It’s an obvious choice, isn’t it?
If we are going to start a journey through the literary labyrinth that is London writing, why not start with Mrs Dalloway’s own perambulations through the city’s West End? In its dynamically vibrant celebration of the city and its modernity, Virginia Woolf’s novel strikes us for its sensuous reading of the urban space, captured as it is in its inability to stay still. Woolf’s narrative weaves in and out of Clarissa’s consciousness, as her thoughts are indissolubly married to the city space which generates them. Even though a significant part of Clarissa’s musings travels back, with longing nostalgia, to her past and her previous life outside of London, Clarissa herself admits that ‘walking in London […] [i]s better than walking in the country.’ This may just read like small talk; Clarissa is, after all, trying to get out of an awkward bit of conversation with Hugh Whitbread. But later on, and throughout the book, there is a growing sense of vitality, a deep understanding of the powerful energy oozing out of the city, its crowded streets, its tempting shops, its monumental architecture: ‘Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lifts its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved’. In a narrative which is, in more than one way, haunted by the spectres of the past war, illness and death hover on each page, and particularly in the passages following the nervous steps of Septimus Smith, whose London is not a source of relief, but of painful and traumatic associations. Yet, in spite of the looming tragedy – which is somehow too easily dismissed as something inevitable at the end of the novel – the predominant mood is one of celebration. The relentless carnival of the metropolis, the visual spectacle, the polyphony of its sounds, the cornucopia of transgressive pleasures – think, for example, of the omnibus journey that Elizabeth undertakes, thrilled and unchaperoned – somehow minimises even further the insignificant impact of an individual life, its happiness and its sorrows too small to become visible against the colossal backdrop of the urban canvas. Woolf’s stream of consciousness, of course, makes this point rather more poignantly than my brief review:
‘Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? But that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.’
In transcending the limits of human mortality, the city becomes palimpsest, its geological strata made of the lives of its people who walk its streets every day, brushing past each other, not knowing that, somehow, their journeys have converged, even if just instantaneously, and been part of London’s immortal magic.