Imagined London, page 1
ALSO BY ANNA QUINDLEN
Loud and Clear
A Short Guide to a Happy Life
Black and Blue
One True Thing
How Reading Changed My Life
Thinking Out Loud
Living Out Loud
A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC DIRECTIONS
Published by the National Geographic Society
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Text copyright © 2004 Anna Quindlen
Map copyright © 2004 National Geographic Society
Photography Credits: Lawrence Porges; Bettmann/ CORBIS; Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS; CORBIS; Sophie Bassouls/CORBIS; Julien Hekimian/Corbis Sygma
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, without permission in writing from the National Geographic Society.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Imagined London: a tour of the world’s greatest fictional city / Anna Quindlen.
p. cm.—(National Geographic directions)
1. Literary landmarks—England—London. 2. English literature—England—London—History and criticism. 3. Authors, English—Homes and haunts—England—London. 4. London (England)—Description and travel. 5. London (England)—In literature. I. Title. II. Series
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For Amanda Urban, in lieu—
at least for now—of a mews house
On a rather mild early spring morning in 1995, a taxi pulled up to one of the low flat-faced old buildings that make up most of the block of Dean Street just north of Shaftesbury Avenue in London. The driver was perturbed. From the moment he had pulled out of the terminal at Heathrow Airport, he had tried to convince his passenger that no woman would want to be dropped off, suitcase in hand, at the address she had given at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. As he unloaded her luggage from what she called his trunk and he called his boot, he squinted with unconcealed hostility at the front of the house and the small sign that identified it as the Groucho Club, so named because the writers and journalists and other non-clubby types who’d founded it liked the idea, expressed in the words of Groucho Marx, of never belonging to a place that would have them as a member.
There was no one on the street, and no one immediately visible behind the desk in the club, for that matter. The neighborhood was a nighttime neighborhood, a neighborhood of long dinners out and shutting down the pubs and streets crowded at midnight, so that sometimes you had to step off the curb to go on your way. And it had the sad and tired and slightly disreputable look that all such neighborhoods have on a Sunday morning, that look of the morning after the night before, the look of a full ashtray or a wineglass with dregs and a ring of blood red around the bottom, the look that a dress removed in haste after a party has on the floor of your bedroom in the bright sunlight. It had the look of a place in which everyone slept on Sundays until at least noon.
“Soho,” the driver had said, and there was the sound of a curled lip in his broad British tones. He might as well have said “Sodom.”
“A mistake’s been made,” he added before he slammed shut the hatch to his trunk, or boot, and drove off on the lookout for more sensible passengers.
But there was no mistake. An attendant who appeared to be slightly hungover, or at least very tired, produced a room key from behind the desk of the club. The small lobby outside the bar smelled strongly of cigarette smoke, and there was no lift. No lift, she thought to herself, and her heart thumped, not at the notion of hauling heavy suitcases up narrow stairs, which turned out to be a pain by the second landing, but because she had managed to use the word lift without thinking twice about it. Lift. Loo. Treacle. Trifle. As she thump-thumped up the stairs, like Christopher Robin dragging Pooh by the leg, only much more arduously, she silently practiced her English. Trainers. Waistcoats. Salad rolls.
The room was extremely small, exactly the sort of snug and vaguely uncomfortable place in which people who do not write imagine writers writing. If she had tried to write there, it would have had to be on the bed, which took up most of the available space. There was a bathroom shoehorned into one corner of the room—or was it more properly called a loo? Or just the bath, in the fashion of the Mitford sisters?—with a toilet in which, she could not help feeling every time she looked at it, shamefaced at being so obviously American, there was far too little water. The electrical sockets looked highly unfamiliar, and again there was that thump from within. She had purchased an adapter! She could convert the current!
She went to the window and looked out on a vast array of chimney pots and a sky the color of ash that came down so low that it seemed to have been responsible for the way in which so many of the chimney pots were leaning. She unpacked quickly and went downstairs, peeking into the door of the bar. No one was serving breakfast. There was garbage nestled around the curb outside. She walked for three blocks, found a newsstand, bought the Sunday Times, the Independent on Sunday, the Observer, and the News of the World, and somehow managed to stumble upon the timbered Tudor front of Liberty of London, the estimable department store. The scarf slung around her shoulders had come from Liberty by way of an intermediary shop on Madison Avenue.
The cafés she passed by seemed to promise coffee later. A few had people inside, filling pastry cases and setting out cups in the half-gloom of a business on the verge of opening. She lost track of where she was going and wound up on a street filled with peep shows and shops that sold sex toys and ridiculous lingerie, slashed panties, leopard print corsets. She doubled back on herself and was clearly in Chinatown, like every Chinatown on Earth, phony street pagodas and gilt-and-scarlet lanterns and restaurant names that sounded as if they’d been ineptly translated. Somehow she wound up on Shaftesbury again, and suddenly, around one corner, she was face-to-f
“I’m lost,” she said to the young woman who wiped the table down.
“I wouldn’t think so,” she drawled, pointing out the window. “That’s Covent Garden.”
“Covent Garden,” she thought to herself. “I’m in Covent Garden.” And she felt full and foolish, both at the same time.
This is the story of a woman and the city she loved before she’d ever been there. The city, of course, is London, and the woman is me. Before I was a novelist, or a journalist, or even an adult, I felt about London the way most children my age felt about pen pals. I knew it well, but only at a distance, and only through words. Since the age of five I had been one of those people who was an indefatigable reader, more inclined to go off by myself with a book than do any of the dozens of things that children usually do to amuse themselves. I never aged out of it.
I was not an athlete or, in the vernacular of the English novels I devoured, was not good at games. I read and reread and recommended and rarely rejected, became one of those readers who will read trashy stories as long as they’re not too terrible—well, even perhaps the truly terrible ones—and will reread something she’s already read, even if it’s something like a detective novel, when you’d suspect that knowing who had really killed the countess would materially detract from the experience. (It doesn’t, and besides, I often can’t remember who the murderer was in the first place.) I’ve remained that sort of reader to the present day, when my work as a novelist and an essayist means there is a lot more premium in it from a professional point of view. Aside from New York City, where I grew up as a person and as a reporter, the places where I most feel at home are bookstores and libraries.
The first time I recall visiting the great metropolis, I was sitting in a chair in a suburb of Philadelphia. The city streets were filled with fog and the cobbled pavers were slightly slick with moisture, so that the man and woman struggling down the street beneath the yellowed lamps slid on the street’s surface. It was just after the war, and some of the buildings were empty holes left over from the bombs of the blitz. The book describing all this was by Patricia Wentworth, one of the series of mystery novels she wrote that often took place in country shires but wound up always, inevitably, in the capital, at the cozy flat of what I believed at the time to be the essential English spinster, a former governess named Maud Silver.
I have since been to London too many times to count in the pages of books, to Dickensian London rich with narrow alleyways and jocular street scoundrels, to the London of Conan Doyle and Margery Allingham with its salt-of-the-Earth police officers, troubled aristocrats, and crowded train stations. Hyde Park, Green Park, Soho, and Kensington: I had been to them all in my imagination before I ever set foot in England. So that by the time I actually visited London in 1995 for the first time, it felt less like an introduction and more like a homecoming. Here, I thought, is where Evelyn Waugh’s bright young things danced until dawn, where Agatha Runcible, Lady Metroland’s daughter, and the Honourable Miles Malpractice played. Here is where David Copperfield sought his fortune, and where Adam Dalgliesh has his spare and private flat.
The portraits of New York in literature are undoubtedly vivid ones, from the gentry of Edith Wharton peering from carriages on Fifth Avenue to the nouveau riche of Tom Wolfe reflexively painting their dining rooms red. Paris is well served by Hugo, and the coal mines of Wales are a living thing in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Yet London has always been the star of literature, both because of the primacy of English literature in the canon and the rich specificity of the descriptions of the city contained in everything from Ngaio Marsh’s mystery stories to Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazelet Chronicle. A student of literature could walk through London and move within blocks from the great books of the eighteenth century to the detective stories of the twentieth to the new modernist tradition of the twenty-first.
Evelyn Waugh in the 1930s
For those of us who are overwrought readers, what that comes to mean is that there is really only one capital city in the world. Oh, there are the Russian towns of Chekhov and the St. Petersburg of Tolstoy and the Germany of Thomas Mann. I remember reading an undistinguished novel that affected me a great deal as a teenager about a young woman living in Krakow, which I had never heard of until then, and, of course, there was the Amsterdam of the Frank family, but diminished to an impossible cipher in the shadow of the attic setting that set the entire tone for The Diary of a Young Girl.
And for an American child, there are certainly many stories set in America. But they are stories ranging all over the great sprawling subcontinent, from Willa Cather’s My Antonia in the Midwest to Steinbeck’s East of Eden in California to the Massachusetts Bay Colony of The Scarlet Letter. American literature ranges north to south, east to west; it is not concentrated in one place, one place that becomes alive in books as though it is a hologram taking clear three-dimensional shape just past the open covers and the turned pages.
For an inveterate reader, there is only one city that comes utterly alive in mind in that fashion. Henry James, an American whose novels became exemplars of his contempt for his own country and its people and his sometimes overweening regard for the island home where he lived in later life, summed it up:
“London is, on the whole, the most possible form of life. I take it as an artist and a bachelor; as one who has the passion of observation and whose business is the study of human life. It is the biggest aggregation of human life—the most complete compendium of the world.”
From the sacred to the profane: Amber St. Clare, the heroine of Kathleen Winsor’s wildly successful 1945 Regency novel Forever Amber, concurs with James: “The memory of Newgate weighed on her like an incubus. But even more terrifying was the knowledge that if caught again she would very likely be either hanged or transported, and she was already so rabid a Londoner that one punishment seemed almost as bad as another.”
For a person raised on books, walking through streets in her mind’s eye, engaged in the love affairs and life losses of imaginary men and women, London is indisputably the capital of literature, of great literature and romance novels and mystery stories, too. There can be no doubt. The London of Thackeray and Galsworthy, of Martin and Kingsley Amis, of Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers, of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Bowen. The London of Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Dickens.
This is not to say that all English literature takes place within the city. Some of the finest English novels are set in its quiet countryside—Middlemarch, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Wuthering Heights. In Pride and Prejudice, London is a metaphor for bad behavior and great unhappiness, where Jane Bennet is snubbed by the Bingley sisters and Lydia and Wickham go to ground after their ill-conceived elopement. And some of the greatest of all London novels portray it as a place of filthy back alleys and disreputable back rooms. The London of Little Dorrit is no tourist mecca, and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders spends most of her time in the streets of London fleeing from poverty and the police.
Kingsley Amis at home with his sons, Martin and Philip, in 1961
And that is only the novels. Some of the most riveting and most memorable stories in the true history of civilization come out of the city, from the wives of Henry VIII to the Great Fire of 1666 to the ascendancy of the young Victoria and the abdication of her great-grandson Edward VIII. The storeowners in the area all know that when a visitor with a notebook wanders through asking where Whitechapel is to be found, she is probably looking, not for the Royal London Hospital or the Bell Foundry, but for the haunts of Jack the Ripper, one of the first and still best-known serial killers.
On that first visit to London one of the first stops I made was in Westminster Abbey, at the catafalque of Elizabeth I; in my girlhood, before anyone used (and overused) the term “role model,” that distant princess was mine, refusing to be demoted and undervalued because of her gender, determined to be the greatest ruler England had ever known and making a go of it, too. And, of course, there was the resting place of her mother, Anne Boleyn, up the Thames in the grounds of the Tower of London. What a story, that, as entrancing as any fairy tale or fable! Since I was a little girl, I have been able to recite the short history of Henry’s six queens: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.
If you have spent your days in an armchair with a book, your nights reading yourself to sleep, then London is the central character in so much of what you have read that it is as though it is your imaginary home, a place whose lineaments are as clear as those of your own living room despite the fact that—at least in my case—you have never set foot in the place. Because of time and circumstances, I did not actually go to London for the first time until that day when I was well into my forties, being put up at the Groucho Club so that I could promote one of my own books in the United Kingdom.
As I was set down in Soho by that disgruntled cabbie, I was not thinking of it as a neighborhood but as a series of word pictures. “You see it as you wish,” P. D. James once wrote. “An agreeable place to dine; a cosmopolitan village tucked away behind Piccadilly with its own mysterious village life, one of the best shopping centers for food in London, the nastiest and most sordid nursery of crime in Europe.” That was Adam Dalgliesh on Soho in Unnatural Causes, but there was also the Soho in which Robert and Stella stop for dinner on the way from the train station in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, the Soho about which John Galsworthy had written, in the trilogy about people of property and rigid propriety called The Forsyte Saga, “Of all the quarters in the queer adventurous amalgam called London, Soho is perhaps least suited to the Forsyte spirit. ‘So-ho, my wild one!’ George would have said if he had seen his cousin going there. Untidy, full of Greeks, Ishmaelites, cats, Italians, tomatoes, restaurants, organs, coloured stuffs, queer names, people looking out of upper windows, it dwells remote from the British Body Politic.”
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