How London inspired the world’s greatest authors

Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, London. Credit: Westminster Abbey
Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, London. Credit: Westminster Abbey

From Virginia Woolf to Charles Dickens, many of the world’s greatest authors have drawn inspiration from life in the English capital 

WORDS  Florence Sheward

Virginia Woolf

For centuries, London has acted as both a nurturing home and a source of constant inspiration for many of the world’s greatest writers. That sense of the metropolis as a catalyst for a writer’s imagination was noted by one of the English capital’s most famous literary residents, Virginia Woolf, in her third novel, 1922’s Jacob’s Room. “The streets of London have their map, but our passions are uncharted,” she wrote. “What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?”

For Woolf, it was often more a case of who are you going to meet, given that she was such a key part of London literary society in the early 20th century, not to mention a prominent figure in the influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals, writers and artists.

Born in Kensington, west London in 1882, Woolf gravitated towards Bloomsbury after the death of her father in 1904 and the sale of the family home at 22 Hyde Park Gate. She moved into 46 Gordon Square with her siblings and it was here the group began, holding regular evenings of conversation and music or poetry recitals attend by a nucleus of friends including biographer Lytton Strachey and novelist EM Forster, a more peripheral member of
the group who nevertheless reputedly based the characters of the Schlegel sisters in his 1910 novel Howards End on Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell. Aside from their contributions to art and literature, the romantic lives of the Bloomsbury Group were famously entangled, leading Dorothy Parker to quip that they “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”.

Today, a visit to one of those squares is a perfect way to celebrate their legacy. Bask in the central garden of Regency-era Gordon Square to imagine what life might have been like for the young Bloomsbury writers or book a stay at the Tavistock Hotel, which is located on the site of 52 Tavistock Square, Virginia’s home for 15 years. From the top two floors of that building, she and husband Leonard also began the successful Hogarth Press
imprint, which would publish many of her best later works.

Charles Dickens

Look out across to the far corner of Tavistock Square and you can spy the British Medical Association building, which was built on the site of Tavistock House, the home in which Charles Dickens wrote several of his novels, including Hard Times. In fact, you can’t walk far in London without coming across a building or drinking establishment with a link to Dickens. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street and the Pillars of Hercules in Soho were two regular haunts for the Victorian author, who name-checked both in A Tale of Two Cities, while a plaque at the 16th-century George Inn in Southwark proudly announces that both Shakespeare and Dickens “knew the hospitality of the inn”. Head to the George and Vulture on St Michael’s Alley to toast the Oliver Twist author in true Dickensian style – it is rumoured his descendants still meet here for an annual family lunch over the Christmas holidays.

Dickens was also a regular patron of the London Library, a very distinguished and broad collection of more than a million books and periodicals on St James’s Square. Founded in 1841 by the writer Thomas Carlyle, the roll call of previous members reads like a who’s who of the British literature world, from Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie to Kazuo Ishiguro and Joseph Conrad; TS Eliot was even one of the library’s presidents. Membership is a rather exclusive £495 per annum, but day passes can be bought for £15 if you want to browse titles on countless niche subjects.

Back in Bloomsbury, Dickens’ last remaining home at 48 Doughty Street is perhaps the best place to explore his legacy. Redeveloped in 2012, it houses the Charles Dickens Museum and a collection of more than 100,000 items connected to the author, from personal letters and photographs to furniture and rare editions. Book on an atmospheric Housemaid’s Tour to be greeted by an actress doubling as his overworked servant who promises to sneakily show you around the author’s house while he is out.

Westminster Abbey: where many writers rest

When Dickens died in 1870, he was buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey – an area known as Poets’ Corner. Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer was the first writer to be buried here in 1400 and today there is no better place to pay respects to London’s literary greats. Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and Alfred Tennyson are among those who have since been interred at Poets’ Corner, while floor stones and memorial tablets also commemorate the likes of Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and the Brontë sisters, all buried elsewhere. The most recent addition was a stone in memory of the 20th-century English poet Philip Larkin, which was added last December and bears the inscription: “Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.”

John Keats

It is a sentiment that would have surely appealed to the Romantic poet John Keats, who lodged for 17 months in a gorgeous Regency villa near Hampstead Heath, north London. Now Grade I listed and open to the public as a museum and literary centre, Keats House allows you to peruse personal artefacts, explore the garden in which he penned “Ode to a Nightingale” and discover details of his love affair with Fanny Brawne, the poet’s sweetheart who lived next door. Costumes from the 2009 movie Bright Star, which fictionalised the affair, can be seen in the house too.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

If you prefer your literature with a little more mystery, pay a visit to one of London’s most famous addresses: 221b Baker Street. While Sherlock Holmes may be a fictional character, the house in which the famous detective supposedly lived in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiendishly clever stories is an actual London address – although this wasn’t always the case. When Conan Doyle penned his first Sherlock stories, the real Baker Street only went up to number 85, but when the connecting York Place was co-opted into the street, the Sherlock Holmes Museum was able to find its home (albeit after a lengthy dispute with Abbey National bank that saw post addressed to Sherlock arriving in their letterbox). The museum no longer owns any of the author’s original artefacts, but the Georgian townhouse is a hugely atmospheric experience, from Sherlock’s lamp-lit lounge and Dr Watson’s living quarters, to the dining table left set as if waiting the detective’s return.

George Orwell and Dylan Thomas

Any literary jaunt around London should conclude with a visit to one of the many great book shops or a stroll down the Charing Cross Road, home to a selection of fascinating secondhand bookshops and a flagship branch of Foyles that boasts some 200,000 titles. With a book or three in hand, retire to the nearby Fitzroy Tavern, a pub with such a rich history it has its own autobiography – ex-barmaid Sally Fiber’s The Fitzroy – and counts George Orwell and Dylan Thomas among its rather bohemian regular patrons. Recently renovated without losing any of its historic charm, this is not only the perfect place to curl up with a good book, but also an establishment whose walls have a few of their own stories to tell.