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Writing of walking

7 February 2013

10:00 AM

7 February 2013

10:00 AM

At 3pm this afternoon Radio 4’s Ramblings with Clare Balding will broadcast a programme about The Walking Book Club, to which Emily Rhodes belongs.

‘I love walking in London,’ said Mrs Dalloway. ‘Really it’s better than walking in the country.’

As a keen reader, writer and walker, I am always intrigued when an author writes a walk into their work of fiction.

Clarissa Dalloway’s walk from Westminster to Bond Street at the beginning of Mrs Dalloway is one of Virginia Woolf’s most astonishing authorial feats. Woolf notes the outside world – ‘shop-keepers were fidgeting in their windows with their paste and diamonds … June had drawn out every leaf on the trees … the policeman held up his hand …’ – but, at the same time, captures the run of Clarissa’s thoughts. Her mind wanders, recollects, imagines, and we can see into this personal interior world, which exists simultaneously and in such contrast to the tangible exterior world of things. It is an ingenious and unique introduction to a character.

So a walk can be used to show how a character thinks. It can also be a chance to shine a different light on a character. A character who is walking somewhere tends to be out of his or her usual environment, placed at an illuminating disadvantage. In A Passage to India, E.M. Forster sends Adela Quested and Mrs Moore to explore the Marabar Caves with Aziz. They go into the caves only for Mrs Moore to be overcome by the all-encompassing echo and for Adela to flee, claiming she had been sexually assaulted by poor, innocent Aziz. It would appear that these English ladies, taken out of the comfort of their Club and society, cannot handle India at all.

Often this new environment can be an encounter with a different class. In L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, Leo walks from grand Brandham Hall to Ted’s humble cottage, ferrying messages between Marian at the Hall and Ted, a tenant-farmer. Leo is terribly impressed by life at the big house, with its endless outfit changes, elaborate meals, and aristocratic titles. His walks to Ted’s cottage might as well be taking him to a different world, and, as he begins to understand the nature of the messages he carries, he crumbles under the pressure of bridging that impossible gap.

This walk from smart house to lowly cottage appears again and again in literature. It happens in Spies, for instance, when Michael Frayn sends Stephen and Keith out of their smart suburban cul-de-sac, through a tunnel under the railway and down the Lanes, filled with barking dogs, grubby children and run-down dwellings. In Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona, Jessica Vye is taken to see the slums of East Shields by a posh adolescent boy, who rails against the injustice of his wealth against their poverty. Jessica is somewhat underwhelmed:

‘There,’ said Christian. ‘That’s what I mean.’
‘Is it a slum?’
‘Well – what do you think?’
‘Yes. Well, yes. I suppose it is a slum. It’s pretty awful.’
‘Pretty awful?’
‘Yes – I suppose so. Somehow I thought it was going to be worse.’
‘Could it be worse?’
‘Well, I think I expected green slime or something. Just shacks and green slime. I mean I haven’t seen anywhere worse exactly … But if they planted a few trees … If it was all painted white, and it as in Africa or somewhere and they had bright-coloured clothes.’
‘Why are you trying to make the best of it?’ He turned on me and absolutely blazed. ‘What’s the matter with you? This is hell isn’t it? … Hell, hell, hell. I want to get rid of all this. I want to knock it down. Don’t you see, it’s got to be destroyed?’ and he raised his terrific long arms up above his head. ‘It must be destroyed!’ he cried and the man [standing nearby] straightened up and pointed at the sky with a look of utter unbelief on his face.
‘Run!’ we heard him cry. ‘You kids – run will yer,’ and the whole sky was torn apart in the crash that answered him and was followed by a great avalanche of falling brick.

Christian gets his destruction in the form of a German bomb. Jessica, recovering from the shock of the air raid, has a cup of tea in one of the slum houses, but soon Christian rushes in to hasten their departure, only to jump on a bus, leaving Jessica behind to fend for herself. This selfish behaviour utterly undermines Christian’s overblown protestations about the living conditions of the poor. Jessica might be childish and naïve, but she is at least honest, and not so hideously condescending. Jane Gardam uses this walk through the slums to show her characters to great effect.

When it isn’t used to cast new light on a character, a walk might be a set-up for an encounter, so furthering the plot. In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor gets Mrs Palfrey to leave the Claremont hotel to go to the library, and she falls over on the way back. This is when she has her fateful encounter with Ludo, an impoverished young writer who comes to her rescue. Ludo mines this meeting for material, assiduously noting Mrs Palfrey’s ‘fluffy grey knickers … veins on leg colour of grapes … smell of lavender water (ugh!)’. For lonely Mrs Palfrey, the meeting is a rare chance of friendship, and so she follows it up with an invitation to dinner, and deliveries of knitted jumpers and meat pies. Were it not for the walk, they might never have met and this unlikely, poignant and very moving friendship would never have cause to bloom.

Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net is full of such chance encounters, but this novel also features my favourite type of fictional walk. Towards the end of the novel, Jake Donaghue catches sight of a lost love during a firework display in Paris, and he pursues her through the Tuileries Garden at night. Enchanted, he follows her as if on ‘a tow-rope’, always a few steps behind:

‘In a moment we should be entering the wood. It stretched before us now, very close, its rows and rows of chestnut trees, the leaves clearly showing in the diffused light, those tiny leaves that seem peculiar to the chestnut trees of Paris, etched with clarity and turning golden brown along the edges as early as July. Anna walked into the wood. Here the grass ended and there was a loose sandy soil under foot. Anna stepped onto this surface without any hesitation. I followed her into the darkness.’

This walk – following someone into the darkness, through the rows of chestnut trees, unable to catch up with her – is like being in a dream. Iris Murdoch takes Jake and the reader out of the realm of reality and into somewhere quite uncanny. She never loses her wit, however, and when Jake does eventually catch up with Anna, he finds that it isn’t her after all but a French woman, startled that he isn’t her lover. Even with this touch of humour, this walk is mysterious, mystical, magical.

Returning to Clarissa Dalloway’s walk, for which we can hear her mind burring and whirring through memories, associations, gossip, there is a moment when she stops still and watches the buses (or ‘omnibuses’) on Piccadilly:

‘She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxicabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone…’

It is a moment of strangeness, of perfect slicing lucidity, of being outside oneself as in a dream.

A moment like this, when the feet’s wanderings have stilled the mind’s wonderings and you become aware of some hard-to-articulate insight, is the gift of a really good walk. These are the walks of Edward Thomas, Laurie Lee, Nan Shepherd, and many other writers who wrote of walks as poetic non-fiction, rather than using them as vehicles for character and plot. It is truly remarkable when this type of walk – a real walk, yielding a moment of uncanny brilliance – makes its way into a work of fiction.

Emily Rhodes blogs at EmilyBooks and tweets @EmilyBooksBlog.

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