“I am the sole author” : Performativity at the Periphery in Zadie Smith’s NW

At its heart, Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel NW is an exploration of boundaries. Smith’s writing pays particular attention to the power of location – whether that be in a physical sense through her highly accurate walks through north-west London or chapters made entirely of Google Maps directions, or the metaphorical place one inherits in terms of class boundaries, race, or social standing. Each of Smith’s characters are pinpointed in relation to these boundaries, with the traversing of their borders the key theme of the text. Focusing on the journeys of Leah and Natalie, the two female protagonists of the text, I argue that in Smith’s creation of a work so focused on place, NW calls for an intersectional view of movement through class, race, and geographic lines, demonstrating that the path of the immigrant is much more complex than a simple question of their background.


From its name to its title chapters, geography plays a crucial role in constructing NW. The name itself – a reference to the NW postcode area of north-west London, or as Slavin suggests, additionally a reference to the area being a “NoWhere” (98) – sets the boundaries of the text from the outset, pushing readers to understand the text as an exploration of how its four central characters interact with the geography of the British capital. Crucially, however, as Slavin argues, the characters of the text inherit the periphery of the city, rather than its imagined centre. Slavin suggests that this contributes to Smith’s construction of Willesden and Kilburn as “‘somehow outside Britain,’ ‘elsewhere,’ and not part of the national or city narrative,” (100) allowing for a narrative that pushes against what might be seen as a traditional or normative conception of the city, where “Smith wedges into a tradition of postcolonial writers remapping the city of London in their own image.” (101). Indeed, Smith’s own experience of this part of London undoubtedly contributed to the novel’s visceral locative abilities; Smith herself grew up in Willesden and attended local schools, later returning to live in nearby Queen’s Park during her adult life.


Though both Leah and Natalie spend most of the novel living within the boundaries of NW, the differences between the two women’s exploration of life outside the borough of Brent also contribute to a reading of their character. Leah, from the very start of the novel, is introduced as “in a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.” (Smith 3) Aside from a brief exploration of her life at university, Leah generally remains within the bounds of NW in the novel – a geographic manifestation of her static social life, love life, employment prospects, and friendships. On the occasions that Leah is depicted as travelling, such as with her mother in chapter 12 of the first “Visitation” section, Leah’s intended destination is unexplored. Instead, Smith focuses on the sites of entry and exit to the geographical boundary of the Willesden/Kilburn area, and the journey away from it. In doing so, Leah appears ignorant or uninterested in the actions of life outside of her spatial boundary – one that she is “as faithful in her allegiance to […] as other people are to their families, or their countries.” (Smith 6).  Natalie, instead, spends much of her novel outside of the bounds that Leah largely restricts herself to, with attention paid to her experiences at her chambers in central London, her journeys abroad with her husband, and other endeavours far outside the bounds of the borough she was raised in. Much like Leah, Natalie’s conception of travel can be viewed in a metaphorical sense in terms of her own ‘journey’ in the novel; as opposed to Leah’s sense of stagnation and lack of adventure, Natalie glides over both physical and societal boundaries throughout the novel, demonstrating her own desires to expand beyond the places she was born into.

Just as important as an exploration of these locative boundaries is to the narrative of NW, Smith’s interest in exploring constructed social boundaries of a number of kinds is also present throughout the text. First and foremost are the pervasive boundaries of class, the traversals of which form one of the central themes of the text. Whereas their immigrant mothers approach class with a sense of ambivalence, where “neither woman was in any sense a member of the bourgeoise but neither did they consider themselves solidly of the working class either,” (Smith 206), and Leah’s immigrant husband Michel rallies repeatedly against the class boundaries of the British society, as first-generation immigrants Leah and Natalie are tacitly aware of their positions in the British class structure and their own actions in attempting to rise the ladder of class. Both received a university education, ostensibly in the hopes that doing so would allow them to progress above their working-class roots. For Leah, however – a “state-school wild card” (Smith 35) and underachiever both in secondary school and at university – going to university did little to assist her. Instead, the process left her “out of pocket, out of her depth” (Smith 35), and seemingly underemployed as the only university graduate at her workplace.


Natalie’s path, meanwhile, is altogether different, with her desire to pursue education and improve her social standing. For her, class appears pervasive throughout the novel – a consideration even in social situations, where when getting drinks with a friend “as working-class female pupils they were often anxious to get it right.” (Smith 274).  While the “it” in the sentence on first glance refers to the drink orders for her round, it could also more abstractly be read as her desire to fit into the social milieu of the barristers and lawyers that make up her group of colleagues and friends. Yet her ascent to the middle classes is not left unchallenged by the other characters in the book. Throughout the book, Leah attacks her best friend for her class ascendancy, criticising her for her “cava socialist” tendencies (Smith 292) and consistently comparing her own situation to that of her friend’s. In some references, Smith brings together the concept of both locative and class boundaries when referring to Natalie’s house – a place that is, according to Leah, “just far enough to avoid” seeing the working-class estates where she grew up (Smith 70), in an example of physical and imagined boundaries fusing together.


Race similarly appears as an example of the testing of both physical and imagined boundaries throughout the work, with both Leah and Natalie living on the edge of these racial boundaries. Though Cuevas has suggested that Smith is writing ‘from a “post-ethnic” perspective’ (394, quoted in Shaw 18), I agree with Shaw’s assertion that the exploration of ethnicity remains a key part of NW and the two women’s experience of their London lives (Shaw 18). Leah, the daughter of a Protestant Irish mother (or, as she is presented by Smith in harsher terms, “a rare Prod on the wing, back when most were of the other persuasion.” (Smith 19), is acutely conscious of her race, being “the only white girl on the Fund Distribution Team,” (Smith 39) and married to an Algerian immigrant. For Natalie, race is quickly presented as a hurdle for her legal career, exemplified in her conversation with Theodora Lewis-Lane, one of the barristers on her chambers’ diversity programme, who explains to Natalie that the Black lawyer “is never [seen as] neutral” in court, but instead seen by the White-dominated justice system as an “interloper” that needs to be toned down (284). While not a post-ethnic novel, the novel’s exploration of race and ethnicity represents another layer of periphery and boundary that NW explores, upending the idea of White homogeneity in modern-day London.


In addition to this post-colonialist reading of NW that “portrays postcolonial London as a space where race and ethnicity are still important epistemic realities in need of continued interrogation” (80), Fernández Carbajal also argues for viewing NW through Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, in both texts’ demonstration of a “queer modernist dissidence” (76). When Leah spots Shar in the street, for example, she comments on her “neat waist you want to hold,” and “something beautiful in the sunshine, something between a boy and a girl, reminding Leah of a time in her own life when she had not yet been called upon to make a final decision about all that.” (Smith 44) Leah, Fernández Carbajal argues, is a more modern version of Clarissa Dalloway herself, in her seeming hints towards love for Natalie and her unfulfilling marriage; for her part, Natalie resembles Sally Seton, with her decision to choose a simple marriage than explore her own sexual desires. In doing so, Fernández Carbajal draws attention to another lens through which readers might understand the novel as one of demonstrating and breaking boundaries – whether in the physical or metaphorical sense. Indeed, he suggests that the novel’s depiction of sexuality is used “as a release from a sense of social inadequacy” (Fernández Carbajal 79) present in 21st century British society.


It is in the sum of these boundaries where we see Leah and Natalie performing their role as actors in the metropolitan space, with both of these first-generations immigrants seeking to refashion themselves throughout the text. Even from the first page of the novel, Leah is presented as ruminating on the fact that “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me,” a nod to her reclamation of the power to define her relationship to the boundaries that society places her in. Natalie, meanwhile, is presented “in drag” in her intersecting characteristics:


Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic. (Smith 333)


In this question of authenticity, both women are presented as unsure of their own place among these shifting borders (both real and imagined). Even at the end, despite the creations of these new identities, both women appear to have reverted to their original personas. As Pérez Zapata notes in her article, “‘In Drag: Performativity and Authenticity in Zadie Smith’s NW,” the end result of Natalie’s exploration of her own boundaries is that, by the end of the novel, Natalie “has no self and, consequently, no origin,” (93) with her character reverting back in name, form and speech pattern to the character of Keisha (her birth name, having changed it in the process of her secondary schooling.) This performative aspect is encapsulated by the novel’s final paragraph, where the two call the police to report what they know about a murder:


Leah found the number online. Natalie dialled it. It was Keisha who did the talking. Apart from the fact she drew the phone from her own pocket, the whole process reminded her of nothing so much as those calls the two good friends used to make to boys they liked, back in the day, and always in a slightly hysterical state of mind, two heads pressed together over a handset. “I got something to tell you,” said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice. (402)


With this final image of a certain circularity to the novel for both Natalie and Leah, Smith appears to ask the reader to question the ability of the immigrant to refashion their own identity, suggesting that, in the multi-ethnic, socio-economically diverse London of the 21st century, the inheritance and persistence of one’s locations of birth are both inevitable and inescapable.

Works cited:

Fernández Carbajal, Albert. “On being queer and postcolonial: Reading Zadie Smith’s NW through Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Volume 51, Number 1, 2016, pp. 76–91

Pérez Zapata, Beatriz . “In Drag: Performativity and Authenticity in Zadie Smith’s NW.” International Studies Interdisciplinary Political and Cultural Journal, Volume 16, Number 1, 2014, pp. 83-95.

Shaw, Kristian. “A Passport to Cross the Room’: Cosmopolitan Empathy and Transnational Engagement in Zadie Smith’s NW (2012)”. C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-century Writings, Volume 5, Number 1, 2017, pp. 1–23.

Slavin, Molly. “Nowhere and Northwest, Brent and Britain: Geographies of Elsewhere in Zadie Smith’s NW.” Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 2015, pp. 97-119.

Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations. Jack L. Allen

Zadie Smith: A Life in Pictures

Zadie Smith, A Life of Shifting Geographies

Zadie Smith, photographed by Dominique Nabokov

Zadie Smith was born on 25th October 1975, in Willesden, north-west London. After attending local state schools, Smith read English literature at King’s College, Cambridge, where she was published twice in student literature anthology, The Mays. After her short stories caught the attention of publishers in her final year at Cambridge, she reportedly received a six-figure advance for White Teeth (2000), her debut novel. Both White Teeth and Smith’s subsequent novels have been praised for their expansive geographies and attention to location; The Autograph Man (2002) on London; On Beauty (2006), on a British-American family living outside Boston; NW (2012), set in Brent, the borough in which she grew up; and Swing Time (2016) that crossed London, New York and West Africa.

Smith became tenured professor of fiction at New York University in 2010, and spent much of the following decade living between New York and London. In 2020, she moved back to Kilburn, where she lives with her husband and two children; during the pandemic, Smith also published Intimations (2020), an essay collection on living in lockdown amidst a time of reflection on race and society.

The Street Dance: An Upper-Crust Celebrity Intrigue in ‘Mrs Dalloway’

The crush was terrific for the time of day. Lords, Ascot, Hurlingham, what was it? she wondered, for the street was blocked. The British middle classes sitting sideways on the tops of omnibuses with parcels and umbrellas, yes, even furs on a day like this, were, she thought, more ridiculous, more unlike anything there has ever been than one could conceive; and the Queen herself held up; the Queen herself unable to pass. Clarissa was suspended on one side of Brook Street; Sir John Buckhurst, the old Judge on the other, with the car between them (Sir John had laid down the law for years and liked a well-dressed woman) when the chauffeur, leaning ever so slightly, said or showed something to the policeman, who saluted and raised his arm and jerked his head and moved the omnibus to the side and the car passed through. Slowly and very silently it took its way.

Clarissa guessed; Clarissa knew of course; she had seen something white, magical, circular, in the footman’s hand, a disc inscribed with a name — the Queen’s, the Prince of Wales’s, the Prime Minister’s? — which, by force of its own lustre, burnt its way through (Clarissa saw the car diminishing, disappearing), to blaze among candelabras, glittering stars, breasts stiff with oak leaves, Hugh Whitbread and all his colleagues, the gentlemen of England, that night in Buckingham Palace. And Clarissa, too, gave a party. She stiffened a little; so she would stand at the top of her stairs.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (p. 17)


After perusing some of London’s highest-end boutiques in preparation for the evening’s big party, Clarissa Dalloway ends up on Bond Street when a celebrity convoy rolls past. The passage – much like the rest of Mrs Dalloway – is packed with information; indeed, in the passage presented above, there are only eight sentences. That is not to say that their construction is uniform, however; the three longer sentences meander in their unfurling of information, much like one might imagine the car doing on the unimpeded stretches of its journey. The shorter ones that end each paragraph, however, feel like they interrupt the text, just as the “crush” of people glaring at the convoy and the omnibus impede the car on its journey through the streets.


The first sentence of the second paragraph demands particular attention for its sprawling nature.  The narrative perspective of the sentence seems to jump multiple times, while keeping its focus squarely on Clarissa and how she perceives the street scene before her; indeed, at one point when it feels like the focus is just about to shift away from Clarissa onto following the car down the street, Woolf adds a bracketed aside, noting that “(Clarissa saw the car diminishing, disappearing)”. Having said that, occasionally it can be tricky to pin down whether the narrator is voicing their own perspective, or that of Mrs Dalloway; for example, the footman’s disk is “inscribed with a name – the Queen’s, the Prince of Wales’s, the Prime Minister’s?”. Although likely that we are hearing Mrs Dalloway’s thoughts here, it is uncertain, considering the penchant of the novel to rapidly cycle through characters’ thoughts and points of view.


It also adds to the uncertain mood of the sentence as a whole – first Clarissa “guessed” who was in the car; then she “knew of course” who the occupant was; then, the narrator seems to question whose name is really on the disc that allows the car passage through the streets.  In the passage, Clarissa is presented as both questioning and self-assured, headstrong and yet unsure of herself, as she is for much of the book. By the end of the paragraph, though, Clarissa becomes much surer of herself once again; we are told that she “gave a party,” (implied to be the on the same level of those at Buckingham Palace!), then that she “stiffened a little,” as if to assert her own dominance, like she would “at the top of her stairs” later that evening while surveying the scene of the party.


Asides such as these that appear out of nowhere also crop up in the first paragraph, and in particular the nature of Woolf’s invocation of “Sir John Buckhurst, the old Judge” who stands on the other side of the road from Clarissa. Buckhurst appears completely out of nowhere in the passage, as seems the tendency of Mrs Dalloway in general to jump from character to character, and occasionally to make a single, seemingly throwaway, reference to a random person. In mentioning Buckhurst across the road – and especially in yet another bracketed explanatory aside, that “(Sir John had laid down the law for years and liked a well-dressed woman)” –  Dalloway’s status as a socialite who can go anywhere in London and pick an acquaintance of prominent societal standing out of the crowd.


It is not simply Dalloway’s evocation of material wealth and social capital that makes this passage rich; the descriptions Woolf offers throughout the passage are particularly fascinating for their delicate, precise nature. For example, the interaction between the chauffeur and the policemen is laid out in particular detail, with the exact, dance-like movements of both noted by the narrator in a way that underlines the hyper-observant nature of the text. I also find the description of the disc that the footman holds as “white, magical, circular,” interesting; the first and third descriptors seem sensical and objective, whereas the description of the disc as “magical” feels somewhat more out of place, as if to heighten the prestige of the (presumably) royal party that Dalloway tracks in the streetscape. The narrator then comments how the convoy “burnt its way through […] to blaze among candelabras, glittering stars, breasts stiff with oak leaves, Hugh Whitbread and all his colleagues, the gentlemen of England, that night in Buckingham Palace.” This list has an almost dream-like wistfulness to it, particularly in its beginning with the more abstract descriptions; later in the list, we see Dalloway (through the narrator) emphasise her role in the upper portions of English society, by reminiscing over “that night in Buckingham Palace.”


With more space and time, I would very much like to dive even deeper into the class-based context of the passage. In the second sentence of the excerpt, Clarissa reels off names of the upper-class social sporting calendar, wondering whether the crush was “Lords, Ascot, Hurlingham,” referencing the upper crust of cricket meets, horse races and polo matches respectively. We then see Clarissa’s somewhat disdainful attitude towards the middle classes after that, noting how “ridiculous” it was that they were wearing “furs on a day like this.” I would love to explore how areas such as Bond Street create aspirational spaces for the middle classes – and, inevitably, spaces in which they face the ridicule of the upper classes for trying to be things that they are not.

A Tuesday Stroll Down Tottenham Court Road

An aerial view of Tottenham Court Road, from “London: illustrated by eighteen bird’s-eye views of the principal streets.”

You have to keep your wits about you, strolling up Tottenham Court Road on a Tuesday. The horses and carriages that pummel the cobblestones of this long arterial street are the most deafening of all the noises you hear; everyone seems to be in a rush to catch their train from Euston back up to Birmingham, wanting to make the five-hour trip in the hazy sunlight of this warm May morning, and arrive home before it gets too dark. The street peddlers give the carts a run for their money, though, flogging their vegetables outside Mortimer Market in high-pitched screeches, before running to evade the bobbies charged with disbanding such unruly conduct.

Strolling up from Oxford Street, the first thing you smell is the whiff of porter from Meux’s Brewery (the smell is delicious, but you’re hoping the walls of the brewery don’t explode like they did in 1814 with the London Beer Flood). The intellectual types pour out from Great Russell Street, seeking their midday repast after a morning among the books at the British Library and the wondrous sculptures of the Parthenon at the British Museum. They dive into Lansdall’s, the baker’s, (and no doubt will try their luck at the brewery afterwards), but you carry on up past Danks’s carpet warehouse and stroll northwards. A gorgeous piece of china catches your eye in Moore and Co, so you end up spending a good twenty minutes perusing the furniture from across the world before negotiating a good deal on the teacup you saw in the window as you passed by.

A bustling portion at the top of Tottenham Court Road, illustrated by Tallis (1838-40).

By this point you’re quite tired, so you jump into Leopard Coffee House on the corner of Francis Street for a quick drink but end up whiling a couple of hours away in a good game of whist. There are all kinds of curiosities along Tottenham Court Road – baskets, boots, silk, pans, iron kettles and more are for sale, as you continue on your walk up the street. It’s not quite as flashy as Regent Street, but it has all manner of products for the discerning consumer. Indeed, every now and then, you’ll hear a baker or a confectioner offering a sample of their wares. Up near the top end of the street, you catch a glimpse of University College’s vast dome and its domineering portico, and can’t help but be inspired by these architectural feats on offer in this temple for learning.

Developing New Towns on the Margins: Population in the St Pancras Vestry District

The metropolitan works district of St Pancras Vestry experienced rapid population growth throughout the 1800s, with its population increasing by almost nine times throughout the century.

A portion of Cary’s 1802 map, showing St Pancras and the surrounding areas. Notice how empty most of the district appears.

In 1801-10, the population of the district stood at 31,779, making it the tenth most populated district in the city. It’s worth noting that, according to Cary’s 1802 map, only a tiny fraction of the district had been built upon, with most development in the district’s southern tip closest to central London. Indeed, this 1802 map only covers about a third of the district, suggesting that St Pancras Vestry does indeed represent the northern frontier of the city’s area.

The population of the district continues to rise steadily, hitting 100,000 by 1831-40, as we see more institutions crop up towards the north of the district. This seems to suggest that the size of the city is expanding, as migrants to London seek accommodation on what were once the city’s outer fringes. This is confirmed by Cross’s 1859 New Plan of London, which shows healthy development in Camden, Kentish Town, and Haverstock Hill (though not nearly as dense as more established areas like around Westminster and the City).

Cross’s 1859 New Plan of London. Development seems to be rapidly moving northwards.

By 1890, the population of the district stands at just over 235,000, making it one of the most populous districts in the city. We see a couple of institutions opening around the Kentish Town area, suggesting that these northern locales have been firmly cemented as towns in their own right. It is worth noting, however, that the density of the district still remains relatively low during the entire period, hovering well below the London average throughout the 19th century. The district itself is quite a large, thin strip that radiates from the centre of London northwards, so it is unsurprising that density remains low throughout the period.

I would also suggest that most of this increase in population happens towards the north and centre of the district, as the southern tips of St Pancras Vestry become more orientated towards business, education and healthcare.  As mentioned in my last blog post, many of these institutions crop up along Euston Road and around Fitzroy Square, and a number of train stations (and a huge loading yard) was built in the south of the district in the mid to late 1800s. With so much non-residential development in the area south of Euston Road, one might suggest that the southern tip of the district experienced much slower rates of population growth (or even suffered depopulation) as these new businesses, non-profits and transport hubs staked their claim for a slice of the city’s footprint.

From Fringe to Centre: Institutions in the St Pancras Vestry district

I chose to examine the St Pancras Vestry district, to the north of the city. The district, which represents a long thin slither running north to south, only has five institutions in it between 1801 and 1810: a women’s refuge, two orphanages (one for children aged 8-11, and one “adult orphan institution”), and two workhouses. This seems reasonable for the period, considering it is one of the most lightly populated districts of the central London area with a population of 31779. Most of the institutions seem concentrated in the southern portion of the district, which seems to hold true for the entirety of the nineteenth century.

The 1820s sees the establishment of University College, built with a grand Corinthian portico and large dome that becomes a landmark for the southern portion of the St Pancras Vestry district. “Nearly all subjects are taught here,” explains The Queen’s London (a “pictorial and descriptive record” of the city’s architecture), with the college founded “in order to provide an educational centre free of all religious tests.” Across the road, University College Hospital is built in the 1830s ­­– a building which, tellingly, needed to be expanded in the 1840s and then later refurbished in 1897 to meet the exploding population of the St Pancras Vestry district which we’ll explore in the second blog post. A lunatic asylum, Western House, also appears in the 1830s, but closes down by the 1860s.

University College, with its dome and portico. Taken from “The Queen’s London: a pictoral and descriptive record”

The 1870s and 80s see an explosion of institutions in the district. Three of the eight Homes for Working Girls in London are clustered around Fitzroy Square, in addition to three hospitals – the London Skin Hospital, Oxygen Home, and the Home Hospitals Association. A couple of other medical institutions are dotted along Euston Road, including the Central London Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital, the British Hospital for Skin Diseases, and the New Hospital for Women. Other institutions in the district also have links to medicine, too; after being discharged, women might go to the Female Preventive and Reformatory Institutions Home for Friendless Young Women of Good Character, or the Reformatory for the Fallen. In addition, we see a couple of institutions – an orphanage, another hospital, and lodging for pensioners ­– crop up in the north of the district, demonstrating the slow but steady movement of people out of the busy city centre and northwards towards places like Camden and Highgate.

The grand exterior of St Pancras station, taken from “The Queen’s London”

In addition to becoming a hub for knowledge through its universities and hospitals, St Pancras Vestry also became a transport hub by the end of the century, playing host to three of London’s mainline terminals. While waiting for a train at St Pancras station ­– the grandest of the three stations in the district – one could not help but be amazed by the “splendid Gothic pile” of the station’s exterior façade, or the vast interior train shed which is described by The Queen’s London to be the largest roof held up by a single pillar anywhere in the world.

Continue reading “From Fringe to Centre: Institutions in the St Pancras Vestry district”

Manchester – My Favourite City

I grew up on the foothills of the Pennines, just outside of the metropolis of Manchester. For most of my childhood, I’d relish the trips into the city by train or by car to wander through the Victorian-era streets, experience the excitement of the stores that lined the streets, and explore the farmers’ markets that brought food from the verdant countryside into the beating heart of England’s northwest. With its recent boom in modern office blocks and residential towers (which, as you can see in the picture, doesn’t quite blend in with the city’s more historic architecture), it’s a city that’s constantly changing. The slightly scrappier and edgier counterpart to the more prim and proper London (an assertion I’m sure we’ll see challenged in this course), Manchester is a city that’s energetic, welcoming, and not afraid to be itself.