Walking the Web in the Lost London of Mrs. Dalloway

Article excerpt

In Mrs. Dalloway, landmarks of 1920s London offer readers a web of spatial and temporal relationships: the novel's walks are located specifically but also problematically. Attention to Woolf's careful interweaving of time and place leads to fuller understanding of Mrs. Dalloway and of the London in its pages.

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Virginia Woolf is usually considered a psychological novelist, less concerned with outer details of time and place than with inner exploration of character. At the same time, though, many critics have noted the extreme particularity of time and place in Mrs. Dalloway, whose working title was "The Hours" (see Diary 248, 19 June 1923). References to specific landmarks locate the characters in a network of spatial and temporal relationships as they walk through London on a June day punctuated by the striking of docks. In fact, readers who attempt to follow both time and place cues will find discrepancies, even impossibilities: nearly all the walks that dearly structure the novel must take considerably longer than the time so precisely allotted to them, as Woolf, herself an experienced London walker, surely knew. Instead of assuming, as Jean Guiguet does, that time and place in Mrs. Dalloway do not "correspond to anything real" (388), focussing attention on real-world correspondences of both provides insight into Woolf's method. The challenge to readers is that the reality of the novel involves London then and now, time in the mind and time on the clock, the experiences of writer, characters, and readers, all connected by the novel's web.

Even though, as Jeremy Hawthorn comments, "part of the central experience of Mrs. Dalloway is that at any given point in the novel the reader is nearly always able to pinpoint the exact location of what is happening with complete accuracy" (66), critics have frequently treated the temporal impossibilities of many of the walks as mistakes. Woolf certainly was thinking about accuracy of place, as can be seen in what Brenda Silver describes as a "holograph map of 'Green park', 'Stratton St and 'Bond Street"' on the back of notes about Chaucer (240). Silver dates the notebook (Monk's House Papers, B.2q.) to 1922, during Woolf's writing of the short story" Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street" (Silver 235), which was published in July 1923 and extensively revised to become the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway. Evidence that she was similarly deliberate about the time scheme of the novel may be seen by examining the walks themselves and attempting some of the "processes of retrieval" that Sonita Sarker asserts must be involved i n any study of Woolf (59).

The walk that has received the most attention from commentators is the one that opens Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa's, from her house near Dean's Yard, Westminster, to the florist's in Bond Street. Big Ben strikes the hour as she waits to cross Victoria Street: "There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable" (4). Most critics have assumed that the hour is 10:00 a.m., although Harvena Richter makes a case for 9:00 a.m. both to fit the pattern of canonical hours in multiples of three and to give Clarissa time to complete her errand and return home by 11:00, the first definite time provided (237). John Sutherland accepts the 10:00 a.m. starting time and even timed the walk himself at "some thirty-five minutes easy walking" (219). Not entirely seriously, he proposes that to have been home by 11:00, she must have had to take a taxi, which is not mentioned because taking a taxi was routine for a woman of her class (223). He thus suggests that the apparent temporal impossibility of Clarissa's walk actually reflects the limitations of Woolf's class perspective. I suggest that it is part of a larger pattern, calling into question the realities of time and place.

Sutherland also mentions the novel's second walk as fitting with difficulty into the time allotted (221). Septimus Warren Smith and his wife begin in Bond Street after Clarissa has entered the florist's shop and end in Regent's Park, where they see the airplane and its skywriting. …