“She was a complicated lady.” It was spoken with a British accent. I looked up from my work, and the tall woman with long black hair and bangs was smiling at my Virginia Woolf book of essays. I’d seen the woman in Starbucks before but had no idea she was British. Why would I ever suspect that? White people look the same from country to country, except for maybe those from Scandinavia.
Her statement about Virginia Woolf had the ring of authority, or maybe that’s just how I heard it, given her accent. But being an American makes me no authority on Henry James, so why should I assume such a thing of this woman. In fact, I was shocked to learn, from the only other British person I know in real life (i.e., not on social media) that English literary history is hardly emphasized in Britain’s schools anymore. So here’s this thing known as English literature, which I’ve idolized for years, only to find out it’s nearly neglected in its homeland. What the what?! Now I’m wondering whether my new British Starbucks friend has even read Virginia Woolf, or if she simply repeats the line passed down in idle conversation. Perhaps, for her, the name Virginia Woolf triggers the phrase “complicated lady” the same way that Meryl Streep’s name invokes “good actress” from people who never watch her movies—like the goal is simply to talk, whether or not the conversation has any substance.
Maybe I’m wrong. It could be that my new British buddy has a working knowledge of Woolf’s novels, after all—maybe even an essay or two. I will probably never know, because our interactions never transcend the smallest of small talk. Usually I’m so eager to get back into my work that I leave little room for anything more than a hello. And that is okay.