(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)
Virginia Woolf and the Shop Window
Rachel Bowlby (University of York)
Let us begin in the middle of The Years, in the middle of a car journey through London, where a shop window is seen, as shop windows almost always are, in passing. It is the Present Day, and Eleanor and her doctor niece, Peggy, are together:
It is first of all a historical point that is being made by the narrator or perhaps by Peggy, it could be either or both. The shops are "still lit up," with an electricity they wouldn't have been lit up by, at all, or this late, in the past. The shop windows get allied with the cinemas as the lighted signs of the contemporary city. The shop window provides a modern illumination, at once darkening the past and making artificial, or strange, the present in which people are "still looking" long after nightfall.
Characteristically, Woolf's shop window is at one remove, or several. A shop window is always, to begin with, a mediating object: you see through it, in both senses. It enables you to see and it is also an artificial framing device and a barrier that only lets you see, not touch or take or smell. That is the first remove. But Peggy and Eleanor don't just see the window in passing, they see those who are looking at it as well. And then at a further remove the narrator points out to readers Peggy and Eleanor looking, in passing, at the lookers. What curiosities does the window evoke, at any of these removes or approaches? What is its fascination? For the window can be a draw to a solitary walker, say, but its drawing power—when a group has gathered before it—can then itself be a source of interest which is not necessarily the same.
In relation to Woolf, and more widely too, I am interested in what the shop window and their custom-made spectator, the passer-by, reveal or at least suggest about the history of urban subjectivity and daily life. Peggy and Eleanor, in the car, anticipate what was to be a major preoccupation of
post-war marketing psychologists: how to deal with the altered situation or rather speed of the potential customer, no longer strolling or even striding past the shop, but looking from a moving car. Seen from the travelling car, the rows of shops appear like a moving picture—no wonder the picture palace is put next to the illuminated window in the literary encapsulation.
The window is variously a source of surprise, dreaming absorption, disturbance, indifference, and more, in all sorts of different possible forms. It elicits the attention and the inattention, the passions and the boredoms, of single strollers and gathered crowds. The window can seem quintessentially new, striking, here now (and not yesterday). It can also seem strange and unnatural, ghostly in its artificial appearance—nocturnal lighting, whether gas or electricity, is the classic scene for this. But most often, the shop window is simply an ordinary of the street, unremarkable and unremarked. It is what passers-by pass by all the time, and only the exceptional window gets them to stop and stay and look.
The passer-by is a ubiquitous figure in the street, and yet seems rarely to be singled out for observation or analysis or anything else. He or she is quite simply unremarkable. He is almost defined—not that anyone really bothers to stop and define him—by his lack of significance. A marginal presence in every period or place but in none especially, he has tended to pass by, as by nature he must, unobtrusively, without arousing much interest at the time, let alone any subsequent commentary.
Somehow, the passer-by has none of the glamour of the "flâneur"; the two are often one and the same: you cannot be a "flâneur" without being, from another perspective, a passer-by. In French—and certainly in the middle of an English sentence, if not an English street—the "passante," the female passer-by, may have a certain something that is lacking in her neutral or male counterpart, the ordinary "passant." In Baudelaire and Proust, the "passante" appears romantically as the momentary object of a longing look. She is the woman who would have been the perfect one, but she is no sooner seen than she has passed on (Bowlby).
In the neutral world of English, the passer-by is rarely, and certainly not by nature, an object of fantasy or suspicion or even curiosity. The passer-by is devoid of interest. There is a link here with the distinctive nineteenth—and early twentieth—century American sense of "passing" in relation to racial identity. Passing by is a form of not standing out, being seen only insofar as you merge in as "anybody."
But noticed or not, the passer-by has been around in the street for some considerable time. He is cited, if not sighted, in the Oxford English Dictionary, as having put in an appearance as long ago as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the nineteenth century, his role was shared with
that of a figure who has since definitively boarded a bus or a train and left him standing there: the passenger. "Passengers" in Dickens's novels are often not travellers on trains or coaches, but those whom he also calls by the fuller expression "foot passengers." They are pedestrians on the way somewhere through the city streets. There is usually a sense that they are not in their immediate neighbourhoods but crossing from one place to another, with a definite destination in mind: they are not just out for a walk, not "flâneurs," and nor are they simply going up the street for a local walk or errand. Today, now that the "passenger" can take almost any form of transport except his own two feet, there is no surviving word to indicate the street walker bound on a definite journey, as distinct from the one who is strolling around.
When the passer-by moves away from the city he does show up differently, because he is out of his urban place. In a poem by Coleridge, the contrast between the commercial and the pastoral world is marked again, in the form of a Bristol businessman out on a Sunday ramble who passes by the poet's cottage:
The speaker imagines the passer-by being distracted from urban and commercial concerns and gaining sustenance from the sight of the pastoral idyll; and the sight of the passer-by serves the same function for him, confirming that" we were bless'd."
In Woolf's novel The Waves (1930), a future urban passer-by similarly takes strength from an image of the country, removing himself into a higher form of passer-byness that is out of this world. Louis, who has just left school, is looking out of the train window thinking about the difference between the privileged destinations of his peers and his own future in city commerce. His resentment dissolves as he goes past scenes of rural life:
As his own ghost, in two places at once, Louis is able to do what the passer-by normally doesn't: to see himself as a passer-by. Free from the pressures of "hard" emotions, he is "disembodied," at ease with ancient and natural things. The indifference of the social world to the passer-by becomes the passer-by's own indifference to the world. But the passage also shows up a kind of ghostliness that always hovers close to the figure of the passer-by, who is by nature a visitor, a transient, an indistinct figure, never fully present, never at rest.
There is normally no sense that the passer-by might have any special perspective or mode of being, like the flâneur. He is seen in relation to the place or person he passes, rather than the path that he is following himself. This seems to lead to the hint of an association between passing and passivity, as though the passer-by had no independent existence apart from the moment and place of being seen to pass.
Back in his urban milieu, the passer-by is generally not regarded as an agent in his own right. He or she does not appear to have any moral responsibility for what else comes to pass; in this respect he is in a similar position to that other street figure on the sidelines, the "innocent bystander." Only, perhaps, in the parable of the Good Samaritan is there a suggestion that passing by might amount to a positive act, of omission or faith: antiparerchesthai, to pass by on the other side a dead or dying man (The Gospel of Luke).
The passer-by has something in common with a related nonentity, "the man in the street." But the man in the street is marked by a generality that often makes him indistinguishable from the statistical identity of the "average" man, a figure of speech and number far removed from the particularity of any concrete pavement or sidewalk. This passage nicely brings out the difference:
As we are about to see, it is at this one point where the otherwise abstract man in the street takes on a body that the passer-by, too, has her
starring role. For the passer-by did, in fact, have a moment of glory; though, being who she was, that moment was of its essence, and necessarily, a passing one. It happened between the wars, and the cause is quite clear to see: it was the passion at that time for the art of window display.
Perhaps it was appropriate that it should be the shop window that brought the passer-by into temporary prominence—for the window, like the passer-by, is normally invisible, seen and not noticed. This was, indeed, a feature stressed by writers on the subject. It helped in the showing of the display, which was both completely visible, with nothing in the way of the sight, and kept at a well-designed distance. You could see it but not immediately touch or have it, so you were bound to see it as a "sight to behold," set apart from where you were by the transparent partition. New glass technology in the nineteenth century had increased the size as well as the transparency of panes; but it had taken until now, or so the proud innovators of the 1930s said, for the aesthetic potential of this new medium to be recognised.
Writers of textbooks and handbooks for retailers enthused about the new-found possibilities of the window, treating it as the "silent salesman" whose visual qualities would take the place of, or prepare the way for, the verbal qualities of the personnel within. In the marketing theory of the period, the role and technique of the salesman was a fine art, itself elaborated in numerous books addressed to practitioners of all kinds; the window presented special conditions for selling.
Marketing psychologists tended to focus on the solitary passer-by or possible stopper; this enables them to look at a multiplicity of possibilities for considering how he or she might behave. The passer-by is seen in isolation—not so much as lonely, but as absolutely on his own, unaccompanied and uncommunicating. Passers-by are separate units, each to be individually solicited—and this makes them, collectively, add up to a very different version of the urban crowd or mass from the kinds appearing at this time in books on the distinctive, often menacing characteristics of "crowd psychology."
Passers-by are no threat. They never join forces in violence or come under the collective influence of a compelling leader; they are never far removed (though they may be a little removed) from their "usual" selves, customary for them personally and nothing out of the ordinary on the street. They are not transformed into creatures of instinct, out of control, wild and abnormally emotional; instead, they are harmlessly vacant, not concentrating on anything in particular.
The tranquil, peaceable stream of passers-by has remained hidden in the byways of minor commercial psychology, another kind of crowd that has none of the dramatic, none of the fearful or politically contentious qualities of the more visible one. Unlike crowds, passers-by are not seen to cast off the trappings or the protections of a "civilised" behaviour conceived of as overlaid upon one that is "primitive": emotional, infantile, possibly violent. Yet, like crowds, passers-by are regarded as being anything but focused or directed in their behaviour. Like crowds, they are not especially rational, but this is not to say that they are irrational: the alternatives simply do not apply to their particular intermediate state, literally neither here nor there. Like crowds, passers-by are not quite their "normal" selves, but they are not "alienated" either into an identity that their usual selves might detest and refuse as not belonging to it. In the common as well as the technical phrase, they are "open to suggestion."
In Woolf's essay "Reviewing" (1939), the relationship between the crowd and the shop window is used as an analogy for thinking about the relationship between books and their readers. It reveals a very different, in some ways much more predictable attitude to the differences between individuals and masses than the one that is indicated by the writers on window display. "Reviewing" begins:
Here a shop window contains not new merchandise and mannequins but real women and old clothes; a crowd is attracted by the display of "women at work," not by the fashion of the "finished article." The "familiar sight" is at first sight what the crowd sees—but it could also be what we, as readers, are being shown, the crowd and the window together. And the passage continues by suggesting that this peculiar spectacle is itself being presented only as a window onto another one:
First, let us note that the crowd in front of the window has become two groups—performers (the reviewers); and audience (the rest). So now, as with the passage from The Years, we have no less than four removes or stages from work to ultimate reader: those behind the window, then the reviewers, then the public, then finally the viewers of the whole lot, the present readers. There is also the question of the fit between the window-world and the writing world which it is meant to shop up.
The women in the window differ from the feminine figures usually to be found there because they are working; but they are also unexpected as author-equivalents. They are women and they are in a group, not men alone with their writing. And what they are doing is not new making but repair work—Barthes's metaphor of modern literature as a fabric or weave of citations is literalised. Yet the aim is to produce not a fragmented modernist work in pieces, but its realist antithesis. The moth-eaten gaps are covered over by "invisible stitches" to produce that object despised of contemporary criticism, an apparently seamless whole.
After this characteristically enigmatic opening, Woolf launches into a brief disquisition on the history and state of the art of reviewing. I can't, of course, cut it up and put it back together again without losing much of the texture and the material—but basically, Woolf's point is that reviewers nowadays have so little time and so little space that they don't fulfil a useful function, either in telling the public whether a book is worth buying, or in giving the author useful advice.
Authors, Woolf thinks, dislike bad reviews not because of their effect on sales, but because they hurt; they hurt not because they criticise, but because other people see them. The author is on display, shown up, put in the window as a target of criticism. Woolf therefore proposes, alongside her wickedly parodic suggestion, a serious reform. The author wants real criticism—she assumes. In place of the present public arrangements, why not have private one-to-one consultations? The author would pay three guineas (three guineas always being what Woolfian people are willing to pay for a good cause) for an hour talking to the critic about his work—" the fee," she says, "would be enough to ensure that the interview did not degenerate into tea-table gossip" (160). Somewhere between a counselling session and a tutorial (assuming there's a difference), here is the scene:
Not an unconscious in sight. There is a full and frank exchange of ideas, untroubled, it seems, by any difficulty of communication, now that the public context is out of the picture.
The shop window comes back once again, in answer to the question hypothetically put: "what effect would the abolition of the reviewer have upon literature?" (161):
The violent smashing of the dividing glass paradoxically leads to what is now a much more clearly cut separation between the dark, private interior and the exposure of the outside. For the crowd in front of the shop window has degenerated since we last set eyes on it. It's now a "horde," and the reviewers are repulsively sticking their noses against the window. We as readers are presumed to share in looking from a different vantage point, from which this distasteful and rather alarming vulgarity is apparent to us.
This opposition, between the safety and privacy of the interior and the unpleasant exposure of the outside, is so much at the forefront of the passage that it is easy to miss something else which has occurred to the image. For the complaint against the reviewer here has shifted oddly, and against the grain of the main line of argument. Pressed up against the window, he is presented now as being not so much superficial as too nosy, curious, too detailed, too interested in the process of production—he comments on every single stitch, and that is what the "curious crowd" wants to hear.
The passage continues:
The reviewer's performance-as-self-advertisement distracts attention from the real work of the writer, who neither performs nor advertises; the
exaggerated contrast serves to enhance the sense of the writer's authenticity. In the new, improved version of things, neither writer nor critic would be in the public eye—but ironically, that means that readers seem to get no look-in whatever.
This is Woolf's concluding summary:
The author of present times here joins the reviewer as a vaunting "figure of fun"; and now the imagery is consciously turned inside out, as shop window and mirror "inhibit and confine," while the closeted interior opens up a "gain in range, in depth, in power." Yet by the time the "obscure workman. . . in the darkness of the workshop" has emerged, or rather disappeared, at the end, it is almost as if Woolf realises she may have gone too far. Just in time, the last sentences save writing from a complete absence of publication by bringing back a now reconstructed "public mind" as witness:
But then it was Woolf who had smashed the shop window and consigned the poor writer into that darkness in the first place.
In many ways, then, the shop windows of "Reviewing" dramatically show up ambiguities implicit in Woolf's reflections about the connections between creative writing and the literary market. In the opening image, it is menders, not original designers or makers, who draw the crowd. Woolf seems to associate the women's reconditioning work with the bad publicity-culture of the present-day literary market, but the spectacle, of skilled craft actually comes close to her ideal of the writer as an artisan.
It is as if Woolf wanted, ideally, the one-to-one immediate communication of writer and reader. She wants to do without the things and the crowds which get in the way of this. When the shop window is in focus as an analogy for this problem, it becomes an indicator of simplification and distortion and all the external vulgarity from which
literature should be free. But when, as with the passage from The Years, the shop window appears in passing, in the course of a narrative, then it can be something quite different: the sign of an everyday historical consciousness or everyday aesthetic pleasures.
BOWLBY, Rachel. "Walking, Women and Writing." Still Crazy after all these Years: Women, Writing and Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1998. 1-33.
COLERIDGE, Samuel Taylor. "Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement." 1796. Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Elizabeth Schneider. San Francisco: Rinehart, 1971. 16-17.
FREUD, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. 1921. Trans. James Strachey. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XVIII. London: Hogarth Press, 1955. 65-143.
LE BON, Gustave. Psychologie des foules. 1895. Paris: P.U.F., 1983.
PICK, Beverley. "Trends in Window Display in Great Britain." International Window Display. Ed. Walter Herdeg. London: Cassell and Company Limited, 1951.
TROTTER, W. Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. 1916. London: The Scientific Book Club, 1942.
WOOLF, Virginia. "Reviewing." 1939. The Crowded Dance of Modern Life. Ed. Rachel Bowlby. London: Penguin, 1992.
---. The Waves. 1931. Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 1992.
---. The Years. 1937. London: Grafton, 1977.
(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)