Monday 26 November 2012


In 1867 plaques to commemorate notable residents started to be put up on the walls of London houses. At first they were sponsored by the Society of Arts, then by the London County Council (LCC). The second LCC plaque was for Charles Dickens. It was erected in 1903 at 48 Doughty Street, in Holborn.

I enjoy these plaques, and when I spot one I've not seen, I cross the road to read it. As well as the plaque for Dickens, there are plaques in London for writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry James, John Keats, Katherine Mansfield, George Orwell, Samuel Pepys, Jean Rhys, Mary Shelley—as well as at a different address—her husband Percy Bysshe, and Virginia Woolf.

One of the writers whose houses have interested me is Robert Louis Stevenson. For four years we lived in Edinburgh, on Queen Street (in a flat that used to be occupied by Francis Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review). Just a hop and a skip across Queen Street Gardens, was the house where Robert Louis Stevenson was born and grew up. Twelve years ago, we lived for a year in Hampstead, in North London, and I was please to see there a plaque on a house where Stevenson had lived on the corner of Holly Place. I knew that Stevenson had lived for a while in San Francisco and so, on a visit there some years ago, I went to see where Stevenson's house was. As I was searching for it, I saw a plaque on a side wall in an alley, near where Stockton Street passes through a dismal tunnel under Bush Street. Was it for Stevenson? No. It turned out that he'd lived on the other side of Bush Street. This plaque said: "On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O'Shaughnessy." It's a commemoration of the first significant event in Dashiell Hammett's novel, The Maltese Falcon.

Perhaps the idea of plaques to events in fiction is catching on. Since discovering The Maltese Falcon plaque in San Francisco, I attended the unveiling, on the corner of College Street and Manning Street in Toronto, of a plaque—known here as a "bookmark"—to commemorate an event in Anne Michaels's novel, Fugitive Pieces. But what about some plaques in London to remind us of literary characters, places, and events there, parallel to the many that celebrate writers? What about a plaque on the wall of an antique shop in Bloomsbury to say that this is where Charlotte Stant first saw the golden bowl, in Henry James's novel of that name. What about a plaque on London University's Senate House to say that this very building housed the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's Nineteen-eighty-four? What about a notice on a post by some railings in Regents Park, where Septimus Warren Smith, in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, shell-shocked in the 1914-1918 war, heard sparrows singing to him in Greek?

Dashiell Hammett (1930). The Maltese falcon. Current edition New York: Vintage.
Henry James (1904).The golden bowl. New York; Scribner.
Anne Michaels (1996) Fugitive pieces. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
George Orwell (1949). Nineteen-eighty-four. London: Secker and Warburg.
Virginia Woolf (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.
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