The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

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Reviewed by Harriet

The noise was the worst. Not the crackling of the flames, not the explosions and the clatter of falling buildings, not the shouting and the endless beating of drums and the groans and cries of the crowd: it was the howling of the fire. It roared its rage. It was the voice of the Great Beast itself.

There are a number of British writers who have excelled at historical crime fiction, but Andrew Taylor has to be somewhere near the top of the list. I first discovered him about ten years ago when I read his celebrated Roth Trilogy (arguably the best of his large output) and a number of his so-called Lydmouth Series, set in the 1940s. In recent years he’s been exploring the more distant reaches of history, with novels set in the 18th and 19th centuries. His most recent work, The Ashes of London, goes even further back, taking place in 1660s London. In fact the novel begins at a particularly memorable era, early September 1666, when the Great Fire of London is raging through the city, destroying everything in its path, including the ancient St Paul’s Cathedral.

Among the crowd watching the destruction of St Paul’s is James Marwood, the son of a disgraced printer who has recently been released from the prison term he was serving for his adherence to the anti-monarchist faction, which was responsible for the execution of Charles I. With the restoration of the Monarchy, in the shape of Charles II, mercy has been shown to all but the worst offenders, but old Marwood is sadly deteriorating in mind and body, and James has much care and trouble looking after him. He’s an honourable man, but works as a clerk and a sort of government informer and overall tries to keep out of trouble in these troubled times. Outside St Paul’s he encounters a ragged and desperate teenager, who he manages to prevent from entering the burning building. Although dressed as a boy, this turns out to be a young woman – James lends her his cloak, but when he tried to take it back, she bites him on the hand and runs away.

Though James doesn’t know it, this is Cat Lovett, herself the daughter of a man still considered to be a traitor. Lovett has disappeared from view after the Restoration, and Cat has been brought up by her great aunt, and now lives with her wealthy uncle and his second wife, an erstwhile mistress of the king. But she has reason to believe that her father is in hiding somewhere in London, and when dramatic events at home force her to run away and go into hiding, she hopes she may be reunited with him.

The novel swings back and forth between James’s story and Cat’s. Their paths overlap frequently but somehow they never actually meet, or not for most of the novel, though quite soon James is asked by Cat’s stepmother to try to find her, and by his employers to try to track down Cat’s father. So begins a sort of cat and mouse game, in which Cat becomes increasingly desperate and finds herself moving from one unsatisfactory lodging to another, forced to work as a servant, and frequently having to fend off the advances of men, sometimes in shocking and dramatic ways.

This novel is interesting in so many ways. I learned a great deal about the history of this fascinating period, not least about the tensions that resulted from the legacy of the execution of Charles I and of the period under Cromwell, known as the interregnum or Commonwealth. It’s obvious when you think about it that feelings would continue to run very deep among the most radical of the anti-royalist sympathisers, many of whom were forced to go into hiding (as Cat’s father does) or alternatively to appear to change their views and support the new King’s reign. And indeed, as the novel shows, some of the radicals continued their activities undercover, with often violent and shocking results.

Another great strength here is the novel’s perspective on the position of women at the period, especially shown of course through Cat’s story. Her strength of character, undoubtedly a legacy from her father, just about maintains her through a series of incredibly challenging experiences and leads her to actions well beyond the reaches of the law. She’s also interesting in another way – she wants more than anything to be an architect, an ambition sown in her by her great-aunt, who brought her up after her mother’s death and her father’s disappearance. Such a possibility would have been pretty much unthinkable at the period, although the Restoration did see a flowering of women breaking into the arts – acting, writing plays and novels, for example – so perhaps there would have been some hope for Cat to fulfil her ambitions.

So all in all this is a highly readable and enjoyable novel. The research that’s gone into it is impressive, and the story is an exciting one – the climax, which takes place in the ruins of burnt-out St Paul’s, is particularly nail-biting. I’m glad to have rediscovered Andrew Taylor and now intend look out for novels of his I’ve missed in the interim.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and would have quite liked to be a historian.

Andrew Taylor, The Ashes of London (Harper Collins, 2016). 978-0008119089, 496pp., hardback.

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