Skip to content

On the Page and On the Streets

London’s literary tradition

By Chris Viola • May 11, 2016

I recently came across a travel website that proclaimed, ?London has a rich literary tradition that permeates its streets.?

It's true, of course. I know the first time I saw London's cobblestone back streets, I immediately pictured Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger tearing through the crowds, possibly having just picked someone's pocket. For my money, Dickens' vivid descriptions of 1830s London are just as compelling as his characters.

And just try to walk past 221b Baker Street without imagining Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes madly at work inside. Even if the building didn't have that old-timey green sign announcing itself as a Holmes museum, you just get the feeling he lived there. Or someplace exactly like it.

To be sure, London has been both a backdrop for great fiction and a home to fiction's great authors since the days of The Canterbury Tales, when Geoffrey Chaucer's characters embarked on their arduous pilgrimage, entertaining each other with poignant, funny, and insightful tall tales in order to keep their spirits up.

But the most interesting example of London's literary tradition ?permeating the streets? that I've experienced firsthand came not from a celebrated novel but from a few of the city's ordinary folk.

My wife and I found ourselves walking and chatting with a small group of scruffy early 20-somethings who were helping us with directions. We learned they were members of a struggling band, had all dropped out of school a few years prior, and were squatting in an abandoned flat as they were, well, flat broke.

And they were all extremely well spoken.

Somewhere between their Big Ben?sized vocabularies and their effortless talent for colorful storytelling, I was intrigued by the fact that they looked like absolute ragamuffins but spoke as eloquently as my former Literature professors.

Then it occurred to me: Remember, this is London, the land of so many gifted novelists and poets. Maybe mastery of the language is simply in the air here.

Or, as that travel website put it, London's literary tradition permeates its streets.

A young Chinese woman's attempts to master (or at least better understand) the English language are at the forefront of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. The novel takes the form of the notebook she uses to track her progress not only in understanding English, but also in understanding the English man she's falling in love with, as she begins a new life in London.

In Saturday , Ian McEwan, best-selling author of Atonement, certainly displays a true mastery of the language as he follows a London neurosurgeon through a single cold, winter day that begins promisingly enough but soon takes on a tone of disaster thanks to a chain of unfortunate incidents.

For an epic journey that takes place over two millennia of London's history, check out London: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd. While it may be historical fiction, Rutherfurd's compelling, sprawling story contains more than enough intricate, historically accurate details about London's evolution to appeal to even the most hardcore lovers of non-fiction.

What about you? Do you have a favorite novel that takes place in London? A favorite London-born or London-based author? Maybe a story about your own experience with the city's literary tradition? We'd love to hear it, and so would your fellow ThriftBooks readers. Leave us a comment below.

Leave a Comment

Copyright © 2022 Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Do Not Sell My Personal Information | Cookie Preferences | Accessibility Statement
ThriftBooks® and the ThriftBooks® logo are registered trademarks of Thrift Books Global, LLC
GoDaddy Verified and Secured