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Literary connections found in London

12 January 2024

Writers and poets have left their mark on the capital’s churches. Terry Philpot lists a few


Memorial to John Donne in St Paul’s Cathedral

Memorial to John Donne in St Paul’s Cathedral

WHILE writing a book on literary places in London, I encountered many churches with strong and varied literary associations dating back centuries. For example, each day thousands pass All Hallows’ by the Tower, in the City of London — but how many know that, from its steeple, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary his witnessing of the Great Fire of London?

Woken on the first day by his maid, he went back to sleep. On the second day, woken at 2 a.m. with “new Cryes of fire”, he climbed the steeple of the church at the end of Seething Lane, where he lived. What he saw decided him to take his wife, Elizabeth, his maid, and manservant (and his gold) by boat to Greenwich, where the year before they had sat out the plague. There, he records: “What a sad sight it was by moonlight to see the whole city almost on fire — that you might see it plain at Woolwich, as if you were by it.”

A very visible sign of the fire can be seen in St Paul’s Cathedral: the white marble statue of John Donne, poet and sometime Member of Parliament. Born into a recusant family, in his last decade he was Dean, having been ordained on the insistence of King James I. When he knew he was dying, he designed the memorial himself, although the drawings from which the sculptor worked have been lost.

It shows the shrouded poet rising from his funeral urn. It is said that the monument, was one of the few to survive the conflagration that destroyed Old St Paul’s. It fell through the floor into the crypt, and was found in one piece. The scorches can still be seen.

THE love stories of poets often featured a dramatic church connection. Percy Bysshe Shelley, although married, confessed his love in 1812 to the future author of Frankenstein, Mary Godwin, as she visited the grave of her mother, the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, in the ancient graveyard of St Pancras Old Church. (The body was removed in 1851, but the tomb remains.)

Her father, the philosopher William Godwin, expressed his opposition to Shelley, causing the couple to elope to the Continent in 1815, and marry a year later, after Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, took her own life. Mary Shelley may have seen those early years as “careless, free youth”, but back in England in 1816 they faced debt and social ostracism. On return to Italy, only one of their four children survived, and Shelley drowned in 1822.

AlamyThe grave of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in the Old St Pancras Churchyard, Somers Town, London

When two poets, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, married in 1846 at St Marylebone Parish Church, they did so in secret for fear of her father, who had forbidden any of his children to marry. The only witnesses to the ceremony were her maid, and his cousin. A week later, the couple also eloped, sailing to Italy — again in secret — with Elizabeth’s dog and her maid.

There they were to spend most of their lives, she to be buried in Florence, he in Westminster Abbey. Today, St Marylebone Parish Church has a Browning Room, with a stained-glass window, copies of their books, their wedding certificate, a bas-relief of each, and other memorabilia.

One hundred and ten years later, two other poets married — a month after they met — with less happy consequences. Ted Hughes, a published poet, and Sylvia Plath, soon to become one herself, wed in 1956, in the 18th-century church of St George the Martyr, in the heart of Bloomsbury.

Appropriately for writers, their wedding day was 16 June: Bloomsday, the day when the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses take place. Only Plath’s mother attended the ceremony (her family were in America), and Hughes wore his only suit. The wedding night was spent in a single bed, in his flat near by, amid “the grease & dust & the carrot peels”, as she remembered it. In 1961, living in Devon, she found that Hughes was having an affair, and left him and moved back to London. She took her own life, aged 30, in February 1963, a month after her only novel, The Bell Jar, was published.

“EVERYONE loves a conspiracy,” the librarian says in The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, in which one location is the 12th-century Gothic-Romanesque Temple Church. Brown makes good use of the architecture of the church, the eastern half of which is recognisable as an “ordinary” church, the western half built in the style of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem.

In Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, the Revd Septimus Harding comes up to London from Barchester. He walks around Westminster Abbey, and visits Poets’ Corner, contemplating his future after a scandal. John Budd, a zealous young reformer, has cast aspersions on how Harding has managed the finances of a charity, and Harding contemplates whether he should resign. (“What a charge!” explodes Trollope at the 2d. entry fee to the Abbey.)

Only three Tube stops away, the American writer Jack London witnessed grinding poverty in the churchyard of Hawksmoor’s majestic Christ Church, Spitalfields. The church is one of the few places that he names in his People of the Abyss.

What he saw was, he said, “a sight I hope never to see again”. Either side of the path was “a mass of miserable and distorted humanity . . . a welter of loathsome skin diseases . . . and bestial faces”. His book — a mixture of observation, graphic reporting, newspaper cuttings, and official tables and statistics — set the tone for later fly-on-the-wall reportage.

AlamyJohn Stow memorial in St Andrew Undershaft, in the City of London. The quill is changed annually

A different kind of observer was John Stow, whose marble and plaster memorial in St Andrew Undershaft, in the City of London, shows him standing at his desk, quill pen in hand. He was born and lived in the parish, although his resting place is unknown. His Survey of London came from his gift for anecdote and strong narrative, giving a unique portrait of the living and social conditions of late-Elizabethan urban life.

His visits, on foot, ranged from alleyways to churches: “many a weary mile . . . many a cold winter’s night’s study”. More than 400 years later, Stow’s book remains in print.

A CHRISTENING that helped to shape British history and the Conservative Party, as well as literature, occurred when Benjamin Disraeli was baptised in St Andrew’s, Holborn. Isaac, his father, had fallen out with his synagogue, and, after the death of Disraeli’s grandfather, a devout Jew, in 1815, Isaac felt able to allow his four children to be baptised — not least as he was aware how much would be denied them as Jews.

This enabled the now Christian Benjamin Disraeli, who would write 17 novels and works of non-fiction, to stand for Parliament, as Jews were barred from doing at that time. He would serve two terms and nearly seven years as Prime Minister.

Terry Philpot is the author of 111 Literary Places in London That You Shouldn’t Miss (Emons Verlag, £13.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.59); 978-3-7408-1954-5).

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