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2. Revisiting the Periodical Essay (1860-1940)

Solvitur ambulando: The Peripatetic Essay from Leslie Stephen to Virginia Woolf



Cet article propose de mettre en lumière certaines similitudes entre les essais périodiques publiés par le critique victorien Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) et l’auteure moderniste Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), en analysant un certain type d’essai, « l’essai péripatétique », qui utilise la marche comme principe structurant (Forsdick 48) et dont le père et la fille usèrent chacun de manière fréquente. Bien que publiés à presque cinquante ans d’écart, « London Walks » (1880) et « Street Haunting » (1927) témoignent de l’intérêt commun de leurs auteurs pour la culture matérielle de leur temps et de leur attachement à la tradition empirique anglaise, une tradition incarnée par la devise adoptée par Stephen lorsqu’il dirigeait les « Sunday Tramps » : « solvitur ambulando », « résolu en marchant » ou « résolu par l’expérience pratique », formule qui associe la preuve empirique à l’acte de marcher (Maitland 366). L’essai péripatétique, parce qu’il repose sur « l’alternance de la réflexion et de la perception », « de la conscience de soi et de la conscience du monde extérieur », de « l’expérience mentale et physique » (Gilbert in Forsdick 47-8), permet aux deux écrivains de livrer au lecteur une pensée incarnée, fondée sur la sensation. Le rapprochement avec les essais de Stephen permet de mesurer l’ampleur du processus de révision auquel Woolf soumet le genre : tandis que l’essayiste victorien, qui se décrit comme « un misoscope invétéré » (224), refuse de se laisser absorber ou aliéner par le flux des perceptions visuelles, dont la seule fonction est, selon lui, de promouvoir sa réflexion (234), la persona woolfienne suit le flux erratique des sensations et fracture l’unité supposée du moi, en adoptant successivement une multiplicité d’identités contradictoires, qui abolissent les frontières de la personnalité.

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  • 1 On the evolution of the periodical press and the status of Stephen as a journalist/critic, see Laur (...)
  • 2 In Some Early Impressions (1924), Stephen devotes a whole chapter to the evolution of the periodica (...)

1Although he is mainly remembered as the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography (1882-1891), or as the fictional Mr. Ramsay, bent on an alphabetical quest for knowledge, in his daughter’s portrayal of him in To the Lighthouse, Leslie Stephen was also a respected journalist and critic, the editor of the Cornhill Magazine from 1871 to 1882, the author of more than two hundred periodical essays, published over the course of forty years in monthlies or quarterlies—such as the Fortnightly Review, Fraser’s Magazine, Macmillan’s Magazine, Mind, the National Review, the Nineteenth Century—, and in weeklies or dailies—such as the Saturday Review or the Pall Mall Gazette. Stephen turned to journalism in 1864 after becoming an agnostic and renouncing a Cambridge fellowship. He moved to London, and, thanks to the help of his older brother Fitzjames, who was a regular contributor to London magazines, he carved out for himself a name as an essayist, writing on a great variety of subjects, “rang[ing] over most branches of human knowledge, from popular metaphysics to the history of the last University boat-race,” “review[ing] countless books, poems, novels, travels, economic treatises, and literary histories” (Stephen, Some Early Impressions 129-30). Stephen’s output over the course of four decades was truly impressive, with a “normal routine from 1865 to 1871 of three or four articles a week” (Annan 51). According to Frederic Maitland, his friend and biographer, Stephen did not revolutionise the periodical essay, but he started writing at a defining moment in its evolution,1 an evolution which he documented in “The First Edinburgh Reviewers” (Cornhill Magazine, 1878), “The Essayists” (Cornhill Magazine, 1881), English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century (1903), Some Early Impressions (1924),2 and he experimented with a specific subgenre—“the peripatetic essay”—which uses walking as a structuring device (Forsdick 48) and which allowed him to combine his lifelong interest in walking and in philosophy as a thinker firmly rooted in the empirical tradition.

2Walking was a passion for Stephen, who was, according to Annan, “a formidable athlete, a great walker for whom a stroll [from Cambridge] to London and back to attend a dinner was nothing extraordinary,” who “once challenged a friend to run three miles while he walked two and won by two hundred and thirty yards” (29). As a Cambridge tutor at Trinity Hall, from 1854 to 1862, Stephen was the president of a walking club called the Boa Constrictor, himself being known as “Old Serpent,” and he was often seen leading long processions of students in the Cambridge countryside (Maitland 64). Though he was not one of the original members, Stephen was elected president of the British Alpine Club in 1865 and he edited the Alpine Journal from 1868 to 1872. Later on, in 1881, he founded and presided over another walking club, the Sunday Tramps, whose members were foremost thinkers of the time—George Croom Robertson, the first editor of Mind, the philosopher James Sully, the lawyer Frederick Pollock, the historians James Cotter Morison and Frederic Maitland, the economist F.Y. Edgeworth, amongst others (Maitland 500). On their walks, the Tramps would often stop for dinner at the homes of Charles Darwin, John Tyndall, George Meredith or Frederic Harrison (Maitland 359). Although they did not belong to one specific philosophical school, they made a point of assimilating the Greek peripatetic tradition, as suggested in “The Ballade of the Sunday Tramps,” signed by one of the members, A.J.B. (A.J. Butler), in 1881:

If weary you grow at your books
Or dyspeptical after you’ve dined,
If your wife makes remarks on your looks,
If in short you feel somewhat inclined

For fresh air and a six hours’ grind
And good metaphysical talk
With a party of writers in Mind
You should go for a Sabbath day’s walk. […]

Though surely we all by our rule
Are as peripatetics denned,
Yet each philosophical school
Is here with each other combined:

Idealists, realists, find
Representatives here, as we stalk
In the breezes, like them unconfined,
Over hills of clay, gravel, or chalk. (Maitland 358)

3Far from being anecdotal, the peripatetic ideal celebrated in this doggerel verse testifies to Stephen’s long-standing set of beliefs. According to Maitland, as a walker and as a writer, Stephen never departed from one principle, encapsulated by the motto “solvitur ambulando” (366), “solved by walking” or “solved by practical experiment,” which connects empirical proof with perambulation. The expression is attributed to Diogenes the Cynic, who, as a retort to the claim that motion is unreal, proved the reality of motion simply by standing up and walking about. Throughout his impressive body of work, from his History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876) to his three-volume study of utilitarianism, Stephen always vindicated the English empirical tradition, the belief in practical experiment and the test of experience, over French Cartesianism or German idealism (Maitland 172):

The critical movement initiated by Locke and culminating with Hume reflects the national character. The strong point of the English mind is its vigorous grasp of facts […] Locke, therefore, began rightly by exorcising the spirit of false philosophy. Get rid of the ideas which do not correspond to actual facts, and of the truths which cannot be tested by experience, and philosophy will be restrained once and for ever from these fruitless and endless attempts to raise its flight above the atmosphere. The theory of innate ideas supplied the basis from which these flights were made; and Locke, therefore, rightly attacked innate ideas. (Stephen, History of English Thought 34-5)

4In an essay entitled “In Praise of Walking,” published in the Monthly Review in August 1901, Stephen explicitly connects the English philosophical tradition with a form of no-nonsense pedestrianism, rooted in practical experience, tracing a line of descent from Hobbes to J.S. Mill:

Walking is the best of panaceas for the morbid tendencies of authors. It is, I need only observe, as good for reasoners as for poets. The name of “peripatetic” suggests the connection. Hobbes walked steadily up and down the hills in his patron’s park when he was in his venerable old age. To the same practice may be justly ascribed the utilitarian philosophy. Old Jeremy Bentham kept himself up to his work for eighty years by his regular “post-jentacular circumgyrations.” His chief disciple, James Mill, walked incessantly and preached as he walked. John Stuart Mill imbibed at once psychology, political economy, and a love of walks from his father. Walking was his one recreation; it saved him from becoming a mere smoke-dried pedant; and though he put forward the pretext of botanical researches, it helped him to perceive that man is something besides a mere logic machine. (266-7)

  • 3 “[T]he association of the essay with the peripatetic is a long-standing one. Far from adhering to a (...)

5It should therefore come as no surprise that Stephen found in the essay, as “essentially [an] ambulatory form” (Good xii), a privileged frame for his philosophical reflection, and that he chose to experiment with the peripatetic subgenre.3 Because it relies on the “alternation between thought and perception,” “self-consciousness and consciousness of a world beyond the self,” “physical and mental experience” (Gilbert in Forsdick 47-8), the peripatetic essay allowed him to firmly root his reflection in bodily sensation, to represent thinking not as an abstract process detached from experience, “later arranged and systematized,” but as a physically embodied process, “rising from and returning to particular experiences” (Good 7).

  • 4 “Yet when I reflect, I become aware that [London’s] varying pulses set up corresponding trains of m (...)

6In “London Walks,” an essay published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1880, Stephen makes walking, with its constant “changing of pace, direction and goal,” “the perfect analog of ‘essaying’” (Good xii), and “essaying” the perfect expression of his empirical principle, “solvitur ambulando.” Very much “the perambulation of an idea, or of an inter-related series of ideas” (Forsdick 46), “London Walks” reads like a philosophical exercise in which the persona, occupied in “a profound meditation” upon the evolution of British society, the Eastern Question or the balance of trade, self-reflectively examines how the sights and sounds of London shape his “trains of thought” (225), an expression directly borrowed from John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690).4 Here, the Victorian essayist appropriates and combines two peripatetic traditions: like Wordsworth, whom Stephen greatly admired, he strives to reveal the hidden beauty or sublime grandeur of the parts of London where Nature is still preserved—“certain desolate nooks on the edge of the London chaos” (225), the places imbued with the “poetic halo” created by the London fog, the view from the Battersea Suspension Bridge, “the cloudy phantasmagoria of a sunset on the Thames” (229)—, but he also takes up the stance of the “social evolutionist,” walking the streets to examine human society as an organism evolving according to scientific laws:

I love, I have said, the nature which is visible from our streets, and humanity as a part of nature. I consider houses as I might consider a coral reef or an ants’ heap. Pall Mall or Oxford Street is for me a large calcareous deposit, destined to form part of the geological formations of the future; a growth, not an artistic product […]. It is the material secretion of a social organism, which I contemplate as I contemplate the shell of an oyster without trying to enter too closely into the animal’s feelings. (224)

7In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke uses the image of the oyster on two occasions: first, to refute the principle of innate ideas—the taste of an oyster can only be acquired from experience (Bk.2, ch.1, §6)—and then as the example of the lowest and most primitive being to be endowed with the faculty of perception, “the first operation of all our intellectual faculties and the inlet of all knowledge in our minds,” shared by all animals, even in its dullest, most obscure degree (Bk.2, ch.9, §13-15). A tribute to Locke’s treatise and to Herbert Spencer’s social evolutionism, the image of the oyster suggests the interrelatedness between the perception of external material things and the operations of the mind, as, throughout the essay, thoughts coalesce around the grit of sensory experience and “aggregate” from the “heterogeneous sediment” deposited in the observer’s brain (“London Walks” 231), like a pearl formed from a grain of sand in an oyster. For instance, when the persona explores the outskirts of the city, his meditation upon the expansion of London, its infringement upon the countryside in successive waves of urban development, aggregates from the minute observation and detailed description of “the more unfinished and amorphous parts” of London, still in “the shell stage of development” (225).

8Stephen’s essay illustrates Locke’s principles on yet another level, since its very structure, based on the alternation of perception and reflection, mirrors the two processes whereby, according to Locke, all knowledge is derived: the observation of “external sensible objects” and of “the internal operations of our minds” (Bk.2, ch.1, §2). In the course of the essay, the persona self-reflectively comments on the interrelatedness of these two processes, how immersion in city life stimulates his meditations, how the walking body communicates its pace to the thinking mind, how the sense impressions collected along the way, “the passing objects of London scenery,” impart a form of mental colouring to his thoughts:

Both sets of operations go on simultaneously; one half of the brain, perhaps, is working the limbs, whilst the other is devoting itself to the solution of the intellectual difficulty. But the two halves are not so separate but that one receives many suggestions from the other, or at times is affected by a sub-conscious process of action and reaction. The effect, so far as the higher faculty is concerned, is a curious stimulation—a marked increase in the rapidity, vivacity, and versatility of the trains of thought. The ideas seem to be suddenly shaken and change their positions like colours in a kaleidoscope; they are suddenly dashed into new relations; some indefinable element is intruded from the senses which brings out unsuspected suggestions […]. (236-7)

  • 5 “The French ‘essai,’ derived ultimately from the Latin exāgium, a weighing, could mean ‘trial,’ ‘t (...)

9While communicating its rapidity to the mind, the act of walking in the city also comes to encapsulate the very provisionality of the essay, as suggested by the etymology of the word, a literary form used to test the validity of one’s ideas.5 Here, the city rambler tries his ideas out in the open as it were, assuming different frames of mind, taking unforeseen directions, according to the different areas of London he finds himself in, without committing to any definite opinion:

[T]he mere process of airing an idea in the many different worlds which may be discovered within half an hour’s walk through London is really to submit it to a whole series of tests, which frequently lead to surprising modifications. Reasoning is not so completely as philosophers fancy an abstract process carried on like multiplication and division, so as always to bring out the same results, but a complex operation in which the physical condition, and still more the half-perceived relations of the reasoner, count for more than he knows. (237)

  • 6 In a later essay, published in 1901, entitled “In Praise of Walking,” Stephen writes: “The true wal (...)

10However, if bodily sensations are conducive to thought, the essayist strives to keep them entirely subservient to his intellectual pursuits, not an end in themselves. Never departing from a form of scientific detachment, Stephen’s city rambler claims to be “a professed misoscopist,” or hater of sights (224),who firmly believes that “the perceptive faculties should not oust all reflection from its proper place” (234).6 He favours walking as “a most admirable promoter of thought” (234), because it helps him keep in check “the distractions from within,” “the innumerable irrelevant associations” “which are always tempting [him] to devious tracks,” when he is merely sitting at his desk (235). A disciple of Locke, he refuses to yield to irrational, arbitrary “associations of ideas,” this random “combination of ideas, not allied by nature,” which set “trains of motion” in the mind, as it does in the body, leading it to deviate into unreasonable paths (Locke, Essay, bk.2, ch.33, §6). Because it keeps the body, “this troublesome companion,” occupied and because it provides “distractions from without,” walking helps hold at bay what Stephen calls “the imps who haunt the study,” the flow of half-conscious, unformed and disruptive thoughts, which are prone to “trip up the pure intellect” (“London Walks” 235).

  • 7 See Virginia Hyman, “Late Victorian and Early Modern: Continuities in the Criticism of Leslie Steph (...)
  • 8 “When I read his books I get a critical grasp of him […] I find not a subtle mind; not an imaginati (...)

11At the beginning of her literary career, Virginia Stephen greatly benefitted from her father’s reputation as an essayist and some of her first commissions for articles and reviews came through her father’s old connections (Lee, Virginia Woolf 419).7 Woolf’s ambivalent response to Stephen’s essays has been much documented, by Rachel Bowlby for instance: “The essay was her father’s genre: a ‘man of letters’ par excellence, Leslie Stephen did not write ‘creative’ literature. [...] In writing essays, Woolf was directly following in her father’s footsteps, in a move that was composed of both rivalry and honour” (233-4). Woolf devoted several essays to Stephen, one of which was commissioned by Maitland for his biography in 1906, while the other was published in The Times in 1932 on the centenary of her father’s birth. The title of one of her essays, “Hours in a Library” (1916), is directly borrowed from Stephen’s four-volume collection. In “The Modern Essay” (1925), Virginia Woolf picks up the history of the periodical essay where her father left off, praising him as one of the most significant essayists of his age. In Moments of Being, she pays a rather ambivalent homage to her father’s style of writing by describing it as decidedly pedestrian.8 If, like her father, Woolf fully embraced the formal possibilities of the peripatetic essay, she also departed from Stephen in very significant ways.

12In Threshold Modernism (2019), Elizabeth Evans examines the effects of women’s newly acquired physical mobility within the modern city in the late 19th and early 20th century, their “new participation in the urban scene” (1), on the development of their artistic identities. She argues that freedom of movement and liberation from the constrictions of the domestic sphere stimulated freedom of mind, and that the very dynamics of flânerie, because they “involve[d] a fluid exchange between the observation of external urban scenes and self-reflexive contemplations” (95), encouraged a form of intellectual emancipation which directly translated into modernist women’s works. According to Evans, modernist essays and fiction based on these new explorations of the city could be read as extensions of, and not just departures from, Victorian or Edwardian essays and fiction about the same subject. Examining both Ann Veronica (1909) by H.G. Wells and a selection of Woolf’s novels and essays, Evans argues that Woolf extended some aspects of Wells’ novel in tracing “the interweaving of thought, feeling, and sight seen, of interiority and external streetscape” (108), “the interconnections of interiority and the external, material world” (109), but that she also broke from Wells in significant ways, for instance, by dismantling the lingering dichotomy of gendered spheres and by investigating “alternatives to realist representational style” (111). In some respects, the same can be said about Woolf’s relation to Stephen’s essays. If she definitely drew on the formal characteristics of the peripatetic essay, her differently gendered experience of walking in the modern city inevitably led her to transform her father’s powerful model into an instrument of physical and intellectual emancipation.

  • 9 “[W]e can regard her, like other modernists, as a competitor to Freud, finding ways of exploring th (...)

13In “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” an essay which was published in the Yale Review in 1927, some fifty years after “London Walks,” at a time when she was making some of her most radical formal experiments, Woolf revisits some of Stephen’s central images to re-appropriate the masculine genre of the peripatetic essay. As Thomas Karshan very convincingly argues in On Essays: Montaigne to the Present (2020), into the small space of “Street Haunting,” “Woolf concentrates much of the history of the essay and its predominant themes” (33), “weav[ing] together images and scenes from Montaigne, Addison, Hazlitt, Lamb, Emerson, Belloc, and Chesterton” (35). While “Street Haunting” as a whole is set within and renews “the tradition of the London essays that goes from William Hazlitt to Ford Madox Ford, through Henry Mayhew to Arthur Symons” (Reynier 117), Karshan shows that each location the persona passes through is connected in some ways with a sub-genre of the essay: the essay on finding a writing implement—G.K. Chesterton’s “A Piece of Chalk” (1905); Hilaire Belloc’s “On the Pleasures of Taking up One’s Pen” (1908)—, the essay on second-hand books and bookshops—Charles Lamb’s “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading” (1822)—, the travel essay—Hazlitt’s “On Going on a Journey” (1822); Stevenson’s “Walking Tours” (1876)—, the essay on commerce and “the ambulatory essay” (Karshan 45). If, like Stephen, Woolf uses walking as a structuring device to reflect upon the material culture of her time, the trains of thought set up by the pulses of London, “the essay’s digressiveness” allows her to explore the dark, irrational associations of ideas that Stephen warned against.9

  • 10 “For, since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be w (...)

14In the opening lines of her essay, Woolf subverts the convention of the oneness and sameness of identity, based on the continuity of consciousness, the fiction of a stable individual subject, which is at the heart of Locke’s Essay,10 and of the essay as a genre in general (Good 4; 8), by turning the traditional persona of the essayist into a spectral being, moving in and out of the “bodies and minds of others” (“Street Haunting” 490). The first-person singular “I,” used by Stephen, gives way to the first-person plural “we” or the impersonal pronoun “one” of a spectral self, the mere husk of sensations:

We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room. […] The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughness a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye. (481)

15Woolf returns to the Lockean image of the perceiving subject, “the oyster of perceptiveness,” forming ideas from the grit of sensory experience, but she does so only to fragment “the shell-like covering” of identity and the constricting mould of the self. Catherine Lanone has shown that, in “Street Haunting,” “experience as incremental repetition,” “the accretion of grains of sand turning into precious mnemonic traces,” represented by the recurring image of the pearls, both “enriches and ruptures the sense of self” (“The Non-Linear Dynamics of Woolf’s London” par.14). Indeed, later in the essay, Woolf’s persona stops at an antique jeweller’s shop and imagines how, by choosing and putting on a pearl necklace, she might step into another life and share the sensory experience of another self: “Let us choose those pearls, for example, and then imagine how, if we put them on, life would be changed”; “Wearing pearls, wearing silk, one steps out on to a balcony which overlooks the gardens of sleeping Mayfair. […] Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there?” (485-6). Like Stephen’s city rambler, Woolf’s flâneuse collects the “pearls” of sensory experience but only to reveal “their more obscure angles and relationships” (483), through the associative powers of the unfettered mind. While Stephen’s persona, “a professed misoscopist,” refuses to be absorbed or alienated by visual perceptions, merely using them as a “promoter of thought,” in “Street Haunting,” the eye takes precedence over the brain, which “sleeps perhaps as it looks” (482), and floats the essayist down a stream into the darkest recesses of the psyche.

  • 11 Thomas Karshan suggests that Woolf’s essay echoes Montaigne’s “Of Cripples,” in which the French es (...)

16Unlike the Victorian essayist, keen to keep in check “the imps who haunt the study,” “the distractions from within,” “tempting one into devious tracks,” Woolf’s persona fully embraces the shifts and turns caused by random associations, these impish presences, materialised in her essay by the dwarf, whom she encounters in a shop and who is introduced in a curious non sequitur: “What, then, is it like to be a dwarf?” (483). The dwarf, who, according to Randi Saloman, stands for the essayist herself, first seems cruelly aware of her inadequacy, between her two companions, as if the essay were “necessarily less valid—or less valuable—than the genres that surround it” (30). Yet, she “reveals a completely different side of herself as soon as she has found the appropriate means of expression” (30), proudly flaunting “the shapely, perfectly proportioned foot of a well-grown woman” (“Street Haunting” 483). Significantly, once in the care of the shop assistant, the dwarf refuses to select a pair of shoes to fit her perfect foot but deliberately prolongs the choosing and fitting [essayage], as though she deliberately refused to settle for a fixed, constricting form: “Her manner became full of self-confidence. She sent for shoe after shoe; she tried on pair after pair” (483). Here, Woolf playfully reconfigures the etymological associations of the French word “essai”—meaning “attempt,” “test,” “trial” or “apprenticeship”—turning the “essai,” the testing ground for one’s ideas, into an “essayage,” a prolonged “fitting” in a shoe shop. The dwarf, trying out different pairs of shoes, taking “a step this way and then a step that way” (483), becomes the embodiment of the versatility of the human mind, its changeability and inability to reach definitive truths.11 As soon as she leaves the shop, the dwarf starts “a hobbling grotesque dance” in the street, which all join in, as if her deformity granted her more freedom of movement and her erratic rambling allowed her to resist “the categorical ordering of knowledge” (Cuddy-Keane 120): “she had changed the mood; she had called into being an atmosphere which, as we followed her out into the street, seemed actually to create the humped, the twisted, the deformed” (484). Because she introduces a grain of sand, an impurity in the abstract “cerebrations” of the mind, the dwarf, who is misshapen but possesses a perfect foot, the “imp who haunts the study,” tripping up “the pure intellect,” allows the essayist to “leave the straight path of personality” and explore the “devious tracks” mentioned by Stephen, “those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men” (491).

  • 12 See Jane de Gay, Virginia Woolf and the Literary Past, Edinburgh UP, 2007; Laura Marcus, Michèle Me (...)

17Reading “Street Haunting” alongside “London Walks,” one is struck by the similarities of images but also by the radical process of revision Woolf submits them to, as if she were critically retracing her father’s footsteps across London, in order to twist the peripatetic essay into a radically new shape: fragmenting the “shell-like covering” of the perceiving subject; turning Stephen’s social organism, represented by “a coral reef” or “an oyster shell,” into the source of aesthetic pleasure, “the prettiest trophies,” “little lumps of emerald and coral;” converting the “impalpable ghostlike” city ramblers of a masculine tradition into a spectral flâneuse; replacing the sure-footed step of the Victorian essayist with the erratic, hobbling dance of the dwarf; using the essay to explore the associative powers of the mind through meandering routes. Such connections between Stephen’s “London Walks” and Woolf’s “Street Haunting” invite us to reassess the evolution of the London essay as it transitions from the late 19th to the early 20th century, from a masculine Victorian tradition to its feminine modernist offspring, bent on exploring the blind spots of this tradition. The analysis of these connections also invites us to reassess the “radical break theory,” which until recently dominated critical approaches to modernism, but has come under growing scrutiny and is now considered “reductive” (Besnault-Levita and Gillard-Estrada 2). In the spirit of recent critical studies of modernism,12 which offer counter-narratives to “modernism’s ideology of rupture,” “shock, disjuncture, discontinuity,” and open up “a rich new terrain of scholarship” focusing on “the modernists’ ambivalent relations with their nineteenth-century predecessors” (6), this paper wishes to suggest that Woolf did not just break away with past images but that she re-appropriated and reconfigured them. Bringing together traditionally distinct fields of study, such as Victorian and modernist literature, popular print culture and elite literary publication, men’s athletic rural wandering and women’s street haunting, reveals unexpected continuities, and, maybe more importantly, allows us to probe the very process of modernist innovation in the making: the dynamic, ambulatory dislocation of images into new meaning.

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Lanone, Catherine. “The Non-Linear Dynamics of Virginia Woolf’s London: from Elation to Street Haunting.” Caliban, no. 25, 2009, pp. 315-22. (Last accessed on 18th May, 2022)

Lanone, Catherine. “Stereoscopic Displacement in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Street Haunting’.” Woolf as Reader/Woolf as Critic, or The Art of Reading in the Present, edited by Catherine Bernard. Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2011, pp. 39-50.

Lee, Hermione. “Virginia Woolf’s Essays.” The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, edited by Sue Roe and Susan Sellers. CUP, 2000, pp. 91-108.

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1 On the evolution of the periodical press and the status of Stephen as a journalist/critic, see Laurel Brake, “Literary Criticism and the Victorian Periodicals.” The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 16, 1986, pp. 92-116.

2 In Some Early Impressions (1924), Stephen devotes a whole chapter to the evolution of the periodical press in the 1860s and 1870s, noting the development of a new readership, as “the newspaper became the organ of the middle class, which then rose to power” (110) and as “[t]he profession of journalism [became] respectable” (111), with “a growing movement of literary talent towards the periodical press” (113).

3 “[T]he association of the essay with the peripatetic is a long-standing one. Far from adhering to a teleological structure, the essay is a discursive form, both rambling and digressive […]; avoiding the abstraction that characterises the treatise and revealing a rootedness in the everyday, it relies on the coincidence of language, philosophical reflection and bodily sensation” (Forsdick 46).

4 “Yet when I reflect, I become aware that [London’s] varying pulses set up corresponding trains of meditation, and I can at moments grasp some special mood and see how it has been stimulated, like the fantastic images of a dream, by a dim perception of the external changes. I dream that I am swept away in a deluge, and find on waking that the fancy was suggested by the drip of water from a towel; and so, in passing along London streets, many trains of thought flash across the mental horizons” (“London Walks” 225).

5 “The French ‘essai,’ derived ultimately from the Latin exāgium, a weighing, could mean ‘trial,’ ‘test,’ ‘attempt,’ ‘sounding,’ ‘sample,’ ‘temptation,’ ‘risk,’ ‘apprentice-ship,’ ‘exercise,’ or—ironically, given its resistance to introduction—‘prelude,’ ‘beginning’” (Karshan 4).

6 In a later essay, published in 1901, entitled “In Praise of Walking,” Stephen writes: “The true walker is one to whom the pursuit is in itself delightful; who is not indeed priggish enough to be above a certain complacency in the physical prowess required for his pursuit, but to whom the muscular effort of the legs is subsidiary to the ‘cerebration’ stimulated by the effort; to the quiet musings and imaginings which arise most spontaneously as he walks, and generate the intellectual harmony which is the natural accompaniment to the monotonous tramp of his feet” (256).

7 See Virginia Hyman, “Late Victorian and Early Modern: Continuities in the Criticism of Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf,” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, vol. 23, no. 3, 1980, pp. 144-54; Katherine Hill, “Virginia Woolf and Leslie Stephen: History and Literary Revolution,” PMLA, vol. 96, no. 3, 1981, pp. 351-62; Leila Brosnan, Reading Virginia Woolf’s Essays and Journalism, Edinburgh UP, 2000, p. 20; Elena Gualtieri, Virginia Woolf’s Essays, Macmillan, 2000, p. 24.

8 “When I read his books I get a critical grasp of him […] I find not a subtle mind; not an imaginative mind; not a suggestive mind. But a strong mind; a healthy out of door, moor striding mind; an impatient, limited mind; a conventional mind entirely accepting his own standard of what is honest, what is moral” (Moments of Being 122).

9 “[W]e can regard her, like other modernists, as a competitor to Freud, finding ways of exploring the unconscious through experiment with existing literary forms, and discovering in the essay’s digressiveness a vehicle for exploring the association of ideas and their conflicts” (Karshan 36).

10 “For, since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done” (Locke, Essay, bk.2, ch.27, §11).

11 Thomas Karshan suggests that Woolf’s essay echoes Montaigne’s “Of Cripples,” in which the French essayist compares the human mind, in its changeability and inability to reach definitive truths, to a shoe fitting both feet: “Il n’est rien si soupple & erratique, que notre entendement. C’est le soulier de Theramenez, bon à tous pieds. Et il est double & divers, et les matières sont doubles, & diverses.” (“Des boyteux,” Essais, bk.3, ch.11).

12 See Jane de Gay, Virginia Woolf and the Literary Past, Edinburgh UP, 2007; Laura Marcus, Michèle Mendelssohn, and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, editors, Late Victorian into Modern, Oxford UP, 2016; Bénédicte Coste, Catherine Delyfer, and Christine Reynier, editors, Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism: Continuities, Revisions, Speculations, Routledge, 2017; Anne Besnault-Levita and Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada, editors, Beyond the Victorian/Modernist Divide: Remapping the Turn-of-the-Century Break in Literature, Culture and the Visual Arts, Routledge, 2018.

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Marie LANIEL, « Solvitur ambulando: The Peripatetic Essay from Leslie Stephen to Virginia Woolf »E-rea [En ligne], 20.2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2023, consulté le 01 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Université de Picardie Jules-Verne
Marie Laniel is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Picardie (France). Her research focuses on Victorian subtexts in the works of E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf (with a special interest in Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold and Leslie Stephen). She has published several articles on this topic. She has also contributed to “Only Connect”: E.M. Forster’s Legacies in British Fiction (Peter Lang, 2017) and Beyond the Victorian and Modernist Divide: Remapping the Turn-of-the-Century Break in Literature, Culture and the Visual Arts (Routledge, 2018). She is co-editor of two online journals, L’Atelier and Polysèmes. With Philippe Birgy, Nicolas Boileau, Adèle Cassigneul, Elsa Cavalié and Xavier Giudicelli, she has co-authored a book on Howards End (Atlande, 2019).

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