“Mrs. Dalloway said that she would buy the flowers herself” – these words begin the famous novel “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Wolf, about a citizen of Westminster, who goes shopping one June morning, accompanied by the majestic bells of Big Ben ringing in the background. It is an extremely vivid image of the city that stimulates the imagination. Following this path, we suggest starting your trip to London with the classics – as after all, the streets of the capital of England were the background for events known to readers from the most outstanding works of literature – and ending it with the best contemporary novels. What is London like? Look for answers in these books.
Lots of books have been written about it, with each one shedding a different light upon this metropolis. London comes down to not only chic women in crinolines and polite gentlemen in high top hat, known from the pages of 19th-century prose works. It is also the scenery of shocking homicides committed by murderers pursued by Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan Police (also known today as “The Met”). Finally, the capital of England is almost a hero of its own in contemporary works of literature created by internationally renowned writers, such as Zadie Smith or Neil Gaiman.
From Dickens to Fantasy
An unforgettable picture of this city was written by Charles Dickens – the master of English novel of manners. And although this author often used the capital of England as the setting of his books (he is also called the chronicler of life in London), it is best to read “Bleak House”, a work about true cases that went to trial. This extensive book (over a thousand pages!) is a story about the city’s inhabitants, both the elite and the working class. They all are connected by a courtroom, where decisions about the morality of Londoners are made, as well as a dense fog that envelops the entire city…
Since we mentioned Dickens, consequently another name should also be brought up: Dan Simmons. This science-fiction writer, winner of prestigious awards, made the author of “Pickwick’s Club” the hero of one of his novels. “Drood” begins with a description of real events that develop into a fantastic vision of underground London. The unusual language and sophisticated style, the power of Simmons’ imagination and the artistic representation of the nineteenth-century city simply delight.
Neil Gaiman, one of the most popular modern fantasy writers, also tells a story of the underground city. Expressive characters, refined humour and a surreal (though so real!) world are his trademarks. “Neverwhere” describes “London Below”, a magical world based on a metro network plan, to which only few have access. When the main character, helping the girl who is being chased, enters “London Below”, it will not be easy for him to get back to the surface…
Facts and myths
Edward Rutherfurd (known, among others, from the monograph “Paris”) also chose the English capital as the subject of his work. He presented the two thousand years of the city’s history on 1200 pages. The author depicts political and religious events, as well as the development of technology and social changes, by describing the history of the city’s inhabitants – several London families. This clever trick allows the reader to become acquainted with the rich history of London from its dawn until 1997, keeping their attention all the time and not allowing weariness. Readers eager for a large dose of knowledge should also read Peter Ackroyd’s “London: The Biography” – a publication where architecture, cultural heritage and history merge into a large mosaic, creating a love letter addressed to the people of the capital of England.
Modern writers, the eternal city
Art lovers, in turn, should be delighted with the world revealed to readers by Jessie Burton, who a few years ago amused the international audience with her debut “The Miniaturist”. Her next book, “The Muse”, has been translated into 38 languages, and established her position as one of the most interesting writers of the young generation. The novel takes place within two time frames – during the Spanish Civil War and thirty years later in London in the 1960s. The heroine, Odelle, who comes from Trinidad and Tobago, tries to find her place in the hostile London. She builds a relationship with Marjorie, who works at the art gallery where Odelle gets employed. The key to understanding Marjorie’s secrets is a painting from Andalusia. “The Muse” is a story about fate, passions and intrigues – and, of course, about painting.
London – the homeland of emigrants
London seen by Zadie Smith can also be xenophobic, as evidenced by, for example, “White Teeth”, a book awarded the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2000, which was included in Time magazine’s 100 as one of the greatest English novels of all time. Three immigrant families ask themselves questions about cultural affiliation, their place in the city resembling the Tower of Babel, and the privilege of being accepted. Smith also described contemporary Londoners in “NW”. You will not find Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge or Hyde Park there as it is a place where tourists do not venture.
The experiences of emigration, this time from the point of view of Poles, can be found in Ewa Winnicka’s reportage. The author asks those who left Poland about their experiences in Britain. How do they see the eponymous “Brits”? Who are the British for them? What do they value and criticize them for? What problems do Poles emigrating to the Islands face? This book proves that we are reflected in our view of others.