"A haunting addition to the canon of psychogeography:" Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont


And the reviews are in for Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking – a work that is, according to the Financial Times, “Part literary criticism, part social history, part polemic … a haunting addition to the canon of psychogeography.”

Nightwalking is a historical survey of those who, for criminal or financial reasons, skulk outdoors while others sleep, and a study of writers who have taken London at night as their subject. [...]

The usual suspects are all here: Boswell and Johnson, Wordsworth, De Quincey and Dickens (who concludes the book; there are hints at a sequel). But more intriguing are the lesser characters, such as Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Dekker, author of a pamphlet titled “Lanthorne and Candle-light” that features a racy night-time tour of “Romeville” — London in thieves’ cant — led by the devil himself.[...]

Part literary criticism, part social history, part polemic, this is a haunting addition to the canon of psychogeography.

In the Independent James Attlee writes, “In this magisterial, perambulatory survey Matthew Beaumont excavates strata upon strata of literary sources to help us find the answer. In the process he both explores the night side of some of English literature's greatest writers and resurrects many unjustly forgotten voices, who in their turn give flickering life to the denizens of London's darkness: the vagrant, the fallen, the alienated and the dispossessed. Above all, he releases an ancient, urban miasma that rises from the page, untroubled by electric illumination, allowing us to inhale what Shakespeare's contemporary Thomas Dekker called "that thick tobacco-breath which the rheumaticke night throws abroad".”

Beaumont's night-walkers are divided, just like the diurnal world, by class and gender. "Throughout London's history", he writes, "the homeless and the bohemian, the socially and the spiritually disenfranchised, have coexisted in its obscurest spaces." Differences between them were coded in language. Aristocrats on drunken revels, accompanied by servants with torches, were noctambulants, noctambulists or noctambules, while the lumpenproletariat, walking merely to keep warm and with no place to go, were noctivagants or noctivagators.

Navigating between these parallel worlds stalked those authors who have haunted the streets of London at night, in search of sleep, subject matter or themselves and who populate the pages of Beaumont's book with anecdote and quotation.

Peter J. Smith notes “the urban energy of this prodigious book” in Times Higher Education, going on to observe how “this is a very particular kind of London biography. As Beaumont argues in the case of Dickens, “nightwalking seems to have become instrumental to the business of writing”.

Beaumont’s specific interest in the city is on its crepuscular activities, its night-time vitality, and thus his focus is on writers’ nocturnal ambulations. Such night life is not always (nor even often) salubrious or innocent: “Strolling at night in the city by both men and women has, from time immemorial, been interpreted as a sign of moral, social or spiritual dereliction.” As Beaumont astutely notes, Milton has Eve, in Paradise Lost, “rehearse the Fall with a nightwalk”.

Beaumont’s key assertion is that nightwalking is a form of dissidence or subversion: the nightwalker “represents an intrinsic challenge to the diurnal regime on which, from the end of the Middle Ages, Protestant ideology and the political economy of capitalism partly depended”. So Blake’s poem London is read as an articulation of political resistance: “To wander…is to uncharter. Consciously or unconsciously, houseless wandering constitutes a refusal of the chartered city.” Such rambling is the opposite of busy-ness, with its intimations of business, a meandering defiance of ideological order: “The act of walking, for the Romantics, inscribed a coded rebellion against the culture of agrarian and industrial capitalism.” Gay, Goldsmith, Johnson and Clare, he says, are all “militant pedestrians”.

Visit the Financial Times to read the review in full.

Visit the Independent to read the review in full.

Visit Time Higher Education to read the review in full.