One of the many facets of London which draws in visitors from all over the world is its’ rich and deep sense of history. This can be seen in the very layout of the streets themselves, which is eclectic, haphazard and mixed in a sharp contrast to the straight lines and grid patterns to be found in more modern cities such as Paris and New York. Simply walking the streets is a lesson in history in its’ own terms, before even mentioning buildings such as the Tower of London and the Palace of Westminster.
London has changed immeasurably over the centuries, since it was first established as a trading post by the Romans, and these changes are detailed in countless books, and articles which chronicle the dramatic social, architectural and financial upheavals which have led to the city’s modern status as one of the most important in the world. One excellent and more entertaining way of delving into the London of the past, however, is to enjoy some of the literature which has been set in the city over the years. In many of the examples, the city becomes almost a character in the story being told, and the fact that the examples date back as far as medieval times means that a complete picture of the development of London can be pieced together.
Samuel Pepys Diary – Samuel Pepys. Pepys was a naval Administrator and Member of Parliament in the 1600’s who, for a decade, kept a detailed and highly readable account of life in London. As well as the details of day to day life in the capital, Pepys was on hand to record eyewitness accounts of events such as the Great Fire of London and the Great Plague. It’s possible to read his descriptions of certain streets whilst still walking along those same streets and noting that very little has actually changed.
Vile Bodies – Evelyn Waugh. Set in 1920’s London, this novel revolves around the lives of a group of people described as ‘Bright Young Things’. These were the rich and feckless young men and women who were the equivalent of today’s It Girls and Party Animals and the novel captures the essence of London as it started to become a truly modern city.
Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens. Almost all of Dickens novels are set in London, and the city becomes a character in the stories being told, with Dickens determined to chronicle and attack the terrible conditions which poor people of the time were forced to live in. Oliver Twist, with its’ workhouses, gangs of thieving children and squalid drinking dens is an excellent example of his work.
The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad. This is a tale of spies and terrorists set in 1886, but which has strong contemporary resonance. The agent of the title is attempting to infiltrate and undermine a gang of anarchists determined to wreak havoc on the streets of the city.
Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle. Probably the only fictional character to have his own museum in London, the detective Sherlock Holmes is as popular today as he has ever been, and though Doyle’s London of swirling fog, horse drawn carriages and cobbled streets has changed beyond recognition, the image of the city which he created endures and appeals.