Old St. Paul’s: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire

Recommended reading for the self isolating…

As soon as the epic serial, The Tower of London concluded at the end of 1840, its author, the flamboyant ‘Lancashire Novelist’ William Harrison Ainsworth, threw an enormous celebratory party and promptly began the next serial, Old St. Paul’s, A Tale of the Plague and the Fire, the first instalment of which appeared in The Sunday Times on January 3, 1841. Ainsworth received £1,000 for his labours, the copyright reverting to him on completion. Old St. Paul’s stands alone in many ways among Ainsworth’s catalogue for its sheer scale; the author taking great delight in painting a vivid and reasonably accurate picture of Restoration London, and then destroying his creation with equal aplomb.

The success of The Tower of London had left booksellers clamouring for a similar sequel, and Ainsworth had written to his best friend, the Manchester lawyer James Crossley, in early-December that ‘I commence a new Romance with the New Year, under the title of The Plague of London. If you have any other tract relating to the period, or to the Fire, I shall feel obliged by the loan of it’, indicating he was already quite advanced in his preparations, having been studying Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which he had borrowed from his old friend.[i] As Ainsworth’s letters to Crossley show, it was the latter’s Defoe collection that was the inspiration for the new project. This is freely acknowledged in the ‘Advertisement’ that prefaces the novel:

THE portion of the ensuing Tale relating to the Grocer of Wood-street, and his manner of victualling his house, and shutting up himself and his family within it during the worst part of the Pestilence of 1665, is founded on a narrative, which I have followed pretty closely in most of its details, contained in a very rare little volume, entitled, ‘Preparations against the Plague, both of Soul and Body’, the authorship of which I have no hesitation in assigning to DEFOE. Indeed, I venture to pronounce it his masterpiece. It is strange that this matchless performance should have hitherto escaped attention, and that it should not have been reprinted with some one of the countless impressions of the ‘History of the Plague of London’, to which it forms an almost necessary accompaniment. The omission, I trust, will be repaired by Mr. HAZLITT the younger, DEFOE’S last and best editor, in his valuable edition of the works of that great novelist and political writer, now in the course of publication. It may be added, that a case precisely similar to that of the Grocer, and attended with the same happy results, occurred during the plague of Marseilles, in 1720.

For my acquaintance with this narrative, as well as for the suggestion of its application to the present purpose, I am indebted to my friend, Mr. JAMES CROSSLEY, of Manchester.[ii]

The attribution of Due Preparations for the Plague (1722) to Defoe is an astute piece of literary scholarship, as its authorship is nowadays unquestioned. This gave Ainsworth the idea for Stephen Bloundel, the prosperous puritan grocer who supplies and seals his house, while his principal source of reference was Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722). We may also reasonably assume some recourse to contemporary diarists such as Allin, Evelyn and, most notably, Pepys. Defoe’s novel is a remarkably immediate account of the Summer of 1665, a sleight of hand supposedly written by a first-hand witness (‘H.F.’), but in fact written from contemporary accounts and verifiable records, embellished with anecdotal (fictional) episodes which the author insists are all hearsay. Defoe in fact takes much care to present his Journal as a true history, but it is rather a historical novel. In much the same way that the young Walter Scott would later grow up listening to folk-tales, legends and ballads from labourers and servants at the farm of his grandfather Robert Scott at Sandyknowe in the Borders, Defoe, who was five years old in 1665, would have had a head full of tales told by his older relatives and family friends, which were probably bought into focus by the accounts of the outbreak of plague in Marseilles in 1720. Also anticipating Scott, Defoe, through a relatively neutral narrator (‘H.F.’s middle class Puritanism is present, but never as morally didactic as the contemporary accounts), examines the effect on basic humanity of such a dehumanising experience. ‘H.F.’ is not a hero so much as a camera, turned upon an entire city in decay and despair.

Ainsworth’s rewrite of Defoe (adding the closure of the Fire of London, which Defoe ignored) was another bestseller. It was also generally applauded by his contemporaries and he appended the best of the reviews to the advertisement for the launch of Ainsworth’s Magazine and the novelised version of Old St. Paul’s. Bell’s Life of London notes the Defoe connection, while allowing that Ainsworth has expanded Defoe’s sparse prose style and intriguing anecdotes:

Although the horrors of the Plague and the Fire have already been described by various writers, and especially by Defoe, Mr. Ainsworth has in these volumes clothed those events in a manner the most exciting. Many of the passages are written with great eloquence; and few of our modern romances possess more sterling clams upon the lovers of this species of composition.

The Courier similarly applauds Ainsworth’s talent for weaving an engaging story out of the historical record without taking too many liberties with the facts:

In this work, Mr. Ainsworth has portrayed many of the horrible incidents of the Great Plague with historical fidelity. He places his principal characters in the midst of that dreadful scourge, and makes the plot depend in a great measure for its progress and development on the circumstances common to the time. The scenes described are all founded on well-authenticated accounts, presented by Mr. Ainsworth with a forcible semblance of reality, which his pen can so well accomplish. These volumes are illustrated by numerous engravings by Mr. Franklin, which correspond in their striking effects with the horror of the scenes depicted.

The Atlas (fans since Rookwood) appreciates the horror, as well as the narrative pacing:

Two of the most appalling events in the history of London have been drawn into the work before us – the Plague and the Fire, and treated in Mr. Ainsworth’s usual graphic style. It argues in favour of the skill with which these scourges of the great city are treated, that several of the descriptive passages made us literally shudder. We could not thread the Labyrinth of terror, without a sensation of pain and uneasiness we cannot very easily convey in words. This is probably the very end aimed at in the romance. Mr. Ainsworth does not fatigue his readers with long accounts of places, and scenes, and events. He always mixes up his descriptions with vivid action, and never lets his narrative pause for a moment. This is one of the secrets of his success.

The Observer pays a huge compliment:

We are glad to meet Mr. Ainsworth again in the region of historical romance, a department of literature in which he has already distinguished himself above almost every author of the day. A better subject than that chosen for his present volumes could not have been selected. It is replete with incidents of the most varied, striking, and affecting character. These Mr. Ainsworth has turned to the account which every reader of his former works must have been prepared to expect. He has interwoven historical facts into a web of most pleasing fiction, thereby investing history herself with new attraction. Many passages, indeed whole pages of the work, remind us of the simple pathos and truthfulness of Defoe. The plot is natural, and is conducted with great skill to the dénouement. ‘Old St. Paul’s’, we understand, has already met with a large sale. It will, with the aid of the illustrations, become one of the most popular of the author’s very popular works.

The above indicates that the Newgate taint had been banished by Ainsworth’s new direction (at least in the short term), while also demonstrating the immense popularity of Ainsworth’s now forgotten fiction. Even old enemy the Athenaeum revised its earlier opinions from the days of Jack Sheppard, writing that:

We prefer the two first volumes of “Old St. Paul’s” to any previous work of their author. Treated as a tale of adventure, the test of which is the hold retained on the reader, these volumes have great merit. The reader who has once opened them will hardly be disposed to lay them down again.

Finally, the Court Journal paid the highest tribute possible:

In this tale of the Plague and the Fire, which now appears in a new and embellished form, we recognise all the excellences which have gained for Mr. Ainsworth so high a name on the scroll of historical literature. There is the same centralization of interest; few marked personages; a plot not too transparent, but of great simplicity; easy power, and most natural pathos in the more tragic portions; characteristic dialogue; and over all, a lucid style of expression. Mr. Ainsworth is the Defoe of his day.[iii]

While such accolades have vanished into obscurity, R.H. Horne’s predictable rejection of this novel endures. A friend of Dickens’, Horne detested what he saw as Ainsworth’s vulgar and lightweight fiction. Unfortunately for Ainsworth’s reputation, many twentieth century literary historians took these remarks at face value, discouraging both academics and general readers from looking at this apocalyptic tour de force:

‘Old St. Paul’s, a tale of the Plague and the Fire’, is a diluted imitation of some parts of Defoe’s ‘Plague in London’, varied with libertine adventures of Lord Rochester and his associates. It is generally dull, except when it is revolting. There are descriptions of nurses who poison or smother their patients, wretched prisoners roasted alive in their cells, and one felon who thrusts his arms through the red-hot bars, – ‘literally’ is added, by way of apology.[iv]

The influence of Defoe is now just superficial plagiarism, and Ainsworth’s stylised use of violence and horror (praised by the Atlas) ‘revolting’ that is, if we recall Horne’s reading of Hogarth and Dickens, without any moral merit. What other readers found impossible to put down is now ‘dull’. Once again the literary elite fails to understand a popular narrative. As Mark Kermode has written of the never-ending debate in Britain regarding horror films and censorship, on reading the reports of the British Board of Film Classification in the 1970s and 80s, one often feels that they have been watching a completely different film. This is to a certain extent true. Kermode argues that:

Gory special effects, constantly the target of attacks by the censors and media pundits alike, work upon disparate audiences in a similarly polarised manner. A key problem in persuading non-horror fans that genre devotees are not a pack of marauding sadists hell-bent on destruction ¼ lies in the recurrent inability of untrained viewers to see past the special effects, puncture the gaudy surface of the movies, pull apart their rubbery rib-cages and grasp their dark thematic hearts. Essentially a surrealist genre, contemporary horror demands to be read metaphorically rather than literally ¼ The horror fan understands this, and is thus not only able but positively compelled to ‘read’ rather than merely ‘watch’ such movies. The novice, however, sees only the dismembered bodies, hears only the screams and groans, reacts only with revulsion or contempt. Being unable to differentiate between the real and the surreal, they consistently misinterpret horror fans’ interaction with texts which mean nothing to them.[v]

Horne, Thackeray, Forster and their disciples obviously belong in the latter camp, the periodical reviewers and, most importantly, Ainsworth’s readers belong in the former.

Old St. Paul’s certainly operates successfully on considerably more levels than R.H. Horne will ever allow. It is a ‘disaster story’ worthy of Hollywood, where an all-star cast is introduced merely to be decimated by fire, flood, earthquake, shipwreck, alien invasion or act of God. It is an apocalypse of biblical proportions, laced with love, intrigue, bravery, humour and horror. It takes the narrative codes of The Tower of London in particular and renders them in epic terms. After the success of the previous romance, where else could Ainsworth go? This, in essence, became his problem with most of his subsequent novels. How does the creator go beyond Revelations?

Rather than continuing to draw on real figures from the past Ainsworth ostensibly moves towards Sir Walter Scott’s type of historical novel, choosing to focus on fictional characters living through major historical events. Again he themes the work around a famous, although this time doomed, monument. There is some level of antiquarianism within the text, but the cathedral assumes a more symbolically representative role in the narrative, alternately a cathedral, a public meeting place, a den of thieves, a pest house and finally an inferno.

Old St. Paul’s is divided into six books, each separately dated between April 1665 and September 1666. Manchester man Leonard Holt, the grocer’s apprentice, is in love with his master’s daughter, Amabel Bloundel. His rival is a young aristocrat, Maurice Wyvil (later revealed to be John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester), whom she meets in secret in St Paul’s Cathedral. Light relief is provided by Bloundel’s credulous, hypochondriac servant, Blaize, and his faith in a variety of quack remedies. Often seen on the roof of the cathedral is the crazed ex-Quaker Solomon Eagle, who wears a burning brazier and prophesies the doom of the city. As the plague progresses, the cathedral is turned into a pesthouse and London becomes an eerie wasteland where victims of the illness are preyed upon by unscrupulous and opportunist characters such as the coffin-maker Anselm Chowles and Mother Malmaynes, the plague nurse, who are quite happy to hasten their patients’ ends in order to loot their properties. Bloundel decides to seal his family within their house, and Leonard finds himself wandering the wasteland, finally catching, but surviving, the plague. Rochester, meanwhile, tricks Amabel into a phoney marriage and deflowers her. On learning the truth, Amabel falls into a fever from which she does not recover. The beautiful daughter of a blind piper whom Leonard meets on his travels, Nizza Macascree, falls for him and this initially unrequited love grows after Amabel’s death. Nizza is actually Lady Isabella Argentine, so marriage seems out of the question. After an interlude of nine months, religious zealots fire the city, and Leonard saves the life of King Charles II during a scheme of his own invention to halt the spread of the fire by demolishing buildings in its path. Leonard is rewarded by a title, and marries Isabella. With the exception of Amabel, the Bloundels survive their ordeals, while Chowles and Malmaynes die horribly in the vaults of St Paul’s, burned to death in a sea of molten lead. Leonard lives to see St Paul’s rebuilt by Wren.

The Revelation of St. John is as much present as Defoe’s Journal, the destruction of London being often viewed in biblical terms by protagonists whereas Defoe had tempered these concerns with an examination of, ‘a distemper arising from natural causes’.[vi] The first book of Old St. Paul’s opens with a sermon on the day of judgement:

Stephen Bloundel offered up a long and fervent supplication to the Most High for protection against the devouring pestilence with which the city was then scourged. He acknowledged that this terrible visitation had been justly brought upon it by the wickedness of its inhabitants … that the sins of London were enormous; that it was filled with strifes, seditions, heresies, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and every kind of abomination; that the ordinances of God were neglected, and all manner of vice openly practised.[vii]

Such language characterises the pious Bloundel, his mind never far from the divine judgement and the moral degeneracy of the age. Ainsworth is also not the first to link the manners of the Restoration Court to the general zeitgeist. As Bloundel’s friend Dr Hodges laments:

‘Never was a court so licentious as that of our sovereign, Charles the Second, whose corrupt example is imitated by every one around him, while its baneful influence extends to all classes. Were I to echo the language of the preachers, I should say that it was owing to the wickedness and immorality of the times, that this dreadful judgement of the plague has been inflicted upon us.’[viii]

This would appeal to the Victorian audience, who can take the moral high ground while enjoying the licentiousness. Although Rochester’s poetry is not cited, the debauchery begins well with Rochester and his cronies playing cards for each other’s wives while the city falls apart, before being relegated to a subplot like a Restoration comedy being played out in parallel with the primary narrative, suddenly and surprisingly turning nasty at its conclusion. The author seems rather to like Rochester, and seems unsure quite how to treat him. More impressively realised is the image of the fanatical Solomon Eagle, who pours his judgement on the city and the text from the roof of Saint Paul’s like an Old Testament prophet:

His brazier was placed on one of the buttresses, and threw its light on the mighty central tower of the fabric, and on a large clock-face immediately beneath. Solomon Eagle was evidently denouncing the city, but his words were lost in the distance. As he proceeded, a loud clap of thunder pealed overhead.

‘It comes – it comes!’ cried the enthusiast, in a voice that could be distinctly heard in the death-like stillness that followed the thunder. ‘The wrath of Heaven is at hand.’[ix]

This Ezekiel-like figure is taken straight from the pages of Defoe, who had sketched him in thus: ‘I suppose the world has heard of the famous Solomon Eagle, an enthusiast. He, though not infected at all but in his head, went about denouncing of judgement upon the city in a frightful manner, sometimes quite naked, and with a pan of burning charcoal on his head. What he said, or pretended, indeed I could not learn.’[x] Solomon Eagle is a much more developed descendant of Elizabeth Orton (Guy Fawkes) or Gunnora Braose (The Tower of London); his function is to prophesise the fate of an entire city, not just an individual character such as Guy Fawkes or Lady Jane Grey.

The witness to this terrible fate, the death of a city, is Leonard Holt, whose journey through the Inferno the novel principally charts. The reader sees what Holt sees as he experiences each terrible event. As Holt travels through the urban wasteland, much like Defoe’s observer, civilisation increasingly unravels before his eyes:

As Leonard passed Saint Michael’s church, in Basinghall-street, he perceived, to his great surprise, that it was lighted up, and at first supposed some service was going on within it, but on approaching he heard strains of lively and most irreverent music issuing from within. Pushing open the door, he entered the sacred edifice, and found it occupied by a party of twenty young men, accompanied by a like number of females, some of whom were playing at dice and cards, some drinking, others singing Bacchanalian melodies, others dancing along the aisles to the notes of a theorbo and spinet. Leonard was so inexpressibly shocked by what he beheld that, unable to contain himself, he mounted the steps of the pulpit, and called to them in a loud voice to desist from their scandalous conduct, and no longer profane the house of God …

‘Repentance!’ cried another of the assemblage. ‘Do you know whom you address? These gentlemen are the brotherhood of Saint Michael, and I am the principal.’[xi]

Everywhere Holt goes he encounters chaos, violence and death. The beast that lives beneath the veneer of civilised society is loose. If people fall in the street, passers-by step over them, the nurse Mother Malmaynes and Chowles the coffin-maker rob and murder the sick with impunity, law and order is replaced by mob violence, the churches have closed and the aristocracy has withdrawn into orgy to await the end. In a particularly surreal scene Ainsworth anticipates Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842), the cathedral becoming the venue for the danse macabre:

In the midst of the nave … stood a number of grotesque figures, apparelled in fantastic garbs, and each attended by a skeleton. Some of the latter grisly shapes were playing on tambours, others on psalteries, others on rebecs – every instrument producing the strangest sound imaginable. Viewed through the massive pillars, beneath the dark and ponderous roof, and by the mystic light … this strange company had a supernatural appearance … with a wild gibbering laugh that chilled the beholders’ blood, one of the tallest and grisliest of the skeletons sprang forward, and beating his drum, the whole ghostly company formed, two-and-two, into a line – a skeleton placing itself on the right of every mortal. In this order, the fantastic procession marched between the pillars, the unearthly music playing all the while, and disappeared at the further extremity of the church.[xii]

This uncanny vision eventually resolves itself into a party of young, aristocratic revellers, drifting through the streets and laughing at the horror they find there. Many will be dead by the morning, and it is the reality of this episode, rather than its potential unreality, that conveys the ghastliness of the situation.

Old St. Paul’s is not so much gothic as darkly carnivalesque. The world is turned upside down here: nurses kill their patients; grocers hoard food; sexual encounters result in death not life; monks blaspheme; and the dead throw their own wakes. Pain, despair, death and decay are celebrated in their every aspect.

The chapter entitled ‘The Dance of Death’ immediately precedes the heart of the novel, the central image of the plague-pit:

Leonard ventured to the brink of the pit. But even this precaution could not counteract the horrible effluvia arising from it. It was more than half-filled with dead bodies, and through the putrid and heaving mass many disjointed limbs and ghastly faces could be discerned, the long hair of a woman, and the tiny arms of children, appearing on the surface.

Despite himself, Holt is gripped by the fascination of abomination; like Defoe’s observer (who admits that ‘I had been pressed in my mind to go’[xiii]), he must look. What he sees is an epiphany of nightmares:

It was a horrible sight – so horrible, that it possessed a fascination peculiar to itself, and in spite of his loathing, Leonard lingered to gaze at it. Strange and fantastic thoughts possessed him. He fancied that the legs and arms moved, – that the eyes of some of the corpses opened and glared at him – and that the whole rotting mass was endowed with animation.

Again reality is even worse, he is brought back to his senses by the workman-like dumping of more bodies:

So appalled was he by this idea that he turned away, and at the moment beheld a vehicle approaching. It was the dead-cart, charged with a heavy load to increase the already redundant heap.[xiv]

This is only one of many graphic and dehumanising descriptions of the devastation of disease and, subsequently, fire, throughout the novel. London is rendered as a necropolis and, unlike the Tower of London, even St Paul’s is not inviolate; it burns like everything else.

Writing in American university campuses as the Vietnam war dragged on, both Llewellyn Ligocki and George J. Worth have read the stronger of Ainsworth’s historical novels as pessimistic allegories of human suffering, violence and cruelty. Ligocki argued that:

History is a vehicle for Ainsworth to express larger truths about life. History, thus, is the subject of the novels as well as fact. In short, Ainsworth appears to discuss certain historical situations because they represent, in one way or another, the problems of all mankind.[xv]

Worth’s analysis is similar. Like Ligocki (who was taught by Worth), he interpreted Ainsworth’s historical narratives as naturalistic portrayals of a political barbarism of which the human race is still not free:

By and large, Ainsworth’s fictional world was a singularly violent one that was marked by turmoil, cruelty, and intrigue; and this aspect is undeniably a side of his work which must appeal to certain strains of our twentieth-century sensibility ¼ The interest in these novels is not solely antiquarian. There is, for example, something timely in the story of Leonard Holt, the hero of Old Saint Paul’s, who endures in 1665 and 1666 experiences not very different in degree from those which would have been his lot had he been at Auschwitz in 1944 or at Hiroshima in 1945.[xvi]

As Worth has suggested, this image is symbolic of human misery on a scale more recognisable to a modern reader. The mass grave is a twentieth century icon, a code for the industrialised carnage of two world wars and many more besides, for man-made famines, toxic spills in third world countries and the continuing use of the concentration camp. Whether this was the author’s initial intention is questionable, although the violence of his imagery throughout the three historical novels of 1840-41 seems to remind us that there is not a single civilisation, including the British Empire, that is not built upon a foundation of human bones. It is true that Old St. Paul’s concludes on an image of rebirth, the rebuilding of the cathedral by Wren, but it is the plague-pits that remain longest in the memory.

For more on Mr Ainsworth, please see my latest book, The Author Who Outsold Dickens – Thank you.

Keep Safe. Stay Well.


[i] Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, December 7, 1840.

[ii] Ainsworth, W.H., ‘Advertisement’, Old Saint Paul’s; A Tale of The Plague and The Fire (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1881 – original work published 1841).

[iii] All reviews quoted from the advertisement for ‘New Periodical Works Preparing for Publication by Mr. Cunningham, 1, St. Martin’s Place, Trafalgar Square’, December 1841.

[iv] Horne, R.H., A New Spirit of the Age, 2 vols (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1844), II, 404.

[v] Mark Kermode, ‘I was a teenage horror fan’, Martin Barker and Julian Petley (eds), Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate (London: Routledge, 1997), 61.

[vi] Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, being observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences, as well public as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665. Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made public before, Anthony Burgess, Christopher Bristow (eds) (1722 London, Penguin, 1966), 205.

[vii] Ainsworth, Old St. Paul’s, 1.

[viii] Ibid., 66.

[ix] Ibid., 177.

[x] Defoe, Journal, 119.

[xi] Ainsworth, Old St Paul’s, 204-205.

[xii] Ibid., 187-8.

[xiii] Defoe, Journal, 79.

[xiv] Ainsworth, Old St. Paul’s, 200-201.

[xv] Liewellyn Ligocki, ‘William Harrison Ainsworth’s Use of History: The Tower of London and other Tudor Novels’ (Diss., University of Kansas, 1968), 12.

[xvi] Worth, George J., William Harrison Ainsworth (New York: Twayne, 1972), 76.

2 thoughts on “Old St. Paul’s: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire”

  1. Good afternoon, this may be a strange question to ask but I have a “obvious” very old copy of OLD ST. PAUL’S it has no pictures in it, no front page to see when it was printed, it’s not in the best condition, the front cover is a burgundy colour which is embossed with some sort of flower. Page’s run from page 1 to page 444 and was printed by “Butler & Tanner, The Selwood Printing Works, Frome, and London”.
    I was just wondering if you could tell me anything about this book,like when it was likely to have been printed etc…. Thank you for any information or contacts you can supply, kind regards Jane

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