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Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  241 ratings  ·  53 reviews
Before the age of the gas lamp, the city at night was a different place, home to the lost, the vagrant and the noctiambulators. In this brilliant work of literary investigation, Matthew Beautmont shines a light on the dark perambulations of poets, novelists and thinkers from Shakespeare, the ecstatic strolls of William Blake, the feverish urges of opium addict De Quincey a ...more
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published March 24th 2015 by Verso (first published January 1st 2015)
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Average rating 3.71  · 
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An alternative title for this book could have been "Men walking".

This is a personal and a bit rambling book, and at times very interesting, but at the same time the book is not totally clear on its focus: sometimes it is about men walking, sometimes about London (mostly the unprivileged parts), sometimes about London at night - and sometimes about walking at night in London. And all this with a heavy slant towards men of letters, when Beaumont doesn't switch to his other mode: a general descript
Stephen Goldenberg
May 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
As an inveterate London walker (although always by day, hardly ever at night), this was a book I was keen to read. It is a hugely detailed work of literary and historical investigation which is over detailed and laborious at times but, in the end, repays the effort sometimes needed to get through it.
There's a wealth of fascinating information about London at night from medieval times to the 19th century, not least the history of street lighting and curfews and the slow development of the policin
K.J. Charles
A mostly very enjoyable and readable account of nightwalking in London from the eleventh century to the 19th, as mediated by literature.

(What? I don't always read books about cannibal chefs, you know.)

I don't know if there's quite enough to the topic to support the length, and the author does fall into academic blether occasionally, but the medieval history parts and the section on Blake are tremendous, vivid and fascinating. Well chosen quotes and sources too. A really interesting perspective f
May 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Admittedly, I judged this book by its cover and bought it on a whim. I'm so happy that I did. It's a wonderful and rich history of walking at night (mostly in London). A thorough analysis of people who walk the night and those who safeguard against it...which is always accompanied by how we view people who've wandered the night over the centuries and of the night itself. Fascinating from start to finish. Give it a go! ...more
Sep 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, british
it takes me a long time to read nonfiction. this was a great book - I was attracted to the poetic aspect of it. it was clear matthew beaumont knows a hell of a lot about literature and history. I didn't agree with all his assessments - I wouldn't say shelley is making the case that the skylark is an aesthetic construct, for example,I just think he's saying it has transcended the material realm. but I learned a lot about literature and london - didn't know marble arch was the site of tyburn tree, ...more
Nov 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
3.5 but rounded up to 4 for the strong finish. I thought the writer was best when speaking about the history surrounding the individuals he profiled. I appreciated the Marxist analysis of both the history and literature included in the book and I thought it contributed to his argument. I was not a fan of every writer and excerpt he included and this made the book drag at points. That said, the build up contributed to the pay off of the Dickens chapters, which knocked it out of the park. The Poe ...more
Mar 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What a delightful book! Its exploration of London’s nightwalkers begins in Shakespeare’s walled city, in which there was no good reason for anyone but the night watch to be out; it proceeds through the bohemian period, in which the noctavagant are actively resisting the strictures of clock-watching artisans. The books concludes in Dickens’ insomniac walks to his country home, tortured as he was by some pre-Freudian psychology that would only be drawn out by the noirs and crime novels of the mid- ...more
Nicki Markus
Apr 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-non-fiction
Nightwalking was at times a dense read, but no less enjoyable for that. It blends social and legal history with literary history and commentary in a remarkable way, drawing some fascinating conclusions. I loved the profiles of the various writers, and the way Beaumont linked their nocturnal wanderings to their writing, and to the views of the time in which they lived. Given its tone, this is probably a book more for readers used to perusing heavier, academic texts than those looking for a light ...more
Apr 28, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well-studied, well-written book that sometimes felt like a literary roller coaster. Just when you start to think it's getting dull, it picks up pace and you don't want the ride to end.
I was mostly attracted to the social history aspect but enjoyed the literary criticism as much.
May 01, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I cannot divine any reason praise has been given to this book. I got few if any facts about from it. It is not a history. There are no primary sources and secondary studies are badly used. A study of the 16th century is not "obviously" applicable to the nineteenth. Also imaginative works are not valid sources of history. I would not be surprised if the wonderful victory of humans, dwarves, and elves over the orcs was not given as one of the sources of night walking in Dickens time. The author is ...more
Brian Yatman
Aug 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing
We moved recently and this book is currently boxed up in our garage. I'll get back to it (eventually) ...more
Thomas Brand

I really wanted to like this book more. In fact, I think the amount I wanted to to enjoy it is the only reason I managed to make myself finish it.

The main concept is one of those that is oddly interesting: a history of London at night. But it is interesting. It’s one of those areas that you don’t realise you’ve never thought about. I mean, when did you last think about how much public street lighting must have fundamentally changed public life? Or what life in the was city like when it would li
Jun 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A beautifully written elegiac trip through a city’s other history. Into that thick tobacco-breath night of the 16th century. We walk with the vagabonds and the mysterious, the suspicious and the terrible. Night watchmen calling out the hours, disturbing the slumbers and invading our dreams. Grub Street poets watching the dark and stepping through the centuries. Johnson’s poet hero Savage tried for murder. Returning soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars now destitute; unloved, unheralded and unseen. ...more
Adam Thomas
Mar 31, 2019 rated it it was ok
Beaumont has written a rambling exploration of people rambling in London at night, and particularly those who have written about rambling people in the past. In a sense, my low rating is not Beaumont's fault. I read this as a historian, Beaumont writes as a literary critic. He is at his most interesting when discussing changing societal attitudes and lexicographical developments (did you know "pedestrian" was used in its "metaphorical" sense before its "literal" one?). But a lot of this long boo ...more
Jan 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book's title is pretty accurate description of it: a sociological, anthropological, and literary history of walking at night in the City of London.
On the whole, the book was fascinating (and enlightening, since walking and photographing at night is a favorite pastime of mine). The author does an outstanding job of tracing how the simple act of walking after sunset has been viewed as morally suspect. And in the process, he provides some context around the modern-day criminalization of homele
Stuart Cole
May 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Original approach to night walking in literature, covering both authors and their creations. Beautifully written, and displaying a wide and detailed knowledge of writers famous and obscure (at least to me), Beaumont exposes the underbelly of literature (chiefly) about London. In some ways reminiscent of Colin Wilson's 'The Outsider' (which studied a range of individuals, including Nijinsky, Henri Barbusse, Albert Camus and Dennis Wheatley), Nightwalkers made me want re-read The Old Curiosity Sho ...more
I let myself sleep on this one. This book had some interesting points to make, but seemed either to get bogged down in the quantity of sources (after ~1650) or the quotes themselves. The author should have given a special mention in the acknowledgments to Walter Benjamin as he seemed to crib so much of his work esp on Baudelaire. It was odd that Baudeliere himself got so little mention.
One could argue the book meandered like a nightwalker through a big city, but that seems overgenerous.
Special e
Jan 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Rich in imagery and idea, this is the kind of book that makes readers ask questions and explore further. Readers walk with Savage, Johnson, De Quincey, Dickens, Poe (and their characters) and others, getting to know these artists, their texts, London at night (chartered and unchartered), and the human condition in new and thought-provoking ways. I will read it again, and I'll long for books that study women writers and dark London and other writers and noctambulations in other cities. ...more
Jul 15, 2018 rated it it was ok
Listen, there is no median between two and three stars. I didn't dislike this book; if anything, I think I may have had too high hopes. The subject matter is fascinating to me, but it's quite dry. I never quite shook the feeling that I was being lectured to. Still, if you like Londoniana, you will find something of great odd value in this tome. ...more
Mar 27, 2019 rated it liked it
This has been on my "to read" shelf for an awfully long time. It didn't quite live up to my expectations, it could quite easily have been half the length. Some of the content was very tenuously related to London or night walking, or, for that matter, night or walking. I was quite glad to finish as by the end I had lost a bit of interest. However, the afterword by Will Self is a charm. ...more
Aug 07, 2019 rated it did not like it
I abandoned this book although there are good things in it. It is essentially a literary anthology with a bit of social background and history. It's fine for what it is but not what I expected and not my cup of tea. It means, as others have commented, that it is pretty much a male history - the women who occupied London's streets at night not generally producing much poetry and prose. ...more
Feb 09, 2020 rated it it was ok
Didn’t finish. Got about 90 pages in and stopped. Liked the history of London opening but once the literary criticism started felt like he was trying too hard to show off. And basing a book around every time someone wrote the words “night” or “nightwalker” throughout history became very repetitive. The Will Self foreword should have been a hint of what was to come.
Nov 09, 2020 marked it as dnf
The introduction holds so much potential for a riveting read, and yes, there are the occasional paragraphs of interesting material, but this is not the book I wanted. It is bloated, repetitive and rambling, and there is a lot less history in there than is implied. I've attempted this book twice now and just can't make it past 70 or so pages. ...more
Jul 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Studies of walking, in particular in its nocturnal form, are pretty thin on the ground and Beaumont has built a fantastic foundation for future academics to build upon. Thoroughly researched and readable, this book is an accomplished work.
Sep 16, 2017 rated it liked it
Matthew Beaumont’s exhaustive nocturnal history of Britain’s capital leads readers to some previously inaccessible places –perhaps even to some dark passages in their own heads.

Since the late 19th Century, fear of violence and crime has tended to dissuade those who might otherwise wander our cities at night. In earlier times it was more likely to have been a fear of being arrested as a criminal, someone untrustworthy or merely for being a “nightwalker”. This realisation is one of the strongest i
Jan 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I bought this for research purposes and it was helpful in that respect but it was also very informative and interesting. Beaumont did a lovely job of following the act of nightwalking through the centuries, and he did it brilliantly.
Steve  Charles
Apr 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Very interesting book about an usual subject. Very good sections on several writers including Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth and Blake. Also contains extensive notes and references to other texts that sound worth reading.
Jan 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant! Thoroughly enjoyable study of a city, authors, their texts and characters. It can't be called a "page turner" because there's simply too much to digest on each page. A rich read. A great read! ...more
Jamie Thomas
Apr 21, 2020 rated it liked it
Great and surprising book. A lot of information on the birth of capitalism (this is a book published by Verso after all) and it's connection to penal colonies. It's so long ago now that I read it but I stopped short of the end as I did start to get board as the narrative lost steam. ...more
Neil Lewell
Jun 10, 2017 rated it liked it
I found this book interesting but, a bit too academic for me.
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