And wouldn’t it have to be? To begin to encapsulate the several millenia of history centered in and around the 1 square mile that is ‘the City’.
Neither a historical nonfiction, nor a straight novel, this book is something of a hybrid. Rutherfurd has used this same format to tackle the histories of New York, Paris, Russia, Salisbury/Stonehenge, and Ireland. This particular book came out in 1997, so I’m coming to the party a little late on this one. What can I say? I was still in high school in 1997.
Starting with the earliest Celtic civilizations in the area now known as London, Rutherfurd takes the reader through the important epochs of the city, all the way up through the late 20th century. Each chapter follows the lives of a few families, traceable by their distinctive qualities–red hair or webbed fingers–as they adapt to the changing shape of London society. All of the families are fictional, but real people are intermingled with their stories. Kings and conquerors, as you’d expect, but also Chaucer, Dick Whittington, Shakespeare, Marlowe, etc.
This book is described as a novel, but I think it’s really more of a hybrid between nonfiction and fiction. Though it is structured as a novel, there are many instances where the narrator breaks ‘the fourth wall’ and describes things in a way that you don’t find in a novel. Narrators in novels don’t say ‘like most families of the era, the Bulls wore xxx and lived in yyy.’ Or ‘John would have been quite shocked to learn his family brewery was managed by a woman, 3 generations back’. At first, I found these moments very jarring. I couldn’t get too settled in with the characters, because I was always being pulled back to look at these overarching truths about the historical period I’ve been dropped in.
And though the families are occasionally discernible by their webbed fingers or long noses, I found it very difficult to keep track of who was related to whom. Even if they shared the same name, there were a lot of marriages between the families he was mentioning, so I found it quite confusing to discern who was who.
That being said, I think it’s a good way to learn about the everyday lives of historical populations. A nonfiction book about the history of London would probably tell me about Londinium, about Boudica’s siege, William’s Conquest, the Great fire, etc. All important. It wouldn’t tell me about the clothing or habits of everyday citizens from different classes. It wouldn’t tell me where they lived or how they might have felt about the Puritan Roundheads or the Royalist Cavaliers. It helps humanize an era when you see how people truly lived, not just the major battles and royals.
But things are sort of uneven in this book. No historian is equally well-versed in every era, and even if (s)he was, (s)he would still have favorites. I’m not sure if it’s lack of expertise or lack of interest, but Rutherfurd didn’t give much attention (in the form of pages) to the era before the Romans, or the late 1200s, or the era of the Great Fire (only 26 pages!), or the mid 19th century. That last one disappointed me, because I’m most interested in the 19th century. Other eras got very long chapters. The chapter dealing with the English Civil War was almost 100 pages. So you don’t get a fully rounded view of the entire city’s history, but you get snippets in every so often. Some notable events are omitted completely–no mention of Boudica, though she razed the city to the ground. Henry VIII gets his share, but there’s almost nothing of the previous Henry’s–quite important in their own right.
I learned a lot of fun tidbits from this book. The word sheriff comes from the word shire (county) + reeve (tax collectors). The Domesday Book, revolutionary and historical as it was, would often be inaccurate because those monks taking down the count of Englishmen did not generally speak English. William the Conqueror, upon his death, was too ‘corpulent’ to be squeezed into his coffin. Richard the Lionhearted was a pretty terrible king. Blackfriars got its name because the Dominican monks living there wore black robes. Charing Cross’s name is a really interesting story. King Edward’s wife had died in the north. He wanted her body brought to Westminster to be laid in the Abbey. It took 12 days and nights to make the journey, and at every night’s stop, the king had a cross erected. Charing Cross was the very last stop, from the old English word for that street.
I really enjoyed learning these tidbits, but I don’t know that I’ll remember most of them in another week. It added to my enjoyment of the book, but the constant ebb and flow between fiction and expository narration was off-putting. I would probably recommend the book only if you are very interested in London history.
The whole book is centered around the River. And there’s good reason. The Thames is why London exists. This particular spot on the Thames has been picked for a civilization many times, by different groups of people, because it is an ideal location. The first place from the channel that you could cross the river easily at high or low tide.
Before the Romans, the Celts used the river as part of their worship. The Romans recognized the spot (now known as London Bridge), as the perfect area to cross the Thames. It became a shipping hub and, accordingly, people moved there. There was just the one bridge for many years, sometimes destroyed and rebuilt. It was just the perfect place in all of SE England, to build a town. Henry II commissioned a new stone bridge during his reign. It held homes and shops, and a chapel dedicated to Thomas Beckett. It probably looked like the Ponte Vecchio in Italy (though with a more medieval British feel)
There used to be heads on pikes, and around 200 buildings on the bridge by the Tudor era. Famous heads on pikes included William Wallace and Sir Thomas More. On the north side, there was the respectable City area, with Westminster still being built further upriver. On the South side was Southwark, where men went to visit prostitutes, watch bear-baiting and dog fighting and boxing, and to see Shakespeare’s plays performed. Southwark wasn’t held to the same laws as the City, so all sorts of rabble-rousing went on there. Later, there were many bridges across the Thames, and the real London Bridge made its way to Arizona for a strange tourist attraction. All of the English civilization is centered in London, and all of London exists because of the River and the spot easiest to cross. I like the idea that this city was absolutely always meant to be there, and independent societies repeatedly came to the conclusion that this spot was the only spot for them. Even as it grows ever larger, in all directions, London’s heart is on two hills–one at Westminster, one in the City–with the river alongside them all the way.