The Prospect of This City (hereafter referred to as Prospect) begins in the days immediately prior to and continues into the first few hours of the start of the 1666 Great Fire of London. Having the Fire be a setting for a novel-length thriller narrative was not an idea that I had come across. This was both surprising and pleasing to me as the Fire seemed like an obvious event to use to structure this kind of story. This apparent lack was enough in itself to assure me that there were stories here, stories that had not been told before. This feeling was backed up by Sarah Johnson’s exhaustive 2005 librarians’ catalogue Historical Fiction: A Guide To The Genre.
That’s not to say that the Fire hasn’t been a feature of much fiction, occasionally conjoined in story with its immediate predecessor in terms of a nationally-significant event, the bubonic plague outbreak of 1664 - 5. Harrison Ainsworth’s 1841 historical romance Old St Paul’s is a melodramatic yarn of obsession, thwarted love, prophecy, destruction and redemption across the two disasters. GA Henty’s 1895 When London Burned covers similar terrain.
This linking of Plague and Fire is also an organising feature of Mary Hooper’s At The Sign of the Sugared Plum and Petals in the Ashes (grounding their narratives in Plague and Fire respectively), and continues to the present, as indicated by CC Humphreys’ recently announced two - book deal for novels entitled simply Plague and Fire (Williams 2012).
The approach wasn’t of interest to me, because I had seen it done before and because I was unconvinced of the usefulness in linking the two very different disasters together, except in the minds of those who sought conspiracy theories and thus could make their own connections from events which were otherwise coincidental to each other.
Nevertheless, I maintain an interest in the potential in fiction of conspiracy and it was my intent to articulate this in Prospect. Chapter Two looks at this in more detail.
The Fire, though it appears as backdrop in novels as diverse as in Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Edward Rutherfurd’s London and Tom Holland’s vampire saga Deliver Us From Evil, has often been confined in writing as a subject for younger readers. The Fire is often taught at primary school, where it’s used to exemplify breadth of study, where ‘past events from the history of Britain and the wider world (for example, events such as the Gunpowder Plot, the Olympic Games, other events that are commemorated)’ in Key Stage 1 of the National Curriculum (Department for Education 2012).
There are many supporting texts written for Key Stage learners such as Lynne Benton and Peter Cottrill’s The King and the Great Fire and Margaret Nash and Jane Cope’s Toby and the Great Fire of London. Children’s novels set in and around the time of the Fire such as Pippa Goodhart’s Raven Boy may be also considered here.
I felt secure, however, at the project’s outset that there was a space for a Fire-set novel and that this wasn’t over-worked ground, particularly as I had no interest in conflating Plague and Fire. That’s a position that hasn’t since altered.
The idea that there was an element of awareness of the event residual from childhood history lessons, general knowledge and the like was an appeal, as was the open-endedness of the Fire. As the Fire was not ended by human agency, but rather by the prevailing winds changing and by the exhausting of the fuel supply of London’s goods and property (Bell: 226), there was the challenge and opportunity to invent a climax that was not tied to a fixed historical conclusion.
The Fire has been used in more allegorical ways. Peter Ackroyd’s first novel and Jacques Roubard’s non-fiction memoir, both titled The Great Fire of London make reference to the symbolic power of the destructive event, though neither are concerned with the history. The use of the Fire for its symbolic potential was something that I was interested in exploring from the beginning of the project.
The use of an event of national or wider significance to echo / refract a protagonist’s dilemma is a standard fictional ploy. One significant recent strand of this concerns 9/11 and in particular the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers, referenced in novels as diverse as William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Another is the writing commenting on, analysing and - crucially for me, replaying - the 1963 assassination of US President John F Kennedy. Such fictional representations, as Knight has it, raise “fundamental questions about the connection between conspiracy plot and narrative plot; about the nature of character, agency and causality; about the relationship between fictional narrative and historical truth” (2007: 105). These are all areas in which Prospect, as it developed, has fostered interest.
I wanted Prospect to use a historical event to make some kind of commentary or at least allusion to recent happenings. In Prospect, the faith-driven terrorist Challis plots to engineer the destruction of a major city landmark in ways paralleling those of Mohammad Atta and his cohort. Prospect, I thought, could consider the contemporary world. But it would not site its drama in the aftermath of 9/11, as in the novels mentioned above. Instead, Prospect would prefigure the present day in the past.
I was interested in the idea that history repeats itself. Indeed the Fire was rumoured at the time to have been a revisiting of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot against James I in which the destruction of Parliament by dissident Catholics was barely averted (Tinniswood: 161), and so we should perhaps not see occurrences like 9/11 as necessarily unique, but merely the most recent and vivid iteration of a pattern of events played out before and will doubtless be re-enacted again.
The question of fidelity to the historical record in genre fiction is an ongoing topic of discussion in academic, readership and professional writing circles. Though the parameters of that discussion are outside the scope of this reflective thesis, it should be acknowledged that a range of opinions exist and are of concern to authors, to readers and to commentators also. To some extent, this reflection is my take on that debate, by way of extended example. This is what I did, how, when and why.
Outside of the perhaps necessarily subjective nature of history as a discipline and the obvious point that historical fiction, by its nature, will make play with aspects of the past, one of the purposes of the genre is to find points where the two (history and fiction) may be combined. The medievalist Ian Mortimer’s useful concept of ‘free history’ might be employed here: ‘the totality of all possible human engagements with the evidence relating to a past event or state of being’ (Mortimer 2008: 1). For Mortimer, free history ‘lies somewhere between “what happened in the past” and “what historians do”, being less than the former and more than the latter. It encompasses the full extent of activities which could be considered “historical”’ (2008: 8). This includes historical fiction, where, as de Groot puts it: ‘novelists concentrate on the gaps between known factual history and that which is lived’ (2010: 3).
For a novel to go too far in the direction of the factual/historical, the effect might well be akin to an animated textbook. Go too far in the other direction though, and the end result might well be pastiche, romance, or maybe fantasy. That may not necessarily make for bad fiction, but unless the genre boundaries are understood by author, the publishing profession (and its retail ancillaries) and readers alike, the possibility of a text being rejected because it does not align itself in a genre-appropriate fashion is raised.
Thus, authors who are associated with historical fiction are keenly aware of the need to be identifiably, if not authoritatively, persuasive in their genre credentials. At one end of this spectrum, the author might be a recognised historian and/or have a parallel career in academia. Contemporary British examples include Roman scholar Harry Sidebottom (Warrior of Rome series, 2009 onwards) and the above-mentioned Mortimer, who publishes Elizabethan-set thriller fiction under his middle names James Forrester (2009 onwards).
Notwithstanding those badges of authenticity - or at least of verifiable expertise in the historical - authors need to ensure that their texts are seen to be based on historically accurate source material and that licences and adaptations taken and made to the record are documented to have been taken into consideration.
This may be evidenced in several ways. Some, like the author biography, links to personal and publishing company websites, social media contacts, and fly page lists of other publications, are perhaps standard across many genres.
The author’s note, usually (though not exclusively) appended as a suffix to the book, is an inclusion so common to become almost a genre expectation within the historical. Some are brief, light-hearted, offer a couple of pointers for additional reading and give thanks and acknowledgements. Others run to several pages and give a more in-depth background to the historical contexts of the fiction being presented, often with acknowledgement of omissions, elisions and/or changes to the sources used in the piece’s development. This may also feature an extensive bibliography. Some authors use a non-fiction preface. The most common textual inclusion is a map. Some novels include dramatis personae. At one extreme, the 2012 paperback edition of Michael Jecks’ King’s Gold contains, in order and before the first chapter: a glossary of technical terms, a cast of characters, an author’s note, a map of London and a second map of the River Avon.
The purpose of these paratextual additions is to attempt to create a sense of verisimilitude for the reader: the fiction is derived from authentic and verifiable occurrences. In addition, there’s an opportunity to showcase the author’s knowledge and historical bona fides as well as their elisions and inventions. There’s also an opportunity to refer to ‘awareness of the strange project in which they are involved’ (de Groot 2010: 7-10) in presenting an amalgam of fact and fiction as a historically-relatable invented past. Within the novel itself, the historical fiction author may have to navigate between creating plausible dramatics, explaining specific terminology and contexts for the unfolding drama.
To some extent, if the contextual burden is being carried by extra-textual materials (and in series, by predecessor and successor novels) then the authorial responsibility to explain within the fiction might be eased. The extent that this is generically tolerable, notwithstanding the possibility that a reader may / may not skip the preface pages and dive straight into the first chapter, and / or ignore any appendices, may vary from reader to reader.
This tendency is particularly evident in paperback editions, where along with the aforementioned inclusions, the edition may also include author interviews, reading group questions and also the first few pages or chapters of the next volume in the sequence, the newer book often appearing in hardback at an approximate time to the paperback of its predecessor (Wilde 2012, Parris 2012 as examples).
This may have the effect of stimulating sales of the series, of reminding the reader that there’s more to come and perhaps ‘upgrading’ the reader from paperback to hardback purchases, and thus provoking a spike in revenue, both in terms of the price uplift between hard- and paperback edition and in terms of recency, foreshortening the buying of the next volume from the next paperback release (perhaps a year away) to the immediately-available hardback. This would map across to ebook sales; UK ebook pricing tends to shadow the most current paper edition.
Prospect does not feature these inclusions, and indeed was written to be self-supporting without them, but it’s recognised that they’re generically appropriate and may even be seen as necessary in a potential published version’s ‘package’. There are some indications, if only in the reading I did while working on this project, that this pattern isn’t followed through to those novels which may be historical in terms of setting but are positioned as literary works rather than genre ones. Representative examples include Clare Clark’s The Great Stink (2005) and Maria McCann’s The Wilding (2010) where additional material is limited to brief acknowledgements after the novel.
However, whatever the usefulness in additional material being presented with the novel text may be (added value to the purchased product, familiarisation, verisimilitude, the provoking of authenticity and accuracy in the fiction, showcasing of research, offering follow-on reading as possible examples), Prospect needs to be able to stand on its own. The idea of the novel being self-contained in these terms was important from the outset.
Notwithstanding this, the title The Prospect of This City is derived from a map. The phrase appears in an inset picture and accompanying description of London of ‘The Prospect of This City as it appeared from the opposite Southwark side in the fire time’ within Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1667 diagram of the extent of the damage to the city (National Archives 2012). I’d bought a print of the map as one of my first acts of the project. Those words stuck, and so became the title and, over time, provided me with the book’s climax.
The more I thought about it, the more promise the idea of the map held in articulating positions that I’d begun to take. Maps were everywhere in the books, not least in my personal favourite novel, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1984), which opens with a diagram of the abbey in which the drama is located and is concerned with the need for a map with which to navigate the labyrinthine forbidden library at the novel’s centre, the library itself organised as though it were a map of the world (Rice 2003: 249-354). I was also taken with the conceit of the historical novel as a kind of map itself, a map of a fictionalised version of a real past. A research notebook entry of mine from 2010 reads:
Novels are symbolic, not iconic. But they don’t help themselves because they encourage being seen as iconic through (visual) signs such as covers, maps, etc. And by non-fiction supplements intended to be decoded as iconic rather than symbolic.
In discussing Eco’s novel, but expanding his point more generally, Rice (2003: 350) comments:
the artist encodes meaning, maps cognitively a conceptual space, a world that the audience decodes by a reciprocal mental mapping process. That, of course, does not mean that these maps are interchangeable or simply superimposed upon one another; they are supplemental.
Perhaps the definitive statement on this comes from Jorge Luis Borges (though the concept may be traced back to Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded). The Borges short fiction On Exactitude in Science posits a map of identical size and scale to the real empire that it’s based on (Eco 1998b: 84). This map/territory conundrum - that the map is not the territory, and not only should the two not be confused for each other but that to accept the map (or the copy) over the territory (or the real), itself exhaustively dissected by Umberto Eco (1998b: 85-94) stayed with me throughout the research, writing and reflective periods of the project.
The issue of the relationship between the historical and the novelistic, long an area of contention within the field of historical fiction, felt analogous here. The novel is not the history in ways similar to those indicating that the map is not to be confused with the territory. There may be relationships and referents between the two, but one (the novel, or the map, to follow the analogy) is not the other (the historical background of the novel, or the territory).
I saw that there were freedoms and opportunities here. Understanding that my obligations to the Fire and its personages were not ones of literal, mimetic reproduction or ones of exactitude was a liberating one, and ones which I’d not fully taken into consideration in the novel’s planning and early iterations. I’d been overly preoccupied with the former rather than the latter word in the phrase ‘historical novel’. This reflection is the closest I’m going to get to producing such a map, because, as I came to understand, that burden of obligation doesn’t need to be borne by the novel.