BY PERMISSION OF HEAVEN by Adrian Tinniswood


The True Story of the Great Fire of London
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A robust account from Christopher Wren biographer Tinniswood (His Invention So Fertile, 2002) of the fire that reduced much of Wren’s London to ashes in 1666.

In the mid-17th century it was the third largest city in the Western world (after Constantinople and Paris), a swarm of 300,000 souls, a hub of commerce, and a scuzzy place if there ever was one: “noisy, filthy, and smelly . . . butchers’ offal lay rotting in the narrow streets, and human waste blocked open drains.” A little fire clearance might not have been such a bad thing for London, except that 13,200 dwellings went up in smoke, more than 80 percent of the old, walled city. Coming on the heels of a terrible plague, the year 1666 (“an Apocalyptical and mysterious number,” noted one contemporary astrologer) indeed brought fire, if not the stink of brimstone. Tinniswood’s recounting of the conflagration is very busy, though comfortably so. He sweeps from the political stage to the mob in the streets, analyzes social contracts and building styles, airs conspiracy theories and examines local xenophobia, as he follows the fire from its start in a baker’s shop, a flame so small the Lord Mayor declared “a woman could piss it out,” through its spread via high winds to quarters far and wide. The author does particularly well in unraveling the many suspicions that flew in the fire’s wake: it was Dutch revenge for the English bonfire at West-Terschelling, people speculated, or a Popish plot, or the work of the Almighty pointing a finger at King Charles the Dissolute. Tinniswood is also adroit in drawing a sensible picture of the reconstruction of London, delineating its many players and their shifting intents within the broad context of the Rebuilding Act, the Fire Court, and the nasty eruptions of religious intolerance that kept cropping up like spot fires after the blaze.

Covers the Great Fire like a blanket. (16 pp. b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 5th, 2004
ISBN: 1-57322-244-5
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2003


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