Five men pick up the pieces and reconstruct London in the aftermath of the English Civil War, the plague and the Great Fire of 1666.
In his first book, London native Hollis deftly interweaves the stories of architect Christopher Wren, polymath Robert Hooke, diarist John Evelyn, builder Nicholas Barbon and philosopher John Locke, who laid the foundations for the thriving metropolis that exists today. He begins by briefly sketching their early histories, slowly establishing their credentials leading up to September 1666, when flames consumed huge portions of London. He also paints a colorful portrait of Restoration-era society, with a particular focus on the period’s architecture. London in the 17th century, he reminds us, was often dangerous and lacked some of the most basic services for care of the sick and the poor. Examining how his subjects’ lives played out in the aftermath of tragedy, the author strikes a fine balance between personal and professional details. Summaries of Locke’s influential philosophies are accompanied by an account of his perilous exile in Holland after being accused of complicity in a plot to assassinate Charles II. Assessment of Hooke’s role as chief surveyor following the Great Fire sit alongside tales of his sexual peccadilloes. Wren’s agonizing struggle to gain approval of his designs for St. Paul’s Cathedral is described in evocative, highly readable prose. Hollis never forgets to fill in the details of London’s rebuilding as the stories of his five main characters unfold. The construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral (practically a sixth protagonist in the book) is the focal point for these various narrative strands.