In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urban Literature

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • General Overviews
  • Theories of the City
  • Edited Collections
  • Genre, Form, and Aesthetics
  • Urban, Imperial, and Postcolonial
  • Online Resources and Archives

British and Irish Literature Urban Literature
Lisa Robertson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0195


Urban literature, at its broadest, is writing that is in some way engaged with the city. While this category can include literature that is written in or inspired by urban life, most often such texts are characterized by their literary representation of the city. There are many ways that authors may represent the city: by setting a narrative in an urban environment; exploring themes associated with city life such as industrialization, anonymity, or cosmopolitanism; or even through experimentation with formal techniques that create for the reader an imaginative impression of city life. The origins of writing about cities, with respect to Britain and Ireland, are as old as cities themselves—but the latter half of the 20th century marked an important shift in critical attention to urban literature, and it is this body of work upon which this bibliography focuses. This shift in critical attention—often referred to as the “spatial turn”—is characterized by the prioritization of space rather than time as the central organizing principle of literary texts, and therefore an important category of analysis. Early momentum for this recasting of critical interest was given its impetus by texts such as Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City (1973) and Burton Pike’s The Image of the City in Modern Literature (1981), which looked to literature to understand patterns of changing emotional and material life and their embeddedness in the landscape. By the early 1990s, English translations of key studies of space such as Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) and Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1991) offered new ways to think about literature as a form of spatialization, and work such as Edward Soja’s Thirdspace (1996) and Doreen Massey’s Space, Place, Gender (1994) helpfully reframed and expanded earlier methodologies. Such theoretical work captured the interest of literary critics who proposed ways of seeing the city not as a stage on which narrative action took place, but as an active and dynamic force in shaping both the content and form of literature. This shift provoked innovative examinations of the relationship between urban space, representation, and modernity itself—themes evident in Cynthia Wall’s influential The Literary and Cultural Spaces of Restoration London (1998), and which have endured through to Nina Levine’s more recent Practicing the City: Early Modern London on Stage (2016). It also offered new frameworks from which to examine the relationship between genres and the aesthetic representation of the city as in Nicholas Freeman’s Conceiving the City (2007) and Tanya Agathocleous’s Urban Realism and the Cosmopolitan Imagination in the Nineteenth Century (2011). Postcolonial criticism—a theoretical framework that has always attended to the spatial implications of uneven power structures—offered new ways to conceive of both the material and imaginative relationship between the imperial and the metropolitan, as in John Ball’s Imagining London (2004) and Rashmi Varma’s The Postcolonial City and Its Subjects (2012). Questions of identity, home, and belonging have also shaped the work of scholars interested in the representational politics of class, race, gender, and sexuality particularly since the publication of Deborah Epstein Nord’s Walking the Victorian Streets (1995) and Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight (1992). Considerations of categories of social power and their articulation in urban space by scholars such as Sharon Marcus in Apartment Stories (1999) and Seth Koven in Slumming (2004) articulated in precise and productive ways what has long captivated writers about the city: its density, its heterogeneity, and its precarity—and the ambivalent experience of existing in such a space.

Reference Works

The past ten years has seen the publication of several helpful volumes that act as a companion to reading, and researching, the city and its literature. In many of these collections, London is overrepresented—but this is characteristic of urban literature studies in the context of Britain and Ireland. A useful place for researchers to begin is Jeremy Tambling’s own introduction in Tambling 2016, and the rest of this volume offers a range of studies that suggest methods for interpreting urban literature. Both McNamara 2014 and Manley 2011 also collect a diverse range of essays on urban themes; while Hiller, et al. 2019 is a valuable resource for scholars who are interested in primary source materials, whether for their literary or historical value. For researchers who wish to orientate themselves with respect to theories of urban space, Thacker 2017 will serve as a useful guide to broader theoretical trends.

  • Hiller, Geoffrey G., Peter L. Grovers, and Alan F. Dilnot, eds. An Anthology of London in Literature, 1558–1914. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2019.

    An expansive compendium of primary sources from the 16th through the 19th century related to London and its environs. This sourcebook is organized chronologically and offers a range of both familiar and more obscure texts by well-known authors.

  • Manley, Lawrence. The Cambridge Companion to London in Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521897525

    A particularly rich volume of essays in its historical span, but more precisely for its attention to the representation of London in various genres and the different strategies this implies. This includes work on London and the Early Modern and Restoration stage (Hanna and Rosenthal), 18th-century poetry (Hammond), and non-fiction (Barry).

  • McNamara, Kevin R. The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCO9781139235617

    Much like Manley 2011, this collection brings together diverse chapters—from the medieval to postmodern and postcolonial—that each explore the literary representation of cities. Although this collection is global in its outlook, it is useful for both geographical and generic context; the collection also offers several chapters that consider London, including those by Karen Newman and Nick Bentley.

  • Tambling, Jeremy, ed. The Palgrave Handbook of Literature and the City. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

    This comprehensive volume benefits from chapters dedicated to London by Finch and Thornton, but also Tambling’s own introduction that offers a dynamic framework for the interpretation of urban space through a focus on the amorphous nature of the city—particularly with reference to gender and ethnicity. This collection also includes an examination of the cartographic influence of literature (and particularly Joyce’s Ulysses) about Dublin.

  • Thacker, Andrew. “Critical Literary Geography.” In The Routledge Handbook of Literature and Space. Edited by Robert T. Tally Jr, 28–38. London: Routledge, 2017.

    Although Thacker’s chapter is not dedicated to urban literature specifically, it offers a lucid assessment of the most important theoretical texts that have shaped literary geography and a discerning perspective of the critical work performed by reading textual space.

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