Thomas Burke 1886-1945
English short story writer, novelist, and essayist.
Burke is best known for his short stories set in London's Chinatown, the section of docks, warehouses and tenements known as Limehouse. Foremost among these works is the collection Limehouse Nights. While Burke also published several well-received novels not associated with Limehouse, as well as many volumes of essays and social history, this collection and its sequels typed him as a purveyor of melodramatic stories of lust and murder among London's lower classes.
Burke was born in London. His father died when Burke was only a few months old, and he was sent to live with an uncle in Poplar, a district of London near Limehouse. During his childhood Burke enthusiastically gained a familiarity with his dockland surroundings, but his apparent freedom from adult supervision led to his confinement to an orphanage from the time he was nine until he was fourteen. His acquaintance with the Chinese owner of a tea shop inspired him to begin writing, and his first short story collection, Limehouse Nights, appeared in 1917. The book was praised by such well-known writers as H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. One of its stories, "The Chink and the Child," served as the basis for D. W. Griffith's motion picture Broken Blossoms; or, The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919). Another of Burke's stories, "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" (from the collection The Pleasantries of Old Quong), was voted the best mystery story of all time by a panel of critics in 1949. Burke died in London in 1945.
Burke first glimpsed what he perceived as the romance of Asia in the establishment of a shopkeeper whom he later fictionalized as"Quong Lee" in Limehouse Nights and such subsequent volumes as The Pleasantries of Old Quong. These works mark Burke as the voice of London's lower, often immigrant, classes. A concomitant interest in crime runs through much of Burke's fiction and led him to produce Murder at Elstree, a novel based on an actual case from the early nineteenth century. Burke also wrote several richly detailed autobiographical novels: The Wind and the Rain, The Sun in Splendour, and The Flower of Life. Another genre in which he excelled was the essay. Burke's many collections dealing with London, its suburbs, and English life in general exhibit the same characteristics that made his fiction popular: a harsh realism derived from firsthand experience, but one tempered by a romantic outlook.
Verses (poetry) 1910
Pavements and Pastures: A Book of Songs (poetry) 1912
Nights in Town: A London Autobiography (autobiography) 1915; also published as Nights in London, 1916
Limehouse Nights: Tales of Chinatown (short stories) 1916
London Lamps: A Book of Songs (poetry) 1917
Twinkletoes: A Tale of Chinatown (novel) 1917
Out and About: A Note-Book of London in War-Time (essays) 1919; also published as Out and About in London, 1919
The Song Book of Quong Lee of Limehouse (poetry) 1920
The Outer Circle: Rambles in Remote London (essays) 1921
Whispering Windows: Tales of the Waterside (short stories) 1921; also published as More Limehouse Nights, 1921
The London Spy: A Book of Town Travels (essays) 1922
The Wind and the Rain: A Book of Confessions (novel) 1924
The Sun in Splendour (novel) 1926
East of Mansion House (short stories) 1928
Essays of Today and Yesterday (essays) 1928
The Bloomsbury Wonder (short stories) 1929
The Flower of Life (novel) 1929
The English Inn (nonfiction) 1930
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SOURCE: "Rediscovery and Romance," in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. LXIII, July 19, 1917, pp. 65-7.
[In the following essay, Seldes offers a favorable assessment of Limehouse Nights and Nights in Town.]
The two substantial books of tales and sketches of London which Mr. Thomas Burke has collected and published since the war began are of a stuff which the world may find outmoded in the unhappy years to come. They are books which might have become only items in the "new literature" of the century's second decade had the revolution of war not prevented, for Mr. Burke is not only one of those who rediscovered romance; he is also of those who taste to the full the romance of their own rediscovery.
Some fifteen tales of Limehouse, the Chinese quarter of London in "the thunderous shadows of the great Dock," and some twenty sketches of London complete Mr. Burke's present contribution. To write about Chinatown is a reporter's holiday; to write about London, giving yourself no limitations but that of the mystic city itself, and to write with love and care and beauty, is a hard and bitter labor, no matter what talents you may have. Mr. Burke's passing repute comes from the tales of terror which the libraries were compelled to bar from their shelves; but to those who have some respect for the English tongue and for whom Walter Pater has not lived in vain, Mr. Burke will always possess an...
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SOURCE: "Burke of Limehouse," in The Bookman, New York, Vol. XLVI, September, 1917, pp. 15-17.
[In the following essay, Bronner evaluates the style and themes of Limehouse Nights and London Lamps.]
Violent times seem to beget in those who stay quietly at home a taste for a brutally realistic literature. After the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, when the Czar crushed the rebels with an iron hand and all Russia seemed once more sunk in hopeless and helpless despair, there was an unprecedented production of novels and stories whose realism was unusually frank, even for that country. Strangely enough, it was also pornographic. It was as if by mutual consent of writers and reading public they had said, "Very well, if we cannot have political freedom we will have freedom in our novels. Nay we will go beyond freedom. We will have license."
In Great Britain to-day, confronted always by the terrible lists of her dead and wounded, with signs of mourning and war's wreckage on every hand, the book that has gone speedily into three editions and has already made an English reputation for its author is not of the kind to make sad ones smile and anxious ones forget. It is not light and airy at all. It is one of the most frankly and brutally realistic books that has appeared in our tongue in a long time. Yet it won its audience despite the fact that circulating libraries barred it, and it...
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SOURCE: "Places to Go," in When Winter Comes to Main Street, George H. Doran Company, 1922, pp. 187-95.
[In the following excerpt, Overton discusses Whispering Windows and The London Spy.]
The book by Thomas Burke called More Limehouse Nights was published in England under the title of Whispering Windows. At the time of its publication, Mr. Burke wrote the following:
The most disconcerting question that an author can be asked, and often is asked, is: "Why did you write that book?" The questioners do not want an answer to that immediate question; but to the implied question: "Why don't you write some other kind of book?" To either question there is but one answer: BECAUSE.
Every writer is thus challenged. The writer of comic stories is asked why he doesn't write something really serious. The novelist is asked why he doesn't write short stories, and the short-story writer is asked why he doesn't write a novel. To me people say, impatiently: "Why don't you write happy stories about ordinary people?" And the only answer I can give them is: "Because I can't. I present life as I see it."
I am an ordinary man, but I don't understand ordinary men. I am at a loss with them. But with the people of whom I write I have a fellow-feeling. I know them and their sorrows and their thwarted strivings and I understand...
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SOURCE: "Thomas Burke," in The Glory That Was Grub Street: Impressions of Contemporary Authors, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1928, pp. 13-22.
[In the following essay, Adcock favorably surveys the early years of Burke's literary career.]
It used to be a canon of criticism, not so long ago, that all great art is impersonal. We were told (when I was young one distinguished critic told me in most reverent and emphatic terms) that Shakespeare could not be found in his plays or poems; that these were the sublime creations of his intellect and imagination, and that he had kept himself out of them with the perfect reticence of the supreme artist. It was a generally accepted faith. When somebody said that with his sonnets Shakespeare had unlocked his heart, wasn't it Browning who exclaimed, "then so much the less Shakespeare he!"
But this notion that the artist writes in a spirit of serene detachment from his work is only one of the many critical theories we try on from time to time and quietly discard as soon as we find they won't fit. The fact is that every author, especially the novelist, is consciously or unconsciously autobiographical. His personal experiences are naturally, almost inevitably, the raw material with which he makes his stories and his characters. He may not use such experiences literally; he adapts them, adds to them, varies or amplifies them with imaginary details; he joins...
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SOURCE: "Thomas Burke: The Man of Limehouse, in Thomas Burke: A Critical Appreciation of the Man of Limehouse," George H. Doran Company, 1929, pp. 5-18.
[Bjo'rkman was a Swedish-American novelist, translator, and critic who introduced American readers to the works of such Scandinavian authors as August Strindberg, Biornstjerne Björnson, and Georg Brandes. In the following essay, Bjdrkman discusses Burke's life, his philosophy, and the sources of his works.]
Anyone with a love for strong color and brisk action can enjoy the work of Thomas Burke. But to savor it fully, one must bear in mind sympathetically the three main factors that have combined to make his art what it is. The first of these is the soil from which he sprang: the London East End; the life of the slums; the sounds and sights and mysterious doings of the dock district, where, "on the floodtide, floats from Limehouse the bitter-sweet alluring smell of Asia. The second is the metropolis itself, in its vast and protean entirety, which every evening, when the human ebb retires from its heart to the suburbs, "affords an event as full of passion and wonder as any Eastern occasion." The third is his devotion to beauty, to all forms of art that strive genuinely to express it and, above all, to "the secret beauty that lies behind the material beauty of colour and sound" … a devotion born and nursed among surroundings and under...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Limehouse Nights by Thomas Burke, Horizon Press, 1973, pp. 12-19.
[A highly respected American literary critic, Kazin is best known for his essay collections The Inmost Leaf (1955), Contemporaries (1962), and On Native Ground (1942). In the following essay, he discusses the strengths and limitations of Limehouse Nights.]
Thomas Burke believed that Limehouse, the great grimy port area on the north bank of the Thames, was the most exotic place in the world. When I saw it one day in 1945, wandering about the East India docks, I seemed to see nothing but the most enormous warehouses solidly lining the streets back of the docks. What I remember of that late Saturday afternoon under a cloud of war is pale London urchins playing indecipherable London games in what looked, even in daylight, like some impenetrable shadow cast upon the streets from the warehouses bristling at a stranger from street after street.
The East India docks, to this American investigator, reeked of poverty and toil. It seemed altogether right and fitting to me that Clement Attlee, soon to become Socialist Prime Minister of England, had for many years represented Limehouse in the House of Commons. It would not have occurred to me that Limehouse could be a literary fascination, and that it could stand for Chinatown, opium dens, Lascars, many a stealthy knife (or unspeakably...
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Egan, Maurice Francis. "London in Mosaics and Circles." The New York Times Book Review (2 October 1921): 7, 23.
Praises Burke's sensitive depiction in The Outer Circle of life in London's various suburbs.
Ferguson, Malcolm M. "Thomas Burke of Limehouse." The Romantist, No. 2 (1978): 41-2.
An appreciation of Burke's fiction and nonfiction reprinted from The Fantasy Advertister, March 1950.
Towne, Charles Hanson. "The Sun in Splendor." In Thomas Burke: A Critical Appreciation of the Man of Limehouse; With a Note on a Novel, by Charles Hanson Towne, by Edwin Bjorkman, pp. 19-20. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1929.
A brief, enthusiastic review.
Additional coverage of Burke's life and career is available in the following source published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 113.
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