London has the greatest literary tradition of any city in the world. Its roll call of storytellers includes cultural giants like Shakespeare, Defoe, and Dickens, and an innumerable host of writers of all sorts who sought to capture the essence of the place.
Acclaimed historian Jerry White has collected some twenty-six stories to illustrate the extraordinary diversity of both London life and writing over the past four centuries, from Shakespeare’s day to the present. These are stories of fact and fiction and occasionally something in between, some from well-known voices and others practically unknown. Here are dramatic views of such iconic events as the plague, the Great Fire of London, and the Blitz, but also William Thackeray’s account of going to see a man hanged, Thomas De Quincey’s friendship with a teenaged prostitute, and Doris Lessing’s defense of the Underground. This literary London encompasses the famous Baker Street residence of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the bombed-out moonscape of Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime streets, Charles Dicken’s treacherous River Thames and Frederick Treves’s tragic Elephant Man. Graham Greene, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, and Hanif Kureishi are among the many great writers who give us their varied Londons here, revealing a city of boundless wealth and ragged squalor, of moving tragedy and riotous joy.
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Jerry White is Visiting Professor in History at Birkbeck, University of London, and a leading social historian of modern London. He is the author of the critically acclaimed trilogy London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing; London in the Nineteenth Century; and London in the Twentieth Century: A City and Its People.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
London has the greatest literary tradition of any city in the world. Its roll-call of story-tellers includes cultural giants who changed the way that people thought about writing, like Shakespeare, Defoe and Dickens. But there has also been an innumerable host of writers who have sought to capture the essence of London and what it meant for the people who lived there or were merely passing through. They found a city of boundless wealth and ragged squalor, of moving tragedy and riotous joy; and they faithfully transcribed what they saw and felt in the stories they told of London town.
There have been many previous collections of London short stories, both from a single author and from many hands. This collection is distinctively different in two ways. First, and reflecting the long heritage of London writing, the stories here span four centuries from around 1600 to the pre- sent day. Such a long chronological scope gives an insight into the changing preoccupations of Londoners and London writers over that time; and into some of the continuities – trauma both public and private, the never-ending struggle against adversity in the giant city, and the ceaseless stimulation of its delights. Second, I have selected stories that are both fictional and factual. That again reflects the diversity of London writing and the need for the city’s writers to live by their pens in a range of media, with short stories, novels and journalism prominent among them.
In exploring this terrain I’ve constructed a mix of the familiar and the unusual. Even where authors are expectedly present, notably Dickens, say, or Thackeray, I have presented them in a guise that will be unfamiliar to many – as metropolitan journalists. There will be some, like ‘R. Andom’ (Alfred Walter Barrett), a witty chronicler of London sub- urban life, who deserve to be better known and others, like Arthur Conan Doyle, whose names have long been known the whole world over. And there will be others still whose names have been lost to us but whose stories have seized the imagination of subsequent generations, like Sir Frederick Treves who ‘rescued’ the Elephant Man from a fairground freak-show and recalled the moment with extraordinary vividness many years after.
A similarly contrasting list of writers and stories might have been effortlessly devised to fill many more volumes than this, so rich has London’s literary canon grown over the centuries. But while having to make some difficult choices I hope to have devised a collection that will prove as diverse and stimulating as the city that gave these stories their inspiration.
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