East End Literature

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East End Literature comprises novels, short stories, plays, poetry and non-fictional writings set in the East End of London. Crime, poverty, vice, sexual transgression, drugs, class-conflict and multi-cultural encounters and fantasies involving Jews, Chinamen (and women) and Indian immigrants are major themes.

Novels and Short Stories[edit]

Among the first and most prominent authors to depict the East End in fiction was Charles Dickens (1812–70). His godfather had a sail making business in Limehouse, and he based the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) on a public house still standing there. The Red Bull, a now demolished inn situated in Whitechapel, features in his Pickwick Papers. On leaving it Sam Weller makes the sage remark that Whitechapel is "not a wery nice neighbourhood". Fagin in Dickens's Oliver Twist appears to be based on a notorious 'fence' named Ikey Solomon (1785–1850) who operated in 1820's Whitechapel.[1] Dickens was also a frequent visitor to the East End theatres and music halls of Hoxton, Shoreditch and Whitechapel, writing of his visits in his journals and his journalism.[2] A visit he made to an opium den in Bluegate Fields inspired certain scenes in his last, unfinished, novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).[3]

Arthur Morrison (1863–1945), a native East-Ender, wrote A Child of the Jago (1896) a fictional account of the extreme poverty encountered in the Old Nichol Street Rookery. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) observed the practice of 'people of quality' visiting the many entertainments available in Whitechapel and sent his hedonistic hero Dorian Gray there to sample the delights on offer in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.


The experiences of the Jewish community in the East End inspired many works of fiction. Israel Zangwill (1864–1926), educated in Spitalfields, wrote the influential Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People (1892) and other novels on this subject. Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery (1898) was a notable detective story set in the East End, and was adapted for the screen three times. Another Jewish writer, Simon Blumenfeld (1907–2005) wrote plays and novels, such as Jew Boy (1935), informed by his years in Whitechapel.[4]Wolf Mankowitz, born in Fashion Street, Spitalfields was another Jewish writer from the area. His 1953 book A Kid for Two Farthings, set in the East End, was adapted for the cinema three years later. The local Jewish writer Alexander Baron (1917–99), wrote fiction on lowlife, gambling and crime in the East End. Baron's The Lowlife (1963), set in Hackney, is dubbed as "a riotous, off-beat novel about gamblers, prostitutes and lay-abouts of London's East End"[5] However, arguably the most famous novel documenting the Jewish existence in the East End is Journey Through a Small Planet (1972) by Emanuel Litvinoff. The autobiographical novel contains a series of stories first broadcast on the radio in the 1960s, that document the young Litvinoff's experiences in the East End and those of his community.

Chinatown, Limehouse, also provided inspiration for novelists. Sax Rohmer (1883–1959) wrote fantasies set there, featuring many scenes in opium dens, introducing one of the 20th century's master villains, Fu Manchu, in a series of novels of which the first was The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu (1913). Thomas Burke (1886–1945) explored the same territory in Limehouse Nights (1916).

As demonstrated above the area has been productive of much local writing talent, however, from the time Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray the idea of 'slumming it' in the 'forbidden' East End has held a fascination for a coterie of the literati. One contemporary manifestation of this is the school of psychogeography espoused most prominently by Peter Ackroyd, (particularly in his novel Hawksmoor) and Iain Sinclair. A colder eye on contemporary gentrification of the area and the rise of the yuppie is cast by Penelope Lively in Passing On (1989) and City of the Mind (1991) and by P. D. James in Original Sin (1994).

Emblematic of the worldwide clash of civilisations between West and East, of which the East End has historically been a microcosm, are Brick Lane (2003) by Monica Ali and Salman Rushdie's controversial The Satanic Verses (1988) both of which are set amongst the Bangladeshi community of Spitalfields.[6][7]

Plays[edit]

Playwrights have often located their work in the East End. During the 1950s and 1960s, much drama was inspired and encouraged by the work of Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, based in the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Their new works explored the experiences and position of their local audience. Many productions transferred both to the West End and were made into films. In the 1970s and 1980s the Half Moon Theatre presented premières of European works and new works by London playwrights, such as Edward Bond and Steven Berkoff.

Plays set in the East End include The Hamlet of Stepney Green by Bernard Kops.

Poetry[edit]

Future Prime Minister Clement Attlee wrote a poem "In Limehouse" (1922) about that district. Beside the Thames, Shadwell Dock Stair is immortalised in Wilfred Owen's poem "Shadwell Stair".

Non-fiction[edit]

The literary genre of East End urban exploration began with The People of the Abyss by Jack London detailing his grim experiences there in 1903. This inspired George Orwell to repeat the experiment in the same area in the 1930s and write about it in Down and Out in Paris and London. A more contemporary urban explorer is Tarquin Hall who recently ventured into Brick Lane and described his experiences in Salaam Brick Lane (2005) [1]. Meanwhile, the mystery of Rodinsky's Room at 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields was explored by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair in a book of the same name, published in 1999.

Memoirs of the East End include Limehouse Days (1991) by Daniel Farson, Silvertown (2002) by Melanie McGrath and Bernard Kops' East End (2006).

'Where there's a Will, there's a way' (2012) is a biographical, fact based account written in novel format of the remarkable life story of Labour MP, social reformer and East End hero, Will Crooks (The Will Crooks Estate in Poplar is named after him).

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ed Glinert (2000) A Literary Guide to London: 256
  2. ^ Commercial Traveller Charles Dickens (1865)
  3. ^ Peter Ackroyd (1990) Dickens: 1046
  4. ^ Simon Blumenfeld: Novelist, playwright, journalist and revolutionary 18 April 2005 (Obituary, The Guardian) accessed 17 November 2007
  5. ^ Blurb on front cover of the 1964 paperback edition of Alexander Baron The Lowlife. Fontana Books.
  6. ^ Ed Glinert (2000) A Literary Guide to London: 256
  7. ^ William Taylor (2001) This Bright Field: A Travel Book in One Place

External links[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

  • Ed Glinert (2000) A Literary Guide to London
  • William Taylor (2001) This Bright Field: A Travel Book in One Place