While half of the action in SHADOWBOX, my latest novel, takes place in Paris, the other half of the story happens in London.
In fact, London is at the heart of the story.
A mighty mass of brick, and smoke, and shipping,
Dirty and dusty, but as wide as eye
Could reach, with here and there a sail just skipping
In sight, then lost amidst the forestry
Of masts; a wilderness of steeples peeping
On tiptoe through their sea-coal canopy;
A huge, dun cupola, like a foolscap crown
On a fool’s head—and there is London Town. ― Byron, Don Juan
London in 1832 has a strange feel about it. Neither late Georgian nor early Victorian, the city almost hangs in limbo between two great eras, holding its breath, while William IV reigns.
Waiting for the tide to turn.
Huddled in the shadows of a waning moon, before the splendour to come.
“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names…and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city…inhabited by and teeming with people of every colour and manner and kind.” ― Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
Of course, the city was neither waiting nor in limbo.
It began to sprawl and to swarm with the great swelling of people that would turn it into the pinnacle of Empire by the time of Jack The Ripper.
Already by 1832, London was home to a great range of peoples, from all religions and nations, some brought to Britain as refugees, and some as slaves.
“It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent. You can draw up a tremendous list of reasons why it should be insupportable. The fogs, the smoke, the dirt, the darkness, the wet, the distances, the ugliness, the brutal size of the place, the horrible numerosity of society…” ― Henry James
Within the goldsmiths quarter around Hatton Garden, many of the craftsmen and artisans had continental names. Jewish and Huguenot refugees came in the 16th century, fleeing religious intolerance.
Some of those firms survive to this day.
Godfrey Woolverham, the secondary hero of SHADOWBOX, has a heritage of Walloon Catholics and Danish Presbyterianism. His girlfriend is Polish, and his contemporaries are Jewish, Irish, Scots.
Godfrey works for a living. His family background is essential to the story, his situation as a second-generation immigrant essential to his character.
Louis Beauregard, on the other hand, has an independent income and has no need of work, or earning a living, and can travel as he pleases. His background, what we know of it, is privileged, gentrified, the sort which populates the corridors of power.
At the start of the novel he is fleeing a crime he cannot forget, committed in London. And the Thames is at the heart of his troubles.
The London of 1832 had yet to solidify around the river.
The embankments which trammel the Thames through the city had not yet been built.
Bridges spanned the wide Thames from the Tower of London to Westminster.
Regent’s Canal entered from the north, bringing goods from the Midlands and the Home Counties to be stocked by London’s shops or exported through the deep-water port to the cities of Empire.
The great sandstone terraces in the west end curved around unpaved streets which had no names.
The city’s reputation as a centre of world power was on the rise.
But on the maps of the time there are still green spaces in the inner city.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields has a square of parkland which has vanished by the latter half of the 19th century.
The Ratcliffe Highway is unpaved, reaching out to the Essex marshes in a long dirt track eastwards, matched by the dirty King’s Road through the suburbs of Chelsea to the turnpike gate.
A walled city, London, in 1832 – but not so firmly constrained as Paris, the barriers less tangible, more of the mind than bricks and mortar. Lack of violent invasion or the threat thereof, and a strong navy defending the Channel ports, meant there was no need for anything more than the turnpikes and excise roads.
The most villainous rogues prowled the streets in cloaks, rich and poor, and notoriety followed the wealthy further than the nameless destitute.
“London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained” ― Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
In the great slum of the central parish of St Giles, known as the Rookery, sat London’s bane. A thieves’ den, as it’s painted, but like the slums of Paris also a place filled with people who were, simply, too poor to afford anything better.
“Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.” ― Dr Johnson
Of course, nobody can write about London without describing the weather.
“We are far from liking London well enough till we like its defects: the dense darkness of much of its winter, the soot on the chimney-pots and everywhere else, the early lamplight, the brown blur of the houses, the splashing of hansoms in Oxford Street or the Strand on December afternoons.” ― Henry James
In THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN the action takes place within a single Spring day, and the most important passage of time is measured by the tides which rule the Thames.
In SHADOWBOX, late October descends into November as the story unfolds, and the darkness which follows the year towards its end has a strong bearing on the lives of my characters.
But we all think we know what London weather was like in the 19th century:
“It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking. Inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither.” ― Charles Dickens
London also has its rain, and snow, and glorious sunny days that brighten the parks and gardens and lift the spirits. One of the joys of British seasons is the variety within each, so that winter can be crisp and bright while a poor summer drags on under endless grey skies.
I was in London in October to January: autumn, sliding into winter.
My most enduring memory of that time is of standing by the waterfront under the shadow of Blackfriars Bridge, watching the sleet driven upriver from the North Sea, sodden flakes the size of a half-crown falling onto the cold brown surface of the Thames that was whipped into pale-tipped waves.
I never lived in London. I can’t describe the little things which make up a city’s soul the way a native city-dweller can; as with Paris, so with London, for the most part.
My descriptions are invented, but how could I lose sight of the essential spirit of the place when other writers have been there for longer, loved the city more than I every could, accepted London for being London without wishing it were somehow better?
“London is a chaotic patchwork of history, architecture, style, as disorganised as any dream, and like any dream possessing an underlying logic, but one that we can’t quite make sense of, though we know it’s there. A shoved-together city cobbled from centuries of distinct aesthetics disrespectfully clotted in a magnificent triumph of architectural philistinism… full of parks and gardens, which have always been magic places, one of the greenest cities in the world, though it’s a very dirty shade of green –and what sort of grimy dryads does London throw up? You tell me.” ― China Miéville
For my story, SHADOWBOX, London in 1832 threw up a very grimy dryad indeed.