The Magazine

Signing the Blues

How London commemorates its resident immortals.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The wretchedness that Dickens encountered in the city at night is one reason why London has always produced a high proportion of good popular writers with no interest in bothering readers with life's grimmer realities. In Mayfair, blue plaques commemorate Somerset Maugham, who shared a flat with his wife, Syrie Wellcome, the interior decorator, at 6 Chesterfield Street before he took up with Gerald Haxton, an exuberant alcoholic who was fond of diving into empty swimming pools; Nancy Mitford, who worked at Heywood Hill's bookshop at 10 Curzon Street, before winning fame and fortune with her popular novels and biographies; and P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote 10 of his 90-odd novels, including Summer Lightning, Very Good, Jeeves, and Right Ho, Jeeves at 17 Dunraven (formerly Norfolk) Street.

Wodehouse's stepdaughter described the house as full of servants with strict orders never to disturb their literary master. "It is understood that he is thinking deep thoughts and planning great novels, but when all the smoke has cleared away it really means that he is either asleep or eating an apple or reading Edgar Wallace."

If the blue plaques are a kind of historical stock-taking, they recall the personal stock-taking of the residents they memorialize. Cardinal Manning, for example, who followed Newman into the Roman Catholic Church in 1851, has a plaque in Westminster commemorating his residence at 22 Carlisle Place, a forbiddingly austere palace, which remained the residence of the archbishops of Westminster until 1901. From his bedroom window, Manning, who toyed with the idea of entering politics as a young man, could see the Houses of Parliament, which caused him to reflect in old age: "If I had been able to have my own way and to go there, what a rascal I should have been by this time!"

Edward Short is a writer in New York.