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London in Literature

London in literature: a symposium organised by the English Syndicate of the Roehampton Institute, May 1979william blake lambeth

Academic and an intro for me to literary studies of London — or where they were in May of 1979 — and literary studies in general as I have not really thought about them since my undergraduate days long ago. I enjoyed it. I found the first essay by Simon Edwards particularly interesting in thinking through the dialectical relationship between literature and city building, he writes:

with the development of a specifically urban popular literature, arises the question of the literary work itself being seen as a distinctly metropolitan artifact and the writer as somehow deeply implicated in a complex process of making simultaneously a text, a city and an identity (1).

So simple, yet with so many ramifications. I also love that he is thinking of this globally as well, of London as the seat of empire, which articulates materially with the city and ideologically with literature:

It will be my contention that if English literature carries these ambiguous values within a consciously imperial history and culture then they may often be most fully examined in connection with the imperial capital, London. For if London, from the Elizabethan period onwards, is frequently seen wishfully as the capital of a new empire, it is also true that from roughly the end of the seventeenth century this vision is reinforced, to some extent realized, by the development of a literal global empire whose contribution to the growth of a world economy is central. London thus becomes a quite crucial topos in the whole history of Western civilization (2-3)

He is critical, to a certain extent, with a Marxist analysis that allows him to see capitalist relations, so this goes part of the way:

For this imperial city was, at one and the same time, a principal agent in the growth and spread of capitalism with (3) all its dehumanizing power and a repository or site for the formation of certain values thought of as classic and perhaps common to all phases of fully-developed civilization. This ambivalence is further complicated first from within, and later from outside, the dominant ideology of nationalism and emergent capitalism, by the growth of structured critiques, both reactionary and radical, of the system. … Thus there is a persistent conflict between London presented as the site of an extravagant display of conspicuous consumption, parasitic and productive largely of waste (as in the Augustan obsession with excrement), and London also acknowledged as a producer of real wealth through its vital contribution to national and international commerce as well as a producer of significant cultural and literary values (4).

There’s a whole lot further to go to fully critique imperialism, this concept of ‘civilisation’ and its imposition around the world, a questioning of this real wealth and literary values… What I like about it is that it begins to tie literature to the physical and ideological city, and situate these connections in a context of global exploitation.

the notion of a classical literary culture was both realized and threatened by the emergence of a modern Imperial city. Related to their sense of the crass materialism of London life, ls an anxiety about the status of imaginative literature, a principal source for the ratification of the Augustan metropolitan ideal. (21)

There is also a nice quote he gives from Defoe, describing that from a hill in Clapham, one might see,

… the whole city of London itself; the most
glorious Sight without exception, that the whole
World at present can show, or perhaps ever could
show since the Sacking of Rome in the European, and
the burning the Temple of Jerusalem…(16)

There’s a paper on Blake from David Punter, of course, who moved to the Hercules Buildings in Vauxhall in 1790. It has a great quote from Samuel Johnson’s ‘London’

Prepare for death, if here at night you roam,
And sign your will before you sup from home.
Some fiery fop, with new commission vain,
Who sleeps on brambles till he kills his man;
Some frolic drunkard, reeling from a feast,
Provokes a broil, and stabs you for a jest.
Yet e’en these heroes, mischievously gay,
Lords of the street, and terrors of the way;
Flush’d as they are with folly, youth, and wine,
Their prudent insults to the poor confine;
Afar they mark the flambeaux’s bright approach,
And shun the shining train, and golden coach.

It’s mostly looking at the poem ‘Jerusalem‘, and there’s this lovely quote about Lambeth:

HIGHGATE’S heights & Hampstead’s, to Poplar, Hackney & Bow;
To Islington & Paddington & the Brook of Albion’s River.
We builded Jerusalem as a City & a Temple; from Lambeth
We began our Foundations; lovely Lambeth, O lovely Hills
Of Camberwell, we shall behold you no more in glory & pride,
For Jerusalem lies in ruins & the Furnaces of Los are builded there:
You are now shrunk up to a narrow Rock in the midst of the Sea.
But here we build Babylon on Euphrates, compell’d to build
And to inhabit, our Little-ones to clothe in armour of the gold
Of Jerusalem’s Cherubims & to forge them swords of her Altars.
I see London blind & age bent begging thro’ the Streets
Of Babylon, led by a child, his tears run down his beard.
The voice of Wandering Reuben echoes from street to street

Punter writes: ‘Lambeth, of course, Blake takes here as elsewhere as the symbolic birthplace of God, merging the connotations of the Lamb and Bethlehem’ (67). I knew it.

There’s an interesting piece on the suburbs and suburbanisation of London by B.I. Coleman, looking at Ruskin, Dickens, Kinglsey’s Alton Locke, the satire of suburban life found in Punch, The Diary of a Nobody. They were also described as the perfect breeding grounds for healthy, strong, athletic men for Britain’s elite troops establishing Empire…this in Sidney Low’s article ‘The Rise of the Suburbs’ for example, in the Contemporary Review of 1891. He writes:

The centre of population is shifting from the heart to the limbs. The life-blood is pouring into the long arms of bricks and mortar and cheap stucco that are feeling their way out to the Surrey moors, and the Essex flats, and the Hertfordshire copses…

A finer people, physically, than the inhabitants of some of those middle-class suburbs of London, which are far enough afield to permit a plentiful cult of every branch of athletics it would be hard to find. The young men of Wimbledon and Putney – great at football, cricket, golf, and most other games in which strength and activity are required – could make up a regimen which would hold its own on a battlefield against a corps d’elite selected from any army in the World.

All provided by the free market. Hurrah. I hate this guy, but he definitely seems worth a closer look.

Gabriel Pearson looks at Dickens, and mentions the ‘topographical’ tradition of Dickens critiques, which has been popular since 1870 apparently, and bringing to us works like The London that Dickens Knew. The city is there in novels to be explored, and Pearson writes:

The novel round about 1800 began, as it were, to designate territories, whole areas, as its province, and I think the analogy which underlies it is the analogy of the disovery of the new world…And you moved across both in time and also in space because there was something you registered as alien or strange. It does seem to me that the whole history of the novel may be read as an attempt to occupy and domesticate alien or strange areas in this way. As an explanation we might speculate that (and this is a very crude generalization) around 1800 everybody began to feel they were outside somewhere else, that somewhere else there was a kind of reality in some way could, possibly by some tremendous imaginative endeavour, be captured, and taken home and civilised and possessed, though nobody could quite get there. Everybody was outside: it wasn’t necessarily their home, and they did not necessarily want to return to it, but they felt that somewhere there was some source or manifestation of human relaity to which they were perpetually outsiders. I do think that one of the characteristics of Dickens, along with other novelists of this time, is that he treated London in this kind of way (95).

He explores Dickens as outsider in his novels, but doesn’t really take the above idea further than that, though I feel this is a great start to something.

John Sutherland writes on publishing itself:

If we adopt the old classification of causes (i.e. material, efficient, formal) then London can be taken as in some sense the material cause of a bulk of our significant Victorian fiction. That is to say, it stands in the same relationship to literary activity as soil and climate do to plant growth (124).

There are a couple more, it’s a good collection, though possibly outdated and some of these ideas have been taken much further since, I don’t know!

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