The novel draws on the author's time in London in 1887, and includes some great descriptions of the city. It opens with the author crossing from Waterloo on what must have been the Hungerford bridge:
'In the Heart of the World-Metropolis: A wet, cold October evening was beginning to lower upon London. It was the October of the same year in which, not five months before, had been inaugurated those ridiculous celebrations which gave the year 1887 the name of the “Jubilee Year,” — celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the rule of a woman who allows herself to be called “Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and Empress of India.” On this evening — the last of the week — a man coming from the direction of Waterloo Station was wending his way to the railroad bridge of Charing Cross through labyrinthine, narrow, and almost deserted streets. When, as if fatigued from an extended walk, he had slowly ascended the wooden steps that lead to the narrow walk for pedestrians running beside the tracks on the bridge, and had gone about as far as the middle of the river, he stepped into one of the round recesses fronting the water and remained standing there for a short time, while he allowed the crowd behind him to push on. Rather from habit than genuine fatigue, he stopped and looked down the Thames. As he had but seldom been on “the other side of the Thames,” notwithstanding his already three years’ sojourn in London, he never failed, on crossing one of the bridges, to enjoy afresh the magnificent view that London affords from them.
It was still just light enough for him to recognize, as far as Waterloo Bridge to his right, the dark masses of warehouses, and on the mirror of the Thames at his feet, the rows of broad-bellied freight boats and rafts coupled together, though already the lights of the evening were everywhere blazing into the dark, yawning chaos of this immense city. The two rows of lanterns on Waterloo Bridge stretched away like parallel lines, and each of the lanterns cast its sharp, glittering light, deep and long, into the dark, trembling tide, while to the left, in a terrace-shaped ascent, the countless little flames which illumine the Embankments, and the Strand with its surroundings, every evening, were beginning to flash'
|John Henry Mackay|
The novel includes an account of the 'Bloody Sunday' demonstration in Trafalgar Square in November 1887. The demonstration against 'coercion in Ireland' and unemployment ended in violent clashes which resulted in the death of Deptford's William Curner (buried in Brockley Cemetery). Mackay reports the arrival of the South London contingent across Westminster Bridge:
'Before him stood an English acquaintance. His collar was torn, his hat soiled. He was in a state of the greatest excitement. After a few hasty questions back and forth, he said that the long procession from the south had also been dispersed...
“We gathered at Rotherhithe: the radical and other societies and clubs of Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, etc., met on our way the Peckham Radical Club, the associations of Camberwell and Walworth, and in Westminster Bridge Road also those of St. Georges — it was an enormous procession, with numerous banners, music bands, adorned with green, accompanied by an endless mass of people on both sides, which in the best of order crossed the entirely vacant bridge of Westminster.
“As was agreed, we were to meet with the procession from Lambeth and Battersea in Bridge Street at Parliament House. Then we were to march in a straight line from south to north, up Whitehall, to this place. Just imagine: a single great procession of imposing length, representing the entire south of London, the entire section of the city on the other side of the Thames — from Woolwich and Greenwich to Battersea and Wandworth! ...
“But our two processions had not joined each other, we had not reached Parliament Street, when the battle began. I was pretty far in the front ranks. Ah, the brutes, galloping on their horses into our ranks, breaking and tearing our flags, knocking down whatever comes in their way!”
“It was fortunate you did not get farther,” Auban interrupted him, “for I have heard that the Life Guards were held in reserve in Whitehall. I am surprised that they are not yet here, for the situation is getting more serious.”
“But we defended ourselves,” exclaimed the other, “with my loaded cane I gave one —”'
|Bloody Sunday 1887|
As with much writing from that time there is a very strong sense of a class-based division between East and West London, with areas like Deptford and Rotherhithe treated as part of the former. Mackay writes in a chapter entitled 'The Empire of Hunger':
'The East End of London is the hell of poverty. Like an enormous, black, motionless, giant kraken, the poverty of London lies there in lurking silence and encircles with its mighty tentacles the life and the wealth of the city and of the West End: those on the left side extending over the Thames and embracing the entire Embankment on the other side — Rotherhithe, Deptford, Peckham, Camberwell, Lambeth, the other London, the South separated by the Thames; those on the right side stealing round the northern limits of the city in thinner threads. They join each other where Battersea runs into Chelsea and Brompton across the Thames...
The East End is a world in itself, separated from the West as the servant is separated from his master. Now and then one hears about it, but only as of something far off, somewhat as one hears about a foreign land inhabited by other people with other manners and customs...'
The final chapter sees its main character reflecting again on London, this time from London Bridge:
'Two immense human streams surged across London Bridge; back and forth rolled, rattling and resounding, two unbroken lines of vehicles. The black waters of the Thames flowed lazily. Auban stood against the railing of the bridge, and, facing the east, contemplated the grand picture which presented itself: Everywhere, on both sides of the stream, towers, pillars, chimney-stacks, church steeples rose above the sea of houses... But beneath him a forest of masts, poles, sails... On the left Billingsgate, the great, famous fish-market of London... Farther, where the four towers rise, the dark, dismal structure of the Tower. With a reddish glare the setting sun, the pale, weary sun of London, lay on its windows a few minutes; then also its light was suddenly extinguished, and a gray twilight drew its streaks around the dark masses of the warehouses, the giant bodies of the ships, the pillars of the bridge...
By the clock on the Adelaide Buildings it was already seven, but still the task of unloading the great ocean steamer at Auban’s feet was not yet completed. Long lines of strong men carried boxes and bales over wavering wooden bridges to the shore. Their foreheads, heads, and necks protected against the crushing pressure of their heavy burdens by strangely shaped cushions, they looked like oxen in the yoke as they staggered along under their weight...
A strange feeling crept over Auban. Such was London, immense London, which covers seven hundred miles with its five millions of human beings; such was London, where a man was born every fifth minute, where one died every eighth... Such was London, which grew and grew, and already immeasurable, seemed to aspire to the infinite...Immense city! Sphinx-like, it stretched on both sides of the river, and the clouds of smoke, vapor, noise it belched forth, lay like veils over its panting body...
Lights after lights began to flash and mingled the warmth of their glow with the dampness of the fog. Their reddish reflections trembled through the twilight. London Bridge thundered and resounded under the burdens it bore. Thus day after day, week after week, year after year, raged that mighty life which never grew tired. The beatings of its heart grew ever more feverish, the deeds of its arms ever mightier, the plans of its brain ever bolder. When would it reach the summit of its aspirations? When would it rest?'