Despite being one of the books on the shortlist of Great American Novels, there are a few secret links between Moby-Dick and London.
Before he took up writing, Herman Melville was a sailor, and like most sailors of the era, he didn’t get to spend much time ashore. It wasn’t until his second career as a writer that Melville got to do any leisure travel. And in 1849 he spent two months living at 25 Craven Street, WC21 in 1849 while he tried to secure copyright for his other books. Scholars are undecided as to whether or not he did much writing in London, but that year would have been around the start of his work on Moby-Dick.
It seems likely Melville visited at least some of London’s libraries and museums during his stay, because he makes a specific reference to one of London’s strangest long-term residents. In the book, when Ishmael tries to evoke the spirit of the whale from the measure of a skeleton, he writes about the preserved skeleton of Jeremy Bentham. Fans of philosophy, law and taxidermy can see the same 'Auto-Icon' that Melville did, on display at University College London.
During his stay in London, Melville probably also would have met with publisher Richard Bentley, who would go on to publish the very first edition of Moby-Dick (beating the American edition to press by almost a month) in October 1851. Bentley would also hire that London-est of London authors, Charles Dickens.
Fans of 19th century publishing houses can visit the former site of Bentley’s offices at 8 New Burlington Street W1S, but may be disappointed to find that the site is now a rather non-descript office.
Almost a century later, when John Huston began filming a movie version of Moby Dick, he arranged for special effects shots using model whales and boats to be done at Shepperton (now Pinewood) Studios in London.
And if you’re willing to take a tenuous connection, UK law holds that both whales and sturgeons are "royal fish" — with any whale caught in the UK becomes the property of the current monarch. The king gets the head, the queen the tail, and no common folk are permitted to own, keep or eat them. If you’re hoping for whale cutlets for supper, your only hope is an invitation to dine at Buckingham Palace.
But if you take a trip to the Museum of London, there’s a cetological artefact there from World War II. The People’s City permanent exhibit has on display a tin of Taistbest Whalemeat Steak Casserole, produced during the war when the Ministry of Food made whale meat available to all — and off ration to boot, no coupons or points required.
This most royal dish, however, failed to win popularity. Maybe it was whale meat's pungent smell and flavour (which persisted even after soaking in vinegar for a day). Or maybe they just needed to re-read Moby-Dick to let the whale into their hearts, as well as onto their plates.
Moby Dick Unabridged runs from 1-4 October at the Southbank Centre. It's free. Visit mobydick.london for more information. As part of the event, up-and-coming artists have been asked to respond to the book. Check out some of the results below.