Intertextual London: Empire in the Occult Cosmopolis of Arthur Machen’s N


  • Suvendu Ghatak


In Arthur Machen’s novella N (1935), three elderly twentieth-century city-trotters – Perrott, Harliss, and Arnold – reminisce on a wintry night about the London of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their conversation weaves the material remainders of the city’s old streets, shops, and gardens together with literary bric-a-brac from the past. They venture into London’s past with the help of textual representations by Thomas De Quincey, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. This is a strikingly intertextual, literary London formed from neoclassical, Romantic and Victorian literary snippets. The temporal differences among these texts are overcome in terms of their spatial unity, evoking the longue durée of literary London. While London remains the focal point of this intertextual maze, the itinerants blur its spatial outlines in their mind-walks: the streets at the outer edges of London resemble the colonial frontier and a nondescript park at Stoke Newington acquires the contours of an oriental garden. What is revealed in their walks is the symbolic spatial structure of the intertextual city that marks the colonies as the uncanny double of London. In Machen’s text, the colonial spaces are not particularized. Rather, the references to Jamaica, China, or India coalesce into a spatial ‘Other’ of London, a symbolic outside residing within the city.