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Lisbeth Larsson, Walking Virginia Woolf’s London: An Investigation in Literary Geography

Marie Laniel
p. 139-140
Bibliographical reference

Lisbeth Larsson, Walking Virginia Woolf’s London: An Investigation in Literary Geography, Translated from the Swedish by David Jones, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 247 p., ISBN. 978-3-319-55671-0.

Full text

1In this book, which is part of Palgrave’s Geocriticism Series, Lisbeth Larsson uses the theoretical concepts and methods of literary geography, particularly cartography, to examine the dynamic interactions between place, space and subjectivity in Virginia Woolf’s novels and essays. By mapping out her protagonists’ itineraries across London, Larsson uncovers the meaningful patterns that they create and analyses the social and political implications of their walks. There has always been a strong reluctance in modernist studies to connect places mentioned in fiction with real localities and, as Larsson states in the introduction, there is a clear danger that a spatially-oriented approach focusing merely on a static mapping out of place might run counter to Woolf’s modernist project. To avoid the pitfalls of “the guidebook fallacy” (8), which Woolf herself criticized in a number of essays—such as “Literary Geography” (1905)—Larsson insists on the paradigm shift from a realist, extrovert to a modernist, introvert use of mapping. In the wake of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, she focuses on the “subjective investment” of place (9), on the way the practice of space through walking transforms concrete places into a dynamic network of significant itineraries and opens up new vistas into the characters’ inner lives.

2Larsson proceeds chronologically to plot the itineraries of Woolf’s characters on no less than twenty maps—from The Voyage Out (1915) to Between the Acts (1941). She argues very convincingly that contrasts in terms of gender, class affiliation and cultural heritage tend to translate spatially in Woolf’s representation of her characters’ walks across London. A clear divide thus opposes “the affluent west”, where Virginia Woolf grew up, and the “poverty stricken East End” (18), where some of her characters sometimes venture in The Voyage Out (1915), Flush (1933) and The Years (1937). Larsson suggests that, in her exploration of London’s poorest districts, Woolf drew inspiration from the “Poverty Maps” drawn by Charles Booth to illustrate his social survey at the end of the nineteenth century. In Night and Day (1919), class difference between Ralph Denham and Katharine Hilbery is represented by a north and south divide, separating Ralph’s “low-status Highgate” in the north and Katharine’s “high-status Cheyne Walk” in the south-west (43). As Larsson observes, the contrast between Ralph’s goal-oriented walks towards the centre and the west of London, driven by the prospects of upward mobility, and Katharine’s more haphazard movements, which return her to her exact point of departure in Cheyne Walk at the end of the novel, tend to prove that social mobility is more easily achieved than liberation from the strictures of patriarchy.

3Out of Larsson’s mappings, a contrasted vision of London emerges, as a place both of constraints and opportunities. For Woolf’s female protagonists, the “urban text”, which they must learn to decipher, with its ancient buildings and statues of great men, often upholds the patriarchal order. Centres of power, such as “imperial Whitehall, lined with statues of war heroes from England’s History” (121), as it is depicted in Mrs Dalloway (1925), or places associated with literary heritage, such as Cheyne Walk, in Night and Day and “Great Men’s Houses” (1932), embody the gender strictures and conventions inherited from the Victorian Age which shape habits and discourses. Larsson shows that Terence Hewet’s imaginary walk in The Voyage Out materialises his conflicting desires: his itinerary leads him along Kingsway, the modern part of the city, which epitomizes his dream of a relationship on equal terms with Rachel, and then towards the Temple, “the stronghold of the patriarchy” (59), which represents his desire to cling to male privileges. Similarly, in Night and Day, Mary Datchet’s detour via the British Museum, which disrupts her walking habits, leads her to slip into “colonial and patriarchal thought patterns”, as she pictures herself in a foreign country, on a camel’s back, with Ralph Denham commanding a tribe of natives (51). This colonial dream, which is completely at odds with her work at the suffragettes’ office, seems to be conjured up by the material surroundings of the British Museum. In Jacob’s Room (1922), while Jacob, who is the product and inheritor of homosocial conventions, can walk freely in different parts of London, a plotting of women’s positions on the map reveals that they are much more stationary (87).

4But, as Larsson argues, the practice of space through walking is also a way for Woolf’s female characters to challenge the limitations they are subjected to, particularly in her early works, in which Woolf expresses her belief in the new possibilities offered by the metropolis. Larsson provides very interesting details about the slum clearance and modern rebuilding projects which altered the shape of the city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with the construction of the Thames Embankment—Chelsea Embankment, Victoria Embankment and Albert Embankment—, and the construction of Kingsway, connecting northern London with the Strand. As well as new freedom of movement, these places, acting as heterotopias, “area[s] where the period’s prevailing norms could be transgressed in various ways” (57), also offer new freedom of thought. For Woolf’s female characters, it is often in the centre of London—around Kingsway, the Strand, Fleet Street or the Embankment—, the places that Woolf loved most and longed to escape to when she lived in Richmond, that future possibilities can materialise.

5Larsson writes illuminating pages about the connection between walking and thinking, the effects of physical movement on the workings of the mind and “the marvellously liberating ontology of walking” (53). She shows how walking allows the New Woman to escape the strictures of the gender order—“the straightjacket of gender discourses” (143)—, and to deviate from conventional patterns of thought. Mary Datchet’s walk leads her along Kingsway towards Bloomsbury: “She is the New Woman, walking freely and thinking about her work” (50). Later on, walking down Charing Cross Road, before stopping on the Embankment to find space for thought, she becomes liberated from her romantic aspirations and comes to a realisation of her true calling. Similarly, Katharine Hilbery’s walk along Kingsway, “the only one that Katharine takes in the novel without being directed by her parents or by men” allows her to temporarily leave the path of the patriarchal marriage plot (58). The Embankment is also the place where more liberated encounters between men and women become possible: there, Katharine rejects William Rodney and later reconnects with Ralph Denham (65). As Larsson shows, Elizabeth’s omnibus drive in Mrs Dalloway, taking her from the west to the east, along the Strand, significantly differs from the pattern traced by the other characters’ walks from north to south. It turns her into a pioneer, venturing where no other Dalloway had been, into “the very part of central London to which Woolf consistently attributes the utopian potential of modernity” (123).

6The sections of Larsson’s book devoted to the dynamics of encounter or near encounter are also particularly illuminating. The plotting of Clarissa Dalloway’s and Septimus Smith’s morning walks on the London map shows that their routes converge at the corner between Bond Street and Brook Street, outside the florist’s where Clarissa buys flowers for her party. The two characters then walk in opposite directions, Clarissa back to Westminster and Septimus, with Rezia, towards Regent’s Park in the north, where they almost cross path with Peter Walsh. Although they never meet, the two main protagonists’ itineraries form a straight, almost continuous line, running vertically across London and connecting them implicitly (111).

7As well as a reassessment of the centrality of place and space in Woolf’s work through the lens of geocriticism, Lisbeth Larsson’s book also resonates with recent debates about Woolf’s interest in material culture. It gives pride of place to novels which have been relatively neglected by critics, such as Night and Day, the novel in which walking creates the most subtly intricate patterns, or The Years, in which Woolf’s characters move across the most extensive area in London. A compelling read, containing a very useful index of places, Lisbeth Larsson’s book also sheds new light on Woolf’s more canonical works.

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Bibliographical reference

Marie Laniel, “Lisbeth Larsson, Walking Virginia Woolf’s London: An Investigation in Literary GeographyRecherches anglaises et nord-américaines, 53 | 2020, 139-140.

Electronic reference

Marie Laniel, “Lisbeth Larsson, Walking Virginia Woolf’s London: An Investigation in Literary GeographyRecherches anglaises et nord-américaines [Online], 53 | 2020, Online since 01 February 2024, connection on 21 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Marie Laniel

Université de Picardie-Jules Verne, CORPUS

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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