London: The books and the city
London, a city with depth, charm, and mystique all its own, has naturally been a source of inspiration for fiction writers, past and present. While certain stories simply take place in the capital, a special few make the city a character to care about. From Woolf to Ali, we will take a look at a few diverse that take place in London.
Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
The novel takes place just after the second world war and records a day in the life of an affluent, upper-class woman. Clarissa Dalloway lives in Westminster. On the day the story takes place, she obsesses over last-minute details of a party she is throwing later that evening. Although this classic novel delves into the inner workings of the titular character’s mind, Woolf also very astutely captures the London of 1923.
‘For having lived in Westminster — how many years now? over twenty, — one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense … before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed.’
– Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996)
This fantasy story follows the very down-to-earth Richard Mayhew, who lives in modern-day London. He leads a good, ordinary life – a stable job, beautiful fiancé, and a cosy London flat. All of that changes when he attempts to help an injured girl. He gets pulled into London Below: an invisible, underground London that is equal parts magical and terrifying. Richard stumbles through a realm where Earl’s Court is a literal court presided over by an Earl, Islington is a literal angel, and Night’s Bridge (read: Knightsbridge) is a bridge engulfed by a horrifying incarnation of darkness.
‘Richard had originally imagined London as a grey city, even a black city, from pictures he had seen, and he was surprised to find it filled with colour. It was a city of red brick and white stone, red buses and large black taxis, bright red mailboxes and green grassy parks and cemeteries.’
– Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1837)
Dickens’s second novel takes place in mid-19th century London and depicts the harsh and seedy nature of that time. Oliver’s is a bleak story of a boy who runs away from the orphanage only to land in with a sleazy lot who recruit children as criminals. Through Oliver’s exploits in and through London, the author references at least 90 distinct locations in the capital.
‘He had often heard the old men in the workhouse, too, say that no lad of spirit need want in London; and that there were ways of living in that vast city, which those who had been bred up in country parts had no idea of. It was the very place for a homeless boy, who must die in the streets unless some one helped him.’
– Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell
A fun fact: according to a Reuters report, this is the book that most Britons lie about having read. Those who have actually read it know that the book’s dystopian London is now the capital of ‘Airstrip One’, part of the nation of Oceania. This would-be London under a totalitarian regime in which Winston Smith lives is grey, dilapidated and frightening.
‘He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy 1984 garden walls sagging in all directions?’
– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four
Brick Lane by Monica Ali (2003)
Nazneen lives in a small, constricted flat in London’s East End. Still a teenager, she is in an arranged marriage with an older man. For Nazneen, London is nothing like her village in Bangladesh, and to make matters worse for her, she does not speak English. The protagonist’s predicament forces her to learn more about London. While she does so, she learns about herself as well.
‘And the city itself was just a glow on the dark earth …’
– Monica Ali, Brick Lane