London is an assemblage of visions. Most commonly ascribed to London is the image of the urban sprawl unfolding just below Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral; or the panorama of landmarks encompassing the Thames, the Tate Modern, the Globe Theater, and the Tower Bridge (the last often mistaken for London Bridge). Some visitors inspect every London street, expecting to discover the aftermath of Hogarthian carnivals, remnants of A Harlot’s Progress or The Rake’s Progress. Others desire the ultimate steampunk experience: is it still possible to explore Whitechapel, the setting of BBC’s Ripper Street? These disparate impressions—cinematic, pictorial, literary—accentuate the city’s many inconsistencies, its whimsicality, and its contradictoriness, all amounting to a certain vitality, a certain London-ness of London.
The quality of “London-ness” has trickled through not a few well-known London novels to infect literary psychogeographies of the present; its characteristic dissonance destabilizes London and unravels its ties to other global financial hubs, all hinged together by rapid cash flows and steady streams of tourist-consumers. London-ness is especially palpable in Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, which begins with the future uncertainty young Shakespeare once had to confront. For the budding playwright, seventeenth-century London was the very Wheel of Fortune that could have spun his future in many possible directions. To enter the filthy and plague-ridden city, Shakespeare had to board a vessel that was going to travel “downriver” to the Tower of London (Greenblatt 164), and just like other newcomers, he suppressed any thoughts of The Tower’s eerie resemblance to Dante’s Gate of Hell, the very sight of which warned visitors to abandon hope (“Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch′entrate” [Abandon hope, all ye who enter]). The Traitor’s Gate in particular compelled these travelers to remember Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and Guy Fawkes—Fortuna’s most notable victims.
Thomas More’s confinement to this Dantesque locale in London may have given a dystopian aftertaste to not a few utopian dreams, and London’s dystopian potential still grips the modern imagination. This dystopian thread certainly did worm its way into the nineteenth century and into the mind of Charles Dickens, whose Barnaby Rudge (1841) reveals a fascination with incidents of unrest in the city. The novel offers an account of the Gordon Riots of 1780: a protest against the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 which later escalated into a series of general political movements. The violence began in Westminster but spread to Welbeck Street, Wapping, and Spitalfields. Westminster was also the setting of the Gunpowder Plot, whose goal was to “install a Catholic government that could have countered the Protestant persecution of the Catholics in the early modern British state” (Croteau 95). The movement’s mastermind Guy Fawkes embodied an anarchic force implanted right in the Tower of London, the foundation of England’s law and order. In Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta (2005), codename “V”—Guy Fawkes’ successor in anarchy—ensures the unrestrained proliferation of chaos in subterranean London. V is intent on systematically attacking Westminster, London’s political heart, in order to “clear its clogged arteries.”
London’s persistent flirtation with the dystopian, the anarchic and sometimes the apocalyptic means that its identity has never been stable: futuristic, apocalyptic visions of London are necessarily enjoined with histories of political plots dating as far back as to the early modern period. However, if London was once the picture of disorder, it was also a city of regulated trade and material indulgence Eighteenth-century London captivated writers as a mechanism of “new production and marketing techniques” (McKendrick 1); a regulator of consumer habits put in place by the Industrial Revolution and the “consumer revolution” to follow. In A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, Daniel Defoe observes that “the present encrease of Wealth in the City of London […] spreads itself into the Country, and plants Families and Fortunes, who in another Age will equal the Families of ancient Gentry, who perhaps were Bought out” (60; italics in the original). Once again London is imagined as the arbiter of fortune, this time meting out wealth to families in England and other parts of the British Isles. Then came the Romantic poet William Blake, who grew up in a neighborhood once known as a “token of early eighteenth-century urban gentility” but later deemed fit only for “painters and cabinet-makers” (Ackroyd in Blake 30): Golden Square. Beyond these grounds London was not quite the picture of wealth of Defoe’s description. Rather, Blake saw filth and chaos: “[t]he heads of the condemned were still rotting on Temple Bar, the stocks were still a great public spectacle, and soldiers were lashed on the streets” (Ackroyd in Blake 31). He saw London from a prophetic vantage point that was granted him for having been “in a world that ignored him” (Ackroyd in Blake 35). This outsider perspective, being rooted in the margins of London, seems to have cast Blake in the role of the flâneur, someone unperturbed by “the commercial forces that will eventually destroy him” (Benjamin qtd. in Coverley 64).
The flâneur’s perspective is discreet but openly, unmistakably subversive whereas Blake’s is rather more “transcendent.” It was perhaps never Blake’s intention to resist the system of consumerism from which he had felt disengaged from the start. He was never quite a cog in the machine because London never presented itself to him as a mere machine, or a mere function within a broader economic system. In The Book of Urizen, Blake concedes that “sight and the visual image” may “hold a central function” in the act of creation (Piccito 195), and that such visions may represent London as a spectacle with a focal point and a defining center: a London-ness to hold all London visions in place. Nevertheless, so-called London-ness is not truly an essence (esse) inherent in a vision but only a destabilizing element, a part of a creative process whereby “Urizen’s children burst into life through the elements to make spectacular visual entrances” (Piccito 195). His fantasy of Jerusalem—of London and its London-ness—constitutes only a narrative centerpiece branching off into radically dissimilar, sometimes contradictory visions. London-ness is that which reveals the multiple centers of various London otherworlds, and as such it cannot maintain either the unity or the structural integrity of any rational London epic. Blake never achieved a coherent portrayal of the London-ness of London insofar as it was never a subject concrete enough for sustained contemplation. The focal point in question merely reflects the presence of the mystical in the rational, or the other in the self. The concept of London-ness therefore reinforces Arthur Rimbaud’s sentiment that “I is Another” (“Je est un autre”): in seeking to capture the London-ness of London, London writers defamiliarize what lies in plain sight, sometimes with the bold ambition to extricate themselves from what is by all appearances a spectacle of consumption.
To put it another way, Blakean
London is situated not in the center of a consumer revolution but in the mystical
margins, where free-flowing visions uproot the city from any established foundation of understanding. London-ness, the energy
emanating from these mystical
regions, routinely assert its presence
while giving London writings beyond Blake’s time a whimsical flair. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dolloway
(1925), London is the very picture of incongruities
the business part of the city people were not eternally occupied with trivial chatterings, but with thoughts of ships, business, law, administration, while the atmosphere was at the same time so stately, gay, and pious. In this unknown part of London Elizabeth [the heroine] feels the thrill of a pioneer, the excitement of someone on tiptoe exploring a strange house by night with a candle, on edge lest the owner should suddenly fling wide his bedroom door and ask her business, nor did she dare wander off into queer alleys, tempting by-streets, any more than in a strange house open doors which might be the bedroom doors, or sitting-room doors, or lead straight into the larder. (206)
Even institutions of economic reason and legal judgment serve as portals to otherworlds where realism and romanticism converge, the one layered on top of the other to give the cityscape depth. Depth—the depth of a palimpsest—is an aesthetic property distinct to London; a token of “London-ness” in literary depictions of London.
What I mean by the “depth” of London-ness is precisely this meeting (but not quite the merging) of a wide range of perspectives: the commercial, the realist, the romantic, the Dantesque, the English, the diasporic, and so on. London—London lifestyle, the whims of London—may well contribute to many a study of English culture, but the London-ness of London is too paradoxical, too erratic a quality to describe plainly without any contextual references. Peter Ackroyd only calls this city of extremes “infinite.” Considering that “infinite London” comprises “London of all times and all periods” (Ackroyd 33), we may imagine London-ness as an amalgamation of experiences elongated well into infinity, so that experiences of London-ness would be infinite in length and fathomless in-depth. London-ness negates and estranges in its conception any ready visions of the city with well-defined focal points, the city having been subject to such a wide array of literary examinations. London has been written by born-and-bred London writers including John Betjemen, Bernardie Evaristo, John Keats, Andrea Levy, Will Self, Zadie Smith, Peter Ackroyd, Evelyn Waugh, and Virginia Woolf. Depictions of (post-)colonial London as a migration hub are also aplenty: J.G. Ballard, Charles Dickens, Wilson Harris, Doris Lessing, Colin MacInnes, Katherine Mansfield, V.S. Naipaul, and Iain Sinclair are only some among the countless London writers who were born in other parts of Britain, if not in other parts of the world altogether.
Many of these literary Londons interweave perspectives of different t...