Walking in Four Novels

Writing and walking work together very well. I explored some connections for writers in a recent blogpost: Steps to Improve Your Writing. Here I explore four novels to consider how walking features in them.

Few characters walk in novels to get from A to B or for the good of their health. These aspects of walking do not contribute to interesting plots. Instead, some characters walk to escape, such as the woman in white, Rosaleen along the Green Road, or Harold Fry. Some characters need to walk to be connected to other people, the history in their surroundings, or their memories. Frequently by walking, characters assert their independence, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

279 The_woman_in_white_Cover_1890

Who can forget the first meeting with the woman in white? The narrator has visited his mother in Hampstead and is returning on foot at night to London. He is, indeed, walking from A (Hampstead) to B (back to London). The stage is set: dark, isolated and already a bit weird.

I had now arrived at that particular point on my walk where four roads met – the road to Hampstead, along which I returned; the road to Finchley; the road to West End; and the road back to London. I had mechanically tuned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road – idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like – when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my young body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.

I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening around the handle of my stick.

There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her. (23-4)

It is dramatic and weird. Who would not read on to find out the mystery of the pointing Woman in white?

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, (1860), I used the Penguin Classic edition.

The Green Road by Anne Enright

231 Gr Rd cover

In the second novel, Rosaleen also takes a night walk. This walk shapes a dramatic scene, towards the end of the novel, as if it will lead to a reconciliation or final departure. It is late on Christmas Day, in west Ireland near the Flaggy Shore. Rosaleen, an older woman, leaves her disconnected family for a solitary walk she has taken many times along the Green Road. It is cold and dark and she is plagued first by the wind and then by reflections on her life.

She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer. (259)

Like many walkers, she responds to the elemental atmosphere.

Rosaleen spread her arms wide and flung her face up.

‘Hah!’ she said.

In the middle of nowhere, on Christmas Day, when no one was out, not one person was walking the roads.


Old women were not given to shouting. Rosaleen did not know if she still could, or if your voice went slack like the rest of you, when you got old.

‘Oh, don’t mind me!’ she said. She roared it. She stuck her fists down straight by her sides. ‘Don’t mind me!’ (260)

She is walking along the Green Road in response to her fractured family, the loss of her husband, her advancing years.

This is why Rosaleen had come up here, to this wild place. She had come to cleanse herself of forgetfulness and of fury. To shout it loud and leave it behind. To fling it away from herself. (265)

Rosaleen gets into trouble in the dark and the cold and her family must find her. It should lead to reconciliation. This novel is highly recommended, by the way, for many other qualities too.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015), published by Vintage and winner of several prizes including the Man Booker Prize. My full review can be read here.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

136 Pride & Prej

Elizabeth Bennet is a walker, energetic and undeterred by poor weather. Her walks are associated with key plot moments in Pride and Prejudice. She walks to Netherfield Park to take care of her sick sister, Jane. The reactions of those in residence reveal a great deal about each of them, as well as about Elizabeth. Mrs Hurst, Bingley’s sister, makes the following comment.

‘To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.’

‘It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing,’ said Bingley.

‘I am afraid, Mr Darcy,’ observed Miss Bingley, in half a whisper, ‘that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.’

‘Not at all,’ he replied; ‘they were brightened by the exercise.’ (82)

Elizabeth walks a great deal in the grounds of Rosings and here is met by Darcy the day following his disastrous proposal and he must give her a letter. She next meets Darcy accidentally when she is walking in the grounds of his great house, Pemberley. And finally Darcy and Elizabeth ‘get it together’ on another walk near her own home. As Willoughby says, in his cheerful way, ‘Mr Bennet, have you no more lanes in which Lizzy may lose her way again today?’ (383)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813. Edition used: Penguin English Library.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

279 Harold Fry

The fourth novel is structured by Harold Fry’s walk, He is an older man, retired, who has lost his energy, emotionally and physically. Harold receives a message to say that an old friend he lost touch with is dying. He sets off from his home in Kingsbridge, Devon to post a letter to her, but just keeps on walking, and after 87 days arrives in Berwick-upon-Tweed. He walks 624 miles and along the way, as is the case with pilgrimages, he meets other people and has adventures which help him understand his life and other people. He is reconciled with his wife and learns a great deal about himself including his own resilience.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce published by Black Swan in 2012.

Some other novels that feature walking

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, compared to her short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The Long Walk by Stephen King

Over to You …

Can you recommend other novels that feature walking?


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Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Reading, Reviews

23 Responses to Walking in Four Novels

  1. This post is right up my street, Caroline – although actually prefer to do my walking in rural settings! I do have a recommendation to add to these: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore which is structured around a circular walk in Germany. If you haven’t yet come across her fiction you’re in for a treat – I reviewed her fourth novel recently here:
    though not much walking in this one!

  2. Morag

    Not a conventional novel, but a wonderful hybrid – W G Sebald’s Rings of Saturn – part novel, part meditation, part travel writing with his characteristic illustrations – old black and white photographs. It’s really a genre of its own.

    • Caroline

      Hi Morag,
      I had to check because I thought I had included a reference to this at the end of the post. I hadn’t, so thanks for adding it. I agree, another one of the best walking novels, not least because it takes you to such extraordinary times and places along the Eastern coastline.

  3. There’s also ‘Carrying Albert Home’, a novel I recently read and enjoyed. Tess Durbeyfield takes a variety of walks, some purposeful, some driven by acts of others, a few of them are true wanders. Same in H E Bates ‘Darling Buds’ series. Lots of luscious country lanes, fields and amblings.

    • Caroline

      Now this is a new one to me Nicola. I shall look it up. I haven’t read HE Bates for decades, so that would be another enjoyment.
      At this rate I will have to do a second Walking in Novels post.

      Thank you

  4. As a dedicated walker and writer, I love this post and the growing list of novels that take us on journeys by foot with the characters. Oddly, the first one that came to my mind after all the Jane Austen novels which all involve a degree of walking, was Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Then of course my mind raced to all of the Aubrey-Maturin novels which involve a great deal of walking on many continents and endlessly on the decks of vessels large and small.

    • Caroline

      Hi Elizabeth. Thank you for your kind words. I think there must be a whole genre of journey novels, and The Hobbit would certainly be one. I don’t know the other ones you mention: Aubrey-Maturin. Definitely thinking about a second post on the same theme.

  5. Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian features a great walk a woman makes to save her sister. One tough character.

    • Caroline

      Sounds like my kind of novel, although I must admit I have never read any Walter Scott. Time to start. Thanks for this addition to the list, Tom.

  6. Mention of The Hobbit (Elizabeth Marro’s comment above) reminded me of a ‘literary adventures’ post I wrote a while ago http://maryomsthoughts.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/top-ten-literary-adventures.html
    Not all of those adventures are on foot (boats and trains feature too) but the first two are – RL Stevenson’s Kidnapped (though horse-riding may figure from time to time) and Inman’s epic trek home in Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this link, Mary. I’ll look at it very soon. Lots of adventures to be had when walking, riding, sailing, boating and on the train.

  7. Great idea to single out walking as a theme or literary device. Like other commenters I was thinking of others to add – C McCarthy The Road came to mind – when it occurred to me that ‘walking’ features in pretty much any novel. As you say, usually as a plot device (Lizzie’s chance encounters with Darcy) or a means of conveying character, mood, etc. Good stimulating fun, though, thinking up examples then figuring out *how* the author uses the device. Moira’s blog Clothes In Books does a similar thing with…well, clothes…

    • Caroline

      Thanks for another suggestion, Simon. I don’t agree that people walk in all novels, beyond also eating and sleeping and so on that is. Walking as a device of some kind is interesting, like the clothes you mention on Moira’s blog. Linda Grant is a one for clothes.
      I enjoy working on themed novels for blog ideas. Another one on the way, about hotels.

  8. Anne Hercock

    Some very significant walks in Jane Eyre. The walk to Hay and back to post Mrs Fairfax’s letter on which Jane meets Rochester, the walk across the moors which ends with sanctuary of sorts with Diana, Mary and St John, and the last mile to Ferndean and reunion with Rochester to pick just three.

  9. Marianne Coleman

    Caroline it is a wonderful and productive theme. There seems to be such a link between walking and writing. I suppose the idea of the journey strikes a chord in most of us as we progress through life.

    When I read your blog, the novels of Anita Brookner came to mind. Her heroines often seem to be walking, often wandering through London at night. Then I thought about a recent book, ‘Flaneuse’ by Loren Elkin which focuses on women walking in cities and how society might disapprove of them. I have not read the book but there is a review of it here https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/25/flaneuse-women-walk-city-paris-new-york-tokyo-venice-london-review-lauren-elkin, and as a woman who likes to walk through cities I thought it is one that I would like to read.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Marianne. Yes lots of interest in this post, and lots of great suggestions to add to my four novels. I will probably do another post on this topic in six months.
      And thanks for the Anita Brookner suggestion, and reference to that new book on flaneuses, which interested me.


  10. A great idea for a post, Caroline. Lovely choices, too – Jane Austen sprang to mind immediately. You might be interested in Valeria’s collection of essays, Sidewalks, which is full of observations on various locations and spaces, mostly in cities. She is a bit of a modern-day flâneur (and sometimes a cycleur – a flâneur on a bicycle). I wrote a short piece about the book a couple of years ago:


  11. Lovely post, and I think walking is very linked to writing. Dickens is the other writer who himself walked miles, and includes characters who walk in his novels. You may enjoy my blog post on this theme: http://word-struck.com/2016/02/15/walking-wandering-writing/

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment Michelle and for the link to your post. I agree with your thoughts, as you might imagine. I very much enjoyed being part of the 26 Steps project and hope I will be able to take part in another collaborative writing project soon.

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