Walking Mrs Dalloway

Last Wednesday Marion (my wife) and I traced Mrs Dalloway’s walk from Westminster through the parks to Picadilly and Old Bond Street; we continued with Septimus and Rezia’s journey to Harley Street and Regent’s Park. Luckily we had a print-off of the helpful guide at http://orlando.jp.org/VWSGB/dat/dwalk.html which pointed out several things that we might otherwise have passed by (and from which I have cribbed some of the facts in this posting).

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The novel starts with Big Ben striking ten, as Mrs Dalloway is crossing Victoria Street. She has come from her Westminster home (“how many years now? over twenty”)- possibly in Great College Street:

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When I planned the walk I half-suspected that I’d find modern London much drearier than that described in the novel; German bombers and British planners have a lot to answer for. On the whole, this didn’t happen – except in Victoria Street, one of the blandest and most featureless thoroughfares in the city:

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Soon, though, we were following Mrs Dalloway through Dean Farrar Street to Queen Anne’s Gate, and past the homes of two notable WW1 politicians, Sir Edward Grey and Lord Haldane:

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The novel happens on a fine morning in the middle of June when “The War was over.” We walked on a fine and bright enough morning, but at the beginning of December, with our present War still dribbling on to its dreadful conclusion. In the park we saw “the trees and the grass, and the little girl in pink” (“Peter never saw a thing of all that,” Mrs Dalloway believes – but we were on the lookout):

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“The King and Queen were at the Palace,” Mrs Dalloway noticed as she walked through the park. The Queen was in residence on the day of our walk, too, as you can see by the Royal Standard flying:

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(The day after our walk we saw Stephen Frears’s film The Queen, about the Royal family’s response to the death of Princess Diana, and their horror at the suggestion that the palace flag should be flown at half-mast, breaking centuries of precedent. They are a strange family. See the film. Helen Mirren is terrific.)

The picture above shows the lake that divides St James’s Park from Green Park, but Woolf seems to regard them as a unity – just “the Park.” So far as I know the picture below shows the actual Park gates where Mrs Dalloway stood for a moment, looking at the omnibuses in Picadilly.

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There are still omnibuses in Picadilly, but Devonshire House was demolished in 1924. (In a 1925 essay Woolf noted that “a battered cottage… has replaced Devonshire House”. This has now been replaced in its turn. From what I can work out, the site is now Green Park tube station and a branch of Marks and Spencer’s.)

Bath House disappeared in the 1960s, and was replaced by one of the ugliest buildings in London – belonging to the Ministry of Defence, I gather.

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The “house with the china cockatoo” was a memory even in 1923. Baroness Burdett-Coutts (one of the more remarkable women of the Victorian age) used to put a china cockatoo in the window of her house at No 1 Stratton Street to show that she was in residence. Her version of the Royal Standard, I suppose.

But along Picadilly, that’s the pattern I discovered. Mrs Dalloway ignores the flashy Ritz, and Fortnum and Mason’s, and all the ever-increasing commerce of the road, while her mind goes back (to places physically behind her) to the great houses of the past. She doesn’t notice the Royal Academy, either, but heads on for Hatchard’s, with Soapy Sponge, Mrs Asquith’s Memoirs and Big Game Shooting in Nigeria in the window. Maybe some of the celebrity memoirs on sale this year are less distinguished than Mrs Asquith’s:

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Some other books in the window can probably hold their own, though, with those on display eighty years ago:

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I spotted no real equivalent to Big Game Hunting in Nigeria in this year’s shop window. In the novel, that title is maybe a little reminder of violence, preparing us for the gun-like explosion and shell-shocked Septimus Smith. On today’s Picadilly, there was a more direct reminder of such matters, with this man collecting money outside Fortnums. Kindly-looking ladies were paying up handsomely, I noticed.

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After the detour to Hatchard’s, Mrs Dalloway headed for Old Bond Street. “Bond Street fascinated her.” I wonder if it still would – it’s much less varied and individual today than it would have been eighty years ago. No fishmongers or florists, just the usual proliferation of designer names that are making the smart areas of all cities seem like clones of each other. Still, plenty of female shoppers seemed fascinated when we walked there, so maybe Mrs D would still like it. One shop that I especially noted was 121 New Bond Street. In Mrs Dalloway’s time, that was the fishmonger’s, with “salmon on an iceblock.”

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Today it’s one of the chain of shops bearing the Nicole Farhi label – which brings in a Woolf connection, oddly, since Ms Farhi is married to the sanctimonious playwright David Hare, who wrote the screenplay for the sentimentalising film of The Hours, in which the part of Virginia Woolf was played by an intriguing team of Nicole Kidman and a large prosthetic nose. (The book of The Hours is better than the film, I’m told.)

The “violent explosion which made Mrs Dalloway jump” occurred “precisely opposite Mulberry’s shop window.” Mulberry’s is still there. Lots of people were queuing to get in at the side door, but we couldn’t work out why.

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The explosion sends the novel away from Mrs Dalloway, and into the lives of Septimus and Rezia. They continue up the duller part of Bond Street, across Oxford Street and into Harley Street, where there are still plenty of expensive grey cars outside the doctors’ surgeries.

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I scanned the brass plates by the doors for the name of Bradshaw, but unsuccessfully. There were some dodgy-sounding enterprises, though – cosmetic surgery joints and a “Wholistic Clinic” that I think I’d distrust on grounds of spelling alone. I noticed several smart young women ringing at doctors’ doorbells. Does Harley Street still have its abortion clinics? Medical techniques may have advanced, but I reckon doctors haven’t changed much since Woolf’s day.

Regents Park still has “the stone basins, the prim flowers” that Maisie Johnson notices:

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In December it’s a bit bleak. Like Rezia we walked to the fountain, which is rather remarkable:

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The Victorian splendour of its ornate design is matched by its impeccably Victorian inscription. I’m glad it’s been restored.

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There was nobody selling air-balls near the gate, and we couldn’t find the “absurd statue” that Peter remembered.

Walking back, we reflected that we had heard no “frail quavering sound” of a woman singing incoherently in German. But then, as we were fairly near Regents Park station (closed at the moment) we heard a faint sound – a middle aged Asian woman walking alone in front of us was singing to herself, quietly and tunefully, in a language we couldn’t comprehend. We passed her, and she continued to sing, until gradually the sound was lost in the distance.

It’s a good walk. Try it.

UPDATE 2011: There is a good map, showing the novel’s walks, at http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~sparks/TVSeminar/dallwalkmap.html

ADDED August 2008:
Since then Marion and I have taken another walk based on a fine novel of the 1920’s (though one that Virginia Woolf disliked). Click here to read what happened when we followed the Sunday morning walk through the squares of Clerkenwell that Henry Earlforward takes with Mrs Arb in Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps
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4 Comments

  1. Posted December 12, 2006 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    I have read Mrs. Dalloway several times, but having never even visited England I could only conjure vague cityscapes in response to Woolf’s abundant description. Thank you for postig this. It was lovely to see the path Clarissa took in the novel.

  2. Posted December 12, 2006 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    What a fun walk to do! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Jin
    Posted December 26, 2006 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    It’s really impressive.I’m a student in Korea…I want to walk those streets one day:)

  4. Posted April 26, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Just re-reading Mrs Dalloway (again) – I only occasionally visit London (from Yorkshire Dales) and then only to visit galleries so will probably never have time to do the walk in reality. However, it is possible to walk it via Google StreetView, even into Regent’s Park. So many thanks!


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  3. […] So perhaps we should at least each go out and buy the flowers ourselves today, or maybe just meander on a stream of consciousness for a while. But any readers who are in London today might like to be reminded of the account I wrote several years ago of the day when Marion and I followed Mrs D’s steps from… […]

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