Review: Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, by Matthew Beaumont
Meticulous history is as packed with character as the city itself, says Karl Whitney
Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London
Night in the city retains a primal power that technology and the demands of contemporary capitalism have been unable to wholly domesticate. The dark corners of the metropolis may repel some and attract others, but the night still exercises an influence over the imagination that seems impossible to erase.
Matthew Beaumont, who teaches at University College London, traces literary representations of the night in this meticulous and original history of nocturnal London that’s as packed with character and detail as the city it describes. In the process the book provides a kind of prehistory of the literary psychogeography – the influence of a place on human psychology – that is characteristic of writers such as Will Self and Iain Sinclair. (Self writes the foreword and afterword to Nightwalking.)
Beaumont outlines the way that society’s relationship with the night has changed over time, from a medieval belief in its wickedness – when “strangers in the night were feared like evil spirits” and evening curfews were imposed – to the introduction of street lamps in the late 17th century, which irrevocably changed the urban night, artificially extending the day and rendering the curfew meaningless.
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But street lighting also emphasised the city’s inequality, creating a contrasting streetscape of well-lit avenues intercut by dark, medieval lanes that housed London’s poor. The persistence of this geography of poverty is striking: Charles Dickens wrote in 1869 that “in the days of steam and gas and photographs of thieves and electric telegraphs” there still remain in London “the sanctuaries and stews of the Stuarts”.
Beaumont distinguishes between two kinds of people who walk the city’s streets by night: the common nightwalker – those forced on to the street by circumstance, such as the homeless and the poor – and the uncommon nightwalker, typically a wealthy man who has chosen to stroll the streets at his leisure, carousing in taverns or picking up prostitutes.
The book addresses this masculine privilege: middle-class men were typically freer in their movements at night than women, and women who did walk by night were suspected of prostitution. The terms streetwalker and nightwalker were often synonymous if the walker was a woman.
Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens Nightwalking sketches an alternative history of English literature, beginning in the Middle Ages, that examines the influence of the London night on such canonical figures as Chaucer and Shakespeare, and ending with Dickens.
But the book comes alive when it wanders away from the bright lights of these figures and turns instead down the murky alleys to less celebrated writers whose work is suffused with the darkness of night: Thomas Middleton’s The Black Book, in which Lucifer tours London by night, and in the work of Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher and John Gay.
The question of the two nightwalkers returns with a vengeance in Richard Savage, an older poet befriended by a young Samuel Johnson in the 1730s. Savage, who believed himself to be of noble birth, had, during a night’s drinking in 1727, drawn his sword and killed a man who, a witness stated, “bore the character of an idle person, who had no settled place of residence”. It was the death of a common nightwalker at the hand of one who saw himself as uncommon – a casualty of Savage’s war with himself, a double to be struck down.
The Irishman Oliver Goldsmith encompassed both sides of nightwalking: his later life as an uncommon walker was informed by his years as a common one. He had been homeless when he first came to London, and his experiences of poverty and vagrancy helped shape The Citizen of the World, which purported to be a series of letters from a Chinese philosopher called Lien Chi recording a melancholy, deathly, near-derelict city through which stumble the wretched and emaciated poor.
Dickens, a prodigious walker who sought to escape his insomnia by one night walking 50km from central London to his house in Kent, is a figure whose nightwalking appears peculiarly his own, while also foreshadowing psychogeography.
Beaumont calls him “an uncommon nightwalker who identifies closely with the condition of the common nightwalker”, but Dickens’s brisk, intense walking appears to be both an externalisation of his internal life – his guilt at the breakdown of his marriage, his gnawing fear of poverty – and a rhythmic reflection of the relentless mechanical production demanded of a famous novelist.
Perhaps it was inevitable that such an entwining of internal psychology with external geography would occur, like a dream, in the dead of night.
Karl Whitney is the author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin