Mapping Fictional London

May 26, 2016

Mapping Fictional London

Fictional London is a familiar place to people all over the world. V. S. Naipaul describes himself arriving in Britain equipped with an idea of the city built from a mixture of Dickens and Trinidad, and it’s common to feel that the ‘real’ city is disappointingly un-foggy; the city's fictions have left broad impressions of soot, and leafy squares, and Soho bars. But among these vague images are hundreds of more exact locations; specific mudflats, doorways and markets which match our world, and which can be mapped.

From the beginning, we decided to grit our teeth over one thing; wherever possible, you had to be able to point at a place in London and say "…she went down there". London fictions are full of rough neighbourhoods, nameless posh squares and streets "near the docks", but we wanted to be able to take a minicab, hansom cab or donkey to specific fictional places, and stand in the footprints of Harriet Vane, Jerry Cornelius or Svengali.

Some authors are keener than others to include real places, and sometimes this gives them prominence on the map; Iris Murdoch and Russell Hoban loved to use postboxes and cafés they has seen and touched, but Winifred Watson wouldn’t tell us where Miss Pettigrew went, however hard we looked. Often authors just didn’t want to reveal which real places and people had inspired them, and the scandal caused by Julia Frankau’s work illustrates why this was a good idea. During the Restoration period Charles II gave firm instructions for playwrights and poets not to mention specific places in The City or Westminster, as a way to discourage direct satire.

Works with titles consisting of just a street name presented an interesting problem; too many of those, and our map just becomes a sort of incomplete A-Z. A lot of these were poems (a novel about Oxford Street might be called Sweet Cecelia or The Pangolin, but a poem will be "Oxford Street, 1928"). However, the occasional Brick Lane or Holland House doesn’t cause too much trouble.

Some areas - some individual streets - were so crowded with overlapping literary ghosts that we just chose according to taste, or spilled the names out into the buildings on either side. A packed (but boring) map of just Cheapside could be made, with characters occupying individual Elizabethan pubs; also crowded, but more interesting, would be a large detailed look at the lanes around The Strand and Fleet Street (perhaps one day…).

One of the joys of the research for this map was the discovery. There were unexpected visits from very unlikely London writers like Willa Cather or Allen Ginsberg, and also from unexpected characters like Jack Reacher or Emma Woodhouse. There were unspecified places which can only be a particular street – in The Enigma of Arrival there are two rows of houses which back on to Earl's Court station, but only one has railings through which you can see passing feet from the basement kitchen as described. There is only one street where the safe house can be watched from the places mentioned in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and it was fun to correct Thomas Hood’s memory of the location of “Clapham Academy”. It was fascinating to find that more than one poet describe the parks as islands in an urban sea, or that some of our titles are satirising others.

So then: in Fictional London, New Oxford Street was never built, so the rookery of St Giles still lurks there - so too do The Old Nichol and Alsatia. There is no roundabout at Elephant & Castle, and Asparagus is still grown in the fields of Lambeth. Both Marshalsea Prisons coexist; Middleton's Jacobean hell to the north, and the 'improved' home of Little Dorrit, just to the south. The leafy lovers' lane to Totenham Court meets Henry James on the way across Marylebone, and C. P. Snow's Ministry of Defence bumps into the Court of Charles II; horses are auctioned in Knightsbridge. Terrible old potboilers nestle next to postmodern experiments, as well they might. Places like The Old Vic and Golden Square loom larger than in our grey city, and areas like Shepherds Market are swollen with incident.

We liked the result, especially Geoff's amazing artwork, and we hope you do too. One day there might be a second edition, and if you know of a precise street name or building from a London fiction that would fill a space on our map, we’d be very happy to hear from you.


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