The London Writers You’ve Never Heard Of
If you start collecting London books you’ll quickly have your shelves filled to breaking point. More pointless volumes about the East End’s artisanal muesli vendors arrive with each passing day, yet there are dozens of fascinating London writers who failed to remain in print. The most interesting thing about them is the insight they give into London life in past eras. But you have to watch your step, for the city’s chroniclers were often its biggest liars.
Elizabeth Fowler (probably a relation) was the daughter of a London shopkeeper, born at the end of the 17th century, and wrote scandalous bodice-ripping satires and allegories featuring prostitutes, charlatans and social climbers. Although ‘The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless’ was a sophisticated, multiple-plot novel that advanced female literature, featuring a strong-willed woman fighting society’s pressures to marry, it wasn’t as much fun as ‘The Distress’d Orphan – or Love in a Madhouse.’
Arthur W Symons is a virtually lost poet, playwright and essayist (1865-1945) who had this to say about city light; ‘A London sunset, seen through vistas of narrow streets, has a colour of smoky rose which can be seen in no other city…it weaves strange splendours on its edges and gulfs of sky. At such a point as the Marble Arch, you may see conflagrations of jewels, a sky of burning lavender tossed abroad like a crumpled cloak, with broad bands of dull purple and smoky pink, slashed with bright gold and decked with grey streamers.’ Clearly this only applies to London before the Clean Air Act.
For another taste of the capital here’s ‘The English Sappho’, forgotten poet Mary Robinson, on a London summer morning; ‘Now begins the din of hackney-coaches, waggons, carts; While tinmen’s shops, and noisy trunk-makers, knife grinders, coopers, squeaking cork-cutters, fruit barrows, and the hunger-giving cries of vegetable-vendors fill the air.’
Richard Steele co-founded The Spectator in 1711 and has disappeared despite his evocative writings on London’s street life, its bawdy wenches, beggars and assorted ‘ragged rascals’. Octavia Hill (1838-1912) has had better luck because her campaigning essays remain relevant. She believed in ‘space for people’ and established London’s Garden City movement, co-founding the National Trust.
A personal favourite? George Augustus Sala, whose ‘Twice Round the Clock: Twenty Four Hours in Victorian London’ (1859) is a fabulous, exhausting, baroque and frequently annoying kaleidoscope full of gin shop drunks, beaten urchins and dead cats. A great many of the sentences in this chronological tour of the metropolis will make you reach for a dictionary; ‘Smoke has been merciful to Covent Garden market, and its cornucopia is not as dingy as a ramoneur’s sack.’ But if Victorian London was as gloriously colourful as this, you’d want to live there.
For those who get the London book collecting bug there are also specialist non-fiction volumes on London doors, lions, graves, gates, paintings, sculptures, sewers, rivers, tunnels, pubs, language, decorations, markets, museums, shops, neighbourhoods, fashions, protests, transport, film locations, gardens and of course, people.