In April Lauren Keim and I hosted a photowalk and lunch to retrace the steps Clarissa Dalloway took in Virginia Woolf’s much-loved book Mrs Dalloway. In this post I share an insight into how we put together this very special Bleak House Experience.
Lauren convinced me to read Mrs Dalloway. She persuaded me that I would love the language, love the story, and most of all that I would feel an affinity with Virginia Woolf’s strong love for London. By page two of the book I saw that she was right.
Sprinkled throughout the pages was a London I knew, a London I admired and adored. This was not a made up version of the city with street names and houses conjured up in a writer’s imagination, here was the real, living, beating city that I know so well. London is a city so magnificent it needs no embellishment and the best thing is, many of the places Woolf described can still be seen in London today, almost a century after the book was published.
Mrs Dalloway is set on a summery June morning in 1923 and begins with Clarissa Dalloway walking from her home in Westminster on an errand to buy some flowers for a party she is holding that evening. As I turned the pages of the book I began plotting in my head the exact route Clarissa Dalloway took to Bond Street. My brain enjoyed treating it as a puzzle, trying to identify where in St James’s Park Mrs Dalloway bumps into Hugh, which shop on Bond Street now sits on the site of the florist where she buys her flowers, where she is standing when the car backfires and where on Earth the window with the cockatoo in was on Piccadilly.
Soon after I finished reading Mrs Dalloway Lauren came to stay with me in London and we hatched an idea to run a photowalk with lunch to trace Clarissa Dalloway’s walk. We thought it would be a fun way to inspire people to read or re-read this great book and besides, even without any mention of Virginia Woolf it is an exceedingly pretty walk. Throw in lunch in an elegant dining room in Mayfair and the chance to chat to some like-minded people and we had the makings of a very enjoyable Saturday afternoon.
Planning the walk
Lauren and I planned the walk together, studying the pages of our well-thumbed copies of Mrs Dalloway and underlining any reference to a street, building or shop. Lauren knew the book inside out and I know London inside out and it was thrilling for both of us to combine our knowledge. As Lauren read the pertinent bits of the book aloud I began sketching out the route on paper and that afternoon we caught the tube to Green Park to begin scoping out the walk.
London was showing off. The sun was shining, just as it had on that day in 1923. The trees in the park were fat with blossom and the pelicans were preening by the lake. We had a wonderful time wandering the elegant streets of Westminster and lost ourselves in a world of motorcars and omnibuses, immersing ourselves in a time when women wore gloves and maids polished brass door knockers.
Here is a little video I made of our reconnaissance trip.
I wanted to make this walk extra-special for the people who had booked to come and so I created some cards that marked and explained the points described in the book. I added some watercolour illustrations and had enormous fun painting cockatoos and pelicans whilst Lauren fed me cups of tea and, later, glasses of wine and chips to keep my energy levels up.
At 11am on the day of our walk we met at the Emmelline Pankhurst memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens which was erected in 1930, five years after Mrs Dalloway was published and twelve years after women in this country first achieved suffrage. It felt like an appropriate place to meet.
We made our way into the hidden streets of Westminster, wondering aloud which of the elegant town houses we thought might have been the Dalloway’s residence. From here we walked, as Clarissa Dalloway did, into St James’ Park from Birdcage Walk (surely the prettiest street name in London). As we reached the other side of the park we found ourselves caught in a rather un-festive hail storm and scuttled under our umbrellas to Hatchards for shelter, and to gaze in the very same window Clarissa Dalloway did a hundred years before.
From here, the hail now over, we walked up Bond Street to establish exactly where the fishmonger, florist and glove shop were and where Clarissa Dalloway was standing when she heard the car backfire. None of the real life shops Virginia Woolf refers to in the book still exist but it made us happy to see how the street is still lined with splendid flags, just as it was in the book.
And then lunch
We ended our walk with lunch at Thomas’s Café, a delightful restaurant in Burberry on Vigo Street. Thomas Burberry invented his legendary trench coat during the First World War, just a few years before Mrs Dalloway was published, and so this seemed to be a fitting place to stop. I think Clarissa Dalloway would have approved of the starched linen table cloths and the sparkling glassware in the elegant dining room. The table looked absolutely beautiful, lain with dried floral wreaths I’d commissioned from Botanical Tales and pretty monogrammed tags from Starkeys Lane.
A new date
I loved meeting everyone who came, it was such a fun afternoon. Mrs Dalloway’s Errand was the first time I’d collaborated on an Experience and I really enjoyed working with Lauren, we had a great time planning and running the event.
I am hoping to host this walk again next Spring, this time with tea instead of lunch. You don’t have to have read Mrs Dalloway to enjoy the walk but don’t be surprised if you are inspired to read this wonderful book afterwards. I do hope you’ll come. If you’d like to come, sign up to my newsletter to be notified of the dates.
Today I felt like Mrs. Dalloway, except flowers were bought for me! The Bleak House and Lauren Keim Bleak House Experience took us through Mrs. Dalloway’s footsteps, from what may have been her street in Westminster up to Bond Street and lunch at Thomas’s. From completely unexpected charming residential streets tucked away behind Westminster Abbey up to the fishmonger’s on Bond Street that has been replaced by a Hugo Boss, it was a unique journey through London.
Mrs. Dalloway has always been one of my favourite books, but I hadn’t read it since I moved to London 8 years ago. When I did recently, it was like coming home – I knew exactly where Clarissa was without having to look at Google Maps, and now I’ve retraced her steps. Such a lovely day.
Virginia Woolf’s much loved classic set on a sunny June day in London in 1923. Clarissa Dalloway is preparing for her party whilst Septimus Warren Smith makes his way through the final day of his life.
Join me as we uncover a London immortalised in literature: the buildings, the lanes, the shops, the parks, and the secret places dear to the writers who loved this city as much as we do.