An award-winning historian curates this collection of 26 bits of fiction, essay and journalism about the denizens, grifters and debutantes of London Town.
White (History/Univ. of London; A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century, 2012, etc.), who spent the last two decades chronicling the history of London through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries over three volumes, has now produced a literary companion to the city. Unfortunately for casual readers, he's selected a curious, somewhat dispassionate, and largely homogenous collection of little-known essays, most of which are long past their copyright dates. The collection spans four decades, starting with dire depictions of London gripped in the black heart of the Great Plague, only to rise from the ashes of the Great Fire barely half a century later. Some stories show that London always has been and always will be a hard place, as Thomas De Quincey relates his relationship with a teenage prostitute in “Ann of Oxford Street” and Henry Mayhew relates his exchange with an 8-year-old sex worker in “Watercress Girl,” both unnerving images for any Londoner who has been hit with that awful query, “Business?” The classics are duly incorporated as well, with entries from Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Graham Greene. Physician Frederick Treves makes for an interesting anomaly with his moving first-person remembrance of Joseph Merrick, “The Elephant Man.” Oddly, the second world war gets little coverage, mostly a nod from combat firefighter William Sansom in “The Wall.” Also, considering what a multicultural city London has become, the editor has selected few portraits of the city's current population. Dominican writer Jean Rhys deservedly earns an entry, as does Scottish novelist Muriel Spark and celebrated British screenwriter Hanif Kureishi. But anyone expecting to find the likes of Monica Ali, Mohsin Hamid, or Zoe Heller will have to keep trudging down the high street.
Some interesting selections with a few real gems tipped in, but overall this collection reads as if it were assembled out of cuttings from Project Gutenberg and Google Books.