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.


  1. Marilyn Butler, ‘Hidden Metropolis: London in Sentimental and Romantic Writing’, in London – World City 1800-1840, ed. by Celina Fox (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 187-98 (pp. 190, 189).

Matthew Sangster

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