1 August 2019

Herman Melville's London Abode


Herman Melville, c.1846-1847

Set back a short distance from the Thames at Embankment, running parallel to Charing Cross Station leading up to the Strand, is a little side street which is very popular with American tourists. Whenever I wander down Craven Street there always seems to be a tour group stood outside the house where Benjamin Franklin once lived. This street has had a number of notable residents over the years, including American Vice President Aaron Burr and the German poet Heinrich Heine, but a little further down the road at the end of the Georgian terrace is another house with a notable American connection. It was here at number 25 during the autumn and winter of 1849-1850 that the writer, Herman Melville lodged.

Melville was in London primarily to meet with his London Publisher, Richard Bentley, to discuss the publication of his novel, White Jacket, which draws upon his experiences in the US Navy. Melville’s biographer, Andrew Delbanco, gives a pithy summary of Melville’s stay:  

“In his London diary, we get a glimpse of his ‘vagabonding thro’ the courts & lanes’ (including the red-light districts), book buying, bar-hopping, theatre- and museum-going, a man at ease with every aspect of urban life from the private gentleman’s clubs to the spectacle of a public execution. ‘The mob was brutish,’ he wrote in his journal about the howling crowd at a public hanging. (Charles Dickens was present, too, though the two men were unaware of each other.) ...”*



That last line in parentheses caught my attention because in my research relating to Louis King I’d come across a reference Louis had made to a letter written by Charles Dickens to The Times (see image below) which was re-published in the newspaper on the same day a hundred years later in 1949. In this letter Charles Dickens deplores the conduct of the crowd at the public execution which he and Melville had each witnessed:  

“I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators.”  

I suspect Dickens’ letter had caught Louis’s attention because of the parallels to public executions which he had very likely witnessed in China during his youth – indeed, Louis had even described the infamously gruesome ‘death by a thousand cuts’ method of execution in his first (anonymously) published book, China As It Really Is, in 1911. 

Dickens Letter to The Times, 13 November 1849


It is intriguing to think of Melville and Dickens watching this barbaric spectacle unaware of one another, not least because they were also connected by the fact that they shared the same publisher, Richard Bentley. His short stay in London is thought to have had a profound effect on Melville. We know he saw the oddly macabre curiosity of Jeremy Bentham’s preserved corpse at University College London, which can still be seen there today. He also saw the highly impressionistic sea paintings of J. M. W. Turner, and he was reminded of the ‘blubber rooms’ of his whaling days when he visited the Fleet Market and saw its butchers at work. All of these facts are made more fascinating when you realise that this was around the time when Melville’s mind was beginning to meditate upon the ideas which would become the seeds to his greatest work, his magnum opus, Moby Dick. It’s known that he met a black sailor in Greenwich who had served at the battle of Trafalgar, an encounter which would later be reworked into the text of Billy Budd. A similar encounter with a former sailor, a man with a wooden stump for a leg who had been ‘dismasted’ by a whale, who was begging at Tower Hill is thought to have been the visual inspiration for his most famous character, Captain Ahab.



It’s not known if Melville actually began work on the text of Moby Dick whilst he was staying in London, but it is tempting to think of him scribbling notes towards his great leviathan of a novel in this boarding house with its two enormous bay windows which still look out onto the regular tidal rise and fall of the River Thames, adding another maritime connection to the capital and the many writers who have passed through this city. If you are in London and you are a fan of Melville’s great novel it’s well worth a little detour to take a look at this hidden gem of a house tucked away down a little London side street. And if you have the time, I highly recommend you stop by another hidden gem just up the road; where, tucked away in Craven Passage is The Ship and Shovell, one of the nicest traditional old pubs in town. This pub has another suitably nautical connection, being named after the Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who it is said was murdered by Cornish wreckers after he was shipwrecked off the Isles of Scilly in 1707. The two buildings of the present pub date back to the 1730s. I’m not sure if it was a pub back in Melville’s day, but I’m sure he’d feel instantly at home here if he were to stop by for a pint of beer today. It’s certainly a good place to rest your stump and raise a glass in his honour.



Another good reason to raise a toast in memory of the great man is that today is the bicentenary of Herman Melville's birth. He was born on 1st August 1819 in New York City. - Happy birthday, Herman!


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*Andrew Delbanco, Melville: His World & Work (Picador, 2005), p. 120

2 comments:

  1. Fascinating Tim. Have never thought of Melville and London before!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Murdo. Glad you found it of interest. I've got one in the pipeline on Kerouac in London too, an equally unusual association perhaps!

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