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Jon E. Lewis, London: the Autobiography, (London: Constable 2008), 480 pp., 25 illustrations, hbk, £25.00. ISBN-10: 1845298756 ISBN-13: 978-1845298753.

Steven Barfield

London: The Autobiography will prove a useful resource for teaching courses on Literary London, because despite its odd name (which Jon Lewis perhaps intends to augment Ackroyd’s equally anthropomorphic London: The Biography), it is essentially a lengthy and very varied collection of predominantly first-hand writings about London from the Roman period to the present (or as historians would call them ‘primary sources’.) Hence the book’s somewhat arch, tourist-attraction styled strap-line: ‘2,000 Years of the Capital’s History by Those who Saw it Happen’.

There are almost five hundred pages, in fact, of a wide variety of short accounts and extracts from longer texts in which residents and visitors of different genders, ethnicities, ages and occupations reflect on many of the key events in London’s history since the Roman foundation of the city, as well as the more mundane day-to-day experience of living in the capital over the past centuries. While there is no material that is not already known, nor anything which is really unexpected from the scholarly point of view, the collection as a whole will prove useful to students, teachers and the general public. A couple of copies in a university library will be of as much benefit for students reading social history or literature, as for those undertaking more specific courses on Literary London. There are short introductions to each selection by Lewis, but these serve mostly to help orientate the reader towards the material rather than discussing it or its provenance in any critical depth.

The virtues of London: The Autobiography therefore lie with the material presented and in particular having such a range of descriptions conveniently available in a single volume. The material covers the routine of everyday, urban life, such as shopping and pleasure, as well as those singular political and social events that have affected the city. Where else in one volume can you find such a variety of accounts as these: Tacitus on the sacking of the city by Boudicca, juxtaposed alongside Roman graffiti from London; Snorri Sturlson’s description of King Olaf demolishing London bridge in 1014 in conflict with the Danes on behalf of King Ethelred; William Fitz Stephen’s memorable snapshot of the city and its prosperous inhabitants in 1173; the expulsion from the bounds of the city of an individual leper in 1372 and the election of Richard Whittington to Mayor for a third time in 1419, both taken from The City of London Letter Book; Paul Hentzner’s vivid depiction of the ceremonies of Queen Elizabeth I at Greenwich and discussions of the rivalry between theatre going and Puritanism by the Lord Mayor, Thomas Fleetwood; John Evelyn writing about the whale in the Thames of 1658 and the Great Frost of 1683-4; Jane Austen’s witty diary entry for her London season party in 1811, cheek by jowl with Sir Robert Peel’s analysis of his formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829; Charles Greville’s shocked description of William IV in a rough disguise rambling the streets of London; Dostoevsky on the throngs of melancholy Haymarket prostitutes in 1862, the Times on the opening of the Metropolitan Railway and H. M. Hyndman’s sassy depiction of a determined socialist march by East Enders through the West End in 1886? Twentieth-century eye-witness accounts of London are, unsurprisingly, even more plentiful as source materials, due to the growth of the mass-media and those represented in the book are written from a wider variety of viewpoints than their predecessors, an indication of the rise of literacy and an increasing desire for ordinary Londoners to be heard. The reader will find in this section of the book everything from accounts of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in 1936 to that of descriptions of enthusiastic jivers at the Paramount ballroom in 1947, from the progress through the metropolis of the last tram in 1952, to the 1958 Notting Hill race riots and their 1981 Brixton counterparts, to, finally, the London bombings of 2005. Overall, I found this book enjoyable to dip into, a convenient resource for sampling how London life has been witnessed and very useful to show students how London has been written about in non-literary forms compared to the way that London writers have transformed the same material.

To Cite This Article:

Steven Barfield, ‘Review of Jon E. Lewis, London: the Autobiography, (London: Constable 2008)’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 1 (March 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]