Writers & Company

On finding and losing yourself in the city: from Charles Dickens to Virginia Woolf 

London-based author and academic Matthew Beaumont spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about tracing the footsteps of literary writers in his new book, The Walker.
Matthew Beaumont is an author, editor and academic based in London. (Verso, Camilla Lewis)

Writer and critic Matthew Beaumont is passionate about walking — especially in urban settings. 

In his new book, The Walker: On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City, Beaumont traces the footsteps of writers such as Ford Maddox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells and Charles Dickens, discovering their relationship to the city through their lives and work.   

Beaumont's previous book, the widely praised 2015 title Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London from Chaucer to Dickens, focused on writers who haunted the streets at night, and the worlds they captured there.

Beaumont spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from London, England, where he lives, teaches — and walks. 

Pedestrians and cyclists make their way through the streets of London. (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

A devout pedestrian

"All my life, I've been walking. But in my late teens, I became particularly conscious — partly through walking in the evening and at night in London — that walking was a compulsory way of negotiating city spaces, of trying to understand the dynamics of the city. 

"I loathed taxis, I loathed car journeys and I was reluctant to take the tube, although the tube is glorious enough in its way. I was most interested in reading, in my late teens and early 20s, writers who had celebrated walking in the city. That had always had an attraction for me.

I was most interested in reading, in my late teens and early 20s, writers who had celebrated walking in the city. That had always had an attraction for me.

"When it comes to country walking, I'm pretty susceptible to the romantic poets, I'm not going to pretend otherwise. I really admire the way in which so many of those romantic poets were not just celebrating nature as an alternative to emerging industrial civilization; they were beating the bounds of their liberty, of their right to freedom, of their right to roam, as we might today call it.

"They were conscious of the ways in which common land in the 18th and 19th century was being eroded. Its commonness, its communality was being eroded. They regarded walking as a way of asserting their right to the land and to the land as something communal to the country."

The travels of Mrs. Dalloway

"Urban walking is my thing, as it were. I sympathize with Mrs. Dalloway's stance — that walking in London is better than walking in the country — because we're not used to thinking of walking, or at least certainly in the early 20th century when Virginia Woolf was writing, we weren't so used to thinking of walking in an urban context as equivalent to walking in a rural context. 

Woolf seems to assert, in the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway, that the simple pleasure of walking is a way of restoring a sense of one's self, as well as invigorating a sense of one's relationship to one's environment.

"It's the idea of walking as something to be done for pleasure, for its own sake, for exercising the imagination as well as one's limbs, all that kind of thing.

"Woolf seems to assert, in the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway, that the simple pleasure of walking is a way of restoring a sense of one's self, as well as invigorating a sense of one's relationship to one's environment."

A young Charles Dickens, circa 1839 (left), the 2015 Matthew Beaumont book Nightwalking and Thomas De Quincey, circa 1820. (Verso, Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Haunting streets at night

"People who walked at night, like De Quincey and Dickens in the tradition of English literature, in one sense went out into the city at night in order to forget themselves, but maybe in other senses to recall themselves to themselves. 

"They went out in the city at night and walked in it often quite long distances, particularly in the case of Dickens, in order to obliviate themselves, to reach some slightly phantasmagoric realm of consciousness. 

They went out in the city at night and walked in it often quite long distances, particularly in the case of Dickens, in order to obliviate themselves, to reach some slightly phantasmagoric realm of consciousness.

"De Quincey was himself famously an opiate addict. His walking at night — when it wasn't simply because he couldn't find anywhere to stay, and there was a period when he was young and living in London and he was effectively homeless — was an almost calculated attempt to induce a state of alterity, of otherness, of being outside the daytime self."

Electric lights illuminating the streets of London in the late 1800s. (Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

A modernist of the street

"I take the term 'modernist of the street' from the late Marshall Burman's work, and in particular his wonderful book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, about modernity and metropolitan life.

"Berman uses his phrase 'modernist of the street' to emphasize a new notion of modernity, one that's absolutely replete with a sense of the dynamics of the 19th and 20th centuries, which are subject to immense economic and technological changes and changes in people's interactions with one another.

They are interested in, as it were, orchestrating their experience of the streets and seeing the life of the streets from a pedestrian perspective.

"I really just extend the term a little bit. I use it to think about everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Ray Bradbury — authors who are interested in taking the temperature of the streets. They are interested in, as it were, orchestrating their experience of the streets and seeing the life of the streets from a pedestrian perspective. They are seeing it from up close, not from behind the window of a carriage or a car. They see it as a kind of great symphony — a chaotic, sometimes cacophonic symphony of modernity." 

The metaphor of invisibility

"The Invisible Man, aside from the undeniable comic brilliance of the writing in places, sees Griffin as a kind of everyman of a new sort. He's one who registers, in some very literal sense, the experience of nonentity, of being a nonentity on the streets of the city. And in this sense, it's partly autobiographical. 

"Wells, like lots of writers, ended up as a young man coming to London, hoping to make it as a scientist and then as a writer. He was living on very little and in pretty shoddy accommodation. But Wells had a great faith in himself and in his capacity for becoming a great entity — for becoming someone famous, as, of course, in the end he did become. 

There's an existential dimension to this notion of invisibility, which we can all relate to.

"So what the novel does, in part, is register the experience of nonentity — of being a nothing, of being just an anonymous atom in the mass of people in the metropolis. He uses the metaphor of invisibility — derived in some ways from contemporary science, from the invention of the X-ray, as well as from a long tradition of fairy tales where invisibility features in very important ways —  as a way of thinking about what it is like to be completely overlooked, to be not seen, and therefore to feel that one is being hollowed or emptied out.

"There's an existential dimension to this notion of invisibility, which we can all relate to. The Invisible Man is in some places very moving, despite the sheer nastiness of the protagonist." 

Matthew Beaumont's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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