LSE Archivist Sue Donnelly introduces some works of fiction that reference LSE, including Pygmalion, a play from LSE co-founder George Bernard Shaw.
For the last three months an idea has haunted me that after we have ended our stiff work on Trade Unions I would try my hand at pure ‘Fiction’ in the form of a novel dated ’60 years hence’: it should not be an attempt to picture Utopia… The truth is, I want to have my ‘fling’! I want to imagine anything I damn please without regard to facts as they are – I want to give full play to whatever faculty I have for descriptive and dramatic work – I want to try my hand at artists’ work instead of mechanics’. I am sick to death of trying to put hideous facts, multitudinous qualifications in a readable form. Doubtless when I discover that I have no artistic faculties I shall turn back to my old love and write with equanimity ‘The History of Municipal Institutions’. But before I can have this debauch I have a grid before me that must be got through however little I like it.
Beatrice Webb’s diary, 1 February 1895
Although Beatrice Webb never wrote her novel, LSE and LSE people have found their way in plenty of works of fiction.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the earliest novels with an LSE influence are the works of two Fabians, G Bernard Shaw and H G Wells. In 1909 H G Wells published his sensational novel, Anne Veronica, whose heroine was inspired by Amber Reeves, daughter of LSE Director, William Pember Reeves, with whom he was having an affair. The novel was published in autumn 1909 and in December 1909 Amber Reeves, by then married to a lawyer, Rivers Blanco White, gave birth to their daughter Anna-Jane.
Less controversial was Shaw’s decision to send Eliza Doolittle to attend classes at LSE in the epilogue to his 1912 play, Pygmalion. Eliza Doolittle, now running a florist’s shop attends evening classes in bookkeeping and shorthand.
There were even classes at the London School of Economics, and a humble personal appeal to the Director of that institution to recommend a course bearing on the flower business.
Shaw, who spent the early years of his marriage living above LSE’s classrooms and whose wife, Charlotte, was a governor and frequent benefactor, knew LSE well and could afford a sly dig at LSE’s practical courses for railway administrators and army officers.
In many novels an LSE degree is often shorthand for a character being clever and outside the establishment – whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on the author. It is telling that Ian Fleming’s CV of James Bond includes the detail that his father, Andrew, is an LSE graduate.
LSE continues to make appearances in contemporary fiction. Lenny is the young “hip” LSE graduate and criminologist in Jake Arnott’s tour of the London underworld in The Long Firm. Robert Harris’ Enigma includes Baxter, a code breaker with leftist views, who has been an LSE lecturer before the war and My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru traces the career of Chris Carver aka Michael Frame who travels from LSE student radical to terrorist and on to middle England.
Former student Hilary Mantel in The Experience of Love never mentions LSE by name but Houghton Street, the corridors of the Old Building and Wright’s Bar are immediately recognisable to those who know LSE. A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book returns to LSE’s Fabian roots with a plot inspired in part by the life of children’s writer E Nesbitt and Fabian Hubert Bland, and characters that choose LSE over older educational establishments.
On the whole authors seem far more interested in the left leaning LSE of Harold Laski, Hugh Dalton and 1960s student politics rather than the LSE of Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper or Michael Oakeshott.
Do let us know if you have other literary references to add to our list.
This post was published during LSE’s 120th anniversary celebrations