Tuesday, 19 September 2017

[Book Review] Hanson, The Dreadful Judgement (2001)

Neil Hanson, The Dreadful Judgement (Doubleday: London 2001)

Nobody could accuse Neil Hanson of not writing a gripping story.  This account of the Great Fire of London fairly tears along, from the closing stages of the plague that preceeded it, to the condition of the poorer quarters of the town on the eve of the fire, to the disaster and its aftermath.  His gaze shifts rapidly from the highest levels of the court of King Charles II to the primitive relief camps outside London. 

The Dreadful Judgement
Image from here
Hanson takes issue with the traditional death toll of four people, although he seems to accept that these are the only deaths that are known with certainty to hsve occurred.  Knowing what we do after Black Saturday, it is hard to disagree with the assertion that the actual loss of life was hundreds or even thousands that number.  Intriguingly, he leaves open the possibility that the fire may in fact have been started deliberately by French or Dutch saboteurs.

A connecting thread in the story is the experience of the baker, Thomas Farriner, whose shop is traditionally thought to be the cause of the fire.  He shifts between details which seem to have been drawn from contemporary accounts to narrative which seems to be a mix of inference, conjecture and speculation.  This is the unsettling part of the book: it is difficult to tell precisely where the history ends and the imagination begins.  This makes it hard to trust his commentary on (say) the likely cause of the fire.  The situation is not helped by inexcusably poor footnoting. For example, claiming Samuel Pepys' colossal diary as a source is useless when the reference simply refers to "Samuel Pepys, Diary" or "Samuel Pepys, op. cit.".  A first-year Arts student would not be allowed this sort of scholarly sleight of hand, and Hanson's editor should not have permitted it either.

This book is a good yarn, and perhaps a good place to start researching London of the 1660s, but it would be a poor place to stop.

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