London in Romantic-Period Literature

Illustration from Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821).

Last month, I had opportunities to give talks exploring ideas arising from the Romantic London project at two really interesting events (one at the Writing Lives Together conference at the University of Leicester; one at the British Library as part of the Following the Chartists around London event, organised as part of Katrina Navickas’ fascinating Political Meetings Mapper project).  Both these events provided useful opportunities for me to begin to think a little more about how what’s on the site so far relates to the ways in which London was represented in literature in the period.

One of the interesting things about literary representations of London from the twenty years on either side of the publication of the final sheets of Horwood’s Plan in 1799 is their relative scarcity and negativity.  Marilyn Butler has claimed that after a ‘long absence of London from good novels as well as good poetry’ between the late eighteenth century and around 1820, in the 1820s and 1830s ‘topographical London, fashionable London, literary London, slum London […] becomes a topic of interest and admiration’.1  This seems to me to be largely accurate in terms of the kinds of London writing which we’re most likely to find on university courses and in criticism today.  In the papers I gave in Leicester and London, I sketched out a skeletal chronology of canonical London writing that looked something like this:

  • Francis Burney’s novel Evelina (1778) engages quite closely with the city as its heroine passes through it on two very different visits, but which begins and ends in more comprehensible communities outside the metropolis.
  • In William Godwin’s Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) the hero looks to hide in the city, but finds there only temporary and melancholy succour, from which he is soon dragged away.  London is the centre of the systems which prey unfairly on Caleb, but in terms of the narrative only a temporary destination.
  • William Blake’s ‘London’ (c. 1794) paints the city as feeding upon the weak and vulnerable.  Of the canonical Romantics, Blake is perhaps the one whose works spend the most time in the city, but his London is conflicted and merged in complex ways into myth and prophecy.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘This Lime-tree Bower my Prison’ and ‘Frost at Midnight’ (late 1790s) both figure the city as an environment within which people are ‘pent’.  Coleridge lived and worked in London for large parts of his career, but it is curiously absent from many of his literary works.
  • The seventh book of William Wordsworth’s Prelude dwells in surprisingly positive manners on the city’s entertainments, but which ultimately withdraws from metropolitan profusion, seeking sanctuary in more limited experiences.  This book is in place in the 1805 version, unpublished at the time, and was revised extensively in the first published version (1850).
  • The third section of Percy Shelley’s Peter Bell the Third (1819) opens, ‘Hell is a city much like London’.  For Shelley, London is the centre of the establishment that he resists; his poetical dreamers find inspiration in solitude and in close relationships, not in city sociability.
  • Pierce Egan’s Life in London, or Days and Nights of Jerry Hawthorne and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom (1821) is a work that began to find new and more positive ways of encompassing the city.  In doing so, it draws on journalism, topography and the form of the guidebook, merging fiction into the modes employed by the generally positive non-fictional portrayals of the city found in works like Modern London and the Microcosm of London.
  • Charles Lamb’s Elia essays (1820s) take great pleasure in the city’s idiosyncrasies, finding ways in which their author can be particular within the city while accepting its profusion.  Lamb and Egan exemplify the ways in which city writers of the 1820s found ways of representing metropolitan vastness at the level of the individual, paving the way for later writers like Charles Dickens.

As I develop this site, I’ll be exploring some of these works in more detail using the map, but I’ll also be looking to see if there are less familiar novels and poems which buck the trends which these works seem to trace.  I’ll also examine the different registers in which writers address the city – many of the major Romantic poets are far more positive about London in private letters than in their published works – and will look to see how we might contrast the often negative and alienated fictional and poetical portrayals with the more exuberant and inviting pictures presented by guidebook writers, topographical artists and antiquarians.

Guides to London Juxtaposed


One thing I’m hoping to work on further as the site develops is finding ways of comparing different schema for organising the city.  In token of this, I’ve put together a version of Horwood’s Plan which juxtaposes the markers from Fores’s New Guide for Foreigners, Modern London and the Microcosm.  I’ve not currently linked this in the toolbar, as the number of markers means that it’s a bit slow to load, but putting the three different guides together reveals some suggestive hotspots which their representations of the city have in common as well as showing some more scattered markers which indicate where they differ from each other in their priorities.  I’ll be talking about this, among other things, at the Community and its Limits conference in Leeds this weekend.

Ready to Start


Section of Soho showing 28 Broad Street – the house where William Blake was born and where he lived between 1757 and 1772 and then again from 1779 to 1782. He lived next door, at 27 Broad Street, in 1784 and 1785.

I discovered that Horwood’s Plan existed just after Christmas, wondering whether there was a map which you could use to pinpoint the exact London houses where Romantic-period writers lived and stayed and to see what was going on around them.  When I discovered Horwood’s incredible feat of research, diligence and art, I knew that one thing I wanted it to be was a digital object which could be used easily and annotated freely in ways which would be impossible with the giant, awkward papery original.

What I didn’t know was whether a digital version of the Plan was a thing which I could make.  I suspected that I probably couldn’t.  I don’t have any particular expertise with coding or mapping systems, and I knew that the most I’d be able to do was compile and tweak existing things.  Still, I decided to push ahead and see how far I could get.  A bit of Googling instilled the sense that the sorts of things I would be trying to do were also the sorts of things that others had worked out previously.  This turned out to be the case, and while the site currently doesn’t do everything in quite the ways that I’d imagined, it does a lot of things that hadn’t initially occurred to me.  For this, I’m in debt to all the people and institutions listed on the acknowledgements page and to generations of scholars who’ve studying London, literature, printing and related matters.  My getting to this point has been down to the generosity of others who’ve sharing their knowledge, time, resources and technologies: sincere thanks to you all.  It’s been really fun so far.

The site as it stands contains the digital Plan, a series of explanatory pieces and annotated versions placing plates from the Microcosm of London (1808-10), plates and text from Modern London (1804) and text from Fores’s New Guide for Foreigners and the 1788 edition of Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies.  I knew from an early stage that I wanted to include the wonderful Microcosm aquatints, but the other set of annotations on the site so far are drawn from things I discovered or was guided to in the course of  my reading about London’s late eighteenth and early nineteenth century history.  The guides, I think, form a coherent starting point, and I’m hoping to add a couple more of these.  Harris’s List is a bit of an anomaly as the site stands, but will eventually form part of a larger section on different aspects of London life in the Romantic period, including sets of annotations marking things like the locations of bookshops, publishers and social spaces of various kinds.  What the site doesn’t include at the moment are annotated versions of the Plan focused explicitly on writers’ lives and works; this is something I hope to begin working on soon.

One of the nice things about working digitally is the ability to have the site change and evolve as the project develops.  I hope that you find this initial iteration Romantic London helpful, but there’s a lot that could and should be done to improve it.  Any feedback about the site as it stands or regarding potential directions that you’d be interested in would be greatly appreciated – I can be reached via the comments or on

Gearing Up…

002 - Exhibition Room, Somerset House

The site is going to be a bit peculiar over the next few days as I start publishing some major new sets of annotations and begin reorganising the menu structures to incorporate these.  There will be a number of blank and semi-functional pages while this process is underway, but fairly soon there should be a lot more content available for exploring London at the turn of the nineteenth century, including both its grandest locations and its more insalubrious sides.

Big Data Mapping Projects

A couple of interesting resources have been launched recently which attempt to use maps to read cities’ literary histories.

LitLong, launched at the end of last month, still has several of its major features in development, but it currently allows the user to see the locations mentioned in a large corpus of texts onto a map of Edinburgh.  It’s ‘the visual, interactive output of the Palimpsest project, a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures; the School of Informatics; the University of St Andrews’ SACHI research group; and EDINA.’  This is an example of what can be done by bringing together a number of big, fairly messy data sets – I’m looking forward to having a bit of a play around with it and seeing what it can do, and also to hearing how the project team plan to develop it further.

Mapping Emotions in Victorian London is a Stanford Literary Lab project supported by the Mellon Foundation and hosted on Historypin.  In the words of its ‘About’ page: ‘The project has invited anonymous participants to annotate whether passages drawn from novels, published mainly in the Victorian era, represented London places in a fearful, happy, or unemotional manner.  This data from the crowd allowed us to generate the maps you find here, revealing a previously unseen emotional geography of Victorian London.’  Unlike many crowdsourced projects, this one used a payment model, hiring labour from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.  This has a really nice map overlay, built using Ordinance Survey maps from the National Library of Scotland, and some interesting masks for examining different aspects of the city.  At the moment, though, it seems quite difficult to get an kind of overall sense of what texts are used on the site, how these were selected and what the rationale for including or excluding things was.  Hopefully the nature of the emotional geography the project examines will become clearer when the team publish more of their findings.

Fores’s New Guide for Foreigners

I’ve just published the project’s first annotated version of Horwood’s Plan; this uses the text from Fores’s New Guide for Foreigners, a dual-language French and English tourist guide to London published by the stationer and print seller S.W. Fores in around 1789.  The annotated plan can be viewed here; I’ve also written up an introduction which includes contextual information and excerpts some interesting statistics from Fores’s guide’s own introduction.

The Vere Street Coterie

has just put up an interesting post on the White Swan in Vere Street, which operated as a male brothel (or ‘molly house’) for about six months early in 1810.  It’s not entirely clear to me at this point which building on Vere Street the White Swan was, but Vere Street itself was a couple of blocks north of Drury Lane Theatre, near the entertainments clustered around Covent Garden, the bustling trade of the Strand and just west of the Inns of Court and the Inns of Chancery, the centre of the business of the law in London.  The street was demolished in the 1900s to make way for Kingsway.

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White Swan, Vere Street

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White Swan, Vere Street 51.514371, -0.118456 Vere Street, the location of the White Swan, which operated as a molly house for around six months early in 1810.


Turley has just published a historical crime novel, The Cunning House, which takes the Vere Street coterie as one of its centres.  You can also find out more in Rictor Norton’s online essay on the coterie and its contexts, which includes details of the principal primary sources.

Project and Plan

This site is still in the early stages of its development, but I’ve now put up a number of pages discussing the rationale for the project and various aspects of Horwood’s Plan.  These examine the Plan’s qualities and the process of its creation; discuss the digital version hosted here and the means by which this was produced; and consider the scant biographical evidence about the life of its creator.  The pages are all linked in the top menu bar and will be updated as the project progresses and as new thoughts and evidence come to light.

Romantic London Alpha Test

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St Paul's Cathedral

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St Paul\'s Cathedral 51.513845, -0.098351 St Paul\'s Cathedral, looking towards Ludgate Hill.  Published by Rudolf Ackermann. © The Trustees of the British Museum


This is a website designed to explore Richard Horwood’s 1792-99 ‘PLAN of the Cities of LONDON and WESTMINSTER the Borough of SOUTHWARK, and PARTS adjoining Shewing every HOUSE’.

Map versions:

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'Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802'

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\'Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802\' 51.500996, -0.121590 \'Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802\'Earth has not anything to show more fair:Dull would he be of soul who could pass byA sight so touching in its majesty:This City now doth, like a garment, wearThe beauty of the morning; silent, bare,Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lieOpen unto the fields, and to the sky;All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.Never did sun more beautifully steepIn his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;Ne\'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!The river glideth at his own sweet will:Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;And all that mighty heart is lying still!William Wordsworth