9 Famous Novels to Help You Understand London
There are countless novels for which London is a backdrop, but the city is much less often a focus of fiction.
Many of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels are set in London, but despite how famous they are, they seldom turn up in lists of London novels. Similarly, The Picture of Dorian Gray is set in London, but beyond some knowing references to the London of the time, the novel could have been set in any large, cosmopolitan city. Compare this with somewhere like Oxford, where the city feels like a character of its own in novels that are set there; novels set in Oxford tend to be novels about Oxford, with their plots and their characters deeply embedded in the architecture, ethos and legend of the city. Brideshead Revisited, Northern Lights, or the Morse series of detective novels could not take place anywhere else. Novels set in London more frequently feel like they were set there because it’s the place the writer knew best, rather than because it was essential to the story.
London also lacks a single definitive novel of the city; there’s nothing to fill the role that Ulysses plays in Dublin, or Les Miserables in Paris, where if you read nothing else about the city you know you must read that. While those who find Ulysses a bit hard going might choose to substitute Dubliners instead, it’s in the knowledge that Ulysses is the great novel of Dublin life. Many of London’s most famous writers chose not to set their works there at all; for instance, in line with the norms of the time, very few of Shakespeare’s plays are even set in England (except the history plays, where historical fact demanded it), let alone in the city where he spent most of his adult life.
All the same, there are some novels that do celebrate London as a character in its own right, that could not be set anywhere else, and that endeavour to distill the essence of the city into fiction. If you’re visiting London, here’s what we think you should read:
1. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens (1859)
The closest London gets to a definitive writer of the city is Charles Dickens, who set the majority of his novels in London. Like Joyce’s attitude to Dublin in Ulysses, Dickens did not write love letters to London; his view of the city is frequently very critical, expressing his attitudes to social ills such as child labour, poverty, and public executions. Dickens described the city as his “magic lantern”, which fired his creativity, and when working on a novel he would spend hours walking around the city at night.
Novels such as The Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop and Oliver Twist are all steeped in the life of London, but possibly none so much as A Tale of Two Cities, which is expressly about the differences and similarities between London and Paris up to and during the French Revolution. The novel is not kind to either city, showing that the famous barbarity of the French Revolution was echoed in the many quiet barbarities of daily life in London, in particular in the cruelty of the law to minor crimes committed out of ignorance or desperation by the poor.
2. A Journal of the Plague Year – Daniel Defoe (1722)
One of the most significant events in London’s long history was the plague year of 1665. The plague was a relatively frequent occurrence throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, with plague years coming once or twice per generation, but 1665 was when the city of London – by then a thriving metropolis of nearly half a million inhabitants – was especially badly struck. More than a fifth of the city’s population was killed over the sixth-month period of the plague, despite its wealthier inhabitants leaving en masse for the countryside. It is also particularly remembered as it was the last great bubonic plague outbreak in Britain.
Daniel Defoe was only five years old at the time of the plague year, but his fictional narrative of one man’s experiences is remarkably detailed and believable – to the extent that it was first read as non-fiction. Arguably it is, as the novel was based on his uncle’s experiences, interviews with other survivors, and historical records that were at the time still available. The main character may be fictional, but his fascinating and horrifying experiences are entirely grounded in fact.
3. Stories of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle (1886-1927)
It’s amazing there’s ever any crime committed at all in London, with such an array of fictional detectives patrolling the streets. There’s Agatha Christie’s aforementioned Hercule Poirot, who, though he travels a lot, lives in London in the fictional Whitehaven Mansions. In roughly the same time period, there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, who lives at 110A Piccadilly. In the 21st century, Ben Aaronvitch’s Peter Grant, based at the Folly, on Russell Square. But by far the most famous of all London detectives, and perhaps the one to whom the city of London is most integral, is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, of 221B Baker Street.
Sherlock Holmes featured in four novels and 56 short stories, solving crimes – mostly murders – using a process of logical deduction based on observation, even of the most minute details. For the modern reader, this leads to a fascinating exploration of Victorian and early 20th century London, covering norms of dress, social behaviour, work, interior design, the use of servants and much more.
4. The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham (1951)
Just as modern-day disaster movies delight in destroying New York, so writers have enjoyed wreaking havoc on London in various different ways. The classic is HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds, in which Martians obliterate much of London and the Home Counties, but the same occurs across film and TV, with Nazi-like Daleks attacking London in The Dalek Invasion of Earth in 1964, up to the horror film 28 Days Later where Cillian Murphy walks in a daze through London’s deserted streets.
Perhaps one of the best examples of a writer who seems to be taking glee in annihilating his city is John Wyndham with The Day of the Triffids. The Triffids are ambulant, poisonous plants that take over the country after the vast majority of the population is blinded; the main character, Bill, escapes by chance and wakes up in hospital to find London in anarchy. Very few locations except the hospital are fictional, so the reader can trace his journey through a London in chaos on a map.
5. Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman (1996)
From the London of science fiction to the London of fantasy, Neil Gaiman writes the definitive version of a story that has appeared time and time again: the idea that there is one London known to most of its residents, and another, secret, shadow London below ground. Gaiman sets his novel in the magical ‘London Below’, based on a TV series that he also scripted. The story delights in taking well-known London locations and giving them a fantastical twist – so under Harrod’s is the magical Floating Market, Knightsbridge becomes Night’s Bridge, a stone bridge that can kill people, and the Angel, Islington (a London landmark that is probably best known to most people through Monopoly) is a real angel.
The inhabitants of London Below are invisible to most people in London Above, and include the homeless as well as various magical creatures and people and beings from other time periods. Gaiman’s love of the city shines through and as he focuses mostly on well-known places, this is a fun exploration of the city even for those who don’t know it very well.
6. Brick Lane – Monica Ali (2003)
London can lay claim to being one of the most diverse cities in the world in terms of the number and diversity of ethnic minority communities living there, and this is something that is explored and celebrated by some of the most famous of the novels set in the city. Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha Of Suburbia are all modern classics that look at immigrant communities in London and their relationship with the rest of the city.
Another such novel is Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. Brick Lane is a street in Tower Hamlets, at the centre of London’s Bangladeshi community. It’s been a destination for many successive immigrant groups over the centuries – French Huguenots in the 17th century, Ashkenazi Jews and Irish immigrants in the 19th century, and Bangladeshis in the later 20th century. It is the last community that is the focus of Monica Ali’s novel, about Nazneen, an 18-year-old Bangladeshi woman who moves to London to marry an older man, and who initially knows no English except “sorry” and “thank you”, and who slowly gets to know the city around her.
7. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf (1925)
Mrs Dalloway tells the story of a single day in the life of a woman in London high society, who prepares for and then hosts a party. It follows her through London as she does her shopping, focusing heavily on her emotions and inner life, with the extensive use of flashbacks to illuminate the situations in which the characters find themselves. Over the course of the day, Mrs Dalloway wanders through London and considers her life, especially her choice of husband.
The novel is set in 1923 and takes place mostly in the wealthy area of Westminster. Like the Sherlock Holmes stories, it is fascinating to read not only for the reasons that Woolf intended, but also as an insight into the London experienced by a particular social class at a pivotal time in history. The shadow of the First World War hangs over the characters and their experiences, as does the changing role played by women in society, and the slow loosening of class structures.
8. Saturday – Ian McEwan (2005)
Eighty years later, Ian McEwan’s Saturday takes the same concept as Mrs Dalloway and brings it into the 21st century. Henry Perowne is a neurosurgeon in London, who carries out a series of chores across the city, ending in a family dinner. The Saturday in question is the 15th February, 2003, the day of the largest demonstration in British history – when approximately a million people in London marched in protest against the Iraq war. Taking a detour to avoid roads closed by the march, Perowne has a violent confrontation after he causes a minor traffic accident, and that then determines the shape of the rest of his day.
The novel is heady with the fears of politically engaged Londoners at the time – including the ever-present danger of terrorism (the book predicting the bombings of the 7th July 2005, which occurred after it was published, with startling accuracy) and the feeling of powerlessness over political events on the part of the London intelligentsia. Perowne’s day is too packed with incidents to be plausible, but through this McEwan manages to cram in every topical issue in London at the turn of the century, in a novel that will only become more interesting as the time in which it was written recedes into history.
9. London – Edward Rutherfurd (1997)
Edward Rutherfurd is a writer who does one thing, but he does it very well: he takes a particular location, and tells its story as it affects a handful of families over a span of thousands of years. His first such novel was Sarum, set in Salisbury; in London, he does the same to the capital city. London spans the history of the city from 54 BC to 1997, covering 131 characters across seven families – there is a list at the start of the novel to help readers keep track – over 21 episodes throughout history.
Rutherfurd isn’t a subtle writer, and his characters have the implausible luck to encounter the most notable people of any given age – they see Julius Caesar, Chaucer thinking about the Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare and assorted monarchs. There are clear heroes and villains, and strongly inherited traits help the reader remember which family is which. All the same, Rutherfurd’s technique is superb in bringing the history of a place to life, demonstrating exactly how this great city evolved.
Which other novels do you think accurately reflect London?
Image credits: pile of books; dickens; houses of parliament; dance with death; 221b baker street; neil gaiman; triffids; bust of woolf; mcewan;