Invisible Ink: No 141 - The Missing Londoners

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The Independent Culture

The collector of London books will quickly have their shelves filled to breaking point, yet there are dozens of fascinating London writers who have failed to remain in print.

GWM Reynolds was probably the most prolific Victorian writer of them all, with at least 37 fat novels to his name. A political radical, his works "The Mysteries of London" appeared in 12 volumes between 1844 and 1856, and are now hailed, somewhat dubiously, as the first Steampunk novels. Reynolds mixed the social realism of Dickens with melodrama, sex, and violence, designing books to be read aloud to illiterate costermongers. His tales of blackmailers, whores, and resurrection men have recently surfaced in ebook form.

Elizabeth Fowler was the daughter of a London shopkeeper, born at the end of the 17th century, and wrote scandalous bodice-ripping satires and allegories featuring prostitutes, charlatans, and social climbers, although The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless was a sophisticated, multiple-plot novel that advanced female literature, featuring a strong-willed woman fighting society's pressures to marry.

Arthur W Symons is a virtually lost poet, playwright and essayist (1865-1945) who had this to say about city light: "A London sunset, seen through vistas of narrow streets, has a colour of smoky rose which can be seen in no other city … it weaves strange splendours on its edges and gulfs of sky. At such a point as the Marble Arch, you may see conflagrations of jewels, a sky of burning lavender tossed abroad like a crumpled cloak, with broad bands of dull purple and smoky pink, slashed with bright gold and decked with grey streamers."

And here's "The English Sappho", the forgotten poet Mary Robinson, on a London summer morning: "Now begins the din of hackney-coaches, waggons, carts; while tinmen's shops, and noisy trunk-makers, knife grinders, coopers, squeaking cork-cutters, fruit barrows, and the hunger-giving cries of vegetable-vendors fill the air."

Richard Steele co-founded The Spectator in 1711 and has disappeared despite his evocative writings on London's street life, its bawdy wenches, beggars, and assorted "ragged rascals". Octavia Hill (1838-1912) has had better luck because her campaigning essays remain relevant. She believed in "space for people" and established London's Garden City movement, co-founding the National Trust.

My favourite? George Augustus Sala, whose Twice Round the Clock: Twenty Four Hours in Victorian London (1859) is a fabulous, exhausting, annoying, ornate masterpiece full of gin shops, beaten urchins, and dead cats.