Visit Homepage
Skip to content

‘Literary London’: An Old, New subject?

Lawrence Phillips

London is, on the whole the most possible form of life. I take it as an artist and a bachelor; as one who has the passion of observation and whose business is the study of human life. It is the biggest aggregation of human life — the most complete compendium of the world.

— Henry James

London has always held a remarkable hold over the artistic imagination in Britain and beyond, but especially in literature. It is, perhaps, difficult to understand why for London has never been a city of great beauty nor home to an established artistic bohemia. Both of these qualities can be found in London’s ‘rival’ Paris where, for generations, artists have been drawn both spiritually and actually. Yet artists, and particularly writers, have still been lured to London’s ‘mighty mass of brick and smoke’. Malcolm Bradbury, referring to the late Victorian city draws attention to ‘London’s bustle and density, and its depth of custom and manners; as you might say . . . the London of the aesthetic realist.'[1] ‘Aesthetic realism’ might be read in this context as a reference to London’s fierce history of economic inequality, largely unplanned expansion and notorious pollution. An aesthetic of urban ugliness but also an aesthetic of cultural ferment, social deprivation, opportunity, anonymity and individual freedom. If some of these facets of London’s history appear contradictory this, too, is overwhelmingly the legacy of the metropolis. These contradictions are shared with some of the American cities that grew to rival London in the late nineteenth century both in size and by provoking a unique urban aesthetic of their own, most notably New York. And yet it is the ‘density, and its depth of custom and manners’ that sets London’s aesthetic apart from these newer challengers; a thousand years of literary history that is so dense that some contemporary writers take it as the very subject of their work, as Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair so aptly demonstrate.

A great deal of work still needs to be done to quantify and understand London’s weighty, exhilarating or just plain disturbing presence in Britain’s literature, not least so that the plethora of new writing on London both in Britain and around the world can be coherently discussed. This is a topic that seems to draw scholars from a number of disciplines as is evident from the many courses on London in literature and other media that exist, in some isolation, as part of the syllabi of numerous universities in London, Britain and around the world. The hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and monographs have been and are being produced on some aspect of London’s literary and aesthetic legacy, not to mention the ongoing research around the world. This presents a particular challenge for the researcher. All this activity lacks a common focus where work may be noted and referenced, a starting place for new research and an academic locale where ideas may be shared and developed; a focus that many topics of a much more narrower focus achieve by field consolidation and promotion. London is a significant topic in British and other literatures and there is critical mass of superb research to initiate such a discussion and a research community. This is the rationale of The Literary London Journal and the mutually supportive Literary London Conference. This Journal needs the support of that community to flourish. It is time that the interdisciplinary study of the representation of London came forward as a major scholarly project and coherent discipline.

In this, the first issue of the Journal, the promise and diversity of that research field and international scholarly community can be seen. Articles range from the early nineteenth century in Michael Meyer’s detailed reading of Wordsworth’s engagement with London in his essay ‘Theatrical Spectacles and the Spectators’ Positions in Wordsworth’s London’ and Erik Bond’s analysis of a gendered experience of the London streets in Burney and Dickens in his, ‘Flights of Madness: Self-Knowledge and Topography in the Cities of Burney and Dickens’. Of particular excitement in this issue are two essays that bring to a wider audience two authors whose response to London have, to date, been little known outside of their respective homelands. Jayati Gupta’s ‘London Through Alien Eyes’ critically engages with the travel narrative of Krishnabhabini Das whose account of 1880s London is a valuable ‘outsider’s view of the imperial capital as well as an intriguing insight to the development of Indian national consciousness during this period. Bernard Wilson brings to us his analysis of the soon to be published novel by the Malaysian writer, Lee Kok Liang, London Does Not Belong to Me, a text that stands comparison with Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and V.S. Naipaul’s Between Father and Son. Completing the articles for this inaugural issue we have Jameison Ridenhour’s reading of Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, ‘”I Know the City Well”: The Metaphysical Cityscape in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net’ and Brian Baker’s ‘Maps of the London Underground: Iain Sinclair and Michael Moorcock’s Psychogeography of the City’. Both Ridenhour and Baker discuss the geographic and aesthetic sensibility of Murdoch, Moorcock and Sinclair in texts that represent significant engagements with London. Finally for this issue we have reviews of two important new collections, London in Literature: Visionary Mappings of the Metropolis, edited by Susana Onega and John A. Stotesbury and Imagined Londons, edited by Pamela K. Gilbert by Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy respectively

I do hope that many of you will feel prompted by this strong selection of articles to submit examples of your own work for future publication. In particular we have yet to receive substantial contributions on the representation of London from the medieval period to the eighteenth century. There is some six hundred years of literature featuring London that needs to be read and evaluated as part of London’s literary history as well as part of more period based interests. I am also hoping too that this Journal will also become a forum for exchanging ideas on theories of urban representation.

Please don’t forget, if you would like to receive publication notification of future editions of the Journal, please submit your email address using the panel on the main page of the Journal. The next edition will be published on 14th September 2003 with a copy deadline of 1st August 2003. If you have any comment or suggestions relating to the website or Journal please get in touch: We want to hear from you.

Finally some professional and personal acknowledgements. A big thank you goes to all the contributors and editorial staff for bringing the Journal into the light of day, and to Dr Emma McEvoy, Dr Catherine Spooner and especially Dr Helen Carr for being so instrumental in establishing the Literary London course at Goldsmiths.


[1] Malcolm Bradbury, ‘London 1890-1920’, from Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, Modernsim: A guide to European Literature 1890-1930 (Hamondsworth: Penguin, 1991), p.181

To Cite This Article:

Lawrence Phillips, ‘Literary London: An Old, New subject?’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 1 Number 1 (March 2003). Online at Accessed on [date of access].