Liberty London Girl's Literary Guide to St James's | St James's London
Liberty London Girl's Literary Guide to St James's

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For anyone who loves reading, to walk the streets of St James’s is to walk in the footsteps of some of literature’s most-loved authors and characters. It helps that the beautiful Georgian architecture of the area remains much in situ, so one’s imagination easily jumps inside the pages of one’s favourite novels.

In the heart of St James’s and firmly anchoring its literary credentials is The London Library in St James’s Square. A list of the writers who have worked in its beautiful rooms would be extensive; it includes Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, Edith Sitwell and Harriet Martineau. Lady Antonia Fraser, Claire Tomalin, Sarah Waters, and Lynne Truss are all current members of the London Library.

It has also featured as a location in works by some of British literature’s most loved authors. In "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client", a Sherlock Holmes short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (published in 1924, but set in 1902), Dr Watson visits the Library in order to gain sufficient expertise to pose as an authority on Chinese pottery, and in Ian Fleming's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", James Bond borrows a copy of Burke's General Armory from the Library in order to pose as a representative of the College of Arms.

The seminal London Library-featured work is A. S. Byatt's remarkable novel "Possession", which opens with the discovery of a Victorian letter hidden within the pages of a rare book in the Library.

Lovers of detective fiction are well-served by St James’s. In addition to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the 20th century’s best crime writers, Dorothy L Sayers, frequently mentions locations in the area. While her hero, the aristocrat Lord Peter Wimsey lived just the wrong side of Piccadilly, on the north at 110a, her characters frequented both the stores of Jermyn Street and the clubs of Pall Mall, including the Royal Automobile Club in "Clouds of Witness".

Additionally, the continuation of her unfinished novel "Thrones, Dominions" by Jill Paton Walsh, makes use of St James’s. Lady Peter Wimsey (the writer Harriet Vane) uses The London Library to research her study of Sheridan Le Fanu, and the famous church of St James’s Piccadilly is the setting for Bunter’s (valet to Lord Peter Wimsey) marriage.

Margery Allingham, one of the greatest writers of the Golden Age of detective fiction, set her smart 1940 novel "Black Plumes" in St James’s Square, (the protagonists own an art gallery there), and her detective Campion, who lived in a flat in Bottle Street (in reality Vine Street just north of Piccadilly), was a member of the imaginary club Junior Greys, in reality, the Oxford and Cambridge University Club at 71 Pall Mall.

Anyone who has immersed themselves in the Regency world of Georgette Heyer will feel her world come alive as they walk down St James’s Street where the private men’s’ clubs were situated, and where a woman’s reputation could be ruined in minutes if she so much as set foot on a flagstone of the street. (In "The Grand Sophy", Sophy purposely sets out to create a scandal by driving her cousin’s fiancée in an open carriage past the famous bow window of White’s Club where the bucks and beaus of the day congregated at 37-38 St James’s Street).

White’s isn’t the only storied gentlemen’s club to make it into the pages of a novel. Further down St James’s Street, Brook’s is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ "Dombey & Son", when cousin Feenix mentions an acquaintance, little Billy Joper who is a member. Although a favourite Dickens reference to the area comes in "Barnaby Rudge" when Mr Dennis believes that plates looted by rioters are buried in St James’s Square.

By the entrance to Piccadilly Arcade on Jermyn Street, you will see the statue of Beau Brummel by the sculptor Irena Sedlecka. Heyer’s readers will need no introduction to the man but suffice to say that he is widely considered to have made the trouser fashionable and introduced the idea of simple, streamlined male dress in the aftermath of the era of Georgian excess. Brummell appears in Heyer’s novel "Regency Buck" - the only one of her books in which he is an actual character as opposed to being mentioned briefly when the heroine Judith Taverner makes friends with him to secure her place in high society.

In modern times, one of the most evocative mentions of St James’s comes in "The Book of Life", the third novel of Deborah Harkness’ incredible "All Souls" series. The hero’s son Marcus owns a townhouse in Pickering Place, London’s smallest square, accessed on foot by a tiny covered alleyway down the side of wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd (Lord Byron’s favourite wine shop) at the St James’ Palace end of St James’s Street. The courtyard is the covered remains of a garden that existed when houses were first built here in the mid -1660s and is one of London’s best-kept secrets.

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