London has captured the imagination of authors for centuries and its historic streets, stations, parks, pubs and iconic landmarks have been preserved on the pages of our most treasured novels and plays. We compile our pick of the best literary locations that the capital has to offer.
221b Baker Street is the fictional home of the famed detective Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Once populated with the gas streetlights of Holmes’s Victorian London, Baker Street now houses the Sherlock Holmes museum as well as a nine-foot bronze statue of Holmes. The museum is an atmospheric time warp that recreates the flat that Holmes shares with John Watson. Littered with hand written notes, newspapers, his pipe and magnifying glass and adorned with period furniture and life size models, the sequence of rooms vividly brings his home to life.
The streets of London act as a metaphor for the labyrinthine narrative of Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel ‘Mrs Dalloway’(1925). This text coincided with a period in which the dialogue between ‘self’ and urban living was a major ground of enquiry, pervading the imagination of several literary figures including TS Eliot. The motif of Big Ben, which stands at the north end of the Houses of Parliament and remains a quintessential part of the city’s skyline, pins Clarissa Dalloway to the chiming of the passing hours, ‘Out it boomed…the leaden circles dissolving into air.’The clock tower bears down on Clarissa’s consciousness, slicing her subjective mode of time as she navigates the social wasteland of public values. The ways in which Clarissa Dalloway and her suicidal double Septimus Warren Smith interact in the urban space is central to Woolf’s examination of modern perception in the aftermath of the Great War.
Influenced by the scientific discourses of the Late Victorian Era, the Gothic novella ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson centers on the split personality of the respectable Dr Jekyll and his violent alter ego Mr Hyde. This doubling is echoed in the structural mapping of London. Located in the West End just off Oxford Street, Cavendish Square is a refined and wealthy ‘citadel of medicine’ and its eighteenth century George townhouses are inhabited by Dr Jekyll and his friend Dr Lanyon. After visiting Cavendish Square, wander to the buzzy entertainment district of Soho. These two areas are deliberately contrasted in the novel, with the latter acting as the sordid backdrop for Mr Hyde’s immoral behaviour.
The junction of Finchley Road with West End Lane in Camden is the setting for a pivotal episode in Wilkie Collins’s ‘Sensation’ novel ‘The Woman in White’(1859.) The central protagonist and art teacher Walter Hartright encounters the mystifying and distressed Anne Catherick late one night when walking home from Hampstead, who is later tragically buried as Walter’s lover Laura Fairlie.
Dating back to the 16th century and now the only surviving coaching inn in the city, the celebrated George Inn was once located on a major transport route between the city, the surrounding counties and the Continent. Tucked away inside the cobbled courtyard of Talbot Square, this famous drinking establishment is adorned with lattice windows, wooden paneled galleries and open fireplaces and has been visited by literary greats including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Many of Charles Dickens’ most famous works are inextricable from the topography of the capital and in ‘Little Dorrit’ (1855) Young Tip visits the George Inn, where he writes ‘begging letters.’ The neighboring Talbot Inn, demolished the 1870s, was where the pilgrim’s in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ set off on their pilgrimage to Canterbury.