Virginia Woolf – The Watering Place

Like all seaside towns it was pervaded by the smell of fish. The toy shops were full of shells, varnished, hard yet fragile. Even the inhabitants had a shelly look—a frivolous look as if the real animal had been extracted on the point of a pin and only the shell remained. The old men on the parade were shells. Their gaiters, their riding breeches, their spy glasses seemed to make them into toys. They could no more have been real sailors or real sportsmen than the shells stuck onto the rims of photograph frames and looking-glasses could have lain in the depths of the sea. The women too, with their trousers and their little high heeled shoes and their raffia bags and their pearl necklaces seemed shells of real women who go out in the morning to buy household stores.

At one o’clock this frail varnished shell fish population clustered together in the restaurant. The restaurant had a fishy smell, the smell of a smack that has drawn up nets full of sprats and herrings. The consumption of fish in that dining room must have been enormous. The smell pervaded even the room that was marked Ladies on the first landing. This room was separated by a door only into two compartments. On the one side of the door the claims of nature were gratified; and on the other, at the washing table, at the looking-glass, nature was disciplined by art. Three young ladies had reached this second stage of the daily ritual. They were exerting their rights upon improving nature, subduing her, with their powder puffs and little red tablets. As they did so they talked; but their talk was interrupted as by the surge of an indrawing tide; and then the tide withdrew and one was heard saying:
‘I never did care about her—the simpering little thing…. Bert never did care about big women…. Ave you seen him since he’s been back?… His eyes … they’re so blue … Like pools … Gert’s too … Both ave the same eyes…. You look down into them … They’ve both got the same teeth … Are He’s got such beautiful white teeth…. Gert has em too…. But his are a bit crooked … when he smiles …’
The water gushed … The tide foamed and withdrew. It uncovered next: ‘But he had ought to be more careful. If he’s caught doing it, he’ll be courtmartialled …’ Here came a great gush of water from the next compartment. The tide in the watering place seems to be for ever drawing and withdrawing. It uncovers these little fish; it sluices over them. It withdraws, and there are the fish again, smelling very strong of some queer fishy smell that seems to permeate the whole watering place.
But at night the town looks quite ethereal. There is a white glow on the horizon. There are hoops and coronets in the streets. The town has sunk down into the water. And the skeleton only is picked out in fairy lamps. [1941]