After tourists and Russian millionaires, nobody seems to love London as much as authors. Over the last few centuries some of the greatest literary masterpieces have been set in the British capital from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to well, all of Charles Dickens’ novels. In recent years the trend has continued with the likes of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones Diary. The intervening decades also didn’t disappoint and it’s my small opinion that some of the best books about London were written in the first part of the twentieth century.
Here’s a selection of novels that are fifty years and older, which not only reveal how London used to be, but also deliver some finely written and highly enjoyable reads.
1. Howards End – E. M. Forster (1910)
You may think it strange that a book named after a fictional house in the Home Counties features on this list, however, E.M. Forster has much to say about London in what is arguably his most loved novel. Much of the action takes place at the fictional London address Wickham Place, and the lifestyle of the Schlegel siblings is considered to mirror that of the real-life Bloomsbury set of the time. Located close to Buckingham Palace, Victoria Square was used as the London location for the famous 1980s film adaptation and it is difficult to think of a better placed city than London in the early 1900s for Forster to make such a damning presentation of the cruel imbalances present in Victorian society. This book is also full of brilliant London quotes like, “The Londoner seldom understands his city until it sweeps him, to, away from his moorings.”
2. Night and Day – Virginia Woolf (1919)
A more obvious vintage books about London list would have gone for Mrs Dalloway over Night and Day, but in many ways Night and Day is much more manageable, and is just as enthralling, as Woolf’s unapologetic prose takes you on a journey through Edwardian London. Revealing the overlapping lifestyles – and romantic intentions – of Chelsea resident Katharine Hilbery and her associates as they criss-cross in the “wonderful maze of London”, this is a novel that also tackles women’s suffrage and whether love and marriage are mutually exclusive. Night and Day is as much about love as anything, and has a much more traditional “Austen-like” structure to those Woolf went on to pen.
3. A Pin to See the Peepshow – F. Tennyson Jesse (1934)
A thought-provoking novel based on the true story of Edith Thompson and Freddy Bywaters, Tennyson Jesse’s novel begins as a coming of age story of a young woman growing up in West London, travelling on “the omnibus” through Shepherd’s Bush and Hammersmith, dreaming about falling in love one day. Unfortunately love isn’t what she finds with her husband, but it does come in the form of a young man she has a passionate affair with. Then the story becomes considerably darker as her husband’s murder results in the arrest and sentencing to death of the young lovers. Tennyson Jesse was actually a crime reporter on the real life case and her research and passion about the subject carries this story which gives the reader a real insight into what 1920s London – and prison life – was like.
4. Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton (1941)
Adapting the real-life London address of Hanover Square, and first published in 1941, this novel is (mostly) set in Earl’s Court. With the action taking place in 1930s, London is coming to terms with the gloomy realisation that the Second World War is imminent. In many respects it’s a dark novel due not only to the setting and the way in which the protagonist George is utterly ruined by the woman he is in love with, but also because the author also uses the story to highlight the then rise of fascism and ongoing inequality of classes in London. Nonetheless this is a book that has developed quite a cult following because it brings such dark, bleak issues – human and otherwise – to light with both conviction and the suspense of a page turning thriller.
5. London Belongs to Me – Norman Collins (1945)
Also set in the late 1930s, just months away from the outset of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, London Belongs to Me is about the lives of a number of people living in a multi-occupancy house at 10 Dulcimer Street, Kennington. Despite the gloomy outlook of war on the horizon, this diverse group of Londoners go about their daily lives doing the best they can to not only pay the bills, but to also spend what’s left over on having a good time, falling in love and providing a number of humorous scenarios for the reader to enjoy. Heart-warming and sad in equal measure, this is the ultimate novel about how Londoners “plodded on” during its toughest decade.
6. Nineteen-Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)
The chances are you already know what this book is about, so I won’t bore you with plot details. What I will draw your attention to is how London, or the “chief city of Airstrip One” is portrayed in Orwell’s dystopian thriller. With its grey skies and narrow alleyways, it provides a perfect setting for this dark, dystopian novel. In many ways it’s a little uncomfortable to think about how well the reader could envisage the daily struggles of the “proles” on the streets of a London that had been devastated by war, a landscape Orwell experienced for himself before he began writing the novel in 1946.
7. The End of the Affair – Graham Greene (1951)
Set mostly on Clapham Common, The End of the Affair confirmed Graham Greene’s place in the twentieth century’s literary hall of fame. Basing the main character Maurice Bendrix on himself, much of the novel plays out in a house on Clapham Common Northside, presumably number 14, which was where Green lived until it was bombed in 1940 during the Second World War. This is also depicted in The End of the Affair, and without wanting to give away any spoilers, it suffices to say that the Common plays a key role in this classic novel.
8. The Lonely Londoners – Sam Selvon (1956)
Published in 1956, The Lonely Londoners captures what it was like for the thousands of men who arrived in London from the Caribbean colonies at the invitation of Her Majesty to help rebuild the city and the country’s economy. What ensued was years of struggle and racial abuse, something that today’s mixed London may struggle to fully grasp. That’s why this book is well worth reading. Written exactly as new arrivals from Trinidad spoke, this novel shares the stories of Moses, Galahad, Big City, Tolroy, Five Past Twelve, from their first impressions of London and their battle with the British winters to seeking out comfort in the arms of young women “who ain’t have on no coats to hide the legs”.
9. Absolute Beginners – Colin MacInnes (1959)
This classic novel about 1950s London is still essential reading for anyone looking for a coming of age tale about a Notting Hill that looks very different from the one depicted in Richard Curtis’ film; for a start the 18 year old narrator calls it “Napoli”. The teenage protagonist is a photographer and through his eyes the reader learns about the beginnings of youth culture in London, as he mixes with those still on the fringe of society; homosexuals, drug addicts and the newly arrived Caribbean immigrants. It’s not often known, however, that Absolute Beginners was the second in a trilogy of books about London by MacInnes, City of Spades being the first and Mr. Love and Justice completing the series in 1960.
10. The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark (1963)
Set in a 1945 London hostel for single ladies, Muriel Spark’s quick-witted and sharply written short novel introduces a number of boarders a May of Teck Club as they live through the very last months of World War Two. Men come and go, a Schiaparelli dress is shared among them and the bombs that have fallen before have missed the hostel by just metres leaving cracks in the windows. Not only does The Girls of Slender Means capture a part of London that has long gone – I think I’m right in saying these types of hostels no longer exist – but the tragedy that befalls some of the women in this story is a little too hauntingly timeless.
Frances M. Thompson is a travel blogger, writer and author of fiction. Originally from London, she is currently based in Amsterdam and travels far too much. Her latest book, London Eyes: Short Stories is a collection of contemporary fiction set in London. Read more about her travels, books and obsession with all things vintage at As the Bird flies.