Top positive review
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A gripping story superbly told
on 16 October 2012
Caroline Shenton's book (her first - it's hard to credit considering how brilliantly well it is put together) rather took me by surprise. The title, and also the chapter headings, suggest a detailed progression through the 36 hours of the conflagration, and of course we do get that. But what makes the book such a superb read is that the text is full of fascinating, and often quite lengthy, diversions through related aspects of contemporary history which shed light on the central focus. So, for example, we learn of the history of the development of the Palace of Westminster, its origins and changes in use, proposals to change the accommodation of the legislative houses even to locate them elsewhere, and the suitability or otherwise of the Palace for the home of Parliament. In fact, the buildings were obviously not fit for purpose, though for various reasons, agreement had never been reached on what should be done.
The changes in the make-up of Parliament is also covered: the fire occurred a mere two years after the Great Reform Act which had an effect on the number of members. Aspects of Poor Relief and legislation affecting child labour (just who would and could clean the flues in the House of Lords which led in part to the disaster?) find their way into the narrative, as do the changes to the fire services and law enforcement. All these apparent byways are brilliantly woven into the fabric of the narrative in a wonderfully engaging way and prove to be central to our understanding of the fateful events of 16th October, 1834. This is not a remotely dry read: it is very well-structured so that each segue seems effortlessly and inevitably blended with the central narrative. Shenton's research is exhaustive but never exhausting, though there are one or two moments when the book didn't need quite such detailed accounts of personnel affected. And I think it IS true to say that as the narrative progresses, the 'diversions' become fewer and the detail of the story is a little overwhelming.
My only serious caveat is more to do with the presentation, primarily text size and the accessibility of plans and their keys. The main body text is fine, but all extracts from documents and personal accounts are in a smaller type which I find (and my reading glasses cope with most things) a little uncomfortable. The plans of the Palace of Westminster, essential to a clear understanding of its complexity and the progression of the fire through the buildings, are challenging at best and the lengthy key to identifying rooms etc is pretty much unreadable (think of the very worst contents lists on food packaging). I gave up on trying to make sense of the various locations alluded to, which is a pity. This could so easily have been avoided.
Apart from that caveat, this book really is a triumph!