1666: Plague, War and Hellfire, by Rebecca Rideal (2016)
On 7th March 1665, the London began the short journey from Chatham up the River Thames to near Tilbury to join the royal fleet. However on the way, gunpowder in the ship’s magazine sparked, causing a massive explosion and killing all but a small number on board. The ship was meant to join the fleet as part of preparations for the looming war with the Dutch that dominated foreign policy in 1665, and the ship’s destruction was a financial set back for the war effort. It is with this key event that Rebecca Rideal begins her novel 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire, an event, that as she points out, set in motion eighteen months of misery as plague, war, and fire ravaged London and its citizens.
The book is Rideal’s first novel; published in August 2016, it was released just weeks before the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Having completed both an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in history, she pursued a career in TV production before returning to study for her PhD, during which time she wrote 1666 which, in her own words, came about as a means of procrastinating from her doctorate. The novel is a departure from previous works that have focused solely on the Great Fire; instead it draws together a series of events between 1665 and 1667 to emphasise how the events impacted on each other. Rideal closely unpicks the events following the burning of the London; the plague’s journey into London and its spread across the city and the suburbs throughout 1665, the on-going naval warfare taking place between the Dutch and the English, and ultimately ending with the fire’s destruction of the City of London in September 1666. Rideal is both bold and vivid in her description of the jostling streets of London, and allows us to view the destructive journey of the plague and the Great Fire through the eyes of the people that experienced them. Providing a backdrop to this, she gives an eagle-eyed narrative of the on-going naval skirmish between the Dutch and English, to contextualise events in England to the wider political climate.
1666 has a very clear and chronological layout, being divided into two parts, ‘1665’ and ‘1666’ and, within these sections, chapters focusing on a specific event. For example, the section ‘1665’ is broken down into a chapter on the burning of the London in the spring, the spread of the plague in the summer, and the beginnings of the Second Anglo-Dutch War from the summer to the winter. This chronological narrative structure allows the reader to not only understand the events of both years as contemporary people did, but also see how the events impacted on each other to create a period of national crisis. Furthermore, that each chapter is focused on a different event, whether it be the spread of the fire or the naval war, means that the reader is immersed in the great amount of detail that Rideal employs to entertain and allow them to understand.
Rideal draws on a variety of sources, including the Bills of Mortality (a weekly pamphlet which listed the number of deaths in London), journals, letters and number of different materials that provide a snapshot of the time period. One striking example used in 1666 is seen through the diary of Thomas Vincent, a puritan minister, as he watched a woman weeping and walking towards the New Churchyard next to Bethlehem Hospital, where she was supposedly going to bury the small coffin she carried that likely held her child. Although this scene ratifies what we already know of the plague, namely that it took the lives of thousands of people in London, Rideal’s use of intimate stories such as this allows the reader to see the personal tragedy that it wreaked on families, but also demonstrates the level of detail used within the book. This detail is employed throughout, and means that key events are seen through the eyes of different people, allowing for a more nuanced understanding, rather than just an anonymous third person narrative of events.
Although thoroughly researched and referenced, 1666 has clearly been designed for a public demographic and as such, is accessible to any audience interested in the seventeenth century, regardless of prior knowledge of the topic. Indeed, it contains a ‘Cast of Characters’ page at the front, which can be used as a reminder to the reader of key figures mentioned, such as Samuel Pepys and Aphra Behn, whose diary (in the case of Pepys) and correspondence feature frequently. Similarly an epilogue is provided at the end, which gives detail of what happened to many of the figures referenced in the book after 1666, including Pepys and Behn, but also lesser known characters, such as the everyday people whose families, homes and businesses were devastated by the plague and the fire. Along with this, maps and photos are provided as visual aids, including an illustration of London as seen from Southwark across the river, after the fire had razed large swathes of the city to ground. As mentioned before, the chronological layout also facilitates understanding as the narrative follows the sequence of events in 1665 and 1666, and the chapters mean it focuses solely on the plague outbreak and then the Anglo-Dutch War, rather than jumping between the two. As a result of this, it is easy to pick it back up after not reading for some time.
Rideal has succeeded in providing a new way of understanding the well-trodden field of the year 1666 in historical non-fiction. Easy to read and rich in its detail, she brings to life the people and streets of the mid-seventeenth century, burring the line between non-fiction narrative and dramatic storytelling to create a book that has enthralled many people of both academic and non-academic backgrounds. Key figures allow us to view the narrative from different vantage points, from King Charles whose new role as king was tested by England’s crisis years, to a family of booksellers who lost a child in the plague and a house to the fire. It is an all-encompassing work that promises to gives new ways of viewing plague, war and hellfire.
Written by Jess Ayres