Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, by Matthew Beaumont

Peter J. Smith on the literary giants who have drawn inspiration from their nocturnal perambulations

February 26, 2015

The dust-jacket biography of Nightwalking’s author concludes: “He lives and walks in London.” Such is the urban energy of this prodigious book that the verbs seem mysteriously valorised by their connection to the city. Note that “work” (as in the more usual formulation, “lives and works in London”) has become “walk”, as though working and walking are synonymous. It is almost as though the author “lives and walks for London”, or “as part of the animism of London”. There is, infusing Matthew Beaumont’s prose, the same kind of unabashed enthusiasm for the city as can be found in the popular biographies of Peter Ackroyd. Even the sentimentality of Will Self’s metro-centric afterword is, in this context, forgivable: “as the sun rose London was made anew – and so, perhaps, were we”.

While Nottingham lays claim to D. H. Lawrence and Hull to Philip Larkin, and even Nuneaton has George Eliot, London hardly need bother to boast of its riches: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, Blake, Dickens. Beaumont not only documents the kinds of inspiration that London offers each of these literary giants, but he also does so in a way that places the city at the very heart of their artistic achievements. As Dickens says in a letter to John Forster, “It seems as if [London] supplied something to my brain, which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose…a day in London sets me up again.”

But this is a very particular kind of London biography. As Beaumont argues in the case of Dickens, “nightwalking seems to have become instrumental to the business of writing”. Beaumont’s specific interest in the city is on its crepuscular activities, its night-time vitality, and thus his focus is on writers’ nocturnal ambulations. Such night life is not always (nor even often) salubrious or innocent: “Strolling at night in the city by both men and women has, from time immemorial, been interpreted as a sign of moral, social or spiritual dereliction.” As Beaumont astutely notes, Milton has Eve, in Paradise Lost, “rehearse the Fall with a nightwalk”.

Beaumont’s key assertion is that nightwalking is a form of dissidence or subversion: the nightwalker “represents an intrinsic challenge to the diurnal regime on which, from the end of the Middle Ages, Protestant ideology and the political economy of capitalism partly depended”. So Blake’s poem London is read as an articulation of political resistance: “To wander…is to uncharter. Consciously or unconsciously, houseless wandering constitutes a refusal of the chartered city.” Such rambling is the opposite of busy-ness, with its intimations of business, a meandering defiance of ideological order: “The act of walking, for the Romantics, inscribed a coded rebellion against the culture of agrarian and industrial capitalism.” Gay, Goldsmith, Johnson and Clare, he says, are all “militant pedestrians”.

The latter half of the book is its best. There are astute accounts of the Romantics, and Beaumont is especially good on Dickens, whose fiction “is soaked in the semiotics of walking”. Nightwalking is less certain in the earlier period when the argument is not always as conspicuous as the extensive and sometimes random range of examples that aim to service it. In addition, the plenitude of intrusive subtitles throughout tends to fragment the discussion. This is an important and lively book, but it deserved more judicious editing, which might have prevented its own occasional wanderings.

Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London

By Matthew Beaumont
Verso, 496pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781781687956 and 7963 (e-book)
Published 9 March 2015

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