The seasonal festivities are over, the trimmings are thoroughly grazed and two weeks of over-indulgence require an antidote. One way residents of, and visitors to London’s Bloomsbury, can counter the side effects is to connect with the new Dalloway walk and podcast created for the University of London’s ‘Leading Women’ campaign as a celebration of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway novel, writes Dr Elizabeth Dearnley.
The Leading Women campaign commissioned a Dalloway Day walk and podcast from the respected Camden Tour Guides Association. Beginning in Brunswick Square, the podcast takes its listeners on an atmospheric tour through the Bloomsbury locations associated with Woolf, revealing some of the hidden stories behind her life in its leafy squares and her creation of Mrs Dalloway.
In Brunswick Square, for example, we hear how the young Woolf flouted convention by sharing a house there with four men (including her future husband), and in Tavistock Square we visit the gardens where she walked while writing Mrs Dalloway. The podcast also brings in some of the novel’s locations – notably the ambulance station on Herbrand Street, where Clarissa’s friend Peter Walsh walks nearby as he hears the ambulance rushing to the scene of war veteran Septimus’ death.
Virginia Woolf is a perfect icon for the Leading Women campaign, herself a committed ‘tramper’. ‘The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful…’ she wrote. ‘As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room.’
‘The greatest pleasure of town life in winter – wandering the streets of London’
So began her Street Haunting, the exuberant 1930 essay in praise of ‘the greatest pleasure of town life in winter – wandering the streets of London.’ As she strides along lamplit thoroughfares and ducks down shadowed alleyways, she describes how she becomes ‘an enormous eye’, taking in passers-by, ‘narrow old houses’, and all the ‘bright paraphernalia of the streets’.
Woolf’s own diaries and letters are filled with the freedom she found in walking alone through the city – and the freedom she found in Bloomsbury, where she moved in 1904. And in her 1925 Modernist masterpiece, Mrs Dalloway, she creates perhaps her most iconic celebration of London walking with Clarissa Dalloway’s solo morning stroll to buy flowers before her party.
Taking place over the course of a single day in June 1923, Mrs Dalloway also encompasses the whole of its heroine’s life, skipping backwards and forwards in time within Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness narrative. Its structure and style invite comparisons with James Joyce’s Ulysses, published three years previously in 1922, which chronicles the Dublin wanderings of its protagonist Leopold Bloom on 16 June 1904 – and in some ways Mrs Dalloway is a response to Joyce’s novel.
The Woolfs had previously turned down the chance to publish Ulysses with the Hogarth Press on the grounds that its length made it impractical to print. Woolf’s initial assessment of the novel in her diary was somewhat more scathing (‘diffuse… brackish… pretentious… underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense’). But she also admired its ‘concern…at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain’, praising it as a ‘masterpiece’ in her essay Modern Fiction.
Following in the steps of ‘Bloomsday’ – Dalloway Day
Since the 1920s, admirers of Ulysses have marked ‘Bloomsday’ with an annual celebration of the novel on 16 June. Today, Bloomsday is a major cultural event, with readings, dramatisations and other festivities taking place in Dublin and around the world. However, despite the landmark importance of Mrs Dalloway, until 2018 there had been no corresponding Dalloway Day.
Following Elaine Showalter’s call in 2016 for the novel to be given its own celebratory day, the Royal Society of Literature held its inaugural Dalloway Day on 20 June (the novel gives the date as ‘the middle of June’). From a Bloomsbury Group-themed tour of the National Portrait Gallery to talks on the significance of Mrs Dalloway by Showalter and the School of Advanced Study’s Professor Sarah Churchwell, these ground-breaking events, which took place in 2018, are set to pave the way for wider celebrations of Woolf’s novel in the future.
Come this June, the Dalloway Day walk and podcast will be a perfect, maybe essential, complement to these celebrations. But if you’re in Bloomsbury you don’t have to wait until June to step into Woolf’s world. And it ends with a memorable treat.
Lively and informative – capturing Woolf’s excitement in her creation of a new life in Bloomsbury, where ‘everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different; everything was on trial’ – the podcast ends with a flourish at the Bloomsbury Hotel, where listeners can enjoy a suitably Woolfian cocktail (non-alcoholic available too) on the Dalloway Terrace.
The figure of the flâneur – the wanderer and observer of the city – has historically been male, partly because women lacked the freedom to explore public spaces in the same way; Woolf’s street haunting, however, offers a flâneuse-eye view of the city. Our podcast invites others to follow in her footsteps – whether stepping ‘out of the house on a fine evening between four and six’, or at any other time, to explore Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley (@eliza_dearnley) teaches within the School of European Languages, Culture and Society at UCL and is Communications & Engagement Assistant for the University of London’s Leading Women campaign.
Dalloway Day walk and podcast. The Camden Tour Guides Association (@camdenguides) offers walking tours and lectures on all things Camden, and is available for commissioning custom walks.