How Stanford Researchers Mapped The Emotional Life Of Victorian London

Using Mechanical Turk, the Stanford Literary Lab maps Victorian London’s fear, love, and everything in between.

19th-century British novelists like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and William Thackeray wrote about very different Londons. Depending on whose book you consulted, a given location in the city might be dreadful or delightful, pastoral or frightening.


A new data mining project from Stanford Literary Lab uses “computational criticism” to extract statistics from literature, mapping out the emotions associated with different parts of London as described in 1,402 books. By clicking around on the interactive map, you learn which landmark was described in which book, and which emotional tone it conveys. When you click on a pinned location, all the literary passages describing that location pop up, classified by emotional tone.

Why map out the emotions of Victorian London? To analyze how “physical space and fictional constructions of location have worked to organize and represent the changing experiences of London throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, a period marked by both rapid urbanization and the rise of the novel,” the creators write on their website.

More broadly, the project is an experiment in taking a data-driven approach to literary analysis. The lab took a survey of anonymous readers to determine which emotions were conveyed by 4,363 literary passages naming 167 places in 1,402 books about London. By crowdsourcing responses through the online labor force Amazon Mechanical Turk, the researchers asked, for example, whether a given passage smacked of “Dreadful London,” “London in the Light,” or “A Day in the Life of Old London.”

The biggest insight the researchers found was that fear was not as linked to poverty as they’d expected it would be. The city’s less affluent sections were not largely associated with negative or fearful descriptions in the literature. Fear was more closely linked to ancient markets and prisons.

Before this experiment, making such a map would’ve been a tedious effort. But with crowdsourcing, you can create a fun game for British lit nerds, which yields insights into how our perceptions of a city and its landmarks are shaped by its most famous books. Think of it as a data-driven spin on the city’s popular literary tours.

[via the New York Times]

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Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.