London is a city to get lost in. With or without a map, you always find yourself in the wrong place, staring at an unfamiliar Soho wall, as if the city silently changed shape overnight. And perhaps it does, since the once softly curved skyline seems permanently pierced with cranes. London is constantly in transformation, alive with people, traffic, strange and wonderful scenes.
Virginia Woolf knew this when she anchored the narrative of Mrs. Dalloway in the vibrating heart of Westminster. The city streets are as long and winding as Woolf’s sentences, while at the same time forming a static backdrop to her free-flowing verse. The observer tends to become the observed in the subtle shifts between the characters, with the focus changing from one person to another, one detail to the next. Through the layered portraits of people and the places they traverse, Woolf takes us on a colourful journey from Dean’s Yard to the green fields of Regent’s Park, exploring themes of feminism, homosexuality and mental illness along the way.
It's a warm day in June after the First World War, but beneath the forced exterior of tranquil normalcy the war wrestles on. As Clarissa Dalloway sets out to buy flowers for an extravagant party she’s hosting later in the evening, the returned soldier Septimus Warren Smith is struggling with shell shock, or posttraumatic stress disorder, in a less privileged part of town, away from the social and political influence that Clarissa’s neighbourhood represents. Their mind-sets run parallel to each other; juxtaposed, in conflict, yet strangely similar, like two shadows falling off the same shape.
Follow in Mrs Dalloway’s footsteps and let Woolf’s beautiful prose guide you on a pleasant walk through Westminster:
1. Start in Dean’s Yard, next to Westminster Abbey / off Victoria Street. The closest tube station is Westminster.
(Richard Dalloway) entered Dean’s Yard ... approaching his door. p. 129
2. Turn left into Great College Street, then right into Barton Street. At the end of Barton Street, turn left into Cowley Street, and then right and right again into Great Peter Street. Turn right into Perkins Rents. Continue over Abbey Orchard Street into Victoria Street.
For having lived in Westminster — how many years now? over twenty — one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense ... before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed ... (Clarissa) crossing Victoria Street. p. 6
3. Cross Dean Farrar Street and into Dartmouth Street, then left into Queen Anne’s Gate. Where Queen Anne’s Gate turns sharply left, turn right, cross Birdcage Walk and into St James’s Park.
... coming along with his back against the Government buildings (from, say, the Foreign Office) Hugh Whitbread: p. 7
4. Follow the path to cross the bridge over the lake.
... in the middle of St James’s Park on a fine morning: p. 9
5. Continue along the path to the Mall, and then turn left and right up Queen’s Walk.
(Clarissa) reached the Park gates ... looking at the omnibuses in Piccadilly: p. 10
Devonshire House, Bath House, the house with the china cockatoo ... walking towards Bond Street: p. 11
6. At Piccadilly, turn right and then left into Old Bond Street.
... looked into Hatchard's shop window ... walked back towards Bond Street ... waiting to cross: p. 12
7. Continue up Old Bond Street.
... stopped to look at a Dutch picture ... flags flying ... one roll of tweed in the shop ... a few pearls ...: p. 13
8. Continue along New Bond Street.
... at the window of a glove shop: p. 13
... salmon on an iceblock: p. 13
... up Bond Street to a shop where they kept flowers for her ... Mulberry’s: p. 14-15
The violent explosion ... came from a motor car ... precisely opposite Mulberry’s: p. 16
rumours were at once in circulation from the middle of Bond Street to Oxford Street on one side, to Atkinson’s scent shop on the other: p. 17
Septimus looked. ... ‘Let us go on, Septimus', said his wife: p. 18
omnibuses ... Clarissa on one side of Brook Street: p. 20
glove shops and hat shops and tailorsshops on both sides of Bond Street: p. 21
9. Cross Oxford Street.
‘Now we will cross', (Rezia) said: p. 19
10. Continue into Vere Street, then right into Henrietta Place, then left at Cavendish Square and up Harley Street.
11. Cross to Marylebone Road and turn right opposite the tube station, on the other side of the road.
12. Turn left into Park Square East, left into the Outer Circle of Regent’s Park, and right up The Broad Walk.
... bells struck eleven times: p. 24
... the stone basins, the prim flowers: p. 30
Lucrezia Warren Smith, sitting by her husband’s side on a seat in Regent’s Park in the Broad Walk: p. 25
‘I am going to walk to the fountain and back', (Rezia) said: p. 26
(Rezia) by the fountain (staring at the Indian and his cross): p. 28
13. After reaching the fountain, head diagonally right along the path to Gloucester Gate.
... near the Zoo: p. 29
14. Walk out of Gloucester Gate and turn left.
(Peter Walsh) remembered Regent’s Park; the long straight walk; the little house where one bought air-balls to the left; an absurd statue with an inscription somewhere or other: p. 62
15. This is the end of the walk described in Mrs Dalloway, but if you wish you can continue down Parkway to Camden Town or continue north through Regent's Park to Primrose Hill.
Reference: Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (Hogarth Press, Uniform Edition) 1947.