From “the fertile ground of conflict” – Andrew Taylor’s The Fire Court
With The Ashes of London (Harper Collins, 2017) Andrew Taylor began a series historical crime novels set in Restoration London. The Fire Court (Harper Collins, 2018) is the second in the series.
The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed 13,200 houses and 86 churches. The list of important buildings lost to the fire included St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Exchange, the Guildhall, the Customs House and the Excise Office. More than 80 percent of the old walled city was destroyed, and a further 373 acres beyond the walls.
Even as Londoners dealt with the emotional devastation wrought by the Fire, plans to re-build were afoot and, along with managing the costs of such a massive enterprise, the pressing question arose of who owned what. Acclaimed novelist Andrew Taylor, describes it in these terms: “From the Middle Ages, a web of ownership and occupancy patterns had developed, made up of freeholds, tenancies, sub leases, assignments, rents, fines and other legal mechanisms. It was riddled with inconsistencies, ambiguities and conflicting interests.
“Moreover, most leases included a clause obliging the lessee to rebuild in case of fire. While this was being done, the tenant had to continue paying rent. In the face of such a widespread disaster, at a time when many citizens had lost everything they had owned, this requirement was neither practical nor fair, since it placed the greater burden on that part of the population least able to bear it. It would also mean that the entire programme of rebuilding could be held up while hundreds of individual cases worked their way through the courts.”
In response, the government established the Fire Court, housing it in a hall in Clifford’s Inn. It was, explains Taylor, a “special court set up to deal solely with property disputes that hindered the rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire. It handled more than a thousand cases and imposed settlements on legal disputes that in usual circumstances could have dragged on for years.” When he was looking for inspiration to continue the adventures of James Marwood and Cat Lovatt, both of whom will be familiar to readers of The Ashes of London, the Fire Court had instant appeal. “Conflict is always fertile ground for a novelist,” he explains. “I knew from an early point that a Fire Court case would be pivotal to the plot.”
And fertile ground it proves to be. When The Fire Court begins, Marwood is skeptical about his aging father’s claims to have found a dead body in Clifford’s Inn, but some of the story rings true and he soon finds himself suspicious about a case before the Court – a dispute over the rights to redevelop the Dragon Yard, an area just north of Cheapside. This brings Marwood back into contact with Cat Lovatt, and soon the pair are caught up in a page-turning search for a murderer that has them criss-crossing the Capital. Taylor found contemporary maps of London and plans of Whitehall vital in plotting the movements of his characters. “I always try to walk in their footsteps (or go by river, as they so often did) – fortunately the street pattern of central London hasn’t changed that much since the 1660s.” He also relied on Pepys’ Diary: “a joy to read – all 1.25 million words of it.”
Before beginning this series of Restoration crime novels, Taylor had gone no further into the past than the late 18th century and he found this new time period offered both possibilities as well as challenges. “In one way,” he explains, “the further back in time a novelist goes, the easier it is, because there are fewer sources that need to be consulted. On the other hand, the 17th century certainly provides many challenges. One is the role of women: it’s not easy to come up with plausible ways to allow agency to women characters outside the home and immediate family.” Taylor describes the 17th century as “a time of change, when a few women were at least beginning to find ways of leading independent lives; most were not so fortunate.” Independence is certainly a pressing issue for the character of Cat Lovatt, who has no family to support her, and a range of strong female minor characters – Lady Limbury, her maid Mary and Marwood’s servant Margaret for example – all illustrate the many challenges of being a woman in 17th-century England.
Taylor warns against the temptation to give 21st-century attitudes to 17th-century characters, but it was in dealing with language that he found the most difference from his previous outings in historical fiction. In the late 18th century, he explains, “English language was not so very different from our own; it’s not hard to construct a plausibly authentic pastiche of dialogue or first-person narrative. The language of the mid-17th century is very different. I soon realised that, like Hilary Mantel and C.J. Sansom for the 16th century, the best plan for me was to use plain modern English with the occasional turn of phrase or vocabulary to lend a flavour of the period.”
Although it can certainly be read as a stand-alone novel, The Fire Court is part of a series. “The nice thing about a series (for both authors and readers),” says Taylor, “is that you have time to get to know the characters and the setting. (In this it mirrors real life, and like real life series are often full of surprises as they progress.) The drawback of a series, on the other hand, is that you have to find ways of keeping it fresh. Fortunately Restoration England is so varied and eventful a period that this shouldn’t be a problem for a while.”
Readers keen to continue with Marwood and Cat’s story will be happy to know that a third novel is already well in the works. “I’m two thirds of the way through it now;” says Taylor. “It has the working title of The King’s Evil. I could certainly see the series extending beyond that. Fingers crossed…”
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of Charlatan, a story of poison and intrigue in 17th-century Paris. Her second historical novel, The Road to Newgate, will be released in summer 2018.