennett's Hilda Lessways as an example of laborious drudgery without "one line of insight".

The bailiwick of Turnbull lay behind her; and all the murky district of the Five Towns, of which Turnbull is the northern outpost, lay to the south.  At the foot of Chatterley Wood the canal wound in large curves on its way towards the undefiled plains of Cheshire and the sea.  On the canal-side, exactly opposite to Hilda's window, was a flour-mill, that sometimes made nearly as much smoke as the kilns and the chimneys closing the prospect on either hand.  From the flour-mill a bricked path, which separated a considerable row of new cottages from their appurtenant gardens, led straight into Lessway Street, in front of Mrs. Lessway's House. By this path Mr. Skellhorn should have arrived.

More remotely yet, we turn to Leonard.  In Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, Viviane Forrester examines his only description of the couple's honeymoon.  It makes no mention of Virginia, but is vivid in breakfast details:

At 7:30 in the morning I staggered up on to the deck and found the Third Officer who spoke English... He took me up on to the bridge, and had breakfast sent to me there; the first course was an enormous gherkin, swimming in oil and vinegar.  One of the bravest things I have ever done, I think, was to eat this, followed by two fried eggs and bacon, coffee and rolls, with the boat, the sea, and the coast of France going up and down all around me."

And later:

"Then there are three lines about Venice, but only about the weather, describing the wind 'whistling through its canals, (the wind on the Grand Canal) can sometimes seem the coldest wind in Europe.'"

If I'm wandering Gowanus, or any farther stretch of the city or beyond, it's as a walker that Woolf provides inspiration.  Rebecca Solnit, a contemporary walker and essayist non-pareil, understands Woolf, and the liberty of shutting the front door behind you and heading to the street, with perfection.

Public space, urban space, which serves at other times the purposes of the citizen, the member of society establishing contact with other members, is here the space in which to disappear from the bonds and binds of individual identity. Woolf is celebrating getting lost, not literally lost as in not knowing how to find your way, but lost as in open to the unknown, and the way that physical space can provide psychic space. She writes about daydreaming, or perhaps evening dreaming in this case, the business of imagining yourself in another place, as another person.

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