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.
This quote is from Beatrice Webb’s diary on 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
Not exactly a literary reference, but wasn’t Jim Hacker, of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, an LSE graduate?
I am surprised that the (in)famous Jim Hacker, of “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister” didn’t rate a mention.
A visiting brit whizz-kid from a London ad agency in the TV serial “Madmen” is revealed to be a LSE graduate when the execs are reviewing his impressive CV. He is young, clever, creative and suave. In a plot turn worthy of the “Archers “, he is not heard from again after a sticky encounter at the New York office with a “sit – on” lawnmower.
I always get a chuckle when LSE comes up in the context of fiction. I often receive a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” from those folks in whose company I may be at such times. If I find any new ones you will be among the first to know.
You’ve asked for any other references to fictional alumni.
In Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series, Miss Wilson, The Science Misstress (whom Joey nicknames “Bill) is mentioned as having been to LSE. In fact one one story when Miss Wilson accidentally discover’s Joey’s nickname for her, she says it was also her nickname when she was at LSE.
Email from Peter Wilson, International Relations alum:
My favourite is Lady Brenda in Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust, one of the bleakest novels ever written. Lady Brenda uses her night-school classes at the ‘School for Economics’ as a cover for pursuing a love affair with the social parasite and much younger Mr Beaver (surely no coincidence). Everyone in town knows about it except her husband, Tony. Lady Brenda was exquisitely played by Kristin Scott Thomas in her first (and best) screen performance in the 1988 film. The School of Economics becomes a kind of symbol for women’s financial but also sexual liberation, the two being not unconnected.
Good news for LSE in fiction fans:
Blog author Sue Donnelly says, “LSE on screen will be a further piece – and I am sure Jim Hacker will make an appearance then.”
How could you forget West Wing – and President Josiah Bartlet’s proud recitation of his LSE credentials!
The son of the main character in Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version goes to LSE!
In Spanish, see “Esparragos para dos leones” by Alfredo Iriarte. The main character (Trimegistro Esparragoza) went to the “Imperial School of Economics”.