After the Fire: An Exclusive Interview with Andrew Taylor
One of the most strikingly inventive and compelling historical novels of recent years, Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London plunged readers headlong into the soot-shrouded ruins of London in the aftermath of the Great Fire and a mystery no less murky. Its eagerly awaited sequel, The Fire Court, offers similarly dark delights. Once again the precarious lives of Whitehall agent James Marwood and fugitive Cat Lovett become entangled. They become drawn into a plot that interweaves personal tragedy, political intrigue and a desperate hunt for a vicious killer whilst the lingering echoes of the past lie threateningly close.
A master of period detail, Taylor excels at bringing the past to life. The vividness of his landscapes are a reflection of his passionate engagement with the minute living and breathing details of the period he’s creating – an element with which readers of his earlier historical novels such as The American Boy and The Anatomy of Ghosts will be familiar.
“When I’m writing, I use maps a lot”, Taylor says, “and luckily, when it comes to the time of the Great Fire there are some fantastic maps. The other great advantage we have in this period is the work of diarists, people like Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. In these sources you get very immediate, personal glimpses of the London of the time and how the fire changed it. It’s the real details - like Pepys seeing a cat that has lost all its fur - that really lodge in the mind, providing what is almost a bridge between the centuries. It’s that detail that allows you to really connect with another time and place.”
The detail of geography and place in these novels ensures that London emerges almost as a character in its own right. Fractured, lacerated and only just beginning to be rebuilt, Taylor’s London is a dangerous animal licking its wounds, an apt reflection of the characters that people his fiction. Confronted by a changed and unfamiliar landscape – turning down streets they once knew only to find them gone, unable to navigate terrain that was once utterly familiar – Taylor’s characters are perpetually on uncertain ground. It’s a confusion that draws readers into a world which – both individually and communally – is learning how to live in the aftermath of trauma.
“It’s as if the framework, the surrounding geography of an individual’s life has been altered. It’s that sense of being adrift from one’s moorings”, Taylor considers. “I suppose the nearest 20th century comparison would be with the Blitz. I remember my parents telling me about the Blitz – they were there for most of it – and there was this sense of a community who all had to deal with this in one way or another. They weren’t necessarily all pulling together, far from it, but there’s a similar sense here of a great blight, a great problem facing an entire community."
Taylor’s deft use of period detail also enables him to cast his novels with a mix of imagined and historical characters, conjuring to life some of the most colourful figures of the period, including Charles II himself. Amongst those real characters making a welcome return in The Fire Court are the Machiavellian agents of Whitehall, Joseph Williamson and William Chiffinch; characters who, Taylor explains, are in some ways emblematic of the changing nature of 17th century society: self-made men vying for control in a world still in thrall to monarchical authority.
“Chiffinch is very much a fixer, an old-style fixer, who does his master’s bidding in secretive ways whereas Williamson is one of these new men, the administrative class, but in the period they still both need royal patronage. Even though Charles II has nowhere near the control over everything that the Tudor monarchs had he is still the head of the executive, he still wields this immense authority that derives not only from his powers but also his position as king. He had an almost priestly role to play as the king and he knowingly and very carefully encouraged this. He’d seen his father have his head chopped off and he wanted to turn back the pages of history and go back to a time when kings could be revered as people who had their authority directly from God, so he had that sort of cachet.”
At the heart of Taylor’s changing world are his protagonists, Cat and Marwood. Both left with uncertain futures at the end of The Ashes of London, their trajectory through the ordeals of The Fire Court is no less tumultuous. Thrown together, they operate as mirrors of each other, both perpetually looking over their shoulders and caught between serving their own ends and the constrictions of their time.
“They’re both people in transition in a world in transition”, Taylor considers. “That’s why they’re looking both ways of course. And in a way they’re also emblematic of the time in which they’re living. The late 17th century was a time when the old social structures were beginning to change. It was no longer the aristocracy and the merchant class and the lower orders, it was no longer as simple as that. You were beginning to get a middle class emerging, a professional, administrative class - people like Samuel Pepys - and I think Marwood is one of these new people. He’s trying to join this new evolving class before it’s even been invented.
“In this period you can just begin to see women’s roles beginning to change. It’s a very early part of a very, very long process that - as we know - is continuing even today but that too is interesting. I was fascinated to read about Lady Wilbraham who was a real person and the wife of a Cheshire landowner. There are persistent stories that she had very profound architectural interests and, of course, as a woman she couldn’t practise as such; even the idea of architecture as a profession was not really something that had evolved at that time. Yet there are some tantalising shreds of rumour that she may have contributed to some of Wren’s buildings, for example. I had her in mind with Cat, she was one of the people I found very early on in the research and even if she’s no more than a rumour, that’s enough for me – thank heavens I’m a novelist, not a historian! I wanted her to be a pioneer in her field.”
Taylor is also keen to emphasise that whilst he wants Cat to be an intelligent, forward-thinking woman, he is keen to respect the limitations placed on women’s agency at the time and instead to have her find ways of navigating those restrictions. “I didn’t want to make Cat in any way twee or coy or sweet-natured, I wanted her to be savage”, he says. “One thing that I find infuriating – and I can think of a number of authors of Tudor novels who fall into this trap – is where the female characters [in historical fiction] are feisty, liberated figures who dart around in the outside world and do whatever they like. I can see exactly why authors do it and it makes an awful lot of sense but I didn’t want to write that sort of book. I wanted to write about characters who were living in a reasonably accurate historical framework and were trying to make something new out of it but within the constraints imposed on them by the period.”
Unable to escape the webs of their past, Cat and Marwood are both, to some extent, haunted characters. In The Fire Court, Marwood finds himself dogged by the sudden death of his father, stalked by his own guilt and the shadow of a man he realises he only ever partially knew. It’s a theme that resonates throughout Taylor’s writing which often examines the space between what we think we know of another person and what remains hidden.
“I think when people die, people who are close to you, they do haunt you – to a greater or lesser extent - and it’s healthy”, Taylor says, “it’s a way of working through… not so much grief, as absence. And that is something that comes up in some of my novels and certainly very much in The Fire Court. I think in a way we’re all haunted by something, in different ways, we all have these things we carry around invisibly that affect how we think about things, how we feel about things and how we act.
“It’s something I think about a lot, not just in this book, this huge gap between ourselves and what we know of other people. In the last twenty years or so when my parents died, and my wife’s as well, we’ve had to go through various stages of going through their belongings and all the detritus of life that they accumulated. And in the course of that process you have glimpses of a hinterland you just didn’t know was there. I think D.H. Lawrence says somewhere in one of his letters that we’re all unexplored hinterland and that’s absolutely true, we are, even to ourselves to some extent. When it comes to other people there is this vast hinterland we can only get occasional glimpses of.”
Exploring the myriad unexpected ways in which his characters come to know one another is one of the great strengths of the series; a reader is never quite sure where Cat and Marwood’s lives will lead. It’s something Taylor is enjoying finding out as the series continues. When we speak, he is halfway through the first draft of a new novel in the series. “It’s called The King’s Evil”, he says. “In a perfect world I like to have a title right at the beginning, it’s almost like the key of a piece of music; it tells you something about the colour of the work. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to carry on with the series because the period is so infinitely rich in stories. I enjoy the characters and I want to find out what happens to them. One of the joys of this series is that I don’t really have an overall idea of where the characters are going in their lives but over the course of various novels I can see them working it out as they go.”
On my bookcase…
I’m about to read London Rules, I’ve been a great fan ever since Slow Horses and I’ve been reading a new novel by Anna Mazzola, The Story Keeper. I’ve also been reading a book called The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens looking at ghosts in England through how they appear in our culture, in stories and illustrations; it’s beautifully written.