Previously, we chose ten classic poems about London, but now we’re turning to books about the capital – whether non-fiction studies, novels, or texts which fall somewhere between the two. Of course, London is such a vast and fascinating city with a long history, that we cannot be comprehensive with ten books – these are just our suggestions to get the ball rolling. Which do you think are the greatest books about the city of London?
1. Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year.
A fictional account of London in 1665 when bubonic plague was ravaging the city, Defoe’s novel, published in 1722, betrays his training as a pamphleteer and essayist – indeed, as what we would now call an investigative journalist. And like many works of fiction produced in the early eighteenth century when the ‘novel’ was still developing as a new genre, A Journal of the Plague Year reads almost like memoir at times, rather than imaginative fiction.
It is thought that Defoe, born Daniel Foe in 1660, based some of his account on his father Henry Foe’s recollections of the plague, and Defoe supplements these with various tables and statistics, bringing seventeenth-century London to life through local topographical detail.
Recommended edition: A Journal of the Plague Year
2. Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor.
An abridged version of this landmark work of investigative journalism was recently edited by the biographer and critic Robert Douglas Fairhurst, and published by Oxford University Press (see the recommended edition below).
Mayhew conducted hundreds of interviews with the people who dwelt in the poorer parts of London, from thieves and beggars to clowns and costermongers. The result is a remarkable feat of journalism which brings to light to amazing stories of everyday life among London’s poorest inhabitants, while also revealing the terrible living conditions so many of them endured.
Recommended edition: London Labour and the London Poor (Oxford World’s Classics)
3. Charles Dickens, Bleak House.
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun …
The majority of Dickens’s novels are set in London, of course, and his name is synonymous with the capital. But of all his novels, it is perhaps Bleak House (1852-3), which we consider to be his masterpiece, which most brilliantly captures London in the nineteenth century. Indeed, ‘London’ is the very first word of the novel, and right from the opening paragraph with its lack of main verbs, present-tense narration, and fanciful description of an imagined Megalosaurus striding along Holborn Hill, we enter Dickens’s colourful portrayal of London, so that although this novel may also take us to Lincolnshire, London remains at its heart.
Recommended edition: Bleak House (Penguin Classics)
4. Amy Levy, Reuben Sachs.
When we think of Victorian novels about London, we tend to think of Dickens, and then perhaps the later Gothic novels such as Jekyll and Hyde. In Reuben Sachs, Levy (1861-89) focuses on the lives of the Jewish communities living in Bayswater in the late nineteenth century, combining feminist polemic with themes of class, religion, and ethnicity in an important, but overlooked, work of social realist fiction.
Recommended edition: Reuben Sachs
5. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway.
For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June …
In 1925, Virginia Woolf published her first truly great novel, Mrs Dalloway, which, like James Joyce’s Ulysses, covers the events of a single day in June – although Woolf’s June day is set in 1923 rather than 1904 and her setting is London rather than Dublin.
We learn about Clarissa Dalloway’s life, her marriage to the MP Richard Dalloway, and her former romance with her friend Peter Walsh; running alongside Mrs Dalloway’s reminiscences and reveries we have the First World War veteran Septimus Warren Smith, who is suffering from severe PTSD and constantly having flashbacks to his time in the war. Among many things, Woolf’s modernist novel invites us to consider who is ‘sane’ and who ‘insane’ in a messed-up world scarred by war, death, and rapid industrial, political, and social change.
Throughout this all we get the chimes of Big Ben charting the development of this single day (Woolf’s working title for the novel was ‘The Hours’), and various London streets, parks, and landmarks which are realised with the same impressionistic yet vivid eye for detail that we associate with modernist fiction.
Recommended edition: Mrs Dalloway (Penguin Classics)
6. Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners.
Following the lives of the Windrush generation – West Indian immigrants to Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s – Selvon’s novel offers a fascinating and compelling picture of the struggles and setbacks faced by many West Indians coming to Britain in the immediate post-war years to make a new life for themselves. Selvon himself had been born in Trinidad in 1923 and came to the UK to do just that, but The Lonely Londoners draws on not just his own experiences but those of many other men and women of his generation.
Recommended edition: The Lonely Londoners (Penguin Modern Classics)
7. Michael Moorcock, Mother London.
Since Dickens, few popular authors have written better about the city than Michael Moorcock, who started out editing fanzines and writing fantasy and ‘New Wave’ science fiction in the 1960s. This 1988 book is one of his works of literary rather than genre fiction, though it’s full of the same originality and creativity we find in the prolific Moorcock’s work as a whole.
Moorcock was born in London just after the outbreak of the Second World War, in December 1939, and his earliest memory was of playing in the ruins that were left after the Blitz. Mother London focuses on a range of interesting characters in the capital, who live there from the 1940s until the 1980s, and might be described as Moorcock’s love letter to the city.
Recommended edition: Mother London (London Novels 1)
8. Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography.
This 2000 book is perhaps Ackroyd’s greatest, combining his creative flair with his diligent research and critical eye for detail. As the subtitle of his book makes clear, Ackroyd treats the capital like a living entity, ranging from London’s early history (before it even became ‘London’) during the time of the Druids, right through to the modern age.
Recommended edition: London: The Biography
9. Monica Ali, Brick Lane.
Transported from her poor Bangladeshi village to a high-rise tower block in Tower Hamlets, the teenage Nazneen is married to a man old enough to be her father and locked away in a small flat to sew and make clothes. One day, she meets another man and falls for him … and realises that life can offer so much more than the existence she has been pushed into accepting. A compelling romantic storyline marry with an almost Dickensian eye for character and place in this contemporary classic, published in 2003.
Recommended edition: Brick Lane: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
10. Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison, Literary London.
We reviewed this book in an earlier post, and mentioned just a handful of the fascinating literature-related stories and facts which Millar and Jordison engagingly gather together in this bookish stroll through the city of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, and many others. There’s something surprising and interesting on pretty much every page, so this book seems like the perfect choice to conclude this selection of the best books about London – with a book about London’s books and their writers, if you will.
Recommended edition: Literary London