In her essay Characters in Fiction, Virginia Woolf wrote that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed’ – people began to behave differently, she says – giving the example of behaviour of one’s cook – Victorian cooks stayed below in their kitchens and did their jobs whilst Georgian cooks were always wandering upstairs to borrow newspapers or get advice about a hat.
The implication is that if human character has changed (and according to Woolf at the end of the day all literature is about character) then literature must change as well. What better backdrop than the city to illustrate these changes! The problem is however that not all modernist writers were interested in representing the same changes and even where they were, they did not all do so to the same effect.
Cities provide a convenient container, their infrastructure juxtaposing the old and new. In the section entitled ‘The Fire Sermon’ in his poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot uses London’s Thames River to represent the differences between the nostalgic majesty of Elizabethan times (‘Elizabeth and Leicester’ – ‘beating oars’ – ‘a gilded shell’ – ‘red and bold’) and 1920’s London (‘trams and dusty trees’ that ‘undid me’ with little promise of a ‘new start’). Both these representations involve connections (boats/trams) whilst at the same time implying a fundamental disconnect. By choice of images invoked the speaker in this section of The Waste Land seems to suggest that the changes he or she experiences has turned yesterday’s London into a worse place.
Cities also provide a privileged space wherein everything that can happen birth, marriage, death, etc.) does happen with routine regularity. Although the speaker in the Waste Land seems to find little pleasure in his or her London, Virginia Woolf’s heroine, Clarissa, in Mrs Dalloway takes immense pleasure in hers – what with its ‘omnibuses, sandwich men, automobiles, and armies of people’. Little did she know however that just in a few hours wandering about London’s West End, Clarissa would confront so many complex issues –ghosts from her own past (prior lovers Peter Walsh and Sally Seton) and the devastations wrought by war (in the form of the suicide of poor Septimus). It is dislocating just to think of all the things a city throws up to its residents in a single day but the reader of Mrs Dalloway gets the sense that Clarissa finds more plusses than minuses in her London than did the speaker in Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Cities have a way of taking on a life of their own – contracting and expanding according to the needs of society as it changes. In Howards End, EM Forster represents the dislocation felt by the Schlegel family as their long-time London home is pulled down to make room for building a block of new flats. Like Clarissa Dalloway’s London, the Schlegel’s house is a temporal container (albeit in miniature) – for their ghosts. But rather like Woolf’s Clarissa, Margaret Schlegel found her London exhilarating and in the changes that the speaker in Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ found so threatening, Margaret found the promise for a ‘new start’ which would take her where she had needed go all along, Howards End.
Finally cities become symbols in their own right – representing a particular society as a whole – how characters react to this tells as much about them as the society itself. For example, in James Joyce’s story ‘Clay’ in Dubliners, Maria finds enough to admire in her city. Not only does she have a job that allows her enough money to pick and choose amongst the delightful goods at Downe’s cake-shop (and finally purchase a ‘thick slice of plumcake’) but she also has family with which to share them. Although Maria’s Dublin is more claustrophobic (despite singing nostalgic songs and playing games with her brother’s children, one cannot help thinking that Maria – ‘blushing very much’ – feels a bit put upon by her family) than Clarissa Dalloway’s London, it would appear better then what she might have experienced in days gone by (that a prayer book and subsequent jokes about entering a convent serves to remind everyone how much times have changed for the better, at least for women).
In summary, if as Woolf suggests human character has changed then modernist literature needed change to reflect that. The city provides an excellent opportunity to accomplish this because as a back-drop for the modernist writer’s characters, it is a privileged space – a container or microcosm – of humanity. Naturally with changing times comes feelings of dislocation but the way in which various modernist writers approach representations of their chosen cities suggests that for some such dislocation was welcome (as in the case of Maria, Margaret, and perhaps also Clarissa) while for others like the speaker in The Waste Land it was not.