When the blog Londonist asked this question, they got a lot of the usual suspects (and a few surprises too). There were multiple votes for novels by Messrs Dickens, Ackroyd, Amis, McEwan. And indeed, when you think of literary London, the image is of clubbable males drinking and smoking their way through life in the Cheshire Cheese, the Colony Club and the Groucho, depending on era. And jolly entertaining they are too.
However, the front-runner for the Londonist poll for some time was Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Naturally, the Bloomsbury Bluestocking heartily concurs with the choice. But it got me thinking. What other women novelists have written really good London novels?
It’s reasonably easy to find contemporary literary London ladies. Sarah Waters has some fantastic images of London in her fiction. Night Watch is a favourite of mine for the harsh poetry of her scenes set in the Blitz and its aftermath. Fingersmith conjures a grubby, semi-legal Southwark reminiscent of Dickens. And who can forget the ‘gay girls’ of Victorian Piccadilly, celebrated in Tipping the Velvet?
Angela Carter’s Wise Children gave us Brixton down the ages. Andrea Levy painted changing landscapes and social scapes (?) in Small Island. Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing The Cherry haunts me, with its scene of transformation standing on a bridge over the Thames. And my most recent obsession, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, brings us a London of court intrigue and Thames barges, walled sweet-smelling gardens and stinking plague-ridden prisons.
But what of previous centuries? Did all the great 19th century lady novelists confine their attention to the throbbing metropolis of Bath? Were country houses, wuthering moors and rural villages really their only mileau of interest? Was there no room for a female Thackery or Fielding, roistering their way through Georgian London like a walking Georgette Heyer novel?
I can’t think of any. Go on, prove me wrong.