A tall, slender woman, fine gray-infused brown wisps escaping from her loosely pulled-back knot, walked into the coffee shop just ahead of me. When she turned to the side, I saw the unmistakable profile. For there she was, I thought, echoing the final line of Mrs. Dalloway. Standing side by side inside the door, we made brief eye contact as we took in the space, the buzz of student chatter and laughter, the piles of backpacks and bookbags scattered around every table. She stood out—I suppose I did as well—a middle-aged woman in a sea of youth. Not just any middle-aged woman, yet no one seemed aware that Virginia Woolf was in their midst.
We noticed, at the same time, that there was only one vacant table. She turned to me, seeing a possible ally. “We might share that table…” she said tentatively, perhaps regretting the words as they came out of her mouth. I snapped up her invitation: “That would be lovely.” And so it was that I had tea with Virginia Woolf at 46 Gordon Square, her one-time residence and gathering place of what came to be known as the Bloomsbury group.
It was 1990, the early days of my fascination with Virginia Woolf. My first time in London, I walked and gawked through Bloomsbury squares, tracing the routes she walked, the places where she lived. A blue commemoration plaque at 46 Gordon Square identifies economist Maynard Keynes as its noteworthy former resident, but young Virginia Stephen and her siblings had occupied the site earlier, their first foray into Bohemian Bloomsbury and away from the stodgy respectability of their family home in Kensington. Now it’s part of Birkbeck College, University of London, the café a roosting place for students. A plaque for Woolf adorns another of her former homes in nearby Fitzroy Square.
In 1990 Virginia Woolf was almost 50 years in her grave. Our meeting took place in a dream after I’d returned home to California. Whether sleeping or waking I no longer recall, but it remains vivid. Looking on, both participant and omniscient observer, I saw us chatting amiably, the small talk of strangers. Even in my fantasy I wasn’t able to conjure up an inspired dialogue, one that struck common ground and bore the seeds of friendship. But the vision was a recurring one, and over time I augmented and edited our conversation as I would one of my essays, gave it more depth, more erudition, more color and sparkle, and, of course, a satisfying ending.
The American poet May Sarton first visited London in 1936. She was 24, a devotee of Virginia Woolf, whose work she had read “into my bones and blood.” She delivered a volume of her poems and some flowers to Woolf’s home, but declined when the maid invited her in, because “One does not batter one’s way in to see the gods.” Later they were introduced at a dinner party, about which Sarton wrote: “It was there that I first met Virginia Woolf, and with the evoking of that vanished personification of genius, I shall close this chapter of joys, all undeserved, as the final flower in the bouquet I held in my hands.”
Woolf described Sarton in her own diary as: “A pale pretty Shelley imitation American girl there, who sat on the floor, at my feet, & unfortunately adores & worships & gave me primroses one day in the winter & her poems.” Infrequent meetings and letters over the next few years were monumental for Sarton, insignificant to Woolf.
Twenty-something Carson McCullers had a young writer’s crush on the older Katherine Anne Porter in the ‘40s. At Yaddo artists’ retreat McCullers stalked Porter and begged to be admitted to her room. Porter said she wouldn’t come out until McCullers vacated the hall. Emerging at dinner time, Porter found McCullers lying across her threshold. “I merely stepped over her and continued on my way to dinner,” she said.
Sarton and McCullers were already notable writers themselves but became adoring acolytes in the presence of their idols. I was no star-struck youth; nor was I in Virginia Woolf’s social or literary milieu—I would have been invisible to her. Now I revise the scene in the coffee shop: she scans me head to foot, sniffs ever so slightly, and turns her back, dismissing me at a glance. My dream receded to an amusing anecdote that underscores my early infatuation with Woolf. Still, I retained a distinct memory of the café, even though in subsequent visits to London it was gone, the site reverted to an unremarkable façade, identical to its neighbors. Now I’m forced to let go of that as well. A British acquaintance, a long-time Londoner and Woolf scholar, believes it would have been unlikely for a coffee shop to have ever occupied 46 Gordon Square.
Now, Momo’s Garden Café is a brick kiosk in the corner of the garden in Gordon Square, advertising homemade cakes, vegan and vegetarian options. Photos show small wooden tables and chairs nestled under the trees. I close my eyes and see two women of a certain age wearing floppy summer hats, in rapt conversation, a teapot, slices of Linzer torte, and several books crowding the small table between them. For there we were.
Alice Lowe lives in San Diego, California, and writes about life and language, food and family. Her essays have been widely published in literary journals, including this year in Big City Lit, Borrowed Solace, FEED, Drunk Monkeys, Midway, Eclectica, Pine Cone Review, and Dorothy Parker’s Ashes. Her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays “Notables,” and won an essay contest at Eat, Darling, Eat. Alice has authored essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work and is a regular contributor at Blogging Woolf.