Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a newsletter about things I’ve read

“Like ghosts, while London burns”: Andrew Taylor, The Ashes of London (2016)

Paperback cover

When, a few years ago, I wrote a Goodreads review of Andrew Taylor’s historical novel, The Anatomy of Ghosts (2010), I commented that he was “certainly versatile”. By then I’d read several of his books but didn’t think of him as a historical novelist. I first noticed him around 1990, when I heard part of his first novel, Caroline Minuscule (1982) being read on Radio 4. Shortly afterwards, I spotted the paperback in a bookshop and read it straight through in one sitting.

It centres on William Dougal who, when we first meet him, is a graduate student in history at the University of London. He’s a fairly ordinary young man, not too industrious, relatively personable and broadly sympathetic, who occasionally finds it convenient — and sometimes downright necessary — to kill somebody. Taylor would go on to write six more novels featuring Dougal, and usually his even less scrupulous frenemy, James Hanbury. I’ve read all but one, or at most two, of the books in this series and enjoyed them. Inevitably, some are of less consequence than others.

Taylor has written about 40 books in all, in a variety of styles and genres. Since 2006 or so, almost all of the novels he’s published have been historical fiction. Apart from The Anatomy of Ghosts, mentioned in the first paragraph above, I hadn’t read any of these historical books until I saw a review of one that seemed irresistible.

That was The Ashes of London (2016), the first book in what has since grown into a series of 5 novels set in the London of the restored Charles II, and beginning in the middle of the great fire of 1666, as the roaring inferno consumes St Paul’s Cathedral. These books are set in “my” period. I spent far too many years working on a doctoral thesis about the work of Andrew Marvell, who had been close to the centre of London political life during the 18 years following the Restoration. Indeed he had written a longish satire (“The Third Advice to a Painter”) at least part of which had been composed after the fire had broken out, and which was printed the same year. The world depicted in Taylor’s novel was very much Marvell’s world.

The Ashes of London has two central characters who meet in the first chapter and whose paths don’t cross again till the fifty-first (of fifty-six). The first of these is James Marwood, who occupies a precarious and uncertain position in the employment of Joseph Williamson, Under-Secretary of State to Lord Arlington and responsible among much else for the printing and distribution of the Government newspaper, the London Gazette. Marwood’s sections of the book are told in the first person and they alternate with third-person accounts of what happens to the other central character, Cat (short for Catherine) Lovett.

Like Marwood’s, Cat’s situation in life is uncertain and liable to sudden change. Both characters’ fathers were Fifth Monarchy men, who had hoped and believed that the execution of Charles I would usher in the permanent earthly reign of Jesus Christ. Because of that, they had supported Oliver Cromwell, and come to feel that he had betrayed their support. As Marwood explains:

After the execution of the King, the Fifth Monarchists had nursed high hopes that theirs would be the dominant voice in government, and that they would make England a godly country, fit for Christ’s return. But Oliver Cromwell had a different idea of God and other plans for England. He had swiftly destroyed their hopes and consolidated his own power. (p. 141)

Following the Restoration, Cat’s father, a stonemason, had been excluded from the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion as one of the Regicides. His property had been seized and he had been forced to flee abroad to avoid being hanged, drawn and quartered. Nathaniel Marwood, a printer, had taken his young son to see the beheading and had rejoiced in the death of “that man of blood, Charles Stuart”, but was covered by the Act, as he was not considered one of the Regicides. To his son’s chagrin, however, after the return of the king he had printed pamphlets for fellow Fifth Monarchists engaged in Venner’s rebellion and had, as a result, been imprisoned and had his property, including home and printing press, confiscated.

Marwood’s mother had wanted him to be educated, with a view to having him become a lawyer or clergyman, but she had died before his education could be completed and he was then apprenticed to his father, who got himself imprisoned before Marwood became a licensed printer. Eventually, one of Marwood’s petitions for the release of his father was granted, on the usual conditions, such as that he live quietly, but also on the additional one that Marwood go and work for Williamson.

Marwood’s inchoate, informal skills were suited to his acting as a conduit between Williamson, as publisher of the Gazette and the King’s printer, Thomas Newcomb, who printed it. But Marwood is eventually told that the real reason for his unlikely employment is rather different. The King is particularly keen to confront Thomas Lovett personally, and it is thought that the fugitive is more likely to trust a man whose surname is Marwood. (In the event, when the two men come face to face at the top of the ruined tower of St Paul’s, Marwood’s surname doesn’t initially make much impression on the Fifth Monarchy man.)

In the meantime Cat Lovett, who still expects to inherit property from her deceased mother’s family when she reaches full age, even though her father no longer owns anything he could leave to her, is living in the household of her mother’s brother-in-law, a goldsmith who is reputed to be one of the richest men in the country, and creditor of the King, the Duke of York and anybody else who’s anybody. Like most goldsmiths of the time, he takes deposits and operates what would now be considered an unregulated bank. The demand for capital to finance the rebuilding of the City is about to put his business under insupportable strain.

Cat’s “Uncle Alderley” is keen to marry her off to an impoverished aristocrat, a prospect that repells Cat. Before that can happen, though, her cousin Henry Alderley rapes her, having lain in wait in her room, and she retaliates by stabbing him in the eye. She has to go on the run, and becomes a servant in a boarding-house off the Strand. The woman who manages the house, Mistress Noxon, tells her that it’s not possible for a young lady to stay there, as it’s a boarding-house for men.

“But if you stay, you stay as a servant and you work for your keep.”
“I’m not afraid of hard work.”
“You will be by the time I’ve finished with you …” (p. 97; all ellipses added)

One of the men who rents a room in the house is Hakesby, an architectural draughtsman working with Christopher Wren, who hopes (if he can get the King’s approval) to design the replacement for the cathedral, and a lot more besides. Hakesby is developing a shake in his hand and Cat gradually takes on the role of his amanuensis. When it becomes impossible for her to continue to live in Mistress Noxon’s house, Hakesby offers her work in the new drawing office he is about to open with Wren, and agrees to her request that he teach her, effectively as an apprentice.

She had always been interested in designing buildings and had already learned some of the skills involved from her aunt (on her mother’s side), who had given her a set of architectural tools, in which she takes great pride but which are destroyed at a particularly low point for her.

So, though the course of the story, Cat is at various stages, the daughter of an outlawed fugitive, a dependent in a grand town house, an insignificant servant, the victim of serious crimes, notably rape and fraud, the unwilling fiancée of an aristocrat, and an apprentice draughtswoman. She is also a murderer, having killed two men, neither of them her rapist, and one of them relatively innocent, though certainly a danger to her safety.

When, towards the end of the story, Marwood asks Hakesby whether he’s known all along who Cat was, Hakesby answers:

“I knew what she was, but not who. Safer for everyone.”
I understood what Hakesby didn’t say as much as what he did. Since the King’s Restoration, there were many who did not find it convenient to live as they had before, or even to use their own names, and there were others who would help them survive in peaceable, unobtrusive ways, and encourage their friends to do the same. (p. 454)

The destruction and confusion caused by the fire must have made it easier for some of those people to remake themselves, to find new roles and different lives. It was, in short, a time of unaccustomed social mobility, much of it downwards.

Marwood, too, lacks a stable role to occupy. For the loving son of a man who applauded the execution of the previous king, he is perhaps surprisingly conformist in his social attitudes. Early on, when he is reporting to Williamson that some of the crowd outside the burning cathedral ascribe the conflagration to God’s “displeasure at the wickedness of the court”, he adds as an aside to himself:

… better not to blame our profligate and Papist-leaning King in person, for walls have ears, especially in Whitehall … (p. 23)

But he comes to comes to feel a degree of respect and even admiration for the monarch, particularly after the latter competently directs efforts to control and extinguish a fire set by Thomas Lovett in Whitehall itself.

After Cat has stabbed her cousin in the eye and fled, the blame for the attack falls on Jem, an old attendant of her father’s who helped her to get away. It doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that an 18-year-old young woman might have perpetrated such a vicious attack — though of course Edward Alderley knows who attacked him and has good reason to keep quiet about it. His father, the goldsmith, has Jem flogged to death (only to complain that by dying in agony the servant cheated the hangman), a scene that is by chance witnessed by Marwood and Williamson. Marwood is troubled but not outraged:

Master Alderley was entirely within his rights to take a whip, even a cat o’ nine tails, to a refractory servant, particularly one under suspicion of a grave offence. Was he not master in his own home, where his word was law, just as the King was master in England, and God was master of all? (p. 74)

The fire had destroyed almost everything from the Tower in the east to about Fetter Lane in the west and Holborn to the north. Marwood, whose father’s shop — which of course has not been returned to him with his liberty — had been in Paternoster Row, near the cathedral, is hopeful that wealthier parts of the city will avoid the destruction:

God willing, the mansions of the Strand would be spared, and so would Whitehall itself. The fires were still burning vigorously elsewhere, but their relentless advance had been largely stoppped. (p. 61)

As he walks through the ashes, Marwood finds himself desolate at the damage:

It was grief, I think, nothing more or less. I knew it was absurd. But I had noticed this reaction in others as well as in myself: that we mourned for our ravaged city as if for a mother … The sorrow came in waves, just as it had when my own mother died. (p. 146)

Not everybody is affected the same way, of course. The destruction has also opened up the possibility of creating something totally new, as Wren and Hakesby — and Cat — would like to do. There is inevitably a conflict between those who wish to seize this opportunity and those — including the King and his advisors — who must find the money and materials for the reconstruction. When Marwood runs into the Alderleys at the site of Thomas Lovett’s former house, they frame it as a clash between landlords, on whom the obligation to rebuild falls, and tenants, who will have the benefit of the improved premises.

Ultimately, and again inevitably, the conflict is resolved in compromise. Though Hakesby seems happy enough at the prospect of new projects, he can’t resist a complaint:

“Posterity will say we threw away the chance to make London a great capital city, fit for all ages. Instead, all we shall do is piecemeal stuff, trying to make good what was there before.” (p. 481)

Cat doesn’t answer him. She seems to understand that the ideal city is not something that can be transferred bodily from drawingboard to concrete reality, and that “a great capital city” for all the ages must grow at its own pace, as if organically.

Edition: Harper paperback, 2017.

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