Thomas Burke Essay - Critical Essays

Burke, Thomas


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Principal Works

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

The Pleasantries of Old Quong (short stories) 1931; also published as A Tea-Shop in Limehouse, 1931

City of Encounters: A London Divertissement (essays) 1932

The Real East End (essays) 1932

The Beauty of England (essays) 1933

London in My Times (essays) 1934

Murder at Elstree: or, Mr. Thurtell and His Gig (novel) 1936

Night Pieces: Eighteen Tales (short stories) 1936

Abduction: A Story of Limehouse (novel) 1939

Living in Bloomsbury (autobiography) 1939

The Streets of London Through the Centuries (nonfiction) 1940

English Night-Life, From Norman Curfew to Present Black-Out (nonfiction) 1941

Travel in England from Pilgrim to Pack-Horse to Light Car and Plane (nonfiction) 1943

Dark Nights (short stories) 1944

The English Townsman As He Was and As He Is (nonfiction) 1946

Son of London (autobiography) 1946

The Best Stories of Thomas Burke (short stories) 1950


Gilbert Vivian Seldes (essay date 1917)

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 attraction because he has written well his slight sketches of London life. In both of these books one hears the cry of a great joy. At the age often the author was taken with the flaring beauty of a fried-fish shop, throwing a warm light and a glamour over the dusky pavement of a London slum; and since then he has been passing from discovery to discovery, rejoicing that these things, these common and tawdry things, are still in existence for him to discover again. He knows well that they were revealed long since, but he makes fresh starts and everything is new and beautiful to him.

Because everything is strange to him, Mr. Burke never quite succeeds in his tales of Chinatown. He writes of Limehouse as Pierre Loti writes of Annam and of Iceland, with the heart of a wanderer who will not be consoled for his separation from home. Lust and wildness, cruelty, perversion and madness, things unclean to the white man's heart, make up the themes of his stories. He has continually to drive his plots with little daggers of exaggeration because he is always impressed with the uncommonness of the people of whom he writes. Will it be the story of a burglar's wife who tries to betray her husband to the police so that she may be free to love his accomplice, or the story of a girl who loses caste by going with a Chinaman in order to pay her mother's funeral expenses? The reality of his events does not satisfy the author; he must try to be convincing by a turn of the plot, so that we get the ten-cent magazine type of sudden and perverse denouement. It is not the husband but the lover who is killed by the police; the girl gets her revenge by a neat trick, revealed in the last line of the story.

These Limehouse Nights appeared in three of the most interesting periodicals of England: The English Review, Colour, and The New Witness, and I can hardly imagine the editor of any one of them insisting that Mr. Burke get more punch or pep into his work. I am afraid he is really to blame for his shortcomings.

He is certainly to be credited with his good things, because he seems a writer with no derivations. Ambrose Bierce might have written some of these tales, but you cannot trace Burke to Bierce, because you are in the presence of a singularly powerful inspiration with which literary affinities have very little to do. Mr. Arthur Machen, the unknown master of the artistic tale of terror, probably returns Mr. Burke's evident admiration. One suggests these names to convey a bit more clearly the quality of Mr. Burke's stories; that is all.

Strange and terrible stories, one hesitates to retell them, not because it would be unjust, for these are good stories and the outline of a good tale will always bear repetition. But they are about things we are none of us too anxious to name, and which Mr. Burke makes tolerable only by the flooding beauty of his telling and the human kindness of his spirit. He knows at least that one must not call down the gods of terror without praying softly to the gods of pity. I take one tale, an artist's story of those famous Sidney Street murders in which the world was once absorbed, those murderers for whose capture the soldiery of England was called out, against whom a street became a barricade and a funeral pyre. Mr. Burke calls it "Beryl, the Croucher and the Rest of England." He...

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Milton Bronner (essay date 1917)

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...

(The entire section is 1879 words.)

Grant Overton (essay date 1922)

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...

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St. John Adcock (essay date 1928)

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...

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Edwin Bjorkman (essay date 1929)

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...

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Alfred Kazin (essay date 1973)

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...

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Further Reading


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....

(The entire section is 117 words.)