Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) needs little introduction as one of the foremost writers of the 20th century. A Londoner through-and-through, her works are suffused with memorable descriptions of the city. Here's what we learnt through reading and mapping all 10 novels.
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Map points reflect locations mentioned or visited in the following 10 books.
The Voyage Out (1915), Night and Day (1919), Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927), Orlando: A Biography (1928), The Waves (1931), Flush: A Biography (1933), The Years (1937), Between The Acts (1941).
1. Bloomsbury doesn't feature all that much
Despite her status as the most famous member of the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Woolf was sparing in her mentions of the area. Only four of the ten novels namecheck a Bloomsbury location.
Two are fairly prominent. The eponymous location in Jacob's Room can be found on Great Ormond Street, while Mary's suffragette office in Night and Day is located on Russell Square. Mentions of the area in The Voyage Out and Mrs Dalloway are much more scanty. The other six novels don't visit the area at all.
2. Piccadilly is her most-used location
The West End street features in eight of the ten novels, and is only absent from Night and Day and Flush. Several other locations are used time and again.
Eight novels: Piccadilly
Seven novels: Hampstead, Houses of Parliament (under various names), St Paul's Cathedral, Strand
Six novels: Regent's Park, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall
3. Where Woolf is sheepish
Most of her London-set novels focus on West End locations, particularly Mayfair and Marylebone. Then, as now, these are areas dominated by middle-class society — the demographic most prominent in Woolf's novels.
Other parts of inner London are given much less attention. The East End is broached on only four occasions, three of which relate to crime or sordid living conditions. Likewise, locations south of the river are few and far between, and often relate to poverty.
Unexpected namechecks go to Penge, Sidcup, Acton and the Welsh Harp Reservoir.
4. Woolf beyond London
Of course, Virginia Woolf did not restrict herself to writing about the capital. Only half the novels are set principally in London, though all ten make regular mentions. The most popular locations in the UK outside of London are:
Eight novels: Oxford
Five novels: Cambridge
Four novels: Isle of Skye or Hebrides, Manchester, Scarborough, Windsor/Eton
5. The novels are more international than you might expect
Several of Woolf's novels spend long periods overseas. Her first, The Voyage Out, takes place mostly away from London in an unidentified part of South America. Some of the key passages in Orlando take place in Greece and Turkey. Every continent except Antarctica is mentioned at least twice. Even the North Pole gets two mentions (though not as a setting).
Eight novels: Paris, Rome, Venice
Five novels: Constantinople (Istanbul)
Four novels: Athens
Three novels: Berlin, Madrid, New York
6. What else did we learn
Virginia Woolf has a reputation as a 'difficult' novelist. Her stream-of-consciousness writing is very different from the straightforward narrative style of most popular fiction. Woolf places much greater significance on the thoughts and concerns of her characters than on their actions. This can be an absolute joy, or an unfathomable mess, depending on your frame of mind.
That would be a lazy and incomplete summary of her novels. Read all ten, and the one thing that stands out is just how versatile Woolf could be. Yes, there are the experimental novels like The Waves (written entirely in inner monologues) and Jacob's Room (the main, titular character is built up mostly in the thoughts and words of others). But she also tells the tale of a Tudor poet who lives more than 300 years and changes sex mid-way through (Orlando). Flush: A Biography, meanwhile, is written from the perspective of a Victorian dog. Both are relatively 'easy' reads, though carry further significance for those who care to think deeper.