Anna Quindlen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling novelist from America. She grew up reading books set in London but did not get to travel to the 'city of her childhood imaginings' until she was in her forties. This book tells of her visit and her impressions as she trod the very same streets in which many of her literary heroes -- both fictional and real -- had also trod. What results is a touching love letter to literary London.
I have to admit that most of the books that Quindlen namechecks throughout this delightful essay -- for that is what it is, rather than a book -- were unfamilar to me. Sure, I knew their names and the authors -- how could anyone not know Charles Dickens or Elizabeth Bowen or the Forsyte Saga? -- but my tastes tend towards the more modern, namely late 20th century and early 21st century, as opposed to the classics, but this did not diminish my enjoyment of Imagined London.
Of course, I am a resident of this amazing city, and when I first arrived here back in the summer of 1998 I was more intent in seeking out famous buildings (The Palace of Westminster, St Paul's Cathedral) or musical landmarks (Brixton Academy, the Camden pub where Blur used to hang out, the zebra crossing that features on the Beatles Abbey Road album cover) rather than places where novels were set.
But I fell in love with Quindlen's effortless prose. She captures the London I know and love in a way that only a non-Brit could do so -- with fresh eyes and much awe. (I believe that when you worship something from afar you often appreciate it much better than the 'natives' when you finally get to see it in person. I know that I have seen many sights in London that people who were born and bred here have never seen, including some amazing cemeteries and landmark buildings, that are well off the tourist trail.)
Trying to single out just one quote that sums up Quindlen's 'eye' for recognising the distinctive characteristics of this city is difficult, but here's one that resonated with me, having come from an Australian city built on a grid system:
There are countless buildings that seem trapped in the narrow backstreets of the West End or Chelsea, streets designed for one century and trying to make do in another. At Piccadilly there is a warning sign that Jermyn Street, home of the shirtmakers Turnbull and Asser and the perfumier Floris, is 'unsuited for long vehicles'.
For someone used to the tidy, slightly boring numbered streets of upper Manhattan, it is a joy to encounter St. James's Street, St James's Place and Little St. James's Street. Every street name seems to have a codicil attached, a cartographic family tree; as Thackeray noted, 'All the world knows that Lord Steyne's town palace stands in Gaunt Square, out of which Great Gaunt Street leads.' Nearby, according to the novelist, is New Gaunt Street, and Gaunt Mews. All this would seem like satire if you did not see it all around you in the city itself.
But what I like most about Quindlin's writing is her unabashed enthusiasm for the city. And the fact she's not afraid to make fun of her own naivety:
I was certain I had no idea how to pronounce many of the words I had learned to recognize with my eyes: How in the world did you actually say Cholmondeley or Gloucestershire? It remains a source of shame to me that through much of my girlhood I pronounced the name of the river that runs famously through London with the 'the' fully articulated and a long a after. 'Thames,' one of my high-school teachers finally said, 'rhymes with gems'. As a reader English place names had becomes what Russian surnames had always been: something to register with the mind and the eye but never to venture with the tongue.
Even if you have never been to London, Imagined London will give you a real sense of its history, its architecture, its topography. And if you've read a lot of classics set in the city you'll be particularly enamoured, and probably clamouring to book your flight over! And if you live here or have visited London in the past, you'll enjoy recognising the streets and places mentioned, and maybe find out something about Dickens' birthplace that you didn't know before.
[Thanks to nutmeg for the heads-up on this one.]