Top ten London novels
Charles Dickens - Oliver Twist (1838)
Many of Dickens’s novels are set in London; indeed, he could be said to be the London novelist par excellence. His second novel, Oliver Twist is in part a satire on the depredations of the 1834 Poor Law. The eponymous Oliver flees an appalling workhouse for the capital, where he falls in with a gang of pickpockets holed up in a squalid den in Farringdon.
William Makepeace Thackeray - Vanity Fair (1847)
This is the novel that made Thackeray famous, placing him, as he told his mother, “all but at the top of the tree and having a great fight up there with Dickens”. His protagonist is Becky Sharp (the subtitle, A Novel Without a Hero, is a warning to the reader about her good character, or lack of it), a graduate of Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, who enters London society at the home of her friend Amelia Sedley in Russell Square.
George Gissing - New Grub Street (1891)
The central characters in Gissing’s novel of London literary life are “an alarmingly modern” journalist named Jasper Milvain and Edwin Reardon, the author of commercially unsuccessful novels. By the end of the book, Reardon is dead and Milvain the editor of a journal called The Current.
Joseph Conrad - The Secret Agent (1907)
Alfred Verloc, an agent provocateur in the pay of one of the great European powers, recruits his dim brother-in-law Stevie to carry out a bomb attack on the Greenwich Observatory. The plot goes wrong when Stevie blows himself up rather than the intended target. Conrad based his story on the “Greenwich Bomb Outrage” of February 1894, in which a French anarchist botched his attempt to blow up the Observatory.
Virginia Woolf - Mrs Dalloway (1925)
The action in Woolf’s fourth novel occurs on a single day in 1923 as Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party at her Westminster home. The New Statesman proclaimed the novel “beautiful” and compared the world it conjured with the “ghostly world” of the philosophy of Bertrand Russell.
Patrick Hamilton - Hangover Square (1941)
Subtitled A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court, Hangover Square is set in that district of west London in 1939. Reviewing this tale of an alcoholic drifter named George Harvey Bone in the New Statesman, A P West declared it “tense, exciting and frightening” and thought it likely to have a “somewhat nightmare quality” for “most middle-class readers who reached maturity after the last war”.
Samuel Selvon - The Lonely Londoners (1955)
This is the first novel of the “Windrush Generation”, the immigrants from the Caribbean who arrived in London in large numbers after the Second World War. The NS’s Maurice Richardson found Selvon’s “documentary about West Indians in London” to be “fresh and original”.
Muriel Spark - The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)
The protagonist of Spark’s short novel is also a migrant – in this case from Scotland to south London. Dougal Douglas, described by the NS’s reviewer as an “engaging picaresque charlatan”, turns up at a textiles factory in Peckham, where he is hired to carry out “human research” on the other employees.
Martin Amis - London Fields (1989)
Despite the suggestion of Hackney in the title, Amis’s sixth novel is set in his familiar west London territory. The protagonist, Keith Talent, is a characteristic Amisian grotesque, a super-yob reprised in his most recent novel Lionel Asbo, also set in one of the capital’s less salubrious districts.
Zadie Smith - White Teeth (2000)
This novel, published when Smith was only 24, is a paean to multicultural north-west London, where she grew up. It follows the fortunes of two immigrant families, one from Bangladesh, the other from Jamaica.
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