I was sitting in the back of a black cab driving into London for the first time when my literary-counterpart of a friend said, “I feel like Virginia Woolf could leap out of a window and land on top of this car at any moment.”
Even though V. Woolf opted to shove rocks into her pockets and walk into a river as a form of suicide, I couldn’t help but agree with the above statement. Why, you ask? Because, whether people like it or not, London is inherently literary.
Among my many reasons for wanting to travel to England, the inherent literariness was the real gripping matter of fact. I don’t want to dismiss American literature – or any other nation’s writing – but it seems pretty obvious – maybe due to pure historical existence – that British literature dominates the quality of the world’s writings. I’ll admit this is a big leap, and my inner Greek heritage is crying over a copy of Antigone right now, but perhaps I’ll amend my statement by saying that British literature has consistently dominated with quality writing over time.
In the tightly knit world of academics and avid readers exists the constant argument to determine which spot on the globe can righteously call itself The World’s Most Literary City. National Geographic claims that two of the top three spots are in the UK (Edinburgh at #1 and London at #3 – Dublin takes #2) and I hardly find that a coincidence. Now, I don’t want to suggest that the only good literature has been written in these spots, that you must live there to write good literature, or even that citizens can become literary living in such a city, but I think I do want to argue that a city could be inherently literary. Bear with me.
It seems to me that some cities are naturally more inspiring than others. Any city can offer art, music, and centralized opportunity to a greater amount than, say, the countryside, so it seems plausible to say certain cities have the potential to possess that spark to ignite the thought of a book, a character, a new world. As nearly 15 million newspapers are sold and read every day in Great Britain – and with an “adult” population of about 50 million, that means nearly 30% of people are reading about the news every single day. And that doesn’t even count online sources or broadcast television. And let’s compare that to America’s 4.5% readership, which is apparently still higher than people who read online. Kind of seems like Britons have the literary gene, no?
To add to that, I can think of about a million English people who’d rather write a passionately-worded letter than proclaim their thoughts from towers above. The desire to read and write seems embedded in English skin. I don’t dare quantify this with real scientific proof, but in attempts to look up the number of English writers who were born, wrote about, or died in London, I came across this little list. You count up all those names and then we’ll talk. Just thinking about London, it’s easy to say that most of English writers have gone through or written about the country’s capital city – some even made their entire career talking about London. Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Robert Louis Stevenson to a certain extent, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Daniel Defoe, E.M. Forester, Ian Flemming, on and on. There has to be a compass buried beneath the Thames that attracts the literary-minded, then lets them bud, grow, and blossom. The English soil seems as fertile as literary New York City – actually more so, once we consider a fine group called the Ex-Patriates. They felt that magnetic pull too. It’s not just that the city feels like the center of it all, it’s that the city has that extra kick, spice, flavor to make the ultimate bookish concoction.
It could be that history has pervading the modern conscious, but strolling through Bloomsbury, walking down the streets the Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and the whole Bloomsbury Group trekked really makes you feel a twinge in the air – an urge, an urge to write of the tall, towering tree that was only newly planted to Virginia, a seed to Dickens, and dirt to Will Shakespeare. Even all those Romantics from the 19th century who blamed London for their heartache (damn you, Industrial Revolution!) couldn’t help but have London saturate their language and push for that desire of nature. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley were quick to dismiss industrial, urbanized life, but that didn’t stop them from using the draw of London to become immortalized in idyllic landscapes, sick, sailors, and a Grecian urn.
Everywhere you walk in London, blue plaques resembling dreamy eyes stare down at you with monumental names of people who did truly great things in past ages. The city has been left polka dotted with the products of its own creation and I can’t help but think: what is it about London? In a way, that’s what this whole writing for me is about – but I need to rationalize this literariness if it’s the last thing I do.
England’s self-awareness of literary history is pretty evident not just in the plaques, but the unabashed commercialism surrounding it. Take Dickens' Curiosity Shop.
Traveling to Canterbury, England? Be sure to hit up this Chaucer hot-spot.
Don’t forget the Bronte-centered Yorkshire.
Or Bath’s ode to Jane Austen (even though she lived there for only two years and hated every minute of it).
You can try a Mr. Darcy, Love Me scone in the tea room or the residents’ favorite tote bag.
Or an Oliver Twist inspired muffin at the Charles Dickens Coffee House.
Looking for street art depicting Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”? No problem – London’s got you.
Still, the ultimate questions remain: why is it that reading Bleak House in front of the High Courts of Chancery and Mrs. Dalloway down at Picadilly Circus gives context beyond the ink that melts off the page onto the same sidewalk of men like Jekyll & Hyde, Oliver Twist, and Dorian Gray? Monuments to writers lay secluded deep in Westminster Abbey – set apart for exclusivity from the world, but also clearly inclusive in putting authors next to headstones for queens and former bishops. It’s one thing to say, Oh yeah, England had Austen, the Brontes, Shakespeare, and a few poets… and it’s another to stand before centuries of authors’ names carved in stone, leaving merely a name, date, and oh yeah, a few books that’ve lasted through wars, pestilence, illiteracy and moved across oceans into house, schools, minds, hearts. It all started with some ink and maybe a bit of paper in a London coffeeshop, or household, or library and ends with something forever carved in stone, inked into brains forever.
Ray Bradbury (who’s actually American, despite this long-winded admiration for the Brits) said in Fahrenheit 451 that we’d never really lose literature because, somewhere, someone had to have memorized every word of Plato, Shakespeare, or Orwell. A thought scribbled in the margin of a London newspaper can end up in etched in the hearts of far-off admirers for eternity.
Just something to think about.
As for London's inherent literariness - I could never prove one way or another that that city possesses the perfect tablet and pot of ink for writers to write away the world, but at least I can always revisit the magnetism with the turn of a page before my bookshelf.