This book is a superb account of those who wander by night, mostly in London, though occasionally further afield. The sub-title “A Nocturnal History of London” gives an idea of the general theme.
Beaumont is one of the better of the UK’s modern literary critics, with a fine knowledge of history and literature. His book examines night-life and those who find themselves out in the dark from the Middle Ages up to that inveterate nocturnal roamer Charles Dickens.
This assessment of the nocturnal is roughly divided into two camps; the noctambulant, who seek the darkness for pleasure or intellectual stimulation, and the noctivigant, those who have no choice but to be out in the darker hours, the rogues and vagabonds and, more importantly, the poor and the exploited.
Beaumont presents a curious class system here of nightwalkers; the wealthy and the intellectual unbothered by authority in their night ramblings; the poor exploited and persecuted, instantly suspect if they are found abroad after curfew. Along the way we are given excellent accounts of the existence of the medieval curfew, the rise of the streetlight, legislation governing vagabonds, and how the laws of the land in England were – and still are – weighted against the poor.
A great many literary figures who favoured exploring in the dark are featured, from Shakespeare to Dr Johnson, De Quincey to John Clare, William Blake to Wordsworth and Coleridge. And then, like a nocturnal colossus in literature, comes Charles Dickens, perhaps the greatest chronicler of Nightwalking, who defines the art of the noctambulant and re-presents it so often in some of our greatest literature.
It’s a challenging read and a very well-worthwhile one for anyone who wants to really understand the world of Nightwalking or who seeks a better understanding of the social growth of London. If you want to better acquaint yourself with the background to so much of our literature and history, then this is the book for you.
Nightwalking is history and literary writing at its very best. Beaumont provides a vivid picture of the great divisions of English society, his judgements sound, and reminds the reader that some of the great problems with England never change.
Hopefully, Matthew Beaumont will one day write a similar account of the more recent nightwalkers who still wander the streets of London and elsewhere.