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Perception of London in Virginia Woolf, Graham Swift and Charles Dickens

Irina-Ana Drobot
Technical University of Civil Engineering Bucharest
Department of Foreign Languages and Communication

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to compare the way London is represented and
perceived in novels by Woolf, Swift and Dickens. It is true that the periods of time in their
novels differ, yet their techniques may be similar in some respects. Even though Woolf and
Swift focus on the way London is perceived subjectively by their characters, there are also
instances where the streets and directions throughout the city are represented with great
accuracy, in a realistic manner. The purpose of this paper is to show that different periods of
time and different representations of the city of London have something in common.


The aim of this paper is to analyze how the representations of the perception of
London differ in the novels by Charles Dickens compared to the novels by Virginia Woolf
and Graham Swift. Charles Dickens belongs to the Realist tradition of the Victorian period.
Woolf belongs to the Modernist period, while Swift is part of the Postmodernis period.
Emotion is a significant aspect in Graham Swifts fiction. As Jakob Winnberg states, this is
opposed to the waning of affect which characterizes postmodernism (Fredric Jameson
1998). Despite the different ages which are present in their novels too as a consequence of the
time period they have written in, there are similarities among them. Woolf and Swift also
offer a detailed description of real streets in London. They do not just present London
through the subjective perception of the characters. Dickens himself seems to stay away from
pure Realism when he focuses mostly on the negative aspects of London. He seems to present
London through the eyes of poor characters. According to Bal (1997: 158), incidents are
always presented from a subjective perspective, even in the case of third person narrators.
Thus, the possibility for a certain degree of subjectivity in Dickens representation of London
To what extent can we understand more about Dickens representations of London by
comparing him to Woolf and Swift? The assumption is that such a comparison may offer a
deeper insight into Dickens technique and use of Realism. For this, the influence on the
readers may also be taken into account.

Subjective perception vs. realism

The setting of London is described by each of the three authors in periods of time
close to their own. Subjective perception and realism seem not to exclude one another with
these authors in terms of detailed description of directions through the streets of London and
of the impression characters have of the city.
The following of Charles Dickens novels include London as a setting at least at some
times: Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Bleak
House, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, The
Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Virginia Woolfs novels Mrs Dalloway, The Years, Flush, and Jacobs Room offer
detailed descriptions of London in terms of streets and areas. Even though Woolf focuses on
the way London is perceived subjectively by her characters, there are also instances where
the streets and directions throughout the city are represented with great accuracy. This may
show that there is, to some extent at least, a preoccupation with external reality in
Modernism. However, this preoccupation is limited in comparison with subjective reality. If
we take into account the fact that directions are used for orientation, then me may say that a
small portion of external reality may serve for orientation in her novels.
In a similar way, subjective impressions of characters left aside, Graham Swifts novel
The Light of Day offers a very accurate description of London (Wimbledon area) in terms of
streets. Everything is very clearly depicted, described in detail. Some parts of the novel
Tomorrow also describe London the area of Putney. Malcolm notices that, in Graham
Swifts novel The Light of Day, the reader may visualise every street named, the wilderness
of Wimbledon Common and the bleak vastness of Putney Vale cemetery. Malcolm also
points out to place setting seen as local and rendered with a particular meticulous
observation, by Taylor, who even calls this cab-driver accuracy. In Mrs Dalloway, The
Years or Flush we may also find names and numbers of streets and precise directions
throughout London.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson states that, in Woolfs novels, [] London is very rarely used
simply as a convenient setting [] (2011: 125). Woolf reveals her characters and their inner
world partly through setting (Jean Moorcroft Wilson, 2011: 127).
Megan Teigen identifies a feeling of ambivalence toward the modern city of
London in Woolfs novel Mrs Dalloway and in her short story Street Haunting. This
ambivalence toward the modern city is, according to Teigen, rooted in ambivalences of
modern identity. Ambivalence consists in feelings of peace, rest, and violence found in the
streets of the city, as well as connectedness and isolation, as Teigen claims in her paper
Woolfs Modernism: Ambivalence of Identity in Mrs Dalloway and Street Haunting. (Megan
Teigen, 2006-2007: 31).
According to Chapman, The Modernist view of the city leaned towards a pessimistic
sense of urban failure, and a feeling of mixed fascination and revulsion is discernible in their
writings. (Michelle Chapman, 1996).
The image of the city is, thus, contradictory. Chapmans view is close to Woolfs
representation of the city as experienced by Rose. The city is presented as dangerous and
violent in the perception of young Rose. In The Years, Roses exploration during her
mission to buy the box of ducks in the window from Lamleys proves to be full of
dangers for the little girl. Roses exploration is both fascinating and dangerous. Eleanor
Pargiter from the same novel enjoys exploring the city. Walking on its streets relaxes her and
makes her enjoy her freedom. What is more, it also offers her a lyrical experience, a moment
of being: The uproar, the confusion, the space of the Strand came upon her with a shock of
relief. She felt herself expand. Teigen claims that, While Woolf appears in both works to
present a strikingly romanticized London, a closer look at her structure and style reveals a
fragmentation of identity that is a direct effect of the citys rapid modernization, and whose
only resolution, for Woolf, lies in her characters inevitable isolation. (Megan Teigen, 2006-
2007: 32).To Septimus, London is a reality which he experiences differently, in the sense that
he lives in a world of his own. He doesnt notice what Rezia shows him. To Rezia, London
becomes a city which she feels as foreign, together with its inhabitants, once she feels
Septimus is in a world of his own.
The same contradictory and subjective image of London, together with the choice of
this setting in order to tell something about the characters is visible in Swift as well. William
Chapman remembers one of his early days of marriage, when he used to walk with Irene:
We walked back over the grass of the common, under the trees. How green this part of
London always was. (Graham Swift, 1993: 175).
The image of the city as dangerous appears in The Light of Day too, as George
reflects, while imagining scenes about Bob and Kristina:
On Wimbledon Common. Why not? Things happen there, in broad daylight. People
get mugged, raped, killed. Or pump themselves full of chemicals. These chunks of
wilderness. (Graham Swift, 2003: 80).
George remembers an area of London where his father used to meet another woman
and where he followed her. Dangerous secrets are revealed in the streets. In the present he
works as a detective and follows Kristina and Bob on the streets in London.
Chistlehurst is depicted as a place where Napoleon and Empress Eugenie were safe
after their escape (Graham Swift, 2003: 313). The city is seen as dangerous in Shuttlecock as
well, at the moment when someone gets sick in the tube. Prentis sees how someone had been
taken ill in one of the carriages (Graham Swift, 1981: 159).
Chiper notices differences that concern the representation of the city in Realism,
Modernism and Postmodernism:
With modernism, descriptions aiming to provide a faithful copy of reality were very
much discarded in favour of subjective descriptions rendered by an intra-diegetic
consciousness. There was a shift, then, from the reality of the outside world to the reflective
consciousness inner states.
The move away from objective mimesis has been further pursued by postmodern
writers. Where realist writers used to indulge in long pages in the pictorial mode,
postmodernists use descriptions scarcely and in a very fragmented manner. (Sorina Chiper,
2003: 193).
However, boundaries between trends are sometimes not as clearly-cut. The reader
may visualize the city of London in the majority of Woolfs and Swifts novels, where
accurate descriptions of streets are given.
Various areas in the city of London, described in detail by Woolf and Swift, offer
characters the opportunity to explore, to walk, while reflecting on inner issues. Sometimes the
city is seen as dangerous, sometimes it is seen as relaxing and beautiful for a walk. The image
of the city is contradictory, ambivalent, reflecting the features of lyrical novels. Both positive
and negative views on the city are revealed. Characters experience moments of being during
their walks in the city, they discover something about themselves or they discover other
characters secrets by following them. Walking on the streets is reflected in characters inner
world, as exterior spaces bring back memories. Boundaries between trends are sometimes not
so clear; in this case, trends may be seen as continuing one another instead of opposing one
What about Dickens? We may start from George Gissings remark, which offers his
views on Dickenss London:
London as a place of squalid mystery and terror, of the grimly grotesque, of
labyrinthine obscurity and lurid fascination, is Dickenss own; he taught people a certain way
of regarding the huge city, and to this day how common it is to see London with Dickenss
Judging from his remark, thus, we may say that Dickenss description of London as
perceived by the readers is not distant, is not only in terms of exterior setting. Dickens has his
own way of describing London, a way which includes certain feelings of mystery and terror,
fascination, which are not objective. Dickens view of London is regarded by its readers as a
specific one , as a view that has lots of impact on them, and which would not usually be
thought of as an objective one. It is not a view which only describes external reality. This
external reality has a lot to do with his characters world as we can see for instance in Oliver
Twist. David Purdue (1997-2012) claims the following about the representations of London
as compared to the countryside in Oliver Twist:
In Oliver Twist, London itself seems to be part of the overall system of control that
threatens and entraps Oliver at every turn. The streets are like a filthy labyrinth once you
turn wrong, its impossible to escape. The country, on the other hand, is pristine and
harmonious. Even the plants and flowers seem less constrained, and are able to grow freely
wherever they want. Its no accident that Oliver keeps moving back and forth between urban
and rural settings in this novel. The city itself is condemned, almost as much as the
institutions of religion and justice, for helping to create criminals and oppress the poor.
Because of this, the city gets personified numerous times its always easier to blame a
person than an inanimate city.
Indeed, the representations of London seem to underline Olivers unpleasant moments
in life: his encounters with and his recruitment by pickpockets. However, it is still in London
that Mr. Brownlaw decided to take care of him since he cannot believe that Oliver is really a
London in Oliver Twist is described as a very filthy, unpleasant place:
A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and
muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small
shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of
night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places
that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses; and in-
them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and
yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses,
where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the
door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on
no very well-disposed or harmless errands.
This unoptimistic, sad, dark vision of the city seems to echo the state of mind of the
character Oliver Twist. Even if the narration is not from a first-person point of view, as we
have seen, in narratology, according to Bal, this perspective is the same as third-person point
of view since the author will try to judge things from the point of view of the narrator no
matter what the point of view is. Bal claims that, in terms of focalization, a first-person
narrative does not differ from a third person narrative. This is because When we try to
reflect someone else's point of view, we can only do so in so far as we know and understand
that point of view. That is why there is no difference in focalization between a so-called 'first-
person narrative' and a 'third-person narrative.' (Bal 1997: 158)
The contrast between the city and the country is also visible in Little Dorrit:
In the country, the rain would have developed a thousand fresh scents, and every
drop would have had its bright association with some beautiful form of growth or life. In the
city, it developed only foul stale smells, and was a sickly, lukewarm, dirt- stained, wretched
addition to the gutters.
Once again, the dark vision on the city of London is visible. This vision may be so
once again because the character Little Dorrit connects the city to her unpleasant moments
of life. After all, her father is a prisoner in London.
With Pip from Great Expectations, London is connected to his desire and his work to
become a gentleman. This is one of the positive aspects of London, yet even with Pip we
notice a dark vision of London. One of his first impressions of London is connected to a place
where criminals are punished (the public yard). Also, the place where he stays is really dirty.
Here we have a contradiction between London as Pip had imagined it and the contradiction
he sees between his image of London and the real, exterior image of it. Here we have a
subjective perception too in the presentation of London as an external image: it is the dark
aspects of London which strike Pip. They are contrary to his expectations and seem to affect
In The Old Curiosity Shop, London is the place where the shop mentioned in the title
is located and which is lost by Nells grandfather during the games he plays at night. In A
Christmas Carol, London is the dark setting echoing Scrooges state of mind and dark vision
on humanity, but also a city celebrating Christmas Day when he changes his view following
his encounters with the spirits of past, present and future. In David Copperfield, London is
the setting for the time when David works in Murdstones factory after his mothers death. It
is also the setting from which he runs away towards Dover, to his aunts place where life is
better for him. In Our Mutual Friend, London is the setting for the misers becoming rich and
it is also the place where his heir should return. However, the heir is supposed to have been
found dead (his body was discovered) in the same setting of London. In The Mystery of
Edwin Drood, London is the setting of the opium den which John Jasper leaves in the
beginning of the story.
The dark image of London is thus associated with characters dark experiences. Even
though the representation of the setting is different from those of Woolf or Swift, a quite
similar effect is achieved on the reader.


It seems that, regardless of the means of representation, Woolf, Swift and Dickens are
associated by the readers (here we may also count critics) with certain views on the city of
London. Woolf is associated with an ambivalent vision on the city, Swift with a cab drivers
accuracy (Malcolm) but also with a subjective description, Dickens with a dark vision. As
we have seen, in narratological theory first-person narration and third-person narration may
both be subjective. With Dickens, the dark vision on London is associated with the
characters unpleasant experiences there. The boundaries among movements are sometimes
blurred: Modernism, Postmodernism, Realism.


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