The blurb on the back of Writers’ London tells us that “many of the greatest books ever written can trace their origins to London”. This is no idle boast: the city is awash with literary associations, as attested by the ubiquitous blue plaques, monuments, and neighbourhoods made famous in print and film. Writers’ London follows in the footsteps of great writers, showing the places where they lived and worked, drank and died. It also features libraries, museums and bookshops.
This book includes hundreds of novelists, poets, essayists and political theorists. It focuses upon literary authors, although others – including Jeffrey Archer, Jackie Collins and Barbara Cartland – also get a mention. You won’t be surprised to hear that Charles Dickens features prominently, but you’ll also find people you might not have associated with London, such as Herman Melville and Gertrude Stein.
The main emphasis is on the writers themselves, rather than the places in their novels, although there is a mention of two of the prisons that featured in the works of Charles Dickens. But as you explore the homes and haunts of the great writers you will start to get a sense of the areas that inspired their writing.
The book is divided into areas. It begins – naturally – with Bloomsbury, which was at one time synonymous with literary London, and is still full of bookshops, publishing houses and, of course, the British Museum, which provided Karl Marx and many others with a place to read and write. From there it fans out across central London and the wider environs. It seems that literary ghosts frequent every corner of the city.
Each section has a list of authors and the buildings they were associated with. It gives a bit of information about each, so that it builds up a picture of literary London, and the authors’ relationships with the city and with one other. Even after a lifetime of exploration of both London and literature there were still things for me to learn here (for instance, I had no idea that T S Eliot had edited the works of other, younger, poets including Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes).
The book also includes short sections on particular topics such as prisons or graveyards. And there are suggestions for further reading, with lists of novels set in each part of London. These will provide inspiration for your visit and many happy hours of reading after you return home. There is enough material in Writers’ London to sustain the literary explorer for several trips to London. You could use it for armchair exploration, or as the basis for your own tour of literary London. I plan to do just that next time I visit…
Writers’ London. Carrie Kannia and Alan Oliver, ACC Art Books, 2020, £15, 9781788840460