‘The Great Fire of London in 1666’ by Walter George Bell- review

The Great Fire of London in 1666The Great Fire of London in 1666 by Walter George Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The great city of London was burning. The noble and the humble were all in together in the face of furious fires that looked something of the eternal flames of Inferno. It took from September 2 to September 6, 1666 for Old London – Shakespeare’s London- to disappear into the past. It was a scene to behold, it was a scene to record. The medieval City of London inside the old roman city wall became a gray detritus of ashes and more ashes, which changed the face of London forever – in a far better way that improved the conditions of living in the scandalously popular city, the city that had no regards for the lowly and the lowest. For out of the detritus of the devastation, came a phoenix hoovering over the gray skies of London with golden opportunities for the contemporary Londoners and even better for the progeny and the citizens of the world as magnificently illustrated in this telling book by Walter George Bell.

It all happened on the morning of Sunday, September 2nd, 1666 at the shop and house of one Farynon, King Charles II of England’s baker, stood in Pudding Lane, ten doors from Thames Street due to his lack of due care of the oven. Although the baker later vehemently disavowed such negligence that caused the Inferno, Bell confirms the tortious act on the part of the baker on the ground of “a calm consideration of the evidence” collected afterwards. However, at the time of and the immediate aftermath of the Fire, the public fueled by the demotic uproar of the angry mob decided that it resulted from a concerted plot of the Roman Catholics and Frenchmen. In fact, the unanimous vengeance upon Catholics and subjects of any Catholic countries was all the rage under the misbelief that they set fire on the city as punishment for the impudent English heresy against the Papacy. Even the supposedly judicious members of the Council were prejudiced against foreigners and Catholics in London despite the King’s speech to the homeless in effort to assuage such outrageous public agitation. In consideration of the ethos of the period, the speculated causes of the Fire related to religious motivations that all called for God’s punishment for heresy (especially Catholicism) and other cardinal sins that looked particularly rampant in “sinful London”.  Nevertheless, the Council finally relented by proclaiming that the cause of fire was no other but “God’s will, a great wind and the seasons so very dry.”

What seemed to be a scourge of God turned out to be a seismic labor pain of birth of a new city that was beneficial to those at the low rungs of a social ladder because the ecclesiastical city of bell towers and spires would be transformed into a commercial city of work and more work in new salubrious environment. Bell expounds that post-Fire London was a new breed of commercialism, making London culturally vibrant and famously cosmopolitan as a uniquely quaint city where modernity and traditionality were fashionably blended. Moreover, Bell points out that rebuilding of London after the Fire also improved living qualities of the inhabitants in terms of unhealthy housing and inconvenient pavement conditions with the reconstruction of the streets of London designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It also generated a plethora of trades that contributed to the betterment of economic conditions of people living in and coming to London for better life.

This book is at its most compelling when assessing the consequential events of the Fire drawn on a multitude of historical records and the author’s calm objective analysis of the Fire without a hint of religious proclivity or partisan social commentaries. It doesn’t turn out to be a stuffy history book that the topic indicates but an engaging nonfiction narrative that combines Orwellian journalistic perspectives with Thucydides’ standard of historical realism, all in the perspicacious use of plain English communicative to all. All in all, if you are curious about post-Shakespearean London or want to know about the history of London, this book will not disappoint you.

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