Thomas Burke Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.