Touring London with Shakespeare, Dickens and Oscar Wilde: 7 must-see literary landmarks
One of the world's greatest literary cities, London's streets, pubs and clubs have housed some of the most beloved names in the history of English literature. Here, Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison, authors of a guide to the capital's best literary landmarks, share seven of their favourites – from Oscar Wilde's eatery of choice in Soho to Shakespeare's Globe theatre
Hatchards is the oldest bookshop in London. It was founded by John Hatchard in 1797 and has been at 187 Piccadilly since 1801. It’s where the royals have shopped for their books from Queen Charlotte onwards – today Prince Charles, Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II all have accounts there.
Hatchards has also welcomed more academic visitors. Lord Byron lived just across the road for much of his time in London. Oscar Wilde, meanwhile, favoured Hatchards as his bookshop of choice and also bought green carnations (his preferred flower for a buttonhole) from the nearby Royal Arcade. Poignantly, Wilde’s wife, Constance, would later order her copies of The Ballad of Reading Gaol – a poem inspired by Wilde’s time as a prisoner between 1895 –97 for gross indecency following his affair with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas – from the shop.
Playwright Noel Coward was another Hatchards customer. Once, when he was a teenager and needed to stock up on Christmas presents, he stole a suitcase from Fortnum & Mason, and, heading next door to Hatchards, proceeded to fill it with books. When he was collared, red-handed, by a shop assistant on another occasion he simply said: “Really! Look how badly this store is run. I could have made off with a dozen books and no one would have noticed”.
Kettner’s, Romilly Street, Soho
One of Oscar Wilde’s favourite London restaurants was Kettner’s in Soho. Opened in 1867 by Auguste Kettner, chef to Napoleon III, the eatery soon gained a reputation for its luxurious, adventurous menu – and, in equal measure, its glamorous clientele. Oscar Wilde scandalised the regulars by kissing one of the waiters and often dined there with his lover, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas.
Wilde also entertained other less well-heeled friends – something that was made much of at his infamous trial at Reading Gaol. The prosecutor there sneered at him for offering “mere” grooms and valets “the best of Kettner’s wines”. Wilde replied, stoutly, “I don’t care two-pence what they were, I liked them”. And as for the champagne: “What gentleman would stint his guests?”
It wasn’t only Wilde who enjoyed Kettner’s for his flirtations; by the following decade the restaurant had become notorious as a London hotspot for high-society flings. In the 1870s the future Edward VII, for example, favoured Kettner’s as his meeting place with his mistress, the actress Lillie Langtry. The couple liked the place so much, in fact – and made such good use of its private rooms upstairs – that the prince had a secret tunnel built between the restaurant and the nearby Palace Theatre where Langtry performed.
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At the time of writing, Kettner’s is closed for business. It won’t be forever, though; in 2016 the restaurant was bought by Soho House & Co, the group responsible for the Dean Street Townhouse and Pizza East. The building is currently undergoing renovations and will reopen in 2018 as the Kettner’s Townhouse, with a look that “pays homage” to its “former grandeur”.
Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey
Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey houses the remains of many notable London authors. There, alongside numerous monuments and memorials to writers buried elsewhere, you can find the remains of John Gay (1685–1732); Henry James (1843–1916); Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936); Geoffrey Chaucer (c1340–1400); Charles Dickens (1812–70) – even though he wanted to be buried in Rochester; Edmund Spenser (1552–99); John Dryden (1631–1700); Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–92); Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) – his body was buried in the Abbey, but his heart was taken in a biscuit tin to the church of St Michael’s Stinsford in Dorset; Samuel Johnson (1709–84) and Ben Jonson (1572–1637). The latter is buried upright because he told the Dean at the time: ‘”Sir, six feet long by two feet wide is too much for me: two feet by two feet will do for all I want”.
If, like us, you’re slightly aghast at the lack of women in this list, you should head to the East Cloister of the abbey, where you’ll find the remains of Aphra Behn. A 17th-century playwright – also spy, traveller, jail-bird and a great deal of other exciting things – Behn has gone down in British history as the first woman to earn a living from writing. Best known for her 1688 play Oroonoko, one of the first anti-slavery works in the English language, Behn’s burial plaque also bears a touching and timely reminder of what awaits us all: “Here lies Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality”.
48 Doughty Street
Charles Dickens called London his “magic lantern” and found it hard to write if he spent too long away. His frequent method of composition was to step out into the city as he began to think of a story, “searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon”. In the first weeks of writing Barnaby Rudge, for instance, he visited “the most wretched and distressful streets” to find scenes that would inspire him to write movingly about beggars and grinding poverty, and also about the excitement of walking at night – one of his favourite pastimes.
Dickens lived at various locations all over the capital during his life. One of his most famous houses is number 48 Doughty Street, today a museum dedicated to the great writer, with a collection of manuscripts, paintings and pieces of Dickens’s own furniture.
Opposite the house there’s another blue plaque: ‘Sydney Smith 1771–1843 Author and Wit lived here’. It’s piquant to imagine how Smith must have felt as he looked across the road, knowing that his neighbour was so easily eclipsing him. It was at Doughty Street that ‘the inimitable’ Dickens finished his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, and wrote Oliver Twist; Nicholas Nickleby and the opening of Barnaby Rudge. He also – when he wasn’t writing – enjoyed holding numerous dinner parties for increasingly famous friends like the essayist Leigh Hunt and biographer John Forster.
The Fitzroy Tavern, Charlotte Street
In the 1930s, the Fitzroy Tavern was one of the great literary pubs of London. It was so well attended and well thought of by the various up-and-coming arty types who drank at its bar, that the surrounding area (across from Soho and to the north of Shaftesbury Avenue) became known as ‘Fitzrovia’. “The Fitzroy is like the Clapham Junction of the world,” wrote the bohemian painter Augustus John, “everyone goes in and comes out at some point or other”.
It’s at the Fitzroy that Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas liked to write poems on beermats, handing them out to the prettiest women in the bar. It’s here, too, that poet Aleister Crowley invented the Kubla Khan No 2: a potent mix of gin, vermouth and laudanum. And most nights throughout the 1940s, Nina Hamnett – Welsh writer and recent returnee from Paris – could be found propping up the counter with a tin. For a small contribution she would offer anecdotes about her time on the continent, including nights out with James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway and stints as a model for the likes of Picasso and Modigliani. The latter, she would tell her audience, especially liked her breasts – and she would demonstrate why, pulling off her top and saying: “You feel them. They’re as good as new”.
The Fitzroy had another, less literary, regular too: the hangman Albert Pierrepoint, who would sing lullabies to the landlord’s baby daughter, Sally Fiber.
William Shakespeare spent most of his time in Southwark on the South Bank of the Thames, and many of his most famous plays were performed in the nearby Globe theatre. Sadly, in June 1613, during a performance of Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII, a cannon was fired and a stray spark landed on the theatre’s thatched roof. The Globe burned to the ground – though, amazingly, none of the 3,000-strong audience was injured (except one man whose trousers caught fire; he was successfully doused with tankards of beer). The theatre was rebuilt – with a tiled roof – and remained in business until 1642, when the Puritans finally got their way and closed all theatres in the city.
The Globe was later turned into tenement flats and eventually disappeared. Its remaining foundations are buried, though you can see them marked out by coloured stones on today’s Park Street. Nearby, on New Globe Walk, you can also find a recreation of the famous theatre, which opened for performances in 1997. It is a faithful reconstruction of the Globe as Shakespeare knew it, initiated by the actor and director Sam Wanamaker (1919–93) and based on academic ideas about the original building.
The Romantic poet Percy Shelley (1792–1822) loved to head down to the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park to skim pebbles and float paper boats – a hobby he’d enjoyed since childhood. But his pleasure was ruined late in 1816 when, in the grey dawn of 10 December, a pensioner from the Chelsea hospital saw something floating in the cold waters of the lake. When the old man got close he realised to his horror that it was a young woman. Worse still, she was heavily pregnant.
It was quickly discovered that this was Harriet Shelley (1795–1816), the wife of the poet Percy. Her pregnancy is something of a mystery because she hadn’t seen her famous husband for almost two years and the father was unknown. Adding to the confusion was the fact that Harriet herself hadn’t been seen since 9 November 1816, and that her body looked as if she had already been dead for several days.
What is clear, at least, is that Harriet was desperately unhappy. She left a suicide note for Shelley, stating: “When you read this letter. I shall be no more an inhabitant of this miserable world. Do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all belonging to me . . . My dear Bysshe... if you had never left me I might have lived but as it is, I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of . . . so shall my spirit and rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate Harriet S—”.
Shelley married the writer and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin less than two weeks after Harriet’s body was discovered.
The famous collection of friends and talented writers known as the Bloomsbury Group started in 1905 with Thursday Evening salons at 46 Gordon Square, the home of two sisters known to history as Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. These were attended by the Cambridge friends of their brother Thoby Stephen (1880–1906), including Leonard Woolf (1880–1969), later Virginia’s husband and a publisher; Lytton Strachey (1880–1932); Clive Bell (1881–1964), Vanessa’s husband and art critic; David Garnett (1892–1981); painter Duncan Grant (1885–1978); the hugely influential economist and author John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946); and critic and painter Roger Fry (1866–1934). EM Forster (1879–1970), author of Howards End and A Passage to India, was also a distinguished regular.
Vanessa Bell and her husband, Clive, continued to live in 46 Gordon Square until 1917. Quentin Bell (1910–96), Vanessa’s son, recalled in later life how mortified he was that other people had “normal, sober” front doors, and theirs – in Gordon Square – was painted a “startling vermilion”. His parents’ open marriage hopefully caused him less embarrassment, since it was generally gently accepted by their bohemian neighbours. More frowned upon was John Maynard Keynes, who moved into the Gordon Square house in 1917. Lytton Strachey complained that Keynes was a snob and forever bringing “dukes and prime ministers” into Bloomsbury – which simply was not on.
Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison are the authors of Literary London (Michael O’Mara Books, 2016.)
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