Writing the Great Fire: Andrew Taylor shares the origins of Ashes of London
Image: Great Fire of London 1666 (c) Carl Sloan
I’ve written historical crime novels before, but never one set in the turbulent years of the Restoration period. Probably the chain of consequences that led to The Ashes of London goes right back to my childhood, when I read William Harrison Ainsworth’s Old St Paul’s, the Victorian bestselling novel about the plague and the Great Fire of London in 1665-66. The novel’s climax comes when the great mediaeval cathedral goes up in flames - a haunting passage that stayed in my memory for decades. It gave me the natural starting point of my own novel. Rereading it now, I realise that, allowing for the fact that Ainsworth wrote the book nearly 200 years ago, his research was remarkably thorough.
Before I started writing my own novel, I needed a good one-volume overview of the subject. I was lucky to find Adrian Tinniswood’s By Permission Of Heaven, by far the best modern one-volume history of the Great Fire. Tinniswood is a wonderful writer whatever his subject - a scholar who knows how to extract the best from his sources and who assembles his material into a narrative that grips you like - well, like a thriller. He draws on a wealth of contemporary accounts - not just Pepys, but also lesser known contemporaries like the Rev Thomas Vincent, who saw the Fire as God’s judgement on a wicked city, and Thomas Taswell, a Westminster schoolboy who treated the whole catastrophe as a tremendous adventure. This is a book I’ve read and reread - and always with pleasure and profit.
Samuel Pepys not only gives the best contemporary account of the Fire, but also describes London over the whole decade in such detail that his Diary inevitably colours our view of the entire period. Fortunately we have Robert Latham and Douglas Matthews’ first-rate transcription of the full text - with a battery of maps and handy explanatory notes. There’s also a very good biography, too - Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin, which reveals a great deal about the period as a whole.
It was a bookseller (who else?) who suggested I might find it useful to read A Gambling Man, Jenny Uglow’s biography of Charles II during the 1660s. How right he was. It’s not just a perceptive and even-handed account of the man who dominated the entire period: it also provides a history of the decade, a time when politics and religion, money and morality, were all in flux.
Finally, a curiosity: The Devil In Velvet, by John Dickson Carr. It’s a classic crime story written nearly seventy years ago, and set in 1675. It’s also a time-slip novel featuring the Devil. A twentieth-century historian goes back in time to try to stop a murder. Deeply eccentric though the novel is, Carr’s feeling for the period shines through, and his research is very good. When you are gathering material, it always pays to keep an open mind…