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London in Literature, 1837-1984

Course outline

This course considers the theme of London in English literature. Both the city and the literature it has inspired will be material for our study: we will go out and about, as well as discussing the city on the page.

We shall begin with a consideration of Dickens’ exploration of the dark aspects of early-Victorian London, and analyse the function of his extraordinary comic inventiveness. We shall also examine the relationship between “nature” and “culture” in texts about London, a central dichotomy in the works of, for example, Hardy and Wilde. The importance of the historical background to the texts we are studying will be a regular focus of attention: in Wilde (“Decadent” London); Conan Doyle (the detective, London and Imperialism); Elizabeth Bowen (the impact of the Second World War on London); MacInnes (‘A New London’); Hanif Kureshi (identity and belonging). Students will be encouraged to explore areas of London for themselves in order to think about the relevance of particular places to the texts we are studying.


This course aims to give students an awareness of the variety of ways in which writers approached and expressed the changing idea of “the city” in literary texts.  We shall explore a number of themes that link early-Victorian reflections of the city to those of later writers, for example: alienation; cultural change; loss of spiritual faith; class; the “primitive” beneath the “civilised” city.


By the end of the semester students will have gained these skills:

  1. A knowledge of some important novels, short stories and other texts about London.
  2. An awareness of different styles of writing about London from the Victorian to the Postmodernist period.
  3. An understanding of how a variety of London writers have responded to significant historical events.
  4. The ability to analyse a short piece of prose.
  5. An ability to explore the literary landscape of the city and make their own discoveries.

Teaching and learning methods

The method of teaching will consist of lecturing, seminars and student introductions to particular topics. There will be field-trips to the Dickens House Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the Sherlock Holmes Museum, where the relevance of the area to a number of texts we study will be considered directly.

The three hour teaching block will be arranged as follows: the first session will consist of a general lecture on that week’s author and a question-and-answer session.  This will be followed by a short break and seminar discussion. We shall also focus on passages from particular novels, short stories and poems of the period where relevant.

Coursework and assessment

Assessed component

Basic requirements



Critical analysis

1,200 words


Week 5

Mid-term essay

2,500 words


Week 9


Answer 2 questions


Week 14

Reading list

  • Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1837).
  • Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four (1890).
  • Thomas Hardy, ‘The Fiddler of the Reels’, in Life’s Little Ironies (1891).
  • Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).
  • Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners (1959)
  • Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Mysterious Kôr’ and ‘In the Square’ (both stories were first published in 1942), in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1980). Various poems about the Second World War will be handed out to students.
  • Hanif Kureshi, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)

Useful background reading

  • Peter Ackroyd, London, The Biography (2000).
  • Bernard Bergonzi, The Turn of the Century: Essays on Victorian and Modern Literature (1973).
  • J.M. Golby (ed.), Culture and Society in Britain, 1850 - 1900 (1986).
  • Sally Ledger, ‘The New Woman and the Crisis of Victorianism’ in Cultural Politics at the fin de siècle, edited by Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst (2001).
  • Roy Porter, London: A Social History (1994).
  • Iain Sinclair, ‘Skating on Thin Eyes: The First Walk’, from the novel Lights Out for the Territory (1997), pp. 1-54.
  • Michael Slater, Charles Dickens (2010), chapters 5 and 6.
  • Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (eds.), The London Encyclopedia (1983).
  • Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (1973).