‘I love walking in London,’ said Mrs Dalloway. ‘Really, it’s better than walking in the country.’
The eponymous central character of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel takes a route through St James’s on her way to ‘buy the flowers herself’, and she assumes the writer’s own joy at ‘rambling the streets of London’. Woolf thought it ‘the greatest pleasure of town life’.
London Literary Tours was born out of a shared love of rambling our city’s streets, guidebook in hand – or maybe no guidebook in hand, and no map, because part of the pleasure of walking in London is getting lost, taking a ‘wrong’ turn by accident or design, in order to gain that singular pleasure of stumbling across something completely unexpected… and then finding out about it.
Ultimately the pleasure of all such wanderings (and that of being on one of our literary walking tours) is that it excites the imagination. In her essay ‘Street Haunting’, Woolf describes a walk she takes one winter evening. Like Mrs Dalloway, she goes out on the flimsiest of pretexts: to buy a pencil, ‘an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner’. Her pleasure is derived from the playful meanderings of thought that are prompted by the suggestive London twilight. As lamps are lit inside homes, occupants are seen like goldfish in a bowl. Observers are provoked to speculate about them: Who are these people? How are they feeling? What are they talking about? In Woolf’s personal narrative in ‘Street Haunting’, as in Mrs Dalloway, themes from past and present are conflated in her mind, identities are destabilised, and reality and fantasy collide.
Inevitably, our writer’s urban odyssey leads her to a (second-hand) bookshop. Its shelves are like the streets of the city, each book, selected at random, a window through which to peer into a private world and be surprised. Time loses all meaning, and, with each turn of a page in a newfound treasure, imagination is invited to take wing.
Our literary tours combine the pleasures of walking and reading, as we lead our guests through streets unfamiliar to them, and invite them to imagine events from the past, or make-believe ones. We love a good story. We may love it even more if we can stand in that very place where it happened, finding the locations for novels and reciting a passage set there, the scene both before us and in our mind’s eye alternating, blurring together. How exciting to know that here in this building a particular drama in the writer’s own life played out and inspired them to write this book or this poem. It’s an experience perhaps more poignant still when the building in question is no longer there, just its traces, and only in our imaginations can it flicker into existence again.
Guests on London Literary Tours’ St James’s Jaunt follow in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway. For more information, click here.
And you can enjoy more of Virginia Woolf in her old stomping ground of Bloomsbury on our Bloomsbury Blast.
Posted by Mike