Literary Bloomsbury

“Tucked in the corner of the Borough of Camden, you’ll find Bloomsbury, the intellectual and literary capital of London.”

(Senate, 2014)

The area of Bloomsbury in London is widely considered synonymous with literature, but the phrase ‘Literary Bloomsbury’ creates a different connotation. So how can a place be regarded as ‘literary’ in and of itself? The dictionary defines ‘literary’ as pertaining to authorship, the nature of books and writings, or preferring books to actual experience (Dictionary, 2015).

Does Bloomsbury pertain to authorship? Can any village, town or city claim it pertains to books and authors? Surely it cannot prefer books to experience, as a location cannot have preferences.

Bloomsbury is a town which has hosted some of the greatest and most famous writers of Britain and Ireland, including:

  • George du Maurier (1834-1896) – Trilby (1894) and The Martian (1897);
  • Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860–1937) – Peter Pan (1911);
  • Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) – assorted novels and non-fictions;
  • William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) – assorted poetry; and,
  • Charles Dickens (1812–1870) – The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837-1839), A Christmas Carol (1843) and various others.

The fact that so many successful authors and poets have lived in close proximity however, can be argued to be coincidence. Possibly it could be that one or two major writers living in Bloomsbury attracted others there, thereby creating a myth that Bloomsbury was the place to be for their contemporaries.

If this is true, then it may have escalated into a self-fulfilling prophecy; authors arrived and added to the literary culture, which increased the respect for literature in the area amongst themselves, and thereby enticed even more writers towards Bloomsbury. This theory is strengthened by both the dense demographic of literary agents, publishing houses and bookstores in the area, as well as the fact that Sir James Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan was inspired by George du Maurier’s grandsons, the Llewelyn-Davies boys (who later became his foster children).

“Hours can be lost rummaging through the many bookshops in Bloomsbury, with unique treasures to be found behind every bookcase.” (Senate, 2014)

According to The London Bookshop Map (London Bookshop, 2012), there are one hundred and fourteen independent bookstores in London, at least ten of which are in Bloomsbury alone. Added to the large company chains like Blackwells, WH Smith, Oxfam charity stores, and a Waterstones on Gower Street which holds the largest academic & specialist range in Europe, Bloomsbury is rather spoilt for choice. I would argue that this shows Bloomsbury is relevant in terms of the historical writers, as well as being seen as important by booksellers, corporate and independent. Important yes, but this still doesn’t answer if Bloomsbury is literary.

“It is notable for its…literary connections” (Wikipedia, 2015)

The nature of books and writings is something I would define as being, what is necessary in order for books or writings to be published. The most obvious answer would be the authors, but we’ve already covered the most famous authors to have lived and worked in Bloomsbury. However, literary agents and publishers are also fundamental to the process.

A short search on Google Maps show at least nine literary agencies in Bloomsbury, including:

  • AP Watt Ltd;
  • Luigi Bonomi Associates;
  • MacFarlane Chard Associates;
  • MBA Literary Agents Ltd; and,
  • Sheil Land Associates.

Publishers Global state that there are three hundred and six British publishing companies in London (unknown). In Bloomsbury itself there are several national and internationally best-selling publishing houses, which include:

  • Bloomsbury Publishing;
  • Constable & Robinson;
  • Faber & Faber;
  • Guinness World Records;
  • Persephone Books;
  • Scholastic;
  • The Publisher’s Association; and,
  • University College London Press.

Admittedly, London is a huge city, and there are hundreds of literary agencies and publishing houses spread throughout. However the fact that so many of those professionals have chosen to centre themselves in Bloomsbury, where there is already a high population density for writers, agents and publishers, indicates that they feel the best place for them to undertake business is within a community full of their peers and those with whom they work. Again, this returns us to our cycle of ‘the more professionals in Bloomsbury, the more business occurs, attracting more professionals in turn.’

“[Bloomsbury is] a literary maze you never want to find your way out of.” (Senate, 2014)

Perhaps a town so steeped in literary history as Bloomsbury can indeed be argued to be ‘literary’. However, the main failing point of any argument would be how it can pertain, or be existentially relevant, to books.

My personal opinion is that regardless of the academic arguments for such a definition, Bloomsbury’s history and culture is the epitome of literary. Perhaps it is actually the culture of Bloomsbury which is literary, by virtue of the sheer weight of numbers that its industry professionals have created. A culture such as this, in which the book is treasured, attracts book-lovers, writers, agents, publishers, academics and students. Each has their own perception of Bloomsbury as a place, but all add to the culture of the area, making it increasingly literature-focused. And there, to me, lies the appeal.

Literary Bloomsbury is a place I want to be. How about you?


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