Saturday 12 January 2013
Adrian Tinniswood, By Permission of Heaven
On September 2, 1666, early in the morning, a fire started in Thomas Farriner's bakery, Pudding Lane, London. Soon it spread and by the time it was extinguished four days later, it had consumed 13,200 houses, 87 churches and numerous public buildings. If this sounds like something you would like to know more about, get yourself a copy of By Permission of Heaven - The True Story of The Great Fire of London by Adrian Tinniswood.
The book is a detailed study of the disaster. It includes background information, day-by-day account of the conflagration's progress and description of firefighting efforts, followed by a history of the great city's recovery. Written in fairly accessible language, it also paints an accurate (as far as I can tell) picture of 17th century Europe - or at least those parts of the continent that are relevant to the story. The narrative is solidly based on easily identifiable sources, often cited throughout the text.
When it comes to pure readability, By Permission of Heaven scores 6 out of 10 on my personal scale. Scholarly notes add to the book's reliability, but unfortunately diminish its literary charms. Still, Tinniswood managed to keep skillful balance between education and entertainment. The story is dynamic enough, and generously seasoned with spicy anecdotes. Not exactly a page-turner, but not a bore either.
I guess a Londoner would enjoy the book far more than I did. The fire's spread is described street by street, almost building by building. To someone only vaguely familiar with London, all those names are pretty much meaningless. My attention tends to drift off when faced with too much urban topography. On the other hand - how else could you describe such an event? With that in mind, the author is officially forgiven.
Overall, a very decent account of one of the most famous fires in the world history. Well worth a try.