Literary London


In Canto Eleven of Don Juan, Byron’s hapless hero stands on a hill outside London, enthusiastically meditating upon the splendid freedoms of the city before him: “Here laws are all inviolate; none lay / Traps for the traveller; every highway’s clear: / Here—’, he was interrupted by a knife, / With,—‘Damn your eyes! Your money or your life!’”  Here, one might add, comic reversal works though the brilliant compression of real and ideal images of Britain’s capital city. This course reads London as it appears in 19th-century British literature. In novels, poems, essays, and plays, we explore the city as, at once, an origin and object of English language print culture. How did Victorian-era Londoners see their city? How is the density of urban life represented in the written word? Among the topics we will explore are: the city as fantasy, the city as nightmare; consumerism, crowds, caricatures; the development of literary criticism; theatre, opium, the street; dandies and bluestockings, streetwalkers and street-sweepers; anarchists; manners and the law; the black city, the gay city; “flash,” Polari, cant, and Cockney rhyming slang; and, finally, 19th-century London in retrospect. Possible authors: William Blake, Ignatius Sancho, Lord Byron, Mary Robinson, Thomas De Quincey, William Hazlitt, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf.