The capital has a rich literary past, but most 'best novelist' lists tend to be male-dominated. Virginia Woolf aside, where are all the women? Here are a few of the pioneers who cut new writing ground in the capital. Now let's shout their names from the rooftops and polish up the blue plaques (and get reading)...
1. Dorothy Richardson
Dorothy Miller Richardson (1873-1957) was supposedly the first author to write in the ‘stream of consciousness’ style made famous by Virginia Woolf. Her 13-novel series, Pilgrimage, follows a woman called Miriam as she drifts around London — something quite radical for the time. Decades later and we have Lauren Elkin publishing Flâneuse — and scores of women now idly wander the streets of this incredible, chaotic city (no big deal). Now that's what I call modernism.
Try this: The Tunnel (Pilgrimage 4)
Why?: It will make you remember the first time you ever went out in London on your own, and it felt like the whole world was your Oyster card.
2. Muriel Spark
We can't really claim her as our own, since Dame Muriel Spark (1918-2006) was born in Edinburgh, died in Florence, and lived in a spate of places in-between. But for a while, she was based in Camberwell — and cast her wry, laconic eyes across this city quite deliciously. Every character in a Muriel Spark book is delightfully implausible and strange, and sometimes they even know they're fictional.
Try this: The Ballad of Peckham Rye
Why?: To discover if a man working at a textile company is actually Satan, since he’s having quite the effect on the locals. (No, they're not all turning into hipsters.)
3. Brigid Brophy
Brigid Brophy (1929-1995) was the ultimate rebel with a cause. The University of Oxford expelled her for wild drunken antics, and she never looked back. She was vegetarian, atheist, bisexual, socialist — and caused the kind of scandal you could so easily do back then if only you were brave enough. Brigid once said that the two most fascinating subjects in the world were 'sex and the eighteenth century'. Time to re-watch Dangerous Liaisons…
Try this: Hackenfeller's Ape
Why: Because this one overflows with Brigid’s roguish imagination. It’s all about a professor who studies the mating habits of apes in London Zoo, and ends up more ape-like. Your next trip to Zoo Nights just won't be the same...
4. Maureen Duffy
Maureen Duffy (1933-) takes on the voice of other classes, nations, sexual preferences and ethnicities, all while weaving mysticism and mythology into much of her work. Off the page, she was the one of the first women in the public eye to come out as gay. She continues to argue for 'an ethic of compassion' towards all people and animals. What’s not to like?
Try this: Capital
Why?: For an immersive funfair ride that beats the London Eye for thrills. There’s an amateur archaeologist who meets Neanderthals, Saxon kings and even the flea that kickstarted the Black Death. Strap yourself in.
5. Penelope Lively
Penelope Lively (1933-) has written over 40 novels, and walks that tricky tightrope between commercial success and critical acclaim. Some scholars call it 'historiographical metafiction', but you don't need a degree in English lit to fall in love with her work — just know that she's a really, really good writer with a lot to say about memory.
Try this: City of the Mind
Why?: For a peek into the stories behind London’s buildings. This book follows an architect called Matthew in the 1950s, who’s embarking on a big new project in the Docklands. Through him, we see the historical events that put buildings up and then pull them down.
6. Emma Tennant
You never quite know what you're going to get with Emma Tennant (1937-2017). She fills stories with the bizarre, macabre and mythological, and has reimagined classics such as Pride and Prejudice. Her voice is satirical, almost frenzied, and certainly gothic — she uses that voice to expose the inner lives of people in the sharpest of ways.
Try this: The Time of the Crack (sometimes The Crack)
Why?: For schlocky 1970s sci-fi that is gloriously, playfully political. The main thrust of the plot is what north/south Londoners have craved for years: a crack rears up in the Thames and severs the city in two. Is it the end of times? Pick a side, people. You have to pick a side.
7. Buchi Emecheta
Buchi Emecheta (1944-2017) was born in Nigeria, and English was her fourth language. She left her husband while pregnant with their fifth child after he burned her first manuscript. She then worked and studied for a degree at night while raising the family. Buchi's books detail the experience of black British life in a voice that is courageous, compelling and intimate.
Try this: Second Class Citizen
Why?: For a story of survival and perseverance that still resonates today. It focuses on Adah's emigration from Nigeria to London and her daily struggles with poverty, racism and sexism. Read it, recognise it, and pay tribute to the migrants that are this mighty city's beating heart.
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