You are an Anglophile. You have read Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, Jane Austen’s Emma, Dickens’s Bleak House, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and E. M. Forster’s Howards End so many times that they are your culture. If you lived in England, if you were much younger, you might possibly be Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest, or, more likely, the freelance indexer heroine of Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love.
If you do not travel to England, you do not understand the culture. If you do travel to England, you do not understand the culture. As an Anglophile who believes the English are the best writers in the world, I was very excited about my brief trip to London. I loved the Dickens Museum, but it gave me less sense of Dickens than you might think. Oddly enough, spotting a plaque on a house where Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby lived a few doors away was more thrilling. Dickens, Brittain, Holtby, and God knows who else lived on Doughty Street!
I’ve always fancied myself the heroine of a classic, but I’m not. I absolutely belong in a middlebrow novel. And so in London I found myself feeling like Louise Bickford, the heroine of Monica Dickens’s underrated novel, The Winds of Heaven (free at The Internet Archive).
Louise Bickford does not belong in London any more than I do. As I walked around the city, looking in shop windows and sitting down in coffee shops and restaurants, I had a vivid sense of her outsiderness. Louise, a 57-year-old widow, is shunted from one daughter’s house to the next. The highlight of visiting her daughter in London consists of meeting a stranger in a tearoom, Gordon, an extremely fat man who sells furniture but turns out to be a kindred spirit: he writes her favorite mysteries under s pseudonym. The chat with Gordon inspires her to make a bid for independence. And if this includes an improvisational period living in a chilly caravan, so be it.
My trip to London had an improvisational feeling. The hotel hall was crammed with suitcases, because tourists could not check in till 3. I spent a bracing first night in jeans and several sweaters, because I did not recognize the Tall White Thing as a radiator. Then there was the night I did laundry…all night. I started at 4 p.m., but the dryer was still twirling at 6 and 7. “Keep checking,” they said at the desk. At 8 the laundry room was locked till morning, and the cycle was still twirling.
London, like New York, is very international, and I spoke most often to tourists and people in service jobs (who are from all different countries). I felt at home in museums and bookstores, which are like museums and bookstores everywhere.
I had a sense of visiting the London of Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters. and Zadie Smith’s NW. I should read more contemporary fiction before I travel again, I thought.
And I should make more literary travels to Haworth and Thomas Hardy country and all the rest.
Why didn’t I go out for tea? I chose coffee shops.
Meanwhile, here is a quote from The Winds of Heaven, when Louise goes to Lyons:
It was that hour in mid-afternoon when those who are on the early lunch and tea break come forth among the exhausted shoppers to get themselves a bite of something to keep them going until five-thirty. When she had stood in line and paid for her cake and cup of tea, Louise could not at first see anywhere to put down her tin tray. Being a Londoner, she did not mind holding a tray laden with unlikely food for the hour of day, and women stacking dirty dishes and wiping off tables with damp cloths.