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"The saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw"
on 31 January 2008
The apocalyptic opening of Neil Hanson's book "the Dreadful Judgement" focuses on the millennial tension that preceded the dawning of the year 1666. How those god-fearing folk of England feared a year so marked by the number of the beast. Dreadful prophecies of famine, plague and fire were churned from the presses, and it seemed that the modern Babylon of London would pay for its indulgence of vice.
In one of the rare coincidences of prophecy and fact, 1666 did see the city destroyed. The Great Fire of London, marked today by the towering Monument, and taught as a primary school catechism, is a prime target for a modern reappraisal. Hansom grasps this subject, and provides an astoundingly vivid and comprehensive history of a ghastly four days and beyond.
Hansom spends much of the first third of the book setting a rich and evocative scene. London, the teeming world city at the heart of world trade, is described in exotic detail. The city, little changed from its medieval roots, is brought alive, with narrow, faeces streamed lanes, creaking, crumbling and disturbingly leaning tenement slums, and the golden, wood-panelled glories of rich merchant houses, guild halls and public buildings. The people, the plague, the stench and the marvel are all given rich treatment.
Next is the fire itself, with the narration focusing on the fire's discovery by following the escape of the King's baker, Thomas Farriner, and then the full description of the conflagrations terrible march through the City. All the stock anecdotes are retold - of Lord Mayor Bloodsworth's remark that a "woman might pi ss it out" to the excited river voyages of King Charles II and his brother James marshalling the royal guard to act against the fire.
Hanson's strength is in taking the fire as the heart of the book, but using this to allow wide-ranging accounts of the city, populace, court and aristocracy, the workings of the mercantile city and the day to day struggle of its people. His concentration on the trial and hanging of the mentally disturbed Frenchman Robert Hubert allows a vivid picture of the crude workings of trials in the 17th century, whilst the treatment meted out to Hubert and other foreigners clearly demonstrates the vicious xenophobia the English were known for.
Hanson comments that the "Great Fire of London is one of those cataclysmic events that has burned its way into the consciousness of mankind". He also demonstrates that in this burning the truth has been somewhat warped. Popular accounts of casualties estimate four, six or eight dead. Hanson's studies of other city-wide conflagrations and his appraisal of the evidence in the Great Fire convince him the total must have been much higher. He is similarly unsure as to the causes, giving little credence to the idea that the fire was lit by French or papist rebels. But he doesn't seem entirely convinced of the domestic accident in the bakers on Pudding Lane.
Furthermore Hanson strays into the world of historical `faction' - descriptions which are just too vivid to be believable, and into a cod pseudo-scientific forensic analysis of fire, psychology and criminality. These elements of the book lend little to the historical narrative, and ultimately create a confused ending that does a disservice to the preceding work.
It is not only this failure that demotes the book from a full five stars. Hanson, so meticulous in detail and peripheral information, fails to give a bigger picture, to contextualise the great fire in the period of the tumultuous Stuart monarchy and give more detail on the changes wrought by the fire, both physical and political, and the eventual dethroning of King James II. It is a solid eight out of ten, for a remarkably lucid and vivid description of an atrocious disaster that has indeed burnt itself, however erroneously, on the nation's historical memory.